The psych ward was bleak on the best of days. It didn’t matter what shade of beige or taupe they used to paint and repaint the walls, what kind of soft, pastel art they hung on them after they’d dried; it had the effect of a tissue on a bullet wound. Every time I walked through the halls, I could feel the Lithium oozing from the dried drops ditched by hurried painters.
I’d been going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on the ward for a few months because it was close to home and some years back, I’d been a patient. I told myself I went to that meeting to remind me of how it used to be, when alcohol consumed my life and my mind cracked at the end of its whip. In truth, I went because I liked the patients; their stories were far more compelling than anywhere else.
How many times can I stomach another drunk-a-log about some guy who decided to kick the booze or the needle because he lost his job, his wife, his home, some three years back? I mean, what have you done for me lately? With patients, all the horror and trauma pulsed with freshness, the ashes from their psychiatric fire not yet cold. Billy tried to hang himself with his best belt when his parents walked in. Maureen overdosed while sitting in a parked car. Everyone was some shade of broken, everyone was at the end of their rope.
Arriving home after one particular meeting, the phone rang.
“Henry, it’s April.”
“Hey, April. What’s up?”
“I’m back in.”
“What? Wait, I was just there, the meeting just ended. How the…”
“I know but I couldn’t come. They have me on strap-down, in 101.”
“Oh, Jesus.” If Fairfield Hospital was the psychiatric center of the city, room 101 was ground zero. It consisted of four windowless walls and a thin plastic covered mattress atop a wooden frame specifically designed for leather restraints. When a patient broke free of their medicated simmer into a raging nutcase, they were placed in 101 until they cooled out.
Even in this moment of crisis, I still couldn’t believe I was friends with April. I never could. I’d met her in a meeting a few months back and noticed her right away because she looked like a cheerleader coming off the back end of a bad meth run. She was cute as hell with both her wrists wrapped in gauze that she relished like battle scars as if to say, “What you see is not what you get.” Her dark blond hair had streaks of black and brown from a dye job long since abandoned. The coup d’etat was her Spongebob Squarepants pajama bottoms and a white t-shirt with Ted Bundy’s face on it. Throughout the meeting, she played with an emery board, looking up from under shadowy, deep set eyes to survey the action. The regulars shared, I shared a story about cutting (naturally) and after the meeting broke, we waited for a nurse to take us from the cafeteria through the maze of hallways to the front.
April came up to me after the meeting and poked me on the arm. “I saw you smirking at me. I always know when someone is smirking. It’s a gift.”
“That is a gift,” I said. “I wasn’t smirking at you, per se. It was your shirt that did it – where did you get that masterpiece?”
“I dunno. Someplace I guess. Why?”
“It’s about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Oh, yeah. Plus, when you add Spongebob to it, the juxtaposition is priceless. Like a car bomb detonating in the center of Disneyland.”
“Interesting interpretation. Are you familiar with this Bundy?” she asked, cocking an eyebrow.
“Oh yes,” I replied. “I am most familiar with this Bundy.”
She smiled, I smiled and as we walked and talked through the halls, she gave me her number and I gave her mine.
“Look, I’m not gonna fuck you or anything, OK?”
“Oh, no, I wouldn’t dream of such a thing,” I said. She glared at me.
“Seriously, OK,” I smiled, raising my palms up in innocence. “You’re like, what 18? You’re young enough to be my kid.”
“As if that matters. Look, it’s just that, well, I liked what you had to say and you’re not like the regular bores I find in meetings. I don’t really have any friends left and while I don’t like people much, you know, it’s nice sometimes to…”
“I get it. I do.”
“Yeah, OK. Plus, you know this Bundy.”
“I know this Bundy,” I smiled. “Call me when you get out if you want, I can give you a ride if you need one.”
“Maybe. Mayyyy-be. But, know this. I always go barefoot. Shoes are like nooses for my feet. Understand?”
“Ok. No long walks over broken glass. Got it.”
“Good.” She looked down, studying the emery board. “Hey, you want this?” she asked, holding it out for me.
“I don’t know, I mean, I’m a guy and…”
“You need it and I’ve got like twenty.”
”Thanks,” I said, taking it, putting in my shirt pocket.
She looked me in the eyes for a few long seconds and said, “I’m here because I covered my dad in my blood.”
“Talk to me.”
“He was yelling at my mom about whatever he yells about and then he got his gun. He usually just grabs it to get his point across. He began pistol whipping her in the kitchen and I started yelling for him to stop and the revolver fucking snapped. I mean this damn thing just shattered all over the place. I’d never seen one break before. I went into my bathroom, got a razor, cut my wrists and ran back into the kitchen and jumped all over him. The blood freaked him out to no end, which, I must say, I enjoyed seeing. Anyway, he called 911 and, well, I’m here. I just wanted to let you know.”
“I… Oh, shit. I don’t even know what to say. April, I’m sorry. I know that doesn’t help much but I am. If you need that ride, a visit, a Spongebob teddy bear, anything at all, I’m here, OK?”
“Thank you,” she said, smiling, giving me a hug. “I gotta go. I’ll call you when I get out of this psychotic labyrinth.” She turned and disappeared behind the double doors with the clouded glass panels.
Walking out to my car, I was haunted by something she’d said – she’d never seen a gun break. It’s like saying “I’ve never seen an electric chair short out.” I knew right then, there wasn’t much room for more violence before someone ended up in a body bag.
She called when she was released and since I was unemployed, we spent days on end together. It was summer and the sun was long and bright for weeks. We went to the bookstore, the movies, took walks, drank Slurpees, watched kids play baseball at the field downtown, took naps on the lawn outside the library. Our favorite activity was hanging out at the park, people watching. We couldn’t get enough. I’d paint her toenails, she’d fix my cuticles as we smoked cigarettes and took it all in.
“OK, see that woman over there?” she’d ask.
“In the blue blouse?”
“No, the one with the stroller, white shirt.”
“What kind of car does she drive?”
“Hmmm,” I’d say, mulling it over. “Probably a Lexus.”
“OK. But I think Mercedes, Audi, something along those lines. Look at that stroller. I saw it in Nordstroms once and it’s more old school, not flashy.”
“And Lexus owners are new money. Or old people. You see how her jewelry is understated and the perfect pleats on her khaki shorts? That’s real Mayflower crap. That’s old money.”
“Good point. She is sensible, I’ll give her that.”
Sure enough, she hopped into an Audi A6. “Well done, Sister, well done. But you know it’s her husband’s.”
“Is there a difference?”
Now she was back inside.
“Talk to me April.”
“Well, my dad was pissed I hadn’t been home much and after hanging out with you and having so much fun, I just couldn’t take it there. I didn’t feel like finishing school, I’m barely there, and what’s the point of graduating high school anyway? Plus, with him beating my mom again… So, I took like sixty Tylenols with some vodka and, fuck it, you know?”
“You should have called me, I’ve told you, always call when things get bad.”
“Please, don’t. I know, I should have but I didn’t, ok? I’m sorry.”
“All right, we’ll talk about it later. Why 101 though?”
“OK, last night, this girl Betsy, this big fat girl started groaning or moaning or something in her bed. It got louder and louder, like a crucified whale and some nurses came by and tried to calm her down, you know?”
“I was checking all this out from the hall and as soon as the nurses were back at their stations, she sprung up like she was weightless, did some kind of ballerina pirouette and then started beating on the bureau with her fists, screaming like she was possessed. It began to crack and splinter and then she picked up the whole damn thing and threw it against the window. Remember the windows, how they’re thick as hell with chicken wire in them?”
“Well, the window cracked, if you can believe that and the bureau shattered into a hundred pieces and Betsy just broke.”
“Like Foreman, in the Rumble in the Jungle.”
“How the hell do you know that?”
“Remember, when I was staying at your house, we were watching some documentary on Muhammad Ali?”
“When that reporter said that Foreman fell in sections? That was it. Betsy fell by ankles and knees and hips and chest. It was insane. She writhed and screamed, contorted and twitching on the floor. The patients got manic and nurses rushed into the room, one with a needle full of tranquilizer. Between Betsy and the bureau and the chaos, I began screaming and flashing back to my dad breaking the gun on my mom so I ran into the room, pushing patients and nurses out of my way and pried a piece of glass from the cracked window. I lifted up my shirt and someone yelled ‘NO!’ and I cut my stomach pretty good and someone grabbed me and next thing I know, I’m in 101, strapped down and flipping out.”
“Oh, April. Christ, I’m so sorry. Are you OK now?”
“Yeah, I mean, my stomach hurts and I’m still a little wigged out but I’m calmer than yesterday. At least they let me use the phone for a few minutes.”
“God damn. That’s so fucking heavy. Can I do anything, bring anything?”
“I’m just so glad you were home, I really needed to talk to you. But, yeah, tomorrow, can you bring a bottle of electric blue toenail polish? My fingers and toes are all chipped up.”
“Of course. I’ll get the best they have.”
“Thanks,” she said, pausing. “And a bus ticket.”
“Going somewhere?” I chuckled.
She exhaled and said, “I’m going to Los Angeles.”
“April, hang on, let’s just take a step back here…”
“Henry, I’m going.”
My mind began reeling. “Listen, hon, you can’t go, you need to stay here. I mean, what about the park and hanging out and people watching? And my cuticles are just beginning to look good now and we have so much to do. Like, I saw this woman the other day and I have to find her again so you can see her, she’s too much and I need you for Christ’s sake and…”
“I know, Henry, I know. But if I stay near my family, whether by my hand or his, I’ll be dead by Christmas. And you know it.”
I did know it. I knew it with the certainty of a sunset but that didn’t make it any easier to bear.
“Why not Portland? It’s only three hours south of here and I could visit you. You can’t go to Los Angeles. No one ever comes back. And the freeways; the 405, 605, 134, 101, and the 2 and by the time you figure it out you’ll be old and lost and out of gas, choking on smog.”
“I love you, Henry.”
I couldn’t speak. I tried but the words were caught and tangled in my throat.
“It’s OK, I know. Listen, I have to go, my time is up. Come tomorrow at noon. Bye.”
Deep down, I suppose I always knew she’d never stay. That I could never wrap her tight in a blanket, tuck her deep beneath safe covers, protect her and keep her forever. But I acted like I could and that denial kept me safe.
For the first time in nearly a year, I drank because I needed to. I wasn’t sorry. Somewhere around the ninth beer, brimming with rage and sorrow, I took a hammer to my own bureau. With a series of punishing swings, I reduced it to kindling. Panting, sweating, and in a frenzy I went for my gun but sense kicked in and I stopped. If I was going to shoot myself, it would have to wait.
I went back into the living room, cracked another two beers, finished one in a hurry and lit a cigarette. A bottle of metallic pink toenail polish stood on the coffee table. I picked up the phone and started to call Greyhound but remembered that her Ted Bundy shirt was in my laundry basket. I grabbed the shirt, went back to the couch and buried my face in it, breathing deep, staining it with tears. I took my shoes and socks off and rubbed my feet into the dirty carpet. I love you too, April. I picked up the phone and dialed Amtrak instead. Los Angeles, one-way, first class Sleeper Car.
The ants in Wisconsin were nicer. You could put a hundred of them on your hand and let them crawl around your fingers and they wouldn’t bite. Texas ants bit and bit hard. Which was why Sadie took great joy in smashing them under her thumb when they dared to trek by her sneakers. Sitting behind the library where she spent her time after school, she noticed there weren’t many ants out. Probably because it was fall—they usually disappeared underground by then. This left the little girl with nothing to do but stare through the fence at the middle-school football field as the orange of the evening started to color everything outside.
She thought about going back to rock hunting. Well, they were pebbles really. The building was covered in tiny white pebbles that would fall off and bury themselves in the cool edge of dirt that the grass wasn’t strong enough to hold on to. It was almost like a game. Everyday she’d dig and find as many as she could to pile in her pockets, and then the next day, there’d be more waiting. Like someone left them there knowing that the previous ones had been lost or thrown out by her mother before the laundry. But there was already a pretty nice pile dirtying her pockets today and she liked the way the light shined through the leaves of the big tree the after-schoolers weren’t supposed to climb or fight by, so she leaned her head back and kept on looking. Sitting wasn’t so bad.
“You shouldn’t pick at that.” It was a woman who spoke, kinda tall, but everyone is when you’re ten, and Black like her. Sadie hadn’t even heard her walk up. The woman nodded towards her right knee, which was keeping the left one company against Sadie’s chest as she worked to peel off a rather large scab. “It’ll leave a scar.”
Sadie looked down at her hand not realizing it had been busy; the newly exposed pink wound quickly began to turn red as blood rushed to the surface. She didn’t stop.
“There are a bunch already,” she said with a shrug as she briefly lifted her leg to show off the telling marks of a tomboy.
“Right,” the woman said, the word was followed by a chuckle that didn’t seem happy. She took a few steps closer to Sadie and then leaned back against the building. Her head was resting against the wall too, but her eyes were on the sky. The woman sighed as she wrapped her long brown arms around herself. “So tell me, why would you be sitting back here by yourself?”
Another shrug was her answer.
“Oh I see, you’re not supposed to talk to strangers,” the woman said.
Sadie rolled her eyes at this. “You’re a woman.” She began to run her fingers through the dirt in long strokes, letting the dust glide through her fingers before starting over. She was watching a squirrel at the base of the fighting tree now.
“I hope so, but what does that have to do with anything?” Whoever she was, she didn’t sound too happy about the observation.
“Talking to you would only be bad if you were a man,” Sadie said, the infallible logic of a child coloring her tone with exasperation. “If you were a man, I’d have to go back inside…” The little girl turned her head towards her companion and looked her up and down, as if to assess her weak spots, before saying “but you’re not.”
“Wow,” the woman said blandly, “that’s pretty damn stupid.” She took a seat next Sadie, lowering herself slowly like adults do.
At this, Sadie started and quickly met the woman’s eyes. They were black like hers, with dark bags underneath like she was sleepy. Her longer legs were covered in a pair of worn jeans and she was wearing a shirt with the singer Sadie’s dad liked to listen to in the car when he drove her back home to her mom, the one with the dreads, Bob Marvey or something. Sadie was pretty sure grown-ups weren’t supposed to say things like that to kids.
The woman held up a finger. “I’m bigger than you.” Another finger joined the first. “You don’t know me.” A third finger. “I might not be a good person,” she said. “Me being a girl doesn’t change any of that.”
“They never show girls in any of the commercials,” Sadie said defensively.
“In any of the… Jesus, I forgot about all the fucking TV.”
Now the swearing didn’t surprise Sadie a bit. She couldn’t think of one adult she knew that didn’t use bad words, even her teacher. Her mother cursed a lot…except on Sundays. Sadie was beginning to test out the words herself but she still needed practice. She was learning that they didn’t sound as good if you just said them. They had to sound like you weren’t thinking about it.
“What’s your name?” Sadie asked.
“I can’t tell you that.”
The woman mimicked Sadie’s pose, pulling her knees to her chest and resting her forearms against them before leaning over slightly and answering, “Because you’re a stranger.”
She didn’t look that grown-up. Maybe about the same age as Sadie’s oldest sister, the college drop-out. Her hair was a shorter version of the one the man on her shirt had. Sadie liked it. It was so much cooler than her two French braids that were starting to unravel. The woman’s clothes were better too. The school made students wear uniforms, so Sadie had to walk around in a stupid white polo shirt and her dirt-covered navy blue shorts.
“You know I saw you earlier,” the woman started, “when you were tearing pages out of some of the magazines on the library shelves?”
That feeling Sadie hated began to creep up on her. The one that made her get hot all over and made her heart beat loud, like the sound her shoes made when she put them in the dryer that one time. Trouble. Big. Big. Trouble. Tears threatened to fall from her eyes. Her mother would not be too pleased about being told her daughter had messed up free after-school care for a bunch of stupid pictures. She thought she had been quiet.
“I won’t say anything. Hell, I don’t really care.” She was looking at the field now.
“They just throw them away anyway. Nobody even reads but me,” Sadie mumbled with relief as the heat began to ease out from under the collar of her Polo.
“You could still get in trouble though. What’d you take?”
“Pictures,” the little girl said with another shrug.
“Nothing.” Sadie began to study her shoes.
“Nothing, huh?” The woman studied Sadie. She looked for what felt like a long time. Sadie could feel it and hated it more than anything else in the world, including cough syrup and clowns. The look wasn’t bad, she just…didn’t like being watched. She heard a sigh and her companion leaned over once again. “They’re really pretty aren’t they?”
“Yeah,” Sadie simply replied.
“Is that why you took the pictures? Because you want to be them?”
“Do you even know why?”
“Right.” And they were silent for a bit. “So who else do you think is pretty? I mean, that’s not famous,” she asked and then paused. Suddenly her face scrunched up like she smelled something really bad. “That was terrible…don’t answer that. God I sound like such a creeper, and you,” she said pointing an accusing finger at Sadie, “should know better than to stick around when someone gets creepy.”
It was Sadie’s turn to stare. She wanted to smile for some reason. “Her name is Nevaeh, she’s in my class. Everyone likes her.”
“Nevaeh,” the woman repeated and rolled her eyes. “That name is not nearly as clever as people think it is and I really wish it hadn’t caught on.”
“It’s supposed to be ‘heaven’ spelled backwards, which is hilarious because every Nevaeh I’ve ever met turned out to be a total bitch.” This woman knew how to curse.
“She’s the only one I know.”
“She is kinda mean,” Sadie admitted.
The woman laughed at this, just a little. They were silent a bit more. Sadie rested her chin on her knees and watched as the woman picked up a small stick and began to clean the dirt from beneath her fingernails. The girl’s mom would be here soon; she had to take the bus to come get her so that they could take the same bus back home. Sadie waited until the woman had gotten to her third nail.
“I know who you are.”
“Yeah?” The cleaning stopped for a moment before continuing.
“Yeah. I’ve had the same face since I was born,” the little girl said matter-of-factly. “Just because it’s older doesn’t mean it’s not mine.”
“Wow, I’m smarter than I remember.” She had a grin on her face and her eyebrows were raised high like she had been surprised. Which was kinda dumb, Sadie thought, since the woman should know better than anyone how smart she was. It was hard enough trying to prove it to the teachers that wanted her on drugs. She shouldn’t have to prove it to herself.
“So are you here to help me or something?”
“Help you? You’re in the 4th grade, what could you possibly need help with?”
“Aren’t you supposed to know that? Maybe you could help me not do embarrassing things all of the time.” Unfortunately, Sadie remembered just about every humiliating thing she had ever done since she was a toddler. The moments snuck up on her and burned just as hot as when they first happened. “You should’ve gone back some more and stopped me from getting teased so much.”
The woman shook her. “If I could go back farther, I’d probably tell you not to hold on to everything. Maybe leave it where it belongs.” The older her didn’t seem to be listening anymore and kinda looked mixed up between angry and sad.
“Where does it belong? What is it?”
“They protected you wrong, ya know,” she said abruptly, looking at Sadie in that way she didn’t like before and didn’t like now. “Well, you’ll figure it out later anyway.’
“Oh yeah. You’ll see. Things they shoulda let you do, things they shouldn’t’ve let you see. And vice versa.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Don’t expect that to change either.”
Now Sadie was the one who looked a little angry. She couldn’t stand it when people talked in circles and it was especially annoying to find out that she had grown up and become one of them. Why did everyone put so much work into making her feel stupid? She sighed.
“Why even come then, if you’re not gonna change anything?”
“I thought if I had the chance to tell me all the things I know, it would make things easier. But for some reason I’m starting to think a punch to the throat doesn’t hurt less when you see it coming.” The older her intertwined her now-cleaner fingers behind her neck and tilted her face towards the sun, closing her eyes.
“I like seeing things. I like to listen too. Why’s that bad?”
“Nobody likes to see the things you’re gonna see and there are gonna be a lot of things you wish you’d never heard at all. Things that hurt a little more than you’ll ever admit.”
“Will you tell me what those are at least? So I can close my eyes, maybe cover my ears?” It wasn’t that long ago that she wished she were older and passed all of her time as a kid.
“That’d be awesome, if it worked that way. I can’t, though, and they aren’t gonna pay attention until way after the damage is done. Then they’ll try to protect you…after you’re too big to want it.”
“So why say anything?”
“I’m not. Look what if me telling you didn’t change anything and all I managed to accomplish is you spending the rest of your childhood waiting for the bad stuff?”
The woman turned fully towards her, eyes brighter than they had been before. Like she was awake for the first time since making her way behind the library. She didn’t seem comfortable facing herself though. “I really wish I could. You got no idea. I’d say, if I could, I’d say ‘Don’t let your sister do your homework for you.’ and ‘Those aren’t homemade cigarettes your mom’s smoking, so quit asking her to stop ‘cause she won’t.’ Things like that.”
“But you can’t?”
“Nope.” She sighed. Again. “Can’t say a word.”
Her…their mother would be getting off the bus soon and she wasn’t supposed to be outside when she got there. Sadie slipped a few of the pebbles from her pocket and lay them down in small pile by the older hers feet before standing up and dusting off her backside. She looked herself in the eye, for what was probably the last time, before making her way to the front of the building.
Love, I can’t help but to dwell in false hope. I lay in a perfect plaster until I am dissolved into submissiveness. Is this the face of wise women, entangled in a struggle for independence? Am I predisposed to be part of those martyrs, shelving their sanity for tyrannical, marital confines? Whatever fury it may summon, I am willing to tell you the truth; for you to know the worst of your sister; so you may account for it:
I cannot foresee the future, but I can predict from the past. Judging from the past, I wish to know what foul cerebral discrepancies warrant the oppression she inflicts upon those she perceives to threaten her familial order. It is her cooing, incestuous figure with which all your complaints are appeased. Ask yourself how this ostracizing usurper, disguised as a reverent daughter and doting sister, sets precedent of a woman de-shackled from patriarchal worship and its masochistic artifice. No woman will pick the fungus off your feet as she. No woman will survive birthing your offspring under her death wishes, for she destines herself to possess any product of your affections. For as long as her duplicity is covert, and her treason catered for your paramour, you are a demon’s blind subject.
We are overwrought and exhausted. No amount of love will supersede her puppetry, the indictments I have suffered from incessant, intricate manipulations. I have lain supine, and the tethers that have kept me compliant have grown fringed and soft. Why stand here idle? I have mustered the strength to cut those chains that kept me fighting in vain. I know not what course other women may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!
I lit a cigarette and took another look at the Daily Racing Form. The overnight rains had stopped so the track would be dry by first post making the whole day easier to handicap. More often than not, the first race is useless foreplay, a claiming race for two-year-old fillies. But the more I looked, the more I saw. Babette’s Death Fear had been steadily improving over the last six weeks and had just come off a nice show finish at Hollywood Park. But it was Slavoj’s Nightmare that caught my eye. She’d only finished out of the money once, at Suffolk Downs in heavy slop. If the track is even half-dry, she can sleepwalk across the line. I felt good about it. Babette was going off at 3-1 and Slavoj at 5-2 and I figured if I bet a $20 boxed exacta, I should collect $85. That will take care of the power bill and a copy of Third World Medical Procedures, the one with all the pictures. It was 10 am, the first race was at 2 so I started putting the wheels in motion.
“Yo, it’s me.”
“What time is it?” Tyler asked.
“Time to place your bets,” I said.
“Isn’t the first race this afternoon?”
“Well, yeah, but it’s never to early to check out the Form, hammer out a game plan, get the ball rolling, check the irons in the fire…”
“How many clichés do you have?” he asked, annoyed.
“About six but I’ll double that by noon.”
“Wonderful. Where is this Emerald Park anyway?”
“It’s Emerald Downs and it’s down off the 167, in Auburn or some God forsaken place. I know how to get there so don’t worry.”
“Have you talked to Gabe?”
“No, he’s next on my calling tree.”
“Calling tree? Sweet Christ… Well, call him and call me back in a bit. I’m still asleep,” he said, yawning.
“Fine. You get your beauty rest, God knows you need it and I’ll circle back to you, as they say in business. But we can’t be late. I’ve got a lock in the 1st and I can’t miss it.”
“Yeah…” he said and I heard the phone slide out of his hand onto the carpet. “Hello?” Fuck it. I hung up.
I lit another cigarette and called Gabe.
“Four hours ‘til 1st post!” I said, with a little too much enthusiasm.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Nothin’. I was thinking we could meet…. wait, what is that noise in the background?”
“Ahhh, how’s the psychological endurance test coming along?”
“Not bad. So far, I’ve been able to tolerate up to three songs in succession before my skin crawls and I run screaming from the room. Up from two last week.”
“Nice. Be careful though. I told you about my Garth Brooks experiment disaster of ’98, right?”
“Yeah, you did. Don’t worry, I won’t let that happen to me,” he said with the confidence of youth.
“Smart move. Without insurance, shock therapy can be expensive. All right, let’s meet at Denny’s on I-90. I’ll be in a booth by the window with my Racing Form. I’ll let Tyler know and we’ll take off from there.”
“Sounds good. Oh, can I ask you something?”
“Can you ‘tell me what you want, what you really, really want?’”
“No. No I cannot. Take it slow, my friend. If you’re not there by 12:30, I’m calling the cops.”
Tyler perused the Racing Form while I finished off a plate of hash browns. He wore one of his horizontal striped shirts, like something out of France, circa 1966. I always had the feeling there was a Sarte book nearby whenever he wore one. Gabe showed up a couple minutes later, a little haggard, dressed in black, sunglasses on. He nodded to us both and sat down. The waitress came over, Tyler did his Daniel Day Lewis/My Left Foot impression to order a cup of coffee (he was getting good) and Gabe, without looking at her said, “A cup of tea, Maggie.”
“My name is Jennifer,” she said, perplexed.
“Nevertheless, “ Gabe replied, staring out the window.
She rolled her eyes and walked away.
“Is that a movie line?” I asked. Gabe shrugged.
“What are these bold black numbers on the right?” Tyler asked.
“Beyer Speed figures,” I said, putting more ketchup on my plate. “The numbers themselves are important but more important is the numbers in relation to the numbers of other horses in the same race.”
“So, in the last race, Slavoj’s Nightmare ran at 89 and the next highest is Whitman’s Beard at 84 but Whitman won.”
“Yeah, that happens,” I said, searching for a plausible explanation. “The average speed of the race generates the number and in the last one, Slavoj pulled up a bit on the outside; he was boxed out by Whitman so, his speed was faster overall even though he placed.”
He nodded, furrowing his brow to make sense of it all. The coffee and tea arrived, the sound of ceramic cups placed on the table. At other tables came ambient sounds of cheap metal forks clinking against plates, knives, teeth– the soundtrack to living. It struck me again that life exerts itself the most when one stops trying to figure it out. Like art, it exists more when you refrain from defining it. It was hard to take. I knew if I held my mind back from opinion, there would be only feeling. The abysmal canyon of feeling churning with the same punishing message every time; there is nothing left to say.
I looked to Gabe who appeared to understand this silence in an active way and asked, “Does it ever feel like all talking, all speech, regardless of insight or value, is one long desperate attempt to avoid the hangman’s noose of silence?”
He nodded. Damn straight. We played a three person version of rock, paper scissors to determine who would drive. I lost.
“Do you see this?” I asked.
“See what – who are you asking?” Tyler replied.
“Anyone who will listen. This, this traffic.”
“This isn’t traffic, we’re going 60.”
“Exactly. We should be going 72 but we’ve fallen behind a wall of cars, four wide, that won’t budge. You see in front of them? Space, open real estate, untouched pavement and none of these assholes will pass or move over. It’s crap-traffic. It’s not real congestion, it’s stupidity. It’s fundamentally selfish driving, very egocentric.”
Gabe laughed. “You’ve thought about this a lot, haven’t you.”
“I live on earth, I drive these roads. I have no choice.”
“When you are bent over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at 10 at night, illuminated by a single light bulb from the ceiling, you’ve contemplated the dynamics of this crap-traffic, right?” Tyler asked, with a smirk I could sense from the back seat.
“Since you bring it up, yes. You may laugh but, before, during and between bites of said sandwich, I’m working on solutions, stuff to take to the mayor. Maybe caring about the welfare of others is wrong, maybe wanting to see this world run a little more smoothly is naïve but, hey, this is what I do.”
They both laughed, not buying it. Fuckers.
We got to Emerald Downs in plenty of time, grabbed some beers and sat trackside as the trainers walked their horses around the one mile course. I tried to convey the obvious wisdom of a boxed exacta on Babette and Slavoj but Gabe liked Bulgaria’s Promise and Tyler was leaning towards Natalie’s Problem.
The A-Frame structure was already in place at the right end of the infield. I nodded in that direction – “Hey, check it out. Halftime entertainment.”
“Do they have halftime in horse racing?” Tyler asked.
“No. It’s like the seventh inning stretch between the 4th and 5th races.”
We waited as the gate was set up. The first race was 7 furlongs. I took one last look at the Form and made my decision.
“Ok, I’m going to the window, you guys want me to place your bets?”
“Sure,” Gabe said.
They handed me their money; Gabe $5 to win on Bulgaria and Tyler, $10 to show on Natalie. I smirked as I took their money and walked to the lady at the 5th window.
“How you doin’ sugar?” she said.
“I’m very fine, thank you. I’ll take a $20 boxed exacta on the 1 and 5, $5 to win on 6 and $10 to show on 7.”
“That will be $55.”
“Here you go.”
“Thank you sweetie; good luck.”
She was an old track hag but calling me sweetie, that melts my heart every time. “Well, thank you and you have a nice night.”
I went back to the table, gave them their slips, lit a cigarette and gave one to Gabe. I looked at Tyler who was transfixed by the sky.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“This hot chick totally just checked him out,” Gabe said.
“Is that it?”
“No, it’s not that,” Tyler said indifferently, as if a hot girl checked him out every day. Actually, they did. “It’s just weird. Those clouds, their shape, the sun pushing through where it can, this pattern, this design, it’s unique. No two clouds are the same and even the individual clouds change, therefore, they are in constant flux. No two sunsets, rainstorms, sunrises have ever been identical. They may seem so but they’re not. Sometimes it hits me that every sight I see, every second I exist is a constant rapid fire succession of birth, death, rebirth. Before you can blink an eye, it changes ever so subtly but because our minds can’t take it, we assume consistency.”
“That’s true,” Gabe said, “because when you throw in time, even things that don’t change much, like a table or a light switch, are in fact different because they never exist in the same instant but once. Scott, we talked about this remember? I’m sitting on one side of Tyler, you on the other and yet we both assume it’s Tyler because there is enough similarity to make the assumption, yet, he is changing, we are changing and time is changing.”
“Exactly,” I said. “If we didn’t assume the basics, if instead we let ourselves get caught in the web of dissection over and over, we’d miss the event of experience. It’s like our minds have no choice but to concede certain things in order to live as we do. Sometimes I think transcendence is the simultaneous knowledge of this rapid recurrence, and the ability to work it into solidity for the sake of sanity. It’s the ability of the mind to hold more than one thing at once. As it is, in our unenlightened ways, the brain cannot do two things at once. Whatever we do, however many things we think we do at once, the brain always shifts focus from one thing to the next. Fuck. That is weird…”
The horses were in the gates and ready to go. The gates snapped open and Slavoj got to the front of the pack inside of a furlong. Yes. Babette was close behind followed by Natalie and Bulgaria a half a length back. It was a good pace, no need for the whip, nice and easy around the first turn.
At four furlongs, Babette pulled even with Slavoj and Bulgaria and Natalie started moving up a bit on the outside. “C’mon Slavoj!” I yelled, standing up. No sooner than the encouraging words left my mouth did Slavoj start losing ground as if distracted by something, as if she suddenly remembered she hadn’t yet filed her taxes. “What the fuck is this?” I said, looking back to Tyler and Gabe who were now laughing.
Babette breezed into the lead with ease as Slavoj slid into second and then, eighth. “You stupid motherfucker, what in the holy hell…”
“C’mon Natalie, c’mon baby!” Tyler yelled. We were all on are feet now.
“Hit it, Bulgaria! Get to the fuckin’ rail!”
When Bulgaria pulled into the lead, I sat down. They finished – Bulgaria, Natalie and Babette. My lock was a bust and my certainty squirmed in my stomach.
“Son of a bitch. Goddamn, asshole horse… You should be turned into glue!”
I threw my betting slip on the ground in disgust and went to grab three more beers. Maybe it would help.
We sat out the second race, bet the third and fourth and were all hovering near even. After the fourth, the bright white track lights went red and intermission was underway. A man in a black suit walked to the center of the infield and turned on his cordless microphone.
“How you all doin’ tonight!”
A few people cheered but it was the track, not a Seahawks game. Tough crowd.
“All right then. As you can see down by the structure, my associate, Billy, is securing the rope as we speak. As some of you may have read in the program, available for $4 at any concession stand, tonight we are putting to rest one Alan Phillips. Mr. Phillips was found guilty last year of preaching religious ignorance and hatred in the first degree. He was a pastor at the Light of the Shining Christ church in Kent, Washington, which has now been mowed down to make room for, what else in Kent, a strip mall!”
The cheering grew louder.
“All right! Yes, this new business complex will include a nail salon, a dry cleaning enterprise and a Thai video store. As you leave tonight, you may pick up a coupon at the door for 50% off any one purchase from any of these fine, future establishments. Now, if I may draw your attention to the white tent to my left, Mr. Phillips is receiving last rights, as if that will help! By the gallows, you will also notice five lucky kids, winners of the lottery, for the rock throwing portion of the event. They were randomly chosen from many young choir boys at Shining Light, ready to take out their vengeance on the man of their misleading. Ready boys?”
The young boys jumped up and down with excitement, a small pile of stones by their feet.
“Ok! Let’s bring him out!”
The stereo speakers began to moan a guttural sound, like a distorted, droning sewer line pumped through a wall of amps. The crowd cheered louder as Mr. Phillips, in nothing but white underwear and a black hood, hands tied behind his back, was led to a small step ladder under the noose. Billy walked him up the steps and removed the hood. Mr. Phillips looked around at the crowd. The emcee reached into his pocket and pulled out a microphone. He asked, “Any last words Mr. Phillips?”
“Long live Jesus Christ. In the name of Christ I submit my life and you will all burn in hell for this. If I must die to make it known that I…”
The emcee interrupted, “And die you will! Billy, string him up!”
Billy put Mr. Phillips’ head in the noose, tightening the knot at the back of his neck.
“All right boys, let him have it!”
The boys screamed with vicious delight as they hurled stones at his head and body, skin splitting open, blood dripping down his thighs, Phillips screaming in pain. As the last of the stones was thrown, Billy stepped forward and yanked the step ladder away. Phillips dangled violently, kicking his legs, his body snaking back and forth from the will to survive. He let out difficult gurgling sounds as he writhed for two full minutes. The horses were being brought out at the other end in preparation for the fifth race. As the last bit of life and soul crept from his body, Phillips stopped moving. Billy went with a stethoscope to his chest and gave the crowd a thumbs up.
Some cheered as Billy put the ladder back under his feet, climbed up and began cutting the rope with a hunting knife. A couple of men from a hearse parked at the half mile pole came over with a stretcher to help carry him away. The white lights came back on, the low murmur of the crowd restarted and there were ten minutes left ‘til post time.
I suddenly yet vaguely remembered a time when these public hangings were met with public opposition. Like the war in Iraq that the government declared permanent in 2010. Now, the hangings, like the war, were simply another accepted fact, a staple of our culture like American Idol, also declared permanent, by FOX Media.
I turned to both guys. “Are we supposed to feel something? I mean, I hate Christians but…”
“I feel like we should but what?” Gabe asked.
“I’m not sure,” I replied.
“Yeah, I think we are,” Tyler said. “It’s like something I can’t locate has been stripped from me. All I know is that this thing, whatever it is, makes me want to move to Europe all the more.”
“Exactly,” Gabe said. “I feel like I have to get out of here, like I’m being slowly lobotomized. Something is off in this country.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean, “ I said. “I don’t always know why, maybe my roots are too deep but I’m going down with the ship. Nice sunset though, huh?”
And it was. We looked into the twilight knowing it was one of a kind. A new, electric sky, turning into a memory of itself right before our eyes. Phillips was dead, the sun was dying but there were plenty more of both out there waiting to be born again. I began to concern myself with tomorrow; school, errands but I stopped. No. There is only right now. This day and this moment will end like everything else and I’d hate to be responsible for killing it before its time.
It wasn’t when I jumped off the roof. Or when I ran down the street naked. Or when I started shouting Bible verses as I went. It was when he tackled me. When Curtis, my best friend in high school, a man whose homework I had to do to keep him on the track team, came shooting off of my mama’s front porch after me. And tackled me… naked to the ground. That was when I realized the man I thought I was going to be, the man I told everyone else I was, and all that man ever wanted was charring beautifully on a funeral pyre.
I couldn’t play football like my brothers ‘cause I wasn’t big enough. I couldn’t run track like Curtis ‘cause I breathed funny. But I could be smart; I could be a man of knowledge among a gang of short-sighted niggas. That was something my brothers and Curtis couldn’t do no matter how many games they won, no matter how many finish lines they crossed. And that’s the way it was for a while. I was smart enough to graduate high school without all of the extra “help” the jocks at the school got from the teachers. I was smart enough to get a good paying government job that Negro boys just didn’t get in 1972. I was smart enough to show my boss’s secretary that me being Black and her being White didn’t mean that we couldn’t make each other happy. It was nice. She was nice. Maybe it would have stayed that way if we hadn’t been pulled over while I was taking her home. Turned out they were looking for my brother.
After I got out of jail—and then out of the hospital—being smart wasn’t as much of a comfort anymore. Not being able to take the stares and goddamned pity at work lost me that good government job. That meant I had to move back into my mama’s house and it wasn’t too much longer that that voice in my head telling me to get back up on my feet became voices that told me to watch my back. They understood that all of the things I trusted, like knowledge, weren’t meant for me, not unless the Sears catalog had a cure for the niggardom I forgot I had. The disease I was born with. Stay alone and stay safe, they said. I believed them ‘cause they knew me well. The day they told me to look for a home in the sky was the day Curtis tackled me. Naked to the ground.
They arrived with the warming weather. Small, mindless, and insignificant—or so I first believed. I thought they would disappear without any effort on my part, so I never bothered seeking a cure. I blamed the heat and considered them a passing nuisance. Now, in winter, they have grown bolder and more abundant. I try to ignore them but they are there, here, hovering. Their dreadful crimson bodies float about the room. Their inhuman, iris-less eyes mock me as they flit about on black wings. The little horrors they perform: crawling on my face whenever I look in the mirror and teasing when I am close to knives. In futility, I swat at them, trying to drive them away. For every one I manage to crush, thirteen more seem to appear. Nothing I have done lessens them. No powder, pill, or potion has alleviated me of their presence. They are multiplying, breeding in my food, so I no longer wish to eat, and bathing in my drinks, to taunt me further with thirst. At night, I pray for relief from these fiends. Instead, when the lights are extinguished, these evil lives converge upon me. They swarm and whisper into my subconscious: Drink more red wine- open a bottle now. Spend your savings on pomegranates and persimmons. In these gray winter mornings, in rooms already perfumed with overripe fruit, I find that I do crave exotic fruit and by evening I have spent my budget on Merlot and more bananas than one person could consume. Still they bedevil me. I open all the windows to let in the frigid winter air hoping to give them egress or to freeze them dead, but only I seem to suffer the cold. I have taken to leaving vast bowls of wine about, trying to trap them, but they treat me as their poison-taster and only drink from vessels I have held to my own lips. In my fear that other people will learn of my shameful secret, I no longer keep company with others. Unwillingly, I have become their serf and servant. I plead with them—my masters, yet they are pitiless. I battle on–for my freedom and my sanity. They are winning the war.
I never saw it coming. Though I had seen you turn on so many others, somehow, naively, I never thought it would be me. I don’t understand your definition of friendship. Your critique of me came in a Christmas card with a dove on the front. That is the bird of peace, you know. Too bad you are not on the social media. It would be so much easier to just “unfriend” you or “unlike” you rather than hope I never randomly bump into you. But that would require that you be “social…”
(A Life Measured in Breakfast Food)
Definition of Pancake: Noun; the breakfast version of the traditional cake.
Used in a sentence: Pancakes are often full of something, but they are never full of it.
Antonyms: Raisin Bran, dry toast
Synonyms: None. Unlike anything else.
Compare and Contrast: A Brief and Not Very Thorough History of the Cake and Pancake
Pancakes are cooked quickly on a hot pan, rather than baked slowly in the oven. Unlike the cake, which is coated in frosting, pancakes are served with butter and syrup (although including frosting is not out of the realm of possibility; whereas one should never use syrup on a cake). A cake with many layers is called a layered cake; pancakes a short stack. While there has been considerable debate over which came first, no wars or squabbles have yet broken out.
Pancake making tips
For best results:
Do not over mix
Do not overcook
Do not compromise
Do not sacrifice quality for quantity
Do not use margarine in place of butter
Always use the freshest ingredients
Allow to rise nice and thick
Triple the vanilla extract
Double the batter
You never know when you’ll need a pancake
Pancake Encounters: A Not Quite Linear Not Quite True Autobiography
Part I: Celebratory Traditions Upheld in the Modern American Family
Chocolate chip pancakes.
For my birthday. Special birthday pancakes packed with bittersweet chocolate morsels. Love and happiness rolled into joy.
Crispy tops…thick gooey centers that spill and swirl in buckets of syrup. Melty chocolate
Special birthday treat
Part III: Incentives Proven to Increase Worker Productivity
Pecan pancakes at Ihop…the International House of Pancakes. It is early morning. Exhausted after a 3 mile run. I am on my high school track team. Early morning meet. I came in second to
Slow runner. Weak lungs. Excuses excuses except…
I didn’t come in last. No, I stole the “second to last” title by a hair. Seriously. I have really long hair and the girl I beat had nothing but a wimpy bob.
Oh well. It was all worth it…a pleasant reason to enjoy breakfast at Ihop with mom.
I’ll take the pain and shame for the pancake.
Calories burned equals calories earned.
I cash them in on the short stack multi-grain pecan pancakes.
Part IV: Complex Nature Inherent in the Male/Female Relationship
“I love pankaices”
Written by a former best friend
I am not Kai
Part V: Studying the Psychological Effect of Harassment on an Emotional Eater
Working at the library. Shelving dusty books that irritate my eyes and skin. Getting harassed by a coworker because I am never fast enough. Because it takes me two hours to unload a single cart of books and videos and CDs. Something that takes the other “pages” half an hour to do.
I leave work. I walk home. The house empty except for my dogs. Charlie. Mickey. Shane.
Eager, excited, desperate eyes…times three…stare up at me.
Back from walks. So hungry. No more starving.
I know. I know. I spot the box of bisquick.
I’ll have pancakes. Yes, pancakes for lunch.
Fill me up.
Part VI: The Consequences of Sleep Deprivation on the Brain
Purple pancakes at Whole Foods. A bite to eat before class. Oh, who am I kidding? Many many bites were had of these perfect purple pancakes
Loaded with blueberries!
Tall stack of pancakes; each the size of a small pizza.
A necessary indulgence for a college student sweating in the shadow of a looming midterm.
Purple pancakes served on an aqua green plastic plate.
So big and thick. Juicy blueberries…Sweet and tart. Organic topaz gems.
Let’s not forget…
The pure pure maple syrup. Like liquid gold! Deep auburn…so rich. So decadent. So sticky.
For shame Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Buttersworth. For shame.
However I am only going to eat half…less than half.
Not for fear of the freshman 10.
I’ve already got that under my belt.
No, I wish to save the rest for later.
A sweet and succulent reminder
To prolong the joyful ecstasy of these perfect purple pancakes for as long as possible
And because you never quite know when a special occasion, long night, endurance test, ex bestie, bullying coworker, midterm will put you in desperate need of a pancake.
INT. – BUSY SCHOOL HALLWAY
The Star is a good-looking kid new to town. Accidently bumps into girl. Both crouch to pick up items. A shady janitor looks exasperated with the mess. One random kid walking by exclaims in a funny tone: “catchphrase”.
Cue music when her face is revealed.
Hi! I’m new but very likable to the audience due to my charm and lack of a father figure in my life!
Oh! Hi! I am taken back by our awkward introduction but intrigued.
Enter the screen GIRL’s boyfriend and posse.
Hey! I am here to immediately establish myself as unlikable and physically dominant!
BF pushes STAR down to floor. Swings his arm around GIRL’s shoulder.
I am exclaiming familiar exasperation!
Girl’s BF leaves with his posse.
I offer a quick apology. I ask if we can still communicate in a social setting.
I reply with a definite yes!
In the background the same random kid shakes his head.
END OF ACT ONE
INT. GYM CLASS. BADMINTON LESSON
Girl’s BF is revealed to be the key player of school’s badminton team. Black Uniforms with a COACH wearing a matching uniform. Awkward but colorful characters suffer abuse from the team in the form of flying birdies.
I am rebelling against this established hierarchy! I am declaring my distaste in front of everyone,which will conveniently establish
loyalty from the colorful secondary characters.
Girl’s BF prepares to deliver a high speed birdie to Star’s face when it is BLOCKED
ZOOM OUT from grasped birdie to reveal that the hand belongs to shady janitor’s racket. In slight panic, rest of team launch their birdies. JANITOR takes on the entire team singlehandedly. COACH is slightly amused with all of this.
I challenge the Star and the Janitor against my team to a climatic match set in the future!
Coach struts out of gym with team following in fashion. BF slowly leaves while staring at Star.
Star slowly turns towards the janitor.
I am taken back by Janitor’s hidden talent and I am requesting training immediately!
I quietly refuse and reveal that I swore off to the art of badminton due to my dark past.
Janitor continues to mop as we slowly exits the shot. Star is left with rest of the class.
I ask you all to join my team in a rousing speech.
RECENTLY MADE BEST FRIEND
I agree to join due to witnessing your recent actions.
LOVEABLE FAT KID
I, as well.
YOUNGEST KID IN THE GROUP
I as well.
Me too. But seriously, why is everyone talking so weird? is this how you guys talk all the time?
PAN to another character.
REALLY TALENTED KID
I refuse for now. But I will join when the team requires an individual to be the Deus ex machina during the climatic match.
EXT./INT. TRAINING MONTAGE.
Music with several scenes of struggled training. At the last scene of montage music fades out and everyone is sweating and breathing heavily.
Slow clap as everyone turns to the source. ENTER the Janitor.
I have been gruffly admiring your training effort and I am grudgingly willing to train you. The call of badminton is too strong.
Catchphrase kid gets up in excitement.
EXT./INT. TRAINING MONTAGE.
Training Montage illustrating significant improvement from last montage. FREEZE FRAME of last shot of montage.
END OF ACT TWO
INT. EMPTY GYM
Star walks in seeing that Janitor is there alone with a contemplating look. Star sits next to janitor.
I thank you for all that I have learned from you. My entire chat is seeping with the theme of the absent father figure.
I reveal my dark past. I reveal to have had a promising career in badminton. Power drunk from my Badminton skills,
I knocked out/killed my son with a direct birdie hit. He’s either dead or in a coma;
it really depends on whether or not this movie will be owned by Disney. I pause for a dramatic moment.
Wide shot of empty dark gym.
I have never touched a racket since.
The Star, after a beat, walks out of shot. Brings back two rackets and a birdie.
The janitor smiles. We hear noises of them playing as the shot pans away from the action and as the screen BLACKS OUT.
INT. GYM. COMPLETELY PACKED WITH ENERGY.
I smirk and guffaw at your team and boast the superiority of my team. I am being a complete ass to everyone including to my own team.
This is in no way to hide my insecurity of my penis.
First half: Star’s team is losing badly.
INT. LOCKER ROOM
It is halftime so here is my speech that brings up morality. This will undeniably be the most quoted part out of the entire movie.Team nods in slow agreement.
This part will be on many Facebook statuses. You’re going to get really sick of it. I ask you to join me in loud screaming for climatic morale boosting.
REALLY TALENTED KID (O.S.)
I conveniently enter with the uniform already on. I ask everyone what everyone is waiting for.
INT. GYM. COMPLETELY PACKED WITH ENERGY.
Second half: Star’s team quickly ties up.
Some tension and a final buzzer hit point. Star’s team wins.
I am so happy that you won! I declare us to be an item.
Star and Girl kiss with rest of team exclaim vocal disgust.
I too am content and happy about life once more.
RECENTLY MADE BEST FRIEND
Let us go celebrate until the sequel for this comes out.
Team members jump in the air. FREEZE FRAME with music.
END OF ACT THREE