Monday, January 30, 2012

All the Times I've Saved You

A little while ago, as I sat down to do some work, the baby started crying. It's well past her bedtime, so I went up to check on her, gave her a little bit of bottle, and got her re-settled. As I was leaving, I heard a weird noise. I ran back in the baby's room, and she was asphyxiating on her own vomit. I lifted her up, flipped her over, and patted her back until her airway was clear. Jillian was downstairs watching a movie and came up as I was doing this. Then she took Ellie to give her a bath, and I cleaned up everything.

I've lost count of how many times we've saved our daughter's life. It might seem like a melodramatic thing to say, but I think any parent would know what I'm talking about, here. And I don't mean that we're negligent, just that babies are fragile. I remember the first time -- it was similar to this time, which is why I'm thinking about it. Ellie was sick; I don't remember the details, but she was choking. Jillian took her to the bathroom, turned her over, patted her back, etc. Ellie got so scared she went to the bathroom, but we'd taken her diaper off to give her a bath. I remember seeing my wife tending to the baby while the baby made a mess on Jillian's clothes. I remember thinking that some people might've balked at that, but Jillian wasn't fazed. Of course, that's the kind of person she is. The other day, we were in the grocery store, and a kid -- maybe 3, 4 -- was messing with something on a shelf, fell over, and pulled it off the shelf and onto herself. She let out a howl, and Jillian ran to check on her, arriving just about at the same time as the mom. She's not a busybody; she's just a natural born mom. When there's a disaster, she fixes it.

I remember when we were still in the hospital, and Ellie couldn't nurse. We fed her from a bottle, but she would get so tired, she'd fall asleep before she got enough nutrients to really matter. So we had to hand feed her -- fill a syringe (sans the needle) with formula and squirt it in her mouth carefully. She was such a little thing, and we held her life so completely in our hands. I had been thinking about all the things I needed to do at work, all the bills we were acruing, all the obligations I was neglecting, but knowing that if I didn't get those nutrients into Ellie's body, she would die -- well, let's be honest, the nurses would hook her up to a machine, etc. Still, it felt real in a way that is hard to forget. Even now, I can't help but think how stupidly we've arranged our society when most of us don't actually get to see our kids and spouses for most of our lives. As if anything could be more important than this.

Ellie's sleeping, now, and I still smell a little like vomit. In the morning, I'll feed her oatmeal and get to spend about an hour with her before work, and then I'll hand her over to essentially a stranger to raise. I won't think about what might happen if Ellie chokes during the eight hours or so Jillian and I are away from her, or if she gets sick. I'll do what everybody else does and think about calls I need to make, deadlines and numbers. If everyone else does it, it must be right, right?

Thursday, January 26, 2012


A couple years ago, a journal (I forget which one) put out a call for entries for an Ambrose Bierce-like 'Devil's Dictionary.'I sent a couple in and never actually heard back from them, so I'm assuming they didn't want them. I tried to emulate Bierce's style, which perhaps came off as here's what I wrote:

Hope, n. A system of emotional credit in which the fruits of feeling are spent before the currency of accomplishment has been earned.

Truth, n. A very appealing lie often employed in discourse as a substitute for a sound and compelling argument. Spelled with a capital “T” to distinguish it from the more common lies.

* * *

Here are a couple poems I wrote about encounters with uber-religious types. Neither really seems to work. Too preachy, maybe. I'm still tinkering with them.

You Push I Push Back

The ex-priest spoke of women in the third person
to their faces, took us on a tour of churches of New
York, where the squirrels are segregated and rudeness
is considered style. He finished eating before we’d
even sat down. He was an old teacher of my wife’s father
and adored the man. When we walked in the door after a five
hour drive, he stood us in front of the piano to sing; “Start
again,” he’d say. “I don’t see how you could like anyone
who doesn’t like me,” my mother in law said to her husband,
who lost the smile he’d worn since we’d arrived.

The Other

It was the fat preacher who made us afraid
with his stories of shameful creatures
who shared our names. It was his dirty smile,
his greasy hair, the stains on his lapel
that made us uneasy when he talked about clean
souls. It was his belligerent children with torture
in their eyes who made us doubt his understanding
of the role of a father, in heaven or otherwise.

He told us to doubt ourselves, to trust the absurd
notion that life is anything other than joy and pain
and random collisions of matter. They’re coming
for us, he said. I’d be afraid to think, if I was like you,
he said; I might think something wrong.

* * *

Last one for today: another poem I might be giving up on.

Your Cousin is Lying

I never went cow-tipping, though once, Stephen
wasn't looking and backed into a sleeping one,
which got up, moved away, and sat back down—
because cows sleep bellies to the ground,
that's horses you're thinking of that sleep standing.

I never made moonshine, though I admit,
my father did, but that was at least a decade
before I was born. We smoked meth. Or pot
or drank stuff we filched from our parents' liquor
cabinets or coolers. We made things from eye drops
and allergy meds. We huffed glue. We sucked
aerosol cans. Why grow it, process it, hide
it when you can buy it? We're not farmers
anymore. We work at Wal Mart. We get discounts.

I never lynched anybody, but we shot each other
same as you do over the color of our
clothes and the contents of our
wallets. I dated black girls—well, I would've
if they'd have had me.

I'm just as educated as you: I've seen the same TV shows, sat
through the same droning lectures
based on the Prussian model.
If you were from here. you'd know;
it's just like there. Only not the same.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Wretched

...and then I happened to look around, and see that paper. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: "All right, then, I'll go to hell."—and tore it up.
-Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

It was School Spirit Day and the junior high school gymnasium echoed with forced celebration. I found a seat on the second row next to some older kids I didn't know and planted my feet on top of the seat in front of me to save it for a friend.

I didn't notice Rhonda Washington until she plopped down on top of my feet. I knew her name because we'd shared classes since kindergarten, though we’d never shared more than two words. There was still room further down the bench, but she refused to lift her weight even enough to let me slip my feet out.

"Look at that," I said, so she'd hear, "that nigger stole the seat I was saving."

I thought for a half second that she hadn't heard me, until she turned, her hand already flying, and slapped me hard in the face. Then she turned back around, never having said a word.

As the cacophony of school spirit washed over us, my cheeks went red. Even though no one would look at me, I still felt them staring. Near the end of the assembly, Rhonda got up and walked away before the band was even finished playing. I watched her angry steps leave the gymnasium, relieved when the door closed behind her and she hadn't approached a teacher.

When I was growing up, my family threw around racial slurs like Santas tossing out candy at a parade. It wasn't completely indiscriminate; there was a methodology, which my brother explained to me:

"There are black people and there are niggers," he said. "And white people can be niggers, too, if they dress like them or act that way."

"But what's the difference?" I asked.

"Niggers are lazy," he said. "A black man has pride. A nigger has no pride."

The word was used in white company constantly, but whenever a black person was around, we affected a sort of forced politeness, as though it would've been rude to tell them what we really thought of them.

I thought every black person was on welfare, all the black women were unwed but had dozens of children. Who knows what the men did.

People talked about gangs as though there were heavily armed groups of teenagers who only came out at night to prowl the streets of big cities (and they were getting closer). This is why we never went to cities.

It was as though once black people reached a certain age, their childhood toys were taken away and replaced with semi-automatic weapons. None of them had jobs, and they were all drug addicts. Anyone who listened to rap music would instantly become addicted to drugs and start shooting people. This is what they'd done with the freedom we'd given them.

My brother's best friend was a sociology professor at a local community college. He also taught high school history. He considered his black students incapable of learning and blamed the Arkansas' school system's rank of forty-ninth in the country on integration.

He wore thick glasses and collected guns like squirrels collect acorns. I once went to a gun show with him where he bought an AK 47.

"Stick it under water and it'll fire seven rounds before it locks up," he said.

"What's it for?" I asked. He didn't hunt; I hadn't known him to ever fire the guns he already owned.

"Protection," he said. "If some nigger tries to break into my house..."

He lived in a run-down house that looked exactly like every other house in the all-white neighborhood directly across from the high school at which he taught. He kept a pistol beneath the cushions of his couch, another one under the couch. He kept guns on the walls; guns leaned in the corners. They were, by far, the most valuable things in the house.

"I wish one would break in," he said. "There'd be one less nigger in the world."

My home town was segregated–split down the middle by railroad tracks. Almost all the blacks lived on one side, the whites on the other. Sometimes, a poor white family might move to the outskirts of the black side, but they were considered trash. And black families never moved to the white side of town.

This was in the Mississippi River Delta, in eastern Arkansas, where many of the blacks were descended from slaves. They were in the minority, there, but not much further south, closer to Louisiana, they became the majority. Many white families and black families shared last names, because the blacks were descended from slaves who'd taken their owners' names. This was something that wasn't spoken of, though the days of slavery were often referenced.

"A lot of folks were good to their slaves," the sociology professor said once; "why else would slaves have fought for the Confederacy? Cause they liked being slaves. They didn't have to think or do anything on their own. It's just like welfare, except now they don't do anything."

I couldn't argue: he was the history teacher, how could he be wrong?

The majority of businesses and schools were on the white side of town. The junior high where Rhonda slapped me was on the black side. It was a run down old building that had been the black school before integration. My sixth grade year was the last year we used it.

It was frightening going there, crossing the tracks into a world I didn't really know. I heard stories from my older sister of gangs, race riots on the playground, murder.

"They won't fight you unless there's more of them than there are of you," she told me.

Some kids I knew formed a group to protect themselves from blacks. They adopted KKK symbology, but avoided the Klan proper, which was a dinosaur of old men who met for fish fries at the state park every so often. There were one-on-one fights, occasionally, as there always were at school, but nothing more. They settled into a kind of cold war, each side watching the other, waiting for an opportunity. All of this was unprovoked; none of us were ever attacked by a gang of blacks or ever saw anyone attacked. The whites chalked it up to cowardice; they were organized, superior, they never allowed the gangs a chance to catch them off-guard.

As I grew older, black families started to cross the tracks. Towards the end of
high school, a black family moved just down the hill from my father's house. The family kept to themselves and were quiet and kept their lawn meticulously clean. They smiled and waved whenever they encountered even a white child. They dressed better than anyone else in the neighborhood.

I remember wondering why they would move there; why raise your children in a place where no one wanted you? The Little Rock Nine and the idea of forced integration seemed like ancient history. We learned about it in school, but we also learned about evolution and Reconstruction, and nobody believed those things had happened the way the books said. Besides, this was the 80's. That was all over and they should just be grateful for what they'd won, instead of expecting more. They were forgetting their place.

No one said anything to them, openly; that would have been rude. But we watched them to make sure they weren't running a crack house or selling guns to gang members.

My family ran a farm and also raised catfish and buffalo fish, among other things, and sold them during the winter months.

My earliest friends were children of our mostly black customers. My father would joke with the customers and tell stories, and I played with the kids out back. I had to remember that it wasn't their fault they were the way they were. They were the descendants of Ham, after all, cursed to servitude. If one of them didn't want to share and take turns on the tire swing, well, I couldn't be mad at him any more than I could a dog for farting. Besides, if I called one a name, he might want to fight, and you couldn't trust them to fight fair.

These were by and large poor people. They drove old, beat-up cars the same as we did, and the fish we sold them was one of the few luxuries they could afford. Sometimes they were sullen or bored, the way any child can be, but mostly they treated me with a quiet, awkward politeness.

I saw some of the boys frequently and even became close to a couple of them and played with them at school. But I never seriously thought of inviting them home, and they, likewise. Though once or twice one of us brought the idea up, we quickly abandoned it. It would've been too uncomfortable.

When they left with their freshly filleted fish, my father sometimes ribbed me about my friendships with them. I smiled, I laughed with him. I called them names.

* * *

My childhood was littered with bitter veterans, old men who spent their days drinking cheap beer and whiskey and hanging around my father's farm bullshitting. Some of them worked on the farm off and on. Many of them were on disability and worked under the table for unreported wages.

They wore cowboy boots, listened to music on the radio that praised God and America, and most of what I knew about life I learned from them. I learned how to cuss, how to drink, how to tell a joke. These men had fought in wars ranging from WWII to Vietnam. They'd seen the world and lived lives I couldn't imagine.

They talked about the Civil War as an old slur. The same with integration, civil rights. These were things that had been stolen from the South; injustices committed upon our land. We had been kicked around from day one by the Northern colonies, and finally they'd come into our homes and tried to tell us how to live, how to treat each other.

It was a commonly accepted belief of the old men that blacks got breaks that white people didn't get. Equal opportunity laws meant that blacks got jobs more qualified whites should have gotten. The ones that wanted to work, anyway—most of them were content to lie around on welfare eating steak all day. Whenever blacks accomplished anything, it was generally felt to be through cheating.

My father told stories about seeing some black woman in line at the grocery store in front of him with ten kids, her cart full of Twinkies and filet mignon, her wallet full of food stamps. He'd follow her out to a brand new car in the parking lot.

When they weren't ranting, they played practical jokes on anyone dumb enough to fall for them. They rigged trucks so that when one was started, it would shock the driver. They took out fake ads in the local paper offering things to sell with each other's phone numbers. They'd turn on each other in a heartbeat. They had terrifically fueled senses of humor; it was best not to be in front of them when they went off.

Their rage was addictive. When they ranted, their wrath swept through me, filling me with righteous indignation. The blacks were a good target, but we were pissed off at everybody: politicians, foreigners, anything different. It was better than feeling poor and worthless and afraid of a world that wouldn’t stay put.


My father raised me on pragmatism. He was ever the contrarian, teaching me not to take anything at face value, be it religion or hearsay, or any accepted truth. His friends would rant for hours, and then, on the way home, he'd mutter a few choice epithets that shattered their complaints in seconds. When I talked to him about things I'd learned at school, he shot holes all though my poorly remembered lessons.

"'I have never let my schooling interfere with my education,'" he would say, quoting Mark Twain.

One of my father's favorite pastimes was to yell at the television.

"Look at that," he'd say about some cop drama, "they've always got to put the nigger in charge. Ought to string him up for talking to a white man like that."

Since we all lived about a mile from the Trail of Tears, many families in the area claimed to have Cherokee blood, and we were no different. We'd watch cowboy movies and root for John Wayne, and then chalk our cheekbones and black hair up to a proud lineage from the civilized tribe who'd fought on the side of the Confederacy.

"You know Dad," I said once, "they used to hang Indians for talking to white women. Remember the Trail of Tears?"

"Did they?" he said, sarcastically. He was quiet and didn't yell at the TV any more that night, choosing instead to yell at me.

This pragmatism was the fatal flaw in my father's education of me. I had been raised to believe that blacks were subhuman. Though a distinction was made between blacks and niggers, this idea only really existed to save face in case a white man found himself in the situation where he was forced to interact with a black man on equal terms. And it was a rare individual who achieved this lofty stature, regardless. It took years of hard work for a black man to be accepted by whites, and even then, it was grudging. Really, the blacks were all thought of as niggers, but some knew their place. This meant that they took the abuse and didn't argue.

Rhonda wasn't exceptional. Actually, the way she acted fit my brother's definition, and yet she clearly had pride. How could she be both? I was capable of writing off the contradiction. After all, every day I was faced with a world that had been created in a week, seven thousand years ago, and yet science spoke in terms of billions of years, natural selection versus the Flood. Even the first page of Genesis contained two contradicting stories. More troubling than that, Rhonda had made me feel like something I'd never felt before: a bully, worse, a coward.

It took me years to come to terms with these events, or even to begin to understand them, but my experience with Rhonda threw me down a different path. Maybe it was as simple as the idea that I started to think before I spoke, instead of just repeating the rhetoric around me. I didn't use racial slurs anymore and didn't want to hear them. The old men noticed and made fun of me, but I ignored them.

The more those old men complained about their lot in life, the more I realized that this was all they did; they were mired in misery. And that was what bothered me the most—their misery. It began to feel like a disease I was afraid to catch. They acted as though they were oppressed in every way. The black people I knew were by and large struggling, just like everybody. So where were the ones getting all those breaks? To me, they seemed to be stuck in the same misery, just coming at it from a different direction.

* * *

I go back to my home town occasionally to visit my family. The lone black family who moved down the hill from my father's house is gone and hasn't been replaced. The junior high school across the tracks, which, for many of us, was the only time we ever ventured into the black part of town, is closed and a new one has been built on the white side of town. The borders are blurred; I see white families in what was once the black part of town, and vice versa, though the centers of each remain the same.

I see interracial couples from time to time, something I couldn't have imagined growing up. Their faces are strangers to me, and as the town grows, it, too, becomes strange, not exactly different, just messier, which may be better. I have no idea where Rhonda is, or any of my old tire-swing acquaintances. I wonder if she is married, has kids; I wonder if she's stuck in that town subsisting, like a lot of people I grew up with. Or did she get out? I wonder if slapping me was as pivotal an event for her as it was for me. Or was I just another yokel?

The white friends I grew up with who formed the junior Klan are now married with kids and mortgages. If I see any of them in a gas station or a restaurant, they don't recognize me.

Every year or two, I hear of one of the old men dying off. People repeat stories about them, remembering the practical jokes they played, the stories they told. With each one, I feel a little bit of my history dwindling away. It's sad and comforting at the same time, the way the ending of any life is; whether it was mostly good or bad, it's nice to have someone recognize the loss and the potential that remains.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

It was 2 a.m. and maybe two below zero on a Christmas morning as I stood outside of a trailer in a small town in eastern Arkansas getting dumped again.

"I was fifteen when I met you," Jenny was saying. "Can you believe that? That's five years we've been doing this."

"It was a nice party," was all I could think of to say.

She stared at me. The anger drained from her face. "Go home," she said. "I'm done. I'm out. I'm too old for this. Just go home."

"Don't you want your Christmas present?"

She laughed. "Well that wouldn't be very fair, would it?"

She stalked up the steps and slammed the trailer door closed, and I thought about that real nice girl I'd dumped a couple months ago to get back with this one. She had been safe, that was the problem. Going to school to be a nurse. Funny. Smart. Nice. But this one who was probably hopping into couch (couldn't afford a bed) with that reject from the Cure guy inside the trailer while I stood outside shaking; we had history. We'd taken turns dumping each other for five years. Every time Halloween rolled around, I'd start getting phone calls late at night, letters. Things would pick up by Thanksgiving. Then, some time in January when the holidays were over, we'd stop seeing each other. Sort of like family. But you always knew you'd see them again next year.

Halloween, that said it all. Every time Halloween came around, here she came, out of the clouds, riding across the moon and we took turns riding each other around town, and sweeping up the year with each other.

So I got in my car and shivered back to my father's house and waited for dawn. The road was white and smooth with ice. It had been raining for about a week, and then the temperature dropped below zero, burying everything in a crust of ice. The town was like an old shoe covered in white dust. It didn't fit anymore. So, when the family started showing up, I said my hellos and my goodbyes, and headed back to the other side of the state where I went to college, under the pretense of beating the storm which was heading for the same place I was.

I was muttering along with "Wish You Were Here," flying down the road, about an hour from school. I lit a cigarette and was waiting for the next verse when I hit the ice and was suddenly going backwards. My car slid off the interstate, along the side of a gulley for twenty feet, crossed the gulley and slammed into a tree on the other side. The impact of the tree caved in my driver’s side door. My car bounced off and finally stopped, the radio still playing. I forced my door open, climbed out and inspected the damage.. It seemed okay, except for the door. The engine hadn’t even died. I got back in. Everything was crazy inside. All of my tapes had been scattered; trash and things I’d forgotten were even in the car were all over. I couldn't find my cigarette, but I didn't really care.

A man in a truck pulled up on the shoulder above me.

"Storm's coming," he said. "You alright?"

"Yeah. I'll limp along to the next town."

He eyed the car. "I don't think you'll get far in that. I can give you a ride."

"Nah, I'm alright."

He took off and I got back to it.

I edged the car back up the muddy incline to the road. No one was in sight. It was starting to snow, then. I noticed for the first time a thin white layer of ice on the road. Hind sight: that's when you can look back and see that you've shown your ass.

I nudged the car onto the icy road, and as soon as the rear tires left the rocky mud of the shoulder, the rear end swerved around completely to the other side of the road. I tried again from the opposite side of the road, edging the car slowly onto the pavement, and again, my rear end slapped around like a rubber chicken. I decided to stay on the shoulder of the passing lane, where the bumpy, frozen mud clods afforded me a sort of control; they barely allowed my car to move, therefore it couldn’t go crazy.

A couple yards later I noticed a police car pacing me in the slow lane. I stopped the car, and she waved me over so I hopped out, and trotted across the interstate.

“Don’t ever do that again,” she said.

I stared at her.

“Someone might’ve hit you. Where do you think you’re going?”

“I’m just trying to make it to the nearest town,” I said. “Atkins.” It was more of a question than a statement.

“Road’s closed,” she said.

“I’ll just find a truck stop or something,” I said.

She looked at me real hard for a second, then pointed at my car. “You’re not going anywhere like that, you’re just grinding your rear tire. Axle’s probably broke.”

I looked at my car. The rear passenger side tire stood out a good thirty degrees away from the car. I was reminded of my sister‘s front teeth, when we were kids. They had a gap she could stick her finger between.

“I can make it to the next exit,” I said. "Long as I stay on the shoulder, where it's slow."

“Get in the back,” she said.

I opened the door to the back seat and got in.

“And don’t close it, just pull it to, or you won’t be able to get back out unless someone lets you out,” she said a second after I closed it.

She called a tow truck, and I watched the back of her head as she stared into space with a sullen, calm look on her face, a hard look, somewhere in between self reliance and a hangover.

“You trying to get to your parents’?”

“Fayetteville. I'm a student.”

“Bad time to drive.” She stared back into space. I wondered if she wrote poetry.

The tow truck finally came. “I’ll talk to you at the station,” the cop said and left. I watched her until she was out of sight and crossed the Interstate. There were two men in a flat bed tow truck. One was a tall, obese man with long, curly brown hair and a round face. The other was thin and nervous looking. They looked like they wanted to invite me home for dinner, but they were afraid I'd fart in front of their dog. I didn’t trust them. Just because my car was totaled, didn’t mean I wanted it scratched.

“Let me get some things out first,“ I said, just to have something to do. I grabbed my backpack and fished my cigarettes out, then I messed around inside the car for a minute. I still thought I could make it to the nearest town if they'd just let me go. It was embarrassing, these people taking over my life. When I ran out of things to fiddle with, I climbed out and stood beside my car and watched the two men haul it up onto their truck. They climbed in and looked at me. I looked back.

The thin one leaned out. “Guess you're riding with us.” I squeezed between them in the cab. The truck was dirty and cluttered. There was a pack of Marlboros sitting on the console. They were listening Iron Maiden loud, which I suppose is the way to listen to them.

“Let me get one of them Marlboros from you, Tony,” the thin one said.

“Ain’t got no more.” I glanced at the pack on the console which looked nearly full.

"I've got one." What the hell. I dug mine out and offered them around.

“Thanks,” they both said, nervously, and we rode the rest of the way without speaking.

Outside, the frozen ground coasted by us slowly. I could smell oil burning with a hard edge of cold.

They dropped me off at the police station in Ozark, which is a hill pretending to be a town.

“Hungry?” The same cop said when I got inside. I couldn’t see the name on her badge.

“No, thanks,” I said. She led me through the station to the kitchen. I never knew police stations had kitchens before. An old man was leaning against a counter, sipping a cup of coffee, wearing baby blue jail issue clothes faded with age.

“Get him something to eat,” she told him, and left me.

“Turkey.” He said.

“What?” I said, offended. He fixed me a plate and sat me down at a card table in the corner.

“I got you turkey and ham. Hope sweet tea’s alright,” he said.

"Oh. Thanks."

"Yep," he said. I wondered what he’d done. DUI, maybe; he had a sort of shaky look about him.

After I ate, the cop showed up again.

“Looks like you’re gonna be here for the night,” she said. “I called your parents. Got any money? Cause if you don’t, we can make arrangements.”

I said I did and we loaded up and she dropped me off at a motel. All of my luggage was underneath Jenny's presents in my trunk, so I left them.

The room was clean and decorated in varying shades of beige with a light greenish-grey carpet. The bedspread had dull flower patterns on it.. I tossed my backpack on the bed. There was a TV against one wall but it didn't work. I sat on a chair by the window, watching the snow fall, and thought about some things. Danger, that's what it was all about. Jenny was wild. Jenny was sexy. Jenny liked to be spanked. Jenny came after me with a knife one time and tried to castrate me when I called her a whore. There was something in her eyes that could make a man kick a hole in the sky. It wasn't love. It was sex. A formless hormonal lust that she floated in like the dead sea.

While I was thinking, I was trying to light a cigarette, but my hands were shaking like a Parkinson's sufferer. I got up to go to the bathroom and discovered that the toilet had overflowed because the pipes had burst. I laid towels out. There was a can of potpourri spray sitting on the back of the toilet. It reminded me of Doug, this mulleted looser Jenny used to hang out with. Once, she'd dragged me to his trailer to do whiffets. Everyone sat around listening to Tool taking hits. When we emptied a can, we tossed it to the side and grabbed another one from the pile of cans. I was afraid to do the whiffets, because I didn't want to put Doug's towel in my mouth to inhale the gas. Who knew where it had been.

Every so often his grandmother would get up and stand outside the door, listening. No one could hear her but Doug. He would shush everyone, jerk the door open and placate her.

After we'd run through a dozen cans of potpourri, Doug took Amy, his girlfriend, into the other room and Jenny laid down on his bed. Her hair flayed out like a halo and I wanted to cry. She told me about how she was gang raped by five high school football players at a party the year before, during our off season.

"Who was it?" I asked.

"You wouldn't know them, they were black guys."

"I know some black guys," I said.

"They're really big guys," she said.

Doug and Amy came back and Jenny led me into another room. She laid on the bed and I stared at her for several seconds.

"We have to be quiet," she said. "Or Doug's grandma will throw us out. Leave your clothes on in case she comes in."

I got into bed with her but all I could think about was those guys.

"Nevermind," she said.

I got up and stood over her. "Can I stay in bed with you?" I asked.

She flashed me that smile, like a dark lake at night that I knew I couldn't swim.

I decided to hike out to the truck stop next door. I was getting hungry again.

In between the hotel and the truck stop was a parking lot the size of the red sea, covered with ice. There was a small hill before the parking lot, which I slid down. I stepped tentatively onto the frozen waves and immediately slipped and fell flat on my back. I staggered to my feet, accomplished two steps, then fell again. Very slowly and very carefully I managed maybe ten feet across the ice. I could see someone I took to be a trucker, dressed in jeans, overweight, in a tee shirt, standing by the door of the truck stop. I took a step and fell. From the ground, I could see him laughing. I glared at him till he went inside. I rose, took a few more steps. The ice was so thick that when I fell, I hardly cracked it. I fell again. When I looked up, there were two men laughing. I quit looking up. After I'd made it about halfway, mostly on my hands and knees, I risked another glance. The men were gone. Probably gotten bored of watching me fall down and gone back inside where it was warm.

I finally made it to the truck stop tired, bruised and so sore I could hardly bleed, just as they were closing the Subway. I stood and dripped on the tile floor, watching the employees wipe down the sandwich making station. I bought a couple of Cokes, some peanuts and things and a tee shirt to change into. It said "Road Kill Cafe," on the back, and had a list of animals commonly spotted lying dead on the side of major highways, with suggestions on how to prepare them as food. It was gray.

I went back outside to face the parking lot again. I looked down at myself. I was dressed very nicely, actually. Slacks, nice leather shoes, a button-up shirt and a long, black leather duster. I was dressed to meet the parents, except now I was covered in mud, wet and miserable; my slacks stained and ruined, my shirt the same. If I were a betting man, I would’ve bet on the other man.

I made it back to my room and collapsed in the nearest chair. I nibbled peanuts, lit a cigarette and attempted to bring it to my lips. I still couldn’t seem to find them. I was still too nervous from everything that’d happened. I stripped off my wool sweater and put on the tee-shirt then I stared at the walls.

The phone rang. I stared at it for a few seconds, then carefully picked it up. It was Melissa, a girl I hadn’t talked to in over a year. The last time I’d talked to her was to tell her I was in love with Jenny.

“How’d you get this number?” I asked, suddenly terrified.

“I called your father’s house to wish you a Merry Christmas. He said you were in a wreck.”

“The police must’ve told him where I was,” I said. “Yeah, I was in a wreck.” I didn’t believe her. Obviously this was some sort of trick.

“So are you okay?”

“I’m fine, how are you?”

“I’m good. So what have you been up to? Still going to school?”

I had to hold the phone with both hands, I was shaking so badly. Melissa always had a sweet voice, I kept thinking over and over. Calm. Boring.

“You sure you’re okay?” She asked.

I told her what had happened.

"It's for the best," she said. "Maybe you should lay off, and just be single for awhile. Take a break."

"You know," I said. "I was a real dick to you."

"Yeah, you were."

Two days later they reopened 540 and my friend Eric braved the interstate with his 4 wheel drive to pick me up and take me home. He'd been stuck in another town behind me with two of our friends. My room mate's sister was stuck further along the road. We'd all toughed it out until the interstate was drivable again.

I chatted the whole way about my plans for the coming year, how I hoped to be more sociable, try new things, learn to dance. Eric dropped us off at home, and my room mate and I stumbled up the stairs. Our apartment was freezing. The power was off. The snow storm had knocked out power to half the state, as well as large portions of Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, even up to Kansas.

My room mate walked over to our stove and turned it on.

"Gas," he said.

"Crank it all the way up," I said.

We stowed our things, and when the apartment got too toasty, we opened the sliding door, brushed the snow off of our balcony chairs and propped our feet up. The trees were thick with ice, their branches round and smooth.

"How long before you get your car back?" He asked.

"Said it'll be two, three weeks all told. New rear axle, new door. Maybe they'll fix that crack in the windshield, though."

"Yeah, probably. Insurance covering it?"


"Well that's all right then."


The road below us was lined with dark groves worn into the snow. A car came by too fast and screeched into a tree, knocking ice off of some of the branches. We could hear the thud echoing between the buildings. The driver climbed out and looked around.

"Wow," Steven said.

"Yeah. Hey, I never asked, how was your break?"

"Fine. Nothing to speak of."


I went inside and returned with a couple beers. When I got back, the driver had gotten back in her car and was trying to back it out.

"She having any luck?" I asked.

"No. Fucking weather."

The heat from the stove wafted out over us. I handed him a beer and we sat there a while, watching.

Monday, January 16, 2012

David Letterman said, "There are some people who are born to just not be happy, and I am one of those people." I can relate. I've never been happy. I've had moments here and there, more of them since my daughter was born, but still, I've never been what you'd call a happy person. I don't even know what that means, really. Hemmingway said, "Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know." I don't understand people who aren't full of fear and self-loathing when they go out into the horror show that is the world. I could happily withdraw from the world, a la Salinger in New Hampshire, except for the whole possibly drinking his own urine thing.

Before we go any further, let's be clear: this isn't some melodramatic cry for help. Really. Really. So please keep any platitudes to yourself. I'm just trying to have a conversation with myself, here. Don't poison the well.

When I think back to my childhood, what I remember is fear, uncertainty, awkwardness. This is all pretty normal, really. But maybe I was just an overly serious kid because I don't really remember happy times, except with my sister. Even then, it was in the face of stunning neglect. A lotof the seriousness came from trying to reconcile what I was being taught in church with what people were actually doing in life. This is something I failed to do.

Then I grew into a serious teenager with pretty much the same foci. Again, I had some happy times with my friends. But I was usually miserable, like a character from Dostoevsky, cowering in the shadows, cursing the prosperous world, the failed student dreaming of Napoleon. But that was all a long time ago.

It's interesting, because I've always attracted people by being funny. I make people laugh. (Hard to believe, I know.) The thing is, often I wasn't being funny. I was being brutally honest. But people laugh. It's strange. It makes me think that either I'm surrounded by idiots or the things I value are worthy of nothing more than ridicule. None of this makes for happy times. But I'm just sort of thinking aloud, here; none of this is really at the root of the issue.

As a young adult, I really saw no options, no future. I mean, I worked my ass off -- not at first. I got off to a slow start -- but I (eventually) worked my ass off to get where I am now. Just because I've never been happy doesn't mean I don't know how to work, quite the opposite, really. Work has been my main source of solace. But I never really thought it was going to make things "better." I don't really know what that means. I just worked because that's what you do. And I was bullheaded enough to actually make some progress. I'm still much the same, pumping out novels, stories, poems, etc., not to mention that I've somehow entered into a "career" in education, but not really expecting to make a lot of money from any of this. There's a line in a Kathleen Yearwood song, "I see happy people, and I just want to touch their hair." That speaks to me more truly than just about anything I could say. She goes on to say, "I paid one of them to listen to me because I lost my way. And now they pay to listen to me because I lost my way." From the album Book of Hate. Nicely ironic. Good stuff. Difficult, but worth it.

The other day, I fed my 8-month old daughter a bottle. She finished it, stretched out, and fell asleep on me. I was exhausted because I'd been sick, but I just sat there and let her sleep on me. It was a perfect moment. I've noticed there's something of sacrifice that coincides with these perfect moments. They're dearly bought; otherwise, they're of no value. She woke up, eventually, and life kept going. And I won't say I 'took that moment with me.' It was over.

The thing is, I want that, those perfect moments. And it scares the shit out of me. Because life is pain, just ask Buddha. I'm a bummer, always have been. I tell jokes and people laugh, but whenever I get too close to honest, they make excuses and take off. Because it's all void, in here. Never-ending void with teeth. (My soul is, apparently, vagina dentata.) But I don't want that for my daughter. It's tiresome. Yes, life is shit. And people are shitty. And I'm kind of ready to give up the fight to try to change that because I don't really think it's a fight I can win. But I keep fighting because it's all I know how to do.

My wife cooks for our daughter -- these amazing dishes, shit I can't even pronounce. She cooks all day, and then dumps it in a food processor and purees it for our daughter. How beautiful is that? And what the fuck do I have to offer to that scenario? Hey, I wrote a poem trying to reconcile a moral life with an immoral world, and it was published in some journal nobody outside of grad. school has heard of. Whoo hoo.

But that's it. That's what you get. Some people say 'nobody's happy.' That's bullshit. Plenty of people are. I see them. They're like fucking fruit flies. Some people get rich for being idiots. Some people get away with murder. Some people have pianos dropped on them. Some people die nobly. Some people just aren't happy. Cest la vie.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

I've been trying to come up with a new author photo, but I'm no good at this. I can make jokes about breaking the camera etc., but really it boils down to a kind of disconnect between internal and external, between the writing and the selling of that writing. Also, I'm really fat. That's my old one which I pretty much use because it's not terrible, but it's not really that awesome, either.

The last photo shoot I had drove Jillian to the brink of divorcing me. I was trying to get artsy with it, to show my pensive, artistic side. It came out something like this ----------->

Except in black and white. Because black and white means it's art. I'm not posting any of them. They're all pictures of me looking confused or distracted as if someone farted off camera.

I googled "author photo" and found that 95% of author photos show a closeup of the author with a limbo background. Maybe 20% of those substitute a bookshelf for the background. Sometimes, they're holding a book or something. Here's an example of what pretty much all of them look like. This isn't necessarily bad, it's just very common. And it's in black and white, so it's art, as we've previously established.

This one I like. It's kind of artsy, but interesting, to me. I like the use of space. It seems to comment on the form ironically. I might rip this one off.

A friend suggested I use this photo from my daughter's baptism. In this photo, the wife and I, clearly famished from a seemingly neverending church service, have decided to eat our baby. It happens. Babies taste good. Like veal. Also, their bones are soft and chewy.

I'm not sure this exactly does it for me as an author photo. If I were to go 'silly' I might do this one instead in which I'm feeding Ellie and mimicking her expression, which implies that, even though she is currently eating, she will never be fed.

Of course, you can't really see Ellie's expression so well, so it just looks like I'm scared of the baby. Also, my gray hair makes it look like I've got some weird bowl-cut.

So the search continues. But does an author photo really have to be of me? There are much more "true" photos of me online than a photo trully of me. For example:

Monday, January 09, 2012

My mother was diagnosed with Huntington's Disease when I was very young. I spent my formative years watching her deteriorate and wondering when/if it would be my turn. It's a genetic disease, and the specter of contracting it hung over my head all of my early life. After high school, when most of my friends were moving away to college, I was seized by a complete inability to act. Whenever I went into public, I imagined people were staring at me, making fun of me. I was incredibly self conscious to the point of being frozen. When I tried to go into crowded places, a light-blind terror took over and I couldn't do it. It wasn't a question of making myself do something I didn't want to do. This fear was more powerful than my desire to say, buy some new toothpaste, or go to a movie. I hardly left the house for two years. And when I did, I imagined people were hovering around me, whispering about my hermitic lifestyle.

My father and brother, both of whom I lived with, didn't know what the word agoraphobia meant. My father didn't actually believe in mental illness.

I don't blame him. My father was of a different generation. He was fifty when I was born; he grew up during the Great Depression and dropped out of high school to work and help support his ten siblings. He fought in World War II, lost a brother there, and worked hard the rest of his life when he got back. He started a farm with another brother and barely scraped by, and had to subsidize his income by raising fish, livestock, selling gravel, growing grapes for the wineries in Altus, and anything else he could think of. He'd seen his wife, my mother, overcome by sickness until he couldn't care for her anymore and had to put her in a nursing home, leaving him with a teenaged son. He dealt with it by working sun up to sun down and drinking.

As my mother's condition got worse, my father drank Kentucky Tavern bourbon like this: He started early, an hour or so after dawn, down at the Fish Shack (the main building of the farm) with a big glass of Dr. Pepper, the kind of glass you get at a gas station usually called a "Big Gulp" or something like that. He poured in a finger or two of bourbon and filled the rest with Dr. Pepper. Then he sipped that for an hour or two.

Once it was gone, he poured in four fingers of bourbon, the rest water, and sipped that. By the end of the day, it was two fingers of water, the rest bourbon.

My uncle, who was later diagnosed with cirrhosis, had practiced a variant using water and vodka. After he was diagnosed, he would take old, empty vodka bottles and fill them with water. Then he'd mix them the same way he had with vodka; a couple fingers from the vodka bottle, the rest water.

This was only during the winter months, after the crops were laid by and my family turned to our secondary means of income which was raising and selling catfish and buffalo fish. My father, uncles and brother cleaned the fish and drank and talked during breaks. In the evenings, and long into the night, they stood around, drinking and telling dirty jokes. When I was younger, I'd stand around with them trying to urge my father to come home.

"I need a ride," I'd say.

"Walk," one of the other drunks would say. "It ain't far."

Which was true, and though I was a little afraid of the dark and the coyotes, mostly I was afraid, like my father, of being at home, alone with my mother, who was slipping into dementia. It would often be eight, nine o'clock in the evening before we finally made it home. She would have given up waiting for us and gone to bed.

It was funny, at first, hearing all the old drunks telling stories, but as I grew older, the jokes stayed the same, and they weren't funny anymore. I stole sips of people's drinks but they all tasted watered down and cheap.

During the summer, we farmed. My father carried a cooler full of Budweiser beer in the back of his truck. He threw his empties back there, too. Every few weeks, my brother and I bagged up all the aluminum cans and sold them to a recycling place for a few cents per pound for spending money.

* * *

With my mother's condition, my father became a single parent, except that he had to take care of his wife as well as us. He was an affectionate man. He called me Honey and frequently hugged and kissed us on the cheeks. Once, my sister asked him about our American Indian heritage and he told her we were of the Black Feet tribe, because we always stepped in cow piles. He told her that her Indian name was Little Mini Ha Ha.

When he was drunk, he could be mean and pigheaded the way a child can be when you try to make him clean his room. I think he felt guilty, and me standing there, urging him to go home didn't help things. After Mom went into the nursing home, he sobered up and stopped spending as much time with his buddies, most of whom he hated the sight of when he was sober. He started to see them as wastrels. Several of his buddies were on disability, but still worked odd jobs under the table. They lived to drink, rarely read anything and knew little of current events. My father had always prided himself on his knowledge of world events. As he sobered, he filled his new free time with reading and projects, putting as much distance as he could between himself and his old life. But his friends still hung around, reminding him of who he'd let himself be.

This was a time of change, for my father and myself. I worked on the farm as a young teenager but my father saw no future in it for me. "Ain't nothing worse than being a farmer," he told me, "except maybe being a cop or a politician. But that ain't saying much."

So I stayed home and sat with my mother. When Mom went into the nursing home, it left a gap in my life. And I also felt guilty that we couldn't handle taking care of her ourselves. My father felt the same way, I think. Maybe that's why he let me stay home, after graduation, without working.

I had a car, but it was a heap that rarely worked. Every time we took it to some shade tree mechanic, it ran for a day or two, then broke down again. Without a reliable car, it was difficult to find a job, or so I told myself. On some days, my father would urge me to find a job nearby and walk to work, on others, he would talk about the dangers of the world.

"You can stay here as long as you want," he said to me, and so I did. My father never asked me to leave, or openly asked me to do much of anything. Maybe he was avoiding the situation, though my sister told me once that he'd said, about me, "He's had a hard row to hoe."

* * *

My home town was like this:( )
Wynne had eight thousand people, a Wal Mart, some rice fields and a multitude of mosquitoes. There were a couple factories but how long could one expect to work in one before it shut down and moved overseas? I remember when we got a McDonald's, and people were so excited you'd think the food was good. When I was in high school, the thing to do after school was go to Sonic and sit in the parking lot, then drive down the street to the bowling alley, turn around, and come back. For fun, kids parked in the Wal Mart parking lot. And drank. And smoked pot. And did every drug imaginable. And had lots of sex. There was nothing else to do.

When I was growing up, Arkansas was the leading producer of crystal meth. Little Rock was among the top three cities for violent crime, and the Mississippi delta was home to one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the country. Arkansas was forty ninth in education under Governor Clinton, and, when laws were finally passed making testing for teachers mandatory, some of my teachers chose, or were forced, to retire.

To succeed in my hometown meant to leave it. This was the lesson drilled into us early and often. Go to school, get good grades and get a scholarship to college. Short of being a teacher, there were very few jobs around that required a college degree. So college equaled moving to Little Rock or Memphis for work.

Wynne was founded when a train car fell off the track. They stood it back up and made it a station. It's a railroad town that stole the county seat from Wittsburg nearly a century before when using rivers to transport goods fell out of favor. Why go down the Mississippi, then up the Arkansas to get from Memphis to Little Rock when you could now send freight straight through on a train? Wittsburg was now just a handful of empty buildings huddled on the banks of the White River. They served as a reminder of the fickle nature of prosperity. After I got out of high school, the buildings were torn down because they were being used to house methamphetamine labs.

But, railroads had gone the way of the river boats. My father would talk about how when he was a young man, he would ride the train in to Memphis for the day. My brother talked about riding it down to New Orleans to see the Super Bowl when he graduated high school in the '70's.

Now, the station had been turned into a flea market on weekends. Trains came through, but they didn't stop. I could hear their lonesome whistles down the hill from my father's house as they headed for Memphis, maybe saying goodbye to this old town, or maybe just telling someone down the line to get out of the way.

I talked about going to college, but my father was against it. He didn't want me going too far away, and really, neither did I. Maybe if he had forced me in a particular direction, I might have moved that way, but probably I would have resisted. I could do anything in the world.

I imagined that as soon as people noticed me, they'd hurl abuse at me. It was an odd sort of narcissism; the idea that random strangers had nothing better to do than this. Though sometimes, I wasn't just being paranoid. I had long hair; it grew down to my shoulder blades and on more than one occasion people I'd never met would yell at me to get a hair cut, as though I were personally offending them. Once, a policeman pulled my friend over while I was with him.

"You taking your girlfriend on a date?" The cop asked, though I had a full beard.

An aunt, seeing me in public once, remarked that she was surprised to see me wearing shoes, and that they must be uncomfortable to me. She lived down the hill from us, and it was her eyes I thought were on me whenever I went outside after this.

I was never diagnosed with agoraphobia. The thing about agoraphobia is it's hard to make yourself go somewhere to be treated. I didn't go to a psychologist until I was in college, and by then, I had worked through the hardest part of it. I went anyway and talked about my family. I never spoke of the terror I felt, still some days; the jolt of suddenly realizing you're standing on ice and it is tilting you towards the darkness and cold of the water, and you can't move.

I had needed time to make sense of things; I'd needed a break. My father didn't know what to do with me, so he left me alone. He just tried not to make it worse. Slowly, I'd pulled myself out of that mire and ventured out into the world. It had just taken me longer than some.

It was not a happy time, in that house, and I knew on some level at least that autonomy was a step in the direction of happiness. If you control your own life, you can make it as good as you want.

Really, what I wanted to ask my therapist was why wasn't everyone like me? A person could go through life and do everything he or she is supposed to do and end up in a nursing home not even knowing his or her own name. So why bother? Why not just stay in bed? Maybe they all just didn't know, or maybe they already knew what I'd finally learned after two years of hiding; that nowhere was safe from change.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

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Monday, January 02, 2012

Looking at my writing goals list for 2011, I managed to accomplish all but a couple things, which is pretty impressive considering that I had a child, started a new position at work, etc. I had hoped to finish my zombie novel. I did manage to whip it into shape, though. I have a solid 100 pages, but I also completely abandoned the outline in order to accomplish this, so it ground to a halt because I wasn't sure what direction in which to take it. I had also hoped to record some music, which didn't happen. I did start a new supernatural/comedy series and lots of other stuff, so there you go. I wanted to finish a series of stories, and I managed to write several of them, but have plenty more to go. Still, pretty good year.

I have 3 readings coming up this year, in February and April. I hope to have more. This would be my first goal for 2012.

I have a supernatural/comedy novel coming out any day second goal is to market it successfully.

I intend to pay off our car so we have a little breathing room.

I intend to set up a recording area downstairs in our TV room and record some songs.

As far as writing, I have some projects I'd like to finish this year as well as some general things I'd like to move towards. The general things aren't so much goals as just directions. I'd like to write more formal poetry. I'd like to write more of the stories in the aforementioned series.

As far as formal writing goals for the year, they are as follows:

1. complete a draft of "Music" (working title). This is the second-oldest unfinished project I have. It has morphed into something completely different than when I started, but that's fine. It's essentially my Fight Club.

2. finish the zombie book! I want the damned thing off my desk!

3. write the sequel to the Necro-Files. I have a rough outline for this and lots of ideas.

4. undecided novel project. I have a dozen or so solid novel-ideas in various stages of completion. The frontrunners are:

--a collection of linked stories about a race war (this is already 1/3 completed).
--a slipstream novel about angels. This might end up being a long story.
--a Vonnegut/Burgess-esque futuristic novel about a cruise ship full of the last survivors of mankind. I have lots of jokes, lots of details, not much plot for this.
--a YA or maybe middle-grade anthropomprphic book (a la Animal Farm) about birds. I'm pretty excited about the prospect of this one.
--I have a couple literary fiction ideas brewing.