Just before and throughout my time in graduate school I worked at a bookstore. It wasn’t a local bookstore. It was a big chain, and one of the pleasures of working in a big chain bookstore (there are a few) is recognizing just how many different types of readers are out there. Sure, chains are, to a certain extent, a bit soul-sucking. Chains don’t try to promote the same sense of self-satisfaction that local bookstores tend to do. Go into a local bookstore and you are suddenly part of a self-congratulatory community of people who think they are better than everyone else because they are such avid readers they seek out specialty books.You have your elite bookstores where you find specially brewed eight dollar cappuccinos and second-hand chairs that look a whole lot more comfortable than they actually are, as well as books that cost a heck of a lot more money than if you went to a chain. In these places you pay for the experience of feeling like a smart member of a smug elite. Another type of local bookstore you may have experienced is a “second hand” bookstore. People who go to these types of bookstores are also part of a smug elite, but they are, unfortunately, poor members of that elite. People who habitually visit these kinds of bookstores claim they love books so much they don’t even care what it is they are reading. They go in and walk out with a pile of ten books, each which has looked as though it has survived some kind of fire-the pages are yellowed, the covers are torn. This seems to somehow cement the fact that the books are important, that they’ve survived so many hardships, even though half of the books people walk out with in these stores are pretty terrible-–hardware manuals, guides to pregnancy from the ‘40s, outdated medical supply guides. But people who visit these types of bookstores are less interested in content than aesthetics (even though no one will admit to that).

My Golden Year

By Mark Sutz

Essay

Linneman Street.  Glenview, Illinois.  1976.  This was the locale of an eight year old boy’s perfect year.  The boy was me.  1976 was my Golden Year.

Embers

By Arielle Bernstein

Essay

When Adile and I see each other for the first time in five years, our embrace is awkward. “I forgot how tiny you were,” she says to me. There is nothing specific I can point out about Adile, immediately, that has changed. My memory of her is distant and charged with sentimentality, an echo of her voice emblazoned on my brain, a silhouette impression in the back of my eyes. Big black curls cascade down her shoulders. She isn’t wearing glasses like she did in high school so her eyes stand out even more than usual. Her black eyeliner is thick like an Egyptian goddess. “I didn’t remember you were so blonde,” she says to me, touching my hair as if I am a little doll.

Sometimes it’s in dreams and sometimes in the moments just before I sleep.

Maybe they are daydreams or wishes or premonitions or visions of an alternate universe.  Or memories of less interesting people into which you’ve been placed.

Here, where it is always noon,
Where noon and midnight are the same,
You wake, who will be leaving soon.
You will put on your strange new name
And learn to call the roundness moon
That shimmers in the window frame.
Here, where it is always noon,
You wake, who will be leaving soon.

Your language has no consonants.
No babble but a siren’s cry,
Imperious as an ambulance,
Yanks me upright, drains me dry,
Returns me to the languid trance
Of timelessness in which we lie.
Your language has no consonants,
Imperious as an ambulance.

Stranded on this shoal of time,
Abandoned by the ferryman,
You feel the way your fingers rhyme
Or swim in sleep, amphibian.
The nodding bells forget to chime,
The minutes halt their caravan.
Stranded on this shoal of time,
You feel the way your fingers rhyme.

Your gaze wanders the room and finds—
Alighting momentarily—
A mobile that the wind unwinds,
The shifting summer filigree
Of maple leaves behind the blinds,
My earrings gleaming. Dreamily,
Your gaze wanders the room and finds
A mobile that the wind unwinds.

You snatch at something bright and miss,
Watching it float beyond your reach.
You will remember none of this
Brief idyll on a desert beach
That curves, like a parenthesis,
Between the worlds of sea and speech.
You snatch at something bright, and miss.
You will remember none of this.

Mothers of older children say
I’ll drink the milk of Lethe too—
That soon I will have lost the way
Your scalp and belly smelled brand new,
The heft and texture of each day,
Your eyes’ opaque Atlantic blue.
Mothers of older children say
That soon I will have lost the way.

One day I’ll wake and you’ll be gone.
A sturdy stranger in your place
Will shake the bars and call at dawn,
Or stagger, laughing, while I give chase
Under these trees. But not the one
Who lay for hours, the windblown lace
Of sky and clouds, branches and sun
Reflected in her changing face.

Getting ready for my recent trip to L.A., I told anyone who would listen that I’d never, ever been there. But when I walked out of LAX to catch the FlyAway to Union Station—boom! I caught myself in a lie. The low overhang that made me want to duck as I stepped out of the doors, the slice of blue sky just beyond, the scraggly palm trees against the white parking garage—I’d seen it before, on another June day fifteen years ago. The exact same tableau had been my first glimpse of the U.S. after returning from more than half a year in Southeast Asia.

Last month, I published a novel set mostly in Thailand. It’s about a Thai man and an American woman who get involved with an exotic animal smuggling ring. When people have asked the inevitable questions about how much of Currency is autobiographical—because, of course, everything’s more interesting if it’s autobiographical—I’ve been yakking about how sleeping with Thai guys probably inspired me to write from the first-person point of view of a Thai man. I’m trying to get over my fear that I’m boring people by talking about or reading from my book, but I’m not always successful, and that’s sort of sexy, right? Not the semi-failure, but the hooking up with a few too many foreign men? So I throw it out there to liven things up. And besides, it’s true. Sometimes I precede or follow the comment by making a lame joke about how I never smuggled anything—as far as I know, ha ha.

Until last week, I’d forgotten that I do have an autobiographical connection to Currency’s smuggling plot, a Los Angeles connection. That’s where I landed on my return from Bangkok, and, although I was continuing on to San Francisco, that’s where I went through Immigration and Customs and officially entered America. I’d recently been to Vietnam and Laos, among other destinations, and I was actually looking forward to this border crossing, to officers who spoke an English I knew I’d understand, to the certainty I wouldn’t be squeezed for a bribe, to belonging. When the immigration officer asked me questions about the length of my trip and how I’d managed to stay away for so long, he sounded friendly.

But maybe he tagged me in some way, tapped his loafer to a button on the floor, splattered invisible ink on my back, because while I waited for my stuffed, bedraggled, beloved backpack to roll off the luggage belt, I was approached by other men who asked me the same questions: How did I afford to travel so long without working? Where all had I been? The interest no longer seemed friendly, and I was wearied but not surprised when I was pulled aside at Customs. The search was thorough. Unzipped, my bag emitted the stink of tropical rot. It embarrassed me to watch gloved hands finger my crumbled clothes and dirty underwear, to see my souvenirs splayed out on the table, drained of meaning under the harsh fluorescents—the bunched-up jewelry, the crude carvings, the yak bone I had picked up on a trail in Nepal. But my heart didn’t start seriously pounding until the officer turned over the bone again and again and then walked away with it. He conferred with another uniformed guy. Then maybe another. One of them came over to ask me what the bone was. There was the crackling of a walkie talkie. The bone was taken out of my sight. It reappeared. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember the order in which these things occurred. But I remember being informed that the wildlife expert was on his way. I remember them telling me to repack my bag while we waited for him, the awful feeling of stuffing my messed and cheapened life back inside, under watch. “How did you know so much about smuggling?” people have asked me. “Research,” I’ve answered. And: “I got the animal smuggling idea from an article in a 1997 The New York Times Magazine.” And (in a snotty tone that implies Duh, I’m a fiction writer): “I just made up what it might be like to get caught carrying contraband into another country.” Why did I not recall until revisiting the airport where it happened that I myself was waylaid while carrying a piece of mammal?

It’s not accurate to say the incident slipped my mind. It must have been in there somewhere, hiding in the shadows, because I can recall it vividly now. I can recall the frog enclosures on the blue shirt I was wearing, the heavy string of Kali beads around my neck. (Jesus, how stupid I was to dress like such a clichéd hippy when coming back from what was at that time still a capital of drug production.) My backpacking trip was one of the most influential periods of my life, but I’ve become sort of sheepish about trotting out travel experiences that happened in the previous decade—or, ouch, are the 90s now considered to be two decades ago? And I’ve been laboring over Currency’s manuscript for so many years that my character’s experience had became more legitimate to me than my own, even though I still have the yak bone displayed at the top of a bookshelf in my dining room.

The wildlife inspectors ended up letting me keep it. By the time I was cleared, I needed a smoke, and I headed outside. I noted the contrast of the gloomy overhang and the sky’s robin’s egg blue, the outline of the palms’ ragged edges against the garage’s grimy cement. Southern California, I thought. Check. Then I stubbed my cigarette, went back inside, and got on my flight to San Francisco, where I stayed with my friend Brenna and her girlfriend Paula. I used their apartment as a halfway house, a place to acclimatize before I fully reentered American life.

Brenna has long since moved to L.A., and I stayed with her again on this recent visit. We’ve known each other since we were kids. We’ve hardly talked these last ten years. As she drove me around town to readings and parks and Venice Beach—I leaned on her for that one—her truck’s radio was often tuned to a station that played “Ladies Night” and “Celebration” on heavy rotation, songs we had danced to as preteens. We looked at each other across the wide bench seat and laughed. We grooved. We sang along, and she corrected me on some of my lyrics; apparently I’ve been wrong about them for thirty years. (It’s not “Celebrate your life,” it’s “Celebrate good times,” which I hope I can forget by the next time I hear it because I think my version is bigger-hearted.) One night, we all three went out, the same San Francisco trio, Brenna and Paula—just friends, now, best friends—and me, to a bar in Culver City, and Brenna and I danced in the back to the deejay’s nowest of now mix. We told Paula about how we had met on the dance floor at family night at our small town’s disco, and how we had fallen in love. We are still in love. Never-mind about the last ten years.

The phrase “the accordion of time” pops into my head a lot lately. I picture the long stretch of years—of course some things will be forgotten; there’s so much!—and then the squeeze that brings them together until they all exist at once, until everything seems as if it’s happening now. The sensation is accentuated by publishing a book that I’ve worked on through so many stages of my life and that’s inspired by an earlier stage yet; by a book tour that’s reconnecting me with people I spent formative years with before drifting away from. Lately, it’s common for me to recount a night on a 1980s dance floor as if it were yesterday, but to forget what happened last weekend. I’m an old lady in that way. But, also, I’m still a girl. Some enthusiasms are as fresh now as they were then. I keep having the feeling that I’ve been here before, and that it’s exactly the same, I’m exactly the same. But also, that it was nothing like this. Coming home, I’ve returned to a place I’ve never quite been: tropical flora, brilliant sunshine, dirty but still bright, white walls.


Dear Carmelina,

When Raj asked if I wanted to join you two in a ménage à trios I thought I had died and gone to Heaven. The only problem was that I was tripping on three hits of Purple Haze so when I kissed your thick lips all I could think of was getting my dick between them. But we’d just started so when I moved my hips up to meet your mouth.

“Whoa, slow down, cowboy.”

In my hallucinating state, I felt totally rejected. Then you and Raj started fucking and by the time it was my turn, I was a million miles away. That’s why I couldn’t get it up.

 

Dear Amy,

That first time you did Reiki on me, well, there are really no words for how it felt. You lit sage and waved it around my limbs, head, and torso in preparation for our session. You told me to put myself in a totally safe place. Nobody had ever said anything like that to me before so I fell in love with you that night. That’s why when you talked about marriage and kids the next time we saw each other, I didn’t even freak out. But then you started putting pressure on me to make money which has never been my strong point. And when you realized I wouldn’t be changing any time soon, you ended it. You left me alone on the path of Reiki.

 

Dear Babysitter,

We played a game where you dared my friend Cinnamon to rub her ass against mine. I think technically this qualifies as molestation but I remember thinking I was incredibly lucky to be part of something so grown-up at the mere age of six.

 

Dear Lisa Sparxxx (famous pornstar),

You’ve come to represent everything I’ve ever wanted and can’t have. When I see your big breasts, thick hips and perfect ass, I don’t get horny anymore. I get sad. I mourn the fact that I’ll never touch you. I desperately wish I was a football player or rock star or whatever kind of man you realistically might want. And I hate myself for not being him.

 

Dear Cynthia,

I would have been anything for you. I meant it when I told you I’d help raise your kids and try to heal all the stuff you’d never talk about. Waking up that first morning after our first night together, you handing me a plate of French toast and fruit, I fell in love with you all over again. Then, later that same afternoon, you accused me of masturbating in your shower. I denied it because I’d done nothing of the sort, but you had already turned to stone. When I cried you asked me if I was mentally unbalanced. No Cynthia, I wasn’t, those are called feelings

 

Dear Fellow Traveler,

It was dangerous working illegally in Eliat. Those Arab guys pinched my ass and tried to get me to fight them until your friend stepped in and told them he would fuck them all. But when you said it was too bad Hitler hadn’t finished the job? That was really over the line. What you didn’t know was that I’m Jewish and that I kept my mouth shut because you and your crew were the only thing keeping me safe.

 

Dear George and Robert,

Thanks for trying to get me home on your skateboards that night. And for propping me up when that cop came. According to you, he asked if I had been drinking and I replied fuck you and fell backwards, unconscious before I even hit the pavement. That must have been pretty funny. When I woke up in the hospital the next morning, my arms scarred from pulling IVs out as nurses tried to put them in, one nurse told me she thought they shouldn’t have given me anything so that I’d feel the full brunt of the hangover I had coming to me. I remember not understanding why she was blaming me for a decision that had been made while I was unconscious.

 

Dear Uncle Bernie,

You’re dead now, but I was just wondering if you knew that I faked my Bar Mitvah. My dad had me memorize an index card of transliterations so when I “read” from the Torah, I wasn’t really reading at all. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what I was saying.

 

Dear Keira,

I still can’t believe you licked my asshole that time. Nobody had ever done that and I’m pretty sure nobody ever will again, so I guess that’s a kind of bond we’ll always share.

 

Dear Joe (stepfather #1),

You drank vodka in the dark and kept to yourself for the most part but once, just once, you got up in my face and when I didn’t back down you called me crazy. And when I tried to kill myself you said I was just looking for attention as if that somehow discredited my pain. I get it though, I probably reminded you too much of yourself. You died of alcohol; your way just took longer.

 

Dear Dad,

I have one good memory of you. You and I were in the ocean and every time a wave came you hoisted me up safely over it. I’ve thought about what you were trying to tell me by that many, many times. To be above everything is the best answer I’ve found so far.

 

Dear Thugz,

I only made it about twenty steps out the door when you pulled out your guns and marched me back into the house. You took turns punching me in the face thinking that I was holding out but I was just poor. That dollar you took from my pocket was my last. When you tried to hustle me back outside, I realized it was to shoot me. I almost lost my mind in that second but decided I’d force your hand instead and end the nightmare. I screamed.

“NO FUCKING WAY!”

I closed my eyes, fully expecting to feel the bullet, but you ran away.

 

 

 

 

 

My father is wearing a decades-old sweatshirt with dolphins printed on it.  There is a single drop of drool suspended improbably from the corner of his mouth.  I’m fascinated by it.  I watch the clock.  Two minutes go by.  Still there.  Five.

Remember when we listened to punk rock, rolled the windows down and drove to the gas station with the blue roof because a guy there was known for selling cigarettes to kids like us and we figured this was a pretty good deal? When he stopped working there, we never even asked what happened. He was just gone and we found an unsupervised cigarette machine in a coffee shop to replace him. It was in full view of the public, cops sitting at the bar and all, but no one was going to turn around and ask you for ID if you had the balls to just walk up and buy a pack.

Remember how that trip to the gas station took forever, like what the hell could we be doing? Well, we had to stop at so-and-so’s house and pop in to say hi to her mom so we wouldn’t look suspicious like that one time she knew I was going to be getting a ring, and she asked why I wasn’t wearing it and I said, “I let him keep it because we were going to, um, I mean, it was too big and it has to be re-sized, and I didn’t want to lose it.” What I almost said was “We were going to get high, and I was afraid I’d lose it.” It was my first time, and I was sure I couldn’t be trusted. We ended up just sitting in that coffee shop all day, staring at our cups. I tried so many times to explain something, some insight offering itself from the folds of my slow motion rush, and I’d start but my mouth couldn’t keep up, and I’d flounder till finally I muttered, “Ah, fuckit.” And that became my signature phrase for the next year. This is the sound of me falling short.

Remember when we left school to go swimming in some lake somewhere? We dragged our legs, thick with drugs, through muddy water and contemplated whether we could swim to the other side. We got water in our mouths. It was the first time I heard the word brackish, and it was delightful the way you said it. Brackish. We swam in our clothes so we wouldn’t have to go naked, but then there we were hiding behind the car putting on god knows what, a t-shirt I guess, and a towel maybe, something from the trunk of this boy’s car. I told myself to remember the image of you with the sweet purple smoke swirling around your face, the light sifting in through the barn window as you sat back on this old couch and someone finally declared, “It’s burnt.” I told myself to remember how goddamned beautiful you were because it couldn’t have lasted forever, but I had this one taste of it, this one photo in my mind — you sealed in the amber of time.

Remember when I was laying on your bed in my panties, and you sang that stupid song about me being on your bed in my panties? I couldn’t figure out why it was such a big deal, and I just felt lucky that you weren’t laughing or anything, and I felt like a bit of an asshole for smoking your pot but I realize now that you got the better end of that deal since you kept the remainder of the bag, too.

Remember when my eyes felt like sugar water? And my teeth, sugar cubes? And my heart, sugar, too?

Remember when we went to the park and climbed on the jungle gym and hung upside down by our knees and wondered what THC stood for anyway? It sounded like a college, like some kind of private school, like The Hard College. We talked about how girls only wanted to date shitty guys, and how good guys always get stuck being just friends, and then one night you kissed me on the sidewalk. It was an ambush of teenage hormones and then there were the long rambling love letters written in pencil, and the phone calls where you told me about your dreams until it got to be too much and I knew you were making things up.

Remember when I believed there were things good girls didn’t do? Remember when I was in love with you and tried that weird role reversal of deer perusing the hunter? And remember when you finally took me up on it and I shrank back from your hands because no one told me that was part of the deal?  Remember when the best thing I could think of was you thinking of me? Remember when I would whisper your name until I fell asleep? Do you remember me?

I. 1987

I’m eight years old and everything is different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. 1989

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. 1991

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read Part I, please click here

Jeremiah balanced himself against the doorframe, his head loose on his neck, swinging from side to side like a pendulum. He motioned for me with his hand. I staggered his way inadvertently colliding with him at the front door.

Gary approached, intervening. He bucked for us to stay put, to crash at his place for the night citing how much alcohol the two of us had consumed over the preceding six hours.

“There’s more than enough room,” he said.

“I’m fine,” Jeremiah replied, exhaling smoke through his nostrils. “I’ve only had two beers.”

“And how many shots, how much wine?” Gary rejoined, “You smell like a damn orchard.”

“Do you mean vineyard?” Jeremiah countered with a wry smile. It was the same smile he gave when he was kicking your ass in Madden. It was the oh-how-do-you-like-that-shit? smile.

Jeremiah reeked of booze. Fumes of beer, liquor, and wine mixed with the nicotine from his breath produced a yeasty, acerbic combination. The inherent problem in Jeremiah taking to the wheel intoxicated—other than the obvious: he was intoxicated—was not so much the absorption of beer and liquor into his veins. The problem was the wine. Jeremiah simply could not handle wine. Never could. It made him off-kilter, a bit askew in his perception of reality and his ability to function in said reality. It was sort of a running joke within our circle that Jeremiah left zigzagging from Sunday services after communion was given just from the sheer tart quality of the grape juice on his palette.

I was a cheap drunk and hence stuck with my preferred Friday night beverage of choice, Hurricane. Hurricane is a malt liquor with 8.10% ABV and part of the Anheuser-Busch family of beers. BeerAdvocate.com gives Hurricane a resounding grade of D+ with a further comment for beer drinkers the world over to “avoid.”

I find this rating a bit unfair, particularly from the perspective of a teenager in the 1990’s with limited income save for the greenbacks earned by way of cutting grass in the summer time and chopping wood in winter.

The Three Pros of Hurricane:

  1. Extremely economical: Spend less. Drink less. Get drunk quicker. Have leftovers for next week’s shindig.
  2. Extremely potent compared to popular American lagers: Once again, drink less, get drunk quicker. I didn’t drink for the taste. Not to mention, easily the biggest con of Hurricane was that, like OE800, it smells like bottled and capped skunk piss. Pop it open, turn it up, don’t think twice, it’s alright.
  3. Never lifted at parties: The fact of the matter is people do not see a black, orange, and green case of Hurricane in the refrigerator and rogue one. They think, “Who in God’s name brought that?” move the case to the side so as to retrieve a can from someone else’s stash thus leaving my alcohol to keep cold and ready when the time was right to crack open another.

The latter was ultimately the deciding factor from my teenage perspective. Hurricane, Black Label, and King Cobra were my Big Three in those days. The lineup rotated as to which one I drank on a designated weekend. Unlike most, if not all of my friends, I never found myself in one of those “where the fuck is my beer?” moments at parties. My beer was always on the bottom shelf, untouched, except by me.

The only time anyone ever even touched one of my malts was when Brandon Shepherd grabbed one, held it up to his mouth like a microphone, and began singing, “Rock You Like a Hurricane” by Scorpions. Then, in the same motion, he passed out on the couch.

On days when the income was feeling a bit expendable and I was feeling grandiose and luxurious, I would step my game up and purchase a Mickey’s but those days were rare and few and far between. Not to mention, I loathed Natural Light for its redneck-specific designation on the drinking scene and avoided it at all costs, buying malt liquor instead. But I digress.

Other than Hurricane and a single can of Budweiser—whose slogan I unremittingly recited throughout the course of the night much to the protest of my cousin Gary—I downed a single mixed drink Gary had concocted.

Bleeding Liver

100 mL Vodka
15 oz. Fruit Punch Gatorade

Mix together. Shake very well. Add ice. Serve.



Gary in the middle, me on the right

Character Profile
Gary was my first cousin (standing in the middle in the picture to your left. That’s me on the right. My cousin Robbie on the left) and Jeremiah’s fellow classmate at Randolph-Henry High School in Charlotte Court House, Virginia—Graduating class: 1997.

As a young child, the third Hyde of the family, Garland Hyde Hamlett III, to be exact, had this intense fascination with WWF and WCW action figures and collectibles. Each year when Christmas rolled around and Santa Claus slid his morbidly obese, cherry red ass down the clay brick chimney, he would place under Gary’s Christmas tree some new wrestling action figurine.

By the time my aunt Julie, uncle Butch, and cousin Tiffany arrived at our home in Phenix for breakfast on Christmas morning, Gary was itching like a dog with mange to pull out his plastic men and toss them into the roped ring he had been given the prior Christmas. In turn, the Steiner Brothers—Rick and Scott—would gang up on an aging yet still shirtless Rick Flair or involve themselves in an illusory confrontation with the tag team duo of the Road Warriors.

This background is important for at times this imaginary play world of wrestling was implemented in the real world and my skinny self doomed from the start no matter how much milk I drank or Spinach I ate. (Yes, I arduously bought into the Popeye philosophy that a helping of spinacia oleracea would sprout Sherman tanks on my biceps and in turn help me bring down my own real life Bluto, Gary.)

Gary was my elder by two years, might as well have been ten, and was much bigger than I was then and still so even today. He does not recall putting me through the torture I am about to describe to you the reader. When you are on the giving end (as Gary was), I imagine it is but a faint memory pushed to the back of your mind with no resounding quality—just an ordinary day in an ordinary week. On the receiving end (as I was), however, it becomes burnt into one’s memory as if a fiery orange cigarette cherry snubbed out on the backside of one’s hand.

When I visited my Granny and Papa Hamlett in Drakes Branch, Gary, as sneaky and vengeful as ever, somehow found a constant lure and always managed to trap me in our grandpa’s bedroom. My cries for help were quickly silenced by the threat of pain I was soon to endure being even more painful if I called out for aid. He was also pompous to the fact that unlike other kids his age he already had underarm hair—and a jungle of it at that. As consequence, he jerked me immediately and without delay into a headlock and buried my pre-pubescent face in his armpits.

“Smell it,” he would cry out, squeezing my neck tighter as if to pop my head off like a grape. “Smell it!”

I refused to smell it.

He squeezed my neck tighter.

There was sweat on my nose and cheekbones from his pits. Thick white chunks of deodorant on my lips tasted bitter. Underarm hair tickled my nose.

“I want you to smell it. I want to hear you sniff,” he growled.

Then my nostrils would flare in and out.

* Sniff, sniff *

Enduring these moments of agony, I knew that nothing could be done but appeal to the Lord above for strength in a prayer that one day all those gallons of milk I had poured into my belly since weaning from the teat would jumpstart a growth spurt in my body and all that spinach I consumed would swell my biceps like it had done Popeye before he liberated Olive Oil from the masculine and obstinate grips of Bluto’s hands.

Then I would have my revenge.

Unfortunately, this petition to the Big Man in the Sky has yet to be answered and unless I dial up BALCO or Mark McGwire and get my hands on some Human Growth Hormone, my thirst for retribution may never be quenched.

Or will it?

In a metonymic adage originating in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1839 play, Richelieu, Cardinal Richelieu says and I quote, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

And so with this axiom clearly portraying wit over might, the power of the written word over the physical headlock, I will thus write with my pen a very significant and hopefully embarrassing little known fact about my Blutonian cousin Gary’s musical tastes.

Gary owned and purposely bought and listened to albums by Shaq Diesel, also known as Shaquille O’Neal, The Big Aristotle, and/or Shaq Fu. If my memory serves me correctly, his favorite song was “(I Know I Got) Skillz.”

Quiz him on this.

From the actual song, begin rapping these lyrics:

Yo Jef, why don’t you give me a hoopa beat or something,
Something I can go to the park to.
Yeah, there you go, alright, I like that, I like that,
It sound dope.

Just give him a minute for the full effect to take hold, to possess his body. Then like an uncontrollable instinct or an Episcopalian speaking in tongues, Gary will begin tapping his right foot and spitting the rhyme with prepositions incorrectly ending the sentence and all:

Knick-knack Shaq-attack, give a dog a bone,
Rhymin is like hoopin’, I’m already a legend,
Back in the days in the Fush-camp section,
Used to kick rhymes like baby, baby, baby,
Every once, every twice, three times a lady,
Is what I listened to, riding with my moms,
How you like me now? I drop bombs,
When you see me, please tap my hands,
I know I got skills man, I know I got skills man…

If that does not work, if he refuses to acknowledge this reality in regards to his music selection, simply ask to see his record collection. Inside a dusty cardboard box, you are sure to find a copy of Shaq Diesel’s debut album, and to top it off, nearly every cassette ever put out by the Fat Boys. True, there is nothing really to laugh about here. The Fat Boys had rhymes so sweet they would knock anyone into a diabetic coma.

Back in the day, I liked the Fat Boys too, used to beat box with my mouth at Gary’s on Saturday mornings while my uncle Butch sucked down a raw egg for breakfast. The two of us would venture out underneath the attached garage and toss lyrical heat into the fire. I would morph into Kool Rock Ski and him into Prince Markie D:

(Prince Markie D): $3.99 for all you can eat?
Well, I’m-a stuff my face to a funky beat!
(Kool Rock Ski): We’re gonna walk inside, and guess what’s up:
Put some food in my plate and some Coke in my cup
(Prince Markie D): Give me some chicken, franks, and fries
And you can pass me a lettuce. I’m-a pass it by.

And then Gary would pause for a moment, do the Robot, position his feet on his Max Headroom skateboard, pop an Ollie, and run his fingers through his hair like a 1988 James Dean. Peanut would call from the neighboring yard, “Yes, t-t-t-t-tune into Network 23! The network is a *real* mind-blower!”

Or at least this is how I like to remember the past.

And that was Gary.



Now he stood before Jeremiah and me, interrogating the man with the keys in his hand. Jeremiah opened the screen door, flicked his cigarette, and reached into his oh so smooth black leather jacket to retrieve a fresh smoke.

“Just a glass or two,” Jeremiah said of how much wine he’d had.

Gary hmphed. “More than that.”

“I’m fine man. I’ll drive slow. We’ll hit the back roads to be on the safe side. I pay more attention after I’ve had a few in me anyway.”

“Well if you don’t think you can drive, feel free to turn back around. Like I said, you can crash here for the night. It’s fine by me. Plenty of blankets and places to sleep.”

“Let me take one last leak before we hit the road,” I said to Jeremiah, knowing he would appreciate my common decency. I tend to urinate frequently, a result of what I suppose relates back to my recurrent bouts with kidney stones as a child. Jeremiah knew this.



Once on a short road trip the two of us took, Jeremiah was forced to stop every twenty minutes in order for me to empty my beans. I marked my territory more than a stray dog that evening.

Behind dumpsters.

On trees.

At a laundry mat.

In a 32-ounce Gatorade bottle.

In a 20-ounce Coca-Cola bottle.



Years later, I would earn the nickname “PP” by Jay Taylor, a co-worker of mine in construction. We used to carpool together. He drove. I sat in the passenger seat and read Noam Chomsky books.

In the late 1980’s/early 90’s, Jay used to play drums in a heavy metal band named Uncle Screwtape and had long, stringy hair down to his ass and was skinny as a toothpick. In promotional photos of the band, Jay wears black leather pants secured tightly by white laces running up the leg. Presently, he sports a reluctant comb-over and carries a few doughnuts in the mid-section.

Uncle Screwtape opened for Ugly Kid Joe in Texas back when Ugly Kid Joe was cool which took place during a window between June and November of 1992. They were on their America’s Least Wanted tour. The bass player for Uncle Screwtape named the band. As Uncle Screwtape’s star was on the rise, the bass player quit to enroll in college. He wanted to be an English teacher. Uncle Screwtape is a reference to a C.S. Lewis novel in which the demon uncle, Screwtape, writes a series of letters to his nephew in efforts to convince his nephew to help bring damnation to a man known as “The Patient.”

Jay used to get annoyed by how much I made him stop so that I could take a leak. We stopped at nearly every store we came upon on our way home from Buggs Island to Phenix.

I hated using a store’s bathroom without buying anything. I felt it was rude so I made a point to always buy an item. I loved Peppermint Patties so I bought one at each of my stops. I didn’t think anything of it, the abbreviation and all. The irony. Jay picked up on it.

“PP,” Jay said. “I think I’m going to call you ‘PP’ from here on out.”

“I hope the gods curse you with kidney stones one day so you’ll see what it feels like. Or an enlarged prostate.”

They never did. But they did curse him with the most awful foot fungus I have ever seen in my life during the summer of 2003. He had to change socks once every hour while at work. Doctor recommended. His feet looked gangrenous. Seriously. And they stunk like a rotting carcass.



It was cold that day and rainy, the evening Jeremiah and I were returning from our road trip down I-81.

“I’m not stopping again,” he said to me as I got back into the car. I had just pissed on a yellow brick wall at a laundry mat on the outskirts of Radford.

Twenty minutes later.

“Hey man, I know you said you weren’t stopping again but I really have to go. I might very well piss myself. I’ve been holding it for ten minutes now and my bladder is about to rupture. I’m pretty sure this isn’t healthy.”

“You’ve been holding it for ten minutes?” he questioned. “We just stopped ten minutes ago. Didn’t you piss?”

“I did. It was wonderful.”

“Then why do you have to go again?”

“I don’t know but I swear I do. I think it has something to do with the rain. Rain. Urine. Both are liquids. And your car idles rather fast. I think it is shaking my kidneys. I know Josh Holt had a similar problem once riding in my mom’s Corolla. It idled badly.”

“You’re not going to piss yourself,” Jeremiah responded matter-of-factly.

“I’m not so sure about that. This may be genetic. My mom gets the dribbles.”

“The dribbles?”

“The dribbles. She can’t do jumping jacks.”



I walked down the narrow hallway and into Gary’s bathroom. A Playboy magazine lay open in a wicker basket to the left of the toilet. An exposed woman stared back at me. She was on all fours stark nude. The sheets were red. Satin sheets I suppose. Rose petals were strewn across the sheets. You know, the way most naked women wait for you.

On all fours.

Stark nude.

Ass in the air.

On red, satin sheets with roses strewn across.

“You are not getting laid tonight,” she reminded me. I thanked her for her kindness and honesty. I wondered what her dad thought. I thought about how I was a hypocrite for enjoying seeing her looking this way, naked, and how I’d never in a million years let my daughter shed clothes for money whenever I had a daughter one day.

I thought about how it wouldn’t be up to me to “let” her do anything. I would have to hope I raised her properly so that she wouldn’t strip nude for money. Then I thought about how I had paid someone to strip nude for money before. She was a friend of mine. She said she’d get naked for gas money. I had gas money.

I was 16. She was 20.

I thought about how I was thinking too much. I thought about how drinking a lot always made me think too much when I already thought too much as it was.

I focused my attention away from the girl in the magazine.

The tank lid was open, pushed off to the side. The ballcock and float were visible. The water was running and the sound sensitive to my ears. I jiggled the handle.

“Don’t be the phantom shitter,” Gary called from the front.

I pissed the most glorious piss I had ever pissed in my existence all the while my stomach flipped, sat upright, turned. Through the pangs, I determined my stomach was essentially eating itself.

Hunger had taken over and the Wu Tang album wasn’t helping the cause. The martial arts samples dubbed into the mix began to remind me of sweet & sour chicken and orange chicken and fried rice with little chunks of egg and…

When I entered back into the kitchen, I grabbed a slice of white bread in my fist and crammed it down my gullet in a matter of seconds. I proceeded to the front door.

Jeremiah turned the handle and we made our exit.

Curtains for the night.

We each walked out with a beer in our hands. Gary stood at the door shaking his head as we made our way down the front steps.

“This is the famous Budweiser beer—” I began.

“Jeez,” Gary interrupted, “Drive safe. And make that moron shut up.”

I opened the passenger’s side door of Jeremiah’s black Thunderbird and slid in. Jeremiah buckled his seatbelt, as did I.

“We are really going down the back roads, right?” I asked Jeremiah.

“Definitely. Not trying to roll into a road check this time of night. Lawson can. Kiss. My. Ass.”

“Country Road?”

“Country Road.”

“I’d say that’s a good call, our safest route.”

“And I would second that notion. You ready? Buckled up?”

“Yep. Ready to roll.”

I had ridden with Jeremiah numerous times when neither he nor I were sober so I trusted him behind the wheel. (Trusted him with my life you could say) The reasoning on my behalf had more to do with the fact that when you are wasted beyond belief anyone’s driving looks pretty good as long as you get to your destination in one piece. It was a youthful decision on both our accounts. Not very wise no matter how you slice it. “Young and dumb” isn’t a popular phrase without reason, and when you are that age, you believe yourself as well as your friends are invincible.

We knew no krypton, could not be taken down with an arrow in our Achilles heel. To boot, hardly anyone traveled down Country Road, particularly at this time of the night.

I pulled out my pack of Marlboros and lit one. Jeremiah followed, asking for a light. I lit it while he edged his way from Gary’s driveway. The outside light on Gary’s front porch turned off.

“And you’re sure you’re okay to drive?” I asked just to double-check.

I was beginning to wonder if this time maybe Jeremiah had had a little too much to drink. His body swayed as if he was without a spine or bones. Under the surface, a sense of worry had presented itself to me.

“Oh yeah, I’m good,” he answered matter-of-factly.

About a mile up the road, Jeremiah hit his left turn signal.

“We’re turning right,” I told him.

Jeremiah hit his right turn signal. “I knew that.”

Country Road was now in sight. The car inched its way closer to the turn. The two of us were laughing it up, babbling about what the night had done to us.

“I’ll tell you, that wine did a number on me this time,” Jeremiah said, his beady eyes glassy.

“That wine does a number on you every time. Did you drink one of those Bleeding Livers Gary mixed up? I think it sent me overboard into the deep. Not a good mix with Hurricane. I feel sick as shit.”

“Nah. Only some shots, some wine, and a few baa-rewskies. If I added anything else, I’d be spewing for sure and you’d be driving.”

“We wouldn’t be driving. We’d be sitting. I’m definitely not in the shape to drive.”

“True. I don’t see how you drink that malt liquor week in and week out. Shit.”

“Cheap buzz.”

Snoop Dogg interjected on the stereo, singing. Jeremiah turned up the volume and veered toward the turn.

The only problem with this was that we had not actually made it to the turn quite yet. We still had a ways to go, roughly one-hundred yards or so; and granted, though we were not flying down the highway by any means, we also were not giving the turtle a run for his money on who was the slowest specimen on the roadside this time of night.

Jeremiah looked in my direction still talking, a grin etched on his face. The cigarette hung out of his mouth and the smoke danced off the end toward the ceiling of the car.

We were driving through the gravel parking lot of a closed convenience store.

And I was fully aware we were driving through the gravel parking lot of a closed convenience store.

For some reason, what reason I couldn’t tell you then, couldn’t tell you now, I thought maybe Jeremiah had decided to stop and get a drink, get a little sugar in his system to caffeinate him properly for the thirty minute drive we were making toward home in Phenix.

That’s what I told myself at least.

As a hypoglycemic in my own right, I tend to keep a stash of foods pertinent to the glycemic index close by to hold me over when my blood sugar begins to plummet.

In an article by Charles Q. Choi, “Why Time Seems to Slow Down in Emergencies,” researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, discovered that an individual’s memory plays a certain kind of mind game and tricks us in emergency situations. The amygdala, an almond-shaped mass of gray matter, one in each hemisphere of the brain, is associated with feelings of fear and aggression and is important for visual learning and memory. When one’s nerves tense up and the sense of danger near, the amygdala lays down an additional deposit of memories that go along with the memories typically taken care of by other parts of the brain.

Therefore, individuals tend to remember emergencies much more keenly than normal circumstances. Our senses become, in a way, pronounced and our attention level expands and takes in the scenery and sounds and smells of the moment, among other things. I bring this up because when Jeremiah hit the turn signal and began trekking through the gravel parking lot of the store, reality is this: it happened instantaneously and within a matter of seconds.

I was fully conscious of the situation. It was as if time stood still, the pendulum paused in mid-air, and everything was taking place in slow motion; that Jeremiah had a beer still in between his legs just as I did should have hinted something out to me that perhaps, just perhaps, Jeremiah was not thirsty and not stopping for a Coca-Cola.

Having sensed what I sensed, I created a reasonable explanation to make sense of those senses and did not say anything to Jeremiah at first.

Jeremiah was laughing and so was I. I figured, screw it. He was in control. He has done this a million times before and I have been the passenger of those million times myself and we had always been okay, always gotten where we were going in one piece.

False alarm, I told my amygdala.

You’re totally overreacting Amy so calm the hell down.

Now I know, just as any resident of Charlotte County knows, that our African shaped county in south-central Virginia is pretty dag gone country. Some kids across the United States like to claim that their hometown or home county is small.

“All we have is a Wal-Mart and a KFC,” they say.

Well, that’s nothing.

There is not a single stoplight—not one—in all of Charlotte County.

And Wal-Mart?

Well, if you want to hit up Wally World and support sweatshop labor and American jobs being sent overseas by the thousands all for the sake of a low price, Wal-Mart is a good 45-minute-to-an-hour drive away depending on where you live in the county.

The truth of the matter is that the road we were supposed to take, even if it is called Country Road (quite literally), is paved; and the path we were currently traveling down was nothing but gray dust and rocks.

It wasn’t even a road.

It was the near half-acre parking lot of a store that closed at 8:00 PM Eastern Standard Time (EST).

Like I said, this all happened in a matter of seconds; and ten years ago the Baylor College of Medicine did not even exist to me nor did their study of “Why Time Seems to Slow Down in Emergencies.”

I could have given them that answer and saved some taxpayers’ money.

Conclusion: Time appears to slow down because your senses freak and your adrenaline begins to pump and you’re alert to the belief that you’re going to die and that you never accomplished anything in life and when my mom cleans out my room and starts to cry because I’m no longer here, she’s going to discover my porn stash and she’s going to think I’m a pervert but I’m not going to be able to explain to her that it’s completely natural for someone my age to be looking at porn; at least I’m not a Trekky I would say to her, at least I didn’t waste my life collecting stamps though I did collect matchbooks once and I’m really sorry about almost catching the house on fire. I could have told Baylor College that much.

But right now God had his finger on the pause button and I got to thinking, got to convincing myself that Jeremiah had taken a mini shortcut and was simply going to cut back through on to Country Road when we got to the end of the store parking lot.

We’ll get home one-hundred yards quicker, I told Amy Amygdala, so quit your stinking pestering. I got this. Jeremiah’s got this.

Then Ms. Amy Amygdala wagged her invisible index finger at me.

Should have listened to me, she said. I was trying to tell you something, trying to warn you. Now it’s too late.

Jeremiah wasn’t slowing down. It became very apparent to me and Amy Amygdala who kept saying, I told you so, I told you so, that Jeremiah had made a rather grave error. He thought we had already made it to the right turn on to Country Road and had no idea that this was not a road but a gravel parking lot.

Fuck. I’m going to die.

Stones bounced underneath the black Thunderbird, clanging against the oil pan. A cloud of dust trailed behind our car like the last scene in Thelma and Louise when the helicopter zooms overhead and the car jolts airily into the pit of the Grand Canyon, a photograph of the two friends turning and turning and falling like a feather from the sky.

Click to view Thelma and Louise – Ending Scene

[with a ditch line in front of them and cops behind them]
Thelma Dickerson: OK, then listen; let’s not get caught.
Louise Sawyer: What’re you talkin’ about?
Thelma Dickerson: Let’s keep goin’!
Louise Sawyer: What d’you mean?
Thelma Dickerson: …Go.
Thelma Dickerson: [Thelma nods ahead of them]
Louise Sawyer: You sure?
Thelma Dickerson: Yeah.

I reached for my seatbelt to double check it was securely fastened. The radio was blaring, the cigarette smoke dancing, and Jeremiah was singing:

Hey, now ya’ know
Inhale, exhale with my flow
One for the money, two for the…

And then I noticed a huge ditch line at the back of the parking lot that casually adjoined an embankment. I thought to myself, Oh shit!

I looked at Jeremiah and to let him know that we were about to go jetting through a ditch line at fifty-miles-per-hour, I said, “Jeremiah.”

Yes, I know. Something more immediate should have spilt from my lips. It probably was not the best first thing to say in order to aware someone that you are about to be involved in a car accident, but God had pressed the play button and we were no longer on pause. Time was moving at its normal pace. And then in fast forward. And “Jeremiah” was about all I had time to blurt out.

Jeremiah looked at me and said, “Wh—” and at that very moment before he got the “-at” out to end his reply, I think he honest-to-goodness realized he had put the turn signal on prematurely.

SLAM!

WHOP!

CRASH!

Just like the colorful callouts in the original Batman episodes with Adam West.

We collided with the ditch. The airbags deployed. We smashed into the hill that adjoined the stacked mound of grass and dirt. Hubcaps retreated. Our car crippled, we flung our metal carriage through the last ditch and then managed to land back on the road, Country Road, the same road we were supposed to be driving down in the first place.

“Are you okay, man? Are you okay,” I said to Jeremiah in panic.

A cloud of powder from the airbags circulated throughout the car. On the driver’s side floorboard a cigarette glowed orange.

My left arm had slammed against the windshield and slightly cut open my left elbow and scraped my forearm. My scar from the Gilliam shed window I had broken out as a kid began to bleed and a small amount of blood trickled down toward my wrist. The car was the scene of what looked to be a baby powder fight. The powder from the airbags was suffocating.

I was coughing.

Jeremiah was coughing.

And Snoop Dogg was singing, “It Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None).”

The airbags had chalked up both of our faces. If I had to throw out a combination of words as to what Jeremiah and I looked like when Jeremiah hit the interior light then I would have to say—and this is because of the airbag powder on our faces I may add—that we looked like drag queen circus clowns with a bad coke habit and a bad aim at putting the coke up our nostrils.

I felt like I should be panning for change outside of a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus act come to town. I felt like Jeremiah ought to be right beside me juggling with a monkey resting atop his shoulder—a white-fronted Capuchin monkey named Larry with an asparagus stalk dangling from his bottom lip. I’m sure some animal rights protester would object; but Jeremiah and I would tell them that Larry loves our traveling circus act; and then, without notice, Larry would poo in his hand and throw it at the protester and giggle…

The two of us stepped out of Jeremiah’s black Thunderbird, dazed. Jeremiah looked at me and said, apparently gazing in the direction of an imaginary car and not the one that stood before us, “You think we can make it home alright still?”

I thought airbag powder must have been clogging my ears.

The black Thunderbird, once a fierce machine on the Charlotte County highway, its-terrifying-to-spectators pink racing stripe down the side, though it had now been in a wreck, still had a believer in its capabilities. His name was Jeremiah and he had lost his damn mind.

Or at least banged his head against the steering wheel when we hit the ditch to jar his intellectual capabilities.

I cannot remember my exact words but I believe they were somewhere along the line of, “I think we should probably go back to Gary’s and call someone,” which was immediately followed by a sense of panic that the cops were going to come, tow Jeremiah’s car, and arrest Jeremiah for drinking and driving, reckless endangerment, and me for underage drinking.

The wreck had miraculously sobered me—at least mentally. I could have passed an Algebra II test at that moment and it took me three years in high school to pass an Algebra II test.

Then Jeremiah replies with something else I will never forget: “Nah, I’m good. I can make it home if we just go slow.”

It was a common reply on a trashy talk show like Ricki Lake or Jerry Springer for a guest to come back with, “Oh no you didn’t” and that is exactly what went through my head as if on cue from the producer of one of these trashy talk shows.

Jeremiah tried to plead his case. He tried to tell me that he was okay to drive and his car fine but my mind was made up. Driving back home was no longer a good idea, not an option for this passenger.

Jeremiah looked at the car, looked at me, breathed in the last of his cigarette, exhaled the smoke, and then flicked the butt into the road.

“You’re right. Maybe it isn’t such a good idea. Let’s go back to Gary’s.”

So, the two of us got back into the Thunderbird, buckled our seatbelts, and putted and bounced and hopped our way back to my cousin Gary’s house. It was like riding in a horse and carriage on a road made of seashells. My window was down and I could hear the hubcap on the passenger side attempting to fall off into the road and roll away into the tree line.

Please don’t let a cop pass us. Please don’t let a cop pass us.

My dad is going to kick my ass. My dad is going to kick my ass.

When we arrived at Gary’s minutes later, I called my sister, Jennifer, at my parent’s house. She was in from college for the weekend and most likely asleep and in bed. It was 2:45 AM, after all.

Naturally, since I prayed with all my heart for my sister to pick up the telephone and not my mom, my mom indeed answered the phone.

My mom sounded alert as ever.

She has a freakish ability to do this, no matter the time. Honestly, it is weird. She never sounds groggy and she was definitely asleep when the phone rang and probably had been since 8:00 PM.

I asked my mom to give my sister the phone because I needed to talk to her. I didn’t tell my sister what had happened—the wreck and all. I just made it clear that Jeremiah and I needed a ride home. My sister came and picked both of us up. The next day, Jeremiah had his car towed from Gary’s place. Granted, it isn’t until now that I ever considered what Gary must have thought when he woke up and looked out of his window, only to see Jeremiah’s car busted to pieces and us nowhere in sight.

I believe Jeremiah’s dad, Johnnie, was onto our “someone ran us out of the road” story, as was my dad; but I am not sure still to this day that Jeremiah’s mom, Maryann, or my mom, have the faintest idea of what happened that night. I would like to think Maryann figured it out eventually, but my mom has not a clue of the truth, nor will she ever because even if I let her read this one day, this part will be edited from her copy.

Censored.

Absentis.



A few days passed. Jeremiah’s car sat in the shop being looked over by a local grease monkey in Charlotte Court House. Upon final inspection, the garage gave Jeremiah’s residence a ring on the telephone to give the full report of the damage done. (Let us keep in mind again that night Jeremiah still wanted to drive home after the wreck)

What was the damage?

Two broken axles and the car was completely totaled.

The mechanic told Johnnie the car was caput and he would haul it to the junkyard for him. Johnnie asked to have the car towed back to their house first.

When the wrecker brought Jeremiah’s car back to his house a few days later, I met Jeremiah in his front yard. We inspected the black Thunderbird and attempted to take in fully all of what we saw: our invincibility tested, our lives salvaged.

The rims on the wheels were busted. Two wheels were sunken. Because of the broken axles and two flat tires, the car drooped to one side, slouched as if an elderly man with bad posture or scoliosis. That or somebody born with a short leg. I knew a kid like that once. The front windshield was a spider web of cracks (which is why, when driving back to Gary’s, Jeremiah navigated the road by poking his head out of the driver’s side window).

The two of us peered inside the car for a closer look. The black seats were covered in a haze of white powder from the airbags, which lay deflated over the steering wheel and in the passenger’s seat. The furious Ford appeared as if it had been used in the Battle of Kursk, July 1943.

The Red Army victorious!

In the distance of Belgorod smoked a faithful battering ram with a badge of honor now headed to an aluminum and alloy grave.

“I’m glad you told me not to drive home,” Jeremiah said, his eyes still fixed on the black Thunderbird.

“Yeah, me too. Say, why did your dad have the car towed back here?”

“I think he wants me to take it all in. My piss poor decision. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t buy the story.”

“My dad either.”


Whenever I begin to feel bad about the sorry state of my memory, I like to consider the Borges story “Funes the Memorious.” The titular character, Ireneo Funes, “suffers” from having an outlandishly excellent memory–so good he has to hide himself away in a dark room, so all the intricate detail of his own experience won’t haunt him forever.

In the story, Funes essentially loses the ability to understand abstraction and generalization, because he’s so mired in the particular. He becomes a kind of monster, inhuman. Truly, it’s a redeeming story for those of us with sieves for a mind. Memory can be a disability.

It is an interesting story because it’s a Borges story, of course, but it’s always been of particular interest to me because my memory has always been so terrible. I’ll often forget a certain word–even quite common words–or name, and in the process of trying to remember, forget even those word clusters around it that should be helping me remember. It’s as though my forgetfulness is a metastasizing tumor that feeds on my will to recall. The harder I try, the more I forget.

So, as anyone with any self-esteem would do, I’ve sought to find a silver lining, something about my forgetfulness that will save me from feeling like an absolute failure. My solution–whether reasonable or not–has been to associate forgetfulness with fiction. More specifically, to associate the capacity to forget, with the ability to create. Nice trick, huh? (Of course, as a teen, this impulse also resulted in a whole lot of lying, but that’s a different post.)

I wonder how many other fiction writers suffer from bad memories.

When my father and mother met in 1957, he gave her a fake name. John LaSalle, he called himself, claiming he was visiting from New York to help out a friend who had just opened a bar and needed an experienced hand. He was only in Chicago for a few weeks, he claimed, so obviously he wasn’t looking for anything “serious.” This was, apparently, good enough for her.

My mother was twenty-five, which seems preposterously young in 2009, but in 1957 most of her girlhood friends were already married with children in elementary school, whereas my mother lived alone in a studio on Rush Street, occasionally singing and playing piano in jazz clubs (though she could not read music), working as a secretary by day, and sometimes falling into pits of depression she describes as “black periods,” in which she wrote morose poetry full of lines like “the faltering foot of man who wades/into the guideless brew” and “go my chain.” She had, though you were not supposed to admit it in those days, been through her share of men, including a broken engagement in her late teens. She had traveled the country with two traveling salesmen who dined on steak and made her eat burgers, selling No-Doze machines to truck stops. In California, she had briefly worked as a ballroom dance instructor and been so poor she lived on Hershey bars, but now she was back in Chicago, where she had been raised, with a stable job. Though not thin by today’s standards, my mother was a beautiful woman, with a striking resemblance to a young Isabella Rossellini. Her boobs were something to behold. A semi-famous actor once tried to acquire her as a mistress, but she was not cut out for that life. She had too rigid a moral center, or too much fear, or both, to her betterment or her detriment.

Though this is not ostensibly “about” my mother, I guess what I’m trying to say is that she, while not perfect, was in my father’s estimations “above his station.” Even now that she is seventy-seven, he seems unclear what exactly she is doing with the likes of him . . . though as with most men, this does not mean he has always treated her well. Besides his lacking hair and being older, my father had never lived outside Chicago or even graduated from the eighth grade. More importantly, he was shy to a fault whereas my mother was—and still is—the type of person almost everyone immediately likes. She is outgoing and palpably kind, and she asks a lot of questions (which seem polite and interested if you don’t know her well, albeit bordering on Inquisitional if you know her very, very well.) She’s easy-going and accommodating, avoiding confrontation as though it were a venomous snake coiled at her heel, but that her eternal optimism makes her believe she can easily sidestep and outrun. In public in their early days, she was taken perpetually for his daughter: a mistake they milked with rare and comic perversity.

Yet for all her smiles and pleasantries, my mother is a deeply secretive, easily wounded person who prefers getting to know others to being known herself. She had always been popular as a teen, and into her early twenties—a party girl who won a contest for the prettiest legs; who danced on car roofs in the rain with other bawdy young girls and lived in apartments with a string of roommates . . . but by her mid-twenties, many of those friendships had faded away. Her relationships (platonic and romantic) seemed based more on surface fun than true intimacy, so by the time she met my father in 1957, she was acutely lonely, though she may not have put it that way, or even realized it. She was, as they say, “ripe.”

They met on a blind date. A friend of my dad’s (who was, incidentally, an ex boyfriend of my mom’s) gave him her number after my father chauvinistically proclaimed that women knew nothing about jazz—the fellow said my mother could give him a run for his money. So they met at a coffee shop at two in the morning, because that was when my father got off work. Their conversation lasted into morning, when they moved to the restaurant across the street for breakfast. Afterwards, I am fairly sure they adjourned to my mother’s apartment for sex, though I was (thank god) never told this explicitly. Certainly, they could not have gone to my father’s place, as he lived with his parents in the same small two-bedroom in which he’d been born, in a rundown Italian neighborhood far from glamorous Rush Street. My mother, of course, did not know this. She did not even know he was Italian—which, if you have ever seen my father’s nose, does not speak highly of her powers of observation. When a couple of weeks later, my mother once called him at his “friend’s” bar to tell him she’d be late for their date, she was told there was “no John LaSalle” there, but that the owner, John Frangello, might know who he was and where to find him.

Hence, my father’s ass was busted—my mother recognized his voice and slammed down the phone in fury. Later that night, my father showed up at her door with champagne and cheeseburgers, and for reasons lost to history yet eternal among lonely women in any time, my mother forgave him.

Four years later, they married. If they are both still living in August 2011, it will be their fiftieth wedding anniversary. My father would be eighty-nine.

Two quick details about their courtship, just because:

1) They not only met based on a lie of identity, but married based on one. In order to snag my mother a vacation from work—her boss was rather smitten with her and never gave her any time off—my parents told the man that they were going on a honeymoon to Europe. Only once the other secretaries at her office threw her a shower and gave her presents did my mother realize that everyone would expect her to come back from vacation with a new surname. She had two options: quit her job, or get married. As an Executive Secretary, her position was a coveted one for a girl with no college degree, so it seemed a shame to lose it. “Well then,” my father said, “we’d better get married,” and off to City Hall they went.

2) My father had a predilection for oral sex and was obsessed with giving it to my mother. (Why my mother told me this would obviously be fodder for another post, entitled “Too Much Information: Shit My Mother Told Me That I Never Needed to Know,” but there it is.)

But again, as this is not the story of my mother, neither is it the story of their dating years, their sex life or—later—the lack thereof. Those are stories that are fun, or at least funny, to tell, and that I have explored somewhat in my fiction. Today, however, is my father’s 88th birthday. And so, perhaps, this is a harder story to tell: one that eludes me even as I am beginning it. The story of how you get from point A to point Y. This is a story of knowing point Z—end point—is hovering nearby, forever around the corner, yet not precisely when it will hit. The story of the wild ride, and when, sometimes, that ride goes on without you, long after you are nauseated from the curves and would simply rather get off.

How do you tell a story like that? Apparently, here, you start with the easy stuff. You start off slow, and hope that somehow you can circle things around just enough to create a pastiche, a collage, a portrait that resembles a whole, even if it can never be exactly complete.

“Getting old is a kick in the ass, honey,” my father told me when he was maybe seventy. By then, he had already outlived all his brothers spare one (long dead now), as well as his parents and most of his male friends—old customers from his bar or other bar owners, musicians, or occasional Mobsters whom alcoholism, drug use, high blood pressure or violent lifestyles got killed early. His fifties and sixties were full of wakes, and by the time he entered his seventies, he was already a Last Man Standing of sorts. When our longtime neighbor, reputed Mob boss Joe Lombardo, was let out of prison in the late 1980s, he drove by my father’s house honking his horn and waving, making a loud show of his “respect” for my father, one of the neighborhood patriarchs.

Every night my father dreams of his dead brothers. His dreams are full of barren, frozen grounds and solitary old men, dragged off by hostile crowds in the back of carts. His dreams are full of death imagery and ghosts. He never dreams of me or my mother. In his dream life, he has been standing alone for nearly two decades now.

“The show’s over,” he’s been telling us for years. And then, in the next breath, looking at my daughters, age 9, “I wish I could be around to see them get married.”

Where am I going with this? Where am I going?

I have given myself the week to figure it out. This is the thing about “youth,” even middle-aged-youth: I can still believe in the luxury of time. And so I’ll try again tomorrow.

My Lacunae

By J.E. Fishman

Memoir


Thirty-five years ago, when I was twelve years old, my mother died.

There was a service, of course, people crammed into funeral parlor rooms, embracing one another, sharing sorrow, then filing into the big cold chapel to hear the eulogy.  I think I feel those things in my memory more than see them.

Of the funeral I remember only two things specifically.  One: through tears exchanging embarrassed uncomfortable grins with a neighborhood friend, Gerry, who’d arrived with his family to pay respects.  Two: my oldest cousin, Alan, clutching the edge of the curtain that half-hid my mother’s polished walnut coffin and weeping quietly into his knuckles until someone pulled him away.

That’s all I can retrieve today, and nothing comes to mind from the burial, though I’m sure I accompanied my father to the cemetery.

At the house, afterwards, I recall but a few things: the visitors striding in and out; the torn black ribbons we were made to wear, representing the rending of clothing; and the sturdy cardboard boxes with their tacky faux wood grain that the more observant in the immediate family chose to sit on, another of those ancient Jewish rituals made slightly ridiculous by modernity.

My most specific recollection is of my mother’s mother, Grandma Bella, crying endlessly and beating her thigh so raw with grief that someone had to put a pillow there.  Esther, my mother, had been her youngest child.

The fragmentation of these memories seems explicable, there being no telling how a young mind will respond to immediate emotional trauma.  But what’s more puzzling is that I have always seemed to possess many fewer childhood memories in general than other people I know.  It didn’t help, I’m sure, that I fell out of touch with all of my boyhood friends — no one around to remind me regularly of that time we did this or that.  And the age difference with my sister (who was a toddler when my mother died) is so severe that we were practically born in separate generations, didn’t really travel through life together until much later.  So some memory aids were absent for me.  But, still: not to recall more than a few experiences with a mother who took me nearly to the teenage years?  To be unable to recollect more than a couple dozen events from my first decade of life?

Then, three years ago, I picked up Barron’s magazine and saw a profile of a man who had been my best friend growing up.  So many years had passed — more than two decades, by my reckoning — that I had to read deep to confirm that it was indeed the same Michael, despite a half-page picture accompanying the article.  I called him and we chatted for a long time.  The reminiscences were not equally evoked, however.  He did most of the talking about our shared past, reminding me of things we’d done and people we’d known, the majority of whom had faded to thin shadows in the recesses of my mind.

When I signed up for Facebook a couple of years later, I tapped Michael as my institutional memory.  Someone who sounded vaguely familiar would offer to “friend” me, and I’d email Michael: How did I know this person?  Were we ever close?

You don’t remember? — he’d write back sometimes.  You played touch football with that kid every week for five years!

I wish I could say that prompts of this nature brought it all forth, but most of my recollections remained barely perceptible ghosts.  Then, one day, I received a Facebook email from a guy named Bob who sounded familiar, though I couldn’t locate his story in my memory file.  He attached a one-word note to his “friend” request: “Scribbler?”

I thought: I’m not famous.  How the hell does he know I’m a writer? I called Michael.  He had no idea what “scribbler” referred to, but he reminded me that I’d known Bob in elementary school, before he transferred to a private high school in the next town.

So I accepted Bob’s friendship request, and he immediately sent a follow-up that startled me.  It said, “When I think back on my early years, you are foremost in my memories” — yet I could scarcely attach his image, now seen in a photo album or two online, to any of my recollections!  He went on to remind me that we’d played a pair of mice on stage in the fourth grade.  Bob was Nibbler and I was…Scribbler.

That’s when it flooded back: the little spiral-bound pad I’d held, pretending to jot notes as a mouse reporter; the big pink cardboard ears; the sweatshirt and sweatpants that made me gray; and the tail — the tail!  I sat in front of the computer with my eyes closed and saw my mother like it was yesterday, bending the wire hangers that gave the tail body, sitting in our den and meticulously, lovingly wrapping that wire with electrical tape.

Maybe she reached up and tugged on my hood and said, “Let me look at you.”  Or was that my brain playing tricks?  No matter.  I felt the tears welling.

Fourth grade — the two of us, I now conclude, alive in innocence.  Not both equally innocent, of course, she being then in her mid thirties, but equally oblivious of what was to come.  For scarcely two years later she would depart this world and leave her family behind.  And, in so doing, she would create inadvertently not only a sense of loss but a loss of memory in her son, my mind apparently having blocked out the pain with great inefficiency, blotting away whole swaths of my childhood, as if they never happened, though I know that of course they must have.

There is a word, now used mostly academically, for gaps that we know must once have been filled.  They call them lacunae, which shares the same Latin root as lake.  It’s an association that made little sense to me before, but now it does.  Having reeled in Scribbler, perhaps I’ll go fishing in the lake of lost recollections, see what else I can bring to the surface.

Six Chambers

By Matthew Baldwin

Essay

On a late spring day in 2001 my sister’s drug-dealing ex-boyfriend crashed the pool party she was throwing at our house in the suburbs and shot two people on our front porch. He used a small, snub-nosed revolver from a distance of less than ten feet, firing off all six rounds. Five of them hit their mark.

This isn’t my story. I wasn’t even there; I was in the final year of my undergraduate studies at the University of California, Riverside, living in my own apartment and diligently working on my senior thesis. I’ve struggled to tell it before, as fiction, in poetry, by inserting myself into the narrative as a character, but it felt disingenuous then, and it feels disingenuous now. I don’t even know most of the people involved, and what details I have stem from one or two eyewitness accounts and a brief glimpse at the police report. And yet, even though I wasn’t present for these events, I cannot deny they’ve had an effect on me.

I will try to tell it as best I can.

*****

What I know is this: Daniel and my sister had been broken up for a few weeks, and he was having so much trouble letting go she was forced to get a restraining order. He turned up at the house drunk, and very likely tweaking on crystal meth as well. Accounts conflict as to whether the gun was hidden in the waistband of his jeans or the back pocket, but whatever his intentions were when he let himself into the empty house, he came packing. He wandered through to the backyard, where twenty or so of my sister’s friends had been drinking cheap beer and doing cannonballs off our diving board for a few hours, and immediately got into a shouting match with my sister. I don’t know what was said exactly, but I do know that when Daniel refused to leave several of the guys at the party took it upon themselves to escort him back out front, using their presence as a crowd to shepherd him. At first it worked; he went willingly, if begrudgingly.

No one thought to call the police.

When they made it to the front yard things changed. Maybe someone said something to provoke him, maybe some faulty synapse in his little tweaker brain misfired, but whatever the reason Daniel went on the offensive, drawing the gun and threatening the crowd with it, even though he had a clear path of escape to his truck.

Alcohol and adrenaline combined create a potent brew for stupidity, and after a second or so of shocked paralysis, one of the partygoers decided to do an extremely brave and absolutely foolish thing: he launched himself forward in an attempt at a flying tackle, but being drunk, only managed to stumble and get Daniel around the ankles.

Daniel shot him four times at point-blank range, opening up angry red blossoms in his chest, stomach, pelvis and thigh. He then fired the last two rounds into the crowd, apparently at random. One shot struck someone in the forehead, but the thick bone deflected the bullet sideways instead of allowing it to pass through. It opened up the skin of his right temple like a seam, right down to the skull. He was concussed and bleeding badly, but alive. Before anyone could do anything else, the now-unarmed Daniel fled in his truck.

My sister’s girlfriends kept her hidden in the house while this went down, and I think it was one of them who finally decided that calling for emergency services might be a good idea.

The aftermath was—perhaps unavoidably—anticlimactic. Both victims survived their injuries, though the first one spent the better part of the week in the ICU. When the police searched Daniel’s apartment, they found no sign of his drug activities aside from a misdemeanor amount of marijuana (he likely went straight there after the shooting and cleaned everything out; I would’ve). After two days as a wanted man Daniel surrendered to the police, and because he’s half Mexican and a fluent Spanish speaker, he was considered a high flight risk and denied bail by the court. It was months before the case went to trial, and when it did Daniel got off with a slap on the wrist; since he plead guilty to a charge of attempted manslaughter, had been a model inmate in the county lockup, and hadn’t actually killed anyone, the judge sentenced him to a couple of year’s probation, with credit for time already served. He walked, though the restraining order remained in effect.

The blood of the two shooting victims left stains on the pavement of our porch and front walkway.

We never figured out where that sixth bullet went.

*****

I look at these words here, that I’ve written and rewritten, and I don’t know what to make of them. I do not know how to respond to the knowledge that this happened, that this violence brought itself to our very doorstep to further mar the home where I spent the majority of my childhood, even though by that point I was already gone, having deliberately distanced myself from the unhappiness that already resided there.

What they don’t tell you about a gunshot is that the impact doesn’t just strike in the here and now, it ripples backwards in time to damage the past. A bullet wounds not only flesh, but memory as well.

None of us live there anymore. Once her divorce from my stepfather was final my mother sold the house, and she and my sister found new places to live. I finished my degree in Riverside and moved to New Orleans for graduate school. But the karate studio I teach at now is in the same neighborhood, and from time to time I pass by the house. When I do this is always the first thing I think of.

It’s the damndest thing. As I say, I wasn’t there, and yet the mind is a tricky machine; it combines this information with the knowledge I already possess to create the synthesis of a memory, one that I can turn and walk through, moment by moment, room by room. I know the exact path Daniel walked from our front door to the back. Though I didn’t know any of my sister’s friends at the time (she and I have always sailed different social seas), I knew the kind of people she hung out with, and my imagination fills in the details: their baggy shorts and sideways ball caps, cans of Bud Lite and crumpled packets of Marlboros. I know the crack of the shots and the smell of cordite; I’ve seen gunshot wounds up close and personal, and will never again require my imagination to recreate them.

By happenstance, I was in town that weekend, taking a brief respite from the rigors of my thesis by attending a friend’s barbeque. I first learned about the shooting when the ten o’clock news ran a report on it. The reporter stood just down the street from our house, but out of the corner of the frame you could see the yellow police tape marking off our lawn. I remember feeling a riot of emotions when I saw that: fear, anger, worry, and even guilt that I hadn’t been there to do something about it.

But not surprise.

I think I’d been expecting something like this to happen for a long time.

I met Daniel once or twice, and wasn’t impressed. When we were in high school my sister’s taste in boyfriends always ran towards bad boys, the kinds of knuckle-dragging aggro meatheads who spent their spare time either in detention or on the lookout for things to stuff firecrackers into and watch explode, and Daniel was no exception. It was only a matter of time before one of these troglodytes engaged in some spectacular criminal violence.

No one knew about the drug dealing, though; my sister took pains to hide that from us, even after they’d broken up. She also hid his fondness for firearms. I’ve thought about that gun a lot during my attempts to write this. I cannot imagine what Daniel was planning on doing with it. It would be too easy to write it off as junky behavior, but I think that’s a fallacy. High or not, he had the foresight to load it, bring it, and to conceal it when he came inside. Was he intending to force my sister to take him back at gunpoint? Did he anticipate a shootout with some of the other people at the party? My sister had told him about my martial arts training–was one of those rounds meant for me, in case I was there and caused him trouble?

I don’t know. I doubt I ever will.

One thing I can say, though, is that this episode forever ended any infatuation I had with firearms. I’m not looking to overturn the Second Amendment or outlaw the NRA, but I sure as shit don’t want a gun anywhere near me. I refuse to allow them into my home, and any invitation to go down to a gun range and fire off a few rounds is met with a firm “no, thanks.” And I reject, whole cloth, the entire notion that they are in some way “for defense.” The act of penetrating a human body with explosively-propelled bits of metal is designed to be fatal, and there is nothing defensive about that. As far as I am concerned, a gun is the unearned power to take the life of another human being, available for purchase far, far too cheaply.

We’ve reached the end here, and I still don’t know what to make of this. I don’t know how to articulate the emotions this stirs up. I’m angry, and I want to be angry, I believe this anger is deserved, but I do not know where to direct it. My sister, for all her lapses in judgment, did everything in her power to push Daniel out of her life, and it isn’t her fault he clawed his way back in. Daniel has long since disappeared; if there’s any justice in the world he was picked up for another violation and is now doing time. I suppose this could be thought of as a warning, about how we sometimes invite those people most dangerous to us into the innermost areas of our lives, even though–because–we know they might very well cause us harm. We’re moths in a world of candle flames.

But that doesn’t really help. I’m still angry. Angry because, eight years on, those bloodstains are still there, enduring all of the effects of time and weather, of bleach and scrub brush.

And in my mind, they always will be.