29 January, 2009

The Seven Minutes

Everybody called him Fat Larry. He was the boss. While we were on the floor keeping the food court clean and emptying garbage cans around the mall, he sat on his ass in his backroom office watching a small portable TV. When I interviewed for the job, I’m pretty certain that my desperation showed through. I wore one of my two dress shirts – the white one – and a tie that I’d been carrying around since I bought for the last time I had to wear a tie – which was maybe ten or fifteen years ago. There were five other guys interviewing for the position. I was the only one wearing a tie.

“Why do you want a job like this?” he asked me. He was eating peanuts from a can on his desk, and every time he talked, he spit little bits of peanut on my resume. “A guy with an education like yours ought to do more. Teach, maybe.”

I’d heard this kind of thing before. One of the ironies the high school guidance counselor never mentioned was the downside of having a college degree – namely that you’re over qualified for regular work. I could also tell that he sort of enjoyed having the college boy tottering on the rickety chair in front of his desk, begging for a job. I’d seen that before, too. But I needed a job, and I had actually been a janitor before and didn’t mind it.

“Look,” I told him. “It’s true, I went to college. But I didn’t really graduate, ok? A lot was going on. Got married. Got divorced. Started drinking…” I looked at him, hoping the silence would fill in the blanks. The story wasn’t strictly true. It was vague enough, though, to sound true.

He squinted at me, popped several peanuts into his mouth, and chewed them loudly. Like a horse. The reception on the television was lousy. Some game showed fizzled in and out between bouts of white static. The Wheel of Fortune, I think. I don’t know how long I sat there, but my ass was starting to hurt. The seat of the little chair I was sitting on was split into two pieces and a splinter was digging into my right ass cheek. I was considering standing up and leaving.

“When can you start?” He finally spoke.

“Tomorrow,” I answered. “Or whenever you want me here. Sir.”

Fat Larry smiled, sat back in his chair, and folded his hands across his giant belly. The chair creaked so loudly, I expected it to collapse. “You can start on Monday,” he said.

I stood up and shook his large plushy hand. There were no calluses on his hands. It was Friday.

On Monday, I got there early to fill out forms and take the grand tour. Fat Larry left me alone in a small room next to his office, where there was a small table and a slightly more comfortable chair. The application packet was one page of tedium after another. The first few pages were the actual application, which was basically where I filled in all the information on my resume. I had to list personal references and all my past jobs and why I left. Then I had to fill out the I-9. Then there was a 10 page packet explaining OSHA regulations in regards to cleaning chemicals and handling garbage, with a page long quiz after. According to the directions, the quiz was supposed to be given to me after I’d studied the ten page packet thoroughly and put it away. I passed the quiz without really reading the whole ten page packet.

When I was finished, I walked out of the room. Fat Larry wasn’t in his office, so I went down the short hallway and through the double doors that led to the food court. I opened the doors and Fat Larry was talking to one of the women. She didn’t look very happy. He dismissed her and then turned around to face me.

“Finished already?” He smiled. My stomach turned, just a little.

“Yeah.”

“Ok. Come on. We gotta get you a uniform shirt.”

He took me back into his office, where he unlocked a metal cabinet. He kept the uniform shirts inside – baby blue polo shirts with the mall logo on it. “Size?”

I told him and he threw three shirts at me. “You’re responsible for these shirts,” he said. “You have to wear one every day. If you’re not wearing a uniform shirt, you get sent home. You have to make sure it’s clean. If it’s not clean, you get sent home. You get sent home three times, you’re gone.” He paused for a beat to let it sink in. Come this way. I’ll show you the time clock.”

When we got there, there was a time card with my name on it and a nine digit number that was my new employee identification number. He demonstrated how to clock in. I would have two fifteen minute breaks and a half hour lunch. I would have to clock out and clock back in for each of them. “You get a seven minute overlap,” he told me. “If you clock back in more than seven minutes late, you get docked an hour’s pay.” He paused a beat to let it sink in. “Ok. Come on.” He led me back out into the food court, and flagged down one of the other janitors. He was a short and shriveled and walked with a shuffle. Fat Larry beamed. “This is Harold. He’s one of our BEST. He’s going to show you the ropes. Just follow him around today so you can get the feel for things.”

“Ok.” Fat Larry turned around and wobbled back into his office to catch the last bit of The Bold and the Beautiful.

I followed Harold around the rest of the night. Basically, he pushed a cart around the mall, emptying garbage cans, cleaning up kiddie puke and scraping up discarded chewing gum, candy, and ice cream. “It ain’t a hard job,” he said over and over. “So long as you get a good pair of shoes.”

The shift ended an hour after the mall closed. That was when we got out the floor machines and went over the entire mall. The only thing that complicated this was the movie theater: it was still open and when shows let out, kids were always running through the mall when it was empty, leaving drink cups, popcorn, candy, and footprints all over the place. I was pushing one of the machines around when Fat Larry found me.

“How you doin’ with that thing?” he asked.

“Ok. I’ve ran them before.”

He nodded. “Good. Be sure to get under the benches in and behind the garbage cans.”

“Ok.”

Fat Larry stood there, watching me.

“Yes sir. No problem.”

He smiled and nodded and wobbled off. Prick, I thought. Asshole. By the time I finished my shift, my feet were killing me.

The next night I got there about twenty minutes early. We couldn’t clock in until seven minutes before the start of the shift – a seven minutes that we weren’t paid for, naturally. So I walked into the break room. Harold was sitting there, along with five other people: Kate, Jim, Russ, Keisha, and Bev. I recognized Bev as the woman Fat Larry was yelling at the previous day. She looked like she was beautiful – once. Straw colored hair, hazel eyes, a thin frame. She was sitting at the table nearest to the refrigerator, smoking a cigarette and reading Us Weekly.

I sat down next to Russ. “Hey buddy,” he said. “Is this your first week? It’s my first week, too.” He stuck his hand out. I shook it. Russ was older than me. He sported a mop hair cut that was probably a dark brown once upon a time, but was now mostly gray. He had a large droopy mustache of the same color. He talked a lot, but I liked him ok. He talked about being new at the job, but being grateful that he had a job. He needed to work, he said, because his wife needed all kinds of medicine. “She’s older than me,” he said. “Rose is almost 70.”

“Damn man,” I said. “That’s gotta be stressful. You’re not anywhere near that old.”

“Nah. She’s like 30 years older than me. She wasn’t always sick, though.”

If you say so fella. “Cool.”

“When do you take lunch?”

I had to think about it. We all took lunch at different times. “7:30, I think.”

“That’s awesome,” Russ said. “Me too. We should eat together.”

“Sure thing,” I said.

Harold was the first to stand up. That meant it was time to clock in and go to work. I clocked in and looked at the assignment sheet. I was given a zone on the other side of the mall – near Sax Fifth Avenue. That meant walking around with a cart, just like Harold. At least, I told myself, I didn’t get placed near the movie theater.

The thing about taking my smoke breaks was that I had to make sure I started wandering back towards the food court in plenty of time if I wanted the full my full fifteen minutes. I didn’t mind walking in rectangles pushing a garbage can, but I sure as shit was going to make sure I got all my break time in. I ran into Harold coming back from the food court on my way to my second break.

“Where’re you going?” he asked.

“Heading in to take my break.”

Harold shook his head. By the look on his face I knew what he was thinking: Lazy fucking kid. “Be careful,” he said instead. “If Fat Larry catches you, you’ll get written up.”

“Written up for going to take my break?”

Harold nodded. He was about to push off when I asked him how long he’d been working at the mall.

“Well,” he said, “I worked for the city, and retired. Then I got this job. It’s beeeen about… ten years.”

“You’re joking, right?”

“Nope.”

“How many people have you seen come and go in this job?”

“Plenty,” he said. He looked at me and smiled – sort of. “And I’ll see plenty more, I bet.”

When he pushed off I watched him shuffle off. He walked like the cart was the only thing keeping him upright.

Sure enough, when I was almost to the food court, Fat Larry found me. “What’re you doing?” he demanded.

I told him I was on my way to take my second break.

“You don’t leave your zone until it’s time for your break to start,” he scolded. “This is your first write-up. Don’t do it again. You get two more write-ups and you’re out on your ass. Got me?”


For a month I kept my head down and stayed out of Fat Larry’s line of vision. It wasn’t all that hard. I was careful not to leave my zone until my breaks started, and I made up for it by hiding in during my shift and taking small breaks throughout the day. When I clocked back in from lunch, I always made sure to wait the extra seven minutes. Bev warned about this on several occasions.

“He doesn’t like it when we do that,” she whispered.

“Who?”

“Fat Larry. He doesn’t like it when we take the seven minutes on purpose.”

“Fuck him,” I said. “I do my job. Besides, he’s had me on Saturdays ever since I started. Most everyone else rotates.” Saturdays were the worst day to work; the mall was flooded with kids who bought 50 ounce buckets of sugar-filled pop, took two sips and, once the ice started to melt, threw it away. They spilled smoothies, ice cream dots, and nacho cheese everywhere. Sometimes they made messes because it was funny to make me work. By the time I emptied all the garbage cans, they were all full again. Plus, the cheap ass liners Fat Larry gave us for the garbage cans always leaked. The only time I ever saw him out on floor at all on any day of the week was when he was yelling at somebody. And most of the time, he was yelling at Bev.

“How do you do it?” I asked her. “What do you do to keep from getting fired? I see him on you all time, shaking one of those sausage fingers in your face.”

She was taken a little aback. “I do my job!”

“I KNOW you do,” I said. “We ALL do our jobs. But he seems to take special pleasure in giving you a hard time. I don’t think it’s fair, actually. He’s a bully.”

“Oh.” She softened a little. “He just… well… he… he calls me names a lot.”

“Like what?”

“He thinks I’m stupid,” she said. “He’s the same with all the girls. That’s why most of them moved to the day shift.”

“So he’s a pig.”

“Oh YES,” she hissed. “I hate him.”

“So why don’t you move to day shift, too?”

“He WANTS me to, I think. But I can’t. My husband works days, and somebody has to watch the kids.”

“Oh. They must be small.”

“They’re both in school,” she shrugged. “But somebody has to make sure they get up and dresses and fed and out on the bus. And if there’s a SNOW day…” she smiled. It was a sad smile. “Well, SOMEBODY has to be there.”

“And he knows that.”

She nodded. “Yes. He tells me that if I were a good mom I’d be home all the time. He tells me if I had better husband…”

“And you LET him say those things?”

“I need this job,” she said. “We get health insurance through my husband’s job, and that takes a lot out of his paycheck. If I don’t work, we can’t afford groceries.” She looked down at her watch. “It’s time to clock back in.” She looked hurried, and a little scared.

I sat for another five minutes and stood up to go clock back in. When I passed by Fat Larry’s office, he was leaning back in his chair watching what looked like American Idol. I watched him for a split second then passed by to clock in.

That’s when I heard the crash and I heard Fat Larry scream. “SHIIITTT!” I turned and looked back in the office. He was wallowing on the floor, on top of what used to be his chair. In fall, he must’ve kicked the desk because the television was laying dead on the floor. He looked shaken, but not hurt. I watched him cuss and huff and puff, struggling to get to his feet. I walked away before he could turn around to see me.

When I got to the clock and punched my card, I looked at the time. I was eight minutes late.

27 January, 2009

The Whiskey Rebellion

Standing in front of my students felt like slow death. Especially the morning class. They stumbled in half asleep and acting put out and pissed off. They didn’t want to be there. I didn’t feel like entertaining them enough to make them want to stay. We played our respective roles. It was a small class – summer classes tend to be. Ten students. Three are asleep in their desks. One absence. Another, a California blonde with big blue eyes and boobs that were probably a graduation present from Daddy, was focusing on another text message. The remaining five were exchanging knowing glances along with the occasional smirk and eye roll. I was standing in front and going through my lecture on the post-revolutionary war period. My voice echoed the same as if I were lecturing to an auditorium of a thousand empty seats. I told the students (like I told myself) that the echo was caused by the cement block walls. We met in one of the older buildings on campus – the same building where the physical education and kinesiology department was.

My prepared lecture was on the Whiskey Rebellion. The students were mildly interested at the mention of booze; but once they realized I was talking about an actual historical event and not a block party, they went back to tuning me out. Maybe I wasn’t being fair to them. But somehow, I don’t think so. Just as I got around to explaining how the Articles of Confederation helped create the conditions the led up to the Whiskey Rebellion and how it, like the American Revolution, was mostly about taxation, Mandi the epic text messenger, suddenly chimed in.

“What do taxes have to do with slaves?”

I was accustomed to interruptions, and there was even a time when I welcomed them. But I hadn’t been interrupted in a while. I composed myself and reminded myself that every moment in a classroom is an educational moment. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking that maybe this will be the time that the switch will flip in Mandi’s cute little head and she’ll go from being every frat boys favorite slice to a real student. “Taxes had nothing to do with slavery,” I answered. “But, like the Boston Tea Party, taxation led to…”

She rolled her eyes. “Didn’t ANYBODY care about the slaves?”

“Uh.” I swallowed and regrouped. “Of course slavery was a divisive issue for the Founders, Mandi. You’re right about that. But the Whiskey Rebellion…”

“And didn’t we end up beating them anyway?” She was smacking her gum, chewing like cow chews cud.

“Who?”

She rolled her eyes like punctuation. “The CONFEDERATES? Duh. We BEAT them, right?”

Fuck me. “Uh, yeah, Mandi. Though you’re confusing the Articles of Confederation with the Confederated States. And really, there was no US and THEM in the Civil War. It was Americans killing Amer…”

“Well I don’t care,” she proclaimed. “Slavery is just WRONG.”

I was about to respond when her cell phone went off. Sigh. “Yes Mandi. You’re right.”

My classes were back to back. I got the luck of the draw, because summer classes normally didn’t work out that smoothly. My second class met in a slightly smaller room in a slightly newer (by a decade) building. that would have been fine, except that it was a larger class. it was almost a full class. twenty-five students. The packed in feeling added to the general attitude of displeasure and intellectual malaise. I took attendance, started my dog and pony show about the Whiskey Rebellion. I had prepared myself mentally for another Mandi. There were several to choose from.

Sometimes I felt guilty for grouping my students like that. When I started teaching, I went out of my way to learn all my students’ names. I saw them as individuals. I saw teaching as not a job or a career, but a vocation. When I ran across a some professor who clearly didn’t feel the same passion I did, I assumed they were what was wrong with the system. Higher education was hemorrhaging apathy. And, as I saw it, the individual teachers carried much of the burden. I thought about my professors. Some of them were passionate. A few were crazy. One or two were influential, at the time. Many of my professors, thought, regardless of what they taught, were distant, burned out wraiths. The tenured ones were more concerned with their research and gave the tedious duty of teaching to their TA’s. The rest found ways of coping – drinking or chasing co-eds or excessive exercise. I had a medieval history professor who cross stitched in his spare time. As you might imagine, he lived alone with five or six cats in the same house that he once shared with his widowed mother.

When I got into teaching, I had no clue as to what I was doing. But I knew one thing. I knew I didn’t want to be one of THEM. I wanted to be passionate and inspire my students to be passionate learners. I loved history – especially American History – and I wanted my students to love it, too.

But somewhere between the multitudes of Mandis and the hemorrhaging apathy, I stopped caring. Teaching history turned into telling the same joke one hundred times. After the first seven or eight times, you can’t convince anybody it’s still funny.

Thankfully, no one in the second class spoke up and it ended with a resounding silence and the sounds of flip flops slapping against the tiled floor. I looked at my clock. 11 AM. Theoretically, I was supposed to go back to my office for a few hours – just in case some poor little student had a question or wanted clarification on something in the book or lecture. No one ever showed up. The only time most of them talked at all was if they were trying to negotiate for a higher grade.

I looked up and the classroom was empty. The only evidence that a class had been there was a textbook that somebody left behind. I felt around in my bag and pulled out the flask I’d filled with bourbon before I left home, and took a swig.

That was the best part of the day.

22 January, 2009

Minnie the Moocher

Eddie, an old guy in one of the second floor rooms moved her in – just brought her home from the bar one night like a stray. She was a short, skinny woman with straight greasy dark hair and sallow, olive looking skin that, had she taken better care of herself, might have been lovely. Her eyes were large, round, and midnight black. Whenever she looked at me I felt uncomfortable. Like prey. I liked the old guy well enough. He was nice, a little goofy. Prone to drink. Some evenings when it was cool outside we’d sit on front stoop and share a bottle of cheap wine or drink a couple of 40’s and talk – about how expensive cigarettes were getting, about the government, or about how the Saints could never seem to catch a break. New Orleans offered plenty things for a couple of guys to sit and shoot the shit about, even if it was the man-sized roaches that strolled down the street at sunset like aristocrats. Eddie was a good guy who’d lived a long time in flop houses and homeless shelters, but had settled out after he was old enough to draw social security. “Not much money,” he told me once, “but it’s enough to keep me in this place. And in booze and cigarettes.”

But he was also lonely. I tried several times to make him feel better about it. It was a topic we spent entirely too many of our stoop sitting sessions on.

“There are plenty of girls around,” I told him. “Just ask.”

He scowled at me. “I don’ want no WHORE.”

“What?” I asked. “All I’m saying is, you can probably walk four blocks in any direction and find a little companionship. What’s wrong with that?”

He shook his head.

“You’re not looking for a girlfriend, are you?” Eddie was a nice guy… but he was also old enough to be my grandfather. And there weren’t many geriatric single women around aspiring to squeak by on a measly monthly check living in rooming house that had once been a prominent crack den— before it was closed down by the city and sold to a developer that slapped on a new coat of paint and started renting out rooms at $80 a week.

“Don’ want to be alone,” he said, all sullen. “Tired of being alone.”

Not long after that, he brought her home. She was much younger than him; I think she was younger than me. It wasn’t hard to see what the deal was; she carried most of what she owned in large bag of a purse. She probably wandered into whatever bar Eddie was in looking to turn a trick, saw Eddie and smelled blood. When he introduced her to me, his chest was all puffed out and he was standing straight as a telephone pole. He smiled a wide, semi-toothless smile that looked all wrong on his face. I shook her hand and watched Eddie follow her back to his room.

Once, I tried talking to him about her – to try and warn him – but he wouldn’t hear of it. “I got a right to be HAPPY,” he told me.

I didn’t push it. Anyway, I told myself. He seems happy enough.

That she borrowed things didn’t bother me at first. I try to be neighborly. Not only is it a nice thing to do, but you never know when you’ll need them to return the favor. A cup of sugar. A fork or a spoon. I gave her coffee. I lent her a few bucks here and there – though it took me a while to notice that she only asked right after I got paid. I never figured out how she knew, since I wasn’t an extravagant spender.

I learned the sound of her knock. It was a quiet knock. Quiet the way a hungry dog scratches on the back door. When she knocked, a knot formed in my stomach. There was a point where I wanted to tell her no – but there was Eddie to consider. Somebody had to be around for when she got into one of her moods and yelled at him. She even hit him a couple of times, though nothing ever came of it. He wasn’t going call the cops and he wouldn’t have forgiven me if I had. It got to the point where she was knocking on my door every other day, and on the days she didn’t, he did. “Taking time to cool off,” he always said.

“Yeah,” I’d say. “You don’t want to go and lose your temper.”

He never understood the tone; or if he did, he ignored it. We’d drink a little and he’d hobble back up the stairs to bed after she’d passed out.

The second to last time she knocked on my door, she wanted to borrow a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Those were her words, too. I didn’t want to get into exactly how one borrows a sandwich, or the fact that I had no interest in her returning it to me when she was finished. While I was getting out the bread, the peanut butter, and the jelly, she looked over at the milk crate that operated as my bookshelf.

“Do you like to read?” she asked, looking impressed.

“Yes.”

“Oh!” She clapped her bony knobby hands together like a small child. “I like to read too! Can I borrow some books?” She didn’t ask so much as tell me as she was grabbing a couple of my books. Lending out books always made me nervous, and at that point I had very few because I didn’t want to worry about how I was going to move them around. I mumbled, “Sure,” while I made her two sandwiches. At least, I told myself, Eddie’ll get something to eat, too. She never returned anything she borrowed, even if it was something that COULD be returned. So I expected not to see my books again. But I didn’t like having her in my room, invading my space. I didn’t look at what she borrowed until after she left. She stayed away from the poetry – no surprise there. She took my copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and The Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet, which I had finished the previous week. The selection was odd. I assumed she picked Thompson because she had seen the movie (probably snuck into a theater), and I figured she nabbed De Quincey because it had opium in the title. I could only assume that she thought Genet would have pointers and tips to help her be a better mooch. I wasn’t happy about it, but it could have been worse.

Two days later she knocked on my door again with my copy of Genet in her hand. “Do you know what this book is about?” she asked me. I could tell by the sour expression that she’d gotten at least past the first 10 pages.

“Yeah,” I said. “Of course.”

She squinted at me. For a moment, I thought I could see her teeth glistening under the dim hallway light. “Oh.” Then she smiled again. “Can I borrow another?”

“Why don’t you finish the ones you have?” I answered, taking Genet out from between her fingers. She was holding it like a dirty diaper.

She shrugged. “Ok.” I thought she was going to turn to leave. She kept talking to me instead.

“Can I ask you somethin’?”

“Sure.”

She pointed upstairs. “Eddie and I haven’t been getting along,” she began.

“No? Really?” I tossed the book on my bed and leaned against the doorframe, blocking her path into my room.

She nodded. “Yeah. I mean, he’s a nice guy… when he’s not drunk. But he’s always drunk.” She drew herself closer. “He gets MEAN” she whispered. “Sometimes he hits me. Makes me do… things….”

I didn’t interrupt.

“I just… I need to get away,” she said. “Can I move in here with you? I promise I’ll get a job and help pay rent.” She smiled in a come on kind of way that made me want to throw up. “I could maybe even …”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I answered, pulling away from her and getting ready to shut the door. “I know Eddie drinks, but I’ve also seen some of the bruises you leave on him. Where are yours?”

“Faggot!” She hissed at me. “I knew you were a fucking faggot. Reading faggot books about faggots! FAG. Cock Slurper…”

I just looked at her. I’m not gay, but I wasn’t going to lower myself by trying to prove it. She hissed at me some more and walked off, still spitting and hissing.

The week after that, she disappeared. Eddie was sad for a while, but eventually, he got over it. About a month later, we were sitting on the stoop one particularly comfortable evening. He was drinking Steele Reserve. I was drinking Mickey’s Malt Liquor. There was a slight breeze. There were a couple of street walkers across the way who looked like they were just getting started. Eddie looked over at me.

“You think I could get one of them girls to come upstairs with me?”

“Anything’s possible,” I answered.

19 January, 2009

Tostadas Can Catch Fire, Too

The way Elwood figured, it was their only way out. What surprised him was that Lilly agreed.

But she still had her doubts. “How are we going to pay for it?”

Elwood cracked open a beer. “I told you how,” he answered after a very deliberate sip. “I just need you to trust me.”

Lilly was standing in the kitchen preparing dinner. It was Mexican night. She liked to cook when she was thinking about things; it gave her something to do besides worry. Elwood had learned not to take her worrying personally. He knew it wasn’t that she didn’t trust him; she was just a worrier by nature. He knew she believed in him. He just wished he had the same kind of faith in himself.

He wanted to get them out of Phoenix because he’d brought them there. It had been his idea. He’d dragged Lilly across the country, away from her family and the dismal prospects that faced them in Chattanooga. The economy was bad and it was only getting worse. He couldn’t find a regular job to save his life, unless it was temp day labor. The advantage was that he got paid at the end of the day. But then he had to get it cashed, which meant paying a fee at the Check-n-Go check cashing/payday loan place. What was left was never enough. He’d considered sticking up the Check-n-Go a couple of different times, but there were a lot of cameras and security. Besides, he’d promised Lilly he’d find regular work. He’d known some people who were doing well in construction out in Arizona; the real estate boom was making people rich and there was plenty of money to go around if you weren’t afraid to put your back into it and if you could outwork the Mexicans. It hadn’t taken long to talk Lilly into the move, because she wanted to get away, too.

But by the time they got out to the desert, the economic bubble went bust. All the money that could be made had already been made. New home constructions were almost non-existent, and the people he had known wouldn’t help him. “Tough luck,” they told him. “We just can’t use any new people right now. Sorry, Bro.”

Over the years, he’d had a lot of different jobs. He was a fast food line worker; he’d been a janitor; he’d been a bartender. Garbage collector. Night watchman. He even tried to better himself and struggled through half a semester of technical school trying to learn about computers. None of it was any good.

He was a crook, and he knew it. Sure, he was small time – but it was always the big timers with their big egos and their grand schemes who always got caught. It wasn’t like they showed it in the movies: crooks with big plans and big crews ended up doing hard time and being some bull queer’s midnight bitch. No, small time was better. Small time was safer. He even took a small amount of pride in his work. Carjacking. Mugging. Purse snatching. A little B & E. The occasional convenience store. Ok, he told himself. It wasn’t glamorous. But the problem with most small timers was that their lifestyles were incompatible to the job. He didn’t mind living simple. He didn’t own anything that he could pack in a single bag, or ditch entirely in case he had to run. He didn’t mind the cheap motels and rooming houses, the dive bars and lousy food. The problem, as he saw it, was that people built up expectations for themselves, and expectations made them sloppy. He knew he’d never amount to much. He’d never have the big house and the brand new car. But he would stay alive. And he would be free.

Then he met Lilly. She was beautiful, but not in that fake glamorous way. Quiet. He hadn’t expected her to talk to him, and when he told how he made a living, he expected her to run. But she didn’t. When she looked at him, he got the feeling that she saw something else. Not who he was, but who he could be. He liked that. But her family hadn’t liked him. They figured him almost immediately, and he wasn’t what they had in mind. Both of her parents were hard working, semi-religious folks. The time clock was as important as the bible. They thought he was lazy. They thought he was dangerous. They tried to tell Lilly that he didn’t really love her – but she knew better. When Elwood married her, they accepted it. The day before the wedding, Lilly made him promise.

“I need you to tell me you’ll try,” she said.

“I’ll try.”

“I need you to promise. Promise me you’ll try and find a job.”

“I promise. It’ll be ok. I promise.”

But it was proving to be a hard promise to keep. She wanted him to have a regular job and a regular life; but she was also scared of being poor. She didn’t want fine things; but she couldn’t live the way Elwood could. He’d been supplementing his occasional paychecks with a few snatchings here, a few muggings there. Just enough for some cash to keep the lights on, or to take Lilly to the movies. She worked two jobs. Elwood didn’t like it – not because he objected to her working. But it made him feel horrible, watching her wear herself down.

He was trying to think of some way he could get them out of Phoenix, but there was nowhere to go. That was when the phone call came from Lilly’s mother. Her mother, Lilly’s favorite grandmother had died. Of course, there was no money to make it back for the funeral. But when she died, she left her house to Lilly.

Elwood’s first thought was that they could sell it and use the money to move somewhere else. He could tell from the look on Lilly’s face, though, that she had other things in mind. She wanted to move back, to live in the house. It was a small house in Cape Cod, right on ocean. She’d spent summers there as a kid. Elwood used to get her to talk about it so she would smile.

He knew he had to get her there. And there was only one way to make it happen. He needed a big score.

It was day of the job and he was trying to relax. He enjoyed Lilly’s cooking, even Mexican night, though he couldn’t eat the refried beans. She was finishing up the meat. All the fixing – the lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and sour cream – were ready. She’d bought tostadas instead of burrito wraps this time. “Something different,” she’d said. They looked like flat taco shells to Elwood; but he didn’t say anything. He was too busy trying to stay calm and think things through. Trying to remember how many tellers would be working and how many cameras there were and which window would give him the least visibility to the cameras. He knew to make sure they didn’t put the ink pack in the bag. It was a federal bank, so they wouldn’t fight him. It was Friday, so there would be more cash in the drawers to accommodate paychecks. He was going to use the cell phone gag. He’d walk in, hand the teller a note with all the information. Then he’d hand her a cell phone. On the other end of the cell phone, he had a friend with a kid who agreed to pose as a kidnapper. People get extra antsy when they think a kid’s in danger. The teller would empty her drawer and ever other drawer, or (according to the note) the kid would die. If there was a dye pack, the kid would die. If the alarm went off, the kid would die.

Of course, nobody was going die. Including Elwood.

Just as Lilly was putting the tostadas in the broiler to warm them up, the telephone rang. “Can you watch these, honey?”

“Sure,” Elwood answered, a little annoyed by the distraction. He was thinking about things. Important things. He was sure Lilly knew something; but she didn’t say anything. She wanted to go to Cape Cod. That would take money. She’d been talking about having kids, too. And that would also take money. He didn’t know what kind of work he could get up north – maybe shoveling snow or some shit – but he knew he had to make it happen. That was what she wanted, and goddamnit, she deserved something in this life. Something solid. Something good.

He was pulled out of his thoughts by the smell. Something was burning. There was smoke pouring out of the stove. He jumped out of his chair. When he opened the stove, the flames jumped, and he closed it fast. He turned off the stove, and looking around, noticed Lilly’s water glass sitting on the cabinet. He filled it at the tap and then, very quickly, opened the stove and through water on the fire. It took a couple of glasses, but the fire went out.

By this time, the place was filling with smoke. The alarms weren’t going off. Fucking great, he thought. Elwood opened all of the windows and the patio door. Then he looked up and saw Lilly standing there.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I turned my head for a second….”

She walked over and hugged him. “I’m sorry,” he repeated. “ I just…”

“It’s ok,” she said. “Tostadas can catch fire, too.”

He looked at her. She’d been crying. He hugged her for as long as she wanted to be hugged. Sometimes that was all there was to do. It wasn’t taking long for the smoke to clear out. But the smell, he knew, would take a little longer.

Bubblegum Jesus

Walking home from the bar,
it was dark and chilly the way
January nights are in Phoenix; the traffic
sped by unaware (it always is). I was thinking
I should call people more – bourbon makes me nostalgic—
but I’m shitty on the telephone and run out of things
to say. Just past Fiesta Navidad Avenue, I was thinking
I should make more effort
when a shadow
in the form of a pear-shaped girl
handed me a card. It was
the same size as the bubblegum cards I collected
when I was a kid, but when I looked at it
it was a picture of Jesus. I looked back for the girl—
but she melted back into a shadow. When I looked
on the back of the card for stats, there was
an 800 number.

I considered calling.
But we ran out of things to say
a long time ago.

I put the picture in my pocket.
I might have been drunk, but I knew
that was no excuse
for littering.

16 January, 2009

At Least it’s Not Ashton Kutcher

The woman next to me must’ve weighed 600 pounds. She enveloped the more than she sat on it, which meant she (inevitably) was spilling over into my chair. There was nothing I could do; the chairs were tied together to keep people from moving them around. I’d gotten there at a bad time and there weren’t that many seats in the waiting area.

This wasn’t the first time I’d gone to sell plasma. They don’t call it that, though. Selling. They call it a DONATION. I used to donate blood, but I don’t remember getting money for it; maybe if they’d paid me for my very useful O positive, I wouldn’t have gotten annoyed by the amateur phlebotomist who couldn’t seem to find my vein and ended up poking me three times. Cookies and juice are nice… but money beats out shortbread every time.

At the least the facility was a clean one and I didn’t feel like I was endangering myself. It was close to home, and, ironically enough, in the same strip mall as the bar I frequented. In fact, that’s how I ended up going. I was sitting at the bar one afternoon when a guy I knew from the bar walked in, sat down, and ordered a beer. I looked over to say hello, and I noticed a bandage on his arm.

“You been in the hospital?”

“Naw,” he chuckled. “Sold plasma. It’s an easy way to get beer money.”

“Does it hurt?”

He shook his head. “The worst part of it is the wait. You got to get there early, otherwise you’re there all day."

“Does it pay well?”

“It pays ok,” he said. The bartender sat a beer in front of him. “ You get more the first time you go… like a bonus. And,” he smiled and took a long drink , “it’s right next door.”

After that I went. Then I got in the habit of going. The first time made me nervous, but once I saw that all the needles were clean and everybody there wore gloves, I relaxed. A little. I had to not look at the needle, and there was no way I could watch them poke me. There were advantages, though. First of all, they always showed movies in the waiting area. They weren’t always good movies – actually, they were awful most of the time – but it cut down on the conversation factor. Also, they paid in cash, so no bouncing check or check cashing fees to deal with. There was also another side benefit; after selling plasma, they instruct you not to drink or smoke for at least two hours. This is to give the body time to make more plasma. What they don’t tell you is that if you drink right after you sell plasma, you feel the booze a little bit more… more bang for the buck. There’s nothing better than being able to indulge and feel like you’re being fiscally responsible at the same time.

On this particular day, I’d tried getting there early, before the morning drunks stumble in. Regardless of all the posters about people doing good deeds and telling us all the things they do with plasma – helping little kids and burn victims and soldiers overseas—most of the regulars (and there were quite a few) came in to spend a few hours watching TV and soaking in the AC and free water before buying their first bottle of the day. That day, though, it was just packed. Almost claustrophobic.

“SHIT, what’d I TELL YOU, huh? I tol you, didn’ I?” The large woman whose chair I was bound to was talking on her cell phone and filing very long finger nails. They were long like animal claws. I tried to imagine how she did anything… using her remote, eating food, wiping her ass… without breaking one of those things. “GIRL, pleeze. You know he ain’t NO GOOD. It’s his BROTHER you ought to go for. He cute and got a GOOD job. HELL, girl. At least he get you an employee discount. Be smart. You givin’ it away fo FREE now.”

The movie was, as usual, a mediocre movie. Low ball comedy. Lots of pratt falls and one liners. One of those movies that tells you how to react by the kind of music playing. Laugh when it’s bouncy. Cry when it’s slow. It starred some fuzzy haired guy I’d seen advertised in other movies. The people around me laughed. I generally took a book, but I didn’t always read it. This time I didn’t take a book with me. I was wishing I had. There weren’t as many people working as there should have been, so the check-ins were taking longer than normal. Some people were getting upset, but mostly, they enjoyed the movie. I just wanted to get in and get out and get to the bar in time for happy hour.

Finally I heard my name. I had to crawl out of the middle of the row I was sitting and make my way back to Examination Room 3, which was basically a glass encased office where they did the initial check-in. If you don’t make back to the examination room in time, or if you get somebody who’s in a bad mood or just generally impatient, then you have to wait. Luckily, I made back in time. The girl in the white lab coat looked at me. Then she looked at the picture on my file, and satisfied that I was me, motioned me ahead.

She sat behind the desk. “Step on the scale,” she said.

I did.
“Name, date of birth, last four of your social security number.”

I rattled them off.

“Thank you. You can have a seat.”

I did. Then she put the blood pressure cup around my arm, they thermometer in my mouth. The computer takes the readings automatically. My temperature, as usual, was low. My blood pressure was normal. Then she stuck my finger for a blood sample and put the little tube in the whirling machine that isolates and identifies iron in the blood. Lots of iron is good thing. I’ve seen people get turned away because they don’t have enough iron. Then she went through all the questions. Have I ever had sex with a man. Have I ever had sex with anybody who had sex with someone who had sex with a man. Have I gotten a new tattoo or a piercing in the last twelve months. Have I ever injected anything using a needle. Have I ever been addicted to drugs. Have I ever engaged in any activities that put me at risk for HIV. Have I ever had sex with anyone who engaged in any of those activities. Have I ever traveled to Eastern Europe or Martha’s Vineyard.

They ask basically the same two or three questions in a dozen different ways. The woman in the white coat doesn’t look at me while she asks these deeply personal questions. She reads them off the computer screen. I read them faster than she does. I answer no. She makes me sign a form.

“Go out and wait for your name to be called.”

I do. When I leave the glass booth, I look around for a seat. Someone else is sitting next to the 600 pound relationship counselor. I spy an empty chair in the front row, right in front of the television. I manage to climb over a few people and I get there before someone else did. Small victories count. The movie is nearly over. I thought about going to get a drink of water – the whole process is easier when you drink a lot of water beforehand – but I figured I’d lose my seat.
Eventually, I hear my name again. I stand up and walk towards the back. Another woman in a white coat leads over an empty reclining chair. The machine is next to the chair.

“Last name, date of birth, last four of your social.”

I rattled them off. She puts down my folder and gets ready to stick me.

“Left arm?”

“Yeah.”

She looks at me arm and presses around, trying to find the vein. Normally they stick me in the right arm, but there’s a bruise there from my last visit – which means they won’t stick me there again until the bruise heals. Something about an increased chance of infection. I can tell she’s having trouble finding the vein. She puts the cuff around my arm and turns it on, constricting the blood flow and, theoretically, making it easier to find my vein. I try not to think about the fair haired phlebotomist who tried to make me bleed out the last time I gave blood. I focused on one of the televisions they had in the back to keep people entertained. Another bad movie with a different fuzzy haired guy. He’s in love with this leggy blonde with a plastic rack who’s completely out of his league. I think I saw her on a television show before. One of those doctor shows. At least it’s not Ashton Kutcher, I think. I feel her swabbing my arm with iodine. It’s almost time for the pin prick –the one they always tell you won’t hurt.

When she sticks the needle in, it doesn’t feel right. Normally, it slides right in and hit the vein. No problem. Shit, I thought. “Is there a problem?”

She pulled back on the needle and tried again. “I thought I had it, but…” she didn’t finish. I didn’t ask her to. I wasn’t going to break her concentration.

She tries it a couple of more times. I almost jump out of the chair twice. I’m trying not to look at my arm, because I know what will happen if I do. I’ll pass out. She sighs, clearly frustrated. She pulls the needle out of my arm.

“I can’t find the vein,” she said. “Do you normally get stuck in this arm?”

“No. It’s normally the other one.”

She looked over at it. “It’s bruised.”

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s where they stuck me LAST time.”

“Well, I can’t insert a needle there, either.” She turned off the cuff that was squeezing my arm. Then she puts a cotton ball on the gaping hole in my arm and wrapped it with tape.

“So what’s that mean?” I ask. “You can’t find the vein, so I don’t get paid? I’ve been here four hours.”

She sighed. “I don’t make the rules, sir.”

“It’s bullshit,” I said. “It’s not my fault you can’t do your job. Pay up.”

The people attached to the machines around me were watching. They weren’t going to say anything – but I felt like I had their silent support.

“Sir, “ she began again,” I can’t DO that….”

“Listen,” I kept on. “I’M the one who walks out of here with a hole the size of a shot gun wound in my arm. I’m the one who got stuck and poked and prodded. I’m the one who sat for four hours next to the ghetto’s answer to Dear Abby. You screw up and you still get paid. But I DON’T. How is that fair?”

She sighed. Someone from one of the chairs giggled. I kept watching her.

“Look,” I said. “I’m not here for my health. I need the money. I know it’s not a lot, but I NEED it. Okay?”

“There’s something about the vein, “ she said, “and your elbow…”

“So it’s my fault? My elbow’s not normal, so I don’t get my money? How’s that fair?”

By this time, a guy without a white coat came over. “What’s the problem here?”

“She doesn’t want to pay me.”

“He can’t donate,” she said. “The vein on his left arm isn’t cooperating and his right arm is bruised. "

“Yeah, and that happened here,” I cut in.

He sighed. “Go ahead and give him his PIN number,” he told her. Then he looked at me. “Next time, though, make sure you’re able to donate before you come in.”

The girl handed me a little slip of paper with a four digit code on it. I smiled, accepted it, and walked over to the ATM style money machine. I punched in the four digit code and the machine spit out a twenty and two fives. All this for thirty bucks, I think. Then I exit, walk two doors down, and enter the bar.

14 January, 2009

Sauce Pot Requiem

When I came home, supper was almost ready. We traded off days – or, at least, we tried to. We were still in school, and Rhea was still little… less than a year old. We tried to set up a schedule so that we went to class and worked on opposite days… I went to school and worked on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and she went Tuesday and Thursday. Any odd day where we both had to do something, her parents would watch the kid. It was tough, but we had a support system and we were young. Down deep, we knew we loved one another. It was a Wednesday, and I had gone to class in the morning and worked one of my two part-time jobs in the afternoon. I was tired. I wanted a beer. I wanted to melt into my chair and watch TV. I had homework to do, but I wasn’t even thinking about that… an essay on the Byzantine Empire. Ugh. I was starting to wonder about the point of it all. Who cares about all this dead and gone bullshit? Why does it matter? We’re here NOW and we have our own worries.

I knew by the smell that she was making one of her variations on macaroni and cheese. Which variation depended on what we had in the fridge. Sometimes it was ground beef. Sometimes it was tuna. Sometimes she tossed in an onion or part of a green pepper if we had one. A box of macaroni and cheese – the generic kind with the powered cheese packet – sold five for a dollar. I was sick of macaroni and cheese. We were BOTH sick of macaroni and cheese. On the weekends, we ate with her parents. Her mother wasn’t much better as cooks go. But at least it was something different.

Rhea was sitting in her bouncy chair on top of the kitchen table, smiling. People say babies don’t really smile, but most of those people don’t have kids. Rhea was a happy kid; I mean to say, she was normal. She still cried sometimes, like babies are supposed to. She cried when she needed a new diaper. She cried when she was hungry. She cried if the lightening scared her. Babies are supposed to cry. Anabelle was going back and forth between the stove and the kitchen table talking baby talk and stirring the pot like a prospector looking for gold.

“It’s almost ready,” she said.

“Ok. “

“I need you to set the table.”

“Ok.”

I dropped my book bag by the recliner and walked into the kitchen, which meant walking two feet and stepping up. We were living in this tiny trailer near a rural airport. We were about 300 yards from the end of the runway. Sometimes the planes flew so close the windows rattled. I tickled Rhea’s belly. She laughed – it was a tinkling light laughter. Laughter like fire flies and Christmas lights. A baby’s laughter. It was hard not to smile. I squeezed between the table and Anabelle hovering over the stove. I wasn’t sure why she was hovering. It wasn’t as if there was anything complicated to be done. Boil the pasta. Drain. Add butter and milk. Add what have you. Add contents of powdered cheese packet. Stir. Plate. I took a couple of plates out of the cabinet and set them on the table. Rhea was watching me. Smiling. Always smiling.

“Did you have a good day?” I asked Rhea. “Did you and Mommy have fun today?”

“She didn’t want to take a nap today,” Anabelle said.

“Did you give her the warm milk like she likes?”

Anabelle snapped her head around at me. “Do I LOOK like I’m stupid?”

Shit. “No.”

She didn’t respond. She hardly ever did. I set the table. Anabelle took the pot off the stove dished out the gruel. The spoon made a sharp, loud sound on the each plate. I checked to make sure my plate didn’t crack. We sat She was already drinking a can of Coke. I got a beer out of the fridge and sat down.

“What did you do today?”

She looked up from her plate. Her expression said it all. “I watched Rhea,” she spat. “That’s what I did. I watched Rhea. I started laundry, but I didn’t finish it. You’ll need to finish that tomorrow. I also didn’t get to the store. You’ll need to do that, too.”

Sigh. I took a sip of my beer, and flavored the mass of melted powered cheese with some hot sauce. It was a store brand generic hot sauce that was mostly salt and red food coloring; but it helped. “Ok.”

“I haven’t even had a chance to read those three chapters for Early Childhood Development,” she said, “and I’m sure there’s a quiz tomorrow.”

“Study after supper,” I offered. “I’ll clean up and watch Rhea,” I pulled at one of her little toes. She always liked it when I did that.

Anabelle glared at me. “I KNOW you will,” she snapped. “I need to call Janice to see if I can look at her notes. That might help.”

“Don’t you have your own notes?”

The fork slammed down. “I lost my notebook,” she growled. “I told you that. Don’t you remember me telling you about it?”

I didn’t. “Oh, sure.”

She didn’t respond. Rhea was smiling and gurgling. I pulled on a different toe. Her feet were so small. I wondered sometimes how she’d walk on such tiny little feet.

“I’ll leave right after I eat,” Anabelle said.

“Ok.” God damnit, I thought. I didn’t mind watching Rhea. I didn’t even mind if Anabelle went out. But whatever her fucking problem was, it wasn’t my fault.

“We have an appointment tomorrow,” she said.

I looked at her. I must have looked confused. She sighed and shook her head. “Dr. Williams.”

Shit. “Oh. Yeah.”

“Mom is going to come over and watch Rhea.”

“Ok.”

Anabelle watched me for a few moments, her eyes narrowing. “Don’t you WANT to go tomorrow?”

Sigh. I took a sip of beer. “No,” I answered. “Not really.” Dr. Williams was our marriage counselor. We’d been seeing her once a week for three months. It wasn’t helping. This was our second bout in marriage counseling. The first one was six months into our marriage, when we were still living in married student housing. One of our fights were so loud that one of our former neighbors called the police. That was before Rhea. This bout of counseling came after Rhea. We still fought, but it was different. Quieter. Most of the time, anyway. Dr. Williams spent most of our sessions agreeing with Anabelle that I didn’t help out enough, that I didn’t communicate enough, and that I had anger management issues (most often defined as me raising me voice.) It didn’t seem to matter that, of the two of us, the only one who had actually hit the other was her. I’d had the bruises to prove it. Dr. Williams, however, seemed to be of the school that marriage worked best when the husband was whipped beyond belief and the wife was a total controlling bitch. I had made a point to look at the good doctor’s ring finger once. No ring. I wasn’t surprised.

“WHY NOT?” She still had her fork in her hand.

“Because,” I said, “it’s not helping.”

“You’re not giving it a chance. Dr. Williams said you’re not giving it a chance.”

“Dr. Williams says a lot of things,” I answered. “That doesn’t make her right.”

“Do you think you know more than her?”

“Yeah. I think I do.”

Anabelle looked at me warily. “Really? YOU know more than a doctor?”

“A counselor,” I corrected. “And yes. She’s not even married.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Everything.”

“You’re such an ass!”

I drained my beer and stood up to get another. “Oh, go right ahead,” she harped. “Get another beer. Get drunk. Beat me up.”

“I’ve never laid a finger on you and know god damn well know it,” I said, my voice getting louder.

“What about THAT?” she pointed towards the door. It was a metal door, common to older trailers. There was a sizable dent in it from where I had punched it two nights before.

“Yeah, but I didn’t punch you,” I cracked open the beer and took a drink.

“You WANTED to,” she accused.

“Maybe I did,” I answered. “But I didn’t. “

“AH-HA!”

“Oh, so you’ve made a breakthrough?” I asked. I tried to focus on the macaroni and cheese. Looking at it was making my stomach turn. I looked back up at Anabelle. “You think that MEANS something? Well, it doesn’t mean a fucking thing. At least when I get pissed off, I take it out on inanimate objects. You get pissed and decide you’re allowed to punch and kick the shit out of me. Why don’t you ever talked to Dr. Williams about that? Huh?” I shook my head. “Not that it matters. She’d probably agree with you anyway.”

“What’s the matter?” she taunted “Don’t want to admit that you got beat up by a girl?”

“I could care shit less,” I answered. “But you don’t go and see that bitch to help our marriage. You go because she tells you what a good job you’re doing and what a lousy husband I am.”

“Well?” she countered. “Aren’t you? Why aren’t you out working a regular job? Why are we living like this?”

“You didn’t mind it before,” I said. “And what kind of job should I get? Stock boy at Wal-Mart? Maybe a line jockey McDonalds? We both need to finish school, you know.” This was an old conversation. I was sick of it twenty times ago. “Besides, I HAVE a job. I have two jobs.”

“OOOH,” she said. “Well good for you. You don’t make shit!”

That was fair, at least. I worked in one of the offices on campus, answering phones, making copies, and running errands. I also delivered newspapers – loading the big stacks from the printers into the back of my car and taking them around, filling the machines. She had a job on campus, too, and sometimes, she did hair on the side. Her folks helped us by letting us do laundry there, feeding us on weekends, and by being a free babysitter; but somehow Anabelle took credit for that, too. I guess she felt like she could because my family didn’t help out… but only because I didn’t ask them. Also, they didn’t live as close.

“I’ve got two more semesters,” I said. “Then I’m done. We just have to ride this out a little longer.”

“You don’t want to finish,” she accused. “You could’ve graduated last semester, but you changed minors.”

“So I can make more money when I get out,” I said. “We talked about this. You agreed. Remember?”

“WELL I DON’T AGREE NOW!”

“THAT,” I countered, “isn’t my problem! And what would be different, anyway? You’d still be in school because YOU changed majors last year. REMEMBER THAT?”

“I’M ALLOWED TO DO SOMETHING THAT MAKES ME HAPPY!”

“Sure,” I said. “So why do you expect me to be any different?”

“IT’S YOUR JOB!”

“My JOB?” I asked. “Where are we, the 1950’s? Who the fuck are YOU, June fucking Cleaver? If you are, I gotta tell ya, you’re the shittiest cook I’ve ever seen.”

“I KNEW IT,” she was screaming. “YOU DON’T APPRECIATE ANYTHING. YOU’RE A PIG! YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!”

“AND YOU’RE A BITCH!”

Anabelle started crying. I drank my beer. Then I looked over at Rhea. She was still in her bouncy chair. Her blue eyes were wide open watching us. She still had smile on her face. At least she’s too young to know what’s going on, I thought.

I looked from Rhea over to Anabelle. I tried to imagine Anabelle the way she’d been when I first met her – that was one of the strategies the first counselor recommended. I tried to imagine who I had been when we first got together. We’d been young. We were still young. But it was different. We hadn’t gotten married because Anabelle got pregnant. We’d gotten married because we were in love. I remembered our wedding day. I remembered how she looked the first time I saw her, all wild haired and laughing. Free.

“I can’t do this anymore,” I said quietly.

Anabelle looked at me.

“Look at what we’re doing,” I said nodding over towards Rhea. “I don’t want to do this. It’s no good.”

“So what does that mean?” Her tone was softer. She almost looked heartbroken. Almost.

“I should leave,” I said.

“Where will you go?”

“I can crash somewhere tonight,” I answered.

I stood up and walked back to the bedroom to pack a bag. I wasn’t sure where I was going to go, but I knew I couldn’t stay there. When I walked out of the bedroom, Anabelle was standing in the middle of the living room. She was holding Rhea. I set the bag down and took Rhea in my arms. She was warm and soft the way babies are warm and soft. I could feel the life in her. I could hear her breathing. I kissed her on the cheek. My beard tickled her and she giggled the way babies giggle. Then I handed her back to her mother, picked up my bag, and left.

The Most Beautiful Girl

“Fuck!”

“What’s wrong?”

“When did I become such a fat ass?!”

There is nothing more humbling for a grown man of leisure than to see himself naked in a full length mirror. No, it’s more than humbling. It’s damned humiliating. Embarrassing. So much so that not only is swimming out of the question – wearing a t-shirt to try and cover it up makes everything worse. Man-boobs make for a lousy wet t-shirt contest – but nudity in general becomes an unpleasant experience. Clothes shopping. Sex. Forget about it . And for some reason, the fact that it was Saturday night didn’t seem help, either.

“Honey,” I could hear the consolation in her voice. “You’re not that fat.”

Not THAT fat, I thought. “I could rent out my stomach to be the bass drum for a rock band.”

“Hon…”

“I could get a job as a body double for Marlon Brando.”

“He’s dead isn’t he?”

“Even better. I’m pasty enough.”

“Hon…”

“I could…”

“Hey!” I looked up from my belly button to see her in the standing in the bathroom door. “Stop it. You’re fine.” She came up behind me and put her arms around me. She had to squeeze a little so her fingers would meet.

“You’re supposed to say that.”

She sighed. Even supportive women have their limits. I turned my attention back to the pasty round gut that took up most of the mirror. Disgusting. Who was this fat naked guy facing me? When the hell did he show up? The gut isn’t just a little spare tire. It could have its own license plate.

“If you don’t like it,” she said, walking away, “do something about it.”

“Like what?” I asked. Sit ups? I tried imagining myself on the floor, wallowing like a some beached whale. I thought about doing calisthenics in junior high gym… drunk Mr. Maynard wandering around, ignoring the guys as the girls did jumping jacks. Miserable fat fuck. Maybe all I needed was a degree in social studies, a pair of coaches shorts, a whistle, and a pint of Old Granddad hidden in my desk drawer to make myself feel more like a man.

It’s not that I’m against exercise. I like to walk around. I take the bus or the light rail so I can have the excuse to walk around. I can’t even use money as an excuse – the complex we live in has a workout room complete with machines and free weights. All I’d have to do is walk up there. In the past, I’d done my fair share of physical labor, and most of it didn’t bother me because it kept me in shape. Then, I had to go and get educated. I wasn’t sure that college did anything to expand my mind – but it sure as shit expanded my waistline.
I stood there, trying to imagine myself thinner… use that process of positive visualization. I thought of Mr. Maynard’s advice about how to hit a baseball. “Imagine that you’re hittin’ it,” he’d say. “See yourself do it. Then do it.” I knew better even then. Be the ball. My ass. All that positive visualization crap did was show you what it was you would never probably achieve. I tried visualizing myself working out. I tried imagining myself jogging. I’d seen enough people do it. Nearly everyone in Arizona was a health nut; when the weather wasn’t unbearable, they’d be out in morning and the evening – a legion of shorts that were too short, running shoes that cost too much, sports bras with not enough give. And those little digital step counters. They ran by me everyday, twice a day, in their I-Pod created microworld running their way to a longer healthier life. They voted in the smoking ban. Potato chips were being replaced with baked granola snacks that looked like sun dried pieces of cat shit. They’d even gone after beer and come up with an ass tasting low-carb beer. All the booze without the beer gut. Chicken shit bastards, I thought. If you can’t take the pressure, get out of the way for the rest of us.

“Get more exercise,” she said.

“Sure.”

“We could take walks together,” she offered. “In the evening.”

She was being sweet. Except I knew how it would actually pan out. We’d agree to it, then one or both of us would conveniently “forget.”

“Yeah,” I answered. “Sure.”

“You could spend less time at the bar,” she responded. She probably heard the absence of conviction in my voice.

“Now you’re just being mean.”

“Well… how many nights have you been there this week?”

“That’s beside the point.”

I heard her sigh. She thought I was spending too much time up the street; usually, she didn’t say much about it unless we were low on money. Had to give her credit, though… she knew right when to bring it up. “What I need,” I followed up quickly, “is a bicycle.”

“Why?”

“If I had one I could ride it around,” I said. “Get more exercise.”

“Don’t you remember the last time you had a bicycle?”

I did. But I wasn’t going to let her get too much of a foothold. I walked out of the bathroom so I could face her. “That’s also beside the point,” I said. She was sitting out on the couch, watching some show on PBS about how marsupials mate.

“We were living in St. Louis, remember?” she continued. There was no stopping her when she knew she was right. “You bought that bicycle and it SAT on the patio until the tires went flat. You ended up giving it away.”

“It would be different this time.”

She shook her head. “Honey, I don’t care how you look. It’s not that big of a deal.” She looked up at me. “Would you care if I got fat?”

Trick question. One that you never answer. It’s one of those things you learn in the first six months of marriage – that and to never go clothes shopping together. Perfectly good relationships go straight to hell in isles of department stores every single day.

“We’re not talking about you,” I answered. “You’re perfect.” I caught her smile. “We’re talking about the fact that my stomach would need its own seat if we were flying coach.”

“You’re exaggerating,” she said. “Really. It’s not that bad.”

Not THAT bad.

“We could go to the workout room,” she offered.

“Sure.”

Well I don’t know what to tell you. I make suggestions and you shrug. Either do something about it or quit bitching.” She was getting aggravated with me.

“We need to stop buying junk food,” I said.

“That’s not fair.” I must’ve hit deep.

“Why?”

“Why should I suffer just because you don’t have any willpower? Just because it’s there doesn’t mean you HAVE to eat it.”

I suddenly remembered all of the nicotine gum up in the cabinet from when she tried to quit smoking. I didn’t bring it up.

“Maybe we should stop buying beer,” she countered.

Now it was getting personal. “You keep telling me I spend too much time at the bar,” I said.

“And?”

“And so I buy beer to keep here. It saves us money.”

She sighed. “We’re not talking about money.”

“Sometimes I think you like me this way,” I said.

“Huh?”

“You like me fat,” I accused. “If I’m fat then no one else will want me.”

That got her attention. “You want someone else?”

“No,” I said. “I’m just saying…”

“So it’s MY fault you can’t turn down a second helping of food or drink light beer?”

“No,” I answered. It wasn’t going well. “Of course not. It’s just…”

“You want one of those skinny little whores you see on campus?”

Fuck. “No, of course not. Look, I didn’t mean it that way. I’m just… look I just feel like shit, ok? You know you’re beautiful.”

“Am I?”

“You are,” I said. “You’re the most beautiful girl in the world.” I edged closer to her. My limp dick was about eye level with her. She smiled. I wasn’t sure if she was smiling because I was being sweet or because there’s something fundamentally comic about a fat naked man with a softie. I wasn’t lying to her; as far as I was concerned, she was gorgeous.

“You gonna do something with that?” she asked.

I stepped back to give her room to stand up. “What did you have in mind?”

“Well, I’m supposed to go out tonight,” she said. “I have to get ready soon. We could mess around before I take a shower.?

“Who’re you going out with?”

“The usual.”

That meant the fag boy patrol… a group of gay guys she liked to go clubbing with. I knew them and I liked them well enough. But I got the feeling early on that they found me just a little too… something. I think I scared one or two of them early on by accident. I’m never good at first impressions, and even before the watermelon that was my stomach appeared, I tended to lumber around like a drunken rube. So, except for the rare occasion when we were at some gathering or another, I rarely interacted with them. I doubt it bothered them that much. I didn’t go to clubs. I never cared for the scene, and I couldn’t dance worth a shit anyway.

“You could come out with us, you know.”

“Where you going?”

She rattled off the name of one of the clubs they frequented that advertised itself as a straight friendly gay club. “That’s ok. I’ll sit this one out.”

“You might like it, she said, standing up. “They make good drinks there. You could sit at the bar and make fun of people. You could even come out on the dance floor with me.”

“Yeah. And they could sell tickets. SHAMU DOES THE ELECTRIC SLIDE.”

“When did YOU ever do the electric slide?”

“Never.”

She shook her head. “You’re such a dork.”

“What’s that say about you?” I leaned in to kiss her. She kissed me first and I felt my manhood starting to kick into action.

“That I like dorks.”

She slid past me and walked into the bedroom. I followed her. By the time I got there, she was almost completely naked. Glorious. We got into bed and started messing around. I was nervous about getting on top of her; she seemed to know this and straddled me. It was short, sweet and fast, the way people fuck when it’s with purpose. She rode me hard until we both came. When she was finished she dismounted and walked into the bathroom to take shower. I laid there until she got out.

“You gonna lay there all night?” she asked.

“I might.”

She smiled. “Suit yourself.”

“You think you’ll be out late?” I asked.

She shrugged. “The usual.”

She got ready to go pretty quickly. She wasn’t one of those women who tried on forty different outfits or fretted over her make-up. But when she was ready to go, she looked absolutely stunning. She kissed me goodbye and walked out the door to go and meet her friends. After she left, I laid on the bed a minute. Then I took a shower, got dressed, and walked up to the bar.

13 January, 2009

Polite

I was hiding out in a coffee shop
pretending to be
a member of polite society
when I saw a former student.
A girl. I couldn’t remember her
name, even though
it had only been two years
since she sat in my class. I remembered
she smiled a lot and said very little
like most girls:
raised to be polite;
raised to smile in a manner
their mothers taught them.

She used to sit in front, I think
casting big blue freshman eyes. She behaved
the way ‘A’ students do—
submissive and
blissfully confused.

We didn’t speak to one another
in the coffee shop. It had taken me
half the semester to remember
her name. Now
I can’t recall a single word
she wrote.

where we live

a pretty white box
facing the setting sun—
we have it
so good, baby.
not only
does the furniture match,
but so do the drapes.
and in the evening
while our eyes melt in our sockets
as we watch the setting sun,
we can be safe
knowing
we’ve done our families proud.

Digging for Robert Lowry

I’m tired of the pretty poems and metered lines
manufactured by lesser poets, and the monotonous novels

pecked out by academic hacks
writing in the style of dead men

who would have the good grace to be forgotten
if it wasn’t for rare book archivists

and tenure track classics professors.
But when I went digging for Robert Lowry,

I couldn’t find him anywhere.
It didn’t seem fair.

She dances all crazy

the way a pagan princess might
high, muttering, and babbling
telling stories
recounting sins
like the myths nations use
to build themselves. she laughs all crazy
then spits and curses her name
then hugs herself
and falls down. When
she hits the floor,
she cries; then
she forgets
our names and starts
speaking in tongues
(we think maybe). But
when it’s over
all we can ever know
is erased in the mascara
running down her face.

Developing a System

We pour over the program
the way our grandmothers
poured over the bible
and with just as much
expectation. If the Jockey’s
named Jesus, we look for a second sign. You
put faith in Kentucky stock, while I
always bet on the Irish stallions.
Never trust the speckled horse unless the rump is right.
Three minutes to post
and we’re divining the numbers
following inspiration and a preference
for names that remind us of a silly song
or a bad joke, or of home –
even though we know
they’d frown and preach
if they saw us clutching tickets like tracts
and praying towards the gate
on a Sunday morning.

They’re off and running. Jesus starts out strong
on number three. Sweet Mary and Sure Joesy Sue
hold up the end, while She’s a Lady creeps
up on the outside, ridden hard by Martinez
who fell off his horse last race. We have tickets
like bingo cards, arranged and superstitiously kissed.
Communion is a spicy Bloody Mary, though some prefer
their clamato with beer. Jesus and the number three
(He’s a Suitor) got bumped
and fell
behind,
leaving
Lucy’s Wet Dream half a length ahead.

When it’s official
we cuss the losing tickets,
cut our losses, and tithe the mutuel
a percentage – hoping for better luck
next time.

The Richest Man in the Bar

He hugs up on all the girls
the way an old man can
and always keeps one eye
on the track and on his wallet
so he won’t miss post time.
The small time sports bookies love him
though he never lays a bet,
and the young waitresses
think of him as a grandfather figure
with grabby hands.

Near post time
he places his bets—
small ones, and when he’s done
for the day, he makes sure to grab
one more ass and the orange juice
that was his excuse
to get out of the house. Retirement,
he says, makes it harder to get away.
But he always leaves
safe in knowledge
he never loses enough
that he’ll have to go home
empty-handed.

The Best Writing Advice I Ever Got

I’m lost, I told him
(my old teacher).
I just quit
my fourth job
in two months
and I’m writing
a hell of a lot
but I’m living
in my car
and on other people’s
couches. My mother
thinks I’m a drunk.
My brother
calls me a loser.

My old teacher
just sat there
on that concrete bench
looked
through me
the way a poet does,
scratched his beard,
and muttered
But you still look good.

12 January, 2009

The Seventeenth Ton

[This fiction is dedicated to the Lexington, KY Police Department.]

If I hadn’t gotten pulled over, I would’ve made it home. Probably.

A bunch of us were out drinking and touring the bars on a Friday night. I was spending new money; I’d just gotten my first pay check from my first REAL job… a real defined as an occupation with a decent paycheck, holiday pay, sick days, PTO (paid time off) plus medic al and dental. Not only could I afford to be sick, but I could afford the co-pay AND not lose a day’s pay healing. It wasn’t a particularly difficult job; mostly clerical work. But I was pretty content, given that most of my other gigs had been temp factory labor. There’s nothing wrong with that sort of work – it can even be noble – but when you’re in debt up to your ass for a college education, spending your days working a job that doesn’t require a high school diploma isn’t exactly good for the ego.

But I’d gotten a REAL job with a REAL PAYCHECK. Needless to say, I was really happy and I wanted to celebrate. My friends were excited, too. I’m sure they were tired of me eating their food and drinking their booze because rent took most of my paychecks. I couldn’t remember the last time I was able to buy a round of drinks. It felt nice to be one paying for a change, to be able to give something back.

We started out early. The sun was going down. Since I made it clear I was going to be buying at least the first three rounds, I got out of having to drive. The designated driver, Stan was a solid guy and a good driver who knew the side streets pretty well. His wife Reba came along because she was always good for a few drinks and because she needed the night out almost as much as I did. A mutual friend, Chuck, tagged along, and we were going to meet some other friends later on into the night. The first few bars were fun; we toured through an Irish Pub, a few sports bars, and a German-style bierhaus with over 500 different kinds of beer. We even walked in and out of a few clubs looking for live music to set the evening to. The weather was decent. Not too hot. Not too cold. I was in good spirits most of the night and wasn’t too concerned about anything. Life was starting to look up – finally. After all the shots of whiskey and pints of beer, I felt more human than I had felt in a long time.

As the night crept on into early morning and bars started closing, we decided to pack it in. Stan drove through a Taco Bell on the way home to pad our stomachs against the impending hangover that was sure to greet us in the morning. After we ate our cheap ass burritos, I felt like I could make it home. Yes, I’d been drinking, and yes I could’ve crashed on Stan and Reba’s couch and gone home in the morning. But I really wanted to pass out in my own bed; maybe I’d slept on too many other people’s couches, or maybe it was the booze and my generally high spirits. When I told them I my intentions, Reba asked,

“You sure you can drive?”

“Totally,” I answered, all confidence. “It’s a straight shot. I’ll be home in no time.”

“You’re welcome to crash on the couch,” Stan said. “You know how comfortable it is.”

“And I’ll cook us all breakfast in the morning,” Reba added.

“Nah,” I answered. “I can make it. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Call us when you get home,” Stan warned.

“Ok, fine. See you later on.”

When I got behind the wheel, I felt good. I felt fine. My hands were steady. I buckled my seat belt and double-checked my mirrors. I pulled out of the parking lot, hung a careful right. The parking lot dumped into an empty backstreet through a mostly residential neighborhood. I was careful to keep my hands on the wheel at the ten and two positions. Before I put the transmission in drive I made sure the radio was on a heavy metal station (good for staying awake) and that my window was rolled down. I had the route memorized, since I had driven it enough times sober. One stop light that crossed a major traffic artery—which I saw as the only major problem with the route; directly through the light there was an exit ramp down to my street; then, hang a right and a short three minutes home. Easy. I felt clear and I knew I’d be in my bed very shortly.

I made it past the first light and down the ramp. There was hardly any traffic. The light at the end of the ram[ turned green before I got there, so there wasn’t any need for me to slow down. I envisioned myself pulling into the parking lot behind my apartment. Yes thought.

My thoughts were interrupted by the sound and red and blue flash of sirens behind me.

Fuck! I considered my options. Home was less than a quarter of a mile away. I’d heard somewhere that the cops couldn’t do anything if you were in your driveway – but then again, did I hear that when I was out drinking? For some reason, a shifty-looking bartender serving watered down drinks came to mind. Never trust a bartender who uses too much ice.

I slowed down and pulled over to the side of the road. I was careful to turn on my blinkers to indicate vehicular distress, then I lit a cigarette and waited.

The flashlight in my eyes was blinding. “Can you put that cigarette out, sir?” I knew better than to think it was a request.

“License and registration please, sir.”

“I have to reach into the glove box,” I said. I’d seen too many episodes of Cops where some poor bastard gets shot for trying to comply.

“That’s fine, sir.” The cop flashed his light over the inside of the car. God damn illegal search and seizure asshole, I thought. This is probably the highlight of his night. I reached over and got my registration, dug my license out of my wallet, and handed them over. I still couldn’t see the guy’s face. For all I knew he was a cracker with a used cop car and nothing better to do.

“Do you know why I pulled you over, sir?”

“You liked my car?” It was a red Grand Am. Cops like to pull over red cars.

He wasn’t amused. “Have you been drinking tonight, sir?”

“I had a beer,” I answered. “a few hours ago.” Keep it simple. Real simple. He probably smelled the booze on me, so there was no point in denying it. Keep the story as close to the truth as possible. Makes it more believable.

“You had a beer a few hours ago?” Echo. That’s how they set the trap.

“Yeah. You know, I was out with friends. Ate some dinner.”

“Where’d you eat?”

“Taco Bell.”

“Ok, sir. Would you step out of the car, please?”

FUCK! “Sure thing officer.” I opened the car door and stepped out in as sober a manner as possible.

“Will you come to the back of the car with me, sir?” I was able to get a better look at him. The cop was short and skinny. “Come back here and stand on the line please.”

So fucking polite. We went through the whole roadside waltz. I held my arms out and touched my nose. I counted backwards from 100. He made me walk the white stripe --- but to be fair, I couldn’t walk in a straight line if I hadn’t been drinking. I tried pointing that out to him. It didn’t seem to matter.

“Ok, sir,” he said, holding up the breathalyzer – a red and white tube about ten inches long and two inches around with a gauge on it. Roadside cock. “Breathe into this please.”

I considered refusing. If I refused, he’d have to take me in and get a blood test. By the time that happened, I’d be sober.

“Breathe into the mouthpiece, sir,” the tone was insistent. I must have taken too long to think about it. “If you don’t, you automatically lose your driving privileges for six months.”

Shit. Driving Privileges? Cop talk. I took a breath and exhaled. The cop read the gauge. “You need to take this seriously sir.”

“You saw me,” I answered. “I took the test.”

He hit the reset button. “Do it again.” I did. He looked at the gauge. He made a huffing noise.
“Sir,” he said. “I KNOW you’ve been drinking. You won’t get out of this by trying to void the test.”

“But I’m NOT trying to void the test,” I protested. “I can’t help it. I have lung problems. Asthma.”

“You’ve got asthma?” His tone was doubtful. “You think it’s a good idea to smoke when you have asthma?”

“Yes,” I insisted. “Look, I know I shouldn’t. It’s hard to quit. Harder than heroin. All my friends smoke. You go to bars, you’re around people who smoke. Am I supposed to live in a bubble? I was diagnosed when I was kid. You know how many breathing tests I’ve done? It’s nothing new.”

That one made him think. I wasn’t lying – exactly. I’d had a touch of asthma when I was a kid, but I hadn’t had an attack in years. I kept looking at him. My eyes were adjusted to the nighttime and I was able to make out his features. He was young, but not too young. He wasn’t a rookie – but I figured that since he hadn’t really come on too strong. Rookies always get a rush when they get to assert their authority. For a moment I thought maybe I’d talked myself out it.

He motioned me towards him with one hand and reached for his handcuffs with the other. “Step forward, sir. I’m taking you in.”

“WHAT FOR!?”

“Reckless operation of a vehicle,” he answered. “I can’t haul you in for a DUI, but there’s no way you can drive home.”

“You have my license,” I told him. “You KNOW it’s right down the street. It’s a straight shot. Come on, man. Let me go home.”

He got the cuffs on me and was leading me to his car. “Come on, man. YOU CAN FOLLOW ME HOME,” I tried. “I won’t swerve. I’m not drunk. I’m not even BUZZED. Come on.” He shook his head. He wasn’t going to budge. FUCK.

We were riding downtown. He had the radio on one of those classic country stations. This song was playing on the radio that I remembered from being a kid. I had this image of an old guy dressed like a hobo playing a tuba on the Hee Haw show. “Sixteen tons, and whadoya get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” Tennessee Ernie Ford? Johnny Cash? All I knew was I hated that country shit. Made me think about the past. Made me think about the fact that I was tired of being poor. Made me think about my daughter. I hadn’t seen her in a while. Made me think. Fuck this, I thought.

“How long you been a cop?” I asked him.

“15 years.”

“This is a pretty lousy shift to be in for that long. Somebody not like you?”

“It’s easier for me to spend time with my kids.”

“Do THEY like that you’re a cop?”

“Sure. I guess so.”

“I bet not. I bet all the other kids think they’re narcs.”

Silence.

“You like being a cop?”

“Sure I do.”

“Wouldn’t you rather be out arresting real criminals instead of harassing people on their way home?”

Silence.

I continued. “I mean, you know that somewhere out there, somebody’s getting shot at. Somebody’s getting robbed. Somebody’s getting raped. Somebody’s getting hurt. And what are YOU doing? YOU’RE arresting ME. And I wasn’t hurting anybody.”

He didn’t talk. The song on the radio had finished and they were playing something just as annoying. Loretta Lynn? Anne Murray? Some other big hair taffeta wearing bitch whining about men.

“They must think you’re a shitty cop,” I said, “to keep you on the graveyard shift.”

We passed my place on the way to the downtown lockup. I didn’t bother mentioning that. When we got to central booking, he walked me in. Didn’t look at me once. Then he took off his cuffs and disappeared into the night, off to pull over more red cars. I didn’t talk to the booking officer. I let them take my fingerprints and my picture. They gave me my one phone call. I knew better than to call Stan or Reba. They would be passed out. I tried another friend. He didn’t answer.

“I didn’t get anybody,” I told the officer.

He pointed over to a bunch of chairs. There was a television. “Take a seat over there,” he said. “You’re going to get released in four hours.”

Are you serious? “Really?”

“Yeah,” he answered, not really paying any attention to me. “So take a seat. Don’t talk to anybody.”

I found an empty seat amongst the crowd of Saturday derelicts… clearly not dangerous enough to merit a jumpsuit and a cell, but enough of a public nuisance to have to sit four hours and watch Gilbert Godfrey on USA Up All Night. Mostly drunks. Some homeless people. There were a couple of kids who looked like runaways. Some women that probably got picked up for prostitution. No one talked; we were all watching the TV. The movie was a bad one. I was thirsty.

The Idiot’s Guide to Fame and Fortune

There’s a certain excitement that comes with the publication of your first book. When I heard that a collection of my poems were going to be published – into a real book with a SPINE and the ever coveted ISBN, I was ecstatic. The letter was cheery. The letter head was printed in three colors: red white and blue. I took that as a sign. I accepted the contract with all its glorious and meticulous small print. I went over the manuscript with an obsessive eye, making sure I caught all the typos. I made them fix the galley when the fonts they chose were wrong, and again when their printing incorrectly broke some of the lines of in some of the poems. I wasn’t na├»ve; I knew there wasn’t any money in poetry. Pretty much the only people who read poetry were the same people who went to poetry readings: other poets, would-be poets, or artsy high school kids who think their diaries contain the next great epic. But I didn’t care. It was a book.

I let the publisher handle the press releases. I had sent them a few names of places to send them: my hometown newspaper, a few newspapers of note in cities I’d lived in. I wanted it announced in my hometown paper for the sheer pleasure of rubbing it in their faces. The other papers were so that people I’d met along the way whose addresses I lost might see. I finally DID it. Fuck yeah, I thought. Finally got a book under my belt.

Of course, because of who the publisher was, I knew there wasn’t going to be a big book tour. No couch conversations with Oprah. No spotlight in the Times Book Supplement (this was back when they still published it). The release was quiet. I bought myself a moderately expensive bottle of scotch to celebrate. After I drank about half the bottle sitting at my kitchen table, I decided I needed some air. I was feeling particularly literary. The spring in my step was undeniable. I decided to wander the bookstore and drink a cup of coffee.

I drove to the nearest mega-chain bookstore. It was a Saturday evening, so there were a lot of people milling about. I walked to the back of the store, where the coffee bar was located, and ordered a cup of coffee.

“Coffee?” the kid working the register asked, as if I wanted something that wasn’t on the menu. He had to be in high school… certainly old enough to know what real coffee was, even if he never drank it.

“Just coffee.”

“What flavor?”

“The kind that tastes like coffee beans.” He wasn’t amused.

“You want room for cream?”

“No thanks.”

“Hot or cold?”

It’s COFFEE, I wanted to tell him. You serve coffee HOT, you fucking emo freak.

“Hot.”

The kid still looked confused; his forehead was wrinkled as if her were in deep thought. His hair, all spiky and carefully mussed, shimmered under the bright lights. For a spit second I thought I saw traces of mascara around his eyes. I needed coffee. I began to suspect there wasn’t a button on his register with a picture of a plain cup of coffee. Then after what seemed like forever, he rang me up. I paid in cash. This also seemed to confuse him. He gave me change, and set down my cup of coffee. I didn’t leave a tip.

The coffee was hot, fresh, and a little on the bitter side. I was amazed, since I had expected some fucked flavor with a ridiculous name like Hibiscus Nutmeg Soul Fusion. But the kid had actually managed to dig up a regular cup of coffee. I started to feel a little bad.

It passed quickly.

I started wandering the Fiction and Literature section. In this particular bookstore, they didn’t bother to sort between general or genre fiction and literary fiction. Actually, that made it easier, since everything was organized alphabetically. I’d seen some interesting organizational strategies over the years – ones that made the Library of Congress System look streamlined and Dewey Decimal like something out of the Idiot’s Guide. At least they didn’t pretend that it made any difference; literary is as much a genre as sci-fi/fantasy – except the women all have smaller tits and the guys are all complex and secretly wanting to connect with their “feminine side.”

There wasn’t much that interested me; the ones that did were authors I’d already read. There seemed to be more books with a NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE sticker on them. The covers were a scene from the movie – especially if it starred a big name. Those kind of books annoyed me, and still do – if people don’t have the courtesy to read the book before it’s got Brad Pitt’s face on it, then fuck them.

The Fiction and Literature Section emptied into the Graphic Novel and Anime section. There were more people in this section than in any other section of the store, including the self-help section. I had meant to wander into the Poetry section, but they must have moved it since the last time I was there. Some of the people in the Graphic and Anime section were kids; a couple of them, however, looked to be a little too old for Superman. I noticed a couple of girls; they were all decked out in black, highlighted with odd hot pinks or greens. One of them had crayon red hair, pale skin, and dark, dark mascara. She was wearing a tight top with spaghetti straps that her breasts were clearly too big for. Heavy looking boots. Dressing to stand out, but somehow, offended when anybody notices them. She looked like she was carrying a book. A real book too… not a comic book or one of those Japanese Anime books that are basically cartoon porn.

She gave me a dirty look. “What’re you looking at FUCKWAD?”

“Ah, nothing,” I answered, smiling. “I was just trying to see what you’re reading.”

She clearly didn’t believe me. Women now are so goddamn cynical. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I can’t help myself. I just had a book published. Natural curiosity.”

She cocked her head to the right and squinted. Her hands were on her hips. “Ooooo,” she teased. “You got a book published. Goodie for you. Now fuck off you dirty old drunk. What do you do, get hammered on cheap gin and cruise bookstores looking for young girls to molest?”

It was scotch, I wanted to say. “No, really. It’s nothing like that, I swear. I was just…”

“Oh,” she stepped a little closer, pushed her boobs in my face. Her friend the Goth stood back and watched, laughing to herself. “So you don’t LIKE me. You think I’m UGLY? You think I’m a FREAK?”

“No,” I answered, stepping back. “I don’t think ANYTHING. I was really just curious about the book, that’s all.”

“Oh.” She held it up. It was a paperback edition of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. “You like this book?”

“It’s ok,” I said. “Twain was a good writer.”

“This book,” she proclaimed, “sucks. It sucks because most books suck. But my dad likes it. I’m getting it for him for his birthday. HE’S OLD, just like YOU. He likes sucky books. I bet your book is sucky. Why don’t you tell me the name of it so I know what to buy him for Father’s Day?”

I turned and walked away. I heard the crayon-red haired girl and her friend the Goth freak laughing. “Guess I’ll see you when you do Oprah,” she cackled. “My mom reads whatever Oprah says to read. “

The poetry section was on the opposite side of the Fiction and Literature section, near the restrooms. It was the smallest section in the store. I scanned the titles, thinking about buying a book, when I saw it. It was MY name! My BOOK! Right on the same shelf with Neruda. Fuckin’ A, I thought. I took it off the shelf. I wanted to hold it. I wasn’t expecting to see any copies of my book anywhere, and I wasn’t sure how they got there. Maybe they stocked one or two new writers every once in awhile. I felt my buoyancy return. It didn’t matter if the emo freak didn’t know what regular coffee was. It didn’t matter if a color-blind illiterate girl made fun of me. None of it mattered.

I flipped through the book. All the lines of all the poems were familiar, of course. They were still echoing in my head. Then I flipped to page 45 and read the poem. Even though I knew each poem intimately, there was something new about reading it from the book. I read it slowly, focused on each word. It read off the page exactly the way had wanted it to read.

That was when I noticed the typo. It was in the second to last line of the third stanza. Fro instead of For. Fucking hell.

I was interrupted by a familiar voice. “THAT’S HIM, THAT’S HIM! I’D REMEMBER HIS DIRTY FACE ANYWHERE!” I looked up and at the end of the section, near the way leading towards the main doors, the crayon-red hair girl and her Goth friend. Someone very manager looking was with them. The crayon-pink haired girl was crying and pointing at me. FUCK ME.

“Sir?” the manager asked… but not really. “I need you to leave the store. Right now.”

“What? What’s going on?”

“All I did was come in here to buy my DADDY a book,” the little bitch was shrieking. “And I had to get MOLESTED by some PERVERT!”

“There’s been a mistake,” I tried to explain. “A misunderstanding. You see, I was…”

“It was SO DISGUSTING.” She was really hamming it up. “It was bad enough that I caught him looking down my shirt… but then he put his hand in his pocket...” she grabbed Goth girl for support. “It was so… so… HORRIBLE.”

“I need you to leave the store NOW, sir.”

“But…”

“I may never be able to walk in a book store again,” she went on and on. “And I LOVE books. But now…”

“SIR.” the manager’s tone was as insistent as his uni-brow. “You leave the store, RIGHT NOW, and NEVER COME BACK. Or, I get on the phone and call the cops.”

“Send him to jail,” crayon-pink haired girl hissed. “They know how to treat PERVERTS in prison!” She sniffed. Mediocre acting, I thought.

“SIR…” the manager grabbed my arm.

“I was just looking at my book…”

He grabbed the book and tossed it on top of the shelf. “You either LEAVE or I CALL THE COPS.”

I let him lead me out. “And don’t let me see you here again,” he threatened. “Fucking creep,” I heard him mutter under his breath.

I turned around and saw the manager talking to her. His back was to me. She looked beyond him, saw me, and stuck her tongue out at me. It was pierced. Then I went home and finished my bottle of scotch.