•March 13, 2022 • Comments Off on jerome

From Jerome’s vantage, he could see the mass of remaining body parts and a pool of blood spread out before him in the grass. It was late afternoon and the sun was low on the horizon, his favorite time of day to hunt. He looked at the viscera and the assortment of still-warm organs protruding from the carcass before him. Delight filled him as he thought about how he’d savor each of them, one by one. First, the heart. He loved the way the first bite sent a gusher of blood through his mouth and down his throat. He’d munch it down before moving on to the lungs. Everyone disparages lungs, but texturally, they were among Jerome’s favorite. The air pockets provided just a slight bit of crunch the sound and texture of which made Jerome squeal with ecstasy. And then there was the liver. He liked to save it for last. Its rich, fatty smoothness was regarded as a delicacy across species and cultures for good reason. He always started with the head of course. It was what had landed the the little beast in the disembodied spot it now laid. Jerome put his foot down on the little bird’s breast and tore away its head tossing the whole thing to the side in one swift motion.

He sat in this sunny spot scarfing down the rest of the bird, the fuzzy brown sparrow, in convulsive, guttural chomps. He eased the chunky bits of flesh and quills down his throat. It was here, in the spill of afternoon light, warmed by the sun’s heat and the sated feeling of accomplishment that Jerome gazed across the lawn. Without noticing the approach, suddenly he was cast into darkness as something stood in the golden afternoon rays. A shadow fell across him.

 “Goddamnit Jerome! What have you done to that poor little bird?”

His minder. The only one who started nearly all his sentences with that familiar refrain “goddamnit Jerome…” He’d heard it a thousand times before. 

The muffled rantings of a grown man bent over, his face toward the floor, followed by the grunting struggle of standing back upright “Goddamnit Jerome, how many times have I told you about knocking things off the table?”

The yawps from another room, across the house “Goddamnit Jerome, no more scratching the furniture!”

Or the one that was his favorite, despite its menacing tone, “Goddamnit Jerome, can’t you keep it in the box?”

The minder was a somewhat ogreish man. He’d come home from work and kick his shoes off by the door. He’d trundle about the house in his socks for a while until he’d eventually change into a pair of dingy threadbare sweatpants and a cat hair-covered hoodie that bore the name of some place he hadn’t been in a decade. Niagara Falls it read over the top of a graphic depicting the location that did not do the actual place’s majesty any justice. After spending an hour at his desk, answering questions in chatrooms devoted to Python and Ruby on Rails, he’d prepare dinner for the two of them. For the minder it was usually an inexpensive cut of meat bathed in a store-bought simmer sauce and some vegetables from the freezer. For Jerome, it was a few slices of lox or maybe some canned sardines and a tiny saucer of milk. He’d prepare their feasts simultaneously setting Jerome’s bounty down on the floor to the side of the refrigerator. “Here you go, buddy” he’d say as Jerome circled his feet in anticipation of the evening’s tribute. As Jerome dove nose first into the ornately decorated ceramic bowl, the minder would gently stroke his back. Giving just the right amount of attention to Jerome’s shoulders, lower spine and hips, he would purr in delight. “That’s a good boy,” the minder would say in a tone one normally reserved for a small child. “Good kitty.”

Typically, Jerome found it patronizing to be referred to as “kitty.” The moniker lacked a certain amount of gravitas Jerome felt he deserved. However, with a mouth full of fish, and the minder giving special focus to the spot just above his tail, Jerome wasn’t bothered much. Furthermore, it was far preferred over the angry grumblings that nearly always started with “Goddamnit Jerome…”

When Jerome was finished with his fish plate and milk pairing, he’d wander off to a warm spot to give himself a bath and take a nap. Often he’d curl up by the radiator in the living room or occasionally he’d find a spot atop a pillow on the minder’s bed. He’d nap for an an hour or so while the minder ate his own dinner. Later in the evening when things quieted down, Jerome would reconvene with the minder as he sat on the couch watching Sci-Fi of dubious quality. Jerome would curl up on the minder’s chest as he laid on the sofa. He could smell the oily and splattered remnants of dinners past on the minders sweatshirt. Atop his sternum, just above his belly, he’d nestle himself in and try to implant just a few more hairs deeply into the fibers of the minder’s clothes.

Eventually, the minder would stir. Perhaps he too had drifted off, cozy and warm on the plush sofa after a long workday, the soft purring eleven pound heater having lulled him to sleep. Gently, he would slide his hands underneath Jerome. Trying to disturb him as little as possible, he would lift the fuzzy cat ball and place him gently to the side as he slid himself out from underneath. Jerome would often shift a little bit, but settle back into a heavy slumber in the now-heated groove the minder’s large torso had left in the cushion of the couch. Quietly and softly the minder would give Jerome’s upturned chin a loving stroke, grazing his hand lightly across his face and then down his exposed side-body. For a moment, the minder would gaze at Jerome, watching the sweetness of this fuzzy creature’s restful breathing. The rise and fall of his chest suggesting an innate perfection the minder sometimes found hard to grasp. In that moment, all was forgiven. Turning off the television and then the lights, the minder would make his way to the bedroom. It was when he traded his frowsy house clothes for proper pajamas, that he usually noticed the large wet spot on his sweatshirt near the center of his chest. This spot, a tiny puddle of varying size depending on the day was the byproduct of Jerome sleeping so heavily that he’d drool all over the thing he was sleeping on, in this case the minder himself. As the minder caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, groggy and disheveled, the wet spot was often the first thing he noticed. With a chuckle and smile, under his own breath he’d say “goddamit Jerome.”

9 degrees west by water: pt.1

•February 14, 2020 • Comments Off on 9 degrees west by water: pt.1

9 degrees west is a series I’ll be posting regularly reflecting on my time in lisbon.

I’ve been in Lisbon for just under a month. I’ve had time to figure out which local groceries are good, and which ones are filled only with rotten persimmons, conflict chocolate and drain cleaner. I live a pretty solitary life. I write for a bit in the morning before going to the gym, and then come home to spend the rest of the day working. Although limited, I do have minimal interaction with the public. If I knew a little more Portuguese, it would be enough to be dangerous. I know less than that amount. In almost every interaction, I embarrass myself. Some people tell me that my Portuguese speaking ability is good. I know they’re just being nice. Perhaps they’re just surprised by my effort. Two days ago, while registering for an ID card to use the local swimming pool, I mistook the question the woman was asking me. It was basic demographic information: birthday, address, etc. “I’m single,” I blurted out. She looked at me quizzically before asking me, this time in English “what floor do you live on?” We both tried to laugh about it. Still I wondered if her English was so good, why were we struggling through this in Portuguese? A question I find myself asking regularly.

Yesterday, I had what was perhaps my most nerve-wracking conversation yet. I’d made an appointment for a haircut at a barber shop a few blocks up the street from my apartment. In my quest to avoid risk, I found a place whose website was entirely in English (no Portuguese option whatsoever) and had an online booking platform. This kept me from having to talk to another person, or even be bothered by having to use Google Translate before sending an email. I arrive right on time, expecting to see the well-dressed, tattooed shop owner that I’d seen in the pictures. Instead, the man that greets me is someone else. Young, alarmingly handsome and with a long but perfectly coiffed beard. His hair is something resembling a pompadour. I look around the slightly cramped shop. I can hear voices coming from nearby, but no one else is there. Two barber chairs are positioned in front of the wide mirror that runs along the wall. Banks of overhead fluorescent lights blast the room. The young man who lets me in and I exchange a customary “tudo bem” as we introduce ourselves. I can hear the faint drone of a tattoo gun coming from somewhere close by, possibly downstairs. I fumble through trying to explain what I want him to do. He asks if I want a beard trim. Just a haircut, I tell him. Finally, I sit down. Again, in my broken Portuguese, I try to explain to him that I want my head to look like less of a mushroom than it does right now. He doesn’t understand.

He turns on some music before putting an apron on and gets out his clippers. I find myself desperately trying to understand his questions above the volume of the music and the din of the sheers positioned just above my ear. Until a few years ago, I used to regularly make this joke: “I have my mother’s hearing and my father’s listening,” I used to say. But then my dad got a hearing aid and ruined my punchline. I’d like to blame my poor hearing on heredity, but really, I think I have years of listening to loud music in my teens to blame.

Through our broken conversation, I learn that he’s Brazilian, and that he’s been in Lisbon only a few months. I tell him that I spent time in Brazil many years ago. He’s now excited. He’s speaking too quickly for me to understand and even though he’s turned the volume on the music down, I still can’t hear very well. He tells me he’s from Minas Gerais, a state in the central part of the country bordering Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. In the months that I spent in Brazil, I never made it there. He lists a series of cities he’s lived in, other than Rio, I’ve never heard of any of them. Or if I have, I don’t remember. He then starts a barrage of questions that compare Brazilians to Portuguese. He must think I’m an ideal arbiter of truth. “It’s easier to understand Brazilians than Portuguese, isn’t it?” He asks somewhat leadingly. That’s something people here say, that European Portuguese is harder to understand because people here talk with their mouths closed. Honestly, my Portuguese is so bad, I’m not sure it matters. For the past 3 weeks, I’ve been training my ear to hear the differences between the Portuguese I fumbled through 25 years ago and still barely remember, to the Portuguese I hear every day now.

The majority of our conversation goes something like this: He asks me a question, I struggle to understand. I get hung on some very common word that I know I should know but can’t make myself remember. Slowly, I put the pieces together. In the mirror, I see his reflection, he’s looking at me expectantly, waiting for an answer. In my head, it’s a little more complicated. Once I finally think I understand the question, I formulate an answer. I start to respond but then realize I don’t know the word I was thinking of. Trying to change directions quickly, I’m trying to think of a way to say what I was about to say, but using words I actually know. To be clear, there are Border Collies that have better vocabularies than I do. As I’m churning through my options, I see him standing there, still looking at me. And then I laugh at the absurdity of this all before I realize too much time has passed. He’s moved on, and I still don’t know how to answer.

And so my days go. Some places I do better than others. Mercados and Fruitarias I tend to do OK in. Mostly because it’s vegetables, and it’s me. But beyond avocados, cauliflower and spinach my lexicon is very limited. Last year I passed through Portugal for what felt like only a minute. Everywhere I went, I was astonished by people’s ability to speak English. And not just English that resembles my Portuguese, but actually speaking ability. Upon hearing I was from Seattle, Uber drivers would routinely say things like “I love the Seattle Sounders!” Or the somewhat more frightening exclamation “Seahawks!” Leaving me to wonder not only how their English could be so good, but why they even knew what American football was.

I’m left with the stark recognition that my ability to see this all as a cosmic joke is a function of privilege. How lucky am I to be able to live here as a matter of choice and not because I’m a refugee of an untenable economic or political situation? That I didn’t have to come here so that my children could have better educational opportunities than I did, or so they wouldn’t be forced to join gangs and be killed in the street just for being outside. Or even that I have the luxury of contemplating paying the approximately €10,000 fee to apply for a Golden Visa. I am keenly aware that 2020 in the Trump era can feel like Europe probably did in 1938. However, I similarly have to recognize that to allow my fear to motivate me to try to obtain another country’s passport is also a privilege.

I still have this feeling sometimes like I’ve gotten away with something. Like I’m looking over my shoulder, waiting for someone to figure out what I’ve done and to reel me back in. There were numerous factors that led me to finally make this move. The long list of reasons why I came here ultimately comes down to the simple fact that I could. That I could recognize the constraints in my life that were keeping me from doing it were not as great as those encouraging me. Although, the inability to question doing something simply for the sake of doing it represents the exact antithesis of the self-awareness I’m trying to cultivate. Will the personal growth and change I hope to experience be worth it? Or did I pull the rug out from under my life just to see what’s left standing when the dust settles? I don’t have an answer. Perhaps I never will. But it’s important to keep asking the question. So many things go wrong when we don’t question them, either out of fear or lack of will. American capitalism exists and is further galvanized primarily out of our failure to question its validity. I don’t want to oversimplify the relationships we’re all entangled in—with partners, with jobs, with the paradoxical systems that both sustain and diminish us. To question those sometimes represents huge risk. But to not take the risk might be too disappointing. So the question remains, if you burn it all down, what are you left with? It might be the fertilizer that fuels the next great stage of life, or it might just release that much more carbon into the atmosphere. How can you know?

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 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.
The hotels and resorts created a non-native landscape, which made me feel I could have been anywhere. And the tourists on Railay Beach also felt interchangeable, like the orchids found in every hotel lobby, airport, and restaurant in the country. Nurtured in greenhouses hundreds of kilometers away and brought in at peak bloom, they are constantly replaced with fresh ones, with no onlooker ever the wiser.
When I looked up, the Kingfishers, Hornbills, and Egrets flying above the coastal waters, helped legitimize the idea that this place is perfect. Somewhere undiscovered. Someplace pristine. Away from the grit and prostitution and traffic of Bangkok or Jakarta or even Cancun, this little Eden allows those who visit it to take a breath. To relax. To allow ourselves to believe that if we buy a coconut smoothie from a stall in the sand, we are not only refreshing our parched palates but making a positive impact in someone’s life. Or benefitting this specific economy.
But as I stood that morning, marveling at the garbage, I realized, not for the first time in my life, that my view of the place where I was traveling was warped. It’s not that it wasn’t beautiful or that it didn’t allow tourists a respite. But seeing only the picturesque perfection is as inaccurate an image as looking in a funhouse mirror.
In Thailand, like other tropical destinations that have been developed for tourism, many of the native trees, particularly the mangroves that filter the water and provide habitat for birds and marine life have been decimated. Intertidal forests are often seen as wasted space, an obstruction of an otherwise beautiful view, or a breeding ground for mosquitoes. They’re bulldozed to make room for yet another hotel. Another restaurant. Another golf course.
The garbage I came across that morning is in some ways less a problem than other sources of environmental degradation. When I returned home, I found my romantic memories tainted by the reality of what I’d seen. I researched and found a United Nations Environment Program report that estimates that fully 35% of the world’s mangroves are now gone. In Southeast Asia, much of the mangrove destruction has been prompted, not only by the construction of tourist and industrial infrastructures, but also by shrimp farming. As global shipping has become a greater part of the international economy, so too has the production and distribution of seafood.

Just like slash and burn farming in tropical rainforests, big aquaculture companies remove thousands of hectares of mangroves every year for what amounts to only a couple years of productive shrimp farming. When the waters are too polluted or nutrient-depleted, they move their operations to the next spot. This type of activity is rampant across South and Southeast Asia. And with profits soaring, they’re moving to parts of coastal Africa and Latin America as well.
In recent years, some of those mangroves are starting to be replanted. Small farmers have found that shrimp yields are higher where mangroves have been restored. The natural estuarine environment provides habitat for things that both feed the shrimp and keep them healthy. Additionally, mangroves provide a barrier to some of the destruction from coastal natural disaster. A seaside village in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu famously planted thousands of mangroves just to get themselves into the Guinness Book of World Records. When the 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of southern India and Thailand hit, this village had almost no damage other than flooding.
For tourists, sticking our heads in the sand is both naive and ineffective. We should consider how each of us is complicit in the degradation of ecosystems that are now some of the world’s most popular destinations, and how we can be responsible, conscientious consumers. Every day, in everything we do, we vote with our dollars. One benefit to travel is that it opens our eyes to a world larger than what we can see through the media we consume at home. This experience reminded me that we have the choice to find out about the environmental policies of the places we’re going. How do they handle their garbage? Do they ship it off to be recycled, or do they burn it on site? Do they have potable water that requires no bottling at all?
Many municipalities now have fledging mangrove protection policies. Thailand, along with Trinidad and Tobago, and parts of the Bahamas have fought hard to protect vulnerable areas against both commercial and industrial development.
Our impact as humans often feels ominous, like darkening skies before what should be an otherwise pleasant ferry crossing. But we have the power to make change through our choices, by spending our money in places that recognize the future of their economy lies in preservation. Our actions at home, such as considering our consumption of shellfish can be equally impactful. Each of us has the power to make incremental change in nearly everything we do.


•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 it’s the throbbing I notice. And then, it’s the bright, greenish white light piercing through my eyelids. Initially, it’s 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. It’s 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 it’s 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, it’s 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? It’s 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.

Day 795. I wake much the same way I often do. My cold room bright and noisy. The lights ringing like tinnitus pounding. They come on automatically every morning at 7AM. They try to keep us on a controlled schedule. Dr. Smith always says a strict schedule produces the best internal rhythms. I feel less groggy today than I have been the last several. As I open my eyes and take in my surroundings, I stand. My bare feet meet with the cold of the floor. I shiver remembering how when I was a young child, I would get out of bed in the mornings warm and ready. My mother would always try to put a bathrobe on me. Especially in the winter, but I always threw it off. Now I think about what I wouldn’t give for a bathrobe. A sweater, another blanket. Anything to take this chill out of my bones. I sit back on my bed. My back near the wall, the stiff metal undercarriage supporting me. My legs crossed, I begin to go inward. I listen. First, I hear my breath. I try to hear what is beyond me. Beyond these walls. The plumbing and the electrical components. Beyond this building and the pathways and streets and infrastructure around it. To hear the water in the streams and the wind in the trees. Beyond the din of highway traffic to the particles in the air themselves. I imagine what it would be like to breathe fresh air again. To feel the sun on my skin. To feel a gentle breeze float across my bare arms. I imagine myself sitting on a beach. The sand soft and silk-like under me. The smell of salt and the sound of waves gently crashing just beyond my feet. Even with my eyes closed, I can see the sun and the clouds and the sky beyond.

Moments pass and I’ve settled into my own rhythm of breath. I come back to reality to the sound of yelling in the hallway. BREAKFAST 0-800. Just as I’m opening my eyes, I hear the speakeasy open. A face looks in at me, an orderly. A tall man with a scraggly beard. “B2691. I’ve been instructed to tell you that you wont receive breakfast today. Someone will be coming to take you to the lab shortly. Please stay seated where you are.”

Immediately, my internal peace is broken. I begin to wonder what it means that I won’t receive breakfast. Not that I ever really look forward to it. Sometimes it arrives still warm enough to put some heat into my body. But that is not what I’m thinking about now. I’m thinking that I know no breakfast can really only mean one thing. Anesthetic. Or some other drug. What will they do to me? Will it be just fluids they’re extracting? Blood? Urine? Spinal fluid? Or will it be something more involved? Like the teeth they alluded to the other day? Immediately I’m overcome with fear. Fear of pain. Fear of the loss of some part of me. Fear of how long it will take for my mind to clear after they’ve administered whatever pharmacological cocktail they’re testing on me today. And then I realize I’ve totally spun myself out. My heart rate is up. I’m no longer fixated on how cold I am. I’m not even really cold anymore. In fact I’m sweating a little. I take a deep breath. And then another. A sip of water. I try to calm myself. I close my eyes and remember the state I was in before the knock on my door. I remember the smell of the beach and the warmth of the sun on my body. I take another set of deep breaths. Just as I’m bringing myself back down, another knock on the door.

It is the sound of something dense clanking on the metal frame. Metal on metal. Like a full and weighty keychain. “691, please stay seated where you are” the orderly yells. As the door opens, there are two of them. The first, smaller, comes in pushing a wheel chair. The other much larger orderly is holding a baton. Why do they have to yell, I wonder. And what threat do I pose to them? Is it necessary for a 250 pound grown man to have to defend himself against a barely full grown body of 117 pounds with a police night stick? Have I ever given them reason to doubt my compliance? Its always seemed like a lot of defense and intimidation against a perceived threat that has never materialized. Sometimes I almost want to do something just to see what will happen to me.

I am ordered to come to the wheel chair and sit. I slowly do as I am told. I place my hands, as always, on the armrests and I am strapped in. Next my legs are restrained, then my chest. My breath is tight and constricted as I’m wheeled down the hall and into the lab. The orderly presents me to a clinician. The same woman from last week. I don’t know her name. As she comes toward me, she puts a mask over my face. “Just a little oxygen she says.” I look at her for a moment, measuring my response. “Is there not enough oxygen in the room?” I ask. “And I can’t really breath with this chest restraint on anyway. She looks at me quizzically before unfastening the belt around my torso. “Don’t you think this is a bit much”¦?” She looks at the orderly’s badge, then back at his face. “Don’t you think this is a bit much Johnson?”

“We’ve been instructed to use all restraints unless otherwise indicated ma’am” he says in a dismissive and unapologetic tone.

She does not acknowledge his response. Instead she turns back to me. “Just breathe slowly” she says. I feel myself nodding back to sleep.

When I wake, I’m back in my room. The hum of the lights like a freight train in my head. My brain aches. My mouth feels dry, like its full of cotton. I realize there is a large wad of gauze tucked between my cheek and gums on one side. Gagging, I spit it out. It is dry and bloody and sticks to my lips. A string of spittle drips from my lower lip, but the dry gauze wont release its hold on the inside of my cheek. My whole mouth is sore. My lips feel stretched out and dry; cracked. I make my way to the aluminum mirror above my toilet. As I peer inside my mouth, I can see in the dim light two of my upper molars are missing. I begin to obsessively run my tongue over the area of my cheek and gums. Even the touch of my tongue is painful. But I can’t stop. I wince every time the tip touches the edge of my gumline. But still, I am drawn to do it repeatedly. The taste is metallic. The edge where my teeth used to be is sharp, like a carved granite ledge. I’m unable to parse what I think my gum should look like and what it feels like. As I continue to peer into the reflection of my mouth, I am overcome with despair. How much more of this can I take? What is the point? How did I end up here? What am I not learning from this? I make my way back to my bed to lie down. My head and mouth feel hot, but the cold bedding chills my body. I wrap myself in the sheet, and lie motionless on my side. My legs curled against me. As I lie there, I try to focus on something other than the pounding discomfort. I try to feel every other thing in my body. The way my pants have bunched up around my calves. The way my blanket feels sandpapery on my bare arm and neck. The sound of the lights. I focus on every sensual element I can think of. I flit from one sensation to another. Some are tactile, others perceptual. I think I hear something in the hallway. I strain. But its nothing. Nothing I can grasp. Slowly, imperceptibly, I drift off.

When I wake, the lights are still on. I’m not sure how much time has passed. I cautiously roll to my back before sitting up. I sit for a moment, feeling both hungry and nauseated. The sour taste of blood still in my mouth. I resist the urge to tongue the chasm in the rear of my upper jaw. As I begin to regain consciousness of the room around me, I see the speakeasy open. An orderly peers in at me. “691? I have dinner for you. Please stay where you are.” I sit upright, my woolen blanket wrapped around me. Swaddled. The door opens, and the orderly places a tray on the floor. On it, a solitary cup and a pitcher filled with a dense, chalky-looking liquid. He backs out of the room with a slight smile and a nod, latching the door. Again, the speakeasy remains open. But today, this time, I have neither the energy nor the will to make my way to try to see out. I don’t even want to investigate my dinner yet. I remain seated for a while. I close my eyes, turn inward. It is all I can do.

As I sit, I listen. I can hear everything around me. The blood coursing through my body. In through my veins. Back out through my arteries. I notice the subtleties of how veins and arteries sound different. One constrictive, the other expansive. How I can feel the difference between a heartbeat in my feet and legs from a heartbeat in my chest or my head. I listen harder. Hearing what is beyond my body. Beyond my room. I can hear stirring in the hallway outside my door. Still I sit. Listening. I can hear beyond the walls of the building. I can hear the birds in the trees outside. The sparrows chirping and the chickadees flitting from branch to branch. I can hear dogs running through crunchy, dead autumnal leaves. A slight rustle of branches in the breeze brings me back as there is a knock on the door. I look up to see the Clinician’s face in the speakeasy.

“May I come in?”

I look at her for a long time trying to figure out if that is a serious question. She stares at me without expression. But I can see a hopeful expectation in her eyes.
“You have the keys don’t you?” I say. And before she can respond I ask “what if I said no?”
“You could say no.” She says cautiously, almost as if she were tiptoeing around my response. “But I hope you’ll allow me to talk to you for just a minute.” Her speech is measured. Its as if she pronounces each word deliberately and fully. The space between the words having almost as much importance as the words themselves. Her enunciation is bright-eyed and alert.
“Be my guest” I say without any physical gesture. I remain seated, my blanket still wrapped around my body. The idea of rushing her as soon as she opens the door crosses my mind. But it’s more like an idea or a thought experiment than anything with any motivation behind it. I’m still too tired to move. The anesthetic they’ve been giving me saps my energy. It can sometimes take days before I feel fully recovered.

The door opens slowly. As she steps in, she bends to pick up and move the tray still on the floor. Closing the door, she turns to me, tray still in hand and says “this was the first thing I wanted to talk to you about.”

She approaches me slowly. Cautiously. I remain on the bed, as before. She sets the tray down on the shelf opposite my bed. “We have you on a liquid diet for the next 24 hours or so” she begins. “If you have any problems with it, let me know and I’ll make sure they change it. Put you back on semi-solid food. Something else.” She pauses. “But its chocolate flavored. I bet you’ll love it.” She says it with such an optimistic lilt I almost grimace. It is the first time I’ve seen any emotion on her face.
I look at her with a vacant expression. I’d like my teeth back, I think to myself. Some nerve she has. She’s just pulled two of my molars merely to see what happens and she thinks I’m going to get excited about something that is chocolate flavored? It’s not even real chocolate.
“I’ve been reviewing your file” she says, returning to her previous, more cautious state. I’ve studied hundreds of case files for people with your gift. I wrote my graduate thesis on someone who had results like yours. He died 50 years ago. I haven’t come across anyone with so much promise since.” She pauses, looking at me. Waiting for my response. I say nothing. Emote nothing. “Do you understand how special that makes you?”

I glance around the room. Sterile white walls made of painted cinder blocks. A tiny little room with no windows. No access to fresh air. No access to fresh water. Not even a shower. The fact that I’ve done nothing wrong and that I put up with this without total unadulterated rage is what makes me special. I try not to let my thoughts color the expression on my face. I let my eyes return to meet her gaze.
“I know the situation must feel very isolating. Very confining” she says. “But I want to do whatever I can to make you more comfortable. To make this easier on you.”

I stifle a laugh. She looks at me somewhat hesitantly. I manage to play the noise off as something between cough and sneeze. This little noise is a mistake. The welling of friction in my throat is agony on my sore jaw. It feels like someone has shoved a ragged piece of sheetmetal into the gap in my gums and is twisting it. Gouging me with the rough edge. I wince in pain. I’m unable to conceal my discomfort. I take a breath and try to gather myself before looking back up at her. When our eyes meet she looks somewhat apologetic. “I’ll make sure they bring you something for the pain” she says. “I’ll be by to check on you in the morning.” She turns and walks away, stepping through the doorway. I can hear the click of wooden heels of her shoes as she scampers down the hall. I hear first the glass door open and close. I know she is in the airlock. And she is gone. And I am alone. I lay my head back down. To think. To feel. To try to reconcile where I am and who I am and what I want and what I need. I know what they want from me. But I don’t know if I can do it. Or even if I want to.

Up until now, its felt like the stakes have been low. The fingertip I know was a big display. And all the fingernails and the skin. That’s been easy. Or relatively easy. And it was the toes that got me into this mess I believe. But teeth? And two of them? How long will this take? Can I even do it?

Day 800. I wake to the sound of the thrumming lights as usual. The flagellate buzz of freeway traffic that is the ambiance of my room pounds on my head like an unwelcome visitor. As I come to consciousness, I realize my head is clear and I am feeling better today. The grogginess that comes with the anesthetic and the pain killers and whatever pharmaceutical amalgamation they put in my food seem to have run its course. More than that though, I just feel more alive. I’m not freezing cold. Maybe my request to the clinician yesterday that they make it slightly warmer in here did some good. Its just past 7 AM and I know the staff will be around with breakfast and morning meds and medical reports soon. I have about an hour before I’ll be forced to interact with anyone. I sit myself upright in the corner of the room. I nestle my back between the two walls sitting on the hardest, most reinforced part of my bed. The place where the metal styles and rails come together, still padded with the thin mattress. I cross my legs and with my blanket wrapped around my back, I close my eyes and turn inward. First I focus on my breath. I listen. I feel the air pass through my nose and into my lungs. I look to see what animation might play across the backs of my eyelids today. What Rorschach shapes will kaleidoscope through my field of view? Today, it is monochromatic. Mostly. A mix of reds, oranges and purples. I notice they move at the same pace as my pulse. A ratcheting motion like a water strider on a still pond’s surface. Each beat of my heart propelling it forth. It slowly slides to a stop before the next beat when it starts over again.

As I drop in further, a sense of my physicality first becomes visceral. I am aware of every muscle fiber. All the sinuous tissue that holds them together. Every skin cell forming anew and then dying. My hair follicles pushing slowly past the dermal surface. The feeling of my blood moving in to my right ventricle and out into my aorta. My oxygen-saturated hemoglobin passing through my pathways, slowly exhausting itself before returning to my lungs and starting over. But no sooner am I aware of my physical being, I am leaving it. Detached, I find myself surrounding my body. Not like I’m hovering over it or looking down on it. Nothing that hokey. Its more like I’ve grown larger than it. I encompass it. I am beyond it in scope, but not size. My head is light, airy, but alert. When I can attain this level of focus, it feels amazing. When I can’t, it can be a slog. Constantly drifting and returning. It can be Sisyphean. But it isn’t today.

I remember the first time it happened to me. I was in the wheel chair. It was about 2 days after the lawnmower accident. My foot was still bandaged and there was nothing really to see there except for the stump. Half of my big toe remaining, crushed and pulped resembling less a toe and more a rotten tree branch surrounded by meat. The other digits gone. The top of my foot chewed and gnarly like an old dog toy. I kept trying to make jokes about spoons that had fallen into the garbage disposal, but my mother would have none of it. All she could think about was how I’d be disfigured for the rest of my life. But after that second day, I wasn’t worried. Once I learned how to tap in, I could feel it come back. The pain was gone. And the skin came back quickly. I think it was on day 5 that my mother noticed. She was helping me change the bandage. And she could see most of my big toe had come back. The others were still tiny little stumps. Too imperceptible to notice. But at that point, there wasn’t even a reason to keep the foot bandaged. Other than it was still very hot and cold sensitive. I remember her saying “this is pretty gross kiddo. But its not as bad as I thought it would be.” She always called me kiddo.
After another week, the other toes had grown past the point of just being little stumps. They were still quite small. Tiny little piggies. But piggies just the same. My skin was still pink and raw and sensitive. And the nail beds looked like tiny little newborn mice. But where there had once been nothing, something was now afoot. It took about a month in total. The complete regeneration was not a fast process. But by the end of that month, I had a foot with five toes, all with toenails, and a good protective coat of skin. It wasn’t exactly good as new. But if you didn’t know I’d lost most of it, you’d never know it was ever missing. At that point I looked more like a burn victim or someone with a bad sunburn than a partial amputee.

The doctors were incredulous. They couldn’t believe it. At first they were ecstatic. But then they grew paranoid and suspicious. They accused my mother of giving me growth hormones and drugs. Unapproved drugs. Unlicensed drugs. Legal drugs, but in illegal doses. Anything they could think of that might have been the cause of something they were unable to explain. Was my recovery miraculous? Sure. Depending on your definition of miraculous. Was I a complete statistical anomaly? No. Definitely not. A rarity? Absolutely. The literature was there. They just had to look for it. But since they didn’t know about it, they resorted to explaining it the only way they knew how. I’m not exactly saying it was like the Salem witch trials or anything. But there was plenty of shaming and accusation. Enough aspersions were cast for there to be a serious case against my mother. And my well-being? That was never in question until the courts got involved. But all this is not important. At least not most of it. My story is about now. It is about me, sitting in a cold room with no windows, wrapped in a blanket for more than 2 years while I’m subject to a cat and mouse style game where parts of me are removed and I do my best to grow them back.

And that is where we are now. In my cold, poorly lit room. I’m swaddled in a blanket, sitting in the corner. I refocus my attention back to now. To where I sit. How it feels. The life of my organism. I send my focus to my mouth. Specifically my gums and missing teeth. For the next several weeks, or as long as it takes, this area will be the locus of my study. The pain and tingling and neurosis will be the target of my interest. The same as it was for my foot. And the finger tips. And every other thing that’s been taken from me.

Day 847. I wake in the dark. I’m not sure what time it is or how much of the predawn hours pass before the lights slowly hum to life. I find myself in the liminal state between sleep and wakefulness. This is the first time in months that I’ve been awake when the lights came on. In my early weeks here, plenty of nights lingered on almost eternally. The dark, silent ward echoing only its emptiness. It reminded me of the barred owls I used to hear in the spring time outside my bedroom window. Sometimes a pair would call back and forth. But other times, only one solitary member took the stage, a duet unfulfilled. It’s call going out, seeking a companion, but with no reply. The serenade noteworthy only for its absences. I felt like I’d just fallen to sleep when the hallway came to life. Without a clock, I can never be sure what time it is until the orderlies start making their rounds. The sounds of the ward are much like those of a springtime meadow. The crepuscular light giving way to dawn; the birds and insects snapping to attention. The sun calling them to action until the slow build of sound erupts in a crescendo of enterprise.

I slowly start to move and my cells flutter to increased action. I can feel my body temperature change and as alertness takes over from slumber, my pulse begins to quicken. I take a sip of water from the plastic cup beside my bed and bring myself to a seat. I begin my morning checklist, moving through the directory of sensation. I begin at my feet. At times, such as today, I can feel a bright tingle in my right foot; the one from the accident. Its somewhat like the tail of a newt. They can fling their tails off to distract a predator. The flailing, disembodied limb allows them a brief moment of distraction in which to escape. When the tail grows back however, its shorter, weaker and its ability to do the job of its predecessor is diminished. It still looks and functions like a tail. The newt can even throw it off one more time. But the regenerated tail is never as good as the original. That’s kind of how my foot is. Like my toes, my fingers are pretty good, but they too lack some of the gravitas of the ones I was born with.
Maybe the dexterity is something I will have to relearn. I’m lucky they chose only a pinky and wring finger on my non-dominant hand. Still, mild sensation persists sometimes. Its kind of an electrical buzz. Like getting stung by hundreds of tiny bees. Its sharp and itchy and a little bit painful but usually easy to ignore.

As I continue taking inventory of my body, I arrive at my head. I feel around in my mouth, using my tongue to probe the spaces between my teeth and along my gums. I notice my teeth feel like they’ve finally regrown completely. The skin around the roots does not feel exposed or raw anymore. The teeth themselves feel firm and solid. A week ago, they still had the undercalcified softness of a baby’s young bones. Today it seems the rejuvenation is complete. This observation brings me to another. In the past, when I’ve had to regenerate anything be it limb or flesh, I’ve had a period of exhaustion that immediately follows. I find myself lethargic and hungry and dehydrated. Its duration seems to depend on the length of the recovery period. I’ve also noticed that they seem to be growing longer as I am tested more and more. When I grew the toes back, it only took me a week or so to bounce back. But I was home, able to rest in the peace of my own bedroom. Under the care of my mother, like a baby bird under protective wing. Since I’ve been here, my intake and rest are somewhat restricted. Sleeping during the day though possible, is somewhat challenging. The lights never turn off, and neither does the noise of the corridor.
Day 853. I am running. Free! My bare feet come down in soft strikes in the cool, damp grass. I’m in the park again. The same one I sometimes go to with my mother. The sun is low on the horizon. The warm light casting long, hard shadows on the ground. Little insects buzz around in the clover under foot. The air is warm and balmy and it fills my lungs with each sweet breath. Although I’m wearing a hospital gown, I feel no sense of inhibition. I feel complete and utter joy. As I run and run the bits of cut wet grass stick to the undersides of my feet. The tiny dead blades lodging themselves between my toes. Ahead I see a young maple tree. Its leaves are green and tender and small. Its bark a warm, mottled gray. It is growing tall, but its trunk is barely six inches in diameter. I approach it as a speeding stock car approaches a turn. I pull wide and rocket myself around it nearly in the same direction I came from. This technique is also used by NASA to add speed or trajectory to an interspace object. The object approaches a planet and uses its gravitational pull to increase speed as it takes off in the opposite direction. I’m not sure the gravity of this small tree gives me any additional speed, but I feel weightless in my motion. The warm sun is shining hard on my face. I close my eyes to take it all in. I begin to feel the drawstrings at my back flapping open. I realize beneath my gown, I’m completely naked. The warm breeze sends a tiny shiver up my backside and I hear myself giggle uncontrollably; like a child.
I gallop on, the sun leading my way. Drawing me in, it is my homing signal. I can hear the frantic bark of a dog behind me. I open my eyes to see a puppy nipping at my ankles. Its soft black snout reaches and snaps, but finds no purchase as I pick up speed and pull away. It races faster to catch up with me. Barking, its clumsy stride is tempered by its oversize feet. I laugh harder and louder and I too begin to loose my breath. As I stumble into the soft green pillow of mossy grass, the puppy bounds on top of me. It is licking my face and I feel like even though I’ve never seen her before, we have known each other all our lives.

“What are you two doing over here?”
I hear the voice before I recognize its origin. The accent is unmistakable. Thicker than I remember it, but still, the words are clear. It is my mother. She’s standing over us, the dog and I. And she has a childish smirk on her face. “Are you having fun?” she asks as if she’s witnessing just another day in the park. Her accent is unlike any other I’ve ever known. She is South Asian, but grew up in Germany. She learned English as a child, but was never quite able to drop the tight Germanic corners or the sing-songy lilt of the sub-continent. I smile at her not quite able to speak. I’m still taking in her cavernous brown eyes and the somewhat puffy shape of her cheeks. I can’t believe its her. In a rush, I stand to hug her, so grateful to see her. But as I sit up and place my feet back on the ground, I’m overcome with the embarrassment of wearing only a hospital gown. Quickly I jump to my feet hoping she wont notice my naked ass blowing in the breeze.

“I’m sorry about my clothes,” I blurt out as I throw my arms around her. She hugs me back, but only for a moment and not with anywhere near the veracity I’m showing her.

“What are you talking about? This is the same costume you always wear” she says somewhat incredulously. As a child, I used to always laugh at her use of the word “˜costume’ when what I knew she meant was “˜outfit.’ “˜This is the costume you’re wearing for the first day of school?” she might ask. But today, it didn’t seem funny. It just seemed like one of those idiosyncratic things that made her my mother. And I loved her for it. As she pushed me back and looked at me again she asked “Are you feeling OK today Gulab?” And this time I did laugh a little. But not out of malice. Gulab was a pet name she had for me. Sometimes she used it in a serious tone, but always with reverence and fondness. I found myself stepping back a bit, somewhat overcome with emotion. Overcome to be seeing her, to have her in my embrace when I’ve missed her so much. But also with a level of confusion.
I look down to see my costume. She’s right. It is not the open gown I’d seen before. It is a t-shirt and a pair of simple cotton pants. What I always wore. I am still barefoot, but more so, I am confused. Had I imagined the whole thing with the gown? “Come” she said. “Lets go. You must be hungry by now.” As she takes me by my hand, a leash for the dog in the other she says “don’t forget your chapples” as she leads me away. My hand in hers, I don’t see any shoes of any kind. I just walk with her.

As we march through the grass toward the street, I realize we’ve been walking quite some time. The sun has dipped below the horizon and there is barely any light left in the sky. There are street lights I can see in the distance. The intermittent chirp of crickets rings through the evening air. I feel a chill on my skin, my bare arms especially, and my feet. They’re still wet and caked with grass. The air has grown cool and a damp fog is beginning to settle into the low grassy areas behind us. As we march along, I’m growing more and more tired. I turn to my mother to tell her I’m not feeling well when I realize she’s not there. The dog isn’t either. I feel a little lost. I decide I have to sit for a minute. As I approach the street, I can see cars parked around a cul-de-sac. I step off the sidewalk and sit on the curb. Feeling suddenly nauseous, I bend over putting my face between my knees. I close my eyes. I am cold and I wrap my arms around my legs and my torso, trying to give myself some body heat.
When I open my eyes and sit up, I realize I am in my room. Sitting on my bed, in the corner where I always sit. My blanket has fallen from my shoulders and my bare arms are covered in goosebumps; the gossamer hairs of my forearms standing at attention. As I pull the blanket back up around my myself, I look to my cold, bare feet. They are about as dirty as they always are. Not a trace of grass remains. Other than in my mind.

I sit for a moment, gathering my thoughts. As I contemplate my surroundings and where I have just been, I hear a knock and the sound of a latch. The speakeasy opens. I see the Clinician’s face. Respectfully, she announces she’s coming in. I stay seated in my corner. More alert today, I think about rushing her. She and I are probably about the same weight. At just over 110 pounds, I’m not exactly a force to be reckoned with. She is also of slight build, but she appears strong. Surprise would be the only advantage I would have over her. She comes in, closing the door behind her almost fully. I know there must be an orderly or someone else providing security just outside. I stay in my corner. Unmoved. But I take notice. I see the way she moves cautiously toward me. I see how the door remains every so slightly ajar. I could easily jam something in it, like my toothbrush to keep it from closing. They could still gas me. But with the door open, they’d have no way to contain it. I’m not saying I’m going to do it. I’m just thinking. Just making observations. Postulating.

I’m not a violent person. I never was, even as a child. I was never into video games or anything that was about war. I was a pretty docile kid. Sports, sure. I was a fairly good runner. Any game with a ball I excelled at, especially ones that involved dexterous running. As I got older, I had a harder time going against the bigger kids. Especially the boys. By high school, football was no longer an option. I could usually outrun and out maneuver the big guys, and even the more nimble girls. But getting tackled by someone who outweighed me by 100 pounds wasn’t much fun. So I avoided the more physical sports. Even soccer, which I was good at, was kind of tricky. I was too small to play with the boys most of the time and the girls didn’t really want me either. Unless it was a coed game, I was out. And then the lawnmower accident happened. I was almost 17 then.

As I said, I’m not a violent person. At least I didn’t used to be. Still now, I’m not. This place though, it makes me wonder. I have more violent thoughts now than I ever used to. And shouldn’t I? It’s not easy to be here, locked in a tiny room all day. I have limited time outside this room. Anyone would go crazy. Anyone would want to try to break free. And by whatever means are available. It’s not that I want to be violent. I just might have to make my escape. And if I do, I need to know what my options are.
“Good morning” The Clinician says as she gently pushes the door shut behind her. Her voice is somewhat chipper. There is more emotion in her tone than I’ve heard from her before. She even has a slight smile on her face. She glances quickly at the clipboard in her hand. “I have two things I want to discuss with you, but first, how are you today?” She does seem genuinely interested. At least as much as she has so far. But I’m still not sure if its a serious question or just some leftover social nicety. Perhaps something she learned in her residency in an old folks home. Either way, I’m surprised. I feign a slight smile but say nothing.

“Can I look at your teeth?” she asks as she pulls a small pen light from her coat pocket. Again, I’m not sure if this is a rhetorical question or not. But her bedside manner is better than Smith’s at least. He would have just forced my head back as he said “open.” So in light of that, I agree. And in doing so, I decide not to bite her fingers off. I open my mouth and tip my head back slightly so she can see. No point in being an asshole now. “Incredible” she whispers, mostly to herself. “Any pain or discomfort?”
Again, I wonder if that’s a serious question. She ripped two of my teeth out and she wants to know if I have any pain? How about “˜fuck you?’ How about I rip your teeth out and see if you have any pain? How about I just punch you in the face? I’m feeling mild-mannered today. One broken nose and we’ll call it even. I tip my head back down and close my mouth. We make eye contact as she steps back slightly. Her head is still only inches from mine. Closer than normal personal boundaries would typically allow. I stare at her, into her eyes just long enough to make her feel a little uncomfortable. She does not move. She just stares back. I notice all the lines on her face. The dark, bumpy skin that forms the light bags under her eyes. A thin line that spans the bridge of her nose. And the early crows feet. She’s too young to have major wrinkles yet. But I can see them forming. Crows feet. A funny name. But it suggests that at least she probably knows how to laugh. Something belied by her stern demeanor with me. Or maybe she just doesn’t own sunglasses. I continue to study her face. The boneless surfaces that make up her cheeks. White, smooth, like a snow-swept slope. I see her thin lips purse above her small, round chin. Again she asks calmly, inquisitively, as if breaking her own spell “pain or discomfort?”
“None” I say flatly. I continue to stare, but she steps back, breaking my gaze. She leans against the wall, opposite my bed. She makes a quick note on her clipboard and then looks back to me. I sit observing her, waiting for her to speak. I notice how uncomfortable she looks, bent at a slight angle, her feet sit about a foot from the wall, her lower back pressed firmly against it supporting her weight. Her upper body is leaned toward me as if she’s straining ever so slightly to hear what I’m about to say. I see the folds and wrinkles in her lab coat. The cascading waves leading from her hunched shoulders down toward her waist remind me of dunes made of the whitest, powdery sand. Because of the angle, only a small portion of the legs of her knicker length pants are visible below the hemline of her white coat. The periwinkle blue fabric falls, conforming loosely down toward her exposed ankles. I notice the way her bony ankles protrude and then retract back toward her heels. Her sockless feet sit firmly clad in black clogs, the toes pointed minimally inward toward each other.

It must be summer I think. I wonder if the sun is shining. I wonder if its warm and humid. Or maybe we’re having a cool snap and the humidity is low. Or perhaps its spring still and we’re having a spell of heat. I can almost hear the spring peepers in the nighttime air as I think about it. The damp smell of an evening thunderstorm just past. I catch myself thinking “˜we’ as if I’m among the free. Among the living breathing people, taking part in society and consuming the fresh oxygenated air that fills the empty vacuum of space that used to be known to me as “˜outside.’
“I’d like to start a new protocol with you” she says. “It will be a little more comprehensive than what you’ve been doing with Dr. Smith. Its going to require you to do more, but it will get you out of this room a little more too. There is a possibility, I can even get you some time outside. But as of right now, I can’t make any promises. We’ll have to prove to Dr. Smith my theory is working.” She pauses, looking at me, as if waiting for a response. “How does that sound to you?”
“OK” I say, somewhat suspiciously. “What does this new protocol entail?” And my first thought, is that it will be more painful. Yeah, I might get outside one time or two. But I’ll have to loose an eye or an ear to do it. I’m thinking this has to be some system of punishment and reward where I’m the one being punished, and she’s the one being rewarded. But I take a breath and remember that I can only deal with whatever is in front of me right now. And if that’s loosing an eye later, then I deal with it later. Right now, there are truths or inevitabilities that I’m not yet aware of. I can fear them, but without any information, I can’t plan for them. And that leaves me with fear alone which is not a productive use of the energy I have. I can gain nothing from it. It will only wear me down. And more than anything right now, I need my strength.

She went on to tell me that the protocol she planned would be more holistic than what I’d been doing with Dr Smith. To be clear, any “˜protocol’ I’d been on with Dr. Smith was more of a wait and see approach. He’d check my blood and urine a few times a week. And they mostly left me alone. Then he’d remove something and see what happened. He talked occasionally about establishing baselines and monitoring conditions. But mostly I felt like I stayed in my cell. I’d read or meditate or sleep when I could. But not much else. The Clinician on the other hand, wanted to reform all that. There would still be the rigorous routines of physical exam””the blood and urine tests and of course the more anecdotal exams””how I was feeling, etc. But she wanted to add in things she thought would stimulate me more. Foremost, exercise. She also wanted to improve my diet. Her thought was that if she could make me healthier, get me closer to living a life that was more similar to someone living in total freedom, the progress I’d shown might further improve.

So I agree. She tells me she’d like to start today. This afternoon. “We’ll start with a warmup” she says. “We already have a good baseline for you, but I think we can improve it. I’ll be back to bring you to the lab later today.” She says it with a slight smile. I find myself smiling back slightly. I feel a sense of optimism I haven’t felt in months. Maybe longer. The idea that perhaps she is my ally crosses my mind. That maybe I’ll have some human contact that doesn’t require me to be sedated or strapped into a gurney. I watch her turn and leave. She strides easily across the room and pounds on the back of the door with her open palm. The sound is hollow and cavernous as the metal door reverberates an echo through the room. “Coming out” she yells as she pulls the door open. She does not turn to meet my gaze. She just passes across the threshold. The door closes and latches shut. I hear the attendant’s keys turn the lock. And then there is nothing. No sound. Just the quiet of settling. The settling of silence. The settling of emotion. The settling of hope.

The meteoric rise in my mood is met quickly with its inverse. Like an emotional sine wave, my feelings seem parabolic. Immediately, I start to spin out. I’m overcome with anxiety. What if she wants me to trust her so that she can more easily hurt me? What if she doesn’t care if I trust her and I’m just falling victim to the fact that I’ve been stuck alone in this room without any real companionship for more than 2 years? I’ve been locked in here only allowed to leave the room when they take me either to the lab or for some godforsaken surgery. Of course she’s going to do something to me. That’s the whole point. That’s why I’m here. It doesn’t matter if I trust her or if she wants me to think she’s my friend. What she needs from me most is compliance. She has a job she’s doing here and I am her test subject. She holds all the cards in this relationship. My feelings are irrelevant.

I do my best to calm myself, but I am frustrated and angry and I can feel my blood pressure skyrocketing. I sit for a moment, thinking about what I know and what I feel. The two are not always dissimilar, but seldom are they the same. This is something I know about myself. I try to remind myself that I have a limited amount of control over my existence. That doesn’t mean my acquiescence to everything is mandatory. It just means that I can only worry about so much. Still, I find myself nervous. Maybe its because I have no idea what to expect. Maybe its because the idea that there is some hope that my situation will improve opens me to great disappointment. I ponder this for a moment. I ask what it means. What the ramifications are. Should it matter if I’m disappointed? Other then the obvious feeling of sadness, why does this idea bother me? If I have hope, can it only be met with disappointment? Or is there some alternative? Regardless of the alternative, should I give up hope and assume the worst? In what ways can that benefit me””emotionally or physically? I go around and around like this for some time. What seems like hours go by. Lunch is served and I’m still in my cell. Waiting. Anticipating her return.

Still more hours pass and I begin to think that I will not see The Clinician again today. But a knock comes at my door. The speakeasy opens. I see an orderly’s face. “691” he barks, almost yelling. As if I’m not only 8 feet away. I’m already looking at him. “Please stay seated, we’re coming in.” I hear the keys in the latch. The tumblers turn. The lock is released and the door slowly opens. The hinges creak, slowly grinding metal on metal against each other. The orderly steps in, a large man, he fills the doorway. His shaven head is stubbly like his face. His wide neck protrudes from his t-shirt like a tree trunk. His shoulders like buttresses. I know this man is immovable. Certainly by me. I can see The Clinician peering out from behind him. “Please stand and turn to face me please” he barks again. Is it me? Am I especially sensitive to sound? Or does he just think I’m hearing-impaired? I cautiously toe my way to the floor. I take one step toward him. Cautiously, then another. I stand, expectantly.

“We’re going upstairs” The Clinician says. In a normal tone and at normal volume, I note. The orderly approaches me. He has a set of shackles in his right hand. His large round keyring in his left. Seeing the long chains, especially in the hand of this giant man, I can’t help but feel a modicum of fear arise. I feel my heart begin to pound a little. As he steps toward me, I see The Clinician close the door. She stands in front of the open crack, blocking any passage. The orderly looks at me. We make firm eye contact before he speaks.
”Put these on” he says as he hands me the wrist cuffs. I look at him for a moment before I move. I take the cuffs from his outstretched hand. As I grab them, the long chain that connects the wrist and ankle cuffs drops to the floor making a loud clank as it collides with the concrete. I study the metal braces in my hand. They are heavy, stainless steel. Similar to a handcuff but instead of a simple chain between them is a heavy solid block of metal. A longer chain connects this to a pair of leg irons. As I linger, procrastinating putting the cuffs on, I notice the wear on the edge of the cuff. The metal plating has worn away here. Beneath the shine of the stainless steel is a warm, brassy sheen. The dull metal points my introspect to who might have worn these before me. What other hapless victim might have had the poor fortune of being forced to wear these? And for how long? How long does it take for finely polished steel to wear away? What abuse might this person have befallen? I run my finger around the pale worn edge.

“691, please put the cuffs on” the orderly barks. His tone is loud and jarring. I feel it internally, all throughout my organism. It inspires a bit of haste, even in me. I glance back up at him before I do as he says. I see The Clinician looking at me as well. Her face is not quite expressionless. But I’m having trouble reading what exactly she is thinking. I want her to feel shame. Or the hot flush of embarrassment. Or even anger at the injustice of what I know she knows I am subject to. But I remind myself that this is my view. Its my interpretation. Its what I want because I’ve already decided she’s supposed to feel like my ally. Like my friend. But she’s not. She’s just a clinician doing her job. And right now, her job is to take me to the lab. So I comply. I put the cuffs on. First the left, then the right. The smooth ratchet of the tabs pushing forth the spring in the lock mechanism. It is not as loud as I expect it to be. But the vibration pulses through my wrists. The bones feeling every tiny catch and release like a mallet. Like a tuning fork. Reverberating through my body. In slow motion. In sync with my fluttering heart.

Once both cuffs are on my wrists, the orderly steps forward to check them. To make sure they are tight enough. Too tight for me to escape. Too tight for me to have proper circulation. Too tight for me to momentarily forget I am captive. He bends down to put the leg irons on my ankles. One side at a time, he cinches down the cuff, locking the irons firmly in place around the hems of my pants. He gives them each a hefty tug. Its almost enough to tip my balance. The equilibrium of my tiny frame momentarily thrown off. He stands before me. Not quite looking at me. Looking mostly at the thoroughness of his handiwork. “Put your shoes on” he says firmly as he takes another step back. I do as I’m told, slipping the white canvas espadrilles over my bare feet. He turns and steps past The Clinician through the doorway.

I stand there for a moment, looking down. Looking at myself. Looking at these metal chains that constrain my slight, child-like body. I wonder what I did to deserve this. I wonder what horrible actions I could have taken in a previous life that would warrant such a punishment on my current incarnation. My current, adolescent life has been totally innocent. I cannot conceive that I’m being punished for anything I’ve done. I think about the camaraderie I now share with the thousands, no hundreds of thousands of people all over the world who are in bondage just the same as I am. Despite our guilt or the level thereof, do any of us deserve this? This loss of ability to take a single full step. To lift our hands all the way to our face just to scratch an itch. To bare the shame and humiliation that far outweighs the eight pounds of metal binding us inexplicably together. I feel a rush of anger come over me. I am suddenly incensed. I feel a slight sweat break out in my tight-fisted palms. As I clench my teeth, I look up to see The Clinician. She is looking at me. As I feel my heart rate accelerate and my blood pressure rise, I see a narrow in her gaze. She feigns a tight uncomfortable smile. It is not one that says “˜let me help you. Let me ameliorate this wrong. Let me seek justice on your behalf.’ It is instead, and quite obviously, one that says “˜let me do what I can to keep this situation under control. Let me do what I can to keep this quiet and orderly. Let me do what I can to keep this from getting any more uncomfortable for myself than it already has. Lets just get this over with for my own sake.’

We continue to look at each other a moment longer before she says a little bit too cheerfully “shall we go?”

I step toward her, the short length of my 24 inch inseam catches and snaps my leg back. I realize if I’m going to walk fast, if I’m going to walk at any reasonable pace at all, its going to have to be with short, hoppy strides. I slow myself. I take another step. And then another before I finally start to get used to the restrictive nature of my current situation. The Clinician steps aside, allowing me full access to the width of the doorway. I glare at her as I pass by. She steps through after me, and closes the door behind us. She puts her hand gently on the small of my back as we make our way down the corridor. With the orderly several paces behind us, still locking the door to my cell, she whispers “I’m sorry about the shackles. When I told them the wheelchair wouldn’t be necessary this was the alternative they gave me. I thought this would be a slight improvement.” She looks down at me. I can see the confusion on her face but I’m still too angry to allow her the pacification of letting her off the hook. “I’m sorry” She says again, this time more apologetically. I turn my face back to the hallway ahead. As we come to the double airlock door, the orderly has caught up to us.

Glancing back up at him, The Clinician says neutrally “everyone here?”

“Sorry” the orderly says somewhat automatically. He blurts it out in the way that men do. He’s not really sorry. It’s a phrase that social custom dictates. He says ‘sorry’ and what he means is “I realize you had to wait for me, but you, a woman and an inmate, don’t have any bearing on me or the pace at which I work.’ In reality, he’s not sorry. He doesn’t give a shit. If he felt anything at all, if he had any self-awareness, he would have said ‘thank you.” Instead, as he notices both of us looking at him he says “that lock gets a little sticky sometimes.” An excuse he makes in response to the acknowledgment that we know what he is thinking.

The Clinician reaches forward with her badge in her left hand and scans the code reader. After the tone, she enters her passcode with her right. I watch closely. 1-3-2-1-3-4. The door buzzes, and the orderly pulls it open. He holds the door for us. An act of implied chivalry. We step inside and as the door closes, The Clinician repeats the process. She scans her badge and enters her code. This time though, I notice it’s different. 2-1-3-4-5-5. That’s odd. I’ve noticed this discrepancy before. But I’ve never been able to put the pieces together. I don’t want them to notice me noticing them. So I quickly look away. I go back to clenching my teeth. But I try to think about this sequence. I think about what the two sets of numbers have in common. Logically I know that every door can’t have a different set of codes. The orderly Johnson here is barely smart enough to remember his own birthday. No less ten sets of codes for ten different doors. Even a person with average intelligence would have a hard time remembering that many six-digit codes. So I know there has to be an easy-to-remember pattern. Something that is somewhat intuitive or requires very little skill to figure out how the digits change from one side of the door to the other. I ponder this for a while. But I decide to store it away for later. When I have more time to concentrate without the stimulus around me.

We pass through the second door and stop in front of the elevator. As the doors open, we enter and The Clinician scans her badge again. This time, no code. She just presses the button for the floor. H. All the floors in this building have letters instead of numbers. I can only imagine its to confuse inmates in the event of an attempted escape. I don’t think I’ve been to level H before. As we exit the elevator, we make our way down another hallway. At the end of the hallway is a set of double metal doors. Much like those you’d find in a hospital or a school. No security is required to access them. They open freely. As we step through, we’re in another hallway. On one side is a bank of windows. I can see outside and the afternoon sun is streaming in. I slow my already stunted gate to spend a little longer taking it in. I can see trees and grass and a winding pathway that arcs wide around one wing of the building and the adjacent car park. Much like some of the other windows in this building, the glass is reinforced with a thin mesh wire. The mullions between the windows cast long, diagonal shadows across the floor. The wire breaks up the light just enough to give it the wavy appearance of water. Of light reflecting off a slow, easy undulation on a pond or a swimming pool. I can’t remember the last time I saw daylight. Its been weeks. Months probably. More than 100 days I’m sure. I slow even more, trying to take it all in. I take a deep breath as if I expect the cool spring air to rush into my lungs. It does not. But still my mood lightens immediately. I am lingering. Each step so short that my walk becomes more like a shuffle.
I feel The Clinician’s hand on the small of my back again. This time it doesn’t feel like she’s urging me on. It feels like she’s enjoying this moment with me. Her touch is soft. Almost tender. As I’m really beginning to take it all in, I hear the orderly’s heavy sigh. It’s so heavy, it’s as if he’s trying to push all the air out of his lungs at once. She turns to him. Quietly she asks “Do you have somewhere else to be Johnson?” He says nothing. He just stares at her. “I can take it from here if you have something else you need to be doing.”

“No ma’am” he says sheepishly, but mostly impatiently.

“Come on” she says. Her tone playful, but still firm enough to remind me that she has work she intends to do.

As we come to the end of the hallway, we pass through another set of double doors, again unlocked. To our left, we enter a room with the sign Physical Lab C on the door. Past this door, to the end of the corridor, I see a glowing green Exit sign above a door marked Stair. The room we enter has just a single metal door and only requires a simple badge swipe to gain entry. As we step inside, I see what looks like a physical therapist’s office at an olympic training center. There are rows of treadmills, stationary bikes, weight machines and other apparatuses of building physical strength. More than just the fitness equipment though are the computers and monitors and electronic components to measure and track a subject’s progress. I stand somewhat awestruck at all this. I’m not sure how to take it all in. Prior to now, all the testing I’ve done here has been through the removal of my blood, urine or other fluids. I had no idea anything like this existed in this facility.

Once inside, she brings me to a bench against a near wall. She asks Johnson to unlock my shackles. The orderly resists initially telling her that protocol states that an inmate be locked at all times. She explains that we are inside a room that cannot be exited without a security badge. But the orderly continues to resist. “I have you to protect me” she says sarcastically. The orderly finally complies, allowing me to walk freely. “Lets get you set up over here” she says pointing me to a treadmill in the middle of the room. “We’re just going to do a basic stress test today. This combined with your labs from yesterday will form our new baseline.”

She straps a heart rate monitor onto my chest and puts me on the machine. For 15 minutes I walk at various speeds and at various degrees of incline. Its all walking. Not stressful. But I feel so invigorated. Its the most movement I’ve had in my body the whole time I’ve been here. 853 days. More than 2 years. That’s how long it’s been since my legs walked at full stride. Or ran. Or my heart rate and respiration rates were elevated at the same time. And not out of fear or desperation or anger. But out of physical exertion, however mild.

My 15 minutes pass. They’re over in a flash. She tells me she has all the data she needs to start her program and that we’ll start in earnest tomorrow. She asks Johnson to put the shackles back on me and return me to my room. Something he is all too eager to do. On the return trip, I’m less incensed by the restraints. I still don’t like them. But I’m more enthralled by the endorphins that have been stirred in my crusty, cob-webbed brain.

Once back in my room I sit and contemplate my day. It would be easy to be swept away by the emotional whirlwind that has just passed. My meeting this morning with The Clinician. My time in shackles. My short stint on the treadmill. All of which brought their own set of stimuli far beyond my usual day to day here. Instead I try to focus on the tangible. I watched the orderly as he returned me to my cell. Through the airlock, his passcode was the same as The Clinician’s. The only difference was the order of the digits. What it looks like to me is a Fibonacci sequence. This is a basic mathematical sequence where each number is derived from the last two numbers before it added together. For example, the sequence I saw on the way upstairs earlier today was 1-3-2-1-3-4 on the way into the airlock and 2-1-3-4-5-5 on the way out. The difference here is that 1-3-2-1-3-4 is actually 13-21-34 not 3-4; 13 and 21 make 34. You simply add the last two numbers together to make the next number. In the example of the door code, its just a six digit sequence. Even the half-witted orderly Johnson can add 13 and 21. Knowing Dr. Smith, I’m surprised the security isn’t a little better. But I guess if you’re going to break out of this place, you still have to get past all the doors. All the beefy orderlies and then there are the cameras. Its not going to be easy.

The next day, Day 854, I wake as I normally do. The lights flicker to life. The loud irascible hum has yet to settle into a whining tonic. It takes a few minutes for the bulbs come up to full operating temperature. My day begins as usual. I wake. I meditate. I eat what they serve me for breakfast. Although today the breakfast patty and toast comes with a small salad. To see something green on my tray is quite a surprise. I’ve never eaten salad for breakfast before. But to see fresh spinach is a welcome surprise. This must be part of The Clinician’s new program. As promised, she comes to fetch me in the afternoon.
Much like yesterday, an orderly is with her. Not Johnson today. Today’s orderly is someone I do not know. He’s nearly as thick as Johnson, but a little gentler in his manner. He doesn’t yell at me and he’s a little less assertive with the tightness on the cuffs. The metal doesn’t dig into my skin and he doesn’t really treat me like a criminal. Although shackles don’t exactly scream innocence regardless of what saint might be wearing them. He and The Clinician take me to the Physical Lab again. She first takes a small blood sample and then she puts me on the treadmill. 30 full minutes today. “This is the new normal” she tells me. “Every day you’ll be in here. We’ll do blood most days and you’ll be on the treadmill most days. As you adapt, we’ll tax your physical capacity more. Up to a point at least. My goal is to give you a good diet and a little bit of exercise every day. I think it will help you.” I’m not exactly sure what she means by that, but I don’t ask any questions. I can only assume “˜help’ me means that it will be easier on my body the next time they remove part of it.

Day 947. I wake to the hum of the lights. As I always do. I am groggy and sleepy but I feel recharged for the first time in as long as I can remember. Although thinking about it, I realize I’ve been feeling pretty good in general lately. I’ve been clear-headed and alert all day. I haven’t felt the need for a nap most days. Even my meditations have been more focused. My sleep has been hard and restful. I’ve been mostly unable to remember my dreams. But the ones I do remember are vivid. And they usually involve my mother. More notably, there have been no surgeries or procedures of any kind since the teeth more than 3 months ago. I realize I feel more adjusted to my life here. I’m not saying I wouldn’t still leave at the first chance I got. But I feel like I’ve settled into a good rhythm. Something I can manage. Something a little more predictable. I understand that bondage is like water. It flows through me. Like a form of energy. It just has to be moved around. From one organ to the next. From bone to cartilage. From blood to connective tissue. This is the one respite I have. I recognize freedom is a concept. Not a place.
I also haven’t even seen Dr. Smith in weeks. I barely see him at all anymore. He is apparently more preoccupied with other inmates. I am The Clinician’s responsibility now. An adjustment I much prefer. She is generally kind to me. She and I have developed a bit of a relationship. Reluctantly, I’ve let her become my advocate. Perhaps she wants me to believe that she has my best interests in mind. It would certainly behoove her if she had my trust. But I have no reason to doubt her sincerity. Other than the teeth. Since then, she’s largely taken care of me. Still, I wonder sometimes if she really is prioritizing my well-being as she claims to. Or have all the little gifts: the food, the blanket, the change in temperature in my room, have they all been bribes?

Day 953. I wake just ahead of the lights. The only light I can see is through the clear, hard plexi of the speakeasy. Plus a little bit more from the hall spilling under the door. I know the lights are just about to come on because I can hear the buzz. They start to hum to life just before the bulbs do. Until the lights get warmed up, they’re dim and loud and blaring. It is a subdued version of a ship horn, the stern buzz warning everyone to abandon. Kind of a funny metaphor for the setting.
The Clinician comes in just after breakfast this morning. Much earlier than usual. She is quiet and furtive. More subdued than she usually is when I first see her. In the past month or more, she’s become much more bubbly. More emotive. More forthcoming. But today, she seems distressed. Before entering the room, she shuts the speakeasy. She closes the door behind her, almost completely. It doesn’t latch. But there is no gap in the threshold.

I am sitting on my bed. In my corner as I often am. I’ve finished my breakfast and am reading. Lately they’ve been giving me classic novels. I read The Catcher in the Rye when I was in high school. But I don’t have a lot of options. Its not exactly Amazon in here. So I’m reading it again. She comes close to me. She squats just below me. In a whisper she tells me they’re going to take a kidney. Just one–as if that’s a consolation. But she wanted to warn me. To tell me in private. She tells me she wants to talk to me more about it later today. But that we’ll have to find some place quiet. She says she’ll be by at the usual time to take me to the Lab. Until then I should go on with my day as normal. She promises we’ll talk about it more later. She turns and leaves. She does not look back at me. She also does not signal for security on her way out. She just steps through the door. This suggests no one knew she’d come to see me.

Immediately, I start to freak out. I try to keep it together, but I’m unable to control myself. I think about all that I’ve been through in the time I’ve been here. The last three months especially have been a big turning point. I start to cry. I sob uncontrollably as I consider what it means that I will soon be a victim of invasive surgery. All the other surgeries were less involved. The fingers were done under little more than local anesthetic. Same for the teeth. But an organ? This is serious. They are going to cut me open. Anything could happen. I don’t want this. I never wanted this. I ball my fists in rage and I slam them against my pillow. I hit it once. I’m not sure if it makes me feel better so I do it again. And again. I don’t know how many times I do it””six, maybe seven””before I snap back to reality. I am suddenly hyperconscious of my surroundings. Of myself. Of everything that I am and everything around me. I look to the door. The speakeasy is closed. But still I am cautious. I have to keep my composure. This is not a done deal yet. I tell myself to wait to see what The Clinician has to say about it before I really spin myself out. Obviously, I don’t have a good feeling about any of this. But I need to be patient. I need to keep my head. So I wipe the tears and snot and sweat from my face. I take a few deep breaths and I sit back in my corner. I try not to think. I try to just be present. To just feel. It has never been so difficult.
In the afternoon, The Clinician comes for me as she usually does. When she arrives, she is stone-faced. She looks pale. I’m still upset, but I feel like I’ve pulled myself back together since this morning when she first told me. An orderly is with her and with shackles, they collect me as normal. There is not much talking today. They announce their entry and the orderly hands me the cuffs. I comply without resistance and we go. All of us quiet. Its as if we’re trying to conserve what little oxygen we know is quickly fading from the room.

When we arrive in the Physical Lab, she puts me on the treadmill. She seems preoccupied and unfocused. All of her motions are rote. She does not ask me how I feel today or if there are any changes in my physical or emotional state. She just hands me the chest strap for the heart rate monitor and points me in the direction of the treadmill. Usually she turns it on and sets the pace for me. Today, she does not.

It’s not uncommon for the orderlies to leave for a few minutes once things get moving in the lab. Usually they go to the bathroom or to have a smoke or something. They’re never gone long, but I always notice when they duck out. Today is no exception. As soon as we’re alone, The Clinician comes close to me. She stands next to me. She starts speaking in a low tone. I can barely hear her over the whirring belt of the machine. I reduce the speed so I can better hear, but she turns it back up. I am almost running. Trying to stay focused, I look back and forth between her face, and the wall I am facing. I am trying to hear her and not fall. The pounding of my feet on the surface is distracting. My heart rate is up and it is a challenge to understand everything she’s telling me.

She starts by saying that Dr. Smith wants to take a kidney. This she told me this morning. Its not news. I’m unfazed. It is Tuesday today, she tells me they’re planning to do the procedure on Friday. She tells me she feels horrible and that she’s contemplating helping me escape. She starts babbling on. I can’t exactly hear her. Something about how she feels conflicted. How she wants to help me but she’s not sure how. At this point, I start to zone out. I don’t say much. All I can think about is how they’re going to remove one of my kidneys and she’s made this about her. Sure she feels bad. Like she’s complicit. But she’s been complicit this whole time. This is not new.

After my session in the lab, I’m escorted back to my cell. She does not come with. And we do not have much in the way of an escape plan. In fact, we don’t have a plan at all. All I know is that I have very little time. I sit in silence for a while. Not meditating or reading. Just thinking about my situation and what my options are. My evening and my night unfold slowly. I don’t sleep much.

Day 954. I wake to the lights. As I gain consciousness, I am grateful to realize I have had at least a few hours of sleep. Maybe not a full night, but I’m more or less rested. My head is clear and I know what I have to do. I do my best to focus on my tasks and get through the morning. I sit and meditate as I always do in the hour or so before breakfast. I read for a while. Although both activities lack my full attention. My stomach churns with grainy anticipation. But I do my best. I still feel unsettled from yesterday’s news. Its as if I’m walking on a beach. I am just at the shoreline. As the waves crash and the water floods around my ankles, the sand beneath my feet is pulled away in the undertow. Its not enough to make me fall. But its unsettling. My balance is thrown off.

The afternoon arrives and with it, so does The Clinician. She and the orderly enter as they always do. She seems a little more upbeat today. The orderly is one I only know a little. He’s always been nice to me. He’s middle aged. Large, but not overly musclebound. I think his name is Owens. He steps past The Clinician, and says “good afternoon” as he hands me the cuffs.

I take the cuffs without much in the way of hesitation. I haven’t been making much of a scene about my dissatisfaction with this process the past couple months and I know today is no time to start. I look at them for a moment. I take a deep breath. I slowly put them on. Once the cuffs are around my wrists, I proffer them to the orderly. He checks that they’re tight enough and proceeds to my ankles.
He bends down to put the leg irons on. I look up at The Clinician. She is still standing by the door. Her back against it, she is looking at me. I’m not sure what she’s thinking, but I know she is completely unaware of what is about to happen. I look down. The orderly has secured one leg iron and is moving on to the next. I bend slightly, and with as much might and swiftness as I can muster, I slam the orderly’s face with the wrist cuff’s edge. It is an uppercut beneath his nose he is not suspecting. He glances up at me as he stumbles back. I step forward toward him. I do not hesitate. I wrap the vertical chain of the shackle around his neck and I fall back to the floor, taking him down with me. I jerk the chain as hard as I can in the fall, hoping to snap his neck. This proves unsuccessful. He is now struggling hard to get the chain to a less restrictive spot. To clear his airway. He is grasping for my ankles but he can’t quite reach them above his head. I rotate my body, turning a full 360 degrees, tightening the chain further. I see the pasty skin of his face and neck turn from pinkish-red to purple. His eyes are bulging, bugging out and there is thick, foamy spittle all around the edges of his mouth as he gasps for air. I put my free foot on the back of his head, and with all the resistance I can summon, I pull the chain toward me, pushing against his head with my foot. He heaves a little more, and wheezes. Once loudly, and then a second time. I see the subtle resignation come over his face. And he stops moving. I continue to apply pressure for a few more seconds, just to be sure.

I take a deep breath myself. My heart rate is soaring right now. At its max. I’m not sure I’ve ever done anything so physically demanding. But I can’t stop now. I have to keep moving. I unbind myself, removing the chain from the orderly’s neck. I’m not sure if he’s alive or dead. But if he’s alive, I don’t want wait around for him to wake up. I step over him and reach down to grab his keys from his belt. I unlock myself. I put one wrist cuff on him and the other on the leg of the bed frame. It probably wont hold him for long if he does wake up. But I’ll take any few extra seconds I can get. I look down at him as I lock the cuff around his wrist. I see his wedding ring for the first time. I think about how he was always nice to me. How he even said “good afternoon” to me just today. I think about how he was just doing his job. And while his job may have been totally fucked up, he was just an actor in the system like everyone else. He doesn’t deserve this place either. I look at his swollen, puffy face one last time and I think ‘I wish you were Johnson.’ “I’m sorry Owens” I say in a panting whisper.

I turn to face The Clinician. Its the first time I’ve noticed her in all of this. She looks horrified. Her face is pale and greenish. I doubt she’s ever seen a scenario play out so violently in front of her before. I’m not sure I have either. I look into her wide, terrified animal eyes. “Are you ready?” I ask. She does not respond. She just stares back at me. I hand her the orderly’s keyring. Slowly she takes it. As if she has to will each step of the process. Feeling each motion independent of the ones on either side. She definitely does not seem to posses the same sense of urgency as I do. “Lets go” I say in a low, desperate grumble.

“Right” she mutters quietly in response.

With keys in hand, she opens the door. I step through and she latches and locks the door behind us. Slowly, deliberately, we walk down the hall. There is no one else about. We come to the airlock and she pauses for a moment. She just stares at the keypad. “Do it” I say. “There’s no going back now.” She lifts her badge to the reader. I can see she’s shaking quite heavily. She starts to enter her keycode, but almost can’t place the pads of her fingers to the correct numbers. “1-3-2-1-3-4” I say to her. She looks at me. “Is this correct?” My question is almost a demand. She does not seem to grasp the urgency that I’m feeling. Or she is in shock. She has removed herself from the present moment. She’s only with me physically. “Is this correct?” I say again, this time more forcefully. I too am trying to keep my head right now. I know I have to stay calm. I’ll make better decisions if I’m calm and composed. With a hard, dry swallow she nods and enters the code.

The door buzzes and I hear the latch. We step into the airlock. The door closes behind us and she repeats the process. Once free of the security doors, we move quickly to the elevator. We step inside and the door closes. She scans her badge but doesn’t press the floor.

We are both in a haze. Her’s much different than mine. She is blank, almost catatonic. Completely lacking the context of where she is and what is happening around her. I on the other hand am hyper-aware of everything. I feel like I have never been so alert. My hearing is acute. My vision has taken on a noisy bluish cast. I feel like I can resolve details in the shadows that I’ve never been able to see before. Even my sense of smell is heightened. The scent of the elevator has never been so apparent. It has the sharp, sweet greasiness of a heavy machinery. My brain is processing thought a million times faster than normal.

“Where are we going?” She asks, still confused. The Clinician is wearing the shock of what she saw like a mask. The pall on her face makes her almost unrecognizable to me right now. I press the H and I tell her she has to get it together. As we ascend the 5 floors to level H, she does seem to snap out of it a little bit. But still I’m worried. I’m worried that she doesn’t have the mental fortitude to go through with this. I’m worried that she will hold me back. I’m worried her fear has overtaken her. I’m worried that she is a liability.

The elevator moves so slowly. “This isn’t how I envisioned this happening” she says in a more calm manner. “I didn’t want anyone to get hurt.” She is whispering but her words are forceful. Its as if each word is punctuated with a low, terminal hiss. “I thought I could sneak you out. Find your mother. Something more stealthy than this.” She stares at the closed doors. Its as if she’s speaking to no one.

“Owens has two kids. Had two kids” she trails off.

I contemplate this. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt either. Maybe Johnson. But that’s not how this worked. And she has a point that I hadn’t considered. They’ll notice Owens’s disappearance before they’ll notice mine. Any time I might have had to run is significantly smaller.

“You’re no longer just a victim here” she snaps at me. “This is bigger than you.” Now she’s a little angry. This is not ideal but at least she seems to have rebounded from her despondency.

My immediate response is anger in return. I want to ask if it was bigger than just me when she pulled my teeth? My voice is elevated when I say “I had two days before they cut me open. And then what?” I want to continue by saying that I don’t have time for her to wait around for the perfect moment that may never come. I saw my opportunity and I took it. I want to ask when she was going to tell me about her plan. When she was going to tell me that she even had a plan. When she was going to tell me anything at all. But I cut myself short. These words never pass my lips. They just end up stuck in my throat, bouncing around in the back of my mouth like pinballs against my remaining teeth. I choke them back because these are probably my last moments with The Clinician. I have neither energy nor time that I can waste. And my reading her the riot act will make no difference. So I say no more.

We arrive at level H and the doors open. She stands there for a moment, waiting for me. She is anticipating my next move and now knows anything could happen. I am afraid she is fearing for her own safety now. I stand to face her and I look into her scared, inexperienced eyes. Beneath the hem of her lab coat, I can see the edge of her badge. I reach out my right hand and grab it. With my left hand bracing her hip, I yank it as hard as I can. The clip pulls free, taking her belt loop with it. She looks down to see what has happened and then back up at me. “Good-bye” I say in the most gentle way I am amble. I do not wait for her response. She is just starting at me. And just like that, I sprint down the hallway.

I run through the first set of doors, and past the Physical lab. I make a B line for the stairs. I’m running down them as quickly as I can. I’m taking stairs 3 or more at a time. One flight. Then another. Three flights and I’m at ground level. I step out the door and into a hallway. The stairs do not immediately take me to an exit door to the outside. I look around, and just as I’m about to panic, I spot the door to my left. There are two people at the end of the corridor coming towards me. Perhaps they are unaware. I do not wait to find out. I notice the sign on the door “˜Emergency Exit. Alarm Will Sound.’ I tap her badge on the keypad and I strike the bar on the door. It flies open and immediately the alarm goes off. But I am outside. I am free. I run straight for the woods. I am moving as fast as my legs will carry me. Across the grassy lawn next to the car park.

I do not look to see who or how many might be pursuing me. I just run. The air is warm. It must be summer. The balmy atmosphere envelopes me. I can smell the sour stench of gypsy moths and the sweet scent of muscat commingling on the back of my tongue. It is humid and I am sweating profusely. But I run on. As hard as I can. I am panting and thirsty. The fear is almost as dehydrating as the sweat. My throat is parched and constricted. This young, deciduous forest stretches on farther than I thought it would. I just keep running for as long as I can. Dodging thorns and thickets of underbrush too dense to penetrate. Ten minutes. Twenty. I don’t know how long. I don’t know where I am or where I’m going. The sun is still high in the sky but descending. It must be late afternoon. I look up, still running. I can see a clearing ahead of me. There is a small highway that runs parallel to this stand of trees to my left. I have a decision to make. Do I cross it or stay where I am? I come close to the highway and I can see there is another large wooded area across, on the other side. I decide traversing the road is my best option. Hoping that the other wooded area will shelter me as I continue in flight.

As I come close to the edge of the wood, I see no cars in either direction and I make a frantic sprint across the highway. It is only two lanes, but there are large drainage ditches on either side and a hill I have to ascend beyond that. My slick-soled cotton shoes are not designed for this. I slide down the first side, snagging my pants and scrapping my leg. I do not register the pain. It is secondary to my fugitivity. As I start to ascend the far side, I can see a car coming in the distance. I slip and struggle to the top of the berm. Remnants of last autumn’s detritus and damp earth make finding purchase for my now exhausted limbs problematic. I grasp at whatever roots and attached limbs I can get my hands on. I grapple spastically, in desperation just to hurry myself. Finally, I find my way back into the thin stand of trees. The light is getting lower in the sky and I can see the sun’s arc is now closer to 45 degrees above the horizon. It is evening and the insects are beginning their symphonic chorus. Back on level ground, I begin to run again.

I carry on at this pace as long as I can. I’m not sure how long I’ve been out. It feels like hours. I am thirsty and dirty. I am so tired and the adrenaline is wearing off leaving me only with cortisol and lactic acid. I stop for a minute. I try to think. I need to find water. I need to figure out where I am, where I’m going. I have no idea. By the angle of the setting sun, I can see that to my left must be south. I can see a clearing several hundred yards out in that direction. I decide to move toward it. Walking this time, I come to the edge. It is a large field. Perhaps something a farmer has allowed to lie fallow. I know if this is arable land, there must be irrigation nearby somewhere. I continue along west toward the setting sun. The edge of the tree line just close enough that I can see it, but not so close that I could be spotted by a passerby. I am starting to feel desperate for water. But I am trying to keep it under control. I have suffered worse than this. If I focus, I can keep my composure.

I decide to trundle along a little further. I am now moving at a fast walking pace. I am also trying to listen to what is happening around me. So far, I can mostly only hear the insects and the sound of my own breath. If I focus on it, I can feel it enter my nose. It passes through my throat and into my lungs. If I really concentrate, I can feel each breath bringing oxygen back to my exhausted muscles. My tired legs. My scraped and dirty hands. For the first time, I fully notice the rip in my pants and the blood on my shin.

Ahead, through the trees, I can see what looks like a small shed near the edge of the field. I approach it cautiously. Slowly. It is old and dilapidated. Probably the same size as my cell, it sits on a thin concrete pad. As I get closer to it, I realize it is the pumphouse for this plot. I come to the edge of the clearing and I stop. I try to see anyone or anything that might be happening in every direction. I listen intently trying to hear beyond the sound of the insects. Trying to hear the highway. Trying to hear whatever sounds are being carried in the air.

Cautiously, I approach. I can hear or see no one. Nothing. As I approach the side of the building, I first notice the walls are warn and resemble sun-beaten barn wood. The texture of the large wooden grain coarse and toothy. I can see that there is a small door just to the other side. To my surprise, it is unlocked. Carefully I open it. Large pipes cover most of the square-footage of the floorspace. But against the far wall, I see a small spigot. I turn it. At first nothing happens. But then a slow trickle starts to flow. It is smelly and rusty and the liquid that sluices from it is hot. A rotten sulfur smell fills the room. But I am desperate. Afraid to wait to see if the water will clear, I begin to drink. It tastes both dreadful and sublime at the same time. I take in as much of it as I can. As much as my taste buds will allow. I plug my nose and try to drink more. I turn the nozzle to stop the flow and decide to wait for a while here. I step outside and face the setting sun. I sit, next to the door with my back against the wall. A wave of nausea comes over me. I’m not sure if its the water or my nerves. I cant tell if I feel hot or cold. Sweat breaks out all over my body. I wretch and heave and back up comes the miasmic water.
I’m not sure what to do next so I decided to wait. To do nothing. It is my only real option. I close my eyes. I sit with my back as upright as I can. I turn inward. I try to focus on my breath. One breath. Then another. But I can’t stay attuned for more than a few seconds. My nerves are fried. I keep trying to return. But my body is so tired. And I am still so dehydrated. My legs spasm as I try to sit still. Again I focus on my breath. I close my eyes and let the setting sun beat on my flagging face. I watch the shapes as they form and evolve on the backs of my eyelids. Sunbursts become clouds like moving fractals. It is by brute force alone that I am able to drown out my thoughts. I count my breaths. Up to ten and then I start over. All the while watching the kaleidoscopic pictures playing out before me. Inward I go.

I notice a cacophony happening around me. Frantic sound is drawing my attention away from me. First it sounds like rustling leaves or crumpling paper. Then it is electronic. Static. A beeping sound. Pulsing. Machines. Pumps. Alarms are going off. The muffled sounds of power tools and people talking in the distance. Unaccounted-for voices. I feel like only a moment ago was I finally able to settle. And now there is this. Something new. I’m struggling to find the source. I try to open my eyes, but all I see is the darkness of my eyelids. Its as if I’m unable to blink. I try repeatedly to see but with no luck. Its like I can’t snap back to the reality. To the side of the shed where I am sitting. I can’t place the sound. I am concerned but unable make sense of it. In the periphery, I hear someone say “blood pressure is dropping” but I can’t make out where it is coming from. And then the noises all subside. They fade off. Leaving me just where I was.

I start walking again. Away from the shed. I notice the field has become grassy. Not like the loose soil surrounding the pumphouse. There are trees around, but this is more like a meadow than a farm field. The sun has set below the horizon but there is still plenty of light in the sky. I still don’t know where I’m going, but I don’t have the same feeling of directionlessness. I just keep walking with purpose until I see what looks like an old farm house. There are lights on inside and I can see cars parked around the back next to the porch. I’m afraid to make contact with anyone. But my leg is really killing me and I also have a horrible side stitch that I’ve been unable to breathe through. Its unlike any other I’ve ever had. Its like a horrible cramp sitting deep under my ribs. I need water badly and I need to sit and asses myself before I go on. I decide to knock on the door. Maybe I can just use the phone. I’m not sure who I will call.
The steps up to the back porch are old and creaky, but I can see people in the back of the house so I decide this is best. It also seems like the easiest escape path if I have to run. I’m nervous like I’ve never been before. I open the screen door and just as I do, before I can knock, the inside door opens. I can see a kitchen. There is food being prepared. Not exactly a feast but a family sized dinner. It smells so inviting. Like fresh bread and caramelized onions. When I look back to the figure standing in front of me, I see The Clinician. I didn’t expect this to be where she lived and why she would still be wearing her lab coat at home, I’m not sure. I am confused but she looks down at me from the step and tells me to come in. They’ve been waiting for me she says. As I step inside I see a small gathering. None of them I really recognize except for Rammy. The young boy I’d befriended when I first was institutionalized. He is sitting on the couch. I tell The Clinician I need to use the bathroom and she points me down the hall.
The walls are papered beige with tiny blue flowers. The globe of the overhead light is bright enough to see framed photos of people I don’t recognize. A mirror at the end of the hall above a small table shows me my reflection as I step into the bathroom and turn on the light. An angry green fluorescent snaps to life above the sink. It is bright and blaring. It is so bright I have to shade my face with my hand until my pupils dilate. The buzz fades to a light hum. It takes a long moment for my eyes to adjust. I first look at myself in the mirror. This is the first time I’ve seen myself in a clean glass reflection in as long as I can remember. The first time I’ve been able to see the nuances of the features of my skin. The way the lines traverse the slight curve of my forehead. Or the way my hairline hugs the sides of my head. My hair is dirty and matted. I can see for the first time not only how I’ve aged, but how terrified I must look. I look like the pursued animal I am. Running through the forest the last hours from a faceless predator, trying not to become prey. Controlled not by thought or reason but simple desperation.I turn the cold tap on and begin to wash. First my dirty, scraped-up hands, and then my face. The rivulets in the sink form like silty streams. Like rushing rivers that have breached their banks, carrying away more than just the normal alluvium. The water is cool and refreshing. It first burns slightly on my palms and then the sting fades to relief. As I splash my face, I can taste the salty sweat from around my lips. I slurp more water from my hands. It is sweet and its minerality is rejuvenating.

As I look around for a towel, the strangeness of this situation starts to set in. I think about where I am, or where I think I am””a random farmhouse in the woods. I think about The Clinician answering the door and seeing Rammy in the living room. I think about how I didn’t have better manners when I first stepped in and what my mother would say. I realize this bathroom is a lot like my cell. Painted cinderblocks make up the walls. What I thought was a shower now looks to be just a corner of the room. The light is overhead and more blue than green in hue than when I first came in. Large high bays point down at me, directing the light accusatorially. A sense of confusion begins to fill me. Dread. I see the toilet is metal with an attached sink. I do not understand. I turn back to the mirror I was just facing but see only a wall. The concrete floor is cold on my bare feet. My bed in the corner of the room where it has always been. I look around in confusion. I do not understand. I do not understand.



•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


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.


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. 


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. 


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.


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. 


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.


The Barber

•April 20, 2016 • Comments Off on The Barber

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


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.



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