dachau-ex-maintenance-buildings

If you don’t know where you are, it’s almost a pretty place.

On my first visit there, I was on a whirlwind bus tour. My itinerary long since misplaced, our bus wended its way past fields punctuated by hay bales and scattered copses of oak and poplar. It was open country, and the scenery didn’t look all that different from what I might have seen back home in the Midwest.

*Author’s note: This is a brief “experimental memoir.”  For now, I’m calling it Possible Title. It is an act of literary collage, a personal ethnography, a story strung together bit by bit, piece by piece, built from more than 3,000 pages of letters, notes, postcards, and journal entries, all of which were written (and saved) by me, in my twenties.   The story begins when I’m 21 and ends when I’m 29.  -BL

Enough Grows

By Mary Hendrie

Opinion

This post is excerpted from my blog Not an Activist, which I started in response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this summer. Please visit the blog to learn more. Thanks!

I’m beginning to wonder if it’s really possible to “do enough.”

Yesterday, I realized that to some folks I may look like a real hippy-dippy, granola weirdo, which was a funny thought for me since lately I seem unable to shake the feeling that I’m simply not doing enough. I’m not living quite the eco-friendly lifestyle I thought I could. True, I’m working toward some major changes, but they all happen slowly. One doesn’t just become a yoga teacher and quit commuting over night. Rather, there is money to be saved, training to be endured, and a clientele to be built before teaching yoga is really a viable career option. And yes, that’s where I’m headed, but who knows when I’ll get there.

Meanwhile, I usually eat lunch near my office at one of the three places that are close enough to walk to during my break. But I get sick of the repetition, and yesterday I wanted Subway, which is a little further than I can reasonably walk in the amount of time I have. I joked somewhat lamely that I was really living on the edge by going to Subway for a change. The office administrator was kind enough to laugh unconvincingly, but truthfully, I felt pretty conflicted about going.

At Subway, I pulled up in my Prius, walked in and ordered a veggie patty on wheat bread, piled high with lettuce and spinach. I declined the use of a plastic bag to carry out my order and gently placed the paper-wrapped sandwich in my oversize purse instead. I did accept the combo deal … because I love Sun Chips. But I didn’t use a lid or a straw for my soda cup.

On the way out, I thought I felt the eyes of the other patrons on my back. It could’ve been because I was exceptionally well dressed, or they might have been thinking I was a real eco-douchebag (I promise you will love this article by J.B. MacKinnon, who is not a douchebag). But the funny thing to me was that while on the surface, perhaps to the uninitiated, I might have looked like a real do-gooder, I didn’t feel like one.

I still drove to get the food. I still used their waxy paper. I still used the paper cup. I still ate the chips from the weird composite bag.

Once you become aware of the materials you use on a regular basis, it’s hard to justify using them even once in a while. If they are non-recyclable, or if they are made from non-renewable resources every single use feels like a transgression. Yes, I was enjoying a vegetarian lunch, driving a hybrid and avoiding plastic waste, but the fact that I drove there at all felt like I was doing something wrong. It was a little like sneaking out of the house in high school, only without the devilish thrill.

So, as I was having what might have looked like a very green lunch break yesterday, I realized that there is a massive disparity between what most people probably consider “green living” and what I think is “doing enough.” And the truth is, I don’t think it’s possible for very many people to do enough. I think most of us are capable of making these surface changes like what I’ve made so far, but many people aren’t even doing that.

But how much of a difference could we make if all of us just did the very basics? Recycle, avoid plastics, drive less, eat less meat.

MacKinnon notes in his article that switching to power-saving light bulbs hasn’t had quite the impact on our electricity consumption that we hoped, which makes me wonder if what I’m doing is a waste of time or worse — hypocritical. Still, I can’t help feeling that not trying at all would be a far greater waste.

There are two questions for me now:

  1. How do I continue to make small changes that will add up to something meaningful?
  2. How do I (or can I) reach those folks who aren’t yet doing anything? After all, it will take much more than just myself to make a difference.

Hostage

By Peter Schwartz

Memoir


Wednesday, October 14th, 2009. I’m in my room on Albert Street in Augusta Maine, being held hostage. A woman almost a decade my junior has just told me she was raped last night, but for some reason she is directing all her rage at me. I’m trying to be supportive but she’s hitting me with everything she has, making fun of my anthropophobia and bi-polarity. It’s actually not the words that hurt so badly, it’s the fact that she would go after me like this. If she knew more about me, she’d have even better ammunition.

I’m asking if she wants to call the police but I know she doesn’t want to go through the degrading process of a trial so now I’m asking if she knows where this fucker lives. She likes that. I fantasize with her about finding his house, cutting his lights and phone, running in there, hurting him like he hurt her. But that part doesn’t last long. Now I’m getting questioned why I would make such an offer when I clearly hate her guts. She hates me so much right now she can’t even imagine I don’t feel the same way about her. I’m a safe target and I get the sense she has been waiting for this moment for years. I’m a monster, and nothing I say is going to change that. She tells me in a slightly different voice that if I hang up she will most likely kill herself.

I don’t understand rape, I really don’t. The whole turn-on with sex for me is that someone actually wants me. Simply taking that from someone is the most un-sexy thing I can imagine. I do understand the desire for vengeance though. My father used to beat the shit out of me over twenty years ago and I still occasionally fantasize about flying to his apartment in New York City and getting justice. Now she’s mocking my poetry and fiction, saying I think I’m so spiritual but I’m bullshitting myself, I’m just scared. I want to call her a fat, disgusting, piece of shit but I know those are the last words she needs to hear right now.

I’m think I’m him now. She’s making fun of the fact that I couldn’t get it up once. I’m not a real man and probably want to fuck my mother. I can’t take this. I cannot sit here and take this. I want to fight back but society’s rules are pretty clear here: victims have carte blanche to say whatever the hell they want. I’m a leech, a user, a liar, and a cheater. I contribute nothing to society. Okay, I’m there. I can’t believe I’m about to do what I’m about to do. Deeply nauseous, I instinctively glance at my toilet. I’ll most likely throw up later.

Even though according to her I have her life in my hands because I’m her only real friend, I’m telling her she can do whatever she wants. Another person entirely, I’m hanging up, imagining her hearing the sound of that dial tone, how that must be the loneliest sound in the universe. How alone she must feel. I fucking hate myself; I’ve proved her point; I really am that monster. But I’m also finally free of her wrath. I take a deep breath and try to remember who I was an hour ago.

 

 

 

Pierre Bayard’s ode to philistinism, Comment Parler des Livres que l’on n’a pas Lus, or How to Talk About Books That You Haven’t Read is a unique experience. Upon completion of Bayard’s work (one wonders if Bayard himself ever read his own book), I found myself first outraged, then confused, and finally, a little constipated. I thought to myself, “How does this boorish Frenchman claim that a perfunctory flip-through of Anna Karenina should suffice for an understanding of St. Petersburg’s high society during that time—or Jasper, Missouri’s, home to the Double Deuce for that matter?” Can this Bayard be serious? Can we really talk—intelligently—about books we’ve never read?

On the jacket cover of his aggravating book, Mr. Bayard leans against a railing next to a dumpster leading up to a whorehouse, staring at the reader as if to say, “Hey, I’m French—perhaps you’d be interested in some beignets after I’m done with these prostitutes.”

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_e5CENKp5eYU/Sd5UyzPlj3I/AAAAAAAABPE/2Frsu4D8HOY/s320/pierre-bayard.jpgHe also claims that he is a professor of literature at the University of Paris. As intellectuals, it’s safe to assume that we’ve all been to Paris—but has anybody ever seen this alleged university? Not I. All I saw in Paris was a gift-shop full of chocolate Eiffel Towers at Orly airport, as nobody was kind enough to direct me to my time-share in the 23 rd arrondissement, with what they assured me was a “first-class” view of the Bastille. It seems the French have a knack for deception, while bringing out the worst pseudo-intellectual hobgoblins into the cultural milieu.

Bayard begins by making the ridiculous claim that readers may finally “shake off the guilt” of not having read the great books that shape our world. Be careful with guilt, Mr. Bayard. Had you finished Roadhouse, you might sing a different tune when it comes to washing oneself of both corporeal and spiritual guilt. Do you have any idea what happens at the end? The bristling irony that clips at the thin threads of your argument? I assure you, the culmination of tropes during the end game of Swayze’s opus is terrifying—truly something that stays with you, like a disease, or a small dog stapled to your leg, gnawing at your testicles (not always, but a lot of the time). Read (or watch) the end of this, and you will rethink your gilded shit-head ideas on guilt.

As a freelance intellectual, I often find myself asked to contribute a book review, or deliver a lecture extempore after Jonathan Safran Foer has cancelled. So, I’m no tyro in this sphere. Mr. Bayard recommends that to lecture on a book one hasn’t read, it’s essential to “put aside rational thought and…let your sub-conscience express your personal relationship with the work.” Similarly, to review an unfamiliar book, Mr. Bayard counsels, “closing your eyes to perceive what may interest you about [the book]…then writing about yourself.”

Let me state categorically that allowing the sub-conscious to intervene during a lecture is a dangerous thing. I recall a commencement speech I was asked to give at Princeton (after Jonathan Safran Foer cancelled), in which my goal was to make a connection between the gateway to adulthood and the battle scene against the Cubans over the corn fields of middle America in James Joyce’s, Ulysses. At the time, I was 40 pages short of finishing Ulysses, but I panicked for one brief moment, allowing my subconscious to creep in and reference the heart-pumping Patrick Swayze vehicle, Red Dawn to fill in the gaps created by my literary malfeasance. The audience chortled and squirmed with typical Princeton fatuity, and I spent the rest of the address huddled under the gown of Joyce Carol Oates. Years later, when I explained at a PEN meeting to Mrs. Oates that I had, in my youthful folly, dared to reference a book I had not completely finished and I was soooo sorry and I now know that the varsity football team in Ulysses were fighting Communists, not Moonies, Mrs. Oates gave me a coy smile and sort of whispered, in that way she does, “Would you mind getting me a another vodka gimlet?”

As for book reviews, I don’t have the faintest clue where Mr. Bayard gets off. Close my eyes and write about myself? What kind of self-aggrandizing, philistine claptrap is that? I was once stuck sitting next to Michiko Kakutani, book reviewer extraordinaire of the New York Times, on a flight to Zurich, and it turned out we were both reviewing the same new translation of Don Quixote. After we agreed that one of the key requirements of criticism is the removal of oneself from the work under consideration, I made a reference to the end of Don Quixote, when Sancho Panza is about to join in the rumble between the “Greasers” and the “Socs”, and how it’s a metaphor for the craft of writing. I think she must have been forced to digest this burst of protean insight, because for the rest of the flight, she said little. I remarked how every time I met Gore Vidal, he would sound a rape whistle and hog-tie me to a fire hydrant, and Michiko droned on as usual, always trying to one-up me with her one story; you know, the one she never finishes about, “Stewardess, can I change seats?” What’s the point, Michiko? It’s not even a story, per se.

http://cache.gawker.com/assets/images/2008/11/custom_1227303927991_michiko-kakutani_01.jpgThe truth is, we read for any number of reasons: we crave a good yarn by the camp fire; we savor the world of words created by our greatest artists; we feel a preternatural magnetism toward an understanding of how and why we are the way we are; perhaps we are having a bowel movement. What Mr. Bayard suggests is an approach toward reading, and a discussion of reading, that goes against our nature. We are not partial beings—we are complete—complete in the sense that our minds create our realities. Mind is life. We must subscribe to life whole-heartedly, eschewing the notion that a partial understanding of our world, our ethos, our pathos, is tantamount to a full life. Anything else is a bourgeoise conceit! Dumbing-down displays the utter convenience of ignorance!

Bayard is a travesty of nature, like a Gaulloises-puffing ogre. His mongloid understanding of human nature will eventually lead to an early demise. He is a French Hamlet (although presumably shorter), pathologically self-destructing at every turn, although you’d think he might have learned something from all that post-mortem correspondence with Whoopi Goldberg. And yes, he escapes, but at what cost? What now will his wife Molly do? Can you have sex with a ghost? Is Claudius really going to poison a glass of Mouton Rothschild just because Baby Houseman is a Jew? And what of the Roadhouse?

I am reminded of something Flaubert said upon completion of Madame Bovary: “Quelle atroce invention que celle du bourgeois, n’est-ce pas?” Had Bayard finished Madame Bovary, he would have recognized—as Special Agent Johnny Utah did about Bodhi right before the appearance of Rodolphe—not everybody wants to be rescued from the fifty year storm.

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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

The first I gave you was Farewell, My Only One by Antoine Audouard, a novel written in French, translated into English and shipped across the ocean where I found it on a shelf in the mountains. I lay it in my suitcase and took it back to France where I put it in your hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” I admitted. “I’m out late.”

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

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

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

“Thank you, son,” he said.

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

“What is your name?”

“Tyler.”

“Is that an American name?.”

“I think so.

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

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

“Pardon me?”

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

“Yes,” I lied.

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

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

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

“Have churros with me, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What if I had said no,” I asked.

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

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

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

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“She was old.”

“How long were you married?”

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“Let’s go.”

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

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

“Yes,” I lied again.

“I don’t,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

“I don’t understand.” I said.

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

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

“No, no I understand what you said.”

“I can’t do it,” he said, defeated.

“Do what?” I asked.

“Draw the breath, the last one.”

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

“It seems I don’t,” he answered.

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

“Yes and no.”

“How is that?

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

“Yes.”

“Along the street Isaac Perál?”

“Yes.”

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

“The luxury?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said. “It ought to.”

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

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

“Will you show me how?”

“I’ve never done it in Spanish.”

“Done what?”

“Confess.”

“You speak Spanish pretty well,” he said.

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

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

“I smell shit,” the old man said.

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

“That’s good.”

“That I stepped in shit?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was interesting,” he said.

“It was,” I agreed. “Very.”

“You don’t believe in God,” he said.

“No, I don’t,” I said.

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

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

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

“Breathe how?”

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

An open letter to Maggie, my neighbor’s black Lab:


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Dear Maggie,

I think your name was Maggie. You were a black Lab, and you lived in a small kennel made of chain-link fencing and wood in my neighbor’s backyard. I peed on you one evening when I was about seven years old, on a dare from a few of my friends. We were standing around your kennel, looking at you, when suddenly it occurred to me that I had to urinate. I mentioned my condition to my friends, and one of them suggested that I pee on you, for fun. And then the rest of them said, “Yeah, I dare you.” And so I did.

I remember you ran back inside your doghouse once you realized that I was peeing on you. And then I ran home.

My mother got a call from your mother a few minutes later. Apparently, she had seen the whole incident from her bedroom window. On hearing the news, my mother was horrified, and fittingly, I was grounded for the better part of a week as punishment. I also had to walk over and apologize to both you and your mother in person. I can only hope that you forgave me. I really felt bad about peeing on you, in the pit of my diminutive soul. I always thought that you were a really cool dog, and I secretly wished that you were my own.

Sincerely,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA


An open letter to God, Creator of the Universe:


God



Dear God,

When I was a kid, I was forced to go to church, and I was advised by my elders to believe in you. On many occasions, while seated uncomfortably on a hard wooden pew, listening with grave confusion to the rambling of a large, avuncular preacher, I turned my gaze heavenward and prayed in your direction. Almost every time, I prayed that you might provide some sort of definitive, supernatural evidence of your ever-abiding existence.

Dear God, I’d pray, could you please shoot a beam of purple light through that window up there above the altar, so that I can know for a fact that you’re actually listening to me?

Or:

Dear God, could you please blow out that candle sitting over there by the piano, so that I can know for a fact that your powers are actually real?

Naturally, on every such occasion, my heartfelt prayers went unanswered. My pleas were met with an altogether deafening silence.

Here and now, as I enter the prime years of my adulthood, I certainly wouldn’t expect you to trouble yourself with any of my petty requests issued forth in prayer. I can imagine that you are an incredibly busy entity with plenty of universal responsibilities to attend to. I wouldn’t think to bother you.

At the same time, I continue to find myself troubled by your total lack of regard for the innocent requests that I made as a young boy. One would think that a being as powerful and compassionate as God could trouble himself momentarily to shoot a beam of purple light through a small stained-glass window for the benefit of an innocent child.

No offense or anything, but the fact that you ignored me is pretty fucking lame. Hopefully, you will see fit to change your protocol for the next generation of good-hearted inquisitors.

Stay black,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA