As a boy I was something of a wanderer. Our family home, broken and then repaired into a chimera of middle-class normalcy, existed in a state of perpetually coiling tension wound ever tighter by dysfunction and abuse. To escape it I often fled outright in long excursions around the neighborhood; at first on foot, and later through the greater range afforded by a bicycle. When I was about nine years old we moved into a house directly abutting a dry stretch of the San Diego River. I spent hours walking the arroyo with a wooden sword in hand and the family dog at my side, looking for ogres to slay.

Writing should speak for itself. Good writing does. But with this piece, I feel a brief primer is in order.

I recently undertook the Sisyphean task of typing up a collection of journal entries that encompasses the nearly ten months I lived and traveled in southern Africa. This is a task made difficult not only by the sheer volume of words (close to 200,000, I suspect), but by the at-times illegible, roughly-hewn writing, which as often as not was written on the road, in a chemically-altered state, or some combination of the two.

Jack Kerouac wrote by the principle “first thought, best thought,” although even the master of the road manuscript learned that he was not above editing. In putting together this piece, I sought to retain the raw, visceral reflections that poured out of me while encountering such a spectacular and challenging part of the world.At the same time, I was fully cognizant of the fact that in its original form, much of what I wrote made sense only to me (and sometimes, not even to me). In order to form a more cohesive narrative, I moved individual passages around, inserted punctuation, and changed the odd word for the sake of clarity. But otherwise, what you read is straight from the heart, the gut, the ass, or whatever part of me it is that demands the words be written.

February 13, 2009

All of life is a waiting game—a preparation for the grand tomorrow on which day all demons shall be banished…

…There are many tomorrows on a trans-continental flight, but scarcely any todays.This pilgrimage at 32,000 feet is indicative of the human condition: the cramped and bored masses, wishing the moment away.And what awaits but uncertainty, unknown joys and terrors…every man yearns for a prophet, a taste of the supernatural, because it relieves the angst of making choices…

…At 32,000 feet all conversations feel a bit forced.Why am I going to South Africa?Where to begin…

…Every man at some point looks upon his life with the eyes of a distant stranger.What could be: the twisted half life of what is, always shimmering on the horizon, briefly igniting a spark to throw it all away and embark on some damn fool’s errand.It is a rebuke of the sensibilities we harness each day, those bricks out of which we’ve built our personal empires, the bedrock of those things that fill our lives…

…For all of the wisdom of our fathers they never once said to us, “You will build a life and afterwards always wonder what could have been.”…

…How can I hope to explain to a stranger in business casual what I have trouble myself understanding?What words will I string together to describe all the passion that’s been put aside, the yearnings that have been marginalized, a mental tickle that says things should be different?Instead I use language he can understand: I tell him I fell in love, which is true, only not the whole truth.In loving her I have merely recaptured the ability to love—and a man in love believes all things are possible—he is a glutton, eating everything before him but never full—he belches; defecates and rolls in it.To be in love is to have boundless energy.I love her madly, but not only her—I want to make love to the world, lay back with a sigh, satisfied, but thinking always of more, more, more…

…What awaits as I step off this plane and walk into her arms?Is it love I feel or love I seek?Infidelity already lurks in my heart, for it is Africa that I truly lust for… a place where beasts and chaos reign supreme…

… Oh Africa!How I long for you!Oh Africa!I lust for thee!Oh Africa!Give me a reprieve! …

…Let me hear the sounds of lions at night and roam among the sun-bleached bones of those fate did not favor in the morning…

…..I want to be surrounded by the possibility of death, because living in a cage of logic is already dying…

…I seek mayhem…upheaval…bring on earthquakes and hurricanes…sweep my old life away into the sea…leave me naked on the ruins of what I’ve built…

…It’s not often that one can see a new chapter of their life unfolding, but that is precisely the view before me as the plane makes its descent into Johannesburg. The African continent comes into view, conjuring up a wealth of imagery as varied and twisted as the mind that tries to make sense of it.Of all the places to start over, Africa seems to be the best …

… The Africa of my mind is a picture of an old, faded map with an unfolding line marking my travels.I will make it to Kilimanjaro, stand atop the roof of Africa, stare out across the continent and have a view similar to what God must have had when his work was at last done and he could rest…

…Starting over…what is it like?At 10,000 feet and descending, I know not, but I know the pure adrenaline in my gut is enough. If this ecstatic doubt is an indicator, then I’ve been living my whole life asleep.To start over, in Africa, in love…

…Love and Africa.Now, this is all I know.The plane touches down.I pass through the required checkpoints and collect my bags.I step into a lobby, baggage in tow.She rises to greet me.I am in her arms again.Love and Africa.Now, this is all I need…

…I am better than fate.I am stronger than the universe.I am a man.

February 14, 2009

I have scarcely a night to dream big African dreams before we are on the road. Up by 4:00, casting a shadow on the still-cool tarmac by 6:00…

…nothing is set or decided, but for now we set a rough course down to Cape Town and from there up to Namibia, where we shall be swept up and away into The Heart of Africa…

…She holds my hand as she drives and I love her. We are together, our lives condensed down to a small white Toyota…

…driving through the Cradle of Humankind we pass a lone hitchhiker, his dark features reflecting under the bright sun—in his single, outstretched thumb I see the history of humanity laid bare—starting here, wending its way northward to new lands—the growth of many races from one—he still in the birthplace of man and I, returning in an automobile—here, in the plains of Southern Africa, history has formed a strange circle…

…We stop to refuel in the kinds of small towns that make ghosts out of men. A worker finishes pumping dinosaur bones into the tank and I tell him to have a nice day, but what I really mean is, “I’m sorry.I don’t know how things came to be like this either.”…

…We drive all day and make the town of Nieu Bethesda just as dusk is beginning to break.To get there we follow a long, winding dirt road that picks its way through the rocky, crumbling remains of mountains…

…The first day of the journey calls for a bottle of wine and we share it in the common room of the hostel with a Canadian woman who says she has come to Africa to save the lions, but who I suspect has really come to save herself.No 35 year old insurance salesman from Calgary sits up in the dead of night knowing her mission in life is to protect a creature 10,000 miles away.Lions are a symbol of her discontent, of a longing for something more out of life than cold-calling strangers and trying to get them to buy a new policy…

February 16, 2009

The sun is nearly down when we reach the town of Uniondale.We find the name of a youth hostel and head there.She is scorched and exhausted, wants to go to bed.I, in a similar state, oblige.But as I lay there, the desert night calls to me.Restless, I rise to sit alone outside….

…The proprietor, a man of about 60, sits on the stoop, smoking slowly, each long inhale seeming to encompass a universe of silent rumination. He at first seems aloof and rude but turns out to be the type of man who finds no value in senseless chatter.He offers me a cigarette.I don’t smoke but I accept.We puff away in silence; the sound of the paper burning is clearly audible among the cricket chirps and nighttime rustling of unseen creatures….

…He is a counterpoint to my youthful restlessness; where I flounder he is fixed; where nothing ahead is known for me he lives in this familiar world…

…He rises wordlessly and enters the house, reappearing with a fiddle.The case opens with a click that resounds in the darkness.The instrument is old but the strings look fresh and strong.He raises it to his shoulder and draws back the bow.I lay back, smoking, propped up on one elbow in the cool grass.I imagine he plays for me, but this is not the truth.He plays for himself.I am merely a witness to his strange blues. He stops occasionally to take a drag off of the cigarette that lies smoldering at his side.Several of them burn down to the filter…

… He finishes, packs the fiddle away, rises and enters the house.I remain, in silence, but I can still hear the music, telling me everything I need to know, filing the spaces between my thoughts with a wordless chorus…

…He has killed me softly with his strange blues.His song speaks to the road ahead.

February 17, 2009

We drive downtown to the main church.The Boer Farmers who migrated north from the Cape to escape the rule of the English built their newly-founded towns around these places of worship, the detailed craftsmanship of this building reflecting their ambitions for a good life, a beautiful life, a peaceful life…

…I walk around it, snapping pictures.I’ve not had any use for God since I refused to return to Sunday school at the age of nine, but churches always instill in me the sense that without myth, the world would be a very ugly place…

…I look at the small white car, the steed that carries me and Emily through the wasteland—we are together against the world, but also separate; horribly alone in our own quests…

… Everybody needs their own church, squat, solid and beautiful, built in the center of the vast, perilous wilderness of their own mind….

…I gaze through the fence at the well-kept grass and handsome stone work.A woman approaches from behind and says something in Afrikaans. She is the cleaning lady, old and toothless, her hair in a handkerchief.I beg her pardon that I only speak English.

“Would you like to have a look inside?” she translates.

“Yes, very much so,” I say….

…She unlocks a back door and I climb a set of stairs up past the bell to the very height of the church.From there it is a tentative walk up a ladder that is leaned against a shuddered window.I push it open and step down onto a circular terrace that surrounds the tower…

… A church is built to make people feel humble.The towering roof, the detailed craftwork, the stern-faced biblical figures, all are bent towards reminding people of a higher power in whose presence we are hopelessly small. To that end, I say let the people of Uniondale congregate up here on Sundays, rather than suffer under the heaviness of stone and wood…

… Let them be accompanied up the rickety staircase by the cleaning lady who has spent decades inside this hallowed building and has nothing to show for it but stubborn pride and arthritic fingers…

… Let them climb the wobbling stairs past the cobwebbed gears and levers of a massive bell, the booming metallic voice of god, which summons them to worship each Sunday….

…Let them stand on this terrace where with one glance they can size up their entire sleepy town, where they live and will die, where the great expanse of the Karoo is overtaken by mountains to the south and where beyond that, mountains fall into the sea.The view from here can make one feel smaller than any preacher’s words…

…Let the people see pigeons perched on stone crosses, roosting in the eaves of the highest point of the holiest building, defecating wherever they please, years of shit accumulated upon the House of God.Then, they will be humbled, truly.

He posted in the writing gigs section of Craigslist. 

Some people say they’re empowering; others say they’re oppressive. They’re high heels, and, like them or not, women keep wearing them. The benefits of walking tall are obvious–attractiveness to the opposite sex, added height and confidence. But at what price? If one were to look inside the mind (and shoe closet) of a shoe diva, what would one find? What does the siren call of fashion footwear sound like? And is the wearer still smiling when she removes her shoes at the end of the day?

I am interested in having a short story written about a professional woman who has a love-hate relationship with her collection of impossibly high, pointy-toed stilettos.  

For a moment, I indulged the illusion that the posting entity might be a women’s fashion magazine or website. I released the moment and wrote a quick, yet thorough, e-mail that detailed my many qualifications for writing a PG-rated pervy shoe story. Writing gigs don’t last long on Craigslist and I’m unemployed. I spend much longer moments dreaming of groceries.

I had questions for “Paul.”  “For you or publication?  Erotica or literary fiction?”  The unemployed are not choosy. I wanted to know what Paul was buying so I could sell it. Fast. For American cash money. The kind they take at Trader Joe’s.

He admired my powers of perception. He liked the ridiculous water bra workshop casualty I sent him as a sample. “I’m in discussions with several other writers but I must say you stand out.”  Just as I would accept his money, I accepted his flattery. I’m a writer. I like praise nearly as much as I like Trader Joe’s tomato and basil hummus.

Paul was discerning. There is plenty of free foot fetish literature on the internet. I did my research. I sensed that he wanted more of a connection.  That he didn’t take as much pleasure in reading the same stories as hordes of the similarly-stimulated. 

He asked if we could chat online.  He wanted to share the nuances of his custom order.  I grudgingly threw in the extra time and learned the following:  He is turned on by the thought of women’s feet hurting.  He loves very high, pointy-toed stiletto pumps.

And Paul is really into bunions.

For those not learned in podiatry, a bunion is “an unnatural, bony hump that forms at the base of the big toe where it attaches to the foot. Often, the big toe deviates toward the other toes.” In layman’s terms, they’re painful foot deformities.  Painful, smokin’ hot deformities to some, it seems.

I was all business. “Anything else?  Calluses, blisters, bleeding, corns?” 

No calluses, blisters or bleeding.  A corn or two would be fine.

He specified that the afflicted, yet fashionable, main character should have little to no interaction with men. He reiterated that she should be an educated professional.  Paul did not want a trashy heroine in hooker heels.  He wanted me to write him a girlfriend.  He didn’t need to say it. 

I received a lesson in two types of shoeplay: dangling and dipping. Dangling occurs when a woman, often seated with legs crossed, allows her shoe to dangle from her toes, exposing her heels.  A woman is dipping when she slips her foot in and out of her shoe, often when she’s been standing in uncomfortable shoes for a long time.  Though Paul enjoys dangling, he prefers dipping.  He kindly provided me with a YouTube link to ensure my comprehension.   Though he was at work, he located the video link in a jiffy.

In addition, he instructed that “[r]ealism and authenticity with respect to the woman’s day are what give this admittedly formulaic story novelty for me.”  He seemed innocuous, even sort of sweet.  Then he asked the question.

“Do you happen to have bunions?”

“Damn,” I thought, “Please tell me he did not just ask that.”  He was not sweet and innocuous.  He was trying to score some free foot chat.  The kind provided by professionals for $3.99 a minute. I shut him down and advised that matters involving my own feet were outside the realm of our transaction. 

He explained that he pays some of the writers to provide photos of their feet as “author inscriptions”. In exchange for the promise of one picture of my bare feet, Paul tacked a cool ten onto the $50 he would deposit in my Paypal account immediately.  He wanted to know more.  Did I have bunions?  (Lie number one:  Yes. I have early stage bunions. Truth: I don’t even know what that means.)  Did I wear pointy-toed shoes?  (Lie number two:  Yes.  Truth: I am 5’9” and, though I like some heel on my shoes, five-inch stilettos hold little appeal.)   What color polish will you use?  (Lie number three:  I don’t know yet. You’ll find out when I do. Truth: Is he freaking kidding me?)

I wrote the story. She’s an architect.  She dips and dangles with the best of them.  Her Manolos are $500 vises, twisting her feet into shapes no foot should know. 

[She] is happy to dress conservatively from the ankles up, but is unyielding in her insistence on wearing the highest heels possible.  Her feet, disarranged and misshapen without the stunning stilettos, are perfect when tucked inside the pointy, pretty, pain-making pumps she wears.  They proclaim her womanhood and dare anyone to think otherwise.

It wasn’t terrible.  I arranged my feet to look as ugly as possible, snapped and uploaded a picture and sent it and the story to Paul.

I didn’t hear back for two days.  I had my money but where was my flattery? 

“I’m sorry for not writing back sooner.  My mom had surgery.  She’s recovering nicely.  I love the story and the picture.” 

I admitted that I had been worried that the story was more literary than he wanted.  “No.  I love rich narrative.  I would like for you to do another.”  During our interactions, I took note that he was not a stupid person.  I was genuinely pleased that he liked the story.  Then he asked, “Didn’t you say you had corns?  Which toes are they on?  I can’t really tell from the picture.”

Ick.  I knew there would be some hanky-panky going on with the story, but cognitive dissonance had downplayed the co-starring role my feet would play.  Double ick. I did not respond to his e-mail.  It didn’t seem necessary.

That was about a month ago.  He e-mailed the other day to tell me he wants to buy another of my “incredible” stories after the holidays.  The ick factor faded with the compliment, the promise of compensation and the idea of him saving up to buy stories about women with beautiful bunions.  I will gladly write him another story.   I’m a writer. It’s what I do.

When the snow melts, things turn up with stories hidden in their decomposition.

A cigarette carton.

An abandoned navy blue sweatshirt.

A stray mitten.

And bones.