Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Stranger

I haven't cooked a meal in almost a year, so mornings I take breakfast downstairs at the Mexican restaurant. If the weather is decent I'll sit outside on the patio, adjacent to Houston Street. I prefer the tables by the iron rail that border the sidewalk. A daily stream of strangers pass, and if I was so inclined I could stick out a hand and grab one.

Instead, one grabbed me. I had just placed my food order with Mary Mary and was half reading the newspaper, half drinking my first cup of coffee, when a street fellow just pulled out the chair across from mine and stood there gawking at me, presumably waiting for permission to sit. I looked at him from over the newspaper and nodded in affirmation. It was too early for company, especially a stranger. But, eh, it was also too early for confrontation.

Mary Mary responded quickly to my raised hand and soon the fellow was sipping from a steaming black coffee. He had the look of a four sugar packet guy and cream spilled here and there on the table. I was relieved he was not that fellow and told him breakfast would be my treat. His indifferent reaction suggested, perhaps, that was a foregone conclusion.

Mary Mary took his order and got it caught up with mine in the kitchen so both orders came out together. She's a pro and I like watching her from behind a newspaper or magazine or book. When she puts the food down on the table she never says, "Here you go." I hate when they say that. Where am I going? I'm not going anywhere. Then a confused "Huh?" follows. One thing leads to another, inevitably. I hate that whole exchange.

My eggs were scrambled soft and his were over hard with extra picante sauce. Some people need proof that their food is cooked dead, so when he took a fork to the eggs it reminded me of a soldier bayoneting a fallen enemy. He got to the refried beans last, spooning them into his mouth while wiping the plate with a flour tortilla.

"I'm not going back."

I shifted in the wrought iron chair, nudging it on the brick tile. Two pigeons pecking nearby startled, but only retreated a foot or so. I was no threat.

"Not going back where?"

"Death. Not going back to death. Fuck!"

"Yeah. I don't blame you. Where are you going then?"

"Life, man. Of course."

"Of course. Yeah. Sorry about that. Good luck then."

After the stranger put the last piece of tortilla in his mouth, Mary Mary cleared the table of plates and silverware, leaving only my coffee cup and teaspoon. She knew I was going nowhere. But there would be no more coffee refills for the stranger, no dawdling. His time was up.









Thursday, January 11, 2018

Heard it on the radio

They taught me in law school: When the facts of the case are on your side, argue the facts. When the law is on your side, argue the law. When neither the facts nor the law is on your side, pound the table.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

the reading room

I saw nothing, heard nothing, but had an inkling someone had entered the room. The comfort of alone had gotten replaced by something else and it felt like a small shove. For thirty minutes or so I continued reading the morning's newspaper while digesting none of it. Finally, I took the wooden ruler from my jacket pocket and commenced pushing out the wrinkles so I could properly return the newspaper to the circulation desk. I used the long meticulous strokes I had been taught as a boy.

"Used to be a sign of good breeding. Now no one does that anymore."

I hadn't heard that voice in almost seven years, and then it was so weakened as to be barely recognizable. It was a whisper those last few days.

"I had a good breeder, you see."

I worked the ruler slower across the pages, adding a hint of flourish to the edge of each page. I could crisp a newspaper with my eyes closed. The paper would look unread when I was done with it. It would look better than new.

"Yes," he said. "it's obvious. But it's also obvious you were an attentive student."

"Why aren't you dead?" I asked. "You're dead. I saw it myself — the light went out. All those years before the cancer you could've talked to me and now that you're dead you've got something to say?"

Nobody likes a talking to, so he didn't answer. And then he wasn't there and I was back to being alone. A great tension built in my person during that short exchange and I thought of myself as stiff and wrinkled. I wished someone would take a great ruler to me.

The old man always made me nervous, even when he was being swell. I never trusted his disposition to last, always anticipated the reversal to come. He was my first exposure to the idea of a zero sum game: every high to produce a corresponding low. So when the reversal came it would fully balance the books, if not a little extra.

"You used to say that all the time, and I didn't know what it meant. All the damn time."

"What did I say?"

"Sonny boy, you'll get everything you've got coming to you, and maybe a little extra."

"You still don't know what it means?"

"No, I get it now. It's a stupid thing to say to a boy. Stupid."

"You're not a boy now. Why are you still worried about a stupid thing said a long time ago?"

"Because stupid sticks, see? It doesn't get forgotten so easily. It sticks for goddamn ever."

He didn't answer. I didn't want an answer and I didn't need an answer because there is no answer. Or there is no right question. Men train boys how they train them, they're stupid about it, and that's that.

I finished pressing the newspaper, folded it in half and took it to the circulation desk. The attendant was away from his post and the red button on his phone blinked silently. I was curious and thought to answer the phone, "Hello? Who's there?" But I knew that would be wrong and might possibly violate my membership agreement. This is an old establishment and everything has always been done a particular way. The attendant likely had a member on hold and was away searching the shelves for a book or periodical. Membership requires exactly that sort of service.

"You should answer the phone if you're so curious."

"I'm not that curious."

"You've always needed to know everything about everything instead of just taking things how they're given to you. When's the last time someone gave you something and you responded with "thank you" instead of another question? Can you name even one time, I don't care how far back?"

"I can name plenty."

"Name one. I'll give you a nickel for the soda machine if you can."

"Soda doesn't cost a nickel any longer. You should know that. Besides, you always said it's bad for my teeth."

"Was I wrong?"

"No. But a soda now and then never killed anybody or made their teeth fall out."

"You still haven't told me one yet."

I couldn't breathe. My mouth was pried wide open and my lungs were heaving but I couldn't grasp air. A crowd of faces stood looking at me when my eyes opened and I tried to ask them for air. To plead with them, but I couldn't move my mouth to make words. They looked right at me and smiled. Again I tried shouting, coughing, but nothing came.

"Why won't they give me air? Do you know?"

"They are giving you air. You're just being greedy, wanting more than you need."

"I can't breathe. I'll die without more air. I know it."

"You still haven't told me about the one time you just said "thank you."

It rained heavily that spring, every other day at least. Those days the rain always reminded me of the jungle even though this rain was nothing like over there. At that time I hadn't yet learned to separate experiences from each other, so I spent most every waking minute at the pool hall. The room was big and spacious and built into the ground under a carpet store. Everyone smoked cigarettes and I found comfort in the tobacco haze. The owner gave me free table time and for hours I hit ball after ball  in the far corner. Everyone let me be and I didn't notice where the days went.

"Why? What have I to be grateful for?"

"Everything."

"You weren't there. You wouldn't say that if you were."

"You forget, Sonny boy, I was on the beach. And still I say it, everything."

"I'm not grateful for any of it. And I don't have to be. Why aren't you dead?"

She was half Puerto Rican I think. Maybe only a quarter, or less. She was the only girl that came alone into the pool hall to play. She wanted to be good, she said, to play like a man. I saw her a few times by the vending machines, exchanged a word here and there while waiting for my coffee to finish dripping. One day she asked to play a game. I said no, I don't play games, I only hit balls. She asked if it was true I played for free. I said no, it wasn't true. She said she'd pay for the table time, she just wanted a game. I said no, but thank you.

A week later she came to the table while I was hitting balls. Please, let me play a game? Go away, girl. I'm broke, she said, and I need to play. I have to, can't you understand? I've nothing else and time is ticking away. Every day feels more and more like I'm losing. I have to play. I have to do this. Her face scrunched like one might when processing severe physical pain, but she was only fighting back the urge to cry. I couldn't look at her. Sonny, is this it? I'm dead? No, Pete, shut up. Breathe buddy and hold on. Hold on. Just hold on.

"I taught that girl to play pool."

"That was over forty years ago. Nothing more recently, huh?"

"You didn't request chronological order. I win."

"You also ruined that girl. Made a big mess of things for her."

"That's not true. You weren't there, how would you know? At the time, you couldn't have been any more disinterested. Now you're the expert?"

"I've read up on it. It's all here, in the newspaper. Starts on page 22a, mid page. See for yourself."

I looked for the newspaper but my eyes were watering profusely, creating a heavy mist. It was like being underwater, every view distorted or out of reach. Yes, underwater and drowning, unable to get air. I remembered I couldn't breathe and felt my lungs and throat gasping. My tongue was trying to move to help my mouth form words but it was fastened into place by the tube running down my throat. I tried biting through the tube. I had to get free from it, but my  jaw was also constrained. Tears ran down my face in a continuous stream. The people gathered above me moved around a little but it was impossible to distinguish one from the other. What do they want?

"Would you like me to read the article to you? There was a time you liked being read to. Very much, in fact. You'd make quite the fuss if you didn't get your bedtime story. Remember?"

I did remember but I didn't want to. I didn't want to give him the satisfaction of remembering and I didn't want to acknowledge the good existed because then I'd have to remember the bad. It would all come out then. Wash over me a like a torrent and I'd never get dry again.

"No. I don't want to hear it."

"Why don't I read you something else then? Here's a lovely obit, for instance. Very well done."

Why won't those people give me some air? Maybe if I can sit up. Then I can reach out a hand to one. They'll see I'm struggling. They'll see. Where's the doctor? I look for a white coat but see only a pale shifting blur.

"Evelina Margorie Santana, known in various billiard parlors across America and on the professional pocket pool circuit as "Ever-Thunder Evey," for her ability to strike a cue ball with an unprecedented  amount of power for a member of the fairer sex, was pronounced dead on March 15 at Genesee County Hospital. The cause of death was a gunshot to the head."

Sonny! Something forced me down. The ground was wet and loose and yet it shook like a firm thing and the sky was so loud. Too loud. I pushed on Mandes, tried to get him back together. He leaked between my fingers and it was warm enough to feel good. I needed to move him, get him out of here. I owed Mandes at least that much. I needed …  Damn it, boy, stay down! You hear me? 

"She had two days earlier celebrated her 32nd birthday."

They won't ever give me air. That's what this all must mean.


















Friday, October 2, 2015

If you've seventeen minutes and change just laying around

Spend it here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2012/dec/23/richard-ford-raymond-carver-wife

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Nice Read

I wish I'd written it. Because I'm more appreciative than bitter:

http://districtlit.com/post/35516792516/stutzman

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

After Hours Online: an excerpt, Dickie Short Arms update

Readers: What follows is the third in a series of interview excerpts with Dickie Short Arms, Owner/Operator of Dickie's Joint, the longest tenured after hours establishment in the Tri-State area. Those who are unfamiliar with the earlier excepts should be warned: the exchange is unfiltered, thus the language tends towards coarse.

AHO:  
It's been a year and a half since we last spoke. What's new in your world?
DSA:  
Yeah, you think so? How about 605 days, which aint no year and a half in my book.
AHO:  
Please forgive me. Thank you for the correction. Once again, your precision impresses me.
DSA:  
I'll sleep better tonight.
AHO:
Yes, of course. Well, um, let's begin again. What's new from last we spoke, 605 days ago?
DSA:  
For starters, that jamoke with the hair is running for president. That fucker's been stealing two handed since jump street, maybe this'll slow him down some. Not that I give a fuck. What I pay in taxes he can have. Nobody will get rich off that.
AHO:  
I was hoping you'd tell the readership about what's new at Dickie's, and not necessarily in the world at large.
DSA:  
Why the fuck didn't you say so?
AHO:  
You're right, the first question was terribly inexact. Please forgive me, and, if you don't mind, answer the follow up question.
DSA:  
Sure. But nothing's ever new at Dickie's. It's same old same old, round the clock. The faces sometimes change or they get older, grayer, whatever, but the game don't change.
AHO:  
Has the boy poet been back? Is it possible he's fully succumbed to the allure of your establishment, if only for purely creative replenishment?
DSA:  
What aint new is that you're as full of shit as ever. Creative replenishment? Fuck, do you listen to the bullshit rolls out of your mouth?
AHO:  
I could reword the question, if you like. But I believe you ascertained the meaning; so, if you wouldn't mind, the readership would like an answer.
DSA:  
You're a tough guy, now? You believe I ascertained the meaning, do you? How about you ascertain I got two broke mean Guineas sitting around Dickie's at all fucking hours of the day or night, twiddling their goddamn fingers, can you ascertain that? How about these two broke mean Guineas hop in my caddy and take a little road trip to go pay some snotty east coast literary fuck a visit and give him the beating of his lifetime, can you ascer-the-fucking-tain that?
AHO:  
Please excuse my misspeak — I'll rephrase the question, with your permission, of course.
DSA:  
Good. Let's not forget who picked up the fucking phone and called who. The next time you decide on breaking my balls, will be the last fucking time. Just so we're clear.
AHO:
Crystal clear. Please accept my apology for the earlier tone. Now, if you don't mind, has the boy poet continued to visit your establishment, and, if so, might you take a question or two in regards his exploits?
DSA:  
Was that so fucking hard? Although I could do without the exploits business. Nobody gets exploited at Dickie's. It's real world and everybody knows what lies in store for them. And those that don't know get clued quick enough.
AHO:  
Yes, another poor word choice on my part. Perhaps if we exchange adventures for exploits — has the boy poet come to visit, and what can you tell us of his adventures?
DSA:  
Sure, he comes. He's a regular mutt now.
AHO:  
A "mutt" — that sounds disturbing. Please explain?
DSA:  
No, I won't fucking explain. Who's never heard of a mutt? Minga, use your fucking brain.
AHO:  
Of course. I only thought there might be a unique bent to a "mutt," in this particular context.
DSA: 
Yeah, well, he gets bent plenty. He's a mutt in more ways than one.
AHO: 
I see. Please cite an example? The readership has grown quite fond of him.
DSA: 
Right. They've grown so fucking fond that they wait 605 days without a peep? You don't listen to yourself, do you?
AHO: 
I see your point. In my defense, it's a unique interest that I speak of, a sort of peculiar curiosity. The readership is like a voyeur, a Peeping Tom, if you will, except the readership has permission to look. That may not be the best analogy.
DSA:
Yeah, well, my expectations are low, so it'll do. The kid, he bangs whores a couple nights a week, plays blackjack a couple more. He smokes now, but probably only here. He's one of those "I've got rules" guys, so he can keep it straight in his head that he's got a lid on things. He aint got a lid on shit.
AHO:  
So, he's now one of the crowd.
DSA:  
I didn't say that. Where did I say he's one of the crowd? I said he comes around a lot. Why are you always putting fucking words in my mouth? Since day fucking one that's how it's been. So you know, I wasn't kidding about those Guineas.
AHO:  
No, I don't doubt that at all. I didn't mean to put words in your mouth. The reason I call you is because my readership loves to read the words that come out of your mouth. My job is to facilitate your conversation with them, and it seems I've taken several missteps already in that regard. Please forgive my poor attempt to synopsize. It's a rhetorical device that can create more problems than it solves.
DSA:  
You're the fucking genius using it.
AHO:  
Point taken. Please, tell us more of the boy poet. You sound disappointed by him.
DSA:  
That's a fair way to put it. The kid don't belong at Dickie's, I knew that from the first. In fact, if I ever see that cocksucker Haircuts again, he's gonna catch a beating for bringing the kid around in the first place. He knew better and he did it anyhow.
AHO:  
But he came once, and then he came back. Now he always comes. Have you thought of closing the iron door to him, telling the muscle at the front door to not admit him? Have you thought of telling him to beat it, take a hike?
DSA:  
Nobody talks like that. I don't fucking think like that. Take a hike? What the fuck's wrong with you? You need to watch better movies.
AHO:  
Yes, so I've been told. Well then, put it in your words. Put into better words if you've thought to make the boy leave?
DSA:  
Sure. Every time I see that little fucker walk a step into my joint.
AHO:  
Yet, you've chosen not to act on that impulse. Why not?
DSA:  
It's a free country. And like I said last time, I aint nobody's mother. If the kid wants to piss away his life fucking my whores and paying vig on my blackjack table, that's his business. And since him and Louie have got the ordering drinks "neat" bullshit straightened out, Louie's grown fond of the kid. It's funny to watch sometimes, like that movie the mouse and the man.
AHO: 
You refer to "Of Mice and Men"?
DSA:
Yeah, that's the one. Louie's like a big jamole around the kid and it's funny to watch. He never knows what the fuck that kid's gonna say. Never. Not a fucking clue. I mean, give that kid two belts of scotch and then's he going on about some totally off the wall bullshit about a sunlit garden or an art show or some fucking sentence he heard on the L.  He'll go on and on and on and fucking on while Louie's trying to be a good sport and listen, standing there and shifting about on one foot then the other, like the big dope from the mouse and man movie when the little fucker's telling the big jamole something, giving him one of those longwinded speeches. The jamole's waiting for it to stop because he don't follow what the fuck's being said, but at the same time he's wanting it to be said because whatever it is, it's pointed at him. That much he knows and so that's enough for him, being a fucking jamole and all. It's all pretty pathetic when you think about it.
AHO:
I might categorize the scenario you describe as endearing. Please continue, if you don't mind.
DSA:
What's more to say? Don't you get the picture?
AHO:
Does Louie looks out for the kid when he's there, like a "big brother" type might. Louie is touched by this interaction, and, perhaps, his role as protector?
DSA:
There aint no protectors in my world, least not for long. And what the fuck is a big brother type? You're a big brother or you aint shit, that's how the fuck that works. Louie didn't have no big brother type when he was growing up, just an old man who ran numbers and collected the downtown book for Stanley's little fucking cousin. He said he was his cousin, no one knew for sure. Maybe their grandparents were neighbors in the old country — who the fuck knows, and at the end of the day he still works for Stanley, but a little shit prick like that talking out his ass does bug some people. He thought we called him The Shoe because he bought the best shoes straight from Italy and got at least one shine every fucking day.  That shit's true but it aint why we called him The Shoe. It was because he was a midget motherfucker who looked like he could've come out of that shoe the mother and her kids lived in. What's the name of that fairy tale?
AHO: I believe you refer to a nursery rhyme about a woman who lived in a shoe. I don't know that it had a title, but I'm no expert on folk songs or tales.
DSA: Louie's old man collected for that little prick and so that's the hand Louie got dealt, being a big enough kid at fourteen that the old man started taking him on the rounds. Then started having him deliver the beatings too. The old man drank too much and over time he lost a little stomach for his work. It happens, a career hazard you might say. After a couple years the old man is sending Louie out solo. And then other shit from The Shoe or Stanley or some cocksucker in between followed, and Louie had no out but to take what came his way. Like it or fucking lump it.
AHO:
Do you think Louie sees some of himself in the boy poet?
DSA:
You don't listen worth a fuck, do you? You think Louie's old man only old gave beatings to degenerate gamblers that couldn't pay? Whatever the kid do or don't remind Louie of, it aint himself. He aint seen himself in so fucking long he couldn't pick himself out of a lineup.
AHO:
Yes, of course. Thank you for once again rescuing the readership from my ignorance.
DSA:
It's a full-time job, right? Like I said earlier, watching Louie all fucking nervous around the kid makes for a good laugh on a slow night. Louie, who's used to pounding on anything makes him nervous, or putting a hole in, if you get my drift, except now the kid comes in and Louie wants to give the kid a big fucking hug, like he's family, like he's one of Louie's children, but Louie aint got no children and even if he did, the kid wouldn't be one of them. He wouldn't be family neither, because Louie's family is shit, the whole fucking lot of them, and Louie knows this and he wouldn't wish none of that on anyone, especially the kid, so Louie, he don't know what to do about this nervousness when the kid's around but to stand there an just fucking shake a little, the whole time the kid's sitting at the bar, while at the same time not wanting for him to leave.
AHO:  
That's beautiful, I think. May I have permission to ask a final question? It's a respectful question, but one you might not like.
DSA:  
It's your dime.
AHO:
There's not a Louie working at Dickie's Joint, is there?
DSA:  
You, cocksucker, better hide good. Real fucking good, I'm telling you.

the place I sit to write

It's been more than fourteen months since the move downstairs. Left behind: the rambling excess of a top floor suite, the unknowable expanse of more than I need, the fifty six windows.

Two of those months I pouted. Artistically I refused to work. I wouldn't set up on the desk in my bedroom, the desk in front of the window looking out onto Market Square, because I don't write from a bedroom, I sleep in a bedroom. And the bedroom's desk is for handwriting: letters, birthday cards, get well wishes, and the such. It wasn't built, or bought, with the idea of installing a computer on top of it and writing anything meaningful.

A child can only hold his breath for so long, or a stupidly prideful fellow, so one day I pushed the L-shaped desk, the one I had to have to work upstairs, flush against the back wall of this tiny windowless box of a room that came with my apartment. The room is one step into the apartment, first door to the left where a coat closet might be located. Coat closet might have been the original intention but then they ended up with a couple yards extra of square space, so the architect said, Ah, what the hell, call it an office.

The first day I sat down to write, I felt the loss acutely. Anyone other than a wretched stubborn bastard  might have weeped. At least broken something, flesh or furniture or machine. Never has a place been so insistent about what it is not. There are no windows, no aesthetic. It is a tight box that squeezes like a powerful but disinterested hand. When I sit, the loss is immediate and constant. Once finished, relief is sudden, like sleep, or perhaps death.

But it's not all gloom and doom. I've learned to adapt. What's gone is gone, now let's see what can be done with what's left. What is left is a gaping tear in a fabric that I didn't know I had. That is not a good metaphor but I don't have a better one right yet, so we'll continue on with it. While the fabric being torn is itself unreal — remember, only metaphor — the tear is quite real. So in this way I consider the force in this room to be quite real, although it only acts on that which is not yet manifest. Silly stuff, no?

On the rare morning I set down my coffee and turn on the computer while feeling playful, I'll write a humor piece this morning, eh, I'll be chuckling to myself before the thought is even completed. But the room doesn't know I'm chuckling, doesn't understand the fleeting nature of mood. The room views mood as thought and thought as action: the man plays!

It was ignorant of me to add the exclamation point. I felt like it fit, but admittedly have no way of knowing how accurate it is. The room plays, but with what level of exuberance I've no way of establishing. It's a troubling admission, similar to not knowing if your sexual partner reaches climax. This is not sexual, that is only an example. We play simple games with simple rules, like Good and Evil, or Destination and Transport. In the latter, I am simultaneously location and conduit to location. Imagine: highway and diner coexisting together in the same time space. Something like that.

I inspected the walls closely before I moved in the L-shaped desk. I don't know why. It's all walls in the same way that a gangly teenager is all knees and elbows, so maybe I thought I should go ahead and have a good look before getting settled in. So I looked closely, took out the magnifying glass I used in the other place for the wall poetry, and saw only Plain, Barren, but also smooth, with not so much as a needle puncture. That seemed very odd, so I looked again and again, but found nothing. Perfectly barren, I decided, if such thing exists. And nothing will be hung on the walls to distort their nature, not even this new cork board thing I bought specifically for this room to keep track of the scenes and chapters in my novel. To hang it on the wall and keep order, but also keep reminder of work getting done or not. It sits off to one side now, away from the desk and the door. I'll do something with it, eventually.

WALL STREET, prominently displayed under the clock at the other place, is stuck into the top of the outside door jamb. It's crooked a bit, which I like and I think Bartleby would like too. Some days it feels like I've found Bartleby's way station. Other days it feels like the dead letter post. On every day that I make time to think about Bartleby I always believe he'd approve of this room and my place in it. I think he'd like standing in the corner, near the cork board thing. I think he'd like it quite a lot, and this pleases me more than it probably should.

In addition to the L-shaped desk I also kept the chair on wheels. It feels comfortable, fits, and yes, it reminds me of good times upstairs. Sliding around on the concrete from one spectacular view to the next. Looking in on my stick men, first from one vantage then the other, then another. I'll admit, some mornings digress into reverie, the hours lost. As if the chair would re-balance the room, pull me back into before. But those lost days are few. Always now there is the counter-current I fumble to accurately portray, my own private low tide, insisting to me each minute is a return to purpose