Small town living is always the same, whether it’s in Arkansas, Idaho, or Missouri. Built on the backs of linked story collections like Winesboro, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson and Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock, Volt (Graywolf Press) by Alan Heathcock follows the lives of a handful of lost souls, tragedy washing over them like a great flood, people with names like Winslow, and Jorgen, and Vernon. In the fictional town of Krafton, we see what people do when living out in the woods, close to nature. When there’s nothing to do, they make their own fun, picking fights over nothing, running through cornfields, tipping over cows. In a small town, everybody knows everybody, and gets in their business, sometimes to help, and sometimes to enable their own survival.

My love affair with America was inflamed today as I sat at the bar of Margie’s Diner on the verge of the 101.

Lit up by determined, crimson letters flashing *Real Food* *Real Food* *Real Food* a man in a stained and faded hunting jacket stirred his coffee for the seventh minute and a waitress licked her lips and winked at me… and my heart skipped a beat.

I used to write. I used to write a lot. I wrote about everything that happened to me, the daily minutiae, the ups and downs and highs and lows. Hundreds of people tuned in when I posted online to hear about my sex life, my love life, my boozy escapades and narrow escapes, my darkness and light. And then one day I stopped. I got happy and distracted. I became enmeshed in a loving relationship and kept my stories safe and secret. I got caught up in caring for someone and making a home. I put writing aside. I stopped sharing the ups and downs. I held my cards close to my chest and even, over time, grew to distaste the idea of writing about my life. I became grossed out at all the TMI-ness of it all. The very thought of writing something personal provoked a Pavlovian gagging in my throat.

I was amused when it was suggested that my Gravatar wear a fedora.  It happens that I really do have one, a particular piece of headgear that has special meaning to me – not that anyone could have possibly known that.  Note that I didn’t say “I wear one” because I’m not actually much of a hat guy, aside from the occasional utilitarian ball cap.  But I have one.  It’s rather small, well-worn and lives in an old trunk in my basement.  It belonged to an equally small and well-worn man who was a larger-than-life icon in my childhood.

My childhood was pretty bleak, growing up on the edge of poverty and being raised primarily by… well… myself and the television.  My parents were unhappily married and equally unhappy about an accidental pregnancy in their forties, my mother once confessing that she was about to file for divorce (scandalous for their generation) until she found out she was pregnant with me.  They were distant both to each other and to the accident that bound them, a distance reinforced by the fact that both worked just to barely keep our heads above water.  When I say this, I don’t mean it in modern McMansion-we-couldn’t-afford terms.  It was only when my eldest brother kicked in his entire construction paycheck that we had the luxury of paying the rent and affording food for the month.

My mother was a neurotic mess, believing that the best way to handle this late-in-life burden was a mix of barked orders, slapping hands and shrieked dire warnings.  My father was a passive-aggressive sulker who, not wanting to divide his parenting efforts in a similar manner, specialized almost exclusively in ignoring my existence.  On a good day, it almost looked like he was encouraging my intellectual curiosity by meeting my questions with silence or by responding with either “Ask your mother” or “Look it up.”

On the bright side, with both parents working, my life was pretty simple and structured.  From third grade on, I came home directly after school – no time for friends or hanging out, since my mother worked a four-to-midnight shift – and let myself in with my own key.  My mother would then berate me for being late anyway and fly out the door with the usual litany of all the potential deathtraps to avoid – don’t go near the windows (proximity would lead to my being sucked out and plummeting to my death sixty feet below), don’t answer the door (I would be kidnapped, molested and/or murdered), don’t touch the kitchen knives (they’re known for turning on their masters and severing wrists).  Lighting the gas stove to cook my own dinners ironically never came up on that little morbidity and mortality report but whatever.  My father was a floor manager at a retail department store (long since defunct) and, being salaried, was pretty much an indentured servant from opening until closing, not usually getting home until after seven each night, which left eight-year-old me on my own for a good four hours.

On my own except for the man referenced by my mother as an afterthought to her daily Cassandra routine. “If something happens, call Uncle Tony.”

There’s lots of missing and conflicting details about Anthony Gianquitto and it wasn’t until after my cousin died – barely surviving her parents – that anyone attempted a genealogy of that branch of the family.  I always remember Uncle Tony as being “old” – although that was anyone over forty to me back then – but exceptionally hale.  As it turns out, he was born in the late nineteenth century, making him about fifteen years older than he looked.  He married my father’s half-sister somewhere between world wars and sired one child, a daughter.  But he became the father-figure to most of the neighborhood, myself included.

He was a small, wiry little Sicilian monkey of a man. Looking back and picturing reference points, I’d probably guess he was about 5’6″ and I’d be shocked if he was ever more than a buck ten in weight. He was quick with a smile and a laugh – always genuine – and spoke the most horrifically broken English. He was gentle and generous, understanding and philosophical.  He also once bit off a much larger rival’s ear in a fight over my aunt’s hand.

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

During World War Two, he wasn’t allowed to serve in our armed forces – perhaps because of ethnicity, perhaps age – but he was a patriot as only an immigrant can be and, in an effort to serve his adopted homeland, he got whatever job he could, eventually literally working on the war machine of America as a machinist.  It was a different world back then, one in which “Italians need not apply” was still a recent and socially acceptable attitude.  Combining that bigotry with the fact that Italy had sided with Hitler, it wasn’t entirely unsurprising that Tony was threatened on his second day.  So, on his third day, he went to work, grabbed a flat of scrap steel, ground a crude edge on a knife that would’ve given Jim Bowie a hard-on, beat the shit out of the guy that threatened him the previous day and generally announced that he would gut like a fish anyone that tried to keep him from doing his part “for-A-may-ree-ka” (it was all one word, the way he spoke it) from that point forward. He carried it under his shirt every day. One of my brothers inherited that knife when Tony passed. I may have to steal it some day.

That was the only tale I’d ever heard that involved him being employed.  I have no idea what job skills he possessed or what he did for a living before he retired but I had unwavering faith that there was nothing in the universe this gargantuan little man couldn’t handle, negotiate or make right.  He was – and I suppose, on some level, still is – my idol and the closest thing I ever found to a superhero.  A superhero whose only costume was his fedora.

Tony was always a part of my life and I don’t remember ever seeing him outdoors – even on family trips to the beach – without that fedora on his dome nor do I remember ever seeing him indoors without it in ready reach. It is visible in almost every picture I have of him.  I don’t recall any transition, either. It was like this binary magic trick: outdoors on – poof! – indoors off.  I would visit downstairs early (he lived on the third floor of our apartment building, we lived on the fifth) and find him already awake, almost always dressed in dark slacks, a “wife-beater” undershirt and a simple dress shirt over it. Tucked in, of course – Tony was no cafone. You could tell the seasons by the length of the sleeves and how many buttons were undone. You could also tell the time of day by his seated activity. If he was sitting in the kitchen, reading the newspaper, having espresso and a single slice of toasted Italian bread, it was morning. If he was sitting in the dining room, having espresso with a few fingers of Sambuca, it was mid-morning. If he was siting in the livingroom, watching a baseball game, having a Miller Lite (I worship him, so I forgive this) and a slice of prosciutto on a single slice of untoasted Italian bread, it was noon.  If he was sitting in the dining room, eating like a longshoreman who’d just come off the Bataan Death March and washing it down with more espresso and Sambuca, it was five o’clock. I usually had to go back home before I could see what he was eating and drinking to denote bedtime.

Somewhere in the midst of these repasts, several times each day, he would make the rounds.  I used to say that he was the mayor of our neighborhood but that doesn’t show enough respect or convey the love he inspired.  He wasn’t some mere elected official.  He was at the very least our beloved knight errant if not our fedora-crowned king.  Uncle Tony taught me the difference between power and authority.  Keep in mind, there are some… “unsavory” relatives in my family.  I don’t mean muggers and pickpockets.  I mean guys with interesting nicknames who tended to spell “family” with a capital “F”.  Uncle Tony not only wasn’t one of them, he used to routinely run them off.  His wife, my aunt, was pretty much estranged from her family because this corrupt, murderous, violent pack of classic Guinea gangsters was scared shitless of this affable little monkey-man, who possessed a genial forthrightness that camouflaged a hidden but unstoppable intensity.  You did not want to piss him off.  Remember that whole ear thing.

Uncle Tony would don his fedora and just wander the neighborhood. He’d walk the tenth-of-a-mile to the local bodega and buy the morning edition.  He’d chat with the owner, with half the customers as they stopped in on the way to work, with the other shop owners along the block.  In a city suffering from severe racial tensions and in which there were some places you just didn’t go unless you were “the right kind”, Uncle Tony walked with relaxed impunity.  He would identify people as “Chinaman”, “Portoriccan”, “da Black” but they were statements of obvious features, like saying “the one-legged bald guy”.  There were no connotations – people were just people and you treated them with human respect until they earned your contempt, which you delivered with equal sincerity.  I went with him a few times and it was a veritable cacophony of “Hey! Tony!” the whole way.

And he knew their names. He knew their family stories. He knew their problems. He remembered every detail and asked – sincerely – “Howz-i-goin wit dat…[fill in the personal problem here]?”  And it wasn’t a manipulative thing nor was it a “community organizer” thing.  It was just… Tony.  Every person he talked to was his best and only friend yet was nearly forgotten as soon as he saw the next face.  He listened, he heard, he offered a little advice and a large side order of “So what? Life’s good!”  He was totally invested yet completely detached and everybody felt better after talking to Tony.  They called him “Boss”, like the rest of us in the family did.  I’ll always remember that.  Those “other relatives” might be called that, too, but they demanded it.  It was extorted respect, borne of fear.  My uncle?  It was tribute.  It was honor.  It was respect, freely given.

Of course, he had his quirks. He was utterly baffled by my Irish mother’s resistance to his giving her seven-year-old a glass of wine with dinner.  He would smuggle me shots of Sambuca on Sunday morning.  For some reason, he treated Bulova watches with absolute reverence and would occasionally show me his, ensconced in a mahogany box, like he was revealing the Ark of the Covenant.  He always carried a pocketknife.  Nothing “tactical”, just a simple folder – but I saw him cut through rope with it like it was a fucking lightsaber.  The admonition to “don’ never touch da blade” came out of his mouth every time the knife came out of his pocket.  He taught me how to oil a sharpening stone and hone a razor’s edge.  He taught me a lot of things, all by example.  About honor, about respecting others, about being true to your word, about the irrelevancy of odds and effort when you’re doing what you believe is right.  About forgiveness and compassion.

When I was an early teen, he saw that I was drifting towards “certain bad elements” and did his best to keep tabs on me.  When one of my less-proud moments came to light, I found I wasn’t the least bit afraid of the law nor did I care what my parents thought.  But the idea that I had disappointed Tony devastated me.  I bawled like a baby when I apologized to him, even though he wasn’t at all involved in the incident.  He waited until I was done, patted me on the thigh, smiled, and simply said, “Don’ be sorry. Jus’ be safe.”

When I was sixteen, he had a stroke and lost the ability to speak.  It didn’t seem to impact his English skills too terribly and had no effect on his daily neighborhood interviews.  There’s something to be said for the expressive qualities of Italian hand gestures.  His wife eventually had a brain aneurysm and died instantly on the bathroom floor.  I was in my late teens by then and the only one of my clan still in the neighborhood but I was at work.  He hollered and gestured out the window for help for over three hours before somebody called the cops and they came to investigate.  It wouldn’t have helped my aunt any had I been there but… that took a toll on him, which took a toll on me.  He was never the same after that.

My cousin, then a “spinster” in her mid-fifties…. Well, I won’t speak ill of her because I can’t imagine what she was going through but I don’t know what the fuck she was thinking.  She put Tony in a nursing home.  Each of my siblings and I begged her to let him live with us.  Nothing doing.  And it was worse than the fucking dog pound.  Every time I’d visit him, he’d start putting on his slacks and fedora and I had to explain – again – that he had to stay and I wasn’t taking him home.  I was a nineteen year old kid and screwed up in my own right but to this day I am shamed to my soul that I stopped going to see him because those scenes were just too hard on my heart.  Whatever I may have accomplished in my life since then, I will always consider myself a coward for that.

The nurses loved him and, even nearing the century mark, he was doing his best to return the favor.  Hardly a year later, though, he was gone.  They said he was in the best mood ever, had a nice dinner, flirted with them (hand gestures only, mind you), waved goodbye, closed his eyes and just died.  They said he was still smiling when they took him away.

A few years later, when my cousin drank herself to death, I flew back out and helped go through the apartment.  There wasn’t much I wanted.  Just one thing, really, since the knife had already been spoken for.  And now I have a trunk in my basement and at its bottom is a very small-headed fedora.  It’s seen better days but that’s okay.  It’s not for wearing anymore.  It’s for looking at.  For talking to.  For confessing my weaknesses and recounting my proudest moments.

I am now a forty-year-old man and have led, I suspect, a far different life than Tony had, with a lot more time spent in shades of moral grey.  I have eschewed an urban environment for the quiet privacy of suburbia and the quasi-rural.  And I have little use for a watch of any brand.  But I have a reputation for being garrulous and gregarious and am well-known at the shops and restaurants I frequent.  And I remember – and actually care about – all the small details of the lives of the people there as well.  I know the busboy, Brian, spent seven years in the navy; that Melissa, the barrista, is fluent in Russian; that David, the manager, is studying to be a doctor and is a volunteer medic at night; that Devon runs a girls’ lacrosse camp in Florida every summer; that Steve wants to move to Oregon with his wife to make a clean break and start over.  I am trusted because I listen well and take great pains to keep secrets hidden, even when revealing them would hurt only others rather than myself.  And I have involved myself in people’s problems because it was the right thing to do, even though it may have cost me much and profited me nothing.  And I carry a simple, rather sharp pocketknife – among other things – with me everywhere.  But I only wear a fedora on this website because I am not much of a hat guy.

I do sorely miss a man that was, though.

It’s always nice to have visitors visiting when you’re living abroad. They bring reminders that no matter how much you miss the States, the States stay pretty much the same. This is like everywhere, though. Our first visitor, the daughter of our roommate Deanne’s hairdresser, had won a contest. She mailed in the back of some cat food and got a 7-day, 6-night setup around the Iberian Peninsula. Her father, Deanne told us, was a deeply religious and protective man and mandated that his daughter’s trip would only extend as far as Madrid, where she would stay with Deanne (and us) away from the vicissitudes of foreignness, an isolated beaker of propriety. Her name was Carla and she was anorexic, a gargantuan alcoholic and just shy of being an “imbecile,” defined like the antiquated English usage.

Carla arrived into Barajas airport in Madrid. The four of us, my roommates, James, myself, Deanne and Caron, bought her a drink at Barajas airport and left in a taxi, a real treat. Carla later assured us that she wouldn’t burden us with having to take her on as a house-guest for a week and was excited to be out on her own in “Mexico.” Yes, Mexico. She’d only stay a night. “Totally!” Spain beat Mexico. This once.

As a guest, we felt obliged to give Carla a night on the town. We’d been living cheaply, but all of us had credit cards, so we ventured out to a German bar called the “Rats Keller.” Every city has one of these, just like every city has an Irish bar called “The Blarney Stone.” I don’t know why we always went to the Rats Keller with our out-of-country guests. Oh, sure I do.

We’d inevitably order a three-liter concoction known as “Der Vulkan,” which consisted of a liter of vodka, a liter of rum, a liter of gin and a then some Jagermeister and orange juice. The straws they gave us were Crazy Straws and the drink had a bunch of umbrellas scattered about it, drowned or drowning in the alcoholic filth. It was a real horror of drink-making, but we always ordered it. The problem is, you just can’t drink that much without ensuring some form of disaster. Especially if you’re a 90-pound anorexic imbecile with a death wish.

Carla attacked Der Vulkan with Bibilical enthusiasm. By seizing all five straws and inhaling a solid third of the drink, my roommates and I looked around at each other, rolling our eyes, knowing, or thinking we knew, what would come next.

What came next was a true tour-de-force of blacked-out endurance. After finishing Der Vulkan (My roommates and I commandeered it and drank the beast in tag-teamed flurries), we had to put some food in this creature.  The rest of us sat at a tapas bar and ate chorizo and olives while Carla went around the bar, grabbing the penises of the bar’s patrons. This is no way to operate, so James and I tried to spirit her away from these men who, at a point, were convinced (perhaps rightly so) that this drooling trollop was a sure bet. It would also be ludicrous to deny that James and I both had selfish interests in mind. I think James would admit that.I miss him.

Something kicked in Carla, though, something that I can only describe as a sort of Las Vegas adrenaline that keeps you on your heater even after you’ve had seventeen scotches. And Carla went on a heater. Through a gauntlet of dance clubs, pubs, bars and bistros, Carla tore through the night like an ethylene comet. She spoke no Spanish, so her tirades against “Mexico” were even more offensive. There is nothing so excruciating, I imagine, than to be yelled at by an American ghoul in its native tongue. We broke up fights with hookers, withdrew her from a dumpster, ceased her insistence on removing her clothes in the Plaza Mayor and then retreated back to our apartment seven hours later, James and I, quite drunk ourselves, trying to reinvigorate Carla’s insistence on removing her clothes.

“You guys are pigs,” said Carla, as James and I both went in for a pre-coital neckrub (Carla had collapsed in front of our couch, sitting upright, held in this fashion only by virtue of the durability of our couch, and sundry theories postulateed by Sir Isaac). “Why don’t you let me see your pigs,” she blathered, somewhat seductively. James and I both looked at each other. Convinced this travesty of nature on loan from San Pedro, California was in the middle of a blackout, James asked me, in a normal voice, “Does she mean our penises, I wonder?”

“I was just thinking that,” I said. James took the reins. “Carla, when you say you want to see our pigs, is that a synonym for dick and balls or does that mean something else?”

“Synonome. Syndrome. Synful. Syn,” she hissed. “I want cock.” ‘I want cock’ is a sort of desperate thing to say. It works out okay in pornographic movies because the scenarios are always so outrageous to begin with. But, if you’re standing around your apartment with your best friend, your two female roommates watching the exchange take place and laughing, it’s a desperate line, not a sexy line. It’s amazing how an orgy is the end result of most male thinking when surrounded by drunk women, but what’s really amazing is that we’ll say things like ‘to say I want cock is desperate and pathetic.’ How not desperate and pathetic of us. Synecdoche not metonymy. A teacher taught me that. There is a difference. Wake up, Smith!

James, Deanne, Caron and I all had a prodigious laugh at Carla’s expense and moved her on top of the couch, where she could find some Sandman after a long day and night. Sometime before dawn, James and I both emerged (I slept in the girl’s bedroom, on the floor this night) and bumped into each other trying to coerce Carla into wakeful, naughty ill-advised sexuality. Drunk. We laughed at our mutual desperate night moves and finally retired to our sleep spaces, this time for good.

Morning. I am hit across the face with a mop. “Tyler, goddamnit what the FUCK have you done?” This scene is repeated next door, to James. Caron and Deanne wanted their bases covered. Caron hit me, Deanne hit James, and we both woke up supremely nuisanced and confused by the crowing. I hit James, because why not?

“There is SHIT everywhere!” the girls wheezed in unison.

“Like what kind of shit, Caron?”

“Like what kind of shit, Deanne?

“PEOPLE SHIT!”

James and I were then forced from our beds to examine people shit. Sure enough, there was people shit everywhere. Rather, person shit. At this point, it’s all Murders in the Poo Morgue speculation, as nobody can prove anything. However, rubbing feces on things, I imagine, is something you either do once—then stop drinking forever—or you do it with some regularity and thus have few friends. The shit is analyzed through perfunctory examination, through gags. It’s on the living room wall, the doorknob of James’s room, and the point of origin—the bathroom—as a grotesque triptych of fecal matter, vomit and other post-apocalyptic fluid. This is nobody’s filth we know. You live with some people long enough, you know things. Why the ladies hadn’t pinned the crime on Carla earlier, we felt was sexist.

“Oh, like only a guy would shit on a wall, Caron.”

“A woman wouldn’t do that kind of thing, you idiots. Even as we sleep, we have an internal governor that won’t allow baboon shit-throwing. Even crazy women, like really crazy, I’ll bet they don’t go throwing shit around.” This sounded convincing.  James piped up,

“It must have been Tyler.”

“Dickface! Look at that shit. Those are the bowel contents of a woman.”

“Where’s Carla,” asked Deanne through a wine-soaked handkerchief. All we had was wine. It’s all we ever had. So to combat the stench of last night’s disaster, we all took a cue from Deanne and drank a large swallow of Don Simon boxed wine, wet a rag or handkerchief with some more wine, then continued on our investigation.

“She’s not here,” said James. “By the way, weren’t we supposed to not let her get away? Deanne you promised her father, who seems kind of Croatian and deadly.”

“He is,” Deanne clarified. “We should find her, then make her clean up this shit.”

“Where should we look?”

“I don’t know. Let’s just get the hell out of here.”

Where, pumpkin? WHERE?

It was for moments like these that I have an undying nostalgia. When people disappear now, there is no adventure, only panic. When people disappear now, it either ends badly or ends boringly. But in Madrid, fortified by our fortified wine and a cool morning March air, we all trundled out of the apartment to try and track down our AWOL in a kind of renewed optimistic charge.

There is nothing more invigorating for the stultified, frictionally unemployed American abroad than a project. Hell, a mystery. Caron remembered that, had her father not demanded she be incarcerated in our apartment, the itinerary of the cat food grand prize called for a trip down to the south of Spain, in Granada. The four of us hopped on the subway toward the bus station whose routes ran to the south. We arrived at the ticket counter and asked the vendor if there had been any Americans that looked like they were in pretty bad shape who had earlier boarded the train to Granada.

“All the Americans look like they’re in bad shape.”

“Yeah, but this one was particularly bad. A woman, possibly covered in mierda,” James added.

“No, not today. I haven’t seen anyone like that today,” replied the ticket vendor, sucking impatiently from a black tobacco cigarette.

“Alright,” said Deanne. “What are we doing here?”

“Yeah, what are we doing here,” asked Caron.

“How mean is this barber, by the way?” asked James.

“That bad,” said Deanne.

“This wasn’t my idea,” I defensed. They say that the first 48 hours is the crucial time after a disappearance. After that, your odds of survival go down e to the x and so do those of your rescuers, assuming this Croatian barber is as murderous as he looms in our heads, our lives. It had been around ten hours since anyone laid eyes on our guest. We called the airport. No good there. Carla is still in the country, a good thing, we agree. But where?

“Deanne, if you were Carla where would you go?”

“How the hell would I know?”

“You’re both from San Pedro and you have Croatian ties.”

“Just because I’m part Croatian doesn’t mean I’m in the fucking mafia.” Deanne would always insist that we knew her family was only partly affiliated with organized crime.

“I’d probably go shopping,” Deanne said, finally. James, Caron and I all laughed at Deanne’s preposterous reply until it was clear that this is what, according to Deanne, someone from San Pedro would in fact do after smearing their own shit around a veritable stranger’s apartment: They would go shopping. Isn’t that beautiful, in its way?

We went to The Corte Ingles, where we would later buy a turkey, but now, we were looking for a diseased humanoid in cosmetics. We cased the entire mall searching for Carla, ogling the ranch dressing and basketballs inside this ersatz America. The English Court. They’re too embarrassed to plea in front of The Corte Estadounidense. We window shopped for an hour or two, eventually realizing that Carla would have to come to us. She’s had too long to move. There is nothing we can do. We will wait until twenty-four hours from now, then we will call Carla’s father. We’ve started to call him “The Bavarian Butcher,” even though none of us are certain where Bavaria is, only that it vaguely sounds like somewhere where Croatia could be. We stop in to The Quiet Man, the pub directly below our apartment and order four calimochos (Molarity=1.5 parts wine, i part Coca-Cola, one part cocaina from Jayne, our bartender. Jayne is from London. She moved to Madrid for a man ten years ago and “here I still fuckin’ am, pouring pints for these cunts and cunts like you Yanks and just can’t find my way out. If I find him, I’ll Micky Finn’em, freeze his dick, snap it off and fuck him to death with it. For starters.”

“Jayne, have you seen an American girl, possibly covered in shit, anywhere around the neighborhood?”

“No, ‘fraid not. Not lately.” This is one reason to love Jayne. She never asked “Why,” something I think is both tragic and great. With Jayne, things were just because. There is a shit-covered American walking around this neighborhood because…The man I followed to this cunty shithole left me because…The girl last week was hit by a car in front of here because…Life is because.

We smoked cigarettes (except for James, who would only endure tobacco when mixed with hashish, thus only smoking the equivalent of a pack a day) and tried to retrace the night’s steps.

“It makes no fucking sense to retrace the night, you assholes. We were all there until we all weren’t and then we went to sleep,” Caron pointed out. We know what happened. We just don’t know how happened. It sounded like something Jayne would say, which attracted me to Caron immensely. “Let’s just set up shop at the apartment. She’s probably been banging on the fucking door all day and we’ve been out trying to find her—things always happen like that.”

“She’s right,” said James. “It’s the jinx. We should wait upstairs for her.”

“If I did what she did I wouldn’t come back,” I offered.

“Sure you would, Tyler. But you’d deny it. You’d be terrible at denying it, but you’d be convinced you were selling the hell out of your performance, your amateur gig, that everybody would feel so bad for you, I, or someone else would manage to admit to ourselves—even though we were lying to ourselves and knew it—that we had done it and this would convince you that we were convinced you’d taken yourself off the hook—that’s why I knew it wasn’t you. If it were you, we’d be pointing the finger at Deanne. She’s a softy and doesn’t want to upset you,” said Caron.

“If you weren’t so careful not to overdo it, I’d say that was almost like an angry rant,” I said to Caron, in that way people begin to flirt. She looked at me.

“I am so not a fucking softy, Caron. My family’s in the fucking mafia. San Pedro, bitch.”

“Yeah, well let’s go back up and find your girl from the Pedro.”

“She’s not my girl,” snorted Deanne. We finished our drinks and James and I took the elevator while Caron and Deanne took the stairs. James and I arrived at the door to our apartment, hearing only screams, then Caron opening the door and pleading we make ourselves scarce for a few minutes.

“Is everything okay,” we asked.

“No,” said Caron. And closed the door.

“Is she in there?” I screamed through the door.

“Yes,” said Caron.

“Why can’t we come in? Is she nude?” asked James, continuing, “because if she’s nude this is bullshit. If there were a nude guy in there we’d let you come in.”

“She’s not nude,” said Caron. “She’s having a nervous breakdown.”

“Well let us in, damnit,” I replied, eager to see what a nervous breakdown looked like. Everybody always talks about them, but you only see the anesthetized aftermath. Like Brian Wilson. I don’t care about him on his medication—I want to see what happens when he snaps. I want to see Clara snap. I want to see Clara in a sandbox, tobillo up to cat fluid, cat solid. But Caron and Deanne decided to be selfish and watch the thing for themselves. I would have probably done the same, but I still felt ripped off.

“No. You guys go down to the Lab or something. The Lab was our bar. It’s full name was “El Laboratorio.” Come back in an hour or two.” The Lab was a heavy metal/transvestite bar around the corner from our apartment. That’s right, it was called El Laboratorio. It was one of the deadliest bars in Madrid, but we endeared ourselves to the management early on. Going to “The Lab” was always a good idea, nothing bad happened there. And that’s not something I’d say because I’m trying to be ironic. That’s something I’d say because it’s true—nothing bad happened at El Laboratorio. At least for me. James and I agreed to go down to the Lab, but we threatened violence if, in an hour or two, we weren’t let back in to our flat. Our flat. Our flat—reason enough to geograph—our flat. Who can say that?

“Go fuck yourselves,” said Caron. You could always tell when she was smiling—you just had to hear her.
The Lab was situated at the end of Calle Valverde, our street. Calle Valverde is only one block long, but it’s one hell of a block. Valverde juts off from Gran Via, that main artery, pulsing blood and life for one little block, then splash…into a vomit of heavy metal/transvestite gore at the entrance to El Laboratorio. You turn off of life and roar toward frozen death, turning off Gran Via, down Valverde, open the door to the Lab (if the rest of the Valverde gauntlet hasn’t got you yet). There’s Manuel, as he always is. Nothing bad ever happens in the Lab.

Manuel is Moroccan with some French in him, he says. This isn’t at all important because he’s consistently garbed in assless leather chaps, a Houston Astros 1980s throwback jersey and smoking a “baseball bat,” his name for the enormous hash joints he’d roll and smoke and roll and smoke.

“Fucking pooosies,” he’d snarl, in what I’d think he thought was a coy way. “You need anything, I get for you. Teresa, for the American Texans two whiskey dicks, pero echalas con fuerza, eh?” Teresa knew what we drank. DYC is a Spanish whiskey.

When you say “Whiskey DYC” it sounds like “Whiskey Dick,” which everybody thinks is funny. We certainly did. That’s why we explained what “whiskey dick” was to Manuel in the first place. This way, your sympathies won’t be compromised (or they will) and you can either dilute your feelings or let them howl until they hit a wall. But nobody’s dead, not dead yet.

We sat with our whisky dicks and laughed in an awkward way about the Carla situation.

“You tried to hook up with her and she makes mierda on the walls. Does that make you angry,” I asked.

“You tried to hook up with her, too!” James barked.

“I was only watching to make sure you stayed out of her pants, out of trouble.”

“They don’t play as much AC/DC in this bar as they used to,” James changed the subject.

“I could request some. I haven’t DJ’ed here in a while. Maybe they’d let me spin a few records.”

“They never let you DJ, Tyler. You just jump behind the turntable when the DJ goes to the bathroom,” corrected James.

“Really?”

“Really.” Conversation with James had recently taken on an odd, disjointed characteristic. He was having a tough time of it in Spain. First of all, he was 6’6” and Spain does not accommodate those kinds of dimensions. He suffered repeated blows to the skull from low-hanging signs, flags, bars, trees, monuments, and just about anything else along the way. Secondly, there’s always a woman. Oh, smash. That’s later.

“It’s probably been an hour,” I finally said.

“Yeah, let’s go up.”

We took the elevator up to our 2nd floor apartment and knocked. Caron and Deanne stood at the doorway, making a “shh” gesture with their fingers to their lips.

“C’mon,” Caron said. “She’s asleep. Let’s go down to the Lab.” This was always happening. Just when you think you’ve made it home, the tractor beam of El Laboratorio pulsed on and led you back for one more drink, one more episode.

“So what the hell happened,” I asked. The girls took long draws off their whiskey dicks and began. They told how Carla said she had “never had so much to drink, that this isn’t who she usually is.”

“That wasn’t me,” they would say, but it was. People behave the way they are. There are no missteps or out-of-character episodes; it is all tied together somehow. Why demure? Wail, if you will, with all ancestry in your corner, the primordial crack. What is this nonsense about “things I don’t normally do?” You did them last night. You may do them again today. Unload and submit.

“I hope not, “said James. “Did she admit to smearing shit all over our house?”

“No,” said Deanne, “but we’re sure it’s her. She smells like shit even though she was in the washer.”

“What do you mean—in the washer.”

“That’s where she spent most of today. She crammed herself into the washing machine, because she was scared.” Deanne went on to explain that, according to Carla, she’d woken up nude on the roof, covered in filth. “She was so confused and freaked out she decided to hide in our washing machine.”
The girls found Carla this way, wedged into our washing machine that barely fit three pairs of jeans. I can’t imagine what this species of cramped solitude must be like.

“So who cleans up the shit,” asked James.

“Deanne propped a mop up on her head and lay a bucket of soapy water down at the edge of the bed. That should give her a clue,” said Caron.

“I’m not going in there until she cleans it up,” said Deanne.

“Me neither. It smells like a zoo,” agreed Caron.

“Well, I’m fine here,” I said. James opted to go back to the apartment and sleep in his bed, no matter the stench. We never knew if Carla and James talked that evening, as Caron, Deanne and I sat in the darkened bladder of the Lab and drank another night away. Maybe he didn’t say anything.

The next morning, as we stumbled in to a pristine apartment, I noticed something: Carla began to eat. She sat quietly in the corner and ate. Plate after plate of spaghetti and tomate frito sauce. She looked invigorated, plausible. Besides, she had to eat. Or talk. She couldn’t talk. Because to talk would mean to explain and to explain would mean spiritual death. There are no explanations. There is no way you usually are. The rent is late. The war is never over by Christmas. Shit happens. Shit unhappens. Did something click? Did someone say something? Whatever it was, it cured her anorexia, at least for the time being.
Caron and Deanne woke up early and accompanied Carla to the airport the next day.

Carla went home to San Pedro, to her unreasonable barber father, and to her cat, who she was missing anyway.

Well, yippe-ki-yay. It’s December and it’s snowing in Texas. While people skid across the highway and spin into guardrails, I’m sitting in front of this blinking cursor, drinking coffee, while something with a piano in it winds its way out of speakers and into my head. It’s cold and my plans have been interrupted. Not just my weekend plans either, but all of them.

I find myself somehow acutely aware of everything around me. Instead of inspired I feel sadness. Not the depressed, debilitating kind, but the kind that is just there. It’s a part of me that is playing spectator and is unhappy with what he’s seeing. He sees what’s missing instead of what’s there. He sees the things that he can’t have instead of the things he can. He stands with his toes on the cliff’s edge, looking down at some incredible valley below instead of running into it.

He is tunnel-visioned. People see what they are looking for and right now all he knows is this uneasiness. It’s not even a conscious decision at this point, but instead something that has been around for such a long time that it’s grown comfortable, like old leather.  Memories come back like waves on a beach, each one washing in and leaving something old and forgotten on the shore. Always at this time of year. Always December.

Four years ago… I’m driving a new car, a super-cushy bank account, Christmas in five places, my family and my girlfriend’s at the time. I’m standing on stage in my own little empire, small and trivial, but mine nonetheless…

Three years ago… I’m dating a girl that I’m crazy about. There’s a concert in Shreveport. I go to Los Angeles to hang out. I’m eating dinner with the executive prouder of the Academy Awards. He couldn’t care less who I am, he’s just a friend of a friend, but it’s no less cool to me. I have huge plans. I’m anti-Christmas and she is committed to changing my mind about that. She buys me my favorite shirt and I get her a cat. It will end quickly and awkwardly in the almost immediate future.

Two years ago… I’m in St. Louis. I go on stage in ten minutes. My phone rings as I walk through the mall attached to the comedy club. I don’t have time to answer this, but I know she snuck away to call me. A few days later, an empty apartment, laying on the floor and staring at the ceiling… Everything has changed. The truck is packed. I leave for good in the morning. This could be a horrible mistake or it could be amazing. Now I’m flying to DC. My dad’s going in for surgery. My brother calls and tells me that things didn’t go so well. It’s a coma. Showtime is in an hour. Be funny now, Slade. I’m in the airport headed home. I read an email on my Blackberry that makes it a bit better, for the moment anyway. I spend Christmas day listening to piano music in the hospital lobby.

One year ago… This is a first. I’m not just disenchanted with Christmas, I’m dreading it. I’m packing my stuff again for my fifth move in twelve months. These Christmas carols are torturous. Certain people are gone forever, and other people are harder to reach. Oh, that’s why. Great. I’m back in DC now. God, this is déjà vu. I want to call my dad to say hello.  I instinctively pull out my phone and then silently slide it back into my pocket.  A year later and I still do that.  I bury my iPod in my backpack because every song reminds me of something. I send a text message. I don’t get a response.

This year… it is snowing. The DC club is closed now and I’ve decided that I never want to see that city again. Every time it comes up, I lose something else. More is gone every year. I watch as it deteriorates and fades around me. Maybe this is what it’s supposed to be like. Maybe I’m being stripped down to my emotional skeleton for a reason. I’ve given up trying to understand or make sense of other people’s actions. Find some solace in having been wrong about them. It makes you human. It pushes me to find congruency in my own life, a balance between what I say and what I do. I never want to contradict myself like that. Just click “delete” and move on…

It’s okay to feel this way this year. Just this year though. Immerse myself in it. Succumb to it. They tell you that you can’t, that you have to pick up your head and regroup and pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Who has bootstraps? I’m okay with the experience of it. Not every Christmas is blinking lights and children’s laughter and sugar cookies and sleigh rides. Sometimes you are allowed to watch it all from the street, through frosted windows, standing in the cold, wet air.

It is snowing.

It could be any of us outside that window, fogging up the glass, and if it’s you, take some comfort in the fact that you’re not the only one standing in that street this year.

In photos from his youth he looked like a porcelain doll, a severely myopic puppet. When I knew him, he was in constant motion, a coiled spring: knee bouncing, fingers grasping and lighting cigarettes, eyes darting, lips moving and always talking sports. I couldn’t keep up with him though I knew I was smarter.

He was my mother’s only sibling, born when my grandmother was in her 40s, eventually becoming too much for her to care for. Back then my Uncle Billy had a sweeping range of unspecified mental issues (widely ignored by all around him), yet he possessed an eidetic memory for sports trivia. (Asperger’s Syndrome wouldn’t be recognized until 1944 and only officially named for Hans Asperger in 1981, a year after the good doctor’s death.) He was hyperactive, displayed attention deficit tendencies, was susceptible to stimulants and depressants alike. We merely called him Silly Billy, but not to his face. Billy was simply complicated.

I’d say my life started at the approximate moment that my identical twin sister died next to me in my mother’s womb.

After that, it moves all over the place.  But that was the key moment, right then.  And it, being the key moment, has peppered every other moment in my life.

Before grade school – kindergarten, I believe:  I took piano lessons with a woman whose age I cannot remember.  She forbade her students to touch the keys of the piano.  We were “dirty little children,” and we could not be trusted to keep her piano, which was not actually her piano, but the school’s piano, clean.  Instead, we played “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” pounding out each note on the wooden plank that covered the keys when the piano was shut.

From this teacher, I learned almost no piano – not a huge shock – but I did learn that I had murdered my twin sister.  After class one day, she pulled me aside.

“No one will tell you the truth, but I will,” she said.  “You are a murderer.  Your twin sister is dead because you made her dead when you sucked the oxygen out of her inside your mother’s belly.”

This, as it turns out, was not true, as one fetus cannot suck oxygen from another fetus.  Because a human fetus is not a feline character in an old wives’ tale.   But what did I know?

I didn’t know much.

I didn’t know what it meant that my twin sister died before she was born.  She was never born.  How could she have died when she was never born?  Doesn’t one invariably come before the other?

On a holiday – some holiday, I can’t remember which one – my mother, frazzled from being the mother of five living children and one dead child, lost focus and dropped me off for school to a locked and empty building.  And she didn’t come back, at least not immediately, so I took a walk.  There was a path lined with Sycamore trees.  There was an illness going around in Sycamore trees that season.  They were all falling ill, and inexplicably dying.  Their leaves withered, and their branches drooped, and as a result, birds’ nests that once comfortably rested in the crooks of the trees, shifted.  Sometimes, the nests would shift enough that an egg would fall from the tree.

That day, wandering alone, I came across an egg – that had fallen from its nest – which had shifted from its position on the tree – which was curling up and dying.  This egg had cracked in half, revealing the fetus of a bird, drooped over the edge of the shell.  The shell, though open, had pieces held together by a clear film.  A string of this clear film was suspended between two large pieces, and on this string rested the baby bird’s crooked head.

I crouched down, hands on the ground, chin between my knees, and stared.  I thought and thought and thought, and I eventually I laid belly down on the cold cement of the pathway, my face no more than a couple of inches from this tiny, dead, fetal bird.

Its skin was transparent beige.  It had no feathers.  Its eyes were closed.  Its beak was closed.  Its veins were dark.  Its wings were bare.  There was no blood.  It just rested, broken, but not damaged, on the edge of the shell.

I thought then, after watching it do nothing, after watching it be dead, I thought: “Ah ha!  Dead without ever having been born.”

And that’s when I noticed just how human this little bird looked.  My God, did it look human!  It was nothing but a tiny little bird-human, and it had died before it was born.

So I rolled over next to it, onto my back, and I smiled and I smiled and I looked up at the sky through the branches of the Sycamore trees that were bending and dying, releasing baby bird-humans to fall to their deaths, before they were able to be born.  And it felt like they were falling all around me, though really, none were falling, not after the first one, but Goddamnit , it felt like they were raining from the sky.

All of these birds.  Dead without ever having been born.  Killed by the Sycamore trees that refused to hold them carefully.

Trees can’t be evil.  They can’t be; they produce oxygen, they give life.  But these Sycamore trees were tossing these baby birds to their deaths, and they were killing them, just like I’d killed my twin sister.  But trees can’t be evil.  And if the trees weren’t evil for killing these birds, then I wasn’t evil for killing my twin sister.

I used my fingernails.  I clawed through the dirt in the ground beneath the Sycamore trees.  I dug a hole, a nice, deep hole, and I buried the baby bird inside.  I put it to rest, telling the tiny bird it had not been murdered, no, it had just died before it was born, and it was okay.

That’s when my mom came back to get me.

Since then, it’s like these baby birds really are raining from the sky – I see them everywhere.   And I dig a hole in the dirt with my fingers, and I lay these not murdered baby birds to rest, and I tell them it’s okay.

Writing caregiving essays recently, has put me in the mind of my first marriage, and its disastrous conclusion (recall the surfing Buddhist who happened to be my best friend), which in turn got me to thinking about its disastrous beginnings, which got me to wondering how we ever made it six years in the first place.

In a future post, I hope to treat you all to a little archaeological expedition of my former life, wherein together we will sift through the rubble of my first marriage (laughing at my sadness and folly), its rapid decline, and my subsequent foray into to bikram yoga, hair dye, and ragtop convertibles.

But today, kids, I want to talk about foundations, and how not to build them. In the spirit of non-fiction, I’ve changed only the name of my former wife, who will not kill me if she reads this. I hope. She’s pretty fair in that respect.

Molly got pregnant two months after we met. The next week I left for Greece.

You see, there was this other girl, her name was Sarah. She had freckles and a big messy head of hair and she liked to drink red wine and get naked and paint bowls of fruit. Sarah once loved me madly, a long time ago in Tucson, but I hadn’t loved her back. She was living in Athens now, where she drank red wine and got naked and painted bowls of fruit. I don’t know what made me change my mind about loving Sarah, but I did. So I bought nonrefundable tickets to Greece, and I bought them months in advance, before I’d even met Molly, let alone got her pregnant.

So you see, I wasn’t running from anything.

Bowloffruitposters


When I arrived in Athens, I wasted little time in
informing Sarah that I loved her, that in fact I’d always loved her but hadn’t known it, and that I was prepared to keep on loving her until the industrialized world were in ruins, or the Chiefs won the superbowl, and that I hoped, I prayed, that she still felt the same way.

Sarah said that I hadn’t just said what I’d just said, or at least that she hadn’t heard it, and how dare I say it, and that I was never to say it again ever. And that I was welcome to stay so long as I understood this.

I took that as a no.

And from that moment forward, her studio apartment began to seem awfully small. What with all those bottles of red wine and all that fruit, there wasn’t much room for the two of us. I didn’t want to stay, yet the prospect of leaving that apartment was among the most desolate I’d ever known. I couldn’t afford a hotel or even a hostel if my money was going to hold out, but fortunately ouzo was well within my means, so I took to the streets, getting lost nightly, falling down stairs, pissing on ruins, speaking my six words of Greek to anyone who would listen.

Nobody listened.

I was heartsick and homesick and I ached in my belly with a hunger for something vague and incomprehensible, something that either had been and was no longer, or never was, or perhaps something I’d only tasted. Maybe it was food, maybe it was more ouzo, but I doubt it. The latter seemed like a reasonable solution, if nothing else.

Ouzodoll

So I drank ouzo until I was flat on my back and I howled at the spinning moon and nobody howled with me. I kicked cans down empty streets at dawn and turned my collar up against the chill and tucked my hands up under my arms and plodded on with purpose and determination through the Grecian night to absolutely nowhere.

I begged the Gods for a sign and one fine afternoon they delivered me an alley cat half-crazy with starvation, and I watched the wretched little creature fight for her life and give birth squeeling beneath a porch, only to die with a whimper. And I watched a barrel shaped old woman in black knee socks and orthopedic shoes snatch up the litter with expert dispassion, and stuff them pink and squirming into a pillow case and drown them in a nearby fountain in the name of mercy.

And I walked on.

Secretalley


And the only thing that brought me comfort, the only thing that offered me ballast in these mutinous and uncharted seas was the thought of Molly and I together, six thousand miles away.

And so it happened that I was half a world away when I fell in love with Molly MacDonald and her silver tooth caps and her books about Entomology and the tiny pink scar running diagonally across her forehead. And I was six thousand miles away when I fell in love with our unborn baby.

And from six thousand miles away I could see our future. We’d be poor, but that was okay, because Molly could always smile and illuminate the world with the flash of her silver teeth, and we could push the stroller down to the park together and loll around in the grass in the shade of an alder and have picnics, with peanut butter sandwiches cut into tiny squares and cold canned green beans in little plastic bags, and the whole world would be beneath the shade of an alder. And when we were done we could stuff the sticky bags into the sticky plastic pocket in the back of the stroller, and go home and put the baby down for a nap and make love and read E.E Cummings aloud and eat dinner for the rest of our days.

Shadytree1big


What I remember most about Athens, more than its crooked streets and billboards and crumbling walls and eight million cats, is its phone booths. The fact is, I’m nothing less than an expert on the subject of Athenian phone booths. For, not only did I sleep standing in phone booths, I started calling Molly collect at all hours of the day and night, from all quarters of the city, so that thumbing through my psychic photo album now, I find nary a shot of the Acropolis, nothing of the blue Agean.

Just phone booths.

Last_phone_booth_in_new_york


Here I am in a booth on a windy back street near Plateia Karaiskaki, where I’m begging Molly not to have the abortion. But I’m too late.

There I am in a phone booth amidst the chaos of the Plaka, with its smell of cat piss and onions, where Molly’s telling me she’s met a guy from Los Angeles named Sal who owns a bar.

Here I am in a port authority booth with a spider web crack in the glass and the initials Chi Epsilon carved into the reflective metal above the keypad, where Molly is telling me she’s moving to Los Angeles.

That’s me in the shadow of the Parthenon, where tourists from Edinburgh and Boston and Yokohama are mulling about, while Molly tells me she’s slept with Sal, and I imagine him with a uni-brow, stinking of Leather cologne, emptying himself inside her with a grunt.

And there I am a day later in a murky hotel lobby in Psiri, beneath the watchful eye of an Albanian clerk, where Molly confesses that she hasn’t really slept with Sal, that she’d only been saying it. Either way, I believe her.

Here I am on a side street off Athinas near the Hotel Attalos, outside the scariest Chinese restaurant ever. The guy behind me in the wool cap is wheeling about the booth like a turkey buzzard trying to hurry me off, as I beg Molly to forgive me for leaving, and for not having said a few simple words in time. The phone reciever smells like my grandfather’s aftershave, as I beseech her not to move to Los Angeles, not to move anywhere, without me. I beg for forgiveness, for absolution, for a future with or without babies.

For two weeks in Athens the phone booth was my confessional. For two weeks I called Molly collect. For two weeks she accepted the charges.

Wilma_oct_23_phone_booth

 

I’m no fashion maven, but I know what I like. And it’s not paisley dresses. Molly was wearing a paisley dress when she picked me up at the airport. We clumsily embraced. There was no kiss.

At first we drove in silence but for the rain and the swish of the tires and the thrumming of the wipers. Somehow the conversational fare reserved for such reunions simply wouldn’t do. How was your
abortion? Fine. How was your lover?

Thanks for picking me up, I said at last.

Sure, she said, staring straight ahead.

That was it for awhile. Gazing goggle-eyed out upon the luminous sprawl of Renton, I began to wonder if my optimism had not duped me again. From six thousand miles it all looked manageable.

You look great, I said. I like your dress.

I hate it, she said.

We drove on. The wipers started squeaking.

As we rounded the back side of Beacon Hill and the skyline burst upon us, I felt somewhat at ease. I was home. I never wanted to leave again.

I’m leaving next week, she said. I’ve got a job set up.

You mean–

No, something different. Something through Kelly.

You mean the one that pisses her bed? I said.

No, the one with the big tits, she said.

Oh.

I had a dream you fucked her, she said matter of factly.

Fucked Kelly?

Yeah.

Uh . . . okay.

You like big tits, right?

Well, yeah, I guess.

Does Sarah have big tits? Did you fuck her big tits? Did you get her pregnant?

And how about Sal? I said. Does Sal have a big dick?

I wouldn’t know.

Didn’t that hurt? Two days after the–

I said I wouldn’t know, she said.

We drove on. She stared straight ahead, gripping the wheel fiercely.

I didn’t touch Sarah, I said. She’s just a friend. I told you that.

Friends, she said.

The rain was letting up as we hit downtown. Molly killed the wipers. I cracked my window some. The fresh air was good. We took the Seneca exit and came out on Sixth Avenue. It was still early.

You wanna get a drink? I said.

Where? she said.

Wherever.

Molly swung a right onto sixth, and we headed north from there. For awhile, anyway.

His name was Cole and beside him I looked like a midget.

At six feet tall this is no mean feat.

We met at The Chateau Marmont late on a Spring evening. I wore red leather fuck-me boots and eyes of smoky green, he wore a vintage tuxedo with the word GUCCI embossed all over it.

I looked hot and he looked ridiculous, but in a most intentional way.

We started talking by accident, somehow drawn to each other from across the room, snug in the cushions of a beaten-up chaise. It wasn’t a long conversation, but it was an electric one. We recognized each other but knew we’d never met. He made me laugh, he drew me in, and five minutes later I left him to catch a flight to Australia with no idea when I’d return. I scribbled my email for him in his raggedy journal, downed the remnants of my vodka with regret and stood to go.

Cole stood too, bound by his southern gentlemanly impulses.

“Jesus!” I laughed as he unfurled. “Are you wearing heels?”

My memory of his reply is hazy, but I know it was filthy. I cocked my head, smiled and disappeared, tipsy on white spirits, out into the night. And, in an instant, the vision of that scruffy, lean and towering creature vanished from my mind.

The jet lag was, as usual, revolting and Melbourne had already begun to turn cold. My suitcases remained unpacked despite my being back a day or two, and my sadness at having to leave America was compounded by the last vestiges of a deep depression and a fear of the unknown. I was lost, confused, without direction and had returned to live, by necessity, with my mother, an adventure neither she nor I were much enthused about embarking upon.

Still, I was alive

… but then I received an email.

“Zoë,

Excellent meeting you at the Chateau… As we talked about good passages I thought you might appreciate this one:

Smoker paused, He was, this night, experiencing a familiar buoyancy — rather to the detriment of his diplomatic skills. In the inside of his big boxy black suit there nested an enticing email from his cyberpal “k”.  In response to Smoker’s query “what kind of a role do you think sex plays in a healthy relationship?   She’d e’d: ” a minor 1. have we all gone stark raving mad? let’s keep a sense of proportion, 4 god’s sake it should only happen last thing @nite, as  a [email protected] prelude 2 sleep.  none of these dreadful sessions. I find a few stiff drinks usually helps– don’t u?”  Reading this, Smoker became belatedly aware that his most durable and fulfilling relationships had been with dipsomaniacs.  To put it another way, he liked having sex with drunk women.

There seemed to be three reasons for this.

One: they go all stupid.

Two: they sometimes black out (and you can have a real laugh with them).

Three:  they usually don’t remember if you fail.  Takes the pressure off.  Common sense.

I hope you are well and that Australia is more rewarding than LA, which at the moment — for reasons that have nothing to do with the weather or surf or anything of the like– seems a bit like Bakersfield without the glitz.
Cole

I wasn’t sure how to respond, but respond I did.

Cole,

Fortunately I am not one of those of those overly analytical and earnest types who sit around trying to discern why exactly an almost total stranger would send me such a daring passage, or what his intentions were behind it.

Considering that I was several vodkas down, and at least a bottle of sake, when I threw myself shamelessly at you on that chaise, then I’m surprised as hell that your face springs immediately to mind. It’s a nice face. Look after it.

I’m stagnating in Melbourne and doing such un-Zoë things as meditating and taking time to smell the pretty flowers. This is unlike me, for I am normally thinking up bitter diatribes and sarcastic remarks about such Californian past-times.

See you, Smoker.

Z

Zoë,

There could be numerous explanations for such an email but the ones that matter boil down to three:

1)  I am a dipsomaniac and, not so subtly, I am suggesting a good dipsomaniac romp — if in fact dipsomaniacs have good romps which, and here perhaps I reveal too much, I am not sure is possible…
2)  I am not a dipsomaniac sex addict and therefore this would eliminate #1 but spawn two separate possibilities as to why I led with such a daring passage which a) and b) are meant to identify:
a)  I wanted to see if whether or not you were one of those overly analytical and earnest types who sit around trying to discern why an almost total stranger would send such a daring passage  which, if you were,  could elicit  two responses from you which are examined in the names of sub category (Y) and (Z) and one response from me in the name of (X):  because, (Y) You would never write back for you could just not figure out what to say; or, because (Z) you would write back but it would be something like: “Please never contact me again and I am calling the cops “;  and, a response in the form of (Y) would have resulted in (X) my utter lack of interest or, in the case of (Z), jail time, which could be considered (X—).  So a chart of this response would look something like this:
Y=X=utter lack of interest
Z=X=jail time
Y+Z=X—=utter lack of interest and jail time (worst option)
b)  irreverence unearths  irreverence, even in the cloud of a haze of a sake/vodka, and such an email might be designed to confirm such a theorem and in the process identify an admirable quality that the two people on the chaise might have had in common.
3)   Similar to #2– I am not a dipsomaniac — but sending such an email is a way of trying to get laid — admittedly, an odd, and possibly piss poor one, but men are men and we will try anything for sex and  you can’t trust us for a minute.

Not to worry:  smelling flowers and meditating are quite good things, particularly when they are done outside of LA where the world still views them as counter-cultural; moreover, such activities usually inspire particularly brutal diatribes and sarcastic remarks when you return and find those people doing them in LA who still think they are counter-cultural in LA and therefore are not sincere, which means you can unload both barrels of what I guess — when you want it to be –  is a high caliber mouth…and if I am wrong about the high caliber part, then I am certainly not wrong about the beauty of it or the fact that you are really fucking tall…. do you date short guys?  I was wearing stilts underneath my tuxedo and that is why I want to know.

C

C,

Because you so suavely managed to avoid answering any of the questions you yourself posed, I feel obliged to use my own expertise as a semi-retired dipsomaniac (but still a general maniac) to help you out.

Yes, dipsomaniacs DO have good romps. They just have problems remembering with whom, where, why and even IF they took place. This syndrome is generally accompanied with a vaguely sore feeling in the nether regions and confused yet (hopefully) satisfied expression.

No I definitely am not the earnest type. In fact, earnestness is my one of my least favorite character traits. This is why I have scorned the ‘acting track‘ – shudder – for the last year and resigned myself to a complete and utter nervous breakdown in Australia. My aversion to all things earnest has earned me numerous detentions in high school, some rather unflattering nicknames around the globe, and gives me the opportunity to have fun at a funeral, something I did very recently.

I am allergic to charts and math. In response to them I suffer from the following –
X= modelitis
Y= meltdown and
Z= facial tic

so X+Y+Z= the need to resort to dipsomania and have a bloody good romp as a consequence.

AH.

OHHH…. I see where you were leading….. nice!

The cops are weary of me and wouldn’t help me out if I begged them too, so you are safe for the moment.

Your (2)(b) earns you the most Brownie points and makes me wonder how many frequent flier points you have accumulated. Australia must be about 70,000.

Men are not the only horny creatures, Australian women can scare the crap out of their native counterparts.

Yes. I am tall, but I’m worth the climb. There are 6 feet of me all up, and I wear 6″ heels to intimidate people, because I fucking well can, you shortarse.

Z

For weeks we wrote to each other without ever speaking. It was a game, an intrigue. Neither of us could sleep. The things we wrote to each other were exciting, crude, weird, fantastic. We were elevated above the mundane by our refusal to even touch on the most obvious of questions. There was no talk of birth dates, star signs, schools and personal history, there was only imagination.  We skipped the details and got straight down to the mentality of each other.

One day I asked him why he’d never called me, considering my phone number was part of the automatically generated signature at the bottom of every email.

Instantly the phone rang.

My heart skipped, stopped and raced as I reached for the receiver.

“Because you never asked me to.” Voiced a slow drawl from across the ocean.


To be continued…