We have a happy little nuclear family, all things being equal. My husband and I had our son when we were past our exciting young adulthoods, and were married for seven years before we heeded the call to breed. It allowed us to create a good landing spot for parenting: we had fulfilled our craving for adventure in the outside world and we were more than happy to start an adventure in our house, no regrets.

 

I.

I Live in a Seaside Motel

I live in a seaside motel. On nights that the ocean is lively I can lie in bed and hear it murmur midnight elegies. When I’m having trouble sleeping the sounds of the sea’s salty breath draws me out into the darkness with my miner’s torch atop my head. I cross Route 1A, scramble over the Army Corps of Engineer-constructed berm and stand before the Atlantic.

The ocean during the day inspires thoughts of nature’s majesty and human frailty. This does not change at night, but the darkness lends a sense that the massive, writhing body of water is sinister.

After I’ve stood for a spell and looked out over the black expanse I turn and walk back to the Pebble Cove Motel. Every time, as I scramble back over the berm and my feet touch concrete, I begin to run, as if unseen enemies are giving chase. The ocean’s booming and roaring seems mocking, telling me to go back to my little box and carry on being a silly human. In obeisance, I slip back into room 3 and lock the door behind me.

II.

A Modern American Family

When I tell people that I live in a motel, they typically react in one of two ways. They either say something like, “Don’t you get lonely?” or, “Cool, man, you’re living the dream!”

Because I lived at home for over a year before moving into the Pebble Cove Motel, I tend to view my life here as quite idyllic. As for the other residents, I can only surmise, but my guess is that any middle-aged or older person who lives in a motel doesn’t go around asking to be pinched.

When I responded to an advertisement on craigslist offering, “winter studio efficiency,” the man on the other end of the phone suggested I drive down to the coast and take a look at a unit that would soon be vacant. A silver-haired, no-nonsense type of guy named Steve greeted me in the parking lot and gave the tour. At the time, a Chinese business man was staying in the room. Steve said he would be out in a couple of days and that the room would be available in one week’s time.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “We’ll have the place spic-and-span for you.”

I think what he meant was that Chinaman odor would be purged by the time I moved in.

With few other short-term rental options, I decided on the spot to take the room. I gave Steve a check for one month’s rent plus a security deposit and he told me I wouldn’t regret it, that the Pebble Cove was like a little family.

Perhaps, if your family is a group of transients who get kicked to the curb come June 1st so that well-off vacationers can occupy the rooms for the peak summer months. Where the Pebble Cove diaspora goes to I do not know. I will go to Beijing because I have nothing or nobody to stick around for.

Living in the unit to the left of mine is my middle-aged sister named either Jill or Lisa who works at either Pier One or Pottery Barn. On the other side is Ulrich, my 70-something-year-old drunken, heating-man, moonlighting-Nazi of a grandfather.

Aside from them and Steve, the acting father of this little clan, I don’t know any of my other family members except by face and vehicle. There’s “Explorer Chick,” (and also “Mustang Dude Who’s Presumably Banging Explorer Chick”) “Green Honda Van Dude,” “Maroon Honda Van Guy,” “White Civic Lady,” “Young Asian Corolla Dude,” “New Jeep Cherokee Older Guy,” and “Early Model Mazda 626 Dude.”

To them, I am no doubt “Silver Subaru Forester Dude.”

It strikes me as being very American to know one another by the vehicles we drive.

III.

Excerpts From the Diary of the Woman Next Door as Imagined by Me When I’m Feeling Conscious of How Thin the Walls Are

6:34: Dear Diary:

Well, so much for sleeping in on my only day off this week. The guy in room 3 is awake and packing his dishes away as he does first thing every morning. He apparently doesn’t realize how paper thin the walls are. That or he doesn’t care. So that means he’s an idiot or a jerk off…an idiot or a jerk off with OCD. It’s bad enough that I have to talk about dishes and cookware and cutlery and wine glasses at work all day. The last thing I want to do is wake up in my goddamned pathetic motel room of an apartment and listen to the sounds of that little OCD neat-nick asshole rattling kitchen wares around. Oh well. Since I’m awake I might as well pleasure myself.

8:08: Hello Diary:

So much for falling back asleep. I was hoping he’d take a day off from the weights but his compulsive little self is back at it. I mean, I’m assuming that he’s lifting weights vigorously. That or he’s masturbating in a suit of plate mail. I really think this guy is some sort of psycho. There are probably dismembered hookers hanging up in his shower. He probably eats hooker jerky for protein after workouts. And there he goes with the music. What the hell is he even listening to? Die Die My Darling? Your Own Personal Jesus? What kinds of lyrics are those? Oh God, now he’s singing along. What, is he serenading the hookers? But he must have a pretty sweet body from all of that working out. Mmm…the thought of his young, engorged body dripping sweat all over his little box is making my little box drip. I’m going to pummel my unfruitful womb with the Black Emperor for a little while and hopefully he’ll be done by the time I get off.

2:24: Hey Diary:

What is he yelling about? Every hour or so it’s “fuck” or “shit” or “cunt” or “fuck shit cunt.” Is he playing video games? Is a hooker trying to escape? Does he have Tourette’s? One thing he obviously doesn’t have is a job, because his silver Subaru just sits there all day.

Life isn’t fair, diary. Here I am breaking my middle-aged ass working at an unspecified home furnishing store while he gets to hang around and work out and play video games and fillet prostitutes. I’d masturbate again but I’m too goddamned depressed. I think I’ll go to Burger King, order two doubles with cheese and hope I choke to death on a piece of mechanically separated beef.

11:46: Hiya Diary:

You’d think that somebody who gets up at the crack of dawn would go to bed early, not stay up all night watching TV. His “friend” in the black car just drove off. I could smell the dope smoke billowing out the door as he left. They probably had drug-fueled unprotected man sex, the sounds of which were masked by a sports broadcast played at high volume. Sometimes I can hear what sounds like German coming from his place, and last week there was that strange incident where a woman left his room shouting, “You’re fucking crazy!” And I’m inclined to agree. Only a maniac would stay up all night getting stoned, flipping back and forth between science fiction thrillers and Mother Angelica. Weirdest of all is the way he sometimes disappears into the dark with a light perched atop his head, only to come running back a bit later and slam the door shut. Meh. I guess if I’m awake I may as well diddle myself one more time.

IV.

Just Another Saturday Night Blitzkrieg

I should have suspected that Ulrich works in the trades by the way that he backs into his parking spot every evening. All of these handy types of guys—men’s men—back into parking spaces.

Ulrich is a heating man. I’m pretty sure I heard him say, “Hello, this is the heating man,” on the phone. He might have said “beating man,” though. Or “eating man.” Maybe even “cheating man.” I’d like to think he said “fleeting man” but Ulrich doesn’t strike me as much of a poet.

It must have been a tough day at the office, whether heating or beating or eating, because ol’ Ulrich moved straight into the fleeting, into the beer, and is finishing them off at a clip of roughly one per 12 minutes.

I hear the fridge door open and the rattling of bottles inside. I hear the “psssst” of a bottle top popping. I hear Ulrich’s bed sag as he falls onto it. I hear the clanking of glass as the empty gets tossed into the bin. I hear the TV growing louder with each successive brew as the alcohol insulates him to his neighbors’ desires for quiet. I know where this night is headed.

I should probably jet before it gets there. There’s that new martini bar down the road where the older women hang out. It’s no secret that I’ve been coveting older women of late. It seems like all of the women my age around here have this creepy faraway look in their eyes which is their biological alarm clock going off, demanding a baby stat. I feel like I’m wasting their time. I’m most certainly not that guy. I mean, Christ, I live in a motel. I’m hardly father material.

But the older women aren’t biting tonight. Something about the blonde girl in the corner screams she’d go home on the first night. Availability is smeared across her face like too much foundation.

Just a few years ago I was flummoxed by women. Now, I obey the simple fact that most people have a hard time saying “no” to anything. Especially when alcohol and licentiousness are involved. It’s just a matter of getting her to say, “yes,” to the right series of questions, starting with, “Can I sit down?” and culminating with, “Do you want to get out of here?”

When she asks where I live I say the Pebble Cove, because it sounds like a charming little place where successful people live, not a brick motel built in the early 1970s that rents to a collection of Recession-products during the off-season.

When we arrive there she says, “You didn’t mention that you live at a motel.” I say, “That’s because you don’t seem like the kind of girl that would come back to a motel on the first night.” This is a lie, however, as she seems precisely like the kind of girl who would come back to a motel on the first night.

But she thinks what I said is funny and this provides an opening to kiss her, which I do, and we stumble around drunkenly while making out until we fall backwards onto my bed. Once her top is off it occurs to me that I don’t want to have to wash my sheets on account of sex stains so I pick her up and move her to the smaller double bed that mostly serves as a hamper and magazine rack.

As the magazines and books and fall to the floor with a racket she giggles and Ulrich cranks his TV up. I hear the sounds of strafing machine guns and a narrator’s voice saying something like, “Hitler’s forces turned upon France in May of 1940 and using Blitzkrieg tactics were able to occupy Paris by June.”

Hitler’s voice rattles, distorted, through the flimsy TV speakers as my tongue encircles nipple. Then come the sounds of artillery being fired, the narrator’s voice, a portion of a Wagner composition, boots marching in step.

“What is that?” she asks, sitting up.

“My neighbor likes to get drunk and watch Nazi documentaries,” I say.

“Oh. Like, a lot?”

“Like every weekend.”

I had a small window to fire her up to the sexual point of no return, where she could ignore the fact that she’s gone home with a stranger to his motel room. Now I can sense that there’s some serious doubt creeping in, doubt that’s compounded by the sounds of Nazi war propaganda.

The way she looks around the room tells me this thing is doomed. I give her nipple one last lick.

“What did you say you do? You’re a writer or something?”

“I write advertising copy.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I try to convince people to buy things they don’t really need.”

“Oh. And you do that from here?”

“Yes.”

“That must be kinda lonely.”

“Sometimes. That’s when I go to the bar and pick up a woman.”

She laughs awkwardly, probably hoping it’s a joke. I made the comment because I really want her to leave now that I know she’s not going to fuck me. I could probably cajole my way back into a tug job, but despite my targeting her on the assumption that she’d come home with me on the first night, I’m actually disappointed that she did. I think I can do better than a woman who comes back to a motel with a guy on the first night. I tell her this.

She gets out of bed and puts on her clothes to the sound of Hitler’s fiery oration.

“You know,” I say, “I’ve always suspected that German men of a certain age take great pride in the whole Nazi thing. Even though they can’t admit it, I bet you some of them view World War Two and the Holocaust in particular as the ultimate expression of German intelligence, industrialism, orderliness, thoroughness, and efficiency, which are the very cultural traits that make Germans proud, some even arrogantly so. What do you think?”

“Um, I’m Jewish,” she says as she buttons her blue overcoat and pulls on a pair of brown UGG boots.

“So what? You must still have an opinion on the matter.”

“You want to know what I think? I think you’re fucking crazy!”

She slams the door and leaves in her Volkswagen Cabriolet. Imagine that, the indignant little Jewess in her German coupe. It reminds me of those rich Jews who drive around cars made by BMW, a company that once upon a time made Nazi war machines.

I hear gravel crunching under her tires as she pulls away and then the only sounds are of alcohol abuse and German domination.

V.

Of Troglodytes and Men

I know how much forklifts cost. Warehouse forklifts, narrow aisle machines, telescopic, telehandler, straight mast, electric, internal combustion, fuel cell, with inflatable tires, pneumatic tires, heavy-duty off-road tires. I know all of the major suppliers of phone systems and how much they cost, the difference between PBX and VoIP systems and how each can help your business streamline its communications, improve customer service, and boost its bottom line. I know how much point of sales (POS) systems for night clubs, restaurants, retail stores and pizza shops cost, that Comcash has been a leading provider of POS solutions since 1996. I know how much air compressors, ATM machines, trade show displays and digital copiers cost (although individual prices may vary based on location, requirements, and individual vendors). I can give you price quotes for home improvement projects ranging from plumbing to construction to hiring an interior designer. I can explain the benefits and drawbacks of various countertop, roofing, fencing, and flooring materials. I can explain seven projects for a Japanese wood saw and why you should insure your Golden Retriever. And I can tell you without question that if the negligent actions of another caused your injury, you may be entitled to compensation.

What I can’t tell you is how the people reading this information would react if they knew it came from a guy in a motel room who neither owns nor can afford nor has any use for any of these goods or services, who is wearing only a pair of frayed soccer shorts.

“Fuck.”

The computer cursor lags on the screen.

“Shit.”

It stops completely.

“Cunt.”

The computer is frozen again.

I can tell you how much it costs to repair an overheating computer, but I can’t tell you how I’m going to come up with the money to have mine repaired.

“Fuck shit cunt.”

I shut it down, close the lid, and decide to go for a walk.

As I step out of my front door I shoo away a male cardinal who is attacking himself in my car’s passenger side mirror. When I first moved in to Pebble Cove I thought that the handsome red bird perched atop my passenger side mirror was a good omen. Now, it mostly annoys me because he scratches the glass and poops all over the door. But I also feel bad for the bastard. He doesn’t realize that persistent rival male is actually himself. The instinct to protect his turf has failed him.

I nod to Green Honda Van Dude as I make my way out to the road and walk the ½ mile to Odiorne Point State Park. It is the site of the first permanent European settlement in New Hampshire, founded in 1623. The U.S. government seized control of the land through eminent domain in the early 1940s to construct a battery that could adequately protect nearby Portsmouth Harbor. It never saw any action save for the firing of practice rounds and in 1961 the land was transferred to the State of New Hampshire for use as a state park, with all military structures demolished or exhumed except for the concrete casemate. The displaced millionaires never had a chance to reclaim their land, an enduring source of bitterness in a part of America where people don’t need much of an excuse to be enduringly bitter.

I come upon the remaining concrete fortifications which are mostly buried now under fill and secondary growth. The grey stonework peeks out from under fresh spring greens like a confused old man among a gathering of teens. Graffiti stains it in its usual forms of louche wisdom and second rate artistry.

Passing under the entombed structure I notice a breach in the metal door that leads into the casemate. I stick my cell phone into the hole and attempt to use its light to see what lies beyond, but am afforded a mere foot of visibility.

At that very moment two 20-somethings on bikes pass by and the curly-haired lead rider says, “Hold on a minute bro, we’ve got lights.”

I follow them into the hole, squeeze through the jagged-cornered opening with care and step into an environment that is dark, cold, and musty, in stark contrast to the bright, muggy day outside.

The men pan their flashlights from side to side, revealing rusted pipes and ceiling tracks that were used to roll artillery out to the guns. Duct work, beer cans, bottles, and other debris is strewn across the ground, requiring that every step be taken with care. But it’s a challenge to focus on anything except for the walls covered in charnel imagery, made more ghostly by the vertiginous shifting light and amplified sounds of the dank, asbestos-ridden chamber.

“This place doesn’t open up very often. Maybe every 10-15 years somebody finds a way in,” says the curly-haired guy. “You can tell by the dates on the walls and the can designs.”

His friend, with a dark complexion and a thin beard, mutters something about the place being like the Mines of Moria.

Off of the main hall are several rooms, one of which leads down into a wide-chambered basement. I can see my breath in the nebulous light. We descend an oxidized ladder into a small passageway that we waddle through in a squatting position. Only when crammed into a dirt-floored boiler room of approximately 4 feet tall by 8 feet wide by 8 feet long do we introduce ourselves.

When I tell them I live at the Pebble Cove Motel the dark-haired guy says, “You live in a motel? Cool, man. It’s like a movie or something.”

This is the only room where a dedicated mural exists. The rest of the bunker is a cacophony of visions that overlap and choke out any attempts at artfulness. I think about the artist who spent hour upon hour hunched in this cramped chamber, inhaling toxic air and paint fumes, to create a sepulchral work that few eyes will ever chance upon. Could their endeavor be the result of a failed instinct?

This place brings to mind prehistoric caves and how scientists try to glean those peoples’ cultural knowledge from the images drawn on the walls. If nuclear Armageddon or another endgame of humanity transpired this wartime structure would likely survive. At some point it would be discovered and the eggheads of the day would begin to surmise its meaning and what it says about its creators. They would be forced to conclude that our race was obsessed with death and fermented beverages, that we were sacrilegious, contrarian, perverted, resentful of authority, immature, would-be soothsayers, false prophets, plagiarists, charlatans, hopeful yet pessimistic all at once, that we possessed a darkness of spirit that was given expression by our creative impulses. If those surveying this relic of 20th and 21st century Homo sapiens didn’t know any better, they would swear that we were somehow rooting against our own cause, that like a cardinal pecking itself in the passenger side mirror of a Subaru, some instinct of our race had collectively failed us.

As for my own instincts, it seems that at least one of them favors driving me into small, claustrophobic spaces that I share with the company of strangers. The first of June is nigh, and when I turn the page on the calendar I will also turn the page on the next stage of my life. As the vacationers arrive to enjoy the finest New England months the troglodyte slinks into the shadows, holes up in a Chinese ghetto to fester in the heat of summer. The instinct that tells me to do this is the same one that told me to leave Her behind and stare down the barrel of life alone. Only in time will I be able to judge whether this instinct has failed me.

***

It is a humid late-May evening and I am unable to sleep. Listening to the ocean hum and haw in the darkness I decide to head back to the bunker.

With my miner’s torch secured atop my head I proceed to Odiorne Point State Park. When I get to the bunker I find that the opening has been sealed, consigning the paint-splattered interior to memory and posterity. I sit down there in the darkness under the bunker’s arch with my flashlight and my flesh and my instincts and wonder why the hell I can’t sleep, and decide that it’s the same reason why the ocean can’t sleep.

On the way back home I stop at my usual midnight overlook and see a sliver of moonlight break dancing the heaving chest of the sea. When I turn around and head back towards room 3 at the Pebble Cove I don’t run this time.

Click to view a complete photo gallery of The Bunker

I spent my teenage years getting thrown out of a few different schools. Authority stuck in my craw. By sixteen, I’d made it to public school, but I skipped as much as I showed up.

That was the year I ditched finals and rode around with another delinquent visiting a couple of private girl schools during lunch breaks. One school had blue skirts, the other, green. I liked the green skirts best, but Doug told me not to over specify.

You don’t want to miss anything, he explained. Blue is just as good as green.

He had a point.

Doug also had this German car, and drove so fast our hair blew back like that old Maxell ad with a guy in a leather jacket and sunglasses sits in a chair, the music blows hurricane force down upon him. We’d crank up Cure songs, too stoned to remember our names. One time driving out to the country, where yet another girls school was located, Doug lost control and we ran off into a field of immature corn. The engine mounts broke on the one side. On our way back into town, every bump sent the engine slamming into the hood. It didn’t matter much to me. I was happy to regally lose myself in juvenilia, blowing smoke to the brit pop beat as Doug screamed through red lights and did donuts in half empty grocery store parking lots.

Johnny Unitas had a restaurant in Towson, and we’d sometimes sit in the lot across from it drinking beer. Other times we’d land down the hill from the Country Club, where the last of the town’s grass tennis courts sat. I’d watch girls with perfectly brushed hair chew gum and memorialize summers spent in Nag’s Head, or Gibson island. They smoked Marlboro lights, and drank diet Coke, and that was the smell of victory.

What I hadn’t recognized was a need for discretion. My parents had split, and I had managed to manipulate them when bad news came. If only life hadn’t been so tumultuous. If only I wasn’t the product of a broken home. But, I got in a LOT of trouble. Car crashing kind of trouble. You won’t manipulate a grown up out of pains in their wallets as easy as you do the ones in their chest, or their mind.

So I rode bitch, and rarely had money of my own. I skipped back and forth between my old man’s apartment and my mom’s house. Not by choice.

Somewhere in there, I started dating a nice girl. She’d been a debutante, or could have been. Anyway, her dad was my step-dad’s business attorney, and that meant she was a good girl. No one thought I was a good kid. More than one expulsion, and you lose that sobriquet.

Things headed further south the day I came home to see my mom waving my report card like a cleaver.

They say you’ve stopped showing up to school.

I turned around and walked out. The old man wasn’t any happier to see me.

Since the divorce, they had  devised a simple plan of communication.

Tell you father you need new clothes, mom would direct me.

In response, my father would grimace.

You tell your mother I work hard for my money.

But this time, they’d each actually gotten the nerve to phone each other. And they hatched the plan of plans: send me to Texas for the summer. Not to lounge on the Gulf of Mexico, but to work on the ranch of a family friend.

I was oblivious to the idea. Doug and I hung out at his house most of the time. I’d ride my bike over, and lock it to a bus stop sign, walk the last few blocks. Coming by bike seemed uncool. Wandering over nonchalantly, my mode of passage unexplained was much cooler. Of course, every night I’d have to wobble that bike back home, up one vicious hill and down another, which lead to feverish acts of cowardice in the face of near death collisions, sometimes with cars, but usually with shrubs, and street signs. I was drunk all the time, and not yet seventeen. Life was one giant dare I sometimes took, and other times crumbled in the face of.

Just as summer started to gear up, mom broke the bad news. But not until after she’d broiled a steak and made the red roasted potatoes she knew I loved, a Caesar salad on the side. This was the meal I’d have asked for if I was ever convicted for a heinous crime. I didn’t even see the bad news coming. To me, a meal like that, well it seemed like she was finally back to her senses. We were going to get along just fine. She said it as calm as you’d tell someone their horoscope.

Your father and I have decided to send you to work on a ranch in Texas this summer.

I remember desperately trying to handle the information like an adult. But I couldn’t finish eating. I couldn’t look her in the face. I mean, didn’t she understand, this was a popular girl I was seeing. She even said so herself. The girl wasn’t going to wait around while I worked on some fucking ranch in Texas. That kind of thing dazzles only adults, not teenaged bathing beauties. But I managed to scramble out of the house before I said anything terrible.

The upside of it all was that my parents immediately relented on the string of curfews and punishments that had been issued in the past few months. To spite them, I ran as wild as I could, rifled every purse and pocketbook and wallet attached to either of them. I interacted with them as little as possible, eating microwave dinners, skipping out before they came home from work. I spent as much time at Doug’s as I could.

There was a convenience store in between their houses, where Lake avenue met Falls road. A grassy area behind it. I’d hang out there, waiting for friends to arrive, buy their cigarettes and mixers, and plot the night. Laying in the grass watching the clouds blow across the sky as night descended, I hoped to have the same chance to do this again, with her, or someone like her, after school was over, and college finished, before any children came. Just lollygag in the green grass, our imaginary fingers clutched each other the way only a teenager can envision his future self doing.

And in those last moments of summer and freedom, drunk on cheap beer on the outskirts of the city my parents grew up in, I could scrounge up a bit of respect and grudging admiration for the two of them stranded permanently from their monumental love by disagreements that took the form of untruths and rabid tempers. I couldn’t acknowledge any pride in being their offspring, but I did drunkenly embrace the memories of trips to the Chesapeake where they would sail my brother and me out with them into places I’ve come to remember and cherish just the way you memorialize a beautiful youth. That is, just the way they intended me to remember them.

But the next morning, devoid of that drunken emotion, I’d see them as the broken people they appeared to me to be, with no future to bank on whatsoever. And as Texas loomed in the forefront of my horizon, as each second wound down to an unknowable summer of endless hard work, I raided every medicine chest south of Ruxton hoping to blot out the revolting future in store for me. Because I wanted to lay in the grass, I wanted to smoke cigarettes, I wanted to read French symbolist poetry -Life is the farce which everyone has to perform!- I wanted to go to the independent movie theater and drink and snicker at witty subtitled films from around the globe. What I did not want to do was ride around on horses till my ass chapped, hang barbed wire fence line till my fingers and my palms blistered and bled.

Had I behaved with some modicum of restraint, and humility, had I exhibited even a bare minimum of respect, it’s clear my parent might well have relented, and cancelled that trip to Texas. My older brother was patching up his transcript in summer school. The focus that usually lay directly on my misbehavior had been eased. But I knew no restraint, or humility, and certainly didn’t operate on a level of trust. So I blew through those last few days the way an unrepentant sinner scours the earth in the time leading up to Judgment Day. But what was Judgment Day anyway? Nothing but a flimsy set of punishments fancified by power mad religious zealots.

Suddenly, it was two weeks till my departure. Then a week. Then three days.

I was a virgin, too. Yeah. I’d planned on doing something about that this summer of summers, along with the stolen radar detector ring Doug was masterminding, throw in some druggy self exploration for good measure. The radar detectors would keep us in money, the money would get us drugs. And the drugs would provide the kind of entertainment aimless youth is prone to seek. I had never committed an actual felony up to that point. When I told Doug, he skipped past the philosophical leap, and went right into the actualities.

It’s easy, he, said, snugging the barrel of a BB pistol into the lower left hand corner of the windshield of a new Saab.

One, two, three, he counted, and pulled the trigger.

The window splintered into spidery veins.

Hit it with your shoe, Doug said.

I took off my sneaker and slugged the windshield with it, and like that, it came away and Doug reached right in, and grabbed the radar detector.

That was my introduction to anonymous crime.

Some days we’d follow five or six cars home, note their address, their parking spot, and return around midnight grab every last one of their radar detectors. Doug would sell them back to a Jeep dealership in Timonium. He didn’t mind sharing that secret with me. He knew I was headed out of town. Hell, he wouldn’t have minded either way. I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have a BB gun.

At least I’d gotten some criminal action, in lieu of all the kissing what’s her name and I’d gotten into, we’d been separated from anything more by my beer drinking. There had been one session in the basement of her parent’s house, but she stopped me, not because anyone was home, but because they were going to be home, any minute now, or so she said. Who cares? She did.

So with three days left, after a day of reckless driving with Doug, I sipped on a can of Natty Boh a couple of blocks away from my old man’s apartment. Within an hour fifteen of us were frolicking in the endless pool at Darcy’s parents house. An hour after that me and my virginity parted ways while I stared at what’s her name’s ass bobbing up and down in the mirror on the ceiling. I thought that kind of thing was make believe, fodder of over stimulated minds of the writers for Penthouse forum, but no, there was a mirror up on the ceiling, and I couldn’t hold back. Two minutes in, and that was all she wrote. I love you, I love you, I love you, I said, but whatever she said in response is lost.

Then, I was in Texas.

Texas differed so totally from back east I wilted. Not just from the heat. I wilted in the face of all the expectation, of the loss of my sure thing. Had I been able to focus clearly, maybe I would have known this wasn’t anything but lust, amped up teenage lust rioting through my system. But I knew nothing of nuance, and when a strong emotion hit me, it had two places to go, love or hate. Having not yet learned the delicacy of the grudge fuck, lust was still filed under love.

Then, everything started happening in Spanish, and I charged back into the interior of my head to resurrect my high school Spanish classes. So for the first few days I can’t tell you much of what happened.

But once memory returned, I spent my days furiously trying to fight off blisters on hand and foot. I wore gloves, a hat and button fly jeans because I knew it was important to look the part. Every couple of days another rig arrived, and they’d pull me off of whatever cleaning job to help load the cattle. To do this, they utilized axe handles, baseball bats, tire thumpers, and cattle prods- real electronic prods that zapped a current into the steer when you touched it to the animal and pulled a trigger. ZAP! The cattle were so scared, so full of strange antibiotics, pain and electricity they shat all over you. They’d rip your leg out from under you if you weren’t sanding in the chute right, so I learned right quick how to position myself. The other hands were all Mexicans. And those Mexicans laughed a lot. The work was hard, too hard sometimes, but they kept smiling. I fucked up a lot, and they would laugh at me, even while they fixed whatever mess I’d made. They were constantly moving, laterally, up and down, however you moved, they did it, too, only faster, and with a better economy of flow.

At night I ate with the family in charge of the operation. Ranching Baptists. The prayer before the meal, something I’d long given up, took a while. We thanked God for his son, Jesus, the bounty of the world, for Mexico, our neighbor of the south, for the ice in the iced tea, fuck we thanked him for the leather in the boots on all of our feet.

They gave me a car for my own use. The man of the house pressed the keys into my hand in such a way, staring down the great beak of his nose, he wanted me to know he trusted me more than I did myself. I knew that was bullshit. I didn’t trust anyone more than me. But I took that Ford LTD out for a ride soon as the meal was cleared. Don’t stay out late, he said, but I couldn’t have if I wanted. After eight p.m., my eyes were half slits, by nine, my brain shut off, whether I wanted it to or not.

I found a dirt road beer store that would sell to me. Then I found the spot on the ranch where I could sit and watch the mute indian train the horses occluded from sight of the main house, so I could suck down beer after beer. I’d buy a six pack each night and drink every last one of them, whether I wanted to or not. Some nights the only other American cowhand would come and watch with me.

Right when it got good, right when my personality began to leak out between jobs, after hibernating behind the blisters and the sore ass, and the absolute exhaustion, they told me they were sending me south to Zapata, a border town. Each night I had written a letter to the girl. She had one of those Presbyterian whitewashed names, and I’d say it in my head over and over as I scribbled off another mash note to her. She even wrote back once or twice. I hung on the idea of her letters. Moving south just about crushed me. The real stinger of it all came when I asked the Baptist Rancher to forward my mail. Oh, you ain’t got to worry about mail there, he laughed. There’s no post office. The border runs right through the place. But we will send any of your mail back to your folks.

If I’d tried to argue with him it would have been useless. Who cares about teenage self indulgence? Only self indulgent teenagers.

The ranch was filled with tumbleweeds. A few shacks with weathered wooden slats stuck in place with rusted nails. My bed was a mattress roll on sagging springs. It creaked when you looked at it.

A cowhand named Les was in charge. He pointed to a scoprion nest under the porch of where we’d be staying.

Check your boots in the morning.

Ok.

Got a couple of ponies over that way, he said, by way of explanation. My heart sank even further, until I realized he was kidding. The two horses were full grown, adult sized animals.

Those aren’t ponies.

It’s a euphemism, he said. I shook my head.

No it isn’t.

His head tilted at my challenge.

You God damn right it is.

Nope, I said, and smiled when I pushed the hat back to let him see me grinning at him.

Ok, college boy, what is it, if it ain’t a euphemism?

It’s just plain wrong, I said.

That won Les over. That and the admittance that I’d only recently lost my virginity.

We’re gonna have to do sumpin’ about that.

About what, I told you I already lost it.

That’s true, you can’t unring a bell. But listen, there ain’t nothing sadder than a kid who knows what it’s like and ain’t got the chance to perfect it. See what I mean?

Ten days later we had fenced and posted and blasted the scrub out of that place so it resembled and honest to God workable cattle ranch.

We’re gonna paint the town, Les said.

It was a Friday. He drove his truck and I followed in the LTD. Outside a run down dance hall, a friend of Les’s appeared. He had curly hair and the hinky personality I’d later come to associate with coke heads.

Les tells me you ain’t got much ex-purr-ience.

I slugged Les the same spot where my brother used to ding me with dead arms. He didn’t even flinch. I pulled back to punch him again. He grabbed my fist in mid air. Then dropped it with a laugh.

Now hold on, kid. I’m doing you a solid.

He held out his other palm to reveal a handful of different colored pills. Take these. He handed me a beer. I scooped ‘em into my hand, and started to take them.

Wait. What the fuck is this?

The hinky guy spoke up.

We ain’t aiming to do nothing to you. They just make it so you get your money’s worth.

I didn’t know what he was talking about but I swallowed the pills and downed the beer. I was old hat at taking drugs I didn’t know the effects of. For years I’d spent the better part of houseparties going from bathroom to bathroom in search of that particular pill bottle bliss known as rubber legs. I remember holding up a bottle to my friend Chip. What’s tetracycline do? What the hell is Estrogen? He always answered the same way.

I don’t know, take a handful, see what happens.

My whole life up to that point could be described as such. Take a handful, see what happens.

I headed for the LTD. If the pills came on too strong, I wanted to at least be near a bed I was familiar with.

Where you going, Les said grabbing my collar.

We got someone we want you to meet.

His friend giggled like a little boy. Out of nowhere came this leather skinned woman all of five feet tall. Shaped like a beer keg.

We got you a hooker.

My heart plummeted.

No, I told you guys I already lost my virginity. There’s a girl back home. I got a girl.

Mr. Hinky spoke up once again.

She ain’t got to know word one.

I walked away got in the car and tried to get away, but the keg shaped hooker hopped in before I could lock the doors.

Listen honey, she said, her voice thickly accented, they already pay, it’s cool.

All I could think of was that this was as far away from cool as you could get. Before I had the chance to say anything she went to work on my pants. I tried to push her away, but she was a real pro. Hands, then lips, suction and all.

I don’t know if it was shame or her skill, but I got carried away and arrived at the destination she charted before you could say my whole name. She sat upright in her seat, and smiled at me.

Out you go, I said ever the gentleman, opening the door, and she looked at me bewilderedly, that same God damned head tilt. She got out, though, and I hit the gas and let the force of acceleration shut the door.

She smelled like stale sweat, menthol cigarettes and vinegary tequila. The whole car smelled like that. And it wouldn’t go away.

A few days later, Les and I had finished up on the ranch. The damn car smelled the same but I was ready to go.

You’re gonna go home a real man, I tell you what.

Yeah, why?

Because you got yourself some ex-purr-ience.

I tossed my bag in the back of the LTD’s trunk, next to the full sized spare, a jack, and a miniature fire extinguisher. Les wished me well and raised a can of Pearl. About a mile out of town I pulled over. I had a deodorant stick of Mennen and started rubbing it all over everything, the roof, the passenger door, the floor mat, but mostly, on the seat where the hooker had nested. Over and over and over again till the bar of Mennen was a nub.

I lit a cigarette, and accidentally dropped the match on the seat. The deodorant on the seat caught fire in an instant and flamed up into my face.

I leapt out of the car, instantly remembering the extinguisher in the trunk. I grabbed it, and sprayed the fire which, luckily, went out. The windows were down the whole time. Most of the smoke had blown free of the car. A family drove by in a station wagon. A little tow headed kid watched me put the fire out. Burnt a whole clear through the seat the size of two basketballs.

The car was drivable. Hell it was salvageable. Only the passenger seat was ruined. I drove most of the way back to Lytle clutching the extinguisher, one eye watching the seat to make sure it didn’t catch fire again.

Once I got to town, I dawdled at the dirt road beer storedowning a tall boy for courage, then hit the ranch where I dropped the keys off with the maid. While I packed my bags, the Ranching Baptist appeared in the doorway.

Got a good report from Les, he said, pleased this little experiment the adults had cooked up worked out well. I looked up, and realized I shared nothing in common with him. Any fear I’d had about the hole in the LTD’s seat evaporated then and there.

I had a little trouble with the car.

Happens to the best of us, son.

 

Late night in New York City. So late it’s early. Pitch black with a fuzzy, artificial yellow glow around all the streetlights. Stores are shuttered.

The only places open are some bars, some late-night diners.

A few drunks tottle down the streets, call out into the darkness, try to hail cabs which screech to a halt on the corners.

D. is walking down the sidewalk, hands shoved deep in the pockets of his pale gray Patagonia fleece jacket, trying to find his way back to a friend’s new apartment. This new place is in a foreign part of the city (way up in the hundreds), and he just wants to get there so he can crash on the corner of a futon in a room that is way too small to even be called a bedroom.

After a night party-hopping at what he derisively describes as “the parties of the rich,” D., who works as a carpenter in New Jersey, only wants two things.

Food and sleep.

He’s simple that way.

A hooker starts following him down the sidewalk, waving slightly and chirping like some exotic bird. She wants his attention.There’s nothing scary about D., the man who would become my husband. When she tells him, “Ooh, baby, you are cute!” she isn’t lying.

Of all the men who might possibly pay her for her time, of all the guys walking the streets of Second Avenue at three a.m., D. seemed, I am sure, the choicest alternative. I mean, if the seller can choose the buyer, why not choose the one guy who obviously would never hurt you? The one with the shy, adorable, slightly crooked smile?

Most guys can look back on their youth and prove they were at least somewhat cute. But D. was Super Cute. There was just something about him—some fresh-scrubbed innocence, long eyelashes, perhaps, some aura that said he was responsible–that drew the ladies.

“Looking for a good time?” the prostitute pesters him, tottering on her cheap high heels, trying to keep pace.

D. just looks up and shyly smiles.

“I’ll give you a good time, honey. You and me, we could have a serious good time.”

“I’m not interested…in that,” he tells her. And then something—does she look upset, or is it something else, something more pitiful? He tells me later that she just looked run-down–makes him say, “But I would like to buy you some dinner. Or breakfast. Come on, you want to eat?”

The hooker brightens. She doesn’t say no. She must be the type of woman who doesn’t pass up a free meal, who might not remember to eat unless someone else is buying, or cooking.

They go to a diner. D. says later that his diner date was “sort of embarrassing” because she kept cursing loudly in the diner, using the most bald-faced and un-ladylike epithets, which–luckily–go largely unnoticed in the middle of the night in Manhattan (“So then I told that motherfucker, I told him, No fucking way you come in here and tell me you want my motherfucking bank statements…”).

But he did get her to eat a hamburger (he had to keep reminding her, “You have a hamburger. Are you going to finish your hamburger? How’s your hamburger?”), with the same relentless coaxing you’d give to a child who was too busy rambling on about some unintelligible misunderstanding on a playground to remember to chew and swallow.

Then D. and the hooker parted ways, though not after she said she’d gladly “Give [him] one for free,” and he refused (no, he really did refuse; he can be prudish or simply very modest) and finally found the friend’s apartment and rang the buzzer and went inside and dropped immediately into sleep.

D. barely remembers the story about buying the hooker a hamburger. But it sort of became legend among his friends.

“Where were you last night? Where’d you go after that last party?”

“I was buying a hooker a hamburger.”

It sounded so crazy, but it was true.

They recall that not only did he do that, but he also had a habit of buying hot dogs at Gray’s Papaya and handing them out, again in the wee hours, to the homeless.

There was one woman who stood out to him, surrounded by a sea of split plastic bags, wearing a terrible old coat, the kind that barely exist anymore (wool and polyester, man’s style, with large buttons, greasy lapels). She was thumbing through a ratty paperback, a book without a cover.

 

“Whatcha reading?” Doug asked, handing her some hot dogs and a drink.

“My favorite book in the whole world,” the homeless woman said dreamily, shocked back to reality by the steaming franks in front of her. “This book is very special.”

“Oh yeah? What’s it about?”

(I happen to know that D.’s favorite book at that time was “Desert Solitaire” by Edward Abbey. He also loves a book I gave him entitled “Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line” by Ben Hamper).

“It’s about a beautiful young woman in New Zealand who’s adopted and then accidentally finds her birthparents.”

“I’m adopted,” D. says. This is absolutely true (and so am I). “I’ve always wanted to find my birthparents. Where’d you get this book?”

The book found its owner, it turns out. It found her and it spoke to her. It touched her with its sad beauty, the way it all works out in the end.

Because of the hot dogs, because of his kindness, because of the fact that he was adopted himself, the homeless woman hands him her most prized possession and begs him to take it.

“I can’t take your favorite book,” D. says.

She insists. He must take it. It was meant for him. She was meant to find it and love it and talk about it so that one day he could have it. That’s how things work. People who are meant to find each other or find certain things they need, eventually do find them.

“I can read that book anytime I want to,” the woman says, tapping the side of her head. “It’s all in here, now.”

So D. took the yellowed, tattered Harlequin romance and stuck it in his pocket and he went home and read it. A few years later, I read it, too. It made me cry. It was actually very good.

For years, we had this book, this falling apart, sort of smelly, crumbling book in our house. We couldn’t throw it away, could we? It was like a sign. Or simply just a gift.

It’s gone now, eventually tossed because it was literally disintegrating, but the book itself isn’t important anymore. It’s the story–it’s every story–that really counts.