Recent Work By Nicholas Belardes

Recently at the Random Writers Workshop in Bakersfield, Calif., we held a little creative nonfiction contest. Nothing big. I just promised to let the winner hijack my TNB account!

I got a stack of entries and carefully read through them. I wrote lots of chicken scratch in the margins. I crossed out phrases. I offered advice. I even begged for more detail and storytelling from some members.

One piece stood out. Joyce Kennedy’s “The Dog Whisperer” grabbed me as not only an interesting read, but one that enlightens us a little about who she is as not only an author, but someone who has special powers over talking to the beasties of the world.

I’ll let her tell you about it. Let the hijacking commence…


I’m known as an animal whisperer to my friends.

So I wasn’t too surprised when a friend stopped by one afternoon with a pet carrier. “Please, take her,” she begged. “No one seems to be able to do anything with her.”

Opening the carrier door, I looked in at a raggedy mutt that not even its mother could love. I wondered how anybody could mistreat such a small bundle of trembling flesh. The poor thing was so frightened that we had to drag it out by brute force.

It was such a skinny little mite, that overpowering its timidity wasn’t all that hard.

Now, I already have two dogs and two cats, so having another animal to communicate with wasn’t high on my list of things to do. Besides, I had just brought my old Tom, “Duke,” home from the vets after surgery. It seemed he’d been “catting” in one of the neighbor’s yards who owned a Pit Bull that managed to tear his face and throat open.

“I can always put him down,” the vet said when I complained about the cost of surgery.

“Over my dead body,” I stormed. “This is my ninja cat. He took out an intruder who broke into my house. I won’t let him down now.”

My time was already taken up with caring for Duke. But who could resist those terrified, owl eyes that looked up at me from the tattered remains of a puppy now stripped of all its fur. It had been so filthy and matted, nothing else could be done.

She fell at my feet, too frightened to stand or move.

I’ve always been a softy, and I didn’t disappoint my friend this time. I reached for the trembling bundle and cuddled it up under my chin. “I won’t hurt you,” I whispered. “Do you want to come live with us?”

About this time Tiger, my two-year-old, tailor-clipped Maltese, had to have a closer peek. His curiosity had him bounding waist high to get a better look. He kissed her face, checked out her badly infected ears, and greeted her with a few encouraging nudges.

“I think she’s deaf,” my friend explained. “She doesn’t respond when you call her. And she won’t mind. She’s just a bad girl.”

“Well, it’s obvious you don’t understand poodles,” I said. “They’re a vain animal and she’s in disgrace with all her hair cut off, but I can fix that.” Rummaging through my storage closet, I located the box of critter supplies, and pulled out several small sweaters. “Okay, little girl,” I coaxed her, “Which one do you want to wear?”

She timidly rose and checked out my offerings and finally indicated she liked the orange sweater. “But of course,” I exclaimed. “She has a new orange collar. Told you she was a special lady.”

Her ugliness now covered, she rose to follow my boys about the room, although she didn’t seem to understand the art of playing. She didn’t understand much of anything that was happening. When I called her name, she stepped toward me, then stopped. Her big questioning eyes kept looking at me.

With mind-melding ESP, I listened to her mind chatter, but I didn’t understand her thoughts any more than she understood mine.

“What kind of a home did she come from?” I asked.

“Well, my neighbor kidnapped her from his grandparent’s back yard,” she explained. “They hadn’t been feeding her, or allowing her in the house. She’s had nothing but a bare, dirt kennel to live in. And they’ve never brushed or groomed her. He just couldn’t leave her there.” She also said four other people had taken the dog in.

I listened to the young poodle’s mind chatter again.

“Of course, she doesn’t understand what we’re saying,” I said, realizing the problem. “She doesn’t know any English. She only knows Spanish.”

Joyce Kennedy writes as JoEllen Conger with her twin sister, Joan Powell. They have released seven books including two historicals, “The Queen of Candelore,” (2003) and its sequel, “The Future King,” (2009). Their latest book is a “true lies” type adventure. “Freedom to Ride the Wind (2009). Although they live far apart, their writing career keeps their twinship active.

“We’re designed for worship.”

I’d heard it before, somewhere. People all giddy and into their sports teams like zealots at a witch burning. Or a stadium of screaming people in Kabul watching the Taliban blow heads off women.

Pastor Josh shakes hands like he’s one of the bros. It’s sometimes a bump. Other times there might be three or four parts to the process, followed by another bump. His paw is thick. He says, “dude” every two sentences like Hugo on “Lost.”

I feel like I’m at a sports bar and not church.

This is a mostly white church. I leave my dual ethnicity at the door. Actions are tempered. Not many people raise their hands like they even want to touch the feet of God. Me included. I’m usually too pissed off to raise my hands, or too torn up inside to even sing along. I don’t play games. I’m just one of the infirmed and I know this.

There’s indie rock on the stage. It’s all bass and drums. I go complain to Josh because he’s in the sound booth next to Nathan, who should be on stage shredding. Another shredder is missing. That would be my son Landen who is busy pushing carts at FoodsCo. I want the distortion. I want to feel like I’m about to watch Korn, U2, or the moment Wilco’s Nels Kline freaks on “Impossible Germany.”

“I’m four rows back and I can’t hear the violin,” I complain.

I don’t know if Nathan cares and I still can’t hear the shredding fiddler. I’m pissed. I get up and walk out of the church service.

Later I read Nathan’s Tweet: “Where’d you go?”

I scoot out the side door, walk into the daylight and head for the only security I know. It’s a bench over by the main building.

The main building is circular. It oddly resembles Space Mountain, which makes me think that Disney’s designers wanted one of their most popular rides to touch the cosmic alliance between science and a fancy American worship center. “We’ll make it look like a church. It’ll be our most holy of rides.” Until the Indiana Jones temple ride comes along.

“Ah, mom,” I say at the bench as if it could sprout a head of grey hair and some old freckled legs. I want its wooden slats to form a mouth and talk to me. I don’t even sit. I just stare down at it.

“I am so proud of your boys,” the bench says.

I wander into the main building. Some guy eyes me like I’m a jerk. I sit in the back row. All the children are missing. Everywhere there’s a suit, a head of grey hair, or some old floppy hat on a hairdo that looks like the twists of a vanilla soft serve cone.

A church choir sings hymns as if stale bread is good for the people. I start to touch a hymnal. I probably picked it up before. When my kids were babies. The books looked old then.

I wonder how long it will be before the rock band service becomes mainstream and takes over the Space Mountain sanctuary. I think about my twenty-year-old son, Jordan. He’s the fiddler. I’m missing him perform as I sit listening to the dying service. Even Space Mountain gets old. I get up and slip past the man who eyes me again.

Soon I’m outside. The hymns drift away as fast as they came. I pass the bench where my mom sat twelve years ago, dying on a Sunday morning. I imagine the ambulance sirens tearing along Victor Street. Somewhere during that day her chest got ripped open. She died.

I don’t care if I can’t hear my kid playing the violin. I hurry back to The Great Room. I sit in the back and eagerly listen to a song. Jordan’s fiddle bow is an apostle’s staff swinging along a horizon of strings. A few moments later, Pastor Josh talks about his favorite show, “Lost.” Then he mentions eating a hot dog outside of a closed Wrigley Field.

“The idol factory has started up in our hearts,” he says as I see images of factory smoke belching across the skies.

What if you could take a collection of short memories, weird and otherwise, and store them on your iPod? Then people could scroll through and play them back at their leisure. Would some play in loop mode? What would some of yours be?

Nick Belardes iPod Memory List:

Flock of fat green parakeets battle with a mockingbird over Bakersfield skies.

Tarantula walks on sweaty palm.

Rich Ferguson screams “Bones! Bones! Bones!”

Explosion behind rocket site mountain at Edwards Air Force Base.

Ghost in a chair with black eyes and screaming mouth.

Swim with a seal.

Little girl laughs on phone in conversation about hamsters biting belly hair.

Score hat trick in roller hockey game.

Train wrecks into coffee truck. Random opera singer on train holds out phone with Twitter photo of me.

Catch a shark.

Find a $20 bill.

Sergio Aragones draws a Mad Magazine cartoon of himself in a book that mentions him drawing Mad Magazine cartoons.

A dream about Bono being one of the pals.

Over the handlebars bike crash.

Stealing television.

Near swerving car collision through red light traffic.

Lightning crashes into mountain.

Desert rainbows everywhere.

*READ: Part One

We were at Leo’s Burgers. Alex Raffio stuffed his face. His mouth looked like Pacman with an Italian moustache right before he bit down. “Oh I have secrets,” he said with his mouth half full. He chewed on his burger like he knew what it was really like to be hungry.

“Whatever, Alex.” I said. “You’re always saying you have secrets.”

“Don’t believe me?”

A. was there too. She had big green eyes, dark skin, long light brown hair. She could talk a gorilla into being a tightrope walker. She was good. And he was lusting after her. We both were. He didn’t know it but I had the upper hand. I rescued her one day from the university library. He was her tutor and rattling on about loyalists, the American Revolution. That sort of thing. Long-windedness was his norm. The man had lungs. A book summary critique for him in the CSU graduate program was a 45-page treatise. She looked off in the distance. His moustache bristled. His stubby hands articulated as if he had been a pamphleteer or a loyalist preacher. I sat at the table and sparked a conversation. There was a sigh of relief. Next thing I knew A. was staying over every night.

Raffio took another bite of his burger. 

“Alex. If you have secrets, then you’re going to have to share,” A. said. “You can’t just tease us. If you’re going to do that then don’t say anything at all.” She wore dark lipstick and ate fried zucchini like each one was a little Raffio wiener. Bad girl. She knew what she was doing with those lips.

Raffio was shorter than me. And that’s shorter than five-and-a-half feet. I looked over at him. “You look like a bald Yosemite Sam when you keep secrets,” I said. He really did seem that way. He was stalky. An Italian bulldog. He had that angry look, like any second he would explode with guns a blazin’.

He didn’t care what I said. It was all about A. She had him at a happy moment. He was eating. He was sitting next to her. He’d told me he wanted to get laid by her. I didn’t tell him I already had. Maybe he had too come to think of it.

Her voice softened. “Come on. Who are we going to tell?”

His eyes shifted. His jaw tightened as he chewed harder.

It was 1995. I was still in my twenties. A. was barely twenty-one. We didn’t fit the mold of CIA moles. Yet he was worried as hell. Paranoid. It was beyond the kind of paranoia that you and I probably know. He probably thought the zucchini was bugged.

People had to use secret knocks at his apartment door to even get him to acknowledge there was a knock. My classmate Tony said that when he brought Raffio school documents, he had to slide them under his door. He would yell from inside: “Just slide the goddam thing!”

He thought people were after him. And not just any people. CIA. The ex-military sort. The kind who had people assassinated sort. The kind who ripped out hearts in jungle wars sort, and who funded jihadists and had ties to the biggest secrets ever in the history of U.S. secrets.

Alex Raffio. Certifiable. A student of history. Afraid of his own shadow. Nuts, right?


It was sometime around the Leo’s Burger conversation that Alex had started talking about his life. Just bits. Pieces really. All of it mysterious.

He made whopping claims. The sort that you shrugged, disbelieved and went back to your video game. Sonic the Hedgehog was way more believable than anything that spilled out of the pacmania chompchomp of Alex Raffio.

“I co-authored a book. I was on the ‘Today Show.’ I was in Vietnam. I was paramilitary. Do you know what cluster fuck means? We were dropped way behind enemy lines. We weren’t supposed to be there. Laos. Cambodia. Recon. Intelligence. Drugs. Torture. Assassination. And then the cluster fuck went down.”

Abandonment? Heart of darkness? Colonel Kurtz? You mean that Martin Sheen shit? Apocalypse fucking Now?


That was a typical Alex Raffio conversation when he spoke of his estranged past. “I wrote a goddam book,” he bristled. I swear steam came out his ears. Raffio was off his rocker.

I should note that Alex Raffio wasn’t his real name. He claimed it had been changed. He really claimed people were after him. CIA. Mercenaries. Maybe even the Libyans. You name it. In fact, I didn’t change his name for this story. If it’s not his real name, then why worry? Right?


Alex Raffio doesn’t exist.

Raffio kept talking about a Vietnam cluster fuck. THE Vietnam cluster fuck. He said the words so much that I had to start laughing. And why not? Alex was a bumbling sort of guy. How could I picture him as special forces with HALO parachutists (not the video game), but the high altitude, low flying ODA team paramilitary forces who parachuted into enemy territory during Vietnam with the likes of Sgt. Major Billy Waugh.

Waugh once expected a few NVA while he was far behind enemy lines. But there were more. He had to play dead after being severely injured as 4,000 Chinese troops descended on his ass. He lived to tell the tale. Google him and pray he doesn’t slit your throat just for looking up information.

You might as well give him a CIA tattoo. Because that’s what Waugh did after he retired in 1972. OK, after a short stint with the U.S. Post Office (Post Office, really? Why? How?) In the mid-1970s he got dumped into the Libya mess. The Soviets were tied to Libya. The U.S. wanted to fuck it all up. Arms deals. Possible death deals. Surveillance. Mostly under Edwin P. Wilson.

Here’s where it gets sticky.

Wilson set up front companies under the guidance of the CIA. You know, fake puppet companies for covert operations in Libya? That kind. He called his companies Consultants International and raked in the millions. He had been with the CIA since retiring from the Marines in 1956. But in 1971, Wilson jumped ship to the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) to build his fake companies.

In fact, according to a page out of the “Toledo Blade” which you can google for yourself, our sticky-fingered spook, Wilson, was part of the Navy’s supersecret Task Force 157. And like I said, pocketing millions. What about the $70,000 for that Russian mine? He never bought it and lost the money. What about the $9-million socks that were ordered and paid for in full by the Iranians? He delivered 100,000 socks and kept the difference.

Sorry about that.

But there’s more bad news. Wilson sold $6 parts for $250. He made millions off the Libyans and Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was not happy about it at all. The Libyans did use Wilson’s funds to train the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine under the leadership of Ahmed Jibril. He’s an ex-Syrian Army officer and suspected of being behind the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. According to some, that’s a conspiracy theory. Either way, the BBC said in 2002, accusations against Jibril were dropped by courts after Syria joined the alliance to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. Interesting coincidence. The BBC also said Jibril launched the first suicide attacks in Israel in the 1970s. Three men blew themselves up near Kiryat Shmona. Eighteen people died.

Thanks Wilson.

The truth started coming out before Leo’s Burgers. Before THAT conversation. I was sitting in a meeting I shouldn’t have been sitting in. A professor—an ex-Air Force intelligence officer who spoke and wrote fluent Chinese, was talking to another history professor. I was in the room. By the looks thrown around, we had all thought Raffio was full of shit.

“Raffio checks out. He did write a book,” the professor said.

Apparently, Raffio, along with Joseph C. Goulden, had co-written “The Death Merchant. The Rise and Fall of Edwin P. Wilson.”

In fact, Philip Taubman had written in a 1984 New York Times article titled, “Books of The Times; Intrigue at the C.I.A.” that Raffio had testified against another ex-CIA guy, Edwin P. Wilson. Notice, Taubman said “another CIA guy” indicating Raffio was CIA at one point.

As a result, the article states Raffio was presented with a new identity by the Justice Department.

Yes, that Raffio. The Leo’s Burgers Raffio. The Italian Pacman.

Wilson was convicted. He had taken millions in government monies and invested them in arms, explosives and military equipment that he had shipped to Libya.

How did they catch Wilson? He was tricked into flying to another country because, to no big surprise, he thought the Libyans were going to have him killed if he stayed in Libya.

No shit.

It’s unknown if Raffio was in on that. The rat that caught the mole.

And it doesn’t stop there. Wilson really had it coming when he tried to have Raffio, along with a host of others, killed while on trial for illegally selling arms to Libya. According to the New York Times, Wilson had plotted “unsuccessfully, to kill Federal prosecutors, his former associates and his former wife.” Wilson’s third conviction was for trying to kill Raffio and others.

So Raffio was right. He was paranoid for good reason. Wilson’s associates could still be lurking. Revenge killings weren’t unheard of in Libya or the good old U.S. of A.

You don’t have to go far to find other Raffio ties. The CIA cluster fuck in Libya actually trailed the Vietnam cluster fuck that took place behind enemy lines.

When Raffio spoke, he always spoke of Vietnam first. The look on his face made the Libyans look like child’s play. Cold War vs. the Vietnam War? You choose. Raffio was pompous and scared all at once. At least that was my interpretation. And why not be pompous? He lived to beat death at every corner. He kicked death in the nuts.

He said that U.S. paramilitary forces in Vietnam that fought the secret war all parachuted in together. He said they went into various countries.

One can only imagine the kind of people who could make up an American special forces unit in the geographical side and back alleys of Vietnam: smart, brave, cunning, genius, terrible. You know, the ones who crossed borders.

An Internet document from the Christic Institute in Malibu, Calif., links Raffio to Anthony Poshepny. Just a name right? Like Wilson, you’d have to read books upon books to really get who the kind of people were that Raffio had consorted with, and hid from.

Poshepny was special. He happened to be the man the “Apocalypse Now” character Colonel Kurtz may have been based on.

Poshepny, Raffio, Wilson, Waugh. All four names and just a few dozens of others turn up on a grid of secret U.S. war history of the 1960s and 1970s.

In this case, it was the CIA’s secret war in Laos.

Poshepny was born in 1924. He’d seen action on Iwo Jima where he was injured. In 1958 he helped try to overthrow the government of Indonesia. In 1959 he helped organized the escape of the Dalai Lama. During the Vietnam years, like the Marlon Brando character, he was the older guy, the CIA cowboy. The shitkicker of the jungle. As early as 1961, Poshepny worked alongside General Vang Pao. He even married the niece of a prominent Hmong leader.

In my brief exploration of Poshepny, his background becomes muddy, but then he gets back with the U.S. secret war, Wilson, and most likely, Raffio. This is the cluster fuck of the mid 1960s secret CIA drug trade in Laos and in the back-end war that explodes into the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

During these years the elder statesman of secret military operations was brutal to his enemies. One Internet source claims Poshepny later admitted to collecting enemy ears, dropping human heads from the air on enemies and sticking heads on spikes. He fought terror bloodily against North Vietnamese troops who sought to invade ethnic Hmong and Lao lands. He sought to empower villagers and tribesman as their leader, a god-like Kurtz if you will, who would rally a terrible jungle war of Medieval proportions.

And yes, he was terrible. According to Roger Warner in the book “Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos,” Poshepny said, “I used to collect ears … I had a big, green, reinforced cellophane bag as you walked up my steps … I still collected them, until … I saw this little Lao kid out there, he’s only about 12, and he had no ears. And I asked: ‘What the hell happened to this guy?’ Somebody said, ‘Tony, he heard you were paying for ears. His daddy cut his ears off…”’

After retiring in 1975, Poshepny lived in Thailand another fifteen years. He died in 2003.

Raffio took another gargantuan bite of his burger. He chewed. His eyes shifted around, landing on A. “Secrets huh?” he said.

She pouted.

“I was in the CIA.”

“You already told us that,” A. laughed.

“I had clearance. I could go anywhere.”

“What do you mean go anywhere?” I said.


“Like where?”

“Secret places.”

“Whatever, Alex,” A. said, goading him for more.

He looked at her like she should pay up if he accepted the challenge. “Area 51. I’ve been there,” he said.

A. and I laughed. We were hysterical.

He was pissed. He could tell we didn’t believe shit.

He ate a handful of fries. His lips were greasy. “You don’t have to believe me. But I was there.”

“Why were you there?” A. said.

“I was passing through, alright? Jesus!”

“Lighten up, Alex. What did you see?” I said.

“I saw this metal. I got to touch it. It was tougher than steel. But I could move it around in my hands like it was some kind of foil. It wasn’t from here.”

“Spaceships?” A. said.

He got a look on his face like we were fucking morons.

“Spaceships? Did you see spaceships?” A. said.

“I saw things.”

“Right, Alex,” I said.

“I believe you,” A. said.

He took his last bite and started shoving fries in his mouth. The room smelled like salt and grease. His eyes shifted and A. smiled.

Take a look at this detailed photo of North America taken from outer space. Look at California. What do you see?

You don’t see San Francisco, Los Angeles or San Diego. You don’t see Disneyland or a giant sequoia named General Sherman. You see a big bowl. A trough, really.

I sat in the Big Red Garage on Fremont Street in the dark. My chat program was set to “available.”

Outside in the hot Vegas night, the light show began. Men and women carrying beer footballs stopped in their tracks. They looked up at the seventy-million-dollar vault of lights. Animated submarines battled overhead. On the promenade, Japanese tourists whipped out video cameras.

I was working on storyboards for an upcoming show while the smell of propane whirled heavily into the room. Next door, forklifts filled their tanks. I felt lightheaded.

Suddenly there was Julie. Her words had wrapped halfway around the planet to reach me in cyberspace. “I’m on an island,” she said. Paradise.

That was eleven years ago. She was in her early twenties.

Julie still lives on the island. She usually only steps off-island to go sailing, dive with great whites, or go on secret missions. That’s my perception anyway.

She never tells me about the secret missions.

She works for a government. She’s good looking. She once found out someone following her at a dignitary function was snapping photos of her ass. I think she had soldiers confiscate the film. She sent me one of the snapshots. I felt lucky.

Julie speaks dozens of languages.

She often comments on TheNervousBreakdown.com and on its Facebook page.

A soldier’s guard dog once rescued her from a would-be rapist. I’m almost certain the accused was executed. Julie doesn’t talk about it. She kept the dog until it became blind and crippled.

Around the time the dog died another ran to her home, jumped on her, and licked her face as if to say, “It’s OK,” then left.

A shaman once gave her a shell shaped like a heart. He disappeared down a long strip of sandy beach.

Recently she watched a wild dog come out of nowhere and bite off a young man’s nose.

She once got swept out to sea in a storm flood. She was discovered by Swedish sailors. She knows a lot of good looking Swedish men. I often wonder if it’s because she was hardly wearing anything when she was spotted bobbing in the ocean.

A guy she knew got chopped to bits with an ax. That had nothing to do with the government coup on the island, which she helped solve. As she did, one of the conspirators sat in a jail cell talking to her. He offered her fifty cows if she would be his bride. She declined. She has a thing for Swedes.

Julie once jumped out of a helicopter onto tangled tree roots and shattered her knee. I wrote her a long letter about overcoming obstacles and pain. I actually don’t remember what I wrote. But Julie does. She tells me about the letter when I’ve forgotten it. I act like it was no big deal, like it’s always on the tip of my tongue.

We spoke on the phone once, maybe twice since we met in cyberspace. Sometimes we chat everyday. Sometimes weeks go by.

We miss each other. We often trade stories.

Julie [4:22 PM]:
hummm  Did I tell you about the naked man?
novelboy2 [4:23 PM]:
No. Do tell.
Julie [4:24 PM]:
I woke up at 1:39 to go to the bathroom. I never turn on a light because it wakes me up. So I come out and there under the skylight was a naked man just finishing taking off his clothes.

novelboy2 [4:25 PM]:
What the heck? I thought you had soldiers guarding your casa?

Julie [4:26 PM]:
Me too. But some guy went into my room, thought it was the guest rooms and got naked.
novelboy2 [4:26 PM]:
Who was the guy?
Julie [4:27 PM]:
Some guest of another person living here. He was a bit drunk. I screamed so loud I woke everyone up  ahah

When Julie is online, her name flashes from red to blue. Soon a little yellow note appears. It’s a little treasure.

She doesn’t say much. When she says hello it’s often in threes: “Hi hi hi.”

Our goodbyes are usually longer. In between we always find a way to say we care. Often, that’s by worrying about each other.

Julie [4:13 PM]:
How are you? I was worried. Haven’t seen you in a few.
novelboy2 [4:13 PM]:
I was at the library today.
Julie [4:14 PM]:
novelboy2 [4:14 PM]:
Yeah. Why would you be worried? Think I was floating away somewhere?
Julie [4:15 PM]:
God, I hope not!
novelboy2 [4:16 PM]:
I could use a boat ride.
Julie [4:17 PM]:
What’s wrong?
novelboy2 [4:18 PM]:
You ride boats all the time. Are boats bad?
Julie [4:18 PM]:
Noooo. I love boats. But you never said that to me in 11 years ahah.
novelboy2 [4:19 PM]:
We talked once not long ago. You said you would take me on a boat. And it’s raining here. Makes me think of boats.
Julie [4:19 PM]:
I would love to sail with you.
Julie [4:19 PM]:
And you can stand right next to me.

Julie is often in secret government meetings. The government she works for monitors her chats. Sometimes she gets really bored and leaves her chat on. No one can see her computer. I try to cause trouble. My goal is to try to get her to spit out her strawberry tea.

novelboy2 [4:28 PM]:
What’s new with you?
Julie [4:28 PM]:
I’m in a meeting.
novelboy2 [4:29 PM]:
Can’t they see your computer screen? Is George there?
novelboy2 [4:29 PM]:
Hi George!!!
Julie [4:29 PM]:
ahahaha No one can see the screen. But he is here.
novelboy2 [4:30 PM]:
Hehehe. Shhh…
novelboy2 [4:30 PM]:
Blow me a kiss. Hurry. Before they all look!
Julie [4:30 PM]:
ahahahahaha spritz one coming. 
novelboy2 [4:31 PM]:
A spritz kiss? What they heck is that? Sounds 7-Uppy.
Julie [4:32 PM]:
Well, you kiss your fingertip and then pretend that you are pumping a spray bottle. 
novelboy2 [4:32 PM]:
Never heard of it. That’s badass. I want two.
Julie [4:32 PM]:
Okay. spritz spritz.
novelboy2 [4:36 PM]:
What’s on the meeting agenda?
1. Julie: your turn to make the coffee.
2. Julie: Your turn to clean the bathroom.
3. Julie: Your turn to host the February “All-Island Chili Leaf Eat-Off.”
4. Julie: You need to take over on TPS reports.
Julie [4:37 PM]:
“Julie. You are brilliant!”
novelboy2 [4:39 PM]:
Julie: you did a bang up job on that cow poop dispute over on the Janga Janga farm.
Julie: brilliant conducting of the sea serpent shadow box festival.
Julie: fine job with your statistical analysis of the intra-island fungus disaster.
Julie [4:39 PM]:
funny funny funny ahaha 
Julie [4:42 PM]:
ahahahahahah Not so far from the truth ahah
novelboy2 [4:44 PM]:
Julie: Chief Wonawango said the constellations to the east aren’t fixed correctly in the sky for late January. You’re going to have to get with NASA and see if they can hurry on that level 7 Earth axis-shifting experiment. Wonawango has put in three requests and one curse.
novelboy2 [4:47 PM]:
Julie: Chief Wonawango said he would have all 7 of his wives surround my car and push their breasts against it if this isn’t done. Julie: My wife might not like to see that kind of de-civilization taking place on my new Honda. And, we’re having the Russians here on the 1st for a tour of the local worm farm. Can you lead that? And, Julie. Dress up for once? You’re acting like this is some kind of vacation. You know the code. Pea coats in January. P-E-A  C-O-A-T-S.
Julie [4:49 PM]:
You are decidedly the best most imaginative man I have ever known.

Duke Haney left Los Angeles sometime during the afternoon. Having struck out through the rain from the city bus, he was already soaked by the time he sat on the Greyhound.

I’ll get right to it. I could barely pee on my own without shooting a stream like a wild hose was out of control on the bathroom floor.

The problem wasn’t me. The hall commode was a cathedral of tile and fixtures with a throne set almost too high for my tippytoes to help reach.

You see, I was an independent young lad. I could clamber out a bedroom window at three years of age and walk through the dark, out to the edge of Candler Avenue in San Jose, California, and sit on the curb with our dog Candy.

 I’d do that: curb sitting. Just pass the time. Just sit there with our overgrown sheltie dog, watching the clouds, watching people pass in the dark, or during the midday, or whenever.

You’d think that dog could have helped me take a proper piss in the toilet.

I had no problem whipping it out for a leak in the backyard like I was on some great adventure in the outback of my dreams.

Hell, I could drench the side of the house and shoot petals off flowers if I had to. Me and the dog—we pissed together on the apple tree. It was fun. I don’t know why she lifted her leg. But she did.

I gladly pissed in the wild. In fact, I could have been on “Survivor” at age three and won. 

Most challenges of my wayward youth were easy obstacles to defeat.

Getting out of the neighbor’s garage after sneaking in. Simple. That was just a waiting game. He left and turned off the lights. I think I just crawled into a really dark place. I popped out when there was light, terrifying everyone like I was a cat scampering from a tin can.

Once I tried to slither out of a canal as torrents pushed me down its muddy banks, determined to drown me. I escaped. I told my mother I fell into a puddle.

I solved the problem of urgency once by running toward home and pooping in my pants. I hid the evidence in my room. I don’t even think the dog ratted me out.

I found creative ways to turn Tinker Toys into bows and arrows and launched them at my brother’s skull. I could have hunted deer.

But that damned toilet.

The bathroom throne was my greatest challenge at about age three. I’m guessing here since my parents are no longer among the living. Three sounds good. It puts me at that challenging height for a youngster trying to sling his tiny dick into position for a squirt into the commode.

I was proud of myself when I reached such fathomable heights and wasn’t shooting the opposite rim, or firing away at the open door.

I remember pushing up the seat and lid. That was always a minor victory when my pants were around my ankles. Yes, that’s how I peed then. There was no sneaking it out through little portholes. The pants went straight to the ankles just like that one rejected American Idol song: “Pants on the ground, pants on the ground…”

And the dick went on the rim. Barely. That could have been a verse in that song. “Dick on the rim, Dick on the rim! Hat turned sideways, dick on the rim!”

The toilet seat fell in slow motion.

I could have moved. But it took so much energy to yank down my pants, get on my tippytoes, and then try not to shoot the dog that was watching.

I couldn’t react. Little kids can’t react. They just watch. I watched.

I watched the toilet seat smash my tiny wiener.

And then I howled in pain. I howled and did some sort of strange tribal dance, because, well, that’s what you do when your wiener gets crushed.

I howled because I had to pee and I was afraid.

I howled for my mommy. She came running in. She held me as I howled, “I want a Band-aid!”

And then she put one on.

I felt glorious.

I’m guessing it fell off somewhere outside.

Alice in Wonderland Syndrome 

If you wake up and it looks like your fingers are stretching for a mile, or you peer out a window and the seagulls flying 100 meters away look like they’re about to land on you, then you might be one of the rare sufferers of Alice in Wonderland syndrome, a peculiar depth-perception ailment named after the popular book by Lewis Carroll.

Strangely, there’s nothing wrong with the sufferer’s actual eyes. People suffering from AIWS often experience distorted depth perceptions such as micropsia, where objects appear to shrink and seem farther away, or macropsia, where items appear larger than normal. “Everything shrinks. It’s like I’m looking through a telescope backwards. I don’t feel huge, though. I actually feel very small as well, which is strange since everything around me also feels small. It’s like I’ve been miniaturized along with everything else around me.” So wrote one man in January 2009 in a forum on an AIWS website run by Rik Hemsley, an actual sufferer of the ailment.

Some people experience the opposite reaction: not miniaturization but enlargement. They might be looking at someone whose extremities suddenly appear to balloon. Others claim they can induce the experience at any time and then shake their head, or shake their own weirdly transformed body part, to make the sensation stop. Some have said they feel as if their brain is being stretched like a rubber band.

Hemsley said to the U.K. Guardian in 2008: “When it first happened, I was a 21-year-old undergraduate. I had been up late the night before writing my dissertation and drinking a lot of coffee, but on that particular morning I was stone cold sober and hangover-free. I stood up, reached down to pick up the TV remote control from the floor, and felt my foot sink into the ground. Glancing down, I saw that my leg was plunging into the carpet. It was a disturbing sensation, but it lasted only a few seconds, so I put it down to overtiredness and forgot all about it.”

Since writing for the Guardian in early 2008, Hemsley said no medical researchers have offered to study his affliction. “None, though I have answered questions for an article in a Polish magazine named Medical Tribune,” he said.

Hemsley said he’s still dealing with the affliction. “I am still improving, yes. I had a couple of days over the [2008] Christmas holiday where I noticed it, as a result of typical migraine-inducing behavior. I hadn’t had anything for about three months before that.”

It’s hard to imagine that even if the affliction went away, as it usually does with AIWS, Hemsley could ever forget about a syndrome as puzzling as his. While he is married, has a job, and continues on with his life, many others in the world who suffer from this ailment rarely go outside, fearful of experiencing these surreally distorted perceptions. “The most bizarre thing I can think of, off the top of my head, is that often when I sit with my legs crossed, with my shin on the other leg’s thigh, I would perceive that the upper leg was partially sunk into the lower.

This seemed to be caused by a combination of odd sensation and imagination. Whatever it was, it was quite unpleasant and occurred often. I would expect it is related to the more commonly quoted perception of a ‘spongy’ floor,” said Hemsley.

Some of the possible causes cited are migraines, temporal lobe epilepsy, and Epstein-Barr virus.

Symptoms: The AIWS website describes the main symptom as that of altered body image. Those afflicted are usually confused as to the size and shape of parts of their own body. Heads and hands commonly undergo a metamorphosis, shrinking or growing. Visual perception of the surrounding world gets skewed. People, scenery, buildings, animals appear smaller or larger, while distances appear too close or too far away. Some of those afflicted experience distorted time, touch, and sound perception.

Foreign Accent Syndrome

A man I met once at a pizza parlor, who promoted music shows, was accused of having a fake accent. One woman in Michigan sounded like she was British though she was born in a small American town. Whether these people are faking it or not, most actual sufferers of foreign accent syndrome are accused of falsifying their speech.

The reality is, the 40 or so documented cases of FAS usually stem from a brain injury or stroke that may have caused damage to the speech centers of the brain. While the person’s speech sounds otherwise normal, there is a foreign-sounding accent that overlays syllables and sometimes sentences. Some people are more fluent with their accents than others. Some of those  afflicted are reported to have mysteriously recovered within just a few months time.

The BBC reported that one British woman, after a stroke, started speaking with an idiosyncratic accent that sounded alternately French Canadian, Slovakian, Italian, or Jamaican. “I didn’t realize what I sounded like, but then my speech therapist played a tape of me talking. I was just devastated,” Linda Walker said. She added, “I’ve lost my identity, because I never talked like this before. I’m a very different person and it’s strange and I don’t like it.”

The best-known case of foreign accent syndrome occurred in Oslo, Norway, after a British bombing raid on September 6, 1941. A 28-year-old Norwegian woman was seriously injured in the head by a bomb fragment. She lay unconscious for several days and was not expected to live. Two months later, she was discharged from the hospital—suddenly with a German-sounding accent. During the remainder of the war she was often mistaken for a German and suffered discrimination because of it.

Symptoms: Sudden strange foreign accent.

Twenty-Five Random Remedies

Aphrodisiac: If you’re looking to increase your libido and you don’t want all the nasty potential side effects of Viagra, find some horny goat weed. It has been helping the Chinese since the days of the ancients. In lab experiments it works just as well as the little blue pill.

Constipation: Laughter has a massaging effect on the intestines.

Nosebleed: Run something cold down the back of your neck. Sudden chills can cause blood vessels to contract.

Mouth Ulcers: Try a pinch of baking soda or dissolve some in a glass of warm water and use as a mouthwash for neutralizing acids in mouth ulcers.

Green Hair: For blondes in chlorine pools whose hair has turned green, just add ketchup and cover with cling wrap for 30 minutes.

Headache: Draw blood to your feet by soaking them in hot water. Add some mustard powder for exceptional thumpers.

Decongestant: The University of Nebraska found that traditional homemade chicken soup (not from a packet) contains the amino acid cysteine, which is a

PMS Bloating: The yeast extract Marmite can help fight PMS bloating. Fish eggs and brazil nuts can help too.

Bruises: Vinegar heals bruises. Soak cotton and apply.

Coughing: Try a nice bar of chocolate. Theobromine in cocoa suppresses sensory nerves.

PMS: Boil a cup of water and pour over a teaspoon of dried rosemary. Cover and let brew for 15 minutes, then drink a warm cup twice daily.

Insect Bites: Dab on toothpaste to fight itching
and swelling.

Obesity: Turmeric, which is found in curry, has many medicinal uses and helps prevent obesity in lab rats. So eat hearty.

Cancer: In 2008, it was announced that medical experts in the U.S. are now studying the ancient Chinese remedy of potentially deadly toad venom for cancer patients. Often cancer patients try a blend of Western and Chinese remedies to fight tumors.

Toxic Blood: Actress Demi Moore once had 45 leeches gorge on her blood— a creepy Austrian treatment for toxic blood. Apparently the little critters release a helpful enzyme as they chomp down.

Stroke: Consider acupuncture to help you in your recovery. Millions of patients each year do so in China. Could they all be wrong? Get in harmony with yourself.

Skin Disorders: A urine-mixture ointment can help clear up blotchy skin. Singer Amy Winehouse tried it. In another curious case of urine therapy, actress Sarah Miles drank her own urine for 30 years, claiming that it immunized her against allergies.

Cellulite: Mix a little olive oil with warm coffee grounds. Spread on thighs twice a week. Cover with cling wrap for several minutes. The caffeine helps circulation.

Icky Breath: Chomp on a raw coffee bean.

Sore Throat: Manuka honey from New Zealand can kill over 250 bacteria strains. It can help heal burns too. Add some lemon.

Beauty Treatment: Actress Gwyneth Paltrow once used a type of acutherapy for beauty called “cupping.” Heated glass cups applied to different areas of the body can supposedly relieve stress.

Stinky Toes: Soak your feet in two cups of hot tea diluted with extra water.

Dandruff: Three aspirin dissolved in shampoo can help with flaking scalp.

Sniffles: Warm feet in hot water. Soak pair of thin socks in cold water. Wring out and wear. Add thick, dry socks and put feet up (go to bed). Boosts circulation, which can help with the sniffles.

Stained Teeth: Rubbing strawberries on your teeth can rid you of superficial stains. woman said she had regained much of the control of her hand.

Here we are on the San Joaquin Valley train, riding from Fresno, California to Bakersfield, California with Nick Belardes: author, poet, news guy, and artist. What do you think about train rides, Nick?

Peaceful. Better than driving.  Way better than a bus. The passenger train out of Bakersfield only heads northward into the Great Central Valley. We pass oil wells, emus in back yards, kids on ATVs slinging mud from spinning tires, and farmland like you’ve never seen. From Fresno it’s kind of the same thing, only today we might witness a gang shooting as we leave the station.

What were you doing in Fresno?

I headlined the Inner Ear Poetry Jam at Full Circle Brewery. In specific I was there to read a poem called “The Devil and His Goblins.”

What’s it about?

The Central Valley.  (Which I’m also writing a book about.  It’s titled City of Dirt: Critical Essays on the Southern Central Valley.)  The poem is about the valley, a place with one of the worst foreclosure rates in America, hatred against Latinos, the threat to end the Modern Language Programs at CSU Bakersfield, and more. There’s also a rich legacy of Yokut Native American mythos and culture here in this 300-mile-long valley found within the poem. On top of that, the poem was intended as a performance piece for Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) in which I was painted like the Devil when I read it. The poem has made many rounds in academic circles worldwide and is now part of a cultural and heritage program that bridges the U.S. and China.

So really you’re not much of a poet?

Sure I am, although I can’t memorize them very well. At a poetry reading in Bakersfield I read a poem off my cell phone. I wanted to be the first in Bakersfield to do that. I try to be a claim to fame for as many meaningless things as possible. Like writing the first original literary novel on Twitter, or being the first on my block when I was a kid to crash a bike into a pole.

You just went on a book tour for your book of oddities, Random Obsessions?

Yes, I toodled around LA, the Central Valley and into the Bay Area. Newspapers and radio have been good to me. I got to go on TV news stations in Fresno and San Francisco. The TV stations in Bakersfield, though there are three of them, all ignored my book. But that says something about the state of the arts in the Southern Central Valley and their disconnectedness with television. I still have hope for KGET. News anchor Kiyoshi Tomono wears cool suits and he’s Asian. I hear Asian people love Random Obsessions. I’m not lying. I was randomly told by my publisher just recently that my book is hot in the Philippines. I thought I saw an old Chinese man wandering with my book in Chinatown in San Francisco. But it might have just been a giant fortune cookie. Either way, I’m holding out for Kiyoshi as that media bridge between television, the literary arts, and all the little old ladies who think he’s sexy on TV.

I keep hearing you say that Random Obsessions is the ultimate gift for Christmas, birthdays, Halloween and more. Why?

Well, just think about it. Every kid in America (and the Philippines I guess) loves trivia. They’ll pull my book out of their Christmas stockings (instead of coal and old gummy worms) and start reading these crazy facts about Mothman, devilish architecture in the nation’s Capital, weird cult movies, crazy tree-man diseases, and Thomas Jefferson’s ax-wielding grandson. They’ll literally blab this stuff while the yule log is blazing on TV in their cheesy living rooms, which are a metaphor for all that’s good and wholesome in America.

I read that there’s a tie-in with Random Obsessions and some of the people on The Nervous Breakdown?

Sure is. Brad Listi wrote the introduction. I interviewed Erika Rae about a bone-filled Ossuary and some weird haunted temple behind a Buddhist tower in Colorado. Apparently, she’s pretty well haunted too. I hear she lives in the Rockies like some kind of old hermit busting out babies and having them all work digging caves and cemetery plots. It’s kind of cool. I also talk about Jessica Anya Blau and Lauren Baratz-Logsted in the book. I’m still waiting for some free promo from all these people or at least the coupons for canned corn they promised me in the mail.

Hold on, the train is stopping. Does this happen very often?

Trains stop because engineers like to take a piss on the wheels now and then.

That’s interesting. So who is your publisher for Random Obsessions?

Viva Editions. They’re new and an imprint of Cleis Press. They write about sex. Viva is mainstream. And you want to know what’s odd? Brenda Knight, who is the Associate Publisher for Viva Editions is from West Virginia. People from her family knew Mothman! I think they played cards together. Smoked out. It’s all in the book. In fact, Mothman is sort of a bookie.

Is that a smashed-up coffee truck over there on that nearby frontage road?

Why, I think it is.

So the engineer just lied when he said we were just stopping for a moment?

Look at all those sirens!


Insurance info? Good idea. A train wreck! Inspiring! Wait a minute. Some guy is hitting on a woman behind you. That’s odd.

Definitely. And tweetable. I’m on Twitter. Let me just poke fun at all of this and post a photo. There. Oh, let me add: “Dude using train wreck as excuse to hit on chick.” That ought to make my followers laugh.

Oh that’s good. Let me try. Can I?

Sure. Here…

“Chick sounds like an opera singer the way she’s shrilly talking to that dude.” This is fun. So, on Twitter you just post your thoughts and anyone can read them?

Oh yeah. It’s fun. You can say, “Fuck off, Obama” and feel pretty confident he’s not paying attention.

Nice. You promote a lot through Twitter?

Of course. You have to build an audience every way you can.

Like how else?

Well, I have a bit part in a movie called The Lackey which is written and directed by Shaun Piccinino of Spike TV. It’s this crazy gangster film and I play this hitman boss named Dimitri who tells a guy nicknamed “The Russian” go and off some people. I think there’s going to be some nudity in my scene. Not me. But hey. I’m not complaining. T & A sells. I’m also on Facebook and I do a lot of writing for other news sites to get my name out there.

Why is someone screaming your name on the train? Do you have fans everywhere?

Well yes, I do have a lot of Filipino fans, but they’re usually in their island nation. Some of them kill each other over politics. Though I hope my book isn’t inspiring any of that crap.

Excuse me, Nick. There’s a woman standing next to you. She has a phone with your photo on it. She’s saying, “I follow you on Twitter.”

I know.  Shut the heck up for a second.  Let me talk to her.


To woman: Hi. What’s your name?

Woman: Samantha KnJoi. I follow you. I’m an opera singer.

Uh, you do?  You are?  You’re serious?  Did you read everything I just tweeted?

Not yet. But I’m about to!

How did you find me?

I recognized your glasses. See ya.

Interviewer. Hey, Nick, she’s gone. You’re an idiot. She’s going to know you were bagging on her. I thought you said Twitter was safe?

Yeah, I thought it was. I mean, I didn’t expect a train wreck or that a random opera singer would be following me on Twitter. Maybe I should go try and get a lift with that coffee truck. One of those fire engines might take me the rest of the way to Bakersfield.

Maybe you should make friends. Give the girl a book or something. Try to pull it off that you’re a comedian of sorts.

But I’m not a comedian.

You’re not much of a poet, either.

Bite me, asshole. Fine. I’ll give her my books. But I’m not signing them. What the hell would I write? “Nice train-wrecking with you”?

Well, before you do that can we finish our interview?

OK. Hurry up. I’m getting seasick.

So you have written some top news for CNN.com and other news sites?

Yes. I’m a journalist and a master of news site strategy. I once wrote about a family of beavers that was going to be terminated. I think 300,000 people clicked on that story in one day. I’ve also written about Captain America, plane crashes, orange water, pesticide drift, and the Bakersfield band Korn, all of which graced the home page of CNN. I’ve also written popular creative nonfiction here on TNB with titles like “The Magical Pig of Akron,” “Underwear Dreams,” and “Ancient Story of the Samurai Rat.” On Bakotopia I wrote about Harry Potter that made their second-most popular article ever, and, I once wrote about bugs in peanut butter clusters that made CNN and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno all in the same day.

Do you make much money at it?

Not really. But it’s cool to say that I wrote a news story that got picked up by mainstream television and embarrassed a man who just wanted fairness from his local 99-cent store. I mean, he didn’t ask to almost eat bugs. By the way, his story, though weird, wasn’t even weird enough for my book. I mean heck, in Random Obsessions you can read about bridge disasters, hen-sized dinosaurs and microscopic killer worm bugs.

Boy that coffee truck driver sure is screwed out of his Xmas bonus for trying to beat that train…


Goodness, that’s intense. What else are you working on?

A documentary about myself as a writer, the book of essays I mentioned, possibly a trivia book on the Central Valley, more movie scripts. I just wrote one called Two Suit Killer and working on another titled Journeyman. A book by Jonathan Evison coming out titled West of Here has some of my map illustrations in it. I wrote a kid’s book titled Timothy Egg. Mostly I’m working on a YA series (young adult) with the first book titled A Serendipitous Garden Of Lies. I held an event in Bakersfield at Russo’s Books recently where I read the whole backstory for it, a piece titled, “The December Scribe.” It was standing room only. The people loved it.

OK, that’s it. I have to go to the bathroom.

I couldn’t get back in the gym. Usually the door was cracked open and I could sneak in through the side entrance.

Not this time. A group of jocks on the other side of the door were pulling it shut. I had no chance. I was just a 105-pound wrestler. One of them was a giggling 200-pound tight end with a scholarship to UCLA. (He later caught a touchdown pass in a Rose Bowl game from Troy Aikman). I was just playtime. No coaching necessary.

The door was in a bit of a cubby. Didn’t matter. I couldn’t hide there. I still had to get back inside. I’d just watched a wrestler get the smackdown in the weight room. It was his birthday too. They caught him while he was benchpressing. They grabbed him, flipped him over. His sweats were yanked down and his ass was whipped with their bear-like hands. I remember his ass was beet red. There were tears in his eyes. The birthday-haze-hungry jocks laughed gleefully.

I don’t know what’s worse. A physical beating? Or this mental game I was suddenly thrown into? They had grabbed me two seconds after my shower and tossed me toward the ravenous teen wolves of my youth.

First bell.

Students began passing by.

They didn’t know this was the dream I’d had countless times. The only difference was I could usually fly in those nightmares. Not like Superman. Just a little air. Slowly rising. The air under my feet barely heated. I could flap my arms as if they were real wings. As if someone were playing that old video game “Joust” and pressing the flap button. Just enough to barely get me off the ground.

I wanted to fly.

In fact, I wanted to flap and fly and sail into the clouds and rest there a while. Right on a big cloudy bed where I could fall asleep and forget the world.

Students passed. They looked and laughed. They pointed.

I had no actual dignity at that moment. But I pretended to have some. I started walking around the gym toward the back entrance. I tried to blend in with the crowd. I pretended I was fully dressed.

Later that day I would be haunted time and again, “Weren’t you the guy in his underwear right after first period?”

Tighty-whitie underwear at that.

That was me. At school in my underwear. That had been the dream.

I walked around the gym and saw faces, book bags, girls hanging on boy arms and voices shrill like siren songs from broken radios blurting static into the cosmos.

I walked along the concrete. I didn’t run. Those faces were like devils. But I didn’t run.

One night I was a guest on the Red Eye Radio show with host John Wessling. It was midnight. I was sitting in a bathroom near Disneyland. I had called in and started telling Wessling how I was on a mission to find out if some of the dolls on the “It’s a Small World” ride were really little people from around the globe who were cryogenically frozen.

“I’m ready to unravel the mystery,” I said.

My family was flip-flopping in the other room on uncomfortable beds, disturbed by my muffled bathroom cries to save the frozen children of Disney.

I was going off the cuff like a mofo (By the way, Wessling is a comedian).

People are drawn to tales of ghosts, Native American myths, UFOs, creepy underground tunnels, corrupt secret government societies, backwoods monsters, bizarre news and legendary crimes. In fact, many bizarre stories have taken on mythical status as urban legends.

Yet, everyone knows urban legends exist all over America. The creepy legends left unproven in the media work their way through bars, coffeehouses, Internet conversations and late-night get-togethers in living rooms.

Even today’s mainstream news often reads like a contest between which agency can report the weirdest story. Just try getting at the truth behind legendary pop star Michael Jackson and his untimely death. In the end, urban legends may well rule his legacy.

TheDenverChannel.com—the leading news site in Colorado—was guilty of reporting UFO-related details in 2008 about a white-faced alien-head peeking in a window. It looked more like a mask than Jeff Peckman’s “irrefutable evidence” of aliens among us. Yet Web traffic likely skyrocketed as a result of posting the story.

It’s almost as if society is just waiting for the smoking gun alien story to happen.

In Bakersfield, California, just mention The Grapes of Wrath and you might hear: “That book was burned in a barrel.” It was. But that was just propaganda for the book being banned in Kern County. It was a political mess. Either way, the legend of a more massive book burning with huge bonfires rests in the imaginations of many.

Such stories, whether harboring full-on freaky lies or hints of truth, tug on the fabric of society’s need for the unexplained to be reasoned.

On Aug. 7, 2009, I got a message on MySpace. A teenage girl said she hated to read but was researching Bakersfield, California area ghost stories. She came across something I had written about area ghosts and wanted to know more. She was ready to read an entire novel (Hallelujah for literacy!).

It’s not that I know much about actual ghosts. I’ve just told a few ghost stories. And I know that people are fascinated by urban legends.

One man used to tell me about his supposed Yokut wolf spirit sightings in California’s Central Valley: a sprawling 300-mile stretch of farmland and gang-infested towns and cities between Bakersfield and Sacramento. He was convinced the wolf spirit I mentioned in the fictional account of the Lords of Bakersfield was one and the same with his own personal haunts.

I wove more than one urban legend into “Lords: Part One.” There’s the Native American wolf spirit that haunted the apocalyptic Bakersfield dust storm of 1977, and the Lords of Bakersfield themselves: creepy prominent men leading dualistic hidden gay lifestyles. They are rumored to have preyed on young men and the apocalyptic fears of a God-fearing community. The Lords have even been tied to recent events in a drowning of a gay real estate agent in 2009, and in 2002, when the assistant DA was murdered by an ex-cop, in part, for accusations of the man’s frolicking with the ex-cop’s druggie son.

While promoting the book I would go on the radio and say, “Hey, this is just a fictional account.” But then I would get the inevitable response asking what percentage of the book was true.

People just want to believe, don’t they? How can you put a percentage on dastardly deeds?

A semi-related book by John Shannon titled “The Devils of Bakersfield” also dabbles in a corrupt secret society of government officials and Satanists. You never know. It could all be true.

The recent film “Witch Hunt” narrated by Sean Penn dabbles in accusations of Satanism and child molestation in Bakersfield. Oddly, while many of the cases were overturned, the DA is accused of being a Lord of Bakersfield himself.

Now add the mystery of the possible existence of Chinese tunnels hidden in downtown Bakersfield and you have yourself a real weird place, where Buck Owens country music and KoRn nu-metal rock often comes second to tales of mystery.

While exploring subjects for my bizarre book, Random Obsessions, a trivia book of strange factoids in history, disease, inventions, science, geography, film, and art, I tackled some of America’s most intriguing urban legends.

In West Virginia, the Mothman legend still stokes the fires of those who remember stories of a red-eyed birdman spawning from the government-run TNT factory area of Point Pleasant. Strangely enough, with the help of a comic book historian I was able to track down a photographer who hunts for the mysterious creature. But even his supposed sightings of shimmering birdman creatures in the woods were too bizarre for the book.

In the section, “Mothman, the Curse of Point Pleasant and Baby Mothman” you can read how the legend got started and how locals weren’t sure if they saw a spirit, mutant bird from a toxic swamp or some kind of reincarnated Indian chief who once cursed the land (Strangely, most of his bones have been lost).

Pick up a copy and maybe the shimmering red-eyed form of the birdman will soon be standing outside your window.

I spent two long summers in Helltown, Ohio—an area of small towns with a collective name that just reeks “urban legend.” I lived just down the street from a cemetery perched atop an Indian mound, which some locals believe has mystical qualities. In the summer there, when the sun dips between the thin trunks of the Cuyahoga woods, you can hear rustling along the remains of the Ohio and Erie Canal. On the cemetery itself a mist sometimes forms. It’s enough to make any city slicker run for the nearest bar and watch the Cleveland Indians get massacred.

I never could muster up the nerve to sneak into the cemetery at midnight and peer at hundreds-of-years-old headstones, marking those who died from pestilence, murder, and in the rare case, old age. I opted for daylight wanderings.

Legends of the Peninsula Python, a giant snake that escaped a circus train in the 1940s mesh right along with the mystical mound and even the thought that toxic mutants once lived nearby. I interviewed one local extensively who used to ride by horseback into a nearby swampy area. She said she saw government workers stacking barrels of toxic goo at a condemned house in the old swamp. It gets creepy when you include the idea that some nearby families have unexplained illnesses. I dated that girl for years. I finally dumped her after she turned into the Swamp Thing. Just kidding.

Yet there’s another urban legend in Random Obsessions worth mentioning.

 In Dan Brown fashion, I couldn’t help but write about the architectural mysteries of Washington, D.C. Just what is the deal about D.C. area reflecting pools and star alignments, or all the countless Dante statues, Athena artwork, the White House glyph and Sirius dome stars?

In a way we’re all hooked on such stories whether we’re sitting in a bathroom cooking them up for a midnight radio show, or just stumbling upon something real and freaky. They’re out there, that’s for sure, and you usually don’t have to look very far.
You can read a lot more weird stories from Nick Belardes in Random Obsessions. Pick up a copy from Viva Editions. Intro by Brad Listi, founder of TheNervousBreakdown.com

I got onto the hood of our car and stared up at the milky stars. Eric’s yellow school bus was parked right behind us. Desert shrubs looked eerie in the moonlight. Olaf grabbed a blanket and walked off into the desert while I found myself dreaming about the past and the walking stick in the trunk and the mysterious man we had stumbled upon in the middle of the Ohio woods many days before.

Then I listened for snakes. I remembered what my parents had told me about the time they broke down in their old Volkswagen Beetle in the desert in the 1960s. My mother saw dozens of rattlesnakes when she took my sister for a pee by some shrubs. The way I remember my pop telling the story, there were snakes in the road, snakes winding past shrubs, snakes tangled, slithering, everywhere. It was like one of those classic old desert-set 1950s horror movies.

That story had given me an irrational fear of the desert. I figured the snakes would come and get me even if I were locked in a car. Now I lay back on the warm hood, smiling nervously, because I knew I couldn’t do what Olaf was doing. He wasn’t afraid. He’d come from Norway on an adventure to drive his son, Eric, from South Dakota to Arizona in a big yellow school bus. Eric was an air ambulance pilot. He flew medicine onto Indian reservations.

It had been a long trip across some of America: the green Midwest—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois; and into the South—Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas; and then into the Southwest—New Mexico and Arizona. We were dirty and alive. I looked forward to Eric’s shower. We had slept in the car for seven days now, save the one night in Eric’s bus. And we had grown oddly used to it. We had become ragged Americans, odd travelers staring into the burnt open face of our land. It was still a sonnenreise. I thought, in zigzag fashion, about the things we had seen and about all the places full of bushy trees and green grass and tall red brick buildings, and the many cluttered downtowns. How the St. Louis Arch had seemed stuck to the earth like a giant magnet near the Mississippi River’s edge. I thought about Jordan running up to the steely arch, hugging it and wanting to take the elevator to the top; and about wandering along the Missouri streets and staring at a decrepit fountain spewing blue-dyed water; about driving our dirty car through Indianapolis, where we had felt small and our car had looked tiny against the monstrous skyscrapers, the churches and malls; and then tearing through the countrysides and Oklahoma—passing countless cicada-filled trees, buzzing in the darkness. How our headlights had failed at a gas station and three UPS workers fumbled with wires under the hood before finding the right ones to twist together. And then on to Oklahoma City and thinking about all the people madly connected to the bombing; and then back to Missouri and the bathroom off the freeway with a sign inside reading “No Niggers Allowed” in handwriting that matched a sign by the front counter where a quiet white man stood and took our money; and near Amarillo where we spent the night parked at a motel and my girlfriend and I did it because we felt lonely and tired and had nothing else to do while Jordan slept; and in Texas where we ate at a little restaurant in the middle of nowhere, mountains of pancakes with syrup, and stared out the windows into the green countryside, rain clouds rumbling; and in New Mexico and all that happened in Santa Rosa: the Blue Hole oasis, Olaf cooking hot dogs at Park Lake, our car dying as the rain fell against the scorched earth.

Back in the desert, I was shaken awake. Eric’s face hung above mine looking bluer than ever. It’s the starlight, I thought. His normally strong face looked frail in the faint glow and his eyes were cold like two black holes in the heavens. I got up. Already Eric had moved away and disappeared into his bus. And Olaf, back from the desert and amazingly alive, was waiting for me to rejoin the caravan.

I climbed into the car, where my girlfriend lay, asleep. I started the motor, and it shook her awake. “You okay?” she asked, her voice cracking. I said yes and pulled out to follow the demon red lights of the bus.

After a while, the fatigue set in and the white lines blurred together and didn’t seem so broken, but were instead almost snake-like, as if an albino serpent had uncoiled itself across the vast desert expanse. Its head was just around the next turn. Then those Ohio woods again rushed back into my mind. I saw myself with Jordan and my girlfriend as we went searching for Buttermilk Falls. I saw us rounding a corner and finding the man there. He was leaning on a log, carving a head into a staff. He looked like a killer, the way he sat there silently with his knife. He handed over the carved stick and mumbled a few words. Jordan held onto it like a shaman child. His face was filled with what appeared to be instant wisdom.

(Jordan Belardes at left holds the old man walking stick. Circa 1996)

Back in the desert again. Five in the morning. The road. The lines. The mountains just outside of Flagstaff. Huge green meadows, some rung with high wooden fences. Pine trees and valley peaks rising on either side, cradling our entry.

Eric was at the wheel of the bus, exhausted. He swerved out onto the shoulder as the first dim haze of day broke along the horizon. Dirt flew up in a cloud as he wheeled back onto the highway and nearly sideswiped a pick-up truck in passing. I felt lucky to be behind him. I hit the brakes and flashed my lights, hoping Eric would see me. Finally, after many minutes of tired swerving, he managed to steady himself, bringing the bus back between the broken serpent lines and finding an equilibrium.

“Oh good,” my girlfriend said, “he’s awake now.”

As awake as the sun that was lifting its head above the bright Arizona morning.

I pulled up to the gas station in a 1978 Bonneville that was by far the worst car I ever had to drive or ride in. My girlfriend had that same stupid, sweet smile she had on her face as when we’d stolen some gas a few days before. We were in Akron, Ohio. A few days earlier, we had poured about sixteen bucks worth in the tank and took off without paying. It was easy as that.

We were living on the edge, but that was the state of things back in 1996. We were traveling in a terrible car, wishing we had more money, wishing we had a real vacation. We were living on the edge like some kind of Hunter S. Thompson fiasco. My girlfriend had just gotten a job as a waitress at a restaurant where she stole bread each night for us to devour. It was that and the eggplant from a forest ranger who had a big garden in his yard. He made his own mulch, grew his own delicacies. Nick (that was the ranger’s name) had bought his car dirt cheap after some people drove it into a lake and drowned in it. “The car smelled for a while,” he said.

I stole a few boxes of canning jars from the house where I was staying. That way Nick would keep handing over vegetables.

At the gas station we hopped out for a fill-up. That’s when we saw a pig come running out of nowhere and dive under the car across from us. The person pumping the gas got a dumbfounded look on his face. I’m sure I did too. Then some people came running. “You see a pig?” someone said. I gestured to the car. Seemed like ten people peeked underneath at once.

My girlfriend’s stupid smile turned into a roar of laughter.

She liked attention and a circus (whenever she could be near one or create one).

The pig acted like it sensed some kind of insanity in the air and bolted for our car. Either that or my girlfriend’s chaotic laughter had attracted the beast in her direction. It dove underneath the car. I took a peek.

I could see the pig had a terrible panic in its eyes, like it had just seen the secret of the universe because God had left his Book of Infinity open on a desk somewhere. Then, when an arm reached under the Bonneville, this magical pig of Akron bolted again. It zigzagged in an evasive maneuver and was back under the other car in a cloud of dust.

People tried to pull the pig out, but the little fatso had wiggled itself firmly beneath the gas tank.

Then someone came with a rope and tied a slipknot. The pig squeaked. The rope was hooked around one of the pig’s feet. And then it screamed. Mix Luke Skywalker wailing after getting his hand lopped off with Joe Pesci screechin’ for his life—then you’ll have some idea as to the wail of this pig as it was slowly dragged from its freedom.

Once out from under the car the pig didn’t squirm. It let out a shiver, then continued to squeal as the man cradled it in his arms.

Nothing was said. Nobody asked where the pig was from. Nobody asked where the pig was going. No one asked who owned the pig or what its piggy name was.

All around were bushy-headed trees and red-bricked buildings. This was summer in Akron. A time of petty thefts and pigs running amok.

For a brief moment I smiled at the goofy grin splattered on my girl’s tan face. We watched gleefully as the man cradled the crying pig. We stood like idiots under the crackle of distant storms. We were idiot lovers lost somewhere past middle America where dirt roads and city asphalt collided in God’s kaleidoscope.

And then, in an instant, karma took a sudden turn. As we stood there watching, the man darted away with the bawling pig in his arms and walked right through the doors of an Italian restaurant.

El Camino. 1984. V8 engine. 350. I never had one and I still don’t. But my just-graduated-son Landen gave me and a six-year-old punk girl named Jai Ann our first El Camino joyride. Destination: McDonald’s.

It goes like this: We hit Gosford Road and flew like the Furies were chasing us. Clouds rolled past. Time slowed. This was our video game. Pull out the joystick. Hit the fire button. Blast some asteroids. Jump like Frogger. Fly like the Pacman family. Donkey Kong it. You get the picture. Soaring Xervious adventure. This was old school.

We hit the drive-thru in style. Jai Ann had no idea what was soaring through my veins. She couldn’t feel the 80s. But she could feel something: 80s Generation X energy. After two Sprites, oh, and a coffee-for-the-old-man later, we pulled out. But suddenly Lando (as I usually call him) swerved back into the lot. “What’s going on?” I say.

“You’re drivin’.” Damn if he ain’t the captain.

Aw, hell yeah. My kid does love me. My foot still tingles as I remember. I imagine pressing down on the gas, the fuzzy dice above the dash, the fuzzy steering wheel cover in my grip like a puppy coming for a lick. I think about the tires on the road, the El Camino zooming toward the horizon. Yeah, Gran Torino should have been playing on my boy’s iPod followed by Fast and the Furious, Gone in Sixty Seconds and the highlights of Tron.

The next day my eyes were wider than usual. I’m standing around the car with he and his brother Jordo (Real name Jordan). The hood is up. We’re glaring into that secret of the universe that mechanics and teen boys dream about. We’re electricity zoomin’ through the distributor, fuel slippin’ through the filter, belts searing in hot passion, pulling by the radiator. “Aw yeah. I got it,” I say. My boys look over. “Candy apple red. White stripes up the hood.”

“Oh yeah,” Lando says then adds, “Can’t though. Cops would target that.”

I give him the I-don’t-care shrug as if I should be yelling out: “Murder is worse. Let’s do this thing. Let’s paint the town when we’re done with the car.”

While I’m tired and my head is spinning from having just pushed the El Camino through a busy intersection at Ming Avenue and Oak Street—as if JELL-O legs could ever attach to a robot—that doesn’t matter, I’m right back to dreaming: this car is a rocketship. “Oh yeah.”

VIDEO: El Camino, Lando On Guitar, At Intersection Right Before Breakdown