Avian Intervention

•October 7, 2019 • Comments Off on Avian Intervention

A version of this story was recently published on Entropy. The image is mine too, incidentally.

She is standing. There used to be a bench here, a place to sit and contemplate. Declared a superfund site, this park has been closed for over a decade. Its grass now overgrown, the thicket of green comes right up to the shore of the lake. It feels familiar but also foreign. The light is gray and hazy today. The dim, foggy sky has a cast of sodium yellow. There is a smell of something rotting; algae, something decaying. This is the place she used to come to feed the ducks as a child. Her father brought her here. It was a place they used to come together; on weekends when her sister was away; during the week when her father was supposed to be at work; or days when he let her stay home sick from school, a wink and a nod to her sore throat or throbbing head. They’d usually arrive in the late morning, with a loaf of stale bread they’d picked up at the market on the day-old rack for seventy-nine cents. White bread that should have been able to last a century. A loaf that could survive a nuclear holocaust. It never made sense to her that it was always on sale. The ducks loved it.

The day-old bread has never seemed more necessary than it does right now. All around her she sees markers of wealth. Fancy cars driven by fancy people with fancy clothes and fancy dogs. They are not the only ones, of course. Their displays of wealth may have become commonplace but the crust and patina of the way things used to be is still everywhere. It’s just that not everyone has to see it if they choose not to. This is what ultimately drove her father away. Drove him mad like the sound of a dripping faucet that could not be fixed. The insidiousness of the drip drip drip was like a tonic he couldn’t live with. The constant ranting did not impress his employer. His steady job became some odds and ends he tried to cobble together. And then those slowly dried up too. The last straw was when his disintegrating Geo Metro died and he could no longer make deliveries for YumBrigade or Uber Eats. His livelihood, like so many others evaporated. Soon enough, he became completely untethered. When the medications became too expensive or sporadic, he simply disappeared. Occasionally he would reappear in her life, but those times were rare. Like an apparition in the mirror he would show up on her doorstep or in her voice mailbox. Always unannounced, unexpected, ill-timed. Though she missed him, she too sometimes wished she could choose not to engage. She understood why the disparity tortured him. But she also wished she could turn away. To look to the next shiny object and ignore the plight of those who had no choice.

As she stands here today, she can’t remember the last time she talked to him. The water still and only a pale reflection of the sun on its glassy-green surface. She is older now. She hasn’t been here in years. No one has. The ducks still come sometimes. They never got the memo that the water was toxic or that its fumes were noxious or that the foliage they munch on would make their eggshells thin. The insects that gave them sustenance and allowed them to store fat for the long flights south were crammed full of this brain-altering substance. Its fat-soluble residues would seep into their bodies and stay forever, disrupting their endocrine systems. It was as if everything nature had spent so many eons creating was being undone in a blink of geologic time, making a mockery of the whole process. The ducks had no choice. No one did anymore. Adaptation or extinction. They took their lot and did the best they could, just like everything else. The birds and the moths they ate still endure. At least some of them. The frogs had less fortune. It seemed so unfair to her that one species’ karmic jackpot was another’s downfall. It made no sense at all that as humans made their lives easier everything else had to work harder, trying to equalize the balance, their own lives and futures in the scale. Was this the idea of karma she believed in?

She’s come here today empty-handed. The market her father would send her into, a handful of change from the ashtray clutched tight in her palm, his busted-up Oldsmobile idling outside, no longer existed. It too was a casualty of the uneven vestiges of an economic deal that was stacked in the house’s favor. When she woke this morning, the radio man was telling her it was going to be another hot one. “Better turn up those air-conditioners” he’d said. “It’s not going to be nice out there. They say this is going to be the hottest one on record.” Blissful and apathetic, his desk was nice and cool. “And with high temps forecast for at least another week,” he continued, “there’s no sign this will let up.” She’d driven here today in flagrant disregard, her windows down, the newswoman warned that the air quality was low. “Elderly and those susceptible to illness should stay inside.” She had no intention of heeding the warning. And why should she? Wasn’t this the new normal? She could no more expect things to change than the ducks could.

Everything about her today was in opposition to what she was supposed to do, what she was supposed to believe. This morning, her weathered old Chevy, with its oxidized paint roared to a start with a plume of blue-gray smoke belching from its exhaust. Modern cars didn’t do this. Modern cars didn’t have eight chugging cylinders or catalytic converters whose contents had been gutted for the meager value of the platinum inside. Some days she felt a modicum of guilt for this. Today she harbored only a veiled concern for the damage she‘d done and was about to do. She hit the highway, hard and fast, winding out second gear as long as she could. Her foot to the floor, the engine’s throaty thrum pulsed through her. The pale blue-gray mist trailing out behind her almost invisible against the gray brume of the sky. It was certainly a hot morning. She couldn’t say she hadn’t been warned. But somehow it felt like it always did. The breeze blowing in her hair, whipping her cheeks and clouding her vision. Her sunkissed arm hanging over the open window’s ledge, she pushed on. The heat did not bother her. It was the sky that felt like it was weighing her down. It was always like this now; gray and hazy and diffuse. As if the light had no direction. No more could anyone step outside and have an idea of the time of day based solely on the shape and direction of the shadows alone. Most days, there barely were any shadows at all. Still she put her sunglasses on. In part to help her see beyond the glare, but mostly as an affront to the idea that this was the new normal. Summer without sun. Heat without light. It was like the world had gone infrared, the visible spectrum void of its full wavelength.

The humid air now had a certain charred quality. It smelled of smoke and burning plastic, as if a tire fire or medical waste incinerator burned just beyond the horizon. As it churned through the inside of the car, it filled and thrashed her lungs, the density of each breath felt as if she were taking a heavy drag off a cigarette. But there was no fire. There was no incinerator. This was just the cost of modern life. If you were lucky enough to reap its benefits—the exotic varieties of fruit at the local supermarket and the sophisticated synthetic thread that made up your t-shirts or the condenser that controlled the climate in your bedroom that kept you cool and drowned out the noise of the 4:00 a.m. garbage trucks so you could sleep—if this was your life (and let’s be honest here, it is) then you had no place to comment on the cost you paid in the cleanliness of your water or the particulate in your air. It was with this in mind that she peeled off the expressway toward the park. It wasn’t that she didn’t care. She cared deeply. It was just beyond her control. Perhaps this was her karma: to see the world for what it was and to participate in all the greatness it had to offer but to also understand that for all the benefits she gained, someone or something else would pay the true cost.

Despite the injustice of that, she believes in divinity. Divinity is all around her. It is unimportant that she can’t always see it. She’s knows it’s there. And it was divinity that brought her here, to the park that is no longer a park. The park, whose lake had once been a beautiful azure blue, its water so clear she could see all the way to the bottom. Its soft, loamy sand gathered like silk between her tiny child-sized toes. And the ducks, they loved this lake too. This park had been a gift. A rare amalgamation of corporate land and municipal stewardship. The lake was man-made, and it was only after years of lawsuits revealed to the public that this beautiful blue lagoon was little more than a tailings pond to store the coal ash from the nearby power plant. Why had she come here today? To feed the timid mallards she hoped would be here? Or the squawking geese that used to chase her, fighting each other off for whatever crusts and crumbs laid broken and dry at the bottom of the bag? She came because it reminded her of a different time. A time when her cares could be easily washed away by splashing at the water’s edge with the sun reflecting in her eyes. Or watching the birds gather around her, slices of stale bread in her hand as if she were a roadside preacher dispensing the gospel, and they were her needy parishioners.

As she stands here now, she finds a total lack of all the things that brought her here. There are no birds today, nor is there any sun. Crestfallen, she waits. Closes her eyes and waits. Taking in a deep breath, she is reminded of a vision she had as a child. Less prophecy and more an idea, or a fantasy. Once she’d though it the first time, she wished it every chance she got. On every birthday cake and every clock whose numbers read 12:34, she wished she could be on another planet. A planet whose proximity to other stars was closer than ours is to its nearest neighbors. Perhaps in another galaxy or with binary suns or someplace deep in the heart of the Milky Way where solar systems were close together like cities, unlike ours which is out in the most rural wing. She wished she could experience a place where the night sky is so filled with stars that even when the sun has set, it is still almost light out. Where the sky is a riot of flickering lights on even the dimmest nights. Imagining this, she stands with her eyes still closed, wishing with all her will that when she opens them, that the shore she is standing on is more like the one she remembers from her childhood, and less like the one that it was when she stepped out of her car moments ago. She takes a deep breath. And then another, this time opening her eyes with her exhale. Looking intently, she sees exactly what was there moments ago. Nothing. No insects, no birds, no sun. Just stillness and absence. She is not disappointed. She would have been foolish to actually expect something different. Taking in the scene, she sees the same indistinct and colorless sky hovering above the same pale, almost-colorless lake. She sighs heavily. But then, just as she is about to leave, she sees something. A tiny speck moving on the horizon, it is coming toward her. She is peering now with squinted eyes into the distance at some thing that is flying but not quite taking shape. It is approaching, its wingbeats fast and steady. Her breath now bated, she is leaning in, straining to see. The mallard is flying toward her, nearing the shore, it circles around and skids to a slow sail on the surface of the water.

A Journey into Outer Space from Within: A Visit to the Integratron

•July 15, 2018 • Comments Off on A Journey into Outer Space from Within: A Visit to the Integratron

the following is a version of the story I wrote for worldfootprints about the Integratron.

I laid down on the padded mat about as close to the center of the room as I could position myself. I didn’t know what to expect. A man’s voice gave us some historical background. His skin was slightly weathered, leathery from years of desert sun. He spoke with a certainty that both charmed me and put me at ease. He did not tell us his name, only that he’d been working here for many years, first giving deep tissue massages, and now playing the quartz bowls. I closed my eyes. “You may hear water” he said “but we don’t play any kind of water soundtrack and there is no water in the room.” He began performing. 20 bowls of varying size, made from polished crystal surrounded him on one side of the dome. Approximately two dozen of us were spread out in a semi-circle around him. The low sound began to ring through me. I could feel it in my legs, in my abdomen, moving slowly into my chest. It was like a gentle, soothing vibration. As the notes changed and the vibration began to move into different places in my body, I could hear it faintly in the background. It sounded like water in a drain pipe. Circling in a funnel and moving into the ground. I’ve experienced sound baths before, but nothing like the Integratron.

When I climbed to the top of the ladder and stepped into the room, I knew this was like no other room I’d ever been in. A sort of vertically elongated dome, the diameter of the building is 55 feet. Acoustically perfect, it is designed so that a person standing on one side of the room can whisper and the person directly opposite from them, 50 feet away, can hear them clearly. Due to a phenomena called geometric shadow, if one of them steps 3 inches to either side, they can only see the person in front of them whispering. They can’t hear anything. Sound created at the center of the dome reverberates strongly and clearly throughout. Upon testing this, I found myself giggling like a child. Feeling suddenly sheepish, I quickly stepped away in self-conscious discomfort. I watched as others did the same.

Primarily made of wood, the Integratron is comprised of sixteen curved, laminated beams that stretch from its base to a one-ton concrete porthole at the apex of the dome. There are no ferrous screws or hardware in the Integratron as its creator George Van Tassel believed that ferromagnetic metals would dampen the frequency, thus dampening it’s therapeutic effect. He designed the dome based on something called a Multiple Wave Oscillator which is a combination of a high voltage Tesla coil, and a split-spring resonator that generates wideband electromagnetic frequencies. Van Tassel also believed that the structure’s location was paramount to its efficacy. The exact location is purported to be a powerful geomagnetic anomaly that includes a convergence of as many as three underground rivers and other geologic ley lines. This is a place where physical aberrances can happen without explanation; like Sedona, AZ or the Bermuda triangle.

First conceptualized in 1953, the Integratron’s construction began in 1957 and took more than 20 years to complete. Van Tassel claimed the idea came to him through an alien contact experience. He claimed he’d been visited by a space craft in the desert near his home at Giant Rock, CA. As he retold the story, he communicated telepathically with the outer space beings who gave him a formula for a frequency that could repair living tissue. Van Tassel believed that aliens were making contact with him so that he could spread a message. A message that transcended language and could benefit humanity. A message that could heal us; save us from ourselves. He believed he had a method that would allow us to travel through time and space and make us more perfect versions of ourselves.

Van Tassel hosted weekly meditations here for years before his 1953 contact with a being allegedly from Venus. Earlier that year, Van Tassel hosted the first Interplanetary Spacecraft Convention at his small airstrip near Giant Rock. This was the first of 25 annual UFO conventions he held there. These became the vehicles for funding the construction of the Integratron.

Van Tassel was among at least half a dozen other men who formed non-sectarian UFO religions; all based on alien contact experiences they’d allegedly had in the Mojave desert and across the southwestern US in the 1950s. Unfortunately, his timeline is suspect. He opens what he calls his “Interplanetary Airport” in 1947. He starts his meditations and then a UFO convention in 1953 and serendipitously has a contact with a being from Venus later that year. There were no witnesses.

Its awfully convenient, but should that matter? Can the Integratron actually heal anyone or allow them to travel through space and time? Modern science would say that its not possible, but who knows? Claims made by the owners and operators of the Integratron say that scientific tests have been done and that science itself cannot explain the resulting measurements of increased electromagnetic energy at the center of the structure. The original Multiple Wave Oscillator was designed for and used to treat cancer in the early 1900s. It’s creator allegedly had some success, curing his own cancer, and the device is still used as a form of alternative medicine. Van Tassel’s claims may be somewhat dubious, but they’re undeniably interesting.

Does it matter if the claims are untrue? The experience of the Integratron is individual. What I experienced there was different from the person with me. And while there were some common themes, there are reports of people who’s experiences differ widely. Just because the claims of purpose or origin are somewhat suspicious, its still worth a visit to see the structure and experience the sound bath.

While George Van Tassel may have passed from this earthly coil, his legacy lives on. The Integratron has changed ownership a few times resulting in its current more pristine, more tourist-friendly state. A visit to the Integratron allows both a short tour of the structure and its surroundings as well as an approximate 30 minute sound bath. The well-manicured oasis offers a friendly place to sit and read in a hammock or to view the collection of found hippie folk art that dot the grounds and garden. Architecturally, the flying saucer-like shape of the building is a nod to the impetus of its inception. Even if the Integratron doesn’t sit atop a powerful vortex, the historical significance ties it to the beauty of its desert surroundings and the culture of many of the people who settled in the area and made it what it is today.

Looking In the Funhouse Mirror in Thailand

•April 23, 2018 • Comments Off on Looking In the Funhouse Mirror in Thailand

My story Looking Behind the Funhouse Mirror in Thailand originally appeared on worldfootprints.com. Below is a slightly longer version and includes a few original images.

 

 

The dock at Ao Nang in Krabi, Thailand is as nondescript as any western restaurant patio. Wooden slats make up a narrow walkway with benches on either side. When I arrived there one Friday afternoon in January, it was a beautiful tropical day. A blue sky was dotted with high clouds and unthreatening thunderheads in the distance. I waited with a small crowd for one of the boats that depart every 15 to 30 minutes for the otherwise inaccessible Railay beach. As we waited, the skies darkened. And darkened some more. The wind transformed from a breeze to a gusty draft strong enough to take hats and untethered garbage alike. Lingering dogs took refuge at a nearby bar.

The rain began to fall and the once calm seas began to pitch and yaw as I remembered that Fridays are reputed to be bad luck for sailors. When the longtail boat finally arrived, a dozen of us all stood with some hesitation before carrying ourselves down the dicey metal ramps, luggage in tow, into what had by then become a heavy, tropical downpour. We climbed the precarious steps up the rain-slicked ladder to board, everyone huddled below what little shelter the plastic tarp stretched overhead provided.

 

As we bounced along, waves smacked the bottom of the wooden hull. I could hear someone behind me whistling the theme song from Gilligan’s Island. Whistling—another sailor’s superstition of bad luck. The pilot throttled us along for what seemed like forever. After a nauseating six-kilometer ride, we made it safely around the isthmus in the shallow inlet of the warm Andaman Sea. Within a few hours, the skies had mostly cleared and a beautiful tropical evening followed.

On a walk the next morning, I marveled at the beauty of a place that allowed you to view both sunrise and sunset on the same beach. I toed my way into the low tide surf. Tiny crustaceans skittered underfoot, burying themselves in the sand ahead of my ogreish footfalls. To my east, the blazing tangerine disc of the rising sun sat just above an expanse of green water as clear as glass. To my west, hotels and resorts lined the pristine coastline. Enchanted by the palm trees that flanked the brick-paved walkway along the shore, I followed the path and stumbled across something I didn’t expect to see—the town landfill.

More of a transfer station than a dump, the garbage was organized in piles according to its category. Just inside the gate, I could see a hill of construction debris. Beyond that was the largest mound of Styrofoam coolers I’ve ever seen. On the other side, was a massive collection of plastic water bottles, perhaps hundreds of thousands of them stacked beneath a metal portico.  A mountain of beer bottles languished in their shadow. I wasn’t sure what kept them all from rolling away.

That’s when I snapped back to reality. I wasn’t only standing on the shore of the most beautiful beach I’d ever seen. I was toe deep in the sandy expanse of a carefully curated idea. The noble palms that lined the walkway, the carefully shorn grass pitches and the perfectly manicured shrubs, these were all transplants. Just like me, they’d come from somewhere else. Continue reading ‘Looking In the Funhouse Mirror in Thailand’

Yamuna

•August 1, 2017 • Comments Off on Yamuna

Day 791. I think. I wake in the cold damp of my room. My body crunched into a tiny almost-fetal ball. My cot is just barely five feet long. Long enough to lay on, but not long enough to stretch out fully unless I lie at a diagonal. First its the throbbing I notice. And then, its the bright, greenish white light piercing through my eyelids. Initially, its not the light that wakes me. Its the low grainy thrum. Grinding endlessly as long as the lights are on. A humming tonic of low metallic vibration. My tiny windowless room is about six by eight feet. Big enough for my child-sized cot, a stainless steal industrial toilet, and something that passes for a sink. Not much else. Its lit with two very bright, mercury vapor high bays. The ceiling is tall enough that I probably couldn’t reach them if I were able. A fine wire mesh floats across, acting as a kind of false ceiling between me and the fixtures themselves. I can reach it if I stand on the bed, but the mesh is too fine to get a hand through. As I slowly begin to waken, to try to move, I notice where the ache is coming from. I’ve been grinding my teeth again. My molars feel dull and subdued. My jaw exhausted, the lactic acid from overworked muscles not yet flushed out. The inside of my right cheek is loose and wet and bloody, the consistency of mincemeat. I must have caught a tiny flap of skin between my teeth. I strain to open my eyes as I hear voices coming down the corridor.

The door to my room is heavy reinforced steel. The only possible breach in its design is the speakeasy. The opening is about ten inches square and has a metal sliding door only operable from the outside. Just inside of that, is a thick slab of clear acrylic. This allows the staff to look in without me being able to hear them or pass anything through. Normally they speak of me in third person as though I can’t hear them. They pass through the hallway in groups of twos or threes or fours. Often one white coat and the others in scrubs. Doctors, nurses, orderlies. I’m never sure. I sometimes think about trying to store up some really cruddy, concentrated piss to throw at them through the opening. But as of yet, I have not. As they come by this morning, they are only two. This time both in white coats. They rarely discuss medical topics. Usually its notes about my physical status. The cleanliness or smell of my room. The order of my few personal belongings.

Today I can only hear small parts of their conversation. “B2691 is one of our longest-residing guests” I hear one of them say. I’m very rarely referred to by name. Usually its just B2691. Or sometimes 691. I know it must be Thursday today because I hear one say to the other “they’ll be brought down to the clinic for labs later today.” This meaning that I get a medical workup. Most of the time its just blood and urine. That takes place twice weekly. Monthly I get a full exam and every few months there is an even larger panel they run including endocrine response and marrow sampling. The few times I’ve had that, its been quite painful. I hope that’s not today. As they walk away, I notice they leave the speakeasy open. This almost never happens. I sit at the edge of the bed for a moment. Waiting. Waiting to see if another orderly will be by. Waiting to see if instead it will be someone else. One of the attending staff. Security. Possibly even Dr. Smith. I sit patiently. Nothing. No one. As I slowly stand to creep my way over to the door, the bed squeaks. The release of tension in the metal springs like a short, loud whine of a chamber door in an old house. I slowly make my way to the door. My breathe bated. My bare feet catlike and deliberate on the cold concrete floor. I peer forward to try to see out beyond my enclosure. I glance toward my left. Nothing. No one. As I begin to turn to my right, a hand reaches around with a small can of what looks like spray paint. Suddenly my eyes are filled with a thin smoke-like mist. It burns, and my nostrils are overcome with a sweet but slightly bitter smell. It creeps down my throat and as I stumble back toward my cot, my head goes light and I loose my ability to hold my body upright. I hear the speakeasy slam closed. Stumbling, I try to find my way to my cot to sit. I can’t quite make it. The floor feels gritty and dirty but pleasant on my bare skin. The cold smooth concrete is a slight relief on my burning cheek and forehead.

I begin to come to some time later. I’m not sure how long has passed. But I’m now seated in a wheel chair. My arms and legs strapped down. Even my chest is restrained. My vision is blurred and I feel my head throbbing. As the disoriented moments pass, I realize I’m still in the confines of my room. The door is open and I can see Dr. Smith and a younger woman also wearing a white coat in the hallway. She is plain. Caucasian. A slight build.  Maybe late twenties or early thirties. Pretty, but nondescript. They’re looking over a document and discussing something I can’t quite hear. An orderly is adjusting the restraints on my ankles. Dr. Smith puts the papers back into the file folder as he sees me looking at them.

“Ah. 691. You are awake!” he says with some surprise in his exclamation. His voice is calm, smooth and despite the fact that I know him, has a modicum of reassurance. Under different circumstance, I might call his tone kind. He glances at his watch and then asks “how do you feel this morning?” I struggle to respond. I know he’s not really looking for an answer. My head still heavy. My vision still slightly foggy. I don’t yet have the energy it takes to form words. “Let me have a look at you” he says as he squats down before me. He begins to touch my arms, inspecting the skin, the feel of my muscles. He squeezes my upper arms and puts his hands on my shoulders. They rest there only a second before he cups my face in his palm. The way a mother might softly caress a child’s cheek. His touch feels warm and soothing. The astringent smell of soap wafts toward me. I start to nod off, but he lifts my head and forces open my left eyelid as he tips my head back. As I turn to avoid his stare and his intrusive prodding, he stops me. “No no no, look at me” he says sounding somewhat annoyed. With a small pinlight in his left hand, he holds the left side of my head with his free, right hand and lifts my lips to see my teeth and gums. “Do you know anything about the blood here?” he says as he looks up toward the orderly standing behind me. There is no response that I’m aware of. He prods further, pulling my jaw apart. With the small flashlight he looks in my mouth to see my torn up inner cheek and while probing at my teeth with a gloved finger asks “those bothering you?” With a reassuring smile he says “don’t worry. We can take those out. Your well-being is our number one concern.” The emotion leaves his face as he turns to the young clinician behind him and says “lets consider the removal of 14 and 15.”

Were I not in a half catatonic state, I might be even more alarmed. Later I will consider this and it will not be his tacit cruelty that will bother me most. It will be his icy indifference. Dr. Smith is a man singularly focused. He views me as a subject. Nothing more. There is no emotion that enters into his decisions with regard to my comfort. It is simply a matter of science. As if we are all just pieces in a game. Parts in a machine. As long as everyone does what they’re supposed to do, they system moves as designed. Emotion, be it feeling sorry for me, or me feeling anger toward him can only complicate the results. Dr. Smith does not like the idea of convoluted outcomes.

I see the clinician take a note. She stares at me. Deadpan. Almost as if she’s looking through me. Without curiosity or interest. I stare back at her. Dr. Smith removes his fingers from my mouth. As he stands, his body obstructs my view. His shapeless lab coat forms a blind that obscures my view of her, but a slight lean to her other foot allows her to continue to see me. In my periphery, I see her head peak above Dr. Smith’s shoulder. As Dr. Smith steps aside, I see her scribble more notes. I know she’s making note of the tooth extraction. I am too. But I’m trying to avoid thinking about it. I’ve never done teeth before. Hopefully they’ll at least give me anesthetic. Dr. Smith glances to the orderly behind me and just barks “lab” as he turns heel and leaves the room.

Beyond my room is a hallway. To the left, a dead end. There are a few rooms in that direction although many of the rooms in this corridor are empty. I’ve had only minimal interaction with the other captives. There was one a while back. Rammy was small. His big dark eyes always portrayed a sense of fear. In the dim light of the hallway it was impossible for me to see the space where iris ended and pupil began. I could occasionally hear him making noise down at the end of the corridor. But we rarely interacted. And then one day he was just gone. I asked Dr. Smith about him and was told the staff was here to take care of me and that other residents were not my concern. That was at least 300 days ago.

When I pressed Dr. Smith further, he informed me “The Center for Anomalous and Aberrant Biologic Studies has many guests. Many patients. They come and go in their own time. They are here to teach us about all the wonders that human biology, no matter how rare, has to offer us.” I wonder if he is aware that the they he’s referring to is me. I wonder if he recognizes his test subjects had lives before they came here. I wonder what a boy like Rammy, a child of only about twelve, would have to offer someone like Dr. Smith. I understand why I’m here. But did Rammy? Do the others? Its hard to see this place as more than just a jail. Unless you’re Dr. Smith. And he seems to see it as anything but.

As I’m wheeled down the hallway, the orderly slows to a stop outside another room. The red metal door is closed tight against the frame, but the speakeasy has been left open. He glances quickly inside the room before shutting it. From the low vantage of the chair, I can see nothing. I hear nothing. I concentrate for a moment, closing my eyes. I try to listen with every cell in my body. Still nothing. We carry on to the gate. The first door is a large, reinforced glass portal. It is wide enough for a wheel chair or a gurney to easily pass through but it doesn’t quite stretch the entire width of the hallway. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch the orderly scan his badge and type his keycode. We pass inside the doorway. It is only after the door closes behind us that he can enter his keycode again to open the second, heavier, reinforced steel door. This door has a tiny window of mesh-lined glass, but is otherwise impenetrable. I notice the keycode is different on this side of the door than it was coming through the previous. Is the last digit variable? I’ll have to try to pay closer attention on my way back down. I’m so groggy still. These little details so difficult to commit to. All I really want right now is sleep.

Once we’re through the gate, I’m wheeled around a corner down another long hallway. This one is much like the others save for the paint scheme. There is no red here. The floor is a tiled vinyl of beige and brown. The walls a pale hospital green. It is long and dark and there are few doorways. As we pick up speed, the breeze feels soothing on my still-burning skin. I struggle to stay awake. I remember being a young child, in my mother’s car. Nodding off as soon as we got on the highway. This feels the same. The vibration under me lulling me to sleep.

After a very brief test set I am wheeled back to my room. Upon arrival at the gate, I am more alert. The orderly puts himself between the keypad and my view of it. I can only see around him slightly. I strain to see what he’s doing, trying not to move my body so much as to be obvious. I can’t let them notice that I’m looking. 1-3-2-1-3-4. I think.

Continue reading ‘Yamuna’

Portals

•July 11, 2017 • Comments Off on Portals

It was the sound of the shutting door that first aroused his suspicion.  The way the heavy brass latch came together, the weight of the oak door sitting neatly in its frame. A firm thud suggesting a level of imperviousness. But what really arose his hackles was the look she gave when she turned to face him. And then the question “Why did you come out here?” It was not the kind of question meant to be answered. More rhetorical than necessitating response. “I told you not to come out here” she went on. The peeved tone of frustration in her voice sent a shock into his stomach. He could feel the warm tinge in his bowels. He felt like a kid, his hand caught in the cookie jar. The stern eye of authority passing judgement. Suddenly he was reminded of the time last week he came into the kitchen to find the dog, face covered in frosting devouring the cupcakes his daughter had made for her 7th grade biology class. The dog, with a sheepish look on his face, unable to separate paper wrapper from spongy cake and sprinkles, struggling to not lick his lips when the scolding came.

The look on her face was really what drove the gravity of the situation home. Marvin’s hand held tight to the threadbare towel wrapped around his waist. For the first time ever, he considered why he might want to have a set of towels in the house that hadn’t been stolen from a budget motel. Immediately a chill came over him, his rotund belly protected from the late evening air only by the matted, fuzzy thicket of gray hair that covered it. Barefoot, he stood on the front porch for just a moment longer, trying to put all the puzzle pieces of the situation together. He looked down to see the doormat slid to one side, the peeling paint of the floorboards beneath him. The placement of the mat suggesting something out of place but without registration of what that thing was exactly. As he looked back up, scanning for some detail he might have missed, he met Margaret’s gaze.

“I told you not come out here” she said again. As if to reiterate her point. A statement he had no recollection of hearing prior to his arrival here. He noticed her standing before him, also clad in only a thin towel. Her barrel-shaped body barely covered, her gray hair still wet, no longer dripping from the ends. He noticed the stream of people walking by. A busy street in late spring in this area usually means a heavy flutter of foot traffic.

As his face flushed, a feeling of incredulity came over him. “What…” he began, but the whole word didn’t even make it out. It was as if it started, but got stuck on his lips. This noise was almost the same as the one the dog made when he woke himself with a bark. A noise emanating from the lungs, truncated both by shuttered lips and a trailing of will. As if someone had snatched the word from his mouth before he could finish enunciating it.

“Didn’t I tell you not to come out here without the keys?” she said, cutting him off. Margaret’s question was more serious this time, but her tone still perturbed. “Marvin…” she whined in the sing-songy way she sometimes did. The rise and fall of her raspy voice mirroring the mountain landscape in the distance. “How are we going to get back in?”

The Thread

•May 26, 2016 • Comments Off on The Thread

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You wake to the splatter.  A cold, wet drip.  The heavy drop of rainwater smacking you right in the corner of your eye.  You’re startled, but it’s not until you’re met by the second drop that you realize what’s happening.  Rain is coming in just above your head.  A tiny crack in the fiberglass ceiling.  You’d never noticed it before.  But as you examine it more closely, you can see it runs all the way back to the top of the windowsill.  A tiny, meandering fissure filled with the grime and mildew of rainy seasons past and the festering springs that follow. 

You hold back your curses as you look for a bucket, a bottle, something to try to contain the water from soaking your one cleanish, flat spot to sleep in.  As you look around, you see the flotsam of your life consolidated in this one tiny space.  A stack of paper documents.  Your guitar, a hopelessly out of tune Epiphone with four rusty strings remaining.  A rickety stack of CDs, no player to play them in of course.  Yet another thing that was a plan on your to do list.  Another box unchecked.  A survey so brief you almost don’t have time to register how pathetic it is.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  Or so you tell yourself.  You had a plan and it looked nothing like this.  This situation, this predicament, this very moment was supposed to be temporary.  A short stopping-off point before you really got going.  And that’s the rub.  A not so subtle irony really.  Just a few months ago when you first made this arrangement, things seemed so great.  You were ecstatic.  Thrilled.  You went to sleep grateful every night.  And every day you woke feeling so much potential.  So much promise.  Like everything was falling into place.  Your plan was coming to fruition.  For every tool, a painted silhouette on the pegboard.  A feeling you hadn’t had since you were a kid and you knew your mom loved you and the whole world was ahead of you.  But that was before the flat tire and the busted alternator the brush with the police at the impound lot.  Everything went from a sense of profound optimism to a bulky, burdensome sense of dread.  Yeah sure, it seemed like a tiny setback at the time.  But now, Oh man! You are in it! The perspective of a little time.  You are stuck, and not only is the mud deep, but the water is coming in. 

And just as you really start to sink.  Just when you’re feeling like there’s no way out.  That’s when you start to feel the itch.  The painful burning itch.  You notice, because you’re not already annoyed enough right now.  It starts at your forearm and then twists around toward your elbow.  It’s kind of like a cross between a mosquito bite and a rug burn.  But it’s deep.  You can feel it lurking under the surface.  And you want to scratch at it so you do.

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And when it first started, it wasn’t even that bad.  You could ignore it.  Maybe put some ice on it or some of that pink stuff your mom used to put on your poison ivy so you could sleep at night.  But as that burning itch becomes more frequent, it becomes more persistent.  And now, you can’t just leave it alone.  And not just any amount of friction will do.  You need fingernails on bare skin. 

So you peel your coat off.  The puffy, synthetic stuffing-filled nylon coat with the stain on the sleeve and the fucked up zipper.  You tear it off so you can get to your left arm.  And you pull up your shirt sleeve and you give that irascible little itch a nice hard dig with your thumbnail.  And that’s when you notice the lump.  Maybe lump isn’t the right word.  It’s more like a ridge.  It’s not that long, but you can feel it run along under the surface of your skin about two or three inches back.  It’s coarse and thready.  Almost like there is a piece of fine wire just below the surface.  And as you dig and scratch and the burn comes on, you realize there is in fact something there.  Like a really thick hair.  Maybe that’s all this is, just an infected, ingrown hair.  That would be a relief.  Or maybe it wouldn’t.  But at least it’s a measurable quantity.  Not some unknown to add one more problem to your list. 

And this is when your curiosity gets the better of you.  You have to find your headlamp.  Some light source.  A flashlight, a candle, anything to help you see.  What is this lumpy thread? You tear apart the drawer in the kitchen.  Nothing.  You look all over the counter and under the bed.  You even look in the stinking festering bathroom.  Finally.  Under the passenger seat.  It must have fallen off the dash.  You put it on and flip the switch.  In the dim light of the dying battery, you see what looks like a hair.  But is it? It’s red.  Red like the color of that sweater you used to like so much before you barfed whiskey all over it and left it in the grass.  You haven’t worn that sweater in years.  But this thread, it has that same wooly quality.  The end is sticking out just past the surface of your skin.  But the rest of it is in there.  Really in there.  How the fuck did it get in there? You tug at the end, but you can’t really get a grip.  Your stubby thumbs with the dirty, chewed down nails get no purchase.  You persist, but don’t kid yourself.  You need a tweezer.

Thinking for a minute, you know a tweezer is out of the question.  Pliers probably wont do it either.  But a needle? Maybe.  Your quest for the sewing kit takes you to the closet.  It’s actually more like a cubby that you’ve crammed so full of junk that things large and small spill out onto you when you open the door.  You dig under the pile of mostly dirty clothes and pull out a box of old keepsakes.  It’s not until you move that aside when you see what’s lurking behind.  The red bag.  Something you can’t remember the last time you saw.  It’s kind of like a very short velvet or a felt even.  You know precisely what is inside it.  Or what was.  Now, it’s just the box.  A small, wooden box.  And this is when it hits you.  All the misfortune you’ve had in the past several months can all be tied to that box that lives inside this bag. 

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For a moment, you just stare.  You look at the bag unsure if you even want to pick it up.  A moment of absolute pause comes over you so strong that when your mind finally starts come back from being completely blank, you contemplate throwing up.  But you persist.  You know all you can do is keep going forward.  So you pick up the bag.  And as you gingerly unfold the flap, you reach inside to pull the box out.  The next sensory overload to hit you is the smell.  It’s not a bad smell exactly, but it’s not good either.  It’s a little musty and a little rotten and maybe a little oily, in an animal kind of way.  Not like damp earth.  More like wet dog fur.  As you’re taking this in, you realize that one of the strangest things about this transition you’ve been in the past few months are the smells.  So much of your life has gone on as normal.  So many of the things you do are the same.  The places you go, pretty much all unmodified.  It’s just that there are subtle little changes in the way you do them or how you arrive at each destination.  And what makes all those little changes so palpable are the smells.  The way cooking smells on your little camp stove versus your old kitchen.  The way your clothes or your bed now smell.  The way the acrid smell of diesel smoke has become a bigger presence in your life.  Or the fumes from the kerosene heater.  But this smell, the smell of the box, this is altogether different.  This is the kind of smell that unlocks an emotional trove so vast words to describe it are completely unavailable. 

You stare one more minute before you finally pull the box completely from the satchel.  It sits flat in your open palm while you gently run your other hand around the edge.  It’s larger than you remember, maybe eight inches in length.  You notice a marred area around the lip of the opening.  Like there used to be a clasp there.  You don’t remember there being any kind of fastener, but clearly there was one at some point.  You can also see a spot where the finish is more worn than in other areas.  As if something had rubbed it.  The large grain of what looks like oak is coarse and raised here.  You run your fingers over this, the thick ribs catching the rough skin of your thumb.  Despite its condition, the box is beautifully constructed.  Each joint coming together with pinpoint accuracy.  You wonder how old it is, something that never occurred to you before.  And finally, after just a second more hesitation, you open the lid. 

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The box, as you remember it is empty.  But as the lid comes completely open and the light from your headlamp floods in, you see the note.  Something you’d completely forgotten about.  Setting the box down, you pick up the note and carefully, unfold it.  The paper has become slightly brittle, especially at the fold bisecting the page into two perfectly even halves.  You read it again, perhaps for the millionth time.

Dear Mr Billings,

After many years of searching, it seems I’ve finally found you, or at least your estate.  You’re not an easy man to locate.  The passing years since the war have only made it harder.  Even with newer technologies such as microfiche, my quest for you has been lengthy.  Not to dwell on the details of myself, I will be brief.  Enclosed in this little box, I serve you with this key.  I trust you know what to do with it and how your fate now depends on your actions herein.  Please make no mistake, this is not a hoax.  This pertains to the very crux of our conversation that night in Hamburg.  I hope you’ll not take this responsibility lightly.  I wish you the best, may peace be with you.

Walter

As you reread the note for the first time in so many months, you’re struck by both the brevity and the perfect penmanship.  Not only that, but you have no idea who Mr Billings is nor have you ever been to Hamburg.  And microfiche? Seriously? Plus, you never saw any key.  Your confusion is as great now as it was when you received this package in the mail.  The funny thing is that it was addressed to you.  You checked and checked again to be sure.  Your name, your address.  No return, nothing about the sender.  But it was clearly intended for you.  What you also remember quite clearly was what accompanied the note.  What filled the box.  A tiny animal, long dead.  Unpreserved but for the box itself.  You weren’t sure what it was.  Some little primate.  A marmoset perhaps.  Something you’d never seen and aren’t sure you could identify were it next to a live version of itself.  You remember opening the box that first time.  Its gnarled little teeth and its concave missing eye, staring at you.  Perplexed doesn’t even begin to describe your feeling.  Your immediate reaction was to shut the box.  As if closing it somehow made it null.  You remember the smell.  But now it seems stronger, if that’s even possible. 

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You’d opened the box once more a few moments later.  You tried to take it all in, just to understand what the meaning might be.  But after that second time, you packed the box back up in the bag that enclosed it and put that back in the cardboard carton that it had been shipped to you in.  You put the parcel in the corner of the bedroom and didn’t open it again for days.  You just left it there, like an unwelcome visitor.  Like a stain you weren’t sure how to treat.  You looked at it askance for weeks.  You passed by it giving it no more than a cursory glance from the corner of your eye.  It registered as no more than a shape in your periphery.  And that’s if you noticed at it all.

But then one day, you decided you couldn’t take it anymore.  The confusion and curiosity of its presence eating at you; the emotional space it was taking up was too great.  You didn’t know what this whole thing was about, you figured it had to be a joke and you weren’t going to be the butt of it anymore.  So you took the box from its soft velveteen bag and you brought it outside.  You buried the animal in your mother’s back yard, next to her roses.  A shallow grave, sure.  But it was a tiny little thing and there was hardly anything left of it.  The tiny beast nearly crumbling as you removed it from it’s tiny casket.  Twenty-four inches down, its brittle bones, like your mind, finally able to rest.  You covered the hole, you put the wooden box back in its enclosure and you forgot about it.  More or less.

Now you find yourself sitting on the floor of what has become your home.  This empty box in your open hand.  You’re left wondering if the events in your life, especially those of the past year are connected to this.  It seems so random.  As if receipt of this package that was likely meant for someone else has brought you to this point.  Like a hex cast upon you.  Thinking about it in these terms for the first time, you begin to wonder.  Should you have tried to find out who the package was really intended for? Should you not have buried the animal? Should you have done something else with it? Or buried the box too? Should you have tried to find the mysterious person who sent it to you? All of these unknowns, all with no recourse.  Now you can only try to move forward.  As you sit, pondering what the next course of action should be, the burning itch comes back to the foreground.  This is when you remember what you were doing when you found the box in the first place.  Looking for your sewing kit. 

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Eventually you find the small plastic case, little more than a clear envelope with a half a dozen needles and the remnants of two colors of thread.  It’s buried deep in the pocket of a backpack you’d forgotten you had.  A vestige of a time when you spent your days deep in the mountains, carrying only the most basic of supplies.  Your only goal to escape and let the alpine air subsume you.  Looking at your options, you choose the larger, sharper needle.  Again, you peel back your sleeve.  Peering at the the lumpy ridge and the wiry mass protruding from your skin, you begin to dig.  Slowly at first.  A gentle scrape.  But as your skin begins to numb to the pain, you dig deeper, more vigorously.  A small trickle of blood appears, but you persist until you’ve opened the skin into a tiny canyon running an inch back from the initial opening.  Wedging the needle under the fiber, you’re able to pull it away from the fleshy part of your arm.  As you look more closely, you can see that the thread has tiny little tendrils projecting from its main branch.  Almost like little rhizomes from a plant root. 

As you tug at the bloody end, the thread does not immediately give.  It is strong and stubborn and each tiny protruding hair is firmly implanted in the tissue of your skin.  As the fiber tears away, the itch transforms into a sharp and heavy burning sensation.  The surrounding muscle begins to feel weak, like a weight has been placed upon it and it’s slowly falling asleep.  It’s as if you’re removing a tapeworm or some parasite, its only defense is to release some toxic chemical to protect itself.  Finally, you free the thread of your flesh, its sticky blood-coated length stuck to the end of the needle.  You bring it close and try to inspect it.  After staring at it for a few minutes, you find an almost-clean plate in what passes for your kitchen.  You set it down, promising yourself you’ll come back to it later, when you’re a little more rested and a little less grossed out.

You amble back to your sleeping pad.  Water is still coming in overhead, but the drip has decreased in frequency.  You find a plastic bag and reverse your head-foot sleeping direction, putting the bag over your feet for the night.  When you wake a few hours later, you are cold and groggy and your arm feels like it’s filled with sand.  A gritty ache that is both hot and constrictive.  Sitting at the edge of your bed, you are met with the familiar feeling of time that will not pass.  Or will not pass quickly enough.  But in your dazed state, you also know that your consciousness leaves time immeasurable.  With your legs dangling from the edge of your perch, your blanket wrapped around you, you cannot be sure how much time has passed since you were horizontal.  Moments that could just as easily be seconds as they could be minutes.  Five minutes.  Twenty.  The awareness you feel is still between full sleep and wakefulness.

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Continuing to sit in this semi-conscious state, a feeling of liminality comes over you.  Your gentle resting heartbeat becomes a slow pound and you’re overcome with the feeling that you’re before a threshold.  At the top of this precipice is a view; to one side is where you’ve come from.  You can retreat to it, but you know where it will take you.  To the other side, a fog.  You can make out some shapes and possibly even some clearing.  But the developments of this direction are not entirely lucid.  The outcomes uncertain.  What is obvious to you is that you must make this choice and you unquestioningly must choose to move forward in the direction of the unknown.  Even if the outcome is worse, you must move on. 

Your consciousness returns to the present as your stare fixes on the view beyond the curtain.  The rain seems to have stopped.  Both inside and out.  You look out the window and are met with a sky that is a dull blanket of gray.  For the briefest second, you’re tempted to ask yourself how you got here.  But you don’t.  You already know the answer.  It was your choice.  Mostly.  A year ago, you hatched a plan.  It seemed so perfect and so simple.  You had a steady job and you knew you could save some money.  It would be an adventure.  The previous winter, when your grandfather died, you begged your mother not to scrap his old 16 foot RV.  Yeah, it was in bad shape.  But you had some time to fix it up.  To get it running again.  And when you did, you’d make it your home on wheels.  You’d take it down the coast.  You’d see the mountains of Oregon and California.  Surf the best beaches the pacific had to offer.  Maybe even head down into Mexico and further south.  More mountains.  More ocean.  The possibilities were endless.  You could carry everything you needed, be completely self-contained.  And you weren’t getting any younger.  Now was the time!

Your job at the foundry was pretty much a dead end anyway.  It was mindless.  The people you worked with were fine and the atmosphere was OK.  But did you really want to spend another year, another decade in a leather apron and safety goggles machining hardware for heavy farm implements? The job allowed you some freedom.  On the good days it was like a meditation.  Your pressing station a series of rote tasks.  You could zone out and let the hours pass sometimes without a thought in your head.  Each motion of your hands, your arms, a turn of a knob, a pull of a lever—all in a perfect rhythm.  But other times lunch could not come soon enough.  And then when it did, you still had another half your shift left; to amble through.  To grit and bear.  The monotony was eternal.  But it didn’t matter anymore because you had a plan.

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Once you convinced your mother to give you the RV, your plan involved moving back home with her.  You’d fix it up in her driveway and help her sort out her father’s affairs.  And she liked having you around more.  It would be a chance to reconnect with her before you left.  But you didn’t exactly hold up your end of the bargain.  You got the RV running but turning it into the retro masterpiece you’d imagined didn’t exactly happen.  And as far as your mother was concerned, you weren’t that helpful to have around.  You mostly holed up in your room playing video games or went to the bar down the street.  Neither of which were really part of the deal.  You saved a little money, but not nearly as much as you planned.  Still, everything was on course.  It was early spring and you planned to get on the road in just a few more months.

As the novelty of your mother doing your laundry for you waned, you began to feel an increasing sense of isolation.  Cast aside on your own.  It was strange to feel so sequestered in a life so familiar.  Physically nothing had changed.  You just knew the time was coming and you couldn’t wait to get out of there.  You can’t remember when exactly, but the package showed up some time around then.  Not quite early spring.  You remember finding the box on the doorstep on a damp and blustery 40 degree day.  The driving drizzle coming in sideways, mud encroaching the sidewalks where narrow driveways couldn’t contain the width or weight of vehicles placed upon them.  The shallow ruts packed and flooded like pocket-sized oceans.  The package was tucked in against the screen door, slightly sheltered from the spatter of rain driving in onto the porch. 

As you approached the house, you could see the package from the street.  You didn’t think much of it and didn’t immediately realize it was addressed you.  You just brought it inside.  Casting it off to the corner near the door, you crammed it in against the wall near the table where all the mail gets dumped.  Hours later, before your mom came home, a nagging feeling, part curiosity, part responsibility brought you back to it.  It was then that you realized it had your name on it and no return address.  You didn’t think it was that odd.  You opened it.

April came and the northwest’s soaking rains took their toll.  The wet settled in and began to fester.  So did the relationships with your mother and your boss.  You knew your mother would always love you.  But it was clear that she was sick of having you around.  Your boss on the other hand was making it clear that it was time to go.  One day while tapping a particularly large set of bolts, the clutch on your drill slipped dropping the bit on your workpiece.  This sent a hunk of metal flying.  The sharp corner of which caught you in the ribs, just beyond the seam of your apron.  It was mostly a flesh wound, but you had to be sent to the hospital.  While there, a rather serious bacterial infection developed causing you to miss a month of work.  Legally, you had no problems.  But with the relationship with your boss deteriorating, he was less than sympathetic.  Not being a union shop, you had little choice other than to take the tiny severance they offered you and make your disability claims. 

When you were finally recovered, your mother asked you to move out.  With barely half the cash you’d planned to leave with, you ended up living in the RV, parked on a city street between a residential and an industrial urban neighborhood.  There were a few others parked there at the time so you weren’t alone.  You thought you’d just get another short term job, save a little more and head south toward the end of the summer.  Summer was an easy time to get by in the northwest.  The days were long and warm and the city’s ethos became one of recreation and laziness.  It was a deviation, but it didn’t seem too bad. 

The most immediate problem at the time was that you had to move the RV at least every two days to avoid a parking ticket.  Not a huge problem, but when the RV broke down, it took you more than two weeks to fix it.  Parking tickets piled up and it got towed.  To compound the problem, you were in it at the time.  Sleeping off a bad hangover from a long night with the guy in the rig parked behind you and a cheap bottle of rye.  You didn’t realize what was happening until the vehicle was already in route to the impound lot.  There, in your partially inebriated state, you got into an altercation with security officers who were not that sympathetic to your current dilemma.  Eventually, you got things worked out, you paid your fines and you got the RV out.  But it cost you nearly all your savings.  Just like that, you were back to square one.

And now, the thick of autumn is upon you.  The blanket of gray and fog and the November rains are here for the duration.  You’re working a few shifts a week pulling coffee at a small cafe around the corner.  But this isn’t a place that has the traffic of Starbucks.  People tend to linger taking advantage of the free wi-fi.  Your only benefits are whatever pastries are left at the end of the day.  You might make $25 in tips on a good day.  Living in the RV your overhead is low, but you’re not exactly building wealth.

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It’s times like this, when you really start to think about it that the feeling of claustrophobia becomes so acute.  The disappointment becomes a little unbearable and all you can think about is how your plan has slipped through your fingers.  When that feeling of regret really subsumes you is when the itch gets really bad.  It started out as just that one spot on your arm.  And when you dug the thing out, the thread, the object, whatever it was; when you extricated it from your fleshy forearm, you thought you were done.  But since then, new ones have sprouted up.  First one in your leg and then another on your back, near your middle ribs.  They itch.  They burn and the lump is just big enough to rub on your clothes.  Like a stiff little hair, coarse and sinewy, catching on a seam, pulling and then releasing with a snap.  Each time feels like a blast of heat or a quick cigarette burn.  As that subsides, the itch returns.  You take another step and the process repeats.  What is this thing? Will you have to dig them all out? Can you even reach them all anymore? A good hard scratch with your nail feels good for a second, but it never lasts.  The ephemeral satisfaction of a meal eaten too quickly.

You check the time.  Realizing you have more than four hours until your shift at the coffee shop starts, you decide to head to the library where you can get online.  You spend the next two and a half hours googling your condition and anything you can find that relates to it.  The closest thing you can come up with is Morgellons disease.  And with the exception of a few crazed, Jenny McCarthy-types, no one really believes it’s real.  At least no one in the medical establishment.  So where does that leave you? Crazy? Mentally ill? Cursed? The filaments under your skin are most definitely real.  You’ve been pulling them out.  You have a whole collection of them.  You leave the library en route to the coffee shop feeling dejected and a little hopeless.  You can’t be sure, but you feel like this exacerbates the burning, crawling itch even more.

You trundle down the street, your face set to the biting wind.  The air coming off the water has a slight fishy, salt smell.  You realize it’s easy to feel down like this right now.  Just hours ago, you sat at the edge of your bed with the recognition that you had to make a change.  And not just where you plan your escape.  Although that would be helpful too.  But the feeling you had of being at the threshold has really stuck with you this morning.  Beyond your hopelessness is a sense of resolve.  A notion that you can at least try to deal with your situation. 

Your shift at the coffee shop floats by in a haze.  You’re not sure you’re totally present.  Did you make that latte with soy as you were supposed to? All you can really focus on is what your next move will be.  Thoughts of the possibilities dance through your mind.  You’re enchanted, living in the fantasy.  You decide that the box was indeed a curse and conclude you need to go to your mother’s house in the morning.  You sort of have a plan.  At 8PM you close the coffee shop and walk back to the RV.  $27 cash in your pocket, you realize that your savings is now approaching $1000.  Not exactly a fortune, but enough to pay for fuel down the coast. 

You wake the next morning feeling more optimistic than you have in weeks.  Through the gray you can see spots of blue sky and even a clear patch just beyond the Olympics.  From the floor you pick up the same jeans you wore yesterday.  As you slide them on, you notice a new elevated ridge along your inner thigh.  This makes two now on your right leg.  Slipping your shoes on as you go, you shuffle your way to the cab of the RV.  You fish around for the keys and find them in their usual spot.  The dirty styrofoam cup in the cupholder on the dash.  Probably not the best place to leave them you think.  As you turn the key, you watch the glow plugs slowly heat up and finally the big diesel engine roars to life.  Smoke billows out the back for a few minutes as you let the engine warm. 

You arrive at your mother’s house.  You find her car parked in the driveway which means there is no place to park the RV.  After living parked on the main thoroughfares for the last many months, you’ve forgotten how hard it is to navigate residential streets in this thing.  The narrow roundabouts at the center of the city’s many uncontrolled intersections are basically obstacles you have to decide either how hard to hit, or if you can avoid.  You finally find a spot big enough to park just a few blocks away.  As you make your way up the front walkway of the house, you decide not to go in.  You’re fairly certain your mother is not here; often she leaves her car when she goes to work.  With the wooden box and its accompanying velvet satchel in your hand, you make your way straight for the shed.  Finding a spade and a small shovel, you make a b-line for back edge of the yard.  The rose bush this time of year is more of a thorny expanse than the thing of beauty your mother prunes it to be.

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You can see the area you’re looking for.  A disturbance where the grass has not exactly regrown to match the rest of the lawn.  As you start to dig, first with the shovel, you try to be careful.  You exceed what looks to be the circumference of your previous hole.  Digging slowly and with the patience of an archeologist, you gingerly work the spade through the surface trying to get down below the first layer of loose soil to the grave.  Finally, and much deeper than you remembered, you reach the dirty carcass.  It’s not even really a carcass anymore so much as it is a furry pile of bones.  Carefully, you excavate them, trying to keep what remains of the body in a whole lump mass.  You place it back into the box.  A little bit of the muddy soil comes with but you think it might at least cover up some of the lingering smell.  Taking a moment to review the remnants of the decomposed little creature, you stare into the box.  Morning sunlight is now streaming through the neighbor’s stand of evergreens.  The light shining across you warms your back and neck.  With a deep breath you close the box and curtly tuck it back inside its velvety pouch.

As you begin your return back to the RV, it occurs to you that you should see if your mom is around.  You know it’s always unlocked, so you tread your way back to the back door.  You come into the kitchen to find it empty, a sink full of dishes and the heat turned down low for the day.  She’s already gone.  You decide to leave promising yourself you’ll send her a text later letting her know you came by.  Just as you’re about to head out the door, something on the little dinette next to the window catches your eye.  Beneath the ornamental napkin holder lies a stack of envelopes.  Normally this is not a place your mother leaves mail or unpaid bills.  It’s not until you pick them up, thumbing through them you realize they’re all addressed to you.  Most are junk, but one catches your eye.  Emblazoned on the front of the envelope, just above the window is the state’s seal.  You open it to find your disability check.  $887 seems a bit paltry for spending two and half weeks in the hospital and another two weeks in bed afterwards.  But it’s money none-the-less.  You leave the house, heading for the RV.  You’re ecstatic.  For the first time in a long time you feel like the universe is starting to give you a break.  You’re grateful and relieved and even though you recognize the situation is far from perfect, you feel you’ve been given a reprieve.  You vow to save the money and not blow it on something frivolous. 

Deciding to celebrate, you first stop by the coffee shop on your way back to park the RV for the night.  Trying to be amicable, you give your notice—two full weeks.  But really, the idea of sticking around here another two weeks sounds like invasive dental work.  Still in a celebratory mood, you decide to make your favorite meal for dinner, 3-cheese macaroni.  About as gourmet as you can manage on your small two-burner camp stove.  You wash it down with a pint of Evan Williams.  Why not? It was only $7. 

Once you’ve devoured your mac and cheese, you find yourself kicking back at the small banquette that is your dining area.  You’ve got the kerosene heater turned up, the raw, sweet taste of whiskey on your lips, you’re nice and cozy.  The warm hum of the alcohol fills your chest and all you can think about is your luck.  You’ve finally dodged the bullet.  Things were going so poorly there for a while.  But now, you’re almost completely set.  The soft pall of gratitude washes over you.  One more nip of whiskey? Why not? Who did more whiskey ever hurt? Just a wee dram as they say.  For a brief second, you pause to think about how you often make poor decisions when you’re drinking.  This fleeting thought is quickly erased as you refill your glass.  And by this point, you’ve gone from a warm, heady buzz to being fully drunk. 

You decide this is the perfect time to get up to piss.  You pull yourself to your feet and for the first time realize how drunk you actually are.  You stumble into the claustrophobic little closet that passes for your bathroom.  The smell is horrific.  You’ve been meaning to dump the tank in here for weeks.  Tomorrow.  Holding onto the frame of the narrow doorway, you stumble out.  The heated air hits your face, and so do the kerosene fumes.  You briefly rationalize that THIS must be the reason you feel so wasted.  You decide to lay down in your bed for a while, but on your way, you catch a glimpse of the nearly empty Evan Williams bottle on the table.  Might as well finish that off.  There’s only about a shot left anyway.  As the bottle hits your lips, the smell is the first thing to tell you this is a bad idea.  But who are you if not someone that perseveres? You force the last couple ounces down and collapse into your bed.  The whole RV is now spinning.  You try everything you can think of to make it stop.  You put your foot on the ground.  Your hand on the wall.  You take your clothes off.  But nothing seems to help.  You lie there for a while wondering what you’ve done to yourself.  As the time passes you drift in and out of consciousness.

You’re not sure how much time has elapsed, but you’re pretty sure you were asleep when the wave hit you.  You’re overcome with nausea.  You barely make it to the side door when up comes a foul mixture of your Evan Williams and the mac and cheese you ate earlier.  For a moment as you heave, you’re hit with a flash of clarity.  But as you see the chunky, ruddy expanse splatter below you, the dizziness returns.  For a short time, you sit kneeling on the floor, exposed, only in your underwear looking at the pile you’ve just left on the street.  A portion remains on your step, but most of it made it to the curb.  You take in the cool air for a moment trying to catch your breath.  You can’t remember feeling this wrecked since high school.  As you stumble back to your bed, you’re smacked with the next sensation.  The itch.  At first you can almost ignore it.  It’s there, you can feel it.  But it almost feels like it’s under someone else’s skin.  It’s a slow tingle that starts at your mid thigh and extends down around and past your knee. 

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As you lie on your back, you contemplate the itchy sensation coming from your leg.  It’s too far away to reach with your hand from this position so you try to abrade it with your other knee.  That doesn’t really do anything.  The burn comes on slowly and insidiously.  Almost unnoticeably.  Finally you roll to your side so you can lift your leg enough, curl your back enough that your hand reaches the spot.  You dig your rough, stumpy nails in.  With the abbreviated relief comes not only the intense burn, but the realization that barfing cleaned out your system a bit.  Your head is starting to clear but it’s also beginning to throb.  You dig into the itch, pinching the epicenter between your thumb and forefinger.  You squeeze until it feels like molten lava is going to burst out.  It almost feels like something liquid is oozing, but the only light is the sodium vapor leaking in from the street.  Even if you had the wherewithal to move your head enough to look, you wouldn’t be able to see.  As you lie there contemplating what feels like it might be a viscous fluid between your fingers, the burning itch begins to feel like something is crawling under your skin.  It’s like that little ridge just below the focal point is moving, wriggling beneath the surface.  In your drunken state, your mind immediately goes to that scene in Poltergeist where the guy drinks the worm at the bottom of the Mezcal bottle.  For a second you’re petrified, unable to move.  You lie there still, trying to figure out if what you’re feeling is real.  Did the thing just move? Is there actually a living thing under your skin? In your terrified, motionless state, you eventually drift back to sleep.  As the light of morning comes creeping in, you slowly begin to awaken.  Not drunk anymore, but definitely wasted.  Your head pounds and a thin crust of drool is pasted to your cheek.  Your mouth is filled with the most vile taste you think you’ve ever experienced.  Your parched, film-coated tongue is almost stuck to the roof of your mouth.  It’s at this point that your desire for water has become greater than your desire to not move.  As you roll toward the edge of your bed, you realize that a caked bloody rivulet is glued to the inside of your thigh.  This must have been what you were working on so intently last night as you passed out.  The motion of sitting up brings on a new level of pounding in your head.  The rush of blood so loud and so late it almost knocks you back down. 

As the midmorning turns to late morning, you decide it’s time to move.  You’re tired and dehydrated and your body still aches.  But you know you can’t stay here like this forever.  Coffee is what you need.  And the walk will be good for you.  Hopefully.  As you step out into the cool gray brume, you begin to recognize the ephemeral qualities of where you are.  You make your way down the sidewalk toward the coffee shop on the corner.  You start to realize how anonymous everything around you is.  How random each passing car, each bus full of commuters and students and elderly value-shoppers.  They’ve all come together to live in their own little world.  Each barely connected to the one next to them.  For a moment, you’re comforted by the impermanence of it all.  The transience of it.  You realize that you too are just a passerby in everyone else’s narrative.  As you make your way back to the RV, coffee in hand, your headache slowly becomes a feeling of optimism.  You decide you must get on the road right now.  You can’t wait another day.  Certainly not two more weeks.  You’ll text your mom when you get to a stopping point, letting her know you’ve gone.  You know she wont react well, but it’s the only way.  You have to skip town right now.

And so you do.  You have enough fuel in the tank to make it across the Columbia river, and you have enough cash to make the Mexico border.  You sit in the driver’s seat and fire up the engine.  With the sound of the motor coming to life, you recognize that the act of leaving does not solve your problems.  The thready filaments under your skin will not just disappear when you get out of town.  But you know that like their undetermined cause, all you can do is move on.  Take the obscured path of uncertainty.  You take your short stack of savings and begin making your way.  First south to Oregon, then west to the coast and further south from there.  With a newfound sense of optimism, you resolve to let each day pass as it may and to only worry about each obstacle as it presents itself.  Your route begins here, your journey is now.

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The Barber

•April 20, 2016 • Comments Off on The Barber

The Barber [working title] is a piece I did for Hairstory.

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I shaved at the first sign of regrowth. I could see the coarse little stubble peering above the surface of the skin like a groundhog sticking its head out at the first prodding of spring. Tiny periscopes coming just above the waterline. Just days ago, my head had been knicked clean. My scalp a smooth, shiny dome, polished to the high shine of a marble floor. I’d shaved my head for the first time just weeks earlier. With clippers in hand, I watched the disembodied stands flutter to the sink like the flurries in a freshly-shaken snowglobe. Clumps and individual fibers alike, adrift in the warm air of my bathroom. A slow motion cascade to the eventual destination of a garbage can. I followed this deed with a razor and a thick, foamy handful of Barbasol. When all was said and done, I found my lumpy cranium smooth but with the pale sensitivity of the baby’s skin it looked like.

As a 15 year old, I shaved my face regularly. I had no choice. I wanted to grow the rugged five O’clock shadow that cloaked the sharp and jutting jawlines of so many leading men. But my facial hair was too patchy. Too sparse. I could grow dense little tufts on my chin and cheeks, even a little mustache framing my upper lip. But it wasn’t exactly the makings of a full beard. I figured clean skin was better than the errant scraggles of pubescent boyhood. When I noticed chest hair sprouting up for the first time, I didn’t know what to do. I thought I’d skipped right through puberty and gone straight to middle age. Suddenly hair grew in places I’d never considered. Were my ears next? Would my eyebrows turn into the fuzzy caterpillars that, as indicated by the Farmer’s Almanac, were sure signs of an early summer? I didn’t know. And denial seemed like the best approach, so I shaved that too.

My mother had always told me I had the hairy gene. These things expressed themselves on the X chromosome, so not knowing my father was inconsequential. It was her father that had brought this fuzziness to bear upon me. Like my own father, I never met hers either. I had however seen pictures. He’d spent some years as a circus strongman in the late 1920s. His thick, ropey arms and barrel chest were well-documented. Newspaper clippings depicted his chiseled, six foot three inch frame shaved clean to better accentuate the hard lines of his torso and angular neck. But as the economy turned sour at the dawn of the 1930s, his strongman work dried up. With no other vocation, he was forced to grow his body hair back and perform as The Wolfman. He got by in some of the many carnival freak shows that traversed the US at the time. Few pictures of him from this period exist, but the ones that remain show his massive chest and back under a thick blanket of hair. Unlike his pointy prosthetic ears, the hair on his trunk was real and had been styled and combed down to a more manageable vest. Dense, furry tufts sprang up from his upper arms and shoulders, which, along with his eye makeup, made him look a little deranged and sociopathic.

At 15 I wasn’t sure what it meant to be a man, but I knew the physical personification was upon me. As far as I could tell, true manliness was hairlessness. If I learned anything from my grandfather, it was that hairless men were strong and revered. But their fleecy counterparts were scary and to be avoided. Repulsive even. The men I wanted to model myself after were all completely smooth. The action heroes, the sports stars, the studs; all glabrous. The way I saw it, I had two options. I could let my hair grow out and be the hirsute lumberjack I knew I’d grow to become. Or, I could be the kind of man that takes action. The kind of man that makes decisions and pursues them tirelessly. The kind of man that phones destiny and tells it what to do. I loathed the option of being the hairier, flimsier man. The butt of the joke. The man who gets pushed down the elevator shaft. Or worse, the lunatic who wanders the streets howling at the moon.

As one thing lead to another, I soon came to see that it wasn’t just hairless bodies that made the manly man. A shaved head was a vital component too. Baldness wasn’t just a disguise for those who couldn’t grow Fabio’s thick mane. Nor was it just for genies and cancer patients. The toughest manly men now sported the decorticated look. Tough guys, smart guys, tricksters and fun-loving criminals all. Everyone from Jason Statham to Vin Diesel. Baldness somehow became a sign of full-on badassery. Even Danai Gurira has one. And so I shaved my head too. When I shower off, I still feel that initial shock. The first tactile recognition that I have the sticky-slick smoothness of a warm latex glove. My hand sliding across my bare chest and head in a slightly jerky, stutter-stop motion. That first exposure to water and then air that feels both hot and cool at the same time. Its eerie. While I may resemble Bruce Willis a little more in appearance, I still feel the same. Like myself. I may look like a man of action, but at 15, how manly can I really be?

The Weight

•April 1, 2015 • Comments Off on The Weight

 

 

 

the relief came like a wave. it started as an easy tingle at the base of the spine, slowly spreading upward toward the neck. it was something akin to taking a really big drink of water on a scorching hot day. the recognition of how great the thirst was only becoming apparent when the water hits your throat. you feel it, coating your esophagus until finally it spreads into your whole body. the incongruous chill filling you. but this was like the reverse. the morphine was like a blanket. it covered you, abated the immediate cold, but couldn’t really touch what was underneath. it made it bearable. but it was only after the drug had started to take effect did he realize how immense the pain was. the locomotive echoing through his head, belching thick diesel smoke, clouding his senses finally slowing to a stop. when it got like this, when the tablets and capsules and over the counter stuff stopped working, that’s when the days got long.

the clock wound down slowly. the minutes felt like hours. the seconds, tiny eternities passing between each tick of the second hand. BNSF approaching its next switch. he’d tried everything that Dr Singh had suggested. the breathing exercises, the stretching and meditation, the visualization. everything. he tried to focus on the parts of his body that weren’t in abject agony. where were they? the sensation was constant. some places throbbing. each beat of his heart pounding, driving the spike one step closer to home. some places it was a dull roar, the crowd at a sunny daytime Cubs game from two blocks away. the grip’s epicenter was along his spine. the exact location changed day to day and was sometimes hard to pinpoint. it ran down his spine into his upper legs and stretched into his knees. even into his feet some days. to the other pole, his shoulders, chest and neck were like a charlie-horse that would not abate. there was no position, standing, laying down–on his back, his side, his face, that allowed relief. each place of release offering greater stress somewhere else.

 

 

Continue reading ‘The Weight’

Keller

•April 18, 2014 • Comments Off on Keller

The surface spread out before her a dark grainy oak. Its varnish worn, but still so smooth in some places it reflected like a mirror.  Sunlight glinting off the glass beyond her focus encouraged her to put her sunglasses back on. The seat beside her empty. The detritus of passengers past; those who’d found no purchase. She’d arrived at the magic third. The temperature perfectly balanced between chilled and that of her own body.  The place where the dwindling foam formed an oasis of clarity. The solution to all life’s problems, the source of all its question. It was here, in her hand. The froth that spanned the inside rim of the glass was everything. The entire universe, every atom; all the dust and gas that coalesced around a distant star. It was the next step and the footfall that came with it. The catch and the recovery. The essence of freedom and confinement alike. All the colors in their most intense, saturated beauty. And all the grays, blues and silvers of an overcast sky. She sat contemplating the enormity of something so grand it could only be encapsulated by something so small and so average. Just as quickly as she’d found herself there, the spell was broken.

“Can I get you another beer there hon?

She tipped her head back, consuming the profundity of the moment in one last gulp. With one small drip on her lip, and a slight upturn of her cheek, she was emphatic.
“Yes Ma’am!”

•May 24, 2011 • Comments Off on

From the inside, it looked like any other summer day. The sun came through the foliage, dappling the street. The cracks in the pavement were almost unreadable, the contrast so great. He could see green in every direction as he passed under the canopy. Thinking about it, the thick, close air was like soup. The aromas of all the components like puzzle pieces unsorted, melding together in strange combinations. Floral bits of lilac and honeysuckle mixed with rotting pine and the wry stench of gypsy moths.

He took a breath. The air like water flooding his lungs. The heat made his head swell. It was all-encompassing, inescapable. The symphony of insects: cicadas, katydids and the like was a soundtrack to hell. How could someplace so beautiful be so miserable? But then the chill washed over him. The relief, like a sigh, better than a cool drink of water. Air conditioning. Perhaps man’s greatest feat over nature. He could feel the sweaty salt crystallizing on his skin. It crackled as he touched his forehead and it flaked off the soft, downy hair on his arms into tiny granules.

As he returned to the present moment, he realized that all that separated him from this cadre of memories and his current reality was a wall of glass. His reality, a cool 66 degrees. The memory, much warmer. He sat contemplating the difference. The Catalpas and Maples passing by around him. They looked the same as the species he used to know. Here the elements were a much subtler version of themselves. Had his eyes misled him, or just his other senses?