The Obituary Writer – short, 11 September 2015

I Death in Isla Wor

My first paying job after finishing school was writing a sports column for the town newspaper, a town of less than a thousand people, Isla Wor. The games were of no consequence in the world but very important to our little town; it brought everyone together, and when my poor nephew died, a tight-end on the little league football team, the community rallied round our family. Since I wrote about sports, when my poor, dear Alex died, I wrote it up in my column. It did really well, the paper sales; and there was more interest in my work. When no one died, I’d fabricate it just to keep the momentum of my work going. I was the obituary writer. I was proud of that.

Knock-knock.

I was formally offered the position to curate the obituary column after my successes, and it was all good and fun. People started noticing me in public, talking to me about my work, my other work, work I was more proud of, and it was a nice feeling, when people care about you and your work, about who you are. I wrote more, more eulogies than obituaries, more and more, more dramatic, more poetic. It got so popular I was writing an obituary a day, sometimes more, and grew more and more detached from the people; but when it was with old media, with the real newspaper, it was still impossible to distance myself completely.

I got personal requests, too, and got paid for each. I named the price. It was cynical, and depressing, but that’s work. Knock-knock. It changed, to an extent, when I wrote the obituary for the son of a prominent town official, and the only doctor in that small town, Dr. Eddie Redding, the eulogy being for his oldest son, Marcus, whom I knew, but poorly, despite knowing his younger brother William, who was closer to my age. The paper ran it and it sold more copies than any paper in the company’s history; and from such popular success, the boy’s father reached out to me, first to my aunt, then to me personally through email. He invited me to a diner on a Sunday afternoon.

I was intentionally early, uncomfortable as it was. Knock-knock. The reason for my work, by then, had bothered me. Of course it bothered me! Everybody hates their job, or at least some part of it. It was just a job, just business. I knew what I did. I wasn’t proud of it. No, that is a lie; I was extremely proud it.

He showed up in a modest suit, no blazer, no tie; button-up shirt, tucked in, a leather belt, no buckle. I stood to welcome him, extending my hand. He shook it effusively;

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Nobles!” he said. “Did you find the place all right?”

“Yes sir,” I said. “I took a cab.”

“That’s fine,” he said. “That’s fine indeed. Yes, very well. Sit down, please.”

He was a kind man, I could see it on his face, and warm hearted, the creases on the sides of his lip betrayed a man of many strained, false smiles. A doctor, that is.

“Would you like something to drink? Some coffee?”

“If you’re having some, I will, sure.”

He stood and approached the counter. I took my valise out of my satchel. A moment later he returned.

“She’ll be over in a minute to take our order,” he said. “So, where did you go to school? Did you go to high school here?”

“Oh, yes sir. I was in English IV with your son, with Marcus. He was a few years older than me, class of ’03. But I knew his little brother Will a lot better. We skateboarded before I went off to college.”

“Did you always want to be a writer?”

“I think I did,” I said. “I went to a childcare center until I was five, when I was adopted, and I remember story time the most. It was the best part of the day, the only fun I had. I was taught to read, and I went on to read the dictionary back and front. I started copying all the words that rhymed and then started making little lists of rhyming words. I liked Dr Seuss and copied his work quite a bit, learning the rhythm of it. And when I was adopted, my adoptive mother and father adopted another young boy, my little brother Christopher, and he’d call out words to me and I’d name all the words I could that rhymed with it. When I got into trouble at school, they punished me by making me copy out of the dictionary; my punishment might have helped me more than the schooling.”

He laughed a hearty laugh.

A young woman approached the table.

“How can I help you fellas today?”

“I’d like a BLT, a large iced tea,” he said. He thumbed the menu. “And a small salad.” He folded it and put it back on the table.

She looked at me. “And you?”

“Can you get me a cappuccino?” I asked. “Vanilla, if possible.”

“We can sure try,” she said with a smile. A lovely young lady, “Large, medium, small?”

“Large,” I said.

She wrote the answers on a small legal pad in hurried, slanting letters. Left handed!

“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll take that.”

She took our laminated plastic menus, folding them under her arm.

“I’ll be back with your order as soon as possible.”

“Thank you,” I said, and Dr. Redding: “Thank you very much.”

She walked away. After a short but rather comfortable silence he turned to face me again.

“Well,” he said, “your punishment seems to have reformed you!”

“I’m sure it has,” I said.

The waitress brought Dr. Redding his iced tea, then a moment later my cappuccino.

“We’ll be over with your sandwich soon,” she said.

He took the glass of tea and thanked her.

“So what was Marcus like?” I asked. “I knew his brother well, but didn’t really get to know him.”

“He wanted to…”

The waitress came over with his sandwich on a serving tray, along with his salad. He grabbed the salad first, then the sandwich, and finally some napkins.

“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” he asked.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

He turned to face our waitress.

“Thank you very much,” he said.

“No problem!” she said. “Now, if you fellas need anything else, just give me a holler.”

“We sure will, thanks,” he said.

She walked away.

He took a sip of his iced tea, popped the plastic top off his salad, and unwrapped his sandwich.

“As I was saying,” he said after a bite of salad, “he wanted to be an engineer. He liked working on cars, but he never finished college, quitting after he started working at Nichols’ Tire.”

“That’s that body shop across the river, right?”

“That’s the one!” he said. “And the money was okay for the work, and having to take care of Leslie, his daughter, kept him showing up.”

I was silent. Didn’t know what to say; to admit I’d somewhat faked the obituary, the whole eulogy being a platitudinous exhortation of your most common, most stereotypical ‘live life to the fullest’ excrete. Knock-knock! That’s when it started, the knocking; in my temples first, it spread, following me to my home, then into my dreams.

“So,” he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin, having finished his small salad. “Do you work for the paper full time?”

“Well, I covered sports and town events first, then I wrote a eulogy for my nephew and put it on the internet. It got really popular and the newspaper got a lot of exposure. One of the editors for the newspaper saw it and asked me to take over the column permanently.”

“You do all the obituaries?”

“Yes sir. Every Wednesday. Well, that’s when we get in the information, from hospitals, from the internet, social media. Facebook, Twitter; we have people from the paper who overlook the messages from town residents, keeping up-to-date on the elderly and sick, scouring for updates to get a jump on the story…”

Later I would be sick in thinking back on this conversation, speaking so casually about what must have still been an open wound for that nice old man. Not an old man, not really, early to mid-50’s. I prattled on:

“I start the eulogy on Wednesday, with the goal to run it in the Sunday paper. Sometimes something will come in later in the week and it’s a little more rushed.”

Knock-knock!

He ate his sandwich as we talked, mouth closed when he chewed. Very proper, pausing occasionally to dab his mouth with napkins. His interest seemed genuine, and that’s an intoxicating feeling, that feeling of being good at your job, to believe you’re doing something good, something important; that’s how I dealt with it, how I justified the profession to myself each new night when a name came in with a number beside it.

“I’d much rather get into the business of writing fiction, or at least get some of my finished books and essays published. It’s a passion of mine, much more so than my job.”

A nervous laugh: “I don’t want to be ‘the obituary writer’.”

“What are you working on now?”

“Well, I’d like to write something about theatre. But I’m… I don’t know enough about how it all works, I don’t know enough I don’t think; you know, to do it properly.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” he said. “”You’ll figure it out!”

“Yes sir,” I said. “Thank you, sir.”

Knock-knock.

“Do you keep all your work in that?” he gestured to my leather valise; it was a professional suitcase, a type of folder with a metal 3-ring binder along the spine, assorted compartments, two protected by zippers, and another slot for a larger, 8×12 legal pad, another compartment on the outside – for academic work, my studies in art and literature. The binder was reserved for current fiction projects, the legal pad for work, for obituaries and eulogies for my ever-expanding, ever-popular column. I kept my completed, hand-written work in one of the zippered compartments.

“Yes sir,” I said.

I dug around in one of the compartments for a moment until I found the original copy of his son’s eulogy and handed it to him. He took into his hands gently, almost lovingly, as though he held some relic of his son, if not his son outright. He called the waitress over again.

I took my wallet out. He waived it away. I relented, not wanting to be that guy. Instead I took laptop from my satchel and sat it on the table in front of me as he paid.

“Can I get a refill and a to-go cup for this?” he asked.

“Sure can!” the waitress said. She returned presently with a Styrofoam cup with a plastic cap that snapped in place, hole in the center for a straw.

“So,” he said. “What do you have lined up for today?”

I saw that he had a $100 bill between his fingers, folded.

“Ah, I don’t know. Stay here and see if I can get some work done!”

“Your book on theatre maybe?” he said. Such a warm hearted man, he smiled.

Something like that,” I said. I smiled too.

“I’m sure you’ll get it right. Just don’t be hard on yourself. Maybe you’ll have me to dinner when you’ve finally written that book of yours.”

“That sounds good to me,” I said. “It might be a while.”

“A while I’ve got,” he said. “At least, so I hope. I guess you never know. … I’m sure you know that better than most.”

He had remained friendly and light, speaking with levity, no hint of any great weight on his shoulders, the great weight of death, no hint of that on his face.

“Here,” he said. He offered me the $100 bill, a crisp new note.

“I can’t take that,” I said. “I didn’t do it for money, despite that being my job; I did that one because I cared about your son.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “But I’m going to leave it here anyway, so if you don’t take it, it’ll just be lost.”

I took it from his extended hand with a sense of embarrassment, almost shame.

“Don’t spend it all on coffee,” he said. “You might want a new briefcase someday.”

I laughed it off, still uncomfortable with the money.

“I guess it is kind of worn out,” I said, laying it out wide-open to where I’d left off. Ashes everywhere, covering the surface, the leather covered in white scuff marks.

“Have a good day, Mr. Nobles.”

He took a sip of his iced tea through a straw.

“I will sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Good-day!”

He walked away, out the door. It clanged the enter/exit bells, a gentle bing-bong! like metal wind-chimes.

Be careful what you wish for

          (Cause you just might get it)
2 Electric Purgatory 

I stayed at the paper until it went out of distribution in 2012, when I was 28, having worked there for 5 years; but it spread to the internet, infernal machines, miasma of labyrinthine metal snakes with open mouths all sucking data or spitting it out, a confused Ouroboros already drunk but still drinking; my obituaries were broadcast worldwide. The newspaper ceased to exist in meatspace, in old media, becoming digital; the circulation possibilities increased beyond what anyone had thought possible in the early days, covering pointless, minor skirmishes between middling sports teams in the little town of Isla Wor. That stopped being important in the digital world, and the obituary column enhanced my reputation even further; I was finally able to do my theatre piece.

This success, the string of warm feedback and heartfelt thank yous, I imagined, might have been due in part to my over-wrought, faux-dramatic, faux-inspirational style of obituary: it was sermonizing, shameless masturbatory kitsch in arts’ clothes, all false, all hollow, paper houses gone digital. I had a high opinion of myself. The machine brought hundreds of names and numbers a day, deaths and dates, Daniel 22, Susan 17; and the more popular I got, the more famous would my fortunate unfortunate subjects become; musicians, then small-time movie stars, spreading through satellites to phones and tablets, the same hollow pronouncements of the obituary writer. A title I would not only hate, but resent, as the world knew me only as such, and most certainly of what I’d done to earn such a moniker.

As my popularity grew, young kids would find my house an amusing place for practical jokes. Practical joke is a kind word; they wanted to drive me out of town, to drive me mad; I was a bad omen, they thought, as death followed fast behind me, and in my trail were tears and terrible writing, the saddest parade. The knocking on the doors and running away, that bothered me the worst; it happened late at night when I did most of my work. It’s a tradition, at least where I’m from, to knock on someone’s door or ring their doorbell and run away. The satisfaction being that you inconvenienced someone, and as a child, that feels, man, just wonderful.

But it never stopped.

I tried to back away, to make it a colder process, so it’d be easier to handle. I was drinking, taking sleeping pills, drinking a lot actually. Surely much more than was healthy. I set to studying theatre, its origins and traditions; how they worked, how a character would make changes to the sets. I ran the column still, but I didn’t interact with the bereaved personally anymore; I’d get alerts on my computer, email alerts, with new deaths: the names and numbers selected at random using an algorithm written by an intern to select the most profitable, most tragic deaths, those that best played heartstrings–all for more traffic to the website, the digital mausoleum, electric purgatory: young and under 30, teenage girls in love, with a few kids maybe, single men.

It was easy to do the practical part of the job, as easy as it could be to write it up. I didn’t know anything else: names and ages, over and over and over. At the height of my popularity, I’d write five to ten eulogies a week for my column, and it had become much more than what it started out as, adjunct to a newspaper; it was separate now and distinct, and more successful for it. I eventually made out a form to expedite the process further:

[Name] died on [date] in a [cause of death here] when [what to blame] caused [what happened] [gender] to [mistake description]. [Gender noun] is survived by [mother and father, wife and/or kids if alive]. [Gender noun] was [age].

Example:

TRAGEDY ON I-76: MOTHER OF 2 DEAD
Sarah Harding died this Wednesday in a freak car accident when a deer ran out in front of her car on New Egypt Rd. She is survived by Mr. and Mrs. Gary Harding and had two daughters, Lisa and Tammy. She was 34.

But that’d never fly in my column, no, no, no. It had to be dramatic, life-affirming, death-denying. So I set about writing it properly:  

          The lovely Sarah Harding, former cheerleader and passionate journalist, was taken from our poor town in a tragic car accident early Monday morning. Her parents received the call from a stranger, only to be told their beautiful daughter, 34, was dead, and they would bear the burden of telling Sarah’s two young children of her death. Lisa was 5 years old, a pre-school student at the Master’s Baptist Daycare, she loves coloring and singing. Her older sister Tammy, a 12 year old 6th grader and Carver Middle School, plays t-ball for the Isla Wor Wolverines and is in the chess club. I can say, in confidence, that she will be missed by all.

          The knocking at my door!

I flung my papers aside, knocking over a candle. Thankfully it went out. I tied my housecoat and stalked off to the door, cursing and shouting. This is beyond a joke! I yelled. The hallways were dark and derelict. Tables stood with disheveled stacks of unedited pages, existing solely to bear the weight of unfinished work to never be finished.

I flung open the door. Darkness there, a wisp of wind, no middling kids with suspicious paper bags. I stamped off to my study, furious. It kept on and on, this pestilential taunting; always late at night, always while I was busy. It would be redundant, perhaps, to say no one interrupts you unless you’re working! But, like the old saying of New York City: “Nobody drives; there’s too much traffic.”

Knock-knock!

I went on to knock out mock-obituaries in my spare time, more often than not I’d only have to change the names, the pronouns, the setting, maybe. I just made it up, made them sound good, and the facts weren’t important. So I did: to spend time with my girlfriend, then my wife, I wrote thousands of them: each with a common male name or female name. Sometimes people would die who matched the information I invented. I ran the obituaries anyway. Somewhere in all of this Katerina left me and at the time I barely noticed.

Knock-knock!

I tried to ignore it. It kept on and on, pounding harder and harder. I would tip toe then, with a baseball bat, then later with a pistol. I never caught them. It beat in my temples when I woke and why I lay down to try to sleep to take my pills and have a drink; more medicine and more drink, more and more. Money affords you many things, nice suitcases and suits, but peace cannot be bought, nor love, at least not love that stays without being put on retainer.

Knock-knock!

It’s easy to debate the ethics of journalism when you have heat and power and a full belly. Rationalizing those objections was only what the job as obituary writer was allowing me to do: I made enough money to study theatre, researching that book I’d so often talked about. Enough money to live comfortably, without financial worry. The stress of it all got worse and worse as email alerts flooded in with that terrible alert noise, the familiar bing-bong of metal wind-chimes clanging against a diner’s enter/exit door.

I remember the first nightmare. I woke up sweating, having heard that email alert. I checked my computer; nothing there. I had woke to the thought of getting my mother’s name, and sitting there in the dim light of my laptop, smoking a cigarette, I finally did hear that ever-ominous alert and saw the name come in, the result of an impersonal, neutral computer program, the Judge:

Brandon Keith Nobles, Whitmire, SC. 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

I received that alert when I was 28.

I unplugged my computer speaks, putting out my cigarette. I never wanted to wake to the sound of that horrible jingle again. But I did, over and over, all in my mind, imaginary like so much else. And in the bouquets left on tombstones all I’d see, no flowers blooming, just crisp and folded $100 notes, and dead men in their caskets with money stuff in their cold mouths like the horrible bloom of an extinct flower.

I don’t remember what became of that email heading, as I went back to sleep somehow, as it sometimes happens; you wake in the middle of the night, in the silence, still except the shuffling feet of distant cats, chasing invisible mice or attacking each other.

My dreams were disconnected bits of phantasmagoria; lists of printed paper, page after page of names and numbers, rolling on forever, all vaguely familiar and I thought it must be purgatory, and there I’d be forced to truly know all those whom I had so briefly summarized and put aside. All were familiar but ultimately unknown and dead, unknowable. The obituary writer – ha! What a dark star! how very dim, how grey!

Knock-knock!

I ran to the door to catch that miserable cretin, once and for all. And flinging the door wide I saw nothing, once again, then looked down, as I had never done. And there stood a little boy with a bleeding head, a football jersey. I woke up screaming.

I began to burn all of those old handwritten pages, all those falsities, hoping to appease whatever madness I had stirred. But madness is like a cold pool, like all addiction; you may recoil when you first jump in, but stay in long enough, and the ice cold water warms you up, somehow, and when you get out of the pool the warmth of the night air is cold.

I continued to study theatre, pushing all the death and gloom that was my day job from my mind, and I was making incremental progress. I learned of a character in early theatre that gave me pause; Hypokritos was a falsely righteous character who would wear buffoonish masks and feign divinity, uttering lofty, laughable pronouncements intended to be sincere, to be profound, only to be a popular source of mockery and ridicule.

Knock-knock!

I looked at my photograph on the Obituary Writer website. It was an airbrushed joke of a solemn, thoughtful photo, sharp contrast and pretentious, black and white. Knock-knock-knock! The email alert – the one I finally removed – had always startled me, as it was the same as the bell that smote on the shivering prison air to let the inmates know that one of those unlucky souls had made it out. So I thought, naturally, I would turn the sound back on and capture what I looked like when I got the email alert; that way I’d have a sincere impression, not knowing that, instead of taking off the mask of the falsely divine Hypokritos, I was just making the hypocrisy more subtle, slightly easier to stomach, slightly harder to notice. The professional make-over had ended with a vast, fully searchable digital archive; a macabre, gaudy porno.

Knock-knock!

God dammit! I ran through the halls and out the door into the street and looked around. No one, not a raven, no obvious source; just the wind and dogs barking in the distance. I was exhausted by the time I made it home, and tried to get some sleep.

Artists have a sort of fire inside. The greater the artist, the greater the fire, less smoke. I felt that I would exhaust my fuel and become one of those useless plastic lighters, the kind you have to strike over and over, getting more and more pissed off, changing the lever on the back to control the size of the flame, to make it smaller, then larger just to get a cigarette lit, eventually striking it over and over in the vain hope that it might light once more, knowing eventually it would dry of fuel completely and never produce a flame again. I felt that I’d run out of fuel, having wasted my life as a profiteer of misery, death on my mind like a heavy crown.
3 Speaker for the Dead
I did few eulogies when work on my book began in earnest. I had given notice to my employer, resigning to finishing only one: the heading that disappeared, the obituary for myself. I kept working, working hard with the motivation, with the hope that, upon completion, I’d have dinner in that small diner with Dr. Redding again. I still wrote obituaries in the meantime, and never was I more distant from it, as they were cold and ever colder still, the popularity began to fade, and never had I been so happy to fail. Demand dropped off for my particular brand of obituary—though there was a remorse to it, to have invested so much time and effort to become such a good obituary writer; I was very, very good at my job.

Knock-knock!

Those early days were the best, when I wrote obituaries for the paper, the small town paper for Isla Wor, there were no email alerts, no nightmares, no knocking, broken ringing doorbells; and all were at least sincere, in the beginning—many being for family; after the eulogy for my Dr. Redding’s son Marcus, looking back, that’s when something broke, something mechanical, some part of the system that processed grief. It broke as I worked through it and continued breaking as I wrote more and it made me cold to all, more often than not I kept to that automated script completely, completely sterile, no passion for anything save for my book on theatre, and passion enough only to get the money needed to continue; it moved closer and closer towards publication.

Knock-knock!

As I wrote, I thought of my dead father, and I thought of him quite often, and the obituary, the eulogy he’d never gotten, not from me, not the celebrated obituary writer. I looked forward to seeing Dr. Redding again at that little diner, I’d take a cab. I’d order him his BLT and cold iced tea, a small salad too, and I’d pay for it all. I’d bring a new valise, toss out that old ash-stained leather volume, unsightly and assaulted by age, scuffed white and daily marked by time, by dust. I wanted to show him that I’d finally gotten it right.

Knock!

After I got my book edited and did the proper revisions, I managed to talk my brother into designing a cover. He was a graphic design major; and his talent, like his degree, didn’t come cheap. I shopped the manuscript around for a while until a small publishing house picked it up.

Knock!

My book came out to little fanfare, just shy of my 30th birthday, with a reasonably warm critical reception, yet slightly colder commercial response. But there is no price to pay for a clear conscience, being able to tell the truth, if through fiction, it was a better way. There is a great element of truth in the worst lies and in the best of lies, and a great fiction in the most honest statement by the most trustworthy men.

I still had those dreams of waking to that electric death toll, the flowers of the bereaved sprouting monetary blossoms, that horrible knocking which seemed to drone on forever, but I’d dream that first I woke to find that mock-heading:

Brandon Keith Nobles, aged 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

And I set out to finish it, once and for all, sitting at my typewriter in this dim dream in a dim room trying to write it out. I would receive more pressing emails from the machine, each clanging louder than the last, probing me ever on, offering me more and more money to finish my obituary, the quicker the better. And I got to the last sentence, and felt that if I put the full-stop in, if I set the period, I’d never wake, that I’d forever be the obituary writer. I woke cold and sweating, breathing heavily. I expected to hear the knocking, but didn’t; nor the doorbell which, though broken, sometimes near midnight tolled.

When I received the first printed proofs of my book in the mail, it had some time since the initial, limited released, I called the doctor’s office to leave a message for dear Dr. Redding to call me when he got the chance. He did, and I had been out at the time; my brother took the message down. We were to meet at that same diner, again on a Sunday—his one day off. I got there early, uncomfortable. He was already there. He stood as I approached with his hand extended, shaking mine effusively, with feeling and warmth, a smile on his face. With one hand under my elbow, the other on my shoulder, he guided me back to the booth we’d sat in last time we met. I found a cappuccino waiting for me; he had yet to order. Vanilla as I liked it, and cold.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “And, look at this.”

I took out my book, the copy I intended for him, pulling it from the new valise, much nicer indeed despite the signs of cigarette ash and age, dust collecting around the zippers. I handed him one of the galley proofs. He took it into his hands in that same careful, loving way. I realized then, as he handled it in that delicate fashion in which he’d once held the handwritten draft of his son’s eulogy—he handled things as a doctor, not out of any sort of love, but with delicacy and care—but then, I thought, that is a sort of love, not a sort, that is love; to spend so much time in school, such long hours away from growing children, a lonely wife awake all hours of the night and worried back at home, and to do it for others, to work so hard to live a life to help.

I wondered for the first time, making the strange connection: how many names checked in at his office only to later arrive in my email? Had he ever checked the obituaries, hoping to find some consolation, however fraudulent, to think he hadn’t failed? He was turning my book around, looking at the cover, holding it up to better see it in the light.

“‘Theatre: Tradition & Ritual’,” he said. “That’s fine, that’s very fine indeed. That’s a good looking book, Brandon. I knew you’d figure it out.”

“Open it,” I said.

He flipped to the dedication page.

“‘For Marcus Redding and his family. Thanks for the support and coffee. With love, Brandon.’”

He seemed genuinely moved. He looked at me and smiled.

“That’s really something,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. But thank you. Thank you very much. I’m glad you never gave it up. I can’t wait to read it.”

“It hasn’t been a big hit, but, alas, it’s a better business to be in. I’m glad I got it done.”

“I’m proud of you, Brandon,” he said.

“Thank you sir,” I said. “Thank you very much. And look at this—“

I showed him my new valise, all the new features, the less gaudy white leather. He looked it over attentively.

“That’s might fine,” he said. “Mighty fine indeed.”

He handed it back to me.

“So what are you working on now?”

“That’s why I’ve asked you to meet me here,” I said. “Not that I didn’t want to see you again and give you a copy of my book…”

“A free copy!” he interjected. “You can’t beat the price!”

“Yes, a free copy of my book, but other than that, after I met you, I realized I didn’t really know anything about your son, nothing about his life, your happier times with him, things he should be best remembered for and not my column and I thought—if you don’t think it’s inappropriate—you know, to tell me about who he was, what he was like as a child, the awkward teenage years and the man, your happy memories, the kind of stuff you can’t find online, so often the meat of life is picked away and what we’re usually left with, writing an obituary, is just the bones. And that’s what people seem to like. Short, thumbnail sketches, overly dramatic and declaratory. I wanted to do something real and honest for him. For you, for your family, to the extent, to any extent that I may. If I am to be the obituary writer, I must do so honestly.”

“He was a shy kid,” he said. “You wouldn’t have known it, but he was quiet. Loved going fishing with me and his little brother, when they were young. We had a pond behind our house, and we’d take those Zebco 33 fishing rods down there after church on Sunday, they’d have those corks on the end, you know? The plastic bobbing corks that let you know when you’ve got a bite.

“Then when the twins were born, they stayed home them with after that, always protective big brothers. When they turned four, they got new bikes for their birthday and when you buy for one you have to buy for all! So everybody got a bike, and they loved nothing more in the world. Riding around and doing tricks, popping wheelies, and Marcus repaired them for Will and his sisters when they got a flat tire, when the chains came off—they always did! He got his daughter Leslie one of those new bikes when she turned four, one with a pink boombox on it and a radio.

“And that’s when he started talking about wanting to build things, to be a builder, to be an engineer, working on cars, fixing things that broke. He was always fixing things. They rode the horses, he couldn’t fix those! Hell, neither could I! They played video games and monopoly. We were fortunate, but they weren’t much different than lots of good, kind kids. And they were very much loved. And he is very much missed. He was very much a normal kid, a good kid, and a fine man. A loving father.”

“Thanks for meeting me,” I said. “I hope I can write a eulogy to suit him and honor your family properly.”

And through that finish my own perhaps, the obituary writer’s eulogy—who better to write it?

“You did, Brandon.”

I was confused. And he saw it on my face.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“For what?”

I was quiet.

“I trivialized it all,” I said. “I was cynical and gaudy, and I’m a fraud. I’m not an obituary writer. That’s just the only way people seemed to care about my other work. And I used it. I used it to advance myself, selfishly. I’m sorry.”

He reached across the table and put his hand on my shoulder.

“Look, Brandon,” he said. “You might not like what you do, and I know you don’t. I can see it looking at you. Who would want to do that? I deal with it in my line of work. But in the end, you’re giving people closure, allowing them to refresh their memories and keep their loved ones alive in there, and alive for longer. Don’t be down on yourself. What you do is a public good, despite your reasons. People need closure. When I can’t keep their loved ones alive, you can give them something I can’t.”

A short, not uncomfortable silence passed between us, a shared sorrow lingered for a moment and departed. I felt that I could do a proper eulogy, then, for Marcus, and maybe let it stand as mine, as all of ours, as normal, kind kids, who are very much loved and would be very much missed.

He ordered the same meal, just the same; BLT, small salad, large glass of iced tea. I finished my cappuccino, took out my laptop, and went about my work, typing away as he ate his sandwich and drank his tea. And I picked up the tab.

After that the conversation mellowed, teetering out but still pleasant; with little left to say, we talked about upcoming projects. He dabbed a napkin at the corners of his mouth, ever-creased from a life of forced and honest smiles. And I thought, if ever a ghost knocked on my door again, I’d invite them in for tea and a sandwich, and let them tell their story, so I could be the obituary writer once last time and get it right, finally, a proper obituary, and live out the true purpose of my title, that we both might rest. He opened the door to leave and the bells clanged,

Bing bong. 

The Hobgoblin – short, 23 June 2015

1

Roger was alone in his grandmother’s basement with Elmer’s glue, liquid paraffin, and a copy of the New York Times. Dark Side of the Moon Breathe in the air played on his father’s stereo as he worked on the crossword in an old lounge chair.

Finished, he folded the paper into the shape of a sail and glued it to a group of taped Popsicle sticks, reinforced by four others on each side, stuck in a block of chewed gum gradually becoming hard, securing the sail upright on the paper hotdog box.

He carried the little ship into the den where his mother sat. She was still crying. Someone in the room behind Roger said, “It’s just a cat… I don’t see what the big deal is.” Roger tapped his mother on the shoulder. She jumped, startled, and looked at him with expectant eyes, “Yes, dear? Are you hungry? There’s some pork chops in the fridge. I could heat ‘em up for you if you’re hungry.”

“No, I just want to take this boat to the river.” Roger held it up to show her.

“Why?” she asked. “Is it because of…”

“Just because… I don’t know. I think I saw it on TV or read about it but it’s something people do when a family member dies. I want… I have to do it.”

Roger’s mother smiled. “I’ll get my coat,” she said. She stood and walked across the room. Roger looked at his brother, at the white glimmer of a tear in his left eye bright. He nodded to him. His brother nodded back. Roger gestured to the boat and door. His brother shook his head.

“Tell mama I’m going to wait in the car,” Roger said. “Ok,” his brother replied.

Roger walked into the harbinger of night as the sun’s golden crescent fell behind the hills. He stood for a moment on his aunt’s front porch, carpeted the color of fresh grass bright green. There were three old cars in front of the house, covered in rust, aged and decrepit looking. Roger got into a red car with Entae’s footprints on the hood and trunk, mud in streaks below the doors that creaked when open the tired sigh of elderly metal. His mother walked through the front door and the fence locking it behind her sat down in the car and said, “You ready?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Roger said. “It’s just a cat.”

“She was more than that,” his mother Adina said. “She was our family too.”

“That’s not what that Melody B said at the house just a cat what’s the big deal. That’s what she said. I hate her.”

“Don’t hate her, Roger. She just doesn’t understand. It’s okay. We’ll set your boat out and when we get home we can arrange a headstone for her.”

Roger thought about where she was buried, under an under and a stump in shallow ground, in a pink towel wrapped, a glass umbrella on the stump to save her from the sun.

“I remember when we first got her,” Adina said. “She was the run of the litter, the only black calico I’d ever seen with a little white spot on her nose. She was always gentle and kind… I’m going to miss her too, Roger, but don’t punish yourself because of this.”

“I should be punished,” Roger said. “It’s my fault.”

“No, you shouldn’t be, Roger. Why would you say that? It’s not your fault. It’s just a part of life; everybody… everything has to die.”

“I’ll tell you how it’s my fault,” Roger said. “Every night when I stay up late with her she usually wants to go to the bathroom and I let her out whenever she stands by the door. I let her out this morning and had I not let her out, she might not have died.”

“Don’t think like that, ” Adina said. “It was something we’ve done a thousand times before. She always wanted out when the sun came up, you know, to go to the bathroom then find a place in the shade and nap… That’s why we buried her under the pecan tree—where she always went in the summer time, you know that big tree behind the house she used to sleep there every day.”

“How do you think she died?”

“She was dead when we found her,” Adina said. “When you finally went to sleep we got some people together to try to find her and we couldn’t. This morning Joyce called saying she’d found our cat, dead in her tomato garden. We think she was poisoned.”

Tears swelled up in Roger’s eyes, “If I ever found out somebody poisoned her I’ll kill them. I’ll fucking kill them.”

“She might’a ate some rat poison in Margret’s shed. You shouldn’t think like that, Roger.”

Roger turned on the radio and turned up the volume, looking out the window. The car finally slowed to a stop at the turn around on the end of a dusty road. When they arrived, Roger got out of the car and walked to the end of the road, the boat ramp—a gradual incline into the river—and he sat down just before the water overlapped the concrete. He scratched R.S. Manwell was here into the chipped grey asphalt with his father’s pocketknife and sat the paper boat at the edge of the water. He lit the candle and gave it a shove. His mother stood behind him in a blue dress saying,

“It’s time to go, Roger. Come on.”

He turned around to face his mother again, then turned his head to the sky at the sound of a buzzard calling.

“What is it, Roger?” she asked. “Are you okay?”

“Look,” Roger said. “The buzzards…” He pointed to an empty patch of sky, shook his head, and smoothed his hair, exhaled. No buzzards. He looked at the sky again, cloudless the color of television static. He sighed, turned to face the dwindling candle on the boat, a muted yellow orb on the waters getting darker.

2

It was night when he sat beside his mother. They put on their seatbelts and turned around at the end of the road, heading back to their house in Laurens.

“I don’t think I can be happy again,” Roger said.

“You’ll feel better,” his mother said.

“But I don’t want to,” Roger said. “I’d feel guilty.”

Silence. Large forests, pine trees, dark blue almost black went by the window, the car looked like a glowing bicycle rider projected on the wall of pines.

“So what are you going to do tomorrow, Roger?” his mother asked. “Are you picking up cans with Ethel?”

Roger nodded.

Ethel was aunt to a friend of his, his only friend, a girl three years his senior, and every Saturday and Sunday, when everybody went to the white church on Main, Roger and Ethel collected cans for five to six hours a week. They once walked with a cat, whose ship Roger had sailed, and once with Ethel’s husband Richard, until he caught pneumonia and died. But Roger and Ethel continued to pick up cans every Saturday and Sunday.

The next morning Roger met Ethel in front of her house. It was early and the sky was pinkish crimson red and cloudless. Roger wore a t-shirt and jeans. Ethel wore her pearls and beige dress. From Ethel’s front yard they turned onto Washington St, a street in the shadow of an abandoned textile mill in ruin, a place where half the town once worked. They took Heron avenue at the end of Washington to the left, to comb the gutters by the local stores and markets, then a small trail through the trees to clean the beer cans and bottles from the creek, a place where teens go to get drunk and cool off in the summer.

After Heron they turned East onto Sinclair avenue, Roger picked up the cans as Ethel raked them into a pile. He picked them up and put them in her shopping cart, a cart with two black trash bags filled to the brim. They turned left at the end of Sinclair onto Spring St, the most bountiful part of town, because of the three bars on the road, trash everywhere, car parts, paper cups and plates, cans and bottles and newspapers stained in mud.

When Spring St was clean they turned right onto Main, in front of stores and restaurants and a dentist and doctor’s office. Roger dug through the trash barrels and asked people who worked at the stores for permission to take their cans.

The last road they went down was called Little Mountain; a congregation of men, the people of the town that embodied the character of a Southern gentleman, the good old boys and girls drinking around bonfires outside of town, fixing up their pickup trucks and john-boats on the weekend.

The small town was the type where everybody knew everybody—or at least everybody knew the name of everybody, and there were practically no violent crimes since Roger’s birth in ’85. Coincidentally the only person to commit a violent crime in sixty years was Roger’s father who, when a burglar startled him, bit off the burglar’s nose.

Strangers in pickup trucks gathered every night out there on Little Mountain to get hammered and Roger and Ethel usually got a lot of beer cans, but they walked that road to see the sights, to remember the faces. The road on both sides was a blanket of pine trees through which ran a winding gravel road into the country, a mile outside of town. Halfway down the road a river ran over the asphalt by an inch and people  held their jeans when they walked through the water to get to the other side. Roger held Ethel’s hand as they walked over the water covered bridge. They walked to the end of the road where the boat ramp was and the turn around, a turn left would head back to town and that is what they did, it being almost three in the afternoon.

When they were done making their rounds, they went to a recycling factory a town over in Clinton and traded the cans and bottles in for money. Roger usually ended up with a hundred bucks, on a good day, and sometimes more. Roger liked going, and liked the money, and he bought a lot of books and computer accessories. They made fifty bucks a piece, but Roger got Ethel’s cash but didn’t know; when he found out, it shamed him.

3

With their route finished, they got into Ethel’s car and didn’t say a word on the way home. They didn’t speak much anymore, not like they used to, and when they did it was always related to the cans, the bottles, where they were and how to get them. They just didn’t talk like they used to. Ethel seemed distant and Roger was just as wounded, both of them wounded animals going through sad motions to remind them of a time when they were happier, when their loved ones were still there and smiling, at the table for Sunday dinner before they all started to die, as fewer and fewer people showed up at Christmas dinner, the sadness—the existential sorrow of one day no longer being, of one day not existing, caused Roger a great deal of anxiety.

Ethel went through the motions for Roger’s sake though she was in her eighties, and in poor health; though rain or shine she walked with Roger in the mornings.

Every weekend after they met, Ethel walked the same path with Roger around the town. They first met when he was a child with a stubbed toe on her back porch. Roger cried and cried.

His friend Dawn said her aunt Ethel could make it feel better. She left him crying on the steps. She disappeared into the house. Roger sat at the top of the steps in front of a screen door, through which was the laundry room and then the kitchen, and waited.  It wasn’t long before Ethel opened the door and walked down the steps. She knelt in front of Roger and said, “If you tell me your name, I can make the pain go away.”

“No way,” Roger said.

“She really can,” Dawn said. “But she can’t tell you how she does it or it won’t work. All you have to do is give her your name.”

“Roger Solomon Manwell.”

Ethel held his little foot and blew on the toe for a minute and rubbed it with the palm of her hand and smiled. Roger looked at Dawn, who also smiled, and he smiled too; the pain was gone.

The day finally arrived when she was too sick to go. Roger walked alone, down every road along their path, and always brought back her share of money.  The last time he got to talk to her was in the dark living room of Ethel’s house, lit by the faint glow of an old television. Roger’s face was covered with sweat and red from a day in the sun. Dawn brought him some orange juice and sat in front of the television with her legs crossed. Roger looked at the tubes running from Ethel’s nose to an oxygen tank beside the chair. She was still in her Sunday best, her Sunday best she wore every day, starched and pressed and ironed. She wore her pearls, had her hair curled and a perm; Roger thought, All dressed up to die.

“Tell me how you did it,” Roger said. “How you made my toe stop hurting. You said you would tell me…”

“All you have to do is get their full name, talk to them using their full name, and blow on the area that hurts. If they believe in you, it will.”

“If you never wanted money, why did you walk with me?”

“Just because,” she said.

She coughed into a napkin and dropped it into a trashcan beside the chair. She said, “I don’t think we’ll get to make our rounds anymore.”

“I will,” Roger said.

4

Three days later Ethel died. After the wake and funeral, Roger rode with his mother again, out to the boat ramp, with another boat made of paraffin and newspaper with a candle in it. His mother stayed in the car until the glowing candle disappeared from sight. She got out of the car, “It’s time go to, Roger,” she said. “It’s getting cold.”

Roger walked to the car in silence, always time to go, he thought.

He sat beside his mother and closed the door, put his seatbelt on. She asked, “How do you feel?”

“I really don’t know,” Roger said. “I’m sure I was happy at one time in my life. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s just the gradual erosion of time, me getting older, or watching as friend after friend has died, or it could be the anxiety of my own momentary existence that depresses and overwhelms me. There was a time when I could wake up, brush my teeth, get dressed and go out, out to play on rollerblades or skateboards or anything but now, now I just wake up and pour over my typewriter, take my pills and cigarettes and now it’s a struggle, to relax, to maintain, to keep myself hinged and busy.

“Because, ‘cause if I was inert, my anxiety, this high strung feeling and insomnia would eat me alive from the inside out and all I’d do is mourn, I’d mourn until I blew my brains out. Instead I keep moving, I keep digging, digging around in my brain trying to understand myself, trying to hit the bottom so I can see the cause of my depression, to find the hobgoblin that roams the corridors of my mind ringing bells and screaming and stomping, deleting my happy memories. I don’t remember the first time I saw the goblin, but he was in my dream—and he told me that he’d hunt down every happy memory I had and erase it. He tries to drive me mad, until I’m old and burnt out, stomping around in the dark room of my imaginary castle looking for the troll who roams around inside my head, hunting down my happiness and killing it, looking for the happy child that I made up because a real one couldn’t be found.

“When I try to sleep, he rattles pots and pans and screams at me, until the child in me is screaming back, screaming hurtful words and visiting violence on himself, because a world of pain is all he understands, a world he’d sell for peace of mind, if only for an hour, if only for a moment, so he could see the life he remembered, or imagined, whichever, so he could see it long enough to feel happiness again—just so when the sun went down, at least he’d remember what it felt like to feel, to smile, so whenever he crawled back into the dark to feed the hobgoblin again, at least he could fake a smile as he watched the goblin eat his happiness. I study the faces of happy people—just so I can try them on at home to see if I can find one that fits. They never fit.

“Every time I see the possibility of happiness, the hobgoblin smashes it like a mirror, and I cry as I pick up the pieces and curse at God when I can’t get the puzzle back together. And if I do, I break it again, just to watch it fall apart. Sometimes I do it just to hear the glass shatter. It always breaks, and I always expect it to; when it doesn’t, I break it myself.”

They drove the rest of the way home in silence. They arrived just after dark. Roger was glad the house was empty and quiet. It took him a long time to get to sleep.

Roger still walks the same old route now by himself, raking up the cans, putting them in the shopping cart in silence, going through the motions, just because, as Ethel said. He remembered the song, some dance to remember. Some dance to forget.

Even though he walked alone, even though she was dead, at the end of the day Ethel got her cut.

A Neon Angel Fades – short, 1 March 2015

In most love stories, it’s all a chase, a flight, past is prologue; it’s all prequel; ion the cusp of poignant vulnerability and the foolish abandon of youth and frivolity, on the edge of your tongue, a word you can’t quite articulate – that is a love, something to forever be approximated with ever clearer visions of beauty and grace that, at its rarest perch, its clearest view, is a description of a sunset past, a closer approximation bordering on the love of memory, a memory, a face you can see without blinking. Something you can’t quite grasp; Elise was that, the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. Funny and smart, and I was seeing another girl at the time, a girl I thought I loved, whom I promised to marry. We’d been together for over a year and I cared for her. I cared about her family. I kissed her mother on the cheek before I left her house, after Sunday dinner. It’s a mask of sorts of course, of course. And sloppy, but it fit. I didn’t face my problems, I put on makeup and changed my face–so when I did see myself, I never saw what was really there.

                                                                    An electric halo, once cast
can but fade.
And darken with it our once brightest days.

Elise, she was from the bayou; she was from Louisiana. She had a Marilyn Monroe mole on the bottom of her cheek. Blonde hair, a goddess face. She was so fucking feminine and innocent. The more I talked to her, the more I wanted to be with her. The first time I met her, I drove to her house 2 the morning. We put a full tank of gas in my car. We rode around the country roads listening to the Beatles. Our song was Let it be. That was our song; Let it be. She was Christian and Mother Mary, let it be, let it be; I wasn’t Christian, but I understood the significance.

She was in Arizona when I met her. She was in Arizona and I was in South Carolina. I was still dating Sarah, the girl who loved my tales of horror. And I talked to Elise. I talked to her about things I couldn’t talk to Sarah about. She became almost an obsession. And when I met her–-she always had her head turned down like, slight grin, eyes kind of looking up, whenever she smiled she looked up, this bashful, perfect look. And I was still with Sarah. This sounds like, you know, any other romantic tale involving teenagers; it really doesn’t amount to shit in the bigger scheme of things. But it matters a lot to the people involved. It mattered a lot to me because I was put in the position of do I go for two in the bush or do I keep what I have in my hand?

Elise was two in the bush, which I wasn’t sure I could get. Sarah was a cock in the hand. She wore an engagement ring that I given her. I mean, I kissed her mother on the cheek. I brought her mother flowers. I watched wrestling and football with her father. Our families were close. Everything suggested we’d be together indefinitely. And Elise was the flaw in the plan. And I meet Elise after she came back to South Carolina. And she lived in Pomaria. And this is like a nexus point in my life, where in went in a rapidly different direction.

I went over to my father’s house. I called Sarah and told her that I was going to stay the night with my father because nobody was there with him. She said that was okay, we could do something the next day, and in reality, I purchased 500mg of morphine from a friend of my father, this is back in my early stages of addiction, and that’s another one note joke stereotype; Kid hooked on drugs. Kid hooked on drugs. I’m still popping pills now. Doesn’t make you who you are.

And I went… I was on the interstate going to Pomaria. I remember that I told her that I spoke some French. I had beside me, while I was stuck in traffic that there had been a wreck. And it delayed me for fucking hours that I couldn’t talk to her. I mean I had my phone … I could talk to her but there was a wreck and I was stuck in the interstate. I had this list of French sayings that I had written down to say to her. You know, I memorize all these French sayings. I love you, you are the blossom of my life, I would kiss your feet, I would write poems to your eyes, you know, your hair is like the finest silk–-poor similes that bad writers use. Dressed in French. I got to her house. And it was like we were friends, like you me and you are friends, like she was someone I could hang out with without being Mr. Upstart–-you know, I didn’t have to keep up any airs. She thought I was crazy and I think history will bear that out. And she loved that. And she liked my absurd stories, because that’s really, that’s really all I have; just a collection of loose stories associated with people.

We played pool in her basement, billiards, throwing darts. I just smiled, frozen with that great ! above my head like the characters from an old Playstation game. And I remember going to the bathroom; I crushed two of the three morphine pills up under a pill bottle on the bathroom counter, snorted each line with each nostril, and took the last pill orally. 300mg or so; I don’t remember. We go into her bedroom and she has little glow in the dark stars on her ceiling and we lay there together mapping out our own make-believe constellations, just laying there with each other. She rolls over and puts on a movie, stuffs in into the VCR and it sputters on.

And I think I went ten steps past too far and said, ‘Fuck it!’ and jumped off into a stupid oblivion with those blue pills, the pills  Dialudid; they’re really strong and I had never taken that much before. I did it… I thought that it would make me less nervous because I wanted to kiss her. I mean, it was like I was choking and the only way that I could breathe was to kiss her. And I lay there beside her, with her fingers running through my greasy hair. And I’m like, It’s greasy ain’t it? Real men have greasy hair. Real men stink! We stink! And she loved it.

She looked at me like I was an aberration of nature, some one of a kind design flaw that wasn’t noticed until the factory shut down. I didn’t speak like typical southerners did–I grew up in isolation, never learning to mimic the sounds of the indigenous around me. I could speak with eloquence. I wrote books and all that–that was the novelty of me as a character to her.

And we lay in bed–and I start blacking out, going in and out, lapses of concentration and what not; she freaks out. I black out for maybe 20 minutes and I wake up and she’s splashing water on my face, I tell her that I’ve been sick, and she’s crying, right above me, and one of her biggest tears drops fall into my eye and I cry too the tears of someone else.

       When I find myself in times of trouble,

My eyes were pinpricks, distorted, too large or too small I can’t remember, but it was noticeable. I had overdosed in her bathroom. My skin was clammy and I was shaking. I couldn’t control myself. I went back to the bathroom, I splash water on my face, you know, I try to get my shit together, slap myself, run water through my hair, rattled my head and gritted my teeth.

Mother Mary comes to me.

When I left the room I was hyper-sensitive, hyper-aware, I walk back into the room and there’s a blue glow cast across the bed from a streetlight just beside her driveway. There’s this blue glow that reminds me of a dream. It silhouetted the outline of her figure. I remember thinking of it as rolling hills. Smooth, curvaceous, and she looked up at me, and a little blue line across her face, with the television behind her, and her head it looked it was glowing with the static of the TV set glowed on her like a halo. I told her I had to leave.

Speaking words of wisdom,

She begged me to stay. She wanted to make love, or at least have me do something she wouldn’t regret, something not terrible, make lust to me if not some form or fashion love. I told her I couldn’t because it wouldn’t be right. She asked me why it wouldn’t be right. I couldn’t tell her that–that I was on drugs, that I wouldn’t remember it… that I wouldn’t, that it wouldn’t be natural. That it wouldn’t be right for our first time. That I wanted it to mean more than some junkie excursion into the windup dinosaur sex the broken junkies have. I couldn’t tell her why I wanted it to mean more–What could mean more than now? The time was right. She’s not the one who got away, but worse; the one I walked away from.

Let it be.

And she ended up thinking I rejected her. I had her, this beautiful light of my fucking life girl, so fucking pretty in that shade of neon blue; perfect. I had the perfect moment, everything I’d wished for when we first began to love each other, and there it was, right in my hands. She had a halo and glowed a brilliant blue. And I had this perfect moment. And I just looked at her and said I had to leave. I return to it over and over again in my fiction and my poems, usually best expressed as: The door to happiness she led the way / and ignorant I turned away. The truth path appeared, and there it lay / and again I turned away. I’ve written time and time again that I saw the perfect way, and every single time it crops up, I always turn the other way.

And in my hour of darkness,

And it all goes back to her. I had her. I loved her; I didn’t want anything more than her. She told me that she loved me that night, that she wanted to be with me, to be close to me, for us to be together, and all I said was, “That’s weird.” That’s weird, to my homemade angel–that’s what she was to me–and when I kissed her, it was like my first kiss all over again. I held her by both sides of her face and just pressed our lips together, nothing sloppy, but intimate and forceful, and we put our foreheads together both of us breathing heavy. I scratched her hair and made her laugh. And I told her I had to leave.

        She’s standing right in front of me,

She asked me, pleading, Why do you have to leave? Why do you have to leave? And I said it wouldn’t be right, it wouldn’t be right. And Sarah fond out; Elise had told one of her friends that I rejected her. Then I told Elise what happened, that I really cared about her, and I did what I did out of respect for her. That was the consummation of our love; just one long embrace the kind of moment that for a fleeting moment brings God into the life of an atheist sinner who only wanted to do what was right, and by doing so I left my Madonna on the shore–the Madonna was mine for free, and I walked out.

    Whispering words of wisdom,

Until then, my drug use had been more or less recreational. I loved Elise and in that bubble, what remains of that little candle that I carry, that I warm myself to when facing middle age and loneliness, but I keep that bubble, hidden away, that I might pop it with some sort of joy to see the thin film of a flimsy rainbow, and the bubble pop, yes bubbles pop, and the electric halo cast by that white noise round her plump face like a neon crazy angel, weird and beautiful for its rarity. I’m not a practical man, not in manners of love and lasting, but sometimes a clown can more proper catch the color of a drowning man. And that’s why I think I stayed on that shit for so long, each little pinch was my Madonna in blue. Every girl I’ve been with since, is me looking for Elise again, or someone to cast in that role. In the end, the drugs became Elise to me, and each sweet needle prick another kiss, some other bubble that I missed.

Let it be.

The Slow Suicide of Narcissus – short, 27 May 2015

The Narcosis of Narcissus, the mixing of the real and fanciful, lead into this mirror, and distort it, distort it that a nobler shade of truth might reflect this honest fiction. This is not autobiography: this is therapy. 

Whenever you see someone writing about themselves, and they’re not exposing someone or accusing, they’re trying to work something out on their own, never thinking it will enter into the public eye, this dirty little habit of the self-absorbed, when one indulges the reprehensible urge to write about oneself, the simple question, ‘why?’ is somehow invalid, like asking which prime number looks best in a business suit. You know them, they are the doomed and miserable lot who utter that philosophical alibi ‘why?’ And they are as doomed with any why as I am with mine: why write a book about your life?

And without fail, I have to come to the same answer: that voids the question; that at once makes the act reprehensible and justifies my actions to myself, the opposing me whose giant eyeball is always looking over my shoulder, scrutinizing, judging, evaluating, as though I were a specimen under my own microscope. And that, indeed, is the point of this writing.

I’ve written about psychology and studied it my entire life. It has been the most fascinating subject I’ve ever encountered. Not in books, but the psychology of people and their actions. There are psychological determining factors behind any decisions, the complex ones, the ones more complex than, ‘should we have steak or salad? One is good, and murder, one is terrible, but human.’

There are cynics, or those who cum with closure, who read that last line with an exquisite since of sardonic delight. Terrible, but human, that is the joke and the punch line that defines a lot, and as an psychological aphorism, to me, it is three things. It is the crime and acquittal of a conscious race. To me, it is three things because there are three me’s.
There is the noble, the genius, the sensitive, the understanding me, the me I call the Roger complex. Roger comes from the name of the main character in my novel Songs of Galilee. I wrote about Roger from an admiring perspective. He was what I would like to be, and the Roger complex is me trying to imitate the character, when in the novel, Roger faces situations in his fictional life similar to situations in my real one. But he’s more than me, and that is what I felt made him admirable.

To those who have read the novel, they could conjecture that Roger is the manifestation of my ego, what I think would be my highest self, though Roger himself was the embodiment of the highest virtues: no hope, no fear; no pride, no shame. Roger was a multi-talented child prodigy genius of the highest order. That’s how I wrote him as a character, not as to imply that is what I thought I was. Roger was everything I would be if I could.

Thus the creation of the Roger complex; the mystic Buddhist who at twenty-four attained his enlightenment, and at twenty-seven died in the third and last book of his life, The Match Behind the Jar. Roger had invented a cure to death based on theories I had as a child. He was smart enough to make it possible. My theory was that the suspension of decay in cellular organisms could slow the aging process until the point of pure biological equilibrium, without decay or mutation of any cells in the body. Roger studied the human genome, as I did, but Roger found the Sisyphus Mechanism. He found out how to remove it and thereby render immortality.
That was Roger’s final temptation: immortality. In my short story the Dream of the Louse, Roger faces this temptation on a train, on his way to demonstrate the cure for death and the immortality of mankind. He calls the tempter Mara, the Buddhist version of satan, and embodiment of the ego. And like Buddha under the tree, and Christ in the desert, Roger resists temptation on the train.

Mara tells him to become more than a man, to push evolution forward. He dismisses the rules of nature, of life and death, and tells Roger that he is a brilliant man, that he will become the savior that mankind wanted and had been waiting for. He had brought real immortality to Earth. Roger, like Christ, was born on the Sea of Galilee. I chose that birthplace before I knew that that is where Christ is said to have walked on water. In Roger’s youth, he invents boots that stabilize and equalize buoyancy that allows him to walk on water. In one of my favorite passages of the Match Behind the Jar, Roger runs from his father across the sea, with his father chasing him from behind with a belt, to whip him for painting on the walls of his house.

Mara appears before Roger before he arrives in Time Square, on a train. Mara appeared before me in my bedroom, and inspired the Dream of the Louse. The characters are different, and it’s a fictionalization of a real event that took place in my life.

The plan was for Roger, though the plan was different for me, to inject the medication into himself, the immortality rendering compound he designed and synthesized based on his advancement of my genome studies, and then have someone give Roger the lethal injection on the stage. If it worked, of course, he would come back to life. He would be born again.

Roger chooses to take a placebo, and allows them to kill him on stage with the lethal injection because he did not take an injection of his compound. It was an injection of morphine, my drug of choice, and there Roger died at twenty-seven, at the end of the Match Behind the Jar.

Had he done the right thing by saving faith? With the possibility of immortality on Earth, Mara told him, why would anyone believe in the nonsense of afterlife or even need an afterlife? There’d be no more death and war. No more religion. And so Roger, the second man from the Sea of Galilee to offer immortality, to save the beliefs of everyone. He did not want his discovery to be believed, although it did work, and his death was taken as the compound didn’t work, and research on it stopped. It did work. It would have worked for all. Roger allowed himself to die so the soul would no longer be locked in the body. That was his last temptation in the last book of The Lizard’s Tale. I am sure he did the right thing. I am sure I would not have. I would have taken the cure to live.

Think about it as you read: would you take the injection to live forever? One injection: no more pain, death, decay.
It took me a long time to answer that question and two of me would take it, and one of me would not. There are three me’s, as I’ve come to in my psychiatric sessions with myself. Only one of me would resist, and that me is the Roger Complex, which I will further elaborate upon later on.

Rogers’s father was there at his birth and remained until his mother, or as Roger thought, and indeed once hoped, killed his father. This was written to expound upon Roger’s inner self. At first he wished for his father’s death, but at the same time was devastated when he died, and then he, as a grown man at the end, returns to a place his father always wished to take him. That is the coda to the Songs, Roger’s forgiveness. His forgiveness of his father, his mother, and himself. That’s where forgiveness starts.

And when you forgive yourself, it is liberating. At first, I felt like I was free; to do whatever I want. I could smoke and stay out late. I could piss away my mind in a way he would not have allowed. It took me several years to find my Coda at Pigeon Rock, as it is in Roger’s story, but it was more like a coda at Lake Murray, where my father and I went fishing before he died. All of the three me’s, as of now I’ve gone into only the Roger complex, which you will see me imitating throughout my life, even before his creation; I will later go into the Harvey complex, the lowest me, and Complex Zero: Brandon, the medium between Harvey and Roger.

But, I hear the chorus of why, and I must address it. The why of my decision to write this memoirs, Bastard; I’m sure by now, the title choice is apparent.

Why: I’m adept at helping people with their psychological problems. I’ve studied psychology at great length in my life, and it is the most powerful weapon known to man. I’ve written four accredited PhD’s in psychology as of this writing, and I’ve always been able to help people, not me, but others. I am always able to give them the advice they need based on the equation they gave me to solve.

When it comes to me, I don’t know the equation. I know parts of it, and I use those parts to try to solve the problems of my life, but since I don’t know all the numbers, the equation is never solved. I can find numbers in my past: abandonment, the need to assert and prove my worth because of it, the Oedipus complex directed at my biological father, the hallucinations, the dreams, the nightmares, the desires, the tragedies, and everyone has their share, the death of loved ones and friends, coming to terms with mortality, coming to terms with the thousands of philosophical questions I have less than satisfactory answers for, the want to matter, the want to be loved, to be admired, and other, less noble desires.

I can’t find all the numbers and the variables they create in order to solve the equation, the me equation; I cannot make them come together in a unified number, a number that will represent my life, the problem, solved. I doubt I’ll ever determine all the variables. But when it comes to equations of other people, their loves and hates and losses and gains, I seem to do well as someone to give advice, to mentor, to guide: to find the number they needed based on their equation, solved for contentment. The thought is my sickness and the page my hospital, and, all the better, public – the narcosis of Narcissus.

Author’s note: All characters, characteristics of said characters, living or dead, real, or otherwise alive, are fictional. All fictional elements are part of a more honest story. This is the sickness of those who revel in the spiral, enjoying it more the faster they go down. And my oh my, how fun it is to slide. 

The Children Santa Cheated – Short, 20 October 2015

When I was six years old, I had asked for a ‘camcorder’ for my birthday with the intention to film Santa Clause. I had no knowledge of what I would later discover to be agnosticism or atheism, I just had questions in regards to Santa that no one seemed capable of explaining, or, in any case, explaining adequately. I didn’t believe that it was possible , for deer to fly. The casual acceptance of this among other children my age alarmed me, even then, and, though I did not know it at the time, played a large part in the conditioning of similar, more pressing beliefs. In our childhood, our grasp on how the world works is tenuous at best, at worst non-existent. But I had seen birds and I had seen deer and I had seen planes. Planes and birds shared a common feature: wings. I have yet to see a winged deer. But my skepticism went further.

My father was patient and would indulge me as a child. It amused him more than anything, I think, to answer questions which seemed to delight and surprise him. First, I asked how Santa was capable of knowing whether all the children on Earth had behaved good or bad. And I believe my attitude towards his response speaks to a part of who I am which was already defined: “He just can,” said my father. And, as I still hold true, that answer is, scientifically speaking, complete horseshit.

The experiment with the tape recorder had been building for a couple of years prior. Of course I didn’t tell my father that his explanation was horseshit, but I did continue asking questions. The question for me was no longer if Santa could know whether we were bad or good, but how. First I thought, maybe our parents include a separate letter with our Christmas lists, describing the good or errant behavior of their children, perhaps indicating what we were good enough to get and what our behavior just wouldn’t allow. I would later abandon this theory as I realized that the kind of house a kid lived in greatly determined how much that kid would get for Christmas. The kids in shabby clothes, the stragglers–Santa was different for them. I found this out first hand through my childhood friend, Chris. I would say that we were bad and good to roughly the same degree. But when I got a Nintendo, a bicycle, board games, candy, little battery powered monster trucks, and he got clothes and socks, I understood something, subtly, that I hadn’t yet connected to the Truth.

Noticing that, despite what I thought about behavior, the presents my friends and relatives received seemed to reflect more the niceness of the child’s home than their alleged good behavior. For example, my aunt Virginia (go ahead, laugh damn you!) was a lawyer and her husband was an oncologist. I understood that word to mean “fancy doctor.” And their kids were total jerks, but they got toys one would think Santa should reserve for Gandhi. My cousin Allen, a fifteen year-old blossoming alcoholic and sadist, received a four-wheeler, a pool table, a state of the art cassette player, and basically anything he could spell. He was infamously bad. Everyone in the family knew. And my working theory was this: Santa could only be getting the information from the parents. But this didn’t seem to fit all of the data I collected. So I revised my theory, which would be penultimate: the parents paid [Santa] for their children’s toys based on what they wanted their children to have. I was close, but not quite there.

Anyway, my birthday is the 1st of February, which gave me time to plan the great experiment on Christmas. I asked for a camcorder. For anyone who doesn’t know what a camcorder is, think of it like this: it’s like a football shaped iPhone with one function: to record film and audio. Today if you wanted to re-create my experiment, it’d be a lot easier. But this was 1991, and nary an iPhone to be found, humanity bemoaned its inability to share what they had for dinner with the world. It was a dark time, ravaged by sneakers that blinked ominously like the police-cars of a micro-race, polluted by musicians who would not allow themselves to be touched, a time when the only thing a child could rely on to save them was a Bell on Saturday morning, right after X-Men.

Now, my birthday came and with it the precious camcorder along with several blank VHS tapes. I read the instruction manual and tried to figure it all out in time for Christmas. I didn’t know what the scientific method was at that age (6) but I had arrived at something similar: I would hide the camcorder under a towel on top of our television, facing the door (we had no Chimney for Santa to scale,) and while we were at our aunt’s for Christmas dinner, I would set it to record. I’m not sure what outcome I expected, but the data was tampered with.

 Our family always celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve. First we’d open presents from each other. I’d open presents from my mother and father and brothers and sisters. Then we’d visit my grandmother in the morning. Sometimes we’d visit other increasingly unimportant relatives throughout the day, and then we’d go to my aunt’s for Christmas dinner at night. We’d stay for a few hours. When we got home, we’d find our Christmas presents waiting. The amount of shit Santa was capable of packing into our living room was impressive. A little too impressive. And another wrinkle in the official story: although the entire family could fit easily into our Ford Bronco, my older brothers would always arrive later for dinner than anyone else. Suspicion is like a rash. The more you interact with it, the more it burns.

When I got home, I forgot about my experiment at first. The room was full of the very best the early 90’s had to offer in toys and electric devices, the obligatory bike. I was temporarily stunned by the orgy of evidence that my parents loved me, but I didn’t let that stop me from ruining Christmas forever.

The video of the event confirmed what I knew all along. Santa Claus came through the front door, and waved at what he didn’t (or shouldn’t) know was there, and put on a performance. That’s right: while putting out the toys, my oldest brother found the recording device and, instead of just turning it off, decided hey, gentlemen, shall we fuck with a child? Yes. Yes we shall. A friend of the family was called, dressed as Santa, and brought in all the toys for the sake of my surveillance.  This is an example of how one can lie too well.

This good-spirited deception didn’t prove the existence of Santa Clause. I had video evidence, but I was still suspicious. I still had questions. Again I came back to how it could have happened. When you live in a wooded area, an area full of hunters, or, more to the point, in a home where the heads of unfortunately well-endowed deer are mounted on the wall, I’m not fucking stupid. Deer can’t fly. The sleigh was obviously powered by rockets.

Political correctness, 18 October 2015

First I’d like to acknowledge the wonderful article written by Cracked writer J.F. Sargent, whose article can be found here. And point out, that’s generally a more intelligent and insightful argument. That is all.

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS, THE BOOGIE MAN, THE CENSORS WAITING IN THE DARK, JUST, WAITING, WAITING ON YOU TO SAY… SOMETHING… OFFENSIVE. MUST…NOT…SATIRE.

I’d also be remiss to acknowledge the state of this dead horse before I proceed to fucking beat it. (Because it’s dead… what is easier to beat? A living horse will fucking destroy you. Horses are the worst. But don’t tell Mr. Ed, he’s way too PC. And also dead. Which is slightly worse. Slightly, amirite?)

Political correctness, oh my god. Right? Right? 
I know.
Dude, I know.
DUDE.

Everybody and their biologically oriented life-giver, in-vitro, biological, or cesarean, has their personally distinct and worthwhile opinions on whether or not people have become overly sensitive. or — now, bear with me — if the response is less to someone saying something insensitive and more of a response to someone being an asshole or otherwise deliberately antagonistic, saying something not in service of a joke, or a story, but something which has one purpose: to intentionally insult or disparage someone or a group of people for the purpose of advocating something: their brand’s betterness, their political brand’s betterness, or their notion of general progress towards being as good as them, which, for some reason, must always be at the expense of others. The response isn’t overly sensitive liberals being too delicate, while I’m sure somewhere, right now perhaps, someone is beginning an article with shit like ‘biologically oriented life-giver’ to avoid saying something like mother … only to hide their hatred of in-vitro fertilization. IT COULD BE THIS VERY PAGE.

It’s not that. It is the response of those who balk at the idea that whoever is saying this “non PC friendly” shit, or the group to which that person belongs is inherently above or better than their intended target, simply because they’re not that target. The response is not one of overt-sensitivity, but of a group saying: you are not better by virtue of what you were born. The Internet has made it very, very hard to distinguish between someone’s merit and ability based on their sex/race, so when someone is being called out because of that, and that alone, the response is the response of those who believe in an idea: You know, they call this democracy. And it’s not a deviant sex act some French-y developed… But it is close. Democracy is an objection to inherited worth, status, or value. 

The idea that some things are inherently offensive, while certainly true, the criticism, the criticism of the politically correct sensibility is invariably made by someone who has said something inflammatory, and intentionally so, from a position of influence and power–which seems to consist primarily of rich/famous white people who think the concept of democracy is something to define, to the inclusion of some and the exclusion of others, for them and those who believe as they do, which is coincidentally the way the law was written by (surprise!) people like them, wealthy, white, heterosexual males – as other minority groups were for some wild, crazy reason, not allowed to vote; thus perpetuating the freedom of this group to the exclusion of that group, which were all groups, minorities and women (yep! All inclusive exclusion!) while at the same time making it illegal for anyone who has broken the law to vote someone who might represent their needs.

When women and minorities were finally given the god damn right to vote, the elected representatives – surprise! – began to become more diverse and the fight  against institutional prejudice began – and with same sex marriage only recently becoming legal in all of the US, and the remaining resistance comes from that same group struggling to stay true to rules that were very much written by people like them, voted for by people like them, to keep those liberties very much in the hands of that same, homogeneous group: wealthy, white, heterosexual males, betraying the very core of democracy; that everyone should be, by birth, afforded the same freedoms and protections under the law.

Democracy is either absolute or not democracy.

The greatest achievements of America have been, with exception of course, the reversal of earlier, less inclusive institutionalized standards. Greatest moments in political history? The American revolution? Overthrowing … taxes and tea, something like that. The Emancipation Proclamation? As wonderful as that was, it was the eventual overturn of the casual attitude towards slavery. The million-man march? A protest against prejudicial practices in Jim Crow-era south. The greatest achievements of America are those moments when the establishment finally goes, Fuck it, other people can have freedoms too. It’s great to have figures like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr… but to need them is horrifying by implication. And, it didn’t end well for either. Go ahead, guess what happened. This isn’t uniquely American, either. Anyone vocally against systems set in motion to benefit the few at the expense of the many, historically speaking, have been fucking killed.

And now, the criticism of political correctness is used as a means to brush aside – sometimes legitimate – accusations of racism or sexism. But the accusation of political correctness leading to censorship, or that people are being too sensitive, is only used when someone has been genuinely sexist, genuinely racist, xenophobic, or otherwise intentionally hurtful – for the sole purpose of being inflammatory, as a way to be provocative without being thoughtful or insightful, or even interesting. It’s less about overly sensitive liberals and their quivering antennae when someone isn’t PC, and more about a sexless, colorless culture recognizing bad manners and assholes – and making them know, ‘Hey, you’re a fucking asshole. And we know it.’ If you were to fart at a dinner table, you wouldn’t accuse your dinner guess of being too sensitive for saying nobody wanted to smell your asshole at lunch. Put it in the right story, or in the right context, and we’ll laugh right along. Conservative, liberal, communist.

Fuck the French!

2015-02-11 13.00.16
Don’t shoot, French friends!

Chapter 1

Last New Year’s Eve

My mother was center stage, right there in the spotlight, dressed as Queen Clytemnestra. It was her first role and her favorite, wife of King Agamemnon from the play by Aeschylus, the first play I ever saw, in a dark, smoke-filled shanty theatre in Paris. She wore that same dress, screaming red. A prop sword in one hand, the other pulling back the cotton head of our mascot Tragos, tragedy my friend, that janitor in drag.

“Troy has fallen!”

The crowd cheered on like Spartan whores, like clapping seals and Sirens, whistling shame.

Mother held the sword aloft to the sound of more applause, then she let it fall; and silent it fell soft along the seams of that poor mascot’s head. And off it came, the crowd roared on, applauding as it ran bloodless down, down, down, down, off the stage into the crowd. A thespian in a black mask scooped it up, hoisted it into the air, and shouted:

“Happy new year!”

“Happy new year!”

The bloodless sacrifice complete, the Gods appeased, the janitor in the buffoonish goat-suit was hurried off the stage. He stumbled into the crowd to retrieve his head. After a brief scuffle with some drunk asshole in the front row, it was returned to him. Mother raised her hand to bring the crowd to silence again, ever the conductor, a virtuoso playing their preferred instrument: a crowd of two hundred at capacity, and more if you didn’t mind standing or sitting in an aisle, or on the floor.

“I’d like to thank you all for coming, first of all,” mother said. “It’s a pleasure and a privilege, truly, to see you all tonight, to have such support from the community and our friends, and our family. So, on behalf of everyone here at the La petite illusion, the Players and the Faces, thank you making this year’s Christmas play such a success. And remember, when you see the stage light come on…” a large, bright light flickered into life above the stage. “When you see that light, it’ll ten minutes until midnight. So, if you’re interested in joining us for the bonfire, make sure to meet us at stage door left when you see the light. Now, until then, enjoy the music! Enjoy the wine! I’ll see you all at midnight!”

More applause. She smiled, and smiling walked away, waving with a rigid, cupped hand like an aged beauty Queen, forever a rose, a rose forever to fade but never wilt; mother would have to be buried alive. The house band, just four college kids on holiday, had gathered in front of the drawn curtains and began to set up. Two young men and two guitars with nylon strings, la-la-la-la-la. A digital grand that clanged for a young lady, about my age or thereabouts, a lovely piano, upright on rolling wheels, one violinist, Chinese and demure, very thin and sexy.

Behind the curtain was a softer symphony, unheard, drowned by the cheerful holiday music mixed with a mumbling crowd of Faces and masked patrons, the soft symphony in silence behind the scenes, , drowned out by this cheerful and familiar holiday music, a chorus of shuffling feet.

And Jack Cade said it best:

I have thought upon it, it shall be so.

Away, burn

all the records of the realm:

my mouth shall be the parliament of England.

“Spare none,” he said.

And none were spared.

Not one chair, nor table cloth, everything had to burn, just painted kindling, a great buffet by poor Camille, a discount muse but worth each Franc.

With our audience and patrons, and anyone who’d wandered in for a drink or a show, everyone who gathered for this show, playing the voyeur, all costumed and masked, to burn those props—that was the show, that was the point. Camille was one of the few staff members I knew personally; a young girl and very pretty, kind of dim and shy, she sat on the flyloft above the stage, suspended from the rafters with her feet dangling off. The rest were kept in costume while at work, as per mother’s instruction.

The workers without masks were Faces in theatre lingo, always behind the stage or in front, never on it, forever locked in one poor role, confined by their own skin. The rest, the actors and performers and staff, save for me and Lain and Camille, they were Abstracts, they were character, like that poor goat Tragedy; they were Players, and as such were never given, nor did they give, real names, and were never to be referred to as such. Referring to them by their character names, mother told me, helped their performances. It probably gave them acute impostor syndrome too, but that didn’t matter, not as long as the reviews were good. Tragedy joined us at the bar.

“Good evening, Tragos,” said Lain.

“Nice to see you, Charles,” said Tragos. They shook hands warmly.

“You know, Robert,” said Lain, “I think you’re the only person I know who dies for a living.”

He smiled.

“I had no idea why Madame Nanty wanted me to dress like this, much less pretend to cut my damn head off. You know how I found out? My mom was born in Athens, not far from where that shit started, an offering to the Gods. What an offering!”

We all laughed.

“Yeah,” I said, looking over to Lain. “You know, when theatre began, it was basically a cult, a boy’s only club, all based around a ritual celebration. It was a cult, a cult of Dionysus, God of fertility and wine.”

“To Dionysus!” said Robert.

“To fertility and wine!” Lain said.

“They sacrificed real animals before the start of every play,” I said. “To honor the Gods, naturally. Theatres were outside back them, you know, you do what you have to do.” And, at the start of each performance, they sacrificed a goat to honor the Gods. Theatres were outside then; you did what you had to do.”

“And we just sacrifice our dignity,” said Lain.

“We’d probably do the same, if we had to,” I said. “Think about what we go through already, sacrificing our dignity to critics, starving ourselves to fit in costumes to be scrutinized and judged by out of shape assholes. Gods are easy, critics are not won so easily, and if sacrificing a goat got us a better write up, a better review in nouvelles de divertissement, we’d have a farm behind the fucking theatre.”

Lain laughed, “No expense, no goat, no mercy!”

“Lance!” I called, turning away. Lain was explaining his new play to Robert.

There were three bartenders on staff, all well dressed; tuxedos and simplistic masks. Lance was the only Face at the bar. He was very prim, very proper, and neat, very neat, and too much so. At least for me. I imagined that his father beat him. He approached the end of the bar where we were sitting:

“Yes, mademoiselle?”

“You see that guy in the goat costume?” I asked.

Lance nodded, “Yes, mademoiselle.”

“I want you to take him the Cote Chalonnaise,” I gestured toward the underside of the opposing cabinet. “And, yeah, that one. And, grab the green—that one, yes! the Macon. And get him a couple of decent glasses, tall.”

“Who am I to say it is from?”

“It’s ‘whom’!” Lain shouted at him. “Fucking idiot!”

“Tell him it is from the Queen,” I said, talking over Lain.

“If the person is the subject of the sentence, you say ‘whom’…”

“Yes, mademoiselle,” Lance said, never breaking character. And he kept on. And on.

After retrieving the bottles and two tall, slender glasses, Lance handed them to Robert.

“And you shouldn’t end a sentence with ‘from.’ Because…”

The Cote Chalonnaise was especially nice, and the dusty bottle was a sure way to tweak the nipples of a connoisseur.

“Prepositions are there to show the relationship between the noun and the pronoun…”

Robert took the bottles one by one, and lovingly, then the glasses. He sat them down and read the dusty labels.

“From whom? Well, to whom shall I say? That sounds bad, whom shall I say? No…”

“Compliments of the Queen,” said Lance.

He was without costume finally, in a comfortable button up shirt. The man looking back at me was a stranger then, somehow less real without his mask.”

“It’s from mother!” I said. “She forgot to give it to you on Christmas.”

“You’re just a noun, you know. You’re a diminutive little noun, unworthy of superlative or adverb…”

“Lain, shut the fuck up!” I said. “English isn’t his first language!”

“It’s not mine either!”

“Merci,” Robert said. “My wife is going to go crazy when she sees the year on this Chalonnaise.”

“Thank you Robert!” I said. “We’re very grateful to have you here!”

“We all know who the Queen is,” he said. He smiled, bid us a very good evening, and walked away, with Tragedy dissolving into just another member of the unnamed supporting cast.

I called for Lance again. He approached after serving to middle-aged ladies dressed like slutty angels.

“Two fingers of bourbon for me,” I said, “and take Lain one of his pussy drinks.”

“Such as?” he asked.

“Something fruity,” I said. “A white Russian, perhaps? Yes, that’ll do. Thanks, Lance.”

He returned a moment later with our orders.

“Two fingers of Jim for mademoiselle,” said Lance, “and a white Russian for Monsieur Pinon.”

“That’s racist,” said Lain.

I sat my glass on a square napkin, pretending not to notice Lance’s number scribbled on it in hurried, purple penstrokes. Painfully obvious and Lain caught a glimpse when I passed him his drink. He didn’t say a word, but I saw it in his eyes, a small defeat. He took a generous sip from his glass.

“Anything else?” asked Lance.

“Not now,” I said. “Now, fuck off.”

“Yes, mademoiselle,” he said. He returned to serving the other costumers. I turned to Lain.

“Cheers, Monsieur Pinon!” I said. He smilled despite himself. I raised my glass.

“Cheers, Mademoiselle Brisbois!” said Lain, raising his The glasses clinked together and we both finished our drinks in one long, profane gulp.

We chatted between shots, taking in the sights and sounds, the live band playing merry music, the smell of liquor and cheap perfume in the air, small clouds of cigarette smoke swirling under low-hanging, red-tinted spiderlamps. The audience was alive with mirth and conversation, the social butterflies buzzing, deaf to the fools with nets behind them. Lain was doing the same: silently judging everyone, trying to guess who those people were, beneath the mask, what kind of animals were they without those feathers? Or was there nothing but feathers, and nothing under the mask but another one, or a smooth face, smooth as a cue ball and just as featureless and memorable.

“Here’s to The Little Illusion,” Lain. He held up his empty shot glass. I raised mine. They clinked together with a hollow clink! as we tossed back the drink that wasn’t there.

“Best of the night!” said Lain.

“Here’s to it,” I said.

The hollow sound the glasses made when they clinked together somehow got through: when you’re 5’4”, don’t match drinks with a guy over 6 feet tall. Especially not a Russian.

“I hope you’re being careful,” a far-off, snobbish voice said. It was her superpower, judgment, arising for the perfect moment from the darkness. I straightened my back and turned my bloodshot eyes back to white. A strange talent, I’d discovered it in drama school.

“Tell her, Lain,” she said, “If she’s going to do Anna again this year at the Medea, she needs to watch her weight.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to kill myself and be fat,” I said.

Lain laughed, and mother turned to him and smiled, a broad and bright smile. It was her way of saying, you’re funny, but not quite funny enough to earn my laughter. A smile, and that’s it, you fucking peasant.

“Bonne soirée, Charles,” she said. “Comment çava?”

“Il est une merveilleuse nuit putain,” he said. “Pardon my French.”

She smiled.

“Such a clever boy,” she said. “You need to talk Renette into growing her hair back out so she can keep getting leading roles.”

“You see,” Lain said. “That’s the problem. You can’t negotiate with fire.”

“But she had such lovely hair.”

“Renette could get any role in Paris if she were bald.”

“I know you love her.”

“Everybody loves Renette,” said Lain. “Except Renette, of course.”

Mother smiled again.

“Take care of her, Lain,” she said. “I’ll see you later. Renette, behave yourself! I don’t want to find you under the bar!”

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I’m going to meet with a new director,” she said. “A potential director, that is. I saw a really good production of his last week and got his contact information from the Exchange. So, I’m going to show him around, show him how we do things here. Hopefully we can get him on board and do something really, truly new. I’ll see you in a bit.”

She leaned in and kissed Lain and both sides of his cheek, and then me.

“I love you two,” she said.

“See you then,” I said. “Remember: don’t leave your drinks attended around Lianne. Just saying.”

“We love you too, Madame.”

She smiled again. Fucking peasant.

“Make her behave, Lain,” she said. “Don’t let her drink too much.”

“Remember King Lear,” said Lain. “‘Get not between a dragon and its wrath’? It’s like that with her.”

“Good lad,” she said and turned to walk away. “Good evening, Charles.”

He fucking hated being called Charles.

“Good evening, Mme. Nanty!” Lain called.

She thrust a hand into the air and waved without turning round. In mere moments she had disappeared as quickly as she had appeared. Lain followed her through the crowd; excellent vision, somehow keeping track of her. The red, of course. The Russian blood.

“That’s racist.”

He nudged my shoulder.

“Who is that?” he asked. “Look, right over there.”

He nudged my shoulder.

“What?”

“Who’s that?” he asked. “Look, right there. The guy with the mask.” He gestured across the gallery, lit only by sparse dining table candles. I followed his pointed finger, bouncing from one masked face to another.

“Are you fucking with me?” I asked. “Everywhere is over there!”

It didn’t take me long to catch a glimpse of the man. He stood out somehow, my mother very animated, holding his hands in hers and smiling broadly. It was the mask, a damn grotesque but lovely in that twisted way, lovely in the way a flower growing from a boot might be. It was a faded white, an ivory color, the color of Time and dust, snowflakes and cigarette ash. The nose was very prominent, about nine inches give or take, hanging from his face but not too sharp. Grotesque, sure, but not horrific. The rest of his clothes were black, save for his cuffs, both white with a black button in.

“I hope we can get a good director here,” said Lain.

I nodded.

“As fun as it is to do all those Shakespeare plays,” he said. “I didn’t come to France to do the same shit they do off-Broadway in New York.”

“Why the fuck did you come to France, again?”

“For you,” he said. “You know that.”

I smiled, turning to look toward the upper crosswalk again where mother had stood with the strange little man and his Pinocchio mask. They were gone. I scanned the crowd to no avail, the liquor making itself known to us both.

I sat my glass down and Lain followed. Lance hurried over to collect, thanking me profusely for a €50 tip. We walked from the bar, humming together, our heart beats keeping tempo; I was stumbling drunk, my arm around Alain. He smelled like old books, like a fine mahogany desk. He kept me up-right somehow. We weaved in between one patron after another and finally found mother and my little sister Lianne at the exit, precious Lee, and more were gathering as the green light above the stage had come on. Lianne said hello to Lain and he knelt and took her little hand into his and kissed it, saying,

“Madame shook her hand, “Madame.” She smiled a toothy smile, her two front teeth missing.

They began to gather in ever larger groups in front of us, what was left of my family. And Lain, of course. Alain. It was a large crowd. Many were as drunk as we were but all were polite, well poised and surprisingly proper for a French mob in Friday voyeur masks.

“Alright,” mother said. “Hey, hey!”

She whistled, a whistle so loud it hurt. “Listen!”

Get not between a dragon and its wrath.

Everyone went quiet quickly.

“Now, we’re all here to have fun, but be careful and don’t get too close to the fire. And once it gets started, please stay behind the crossguards. One simple rule: if it’s taller than you are, don’t get near it! That goes for you too Lain!”

Everybody laughed.

HAHAHA.

“Okay? Great! Now, follow me.”

She flung the swinging doors open, outward into a cold night, the crowd spilling out in single file behind us. And there we were, scene of the crime. I imagined my grandfather’s ghost still walking through those ruins, never to rest, looking for his satin curtains with the dancing plague and grandma on piano. After everyone had gathered in front of the pile of painted sets and props, the kind we couldn’t use anyway since the matte painting was by then damaged by the stage light’s heat and fading, mother opened the easily negotiable barrier between the scenic kindling, carrying a single candle. She struck a match and lit it. She spoke:

“50 years ago, during the German occupation of France, German soldiers burned this theatre down,” she said.

Print the myth.

“When the war ended, my grandmother raised enough money from the public to rebuild this theatre, with the help of patrons and friends just like you. And over the next half century it has become our home and a part of our culture. As it passed to me when mother died, it will pass to my daughter Renette when I’m gone, and to her children then…”

Everybody looked at me and Lain. Lain put his arms around me and smiled, pulling me closer to him with one hand and holding the other, interlocking our fingers. I hugged him back and smiled. I smiled despite myself, turning a very self conscious shade of red. A chameleon cannot always control its transformations.

“And so, to celebrate our family’s tradition and our friends and patrons, it is our tradition here at La petite illusion, to burn these sets ourselves. We do this to wash away the success and pain of yesterday and start anew. We do this to symbolize our determination and rebirth. We do this because it takes more than fire to kill the French spirit…”

Mother passed the crossguard and knelt, the fire passed into the stream and flared up with a whoosh that made the gathered crowd gasp and then clap enthusiastically. And we followed her, me first, then Lain with Lee, hold her hand. The rest tip-toed near the edge of the mountain of rubbish, snickering as they razed the castle to the ground, Castle of the King, poor Lear, you poor bastard.

Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.

Thy will be done.

And so went pomp, and physic too, and then the throne and every stone, each and every brick, every single inch unto its ruin. That was our Thanksgiving, uniting us in a heathen’s Sabbath, each patron with a little colored candle, blue or white or red, just for us and not far off, just up there, just up above, was an old Watchtower deserted nowm, once a lighthouse—there were no ships no more, no more below at Le corniche, there were no ships. The fire grew ever larger as the candles fell, one after another, the line moving single file, with great caution, and with greater caution still until no longer approaching; it could feed itself.

The countdown began as “Dix!” rang out in a woman’s voice and the great trois coleur, a descending ball along a track and brightly lit, electroc-neon blue-white-red and falling with each descending number;

“Dix,” echoed back, the ball was falling and all were counting:

Neuf!

Huit!

Sept!

Six!

Sinq!

The fireworks went off in the sky, bursting into those patriotic colors, I pulled Lain close to me and put my head against his shoulder and closed my eyes, the fire calming and warming me.

Quatre!

Trois!

Deux!

The flashing lights of the trois coleur solidified as it came to a rest at the base, a base from which it would not rise for another year, next year’s New Year’s Eve, and all were clapping, hugging one another as the fireworks increased in brightness, so bright I could see the whiter whites with my eyes closed, the New Year ringing out through the French countryside.

And all together:

Un!

“Happy new year!”

And those happy people, young and old, all in great cheer and happy, thrilled by the coming year and its promise. I’d never see them again, most of them, and not without a mask. If anyone who stood there then showed up the year to follow, a year from where we stood that night, Lain and I, watching the fire grow and warm inside. One year from a curtain call for most, and finally they’d get the spotlight, center stage, never to see roses, and a shame it is for all to only get your roses when you fall, nor read the many rave reviews, a two-star epitaph on a five-star grave.

<– Return to Prologue Go to Chapter 2 –>