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Oklahoma, he said in his mind, two long os, two short as, and wanted to know if there would be anyone to whom he could disclose, ever, the tenderness of his feelings, in all their callowness, when he said this word.

Salvatore Scibona, The End

 

O

O is for Oktaha, Okemah, and Okmulgee, small yellow towns with tall water towers and low-lit diners where the cheerleaders still gather after the game.

O is for Oolagah, a name like a spell, where Will Rogers once said he’d never met a man he didn’t like. “When you meet people,” he said, “why, after you meet them, and see their angle, why, you can see a lot of good in all of them.” He died when his plane crashed in an Alaskan lagoon at the apex of August. The pilot was Wiley Post, a famed barnstormer with one good eye, but he wasn’t ours, he was a Texan. Amber Valetta went to my high school; Gap Band Avenue is just down the street. You can sing Mmmbop and I can sing mmmbop, and the Hanson boys still live in Tulsa, where they lived, too, in 2001. Were they homeschooling that fall, or were they on tour when the towers fell? Did they think, like I did, how lucky we were to live nowhere, how no one could ever want to hurt us, not aliens, not invaders, of course not terrorists. I’d forgotten already how Timothy McVeigh parked a truck on a Wednesday afternoon two hours west of Tulsa, a truck meant to go nowhere but everywhere, its cargo nitromethane.

Flood

I was living in Hesperia right up the street from the California Aqueduct which served as my recreation. For the five months I lived there I’d run the paths that ran along side the dark water. I put miles on those paths glancing at the Mariana Mountains—running passed bugs and lizards and the tiny green ripples that were slowly making their way to L.A.

After my run I’d spend time sitting under the Cottonwood Bridge reading or watching the water roll passed me. Sure, it wasn’t the salty view of the Pacific Ocean or feeling the rush of the ice-cold mountain water that made up the Merced River, but it was water nonetheless. Memories flooded my head pulling me through the years as I watched the swirling pools; the ripping desert wind that picked up the water and turned it white; the crows caw, caw, caw towards Rancho Cucamonga.

At the time I was reading Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation. The original owner of the book fell into a quasi-depression halfway into it, had enough whining and bitching, and gave it to me not knowing in the past I had a serious bout of depression that crippled me under the neon lights of Las Vegas. I opened up the book and read the chapters. The prologue read I Hate Myself and Want to Die. One chapter was titled Love Kills. Another read Black Wave. Another read Woke Up This Morning Afraid I Was Gonna Live. Great, I thought, another brooding writer. But I figured my dreary I-hate-myself-and-want-to-die days were so far behind me I’d be safe cracking open the book and reading about someone else’s misery.

I took the book under the bridge and started reading.

Weed

When I was a kid my dad would take me down to the L.A. River. This was his recreation along with smoking pot, selling pot, and drinking Budweiser. Him and my equally fucked up uncle and his three smudged kids and me would climb high into the tiny black widow and rat infested sewers and come sliding down into its nasty piss and shit water. They would scream with glee as they slipped to the bottom where they howled in celebration. This was supposed to be fun. I protested telling my stoned father that I didn’t want to go. But he didn’t listen to me—something that would be thematic throughout our decaying relationship. Almost every Friday night after my father and uncle finally peaked on beer and weed we’d make the trek down Monterey Road through Arroyo Seco Park to the river and do it all over again.

Sandra Bernhard

The aqueduct is full of life. Fish. Lizards. Bugs. Snakes. Squirrels. But the main attraction is the birds. Packs of various types of ducks waddle up and down the water. Mallard ducks with their gorgeous green heads scoot over the water, dip their heads in the water for food, crane their necks 180 degrees and pinch at their backs. There are these small crane-like birds that usually sit high on the wires that are draped along and across the aqueduct. Then they glide down into the water and land like an airplane. When they lift off they fly just over the water at a perfectly measured high speed. It’s quite a sight. But my favorite is this brown duck whose head is graced with wild wispy rust-orange feathers that make it the craziest looking bird in the aqueduct. And it’s the loudest. Every time I saw this duck it was making noise. It’s crazy-looking and loud.

A feathered Sandra Bernhard.

And then you have the crows. They come in the hundreds and litter the landscape in black. Always pecking at the dirt. Always hopping around. Always looking off in the distance for some action. Always in the air hovering, swooping, and landing. Always, always, always. Caw, caw, caw. They’re tenacious, they’re beautiful, and the desert is theirs.

Fish and Whiskey

The fishermen showed up early in the morning. They usually drove trucks or SUVs. I’d watch them as they methodically took out their fishing gear, cigarettes burning and dangling from their mouths, sunglasses, vests infested with pockets. They’d come in all sizes, all ages. Skinny ones. Fat ones. Young ones with baseball caps and old ones in tattered bucket hats stabbed with hooks and lures. I saw many of the same ones day after day, week after week. Some of them I saw from the time I moved in to the time I packed up and left for Los Angeles. They usually had a regular spot, parking their gear where they did the day before and the day before that. They’d set up camp just as methodically as they did when they unloaded their gear. Blanket. Poles. Tackle box. Cooler. Some even set up overhead tents sheltering them from the white desert heat.

There was one fisherman that fished right down from where I used to read. After a few friendly hellos I learned his name to be Gene. Gene was somewhere in his sixties and came from Oklahoma. Tall. Big feet. Bony. Nervous rattling hands and deep blue-gray eyes. He was a Vietnam vet—had stickers telling you this fact plastered all over the back of his scuffed Ford Ranger. One day after he refilled his flask he asked me what I was reading. I told him.

“Depressed woman, huh? Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ve been married twice and have been around the world as least six times. They’re all depressed,” he said, looking over the water.

This got a laugh out of me.

“You like that? Well, I have more where that comes from.”

Over the weeks we got to know each other. He usually showed up high on booze and continued to get high with his luckless pole in his hands. Despite the fact that Gene had an abundance of nice shiny gear and brand new fishing clothes he rarely caught anything. He always had a bucket full of water to hold his catches. I’d always peek in the bucket to see what the day brought. After hearing me comment one too many times that he hadn’t caught anything he’d just give me the update as soon as I walked up.

“No need to look in that fuckin’ bucket, Reno. All the fish are in that goddamn water.”

“Bucket’s empty. Like our government.”

One day there were two fish in the bucket. I walked up.

“Well, go on. Take a look,” he slurred, jutting his chin towards the bucket. “Look and weep, buster. It’s dinner time.”

I looked in the bucket and saw two little green fish. They didn’t look like they’d make one taco. But I didn’t want to piss on the party.

“All right, man! Cook those dudes up.”

Around the same time I finished the book Gene was leaving for a couple of months traveling around the country and then heading back home to Oklahoma to visit his family. He had a tumultuous relationship with his family and this visit was going to serve as the last, that he wasn’t ever going to go back, that he was going to try and bury the ghosts that hovered over his folks and his siblings and come back to California clean. It was the last time I would ever see Gene again.

“It’s time,” he said, taking a hit from his flask. “It’s time.”

Mis Hijos

The legend of La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, is a story of a grieving woman who is found lurking around a body of water mourning and wailing the loss of her drowned children. Like many legends there are different versions of La Llorona whose origins can be linked to La Malinche the Indian interpreter and lover to Cortes. In the La Malinche version of La Llorona she drowns her children because Cortes abandons her for a high-bred Spanish woman. In another version she drowns her children so she could pursue another lover. In some versions she dies of old age. In other versions she commits suicide after drowning her children.

Growing up in East Los Angeles the L.A. River served as the stage for La Llorona. It was in the L.A. River where she drowned her kids and where she cried for them walking up and down its concrete banks. The version I was told served as a cautionary tale. I was told that if I misbehaved she was going to come in the middle of the night and take me away. As a kid I was petrified of this ghostly woman, cloaked in a flowing white gown, cold hands, cold eyes, and who wanted nothing better than to take me down to the river and drown me.

Ophelia died in water. So did Narcissus. Either by negligence or by accident, the California Aqueduct has served as a final resting place for some. Workers have died building or maintaining it. People have fallen in the aqueduct only to be swept away by its deceptive speed. Cars have spilled into it. Some have committed suicide in the aqueduct. The body of my high school track coach was found in the aqueduct. Mr. Byers was a good man and when I heard the news of his death I was devastated. He was my coach for two years.

“You know, Romero,” he told me after our last track meet of the season. “You were always my favorite on the relay team. Man, you owned that bend. I loved watching you run.”

Those were the last words he would ever say to me.

I don’t know if Mr. Byers took his life. There were rumors that he did. I don’t know. There were many times I sat under the bridge and wondered what happened to him on that sad day. The water knows. But it’s not saying a word.

I was sitting under the bridge finishing the last few pages of Prozac Nation when a grasshopper landed on the concrete in front of me. It wasn’t the typical beige grasshopper that buzzes over the desert’s hard dirt. This one was fully winged and electric-green. I lowered the book and watched him for a while and then went back to the book figuring that it would soon fly away. But it didn’t. It stayed there stretching out its legs. After a few minutes it climbed on my backpack and sat there for a while. I was reading when I heard it zip off and land in the water. I was confused. Do they do this for a reason? Could it easily take flight when it wanted to? Then I saw it struggling to get out of the water. It twisted in the water. Its back legs kicked feverishly. Then: snap. It was gone.

The aqueduct took another life.

Hard Eight

By Slade Ham

Memoir

Las Vegas would probably make my head explode.  I’ve been hiding in my hotel room as much as possible, huddled away safely distant from the blinking lights and the clanging bells of the casino floor beneath me.  I walked to the showroom earlier to see the layout, and then out to the pool to avoid the mile wide marketing ploys of my temporary employers, but now I have to go back down there.  I have a show tonight at one of the Choctaw Nation’s properties in Oklahoma.  The flashing neon flytrap I have to walk through to get to that show brings me mixed emotions.

Despite my own penchant for risky behavior, I am not a big gambler.  Blackjack amuses me because it offers the most control but poker is my only real temptation.  Even then, I prefer to stay out of the casino poker rooms and would much rather shuffle my chips amongst a group of friends.  It’s just such obviously orchestrated bullshit, the casino experience as a whole.  My job tonight is to make no bets at all.  Tell jokes, collect a check, soak in the hot tub, and go home.

It’s hard though.

Maddening patterns on the carpet floors keep your head up and moving.  Just when you focus on one thing, another thing blinks or pops out of the corner of your eye.  Look at this!  No this!  No that! Ancient, wrinkled women and men lie propped up, possibly deceased, against rows of slot machines.  The bars spin and stop, another loser.  Occasionally a distant bell signals a big winner, prolonging the myth of victory and encouraging the living dead to feed another twenty into the slot.  Somewhere a grandchild goes without college.

A man and woman pass me in hallway.  He is furious.  She is staring blankly ahead.  There aren’t enough lights in the world to distract her now, and even if they could, she has just cleaned out their bank account.  I know this because the man just said, “You realize that you cleaned out our entire motherfucking bank account, right?”  This poor guy.  God, have I been there.

He must be new at this.  He obviously hasn’t gone through it enough times yet to keep a separate, hidden account.  She still has access to his money.  You’re dating an obsessive gambler, I want to tell him.  You can’t share finances with her.  You have to hide your cash like Anne Frank at Oktoberfest, you dummy.  Believe me.  I know.

* * *

My ex was the queen of the casino.  Beaumont, Texas is a little city thirty minutes west of the Louisiana border.  Louisiana law makes it easy to gamble.  As long as a casino isn’t on actually land the government allows it so, scattered throughout the state are riverboats, perched inches away from shore and welcoming anyone that wants to lose a few dollars inside.

Table games are forced into the waterways but video poker is allowed everywhere.  There’s not a gas station or restaurant in the state that doesn’t have a series of eight-liners against one wall or another.  Brittany found them all.  She bet just to bet.  It was a compulsion.  She had VIP player’s cards at every one of the major casinos and the pit bosses all knew her by name.

I went with her for a while in the beginning, before I realized she had a problem.  I quit going the first time she bit me.  She had run out of money and thought she could somehow win back the six hundred dollars she had just blown – if I would only give her a twenty.  When I refused she leaned in and bit me, violently, then pickpocketed me while I inspected the wound.  She went on her own after that.

She would walk past security like the cast of Ocean’s Eleven.  I don’t remember if that ever happened in the movie or not, but I imagine it did, and encourage you to imagine it as well so my comparison will make sense.  Guards waved at her when she sauntered by and you could actually see wind blow through her hair in slow motion, even indoors.  Music played.  Employees greeted her by name.  She strode past the patrons at the five and ten dollar tables.  The common folk.  The riff raff.  Back to the high roller room, the casino staff practically carried her on their shoulders.  She wasn’t there to lose small amounts, dammit.  She was there to lose it all.

And this wasn’t a girl with a trust fund to squander or someone with a lawyer’s salary and a pricey vice.  Brittany was a waitress.  She took a week’s worth of tips and spun it into gold… before spinning it right back into nothing again.  It’s the gambler’s dilemma, not knowing when to stop.  Brittany was good.  Very good.  She just couldn’t quit while she was ahead.

My cell phone rang one morning at 8:00 am.  She had been gone for two days and was finally calling.  “I’m coming home,” she said.  “And you’re not going to believe this.”

She pulled up to the apartment in a shiny new black Chrysler Sebring.  “What happened to the Escort?” I asked.

“I left it at the dealership when I bought this one.’

“You bought a car?  At 8:00 am?”

“Yep.  Told the guy I’d give him a hundred bucks if he’d unlock the door and sell it to me.”

“So you won then?”

“Thirty-five thousand.  Blackjack.  It took a while and I’m tired.  I’m going to bed.  ‘Night.”

“Goodnight?  It’s morning,” I started to say, but she was already inside.

No wonder they loved her there.  She partied with reckless abandon, flinging hundred dollar chips around like quarters and almost certainly out-drinking and out-cussing everyone else at the table.  When she was on, she was on.  She never played it safe.  Blackjack, three card poker, craps, it didn’t matter.  Pass line?  No thanks.  Put it all on hard eight.

She fell asleep for a few hours and was back on the road to Louisiana almost immediately.  She shouldn’t have gone.  She should have quit.  Forever.  She had thirty-five thousand reasons to stop, yet twenty-four hours after her nap, she had not only lost every dollar from the day before, but an additional twenty thousand that the casino had given her as a marker.  She threw the money away like a crack head mother tossing out an unwanted baby.  It couldn’t have been gone faster if she’d put it directly into a dumpster.  It was staggering.

Casinos put signs up displaying a phone number to call if you have a gambling problem, but no one ever calls them.  It’s a drug, that feeling of victory.  Doubling down and getting your ten.  Splitting aces and watching them both hit.  Seeing the dealer draw to a bust.  It’s an incredible endorphin rush.  But it is still a drug.

Brittany would bet on just about anything.  That was almost the only way to get her to not go gambling – to bet her that she wouldn’t stay home.

* * *

So yes.  As I pass this girl in the hallway, I recognize the look.  The empty stare painted on the face of this now penniless zombie scares me a little bit.  It sends a ripple of goose bumps up my arm as I walk past.

“What are we going to do about Tommy?” she asks the pissed off guy walking ahead of her.

I don’t know who Tommy is, but I’m guessing he was relying on a portion of their bank account for something important.  He might be their son or her brother or a loan shark with an itchy trigger finger.

“Fuck Tommy,” says the man.  “We don’t even have enough gas to get home.”

As the two of them make their way down the hall to the exit, I turn my gaze to follow them.  Are they really just going to go stand outside by the car?  Maybe they’re going to walk home.  Maybe he will sell her into slavery for gas money.  I want to be sympathetic, but that guy has to learn his lesson sometime, doesn’t he?

Right now, I have my own set of problems.  I have to go into a room full of shattered financial dreams and empty wallets.  I have to stare at seats filled with broken souls taking advantage of a free show, probably the only thing they can still afford, and somehow figure out a way to make them laugh.

The casino wants the show clean, too.  I don’t work that dirty to begin with, but I still hate having the limitation thrown on my shoulders.  “Our customers have high moral values,” the manager tells me.  “They don’t use language like that.”  I laugh on the inside.

I can see them through the curtain from backstage.  The disappointment drips silently down their faces like frustrated molasses.  Arms crossed, they sit in the showroom, waiting.  We’re out of cash, their eyes tell me.  We’re beaten and we’re broke.  Now make us laugh, Chuckle Monkey.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that even the holiest of these people have uttered the word “fuck” once or twice in the last few hours.

I don’t particularly want to walk out there right now but I have to.  My opening act just said goodnight and I’m about to be introduced.  The music is playing.  They can’t be that bad, right?  This show is going to be fine, I tell myself.

And then my subconscious answers me.  “Wanna bet?”


This is part one of what I hope will be a semi-regular series covering a short period in my life when I was (sometimes concurrently) an inveterate partier, a sober kid, an imported, unhappy resident of the now beleaguered gulf coast, a GAP employee, a fiancee, a runaway bride, a psycho ex-girlfriend, an intranational hobo and, as you are about to read, the booker of the filthiest hotel in all of Lawton on what was most certainly the worst road trip of my life.


The expedition was doomed from the beginning.

A third of the way into a 15-hour trip–a trip undertaken in the evening on my father’s advice “to avoid traffic”–we were standing in the parking lot of a truck stop in West Des Moines at midnight, arguing across the top of the sedan I’d borrowed from my parents.

We were fighting over whether or not someone should stay awake with the driver, and my best friend and boyfriend were united against me.

I didn’t want anyone falling asleep at the wheel.  In my head, the only outcome that mattered was the very worst one I could think of.  That and getting my way.

They both wanted to be able to sleep whenever they weren’t driving.


Evy said it was “fuckin’ stupid, Becky” for two people to sit awake when it only takes one to drive.  Kerry started out diplomatically, trying to assuage my fears, but he quickly became impatient listening to two 19 year-old girls scream at each other to “stop being such a baby!” and “stop being such a bitch!”

It was the culmination of an argument that began somewhere in southern Minnesota and persisted, off and on, most of the way to that point.  Finally, at midnight, with the threat–and need–of going to sleep imminent, the dam broke.  I started crying.  No one loved me.  Kerry would probably leave me for Evy, since they agreed on so goddamn much, apparently.  The world was ending, my friend hated me, and probably, we were all going to die in piss stink Iowa to boot.

“I’M NOT GOING TO FUCKING FALL ASLEEP, BECKY.”

I slumped into the car, gasping and sniffling.  “Jesus Christ,” Evy huffed, and got into the backseat, manhandling her pillow into place to accommodate the sleep she wouldn’t get.  Kerry came around and shut my door.

Evy was a tomboy like me, a Pisces like me, a skinny, doe-eyed thing like me–like, like, like, everything alike.  But she was dark-haired, dark-eyed, more confident and adventurous than I was, less brooding and more sultry-earthy, and, most importantly to me at the time, she had a power over men that I simply did not have.

I was all air and distance, blond and wispy, always the friend girl, and forever patting some guy’s hand over his unrequited crush on Evy, despite myriad acknowledgments from people all around us that she and I were alike enough to be interchangeable in any given situation.

In reality, my boyfriend and best friend would not be eloping together anytime soon; we were on our way to Lawton, Oklahoma to see Paul, Evy’s fiance and Kerry’s best friend, graduate from basic training.

I stayed awake with Kerry.  Then I drove.  I was determined to seize control of the situation one way or another.

All in all, the drive worked out as my dad had envisioned.  We got into Lawton in the afternoon the following day, went to bed early, and slept 12 hours, hard, until the next morning.

There was a family picnic and meet & greet that day, where we’d eat hot dogs, drink lemon-flavored waterade, and see Paul for the first time since he left for basic.  We awoke with the bright idea to order room service.  Why we thought we should do something like that at the shittiest motel in all  of Lawton remains a mystery.  But we were young and free.  Free of any knowledge of where else to get food.  Free to order room service.  Just like grown-ups, just like in the movies.

We didn’t get eggs benedict and croissants and champagne, though; we got tiny boxed cereals and bananas.  We washed it all down with Dr. Pepper and cigarettes.

Kerry ordered; I sat wrapped around him like he was the only buoyant object in an expanse of deep water.

At the time and as far as 20 year-old guys went, Kerry was pretty muscular.  Looking at the picture now at 32, I realize he looks kind of juvenile and scrawny.  His face (which was lovely) must be obscured since he is the only one of my exes with whom I am no longer on friendly terms.  This was not my choice.  It is never my choice to not be on speaking terms with anyone, especially people I was ever close to.

But the wound I left on Kerry stuck.  For all my tending, I couldn’t fix it, and although it’s a separate story altogether, it is important to note that I consider it one of the greatest failings of my life, not because I loved him but because, in the end, I didn’t.

After Evy took the picture, she flopped onto her bed and immediately exploded in a stream of obscenities.

“OW!  WHAT THE FUCK?  MOTHERFUCKER!!! WHAT WAS THAT?!?!?! FUCK!!!”

She tore at the sheets, first running her hand over them, hard, then ripping them off completely.

“Look at this!!!”

She turned her leg sideways to reveal a thin scrape, about 5 inches long.  Either a pin or a needle.  It couldn’t have been anything else.  There was a moment of silence.  Kerry started laughing.  “You have AIDS,” he said.

“Holy shit, Dude!” I said, “Go wash it!”

Evy bolted for the shower.

At that moment, it dawned on me how much of a dump the place actually was.  There were stains on the curtains, stains on the wall, and the donut holes we bought the evening before at a gas station were already covered in fruit flies.

I had booked the hotel.  This was my doing.  I don’t know if it could have been avoided, since we were dirt poor kids and the online hotel reservations of 1997 were in no way comparable to the ones we have now.  There were no customer reviews indicating that the rooms were full of insect life and, potentially, infectious diseases.  All I knew was that it was cheap, and it had a pool.  A pool!

The heat outside was incredible.  Lawton was not a particularly cozy, comfortable town to begin with, and between the heat and filthy accommodations, everything about the place was loathsome.

I don’t remember much about the picnic except for hanging back.  I’d never been on a military base before.  Gates and fences.  A million outbuildings full of unknown goings-on, men (maybe some women, but it wasn’t easy to tell) moving around a sea of dirt on currents of asphalt.  Not much grass.  I couldn’t decide who they all were or what they were up to.  Some were marching, some were jogging, some were alone and some were in order.  Some were just walking, but there was no one without a purpose.  Despite being full of dirt, the base was not dirty.  I wondered which ones had ever killed somebody.  Who was packing.

There was one large picnic pavilion sharing its immediate vicinity with two members of Fort Sill’s scant tree population.

Evy approached from having greeted Paul; she was wearing a pitying half-frown, half-smirk.  “He has poison oak all over his hands.”  She covered her mouth to stifle her schadenfreude, lifting only her pinky and ring fingers to intimate, “It’s bad.”

“How did he get poison oak?  There are no plants here.”  I looked around for shade.  Poison plants like shade.  Or poison ivy does.  I wasn’t sure about poison oak.  I wasn’t sure what poison oak looked like.  I knew I didn’t get a reaction to poison ivy.  I probably didn’t have to worry about poison oak.

Paul approached from the pavilion in his Class A uniform.  He hugged Evy, doing his best to hold his hands away from her hair, skin, and clothes.  His hands were swollen like inflated surgical gloves; they were scabby, weeping, and covered in chalky pink-white calamine.

“Wow, man, that is disgusting,” Kerry offered.  Paul offered a handshake and smiled.

Kerry began to reach out reflexively, then snatched his hand back.  “Get away from me with your leper claw!”

Normally, Paul and I didn’t get along; or we did, but equally as often, we were disgusted with each other.  He was a little hyperactive and never quite content without one foot over the line, which I found alternately amusing and infuriating.  In this context, he was reserved–polite and gracious and tidy.

When it came time to leave, Evy wrapped her arms around Paul so tightly that her hands almost reached her own shoulders.  She turned the side of her face to his chest and pressed her eyes shut.  Hard.  She stood like that for minutes.  Long minutes.  Paul stood with his angry hands resting behind him on the car he was leaning on.

Incidentally, I have a picture of that, too, but Evy hates it, so I won’t post it.  “I look so pathetic,” she always says.  Sometimes she laughs.  Sometimes she doesn’t.

Paul is looking at the camera, smiling.

We spent the next couple of days tooling around Lawton, attending graduation-related events, spending time with Paul when he was allowed to see us, and, in the evenings, returning to the Hepatitis Hotel.  One night we took turns at private realations on the only bed that didn’t threaten laceration.

It was gross.  We knew it was gross.  Our options were limited, we decided.  I could have gone without, myself, but for Kerry’s part, there was apparently some show to put on for Paul.

Kerry and I waited our turn on the second floor concrete walk.  I was in my bathing suit, wrapped in a towel.  The railing looked out over the pool we’d just been kicked out of.  We stood right there outside the door, sans decency to stand anywhere else.  It was just us, the black water of the pool, and an outdoor lamp, orange and sick-covered in bugs of every imaginable type.  They flew in my mouth and picked at my skin.

I have no memory of what we talked about.

During our visit, Evy understandably refused to sleep on the hypodermic mattress.  We had tried the office.  There were no other rooms; there were no other mattresses.  They did not have a cot.  It was so not a grown-up hotel.

We couldn’t let her sleep on the floor; if the mattress had needles, who knows what might be in the carpet?  We all had to sleep in one bed.  The private relations bed.

I remember walking out of the bathroom at bedtime, pretending to pay no mind to the two of them, gorgeous and unbothered, chatting away next to each other on the shared bed.  I remember a feeling of disappearing, like watching them on TV, a voyeur with no idea what might happen and no way to control it.  I hated them for a brief, flashing moment, unable to decide whether I should try to remember the picture or forget it immediately.

I shut off the lights and felt my way to bed.  Fiancee or no, I slept between them.



In 1988, when I was 12 and viewed the world through rose-colored, grass-is-always-greener glasses, I finally got permission to move from our going nowhere slowly southern New Mexico town to Las Vegas, where my dad lived. My older sister Kim and I had been making the trek from Artesia to Vegas for three months each summer since I was in kindergarten and she was in first grade, and I couldn’t wait for one, long, luxurious vacation. I couldn’t wait to get out of my life, where my stepdad regularly beat the crap out of my mom, and where I got spankings so bad that I spent most of elementary school covered in bruises from the backs of my knees to my tailbone. I couldn’t wait to be away from my sister, who was mean and strange and always in my space.

The plan was for Kim and I to go to Vegas, where Kim would spend the summer, like usual. At the end of the summer, Kim would return to New Mexico and I would stay in Vegas, my perpetual Disneyland, forever and ever, la la la.

The morning is soupy, humid and warm, and we all know the mercury will climb quickly. A ride on a bus and an uphill walk, rubbing elbows with an army of spectators, and then I see the sun breaking over the roof of the club house. Shadows stretch across the golf course, a man-made jewel. The sky is infinite shades of pink and blue. I never get up this early. As far as I’m concerned, the day doesn’t begin until two hours after sunrise. Minimum. But I might as well capture this rare moment for digital review at some later time, so I reach into my pocket and retrieve my camera. Push the power button. Nothing happens. I push it again, but knowledge surges into me like guilt, and I see clearly the camera battery mounted in the charger. Which is plugged into the wall. At home. Today is the day I chose to take pictures–the Tuesday practice round–because tomorrow I’m working, and during the actual tournament, cameras are prohibited. Because of the bus system and the long walk, the round trip time between this spot and my house is probably an hour and a half. Maybe even longer. I stuff the camera back into my pocket. Through the trees I notice a group of golfers on the fourth green. One of them is Tiger Woods. I happen to be standing near the fifth tee, so I walk over and find a spot on the ropes, directly behind the tee. Two minutes later, here comes Bubba Watson and Tiger Woods, two of the biggest hitters on the PGA TOUR, about to tee off on one of the longest holes in major championship golf. A 653-yard par 5. And I have no camera. But wait! I smuggled my cell phone into the tournament! It has a 2 megapixel camera! Phones are definitely not allowed here at the PGA Championship, but I get it out anyway and snap a couple of shots. Even though I know they won’t turn out well.

You know what, though? It’s okay. It’s no secret that I’m into golf. I like to think that if I could quit my job and practice full-time, I could probably make a living at it. Either playing or instructing. But I don’t, because I already chose “writing novels” as my pipe dream career. It would probably be greedy to have two.

The PGA Championship two weeks ago was one of the most rewarding weeks I’ve had in a while. I volunteered as a marshal on one of the more famous holes in golf, I was able to watch the sport being played at its highest level, and I was there when Tiger Woods won his 13th major. That all this happened a couple of miles from my house made the experience that much more sublime. A lot of people asked me afterwards: Did you see Tiger? Did you see Tiger? Yeah, I did. Being inside the ropes, I was pretty close. Did you get his autograph? people asked. Get a picture with him? I am a big fan of Tiger Woods because he set his sights on one of the most hallowed records in sports and has steadily marched toward it for the past twelve years. I am a fan because he is about the same height and body type as me, and I can look at his swing as a model. Surprisingly, I hit the ball about as far as Tiger (though nowhere near as precisely). It’s fun to compare your skill level with the best in the world, to imagine what it would be like to play a round with Tiger or any of the best golfers. But what would I do with an autograph? His name hastily scribbled on a ball cap? A photograph might be interesting, but only if it were taken after I had a conversation with the guy.

Because who is Tiger Woods? I don’t know. Who is Stephen King or Jonathan Franzen or any well-known person I admire for their skills? I don’t know them. They don’t know me. Would I like to play golf with Tiger? Discuss fiction with Franzen? Of course I would. But I would do it as a peer, not a fan. To do so is to acknowledge some gap between us, some difference in what we bring to the world, and I’m not prepared to do that. I can understand children pining for an autograph. But I don’t really get it with adults…and yet I’ve happily signed many books. For readers I meet in bookstores, for friends. It seems very hypocritical, I know. Maybe the difference is that at a book signing, I have the chance to speak with readers. Or maybe I’m conceited. All I know is that I prefer to take pictures with the people I care about. The people I talk to every day. The people who I share my life with. But hey, Tiger: Let me know the next time you have an open spot in your foursome. I’m free. And this time I’ll have a battery in my camera.