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How They Fuck You Up, pt. 1

The principal was fat-necked, his throat expanded outward from the closed collar, necktie like a decorative noose. He was red-faced, moustache for effect. His glasses were transitional, and transitionally slow, so he always looked like he was wearing sunglasses indoors.

“Hmmm, a bully, huh?” He crossed his arms, the cuffs of his sleeves ballooning at the closure. He looked like an ex-football player supped on sausage and glory days, stuffed into a caulskin suit.

“Yes, everyday.”

The principal pondered. There was a degree on the wall. He was good at scooping ice-cream for the Citizens of the Month, had a voice you’d want left on your answering machine.

“Hmmm.”

“It’s becoming unbearable.”

The principal twisted a ring on his finger. When too much time passed, and the tardy bell went off like a klaxon, he said: “Maybe hit ‘em and run?” The degree on the wall was crooked.

 

 

Mr. Oakhurst said: “Why, Tammey? That bandage on your wrist.”

“I tried to kill myself last night.”

“…

“I need to call your mother.”

“Don’t do that.”

“I’m sorry, it’s the law.”

<…> Mr. Oakhurst hangs up the phone on its cradle. Saying:

“Ok, ma’am.”

“Tammey.”

“Yes?”

“She said it was because you’re fat. We won’t make that phone call again, ok?”

“Ok.”

“You’ll be ok.”

“Sure.”

“Let’s go out to the playground.”

And Mr. Oakhurst plays with the boys and girls, tossing a ball around, one by one making the girls sit out with their skirts bundled, plays catch with the men in the making, football spiraling into the sun.

“Mr. Oakhurst?”

“Not now, Tammey.”

Mr. Oakhurst died in the catacombs of Paris, convinced he was the Second Coming of Christ.

“I’ll be back,” he said ingloriously, holding a pistol to his head.

His desk has since been emptied out.

 

 

“You look like you swallowed a basketball,” Mr. Marks said. Mike’s cheeks went red.

The blacktop lineup laughed, now having an adult ally.

“Fatso! Chubby hubby!”

“Not a basketball? Maybe a watermelon?” Mr. Marks mused.

A tear formed at the bottom of Mike’s eye.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What My Tattoo Means (Amor fati)

flame-1024x972“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”

–Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

 

I have Amor fati tattooed on my left wrist, prefaced with a semi-colon. The left wrist is where I once tested a chef’s knife to see what it would take to cut the ulnar artery. The nurses have always loved my veins; they are prominent and quick to bleed.

I was left with a scar for a few months, which has since faded. A semi-colon replaces the knife-mark. The semi-colon tattoo is reserved for those who have had suicidal ideation, or indeed, have attempted to quit their life altogether.

Two things stayed the blade. I thought of Ernest Hemingway, who eerily said, ‘I will go like my father’, he a son of a suicide. Both Hemingway and his father ultimately died during “hunting accidents”, the final flutter of dove wings and a gun’s report, but there was that one time Ernest tried to drown himself off the back of his beloved Pilar. He sank a few fathoms before thinking of his brood, and he exclaimed, “My sons!” through a mouthful of expired air. He swam to surface and gasped mightily, to live for a few more years.

Second, I thought of the Golden Gate jumper who, in a millionth of a chance, hit the water at the right angle so that his organs were saved rupture, and his lungs allowed the fortitude to breathe again. He speaks now against suicide on high school and college campuses. He is unfailingly asked, “What was your thought as you leapt?” He replies soberly: “This is a mistake.” I imagine him falling at 200mph with that his purported last thought.

I didn’t want to bleed out, close my eyes to the world weakened by a broken artery with a feeling of ultimate regret. I didn’t want to leave my sons with a father-sized hole. I chose to live.

I choose to live, amor fati.

From Marcus Aurelius: “A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.”

From Epicectus: “Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.”

From Friedrich Nietsche: “That one wants nothing to be different, not forwards, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…but love it.”

When the knife blade sliced into my arm, I was sure I was done living, that I couldn’t live with or without alcohol, that I was at the jumping-off point. I bled, but I didn’t bleed out. I wrapped my wrist: “This is a mistake.” I calmly stopped the flow and let the wound see air. I would later be in a hospital for a dual diagnosis of depression and alcoholism, receiving the help I desperately needed.

I am a migrating moon, a panoply of phases that come and go. “This, too, shall pass” is wisdom for my nomadic self, tugged as it is by the pulls of my head and heart. Even the New Moon, however invisible, is beautiful, as much as is the Full Moon; I am cycles of life and in my mortal cycling, love every minute.

I did a gratitude exercise: I visited my grandfathers in their respective mauseleum crypts, knelt down before the names on the walls, and whispered my thanks to them both, for my alcoholism. For my manic-depression. Through the passing of their genes, I am who I am, and having the wherewithal to accept what it is that afflicts me makes me a more intact human being. Intact comes from the French, integrite. Whole.

Amor fati. May you love your fate, too.

 

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The Guilt We Harbor, pt. 1 (for Maggie and my brother)

magsBrother:

It’s been a long while since I contacted you.

“Where are you?” you may ask, though you have my mailing address and I have yours.

I ask the same question most every day. Not out of geographic curiosity.  I know where you are and I’ve an idea of what your walls may look like: the beds, the barracks. The sea of prison blue. I know you’re situated in the middle of King’s County with a sky that must be devastatingly incredible.

I’ve driven the 5 a few times over in the time you’ve been gone and have seen the tired pistoning of oil pumps; the ruminative cattle; and the white, white haze which seems to jump senses into whiter noise.

 “It’s my family.” I sat on the stoop, shoulders with Maggie, attempting to tell her, exactly, why life had, through the course of one phone call, suddenly changed.

“Family? When is it NOT family,” Mags said in return, shaking back her sleeves and lighting a cigarette.

Twenty hours prior, we had exchanged surprise at the fifth of Amsterdam Maggie had secreted in a potted ficus, yet somehow forgotten during the course of a mutually attended wedding reception. Like goldfish we had disremembered our aqueous surroundings: David’s wedding was on the water, and we were aquarium drinking.  There was a photo of us taken on a short pier, me and Mags seemingly in deep philosophical discussion, but most likely discussing the particular economy involved in sharing a surprise fifth–an odd number to split on the even—and she, smoking with abandon, her last cigarettes.

Maggie wore black to David’s wedding, because although David remained one of her favorite ‘Goys’, to Maggie weddings were on par with Shiva calls. She always wore Onassis sunglasses, especially when ‘I do’s’ were said, a widower’s affect despite not being a widow. She drug around her ex-husband’s last name, though, as if holding on to the dead like an odious and ill-expired pet, taxidermied and talismanic in the corner.

This is not chosen.

Maggie was herself seemingly always sitting Shiva, her own divorce something of funereal gloom and requiring shrouded wedding photos; since the divorce, funerals and weddings were all the same to her, attended with equal distaste and with equal aperitif of vodka, a bottle of which she carried in her clutch to mediate her more dour tendencies. All vows were requiems; all requiems were ‘Well, thank God that’s over’; life was just the something in-between.

She was the first person I called upon receiving the news.

I’m writing this letter. I need for you to hear me, or at least the story of the past three years–those you spent within labyrinthine corridors of concrete. Consider me a conduit. When lightning strikes a tree, its fires are shot through a thousand tissues and limbs fall in beautiful wreckage and the ground crackles a hundred feet around. In the end, the tree bears a scar and it continues wrapping rings of growth around its most blackened parts. The tree keeps growing but it will always have, coiled in its history, proof of its damage.

‘Hang in there’ was something Mags would never have said to me, and God help me were I to ever say as much to her.

‘Hang in there with what—a fucking noose?’

Maggie reserved her gallows humor for any day the executioner’s hood had any particular and existential menace. By this metric, her bed may as well been built over two trapdoor flaps, headboard at their join. Every day she wore black in presage of a coffin and the billowier her shroud the better—like Death, just ecumenical and without the scythe.

“My brother was arrested.”

“Ok.”

Maggie smoothed out her dress, a Guatemalan print still wrinkled and maybe half-dry.

“Ok,” she said again, her Sag Harbor accent more prominent this time, and she leveled out the lap of her dress until it was in a neat triangle across her knees.

“Does he have a lawyer.” Maggie had placed her cigarette to the side, needing two hands to fix her skirt; she recollected her American Spirit from ash-headed perch on the stairs. We were sitting outside, the same stairs she had mounted just minutes earlier with crossed-arms and ever-present dark glasses.

It may have been the odd first question, not a query into the nature of the arrest, or inquiry into my wellbeing. Was I upset? Else perversely vindicated of any criminal excess I had participated in that weekend?  Mags and I were both still riding vapors of the night prior, the effluvium of surfeit vodka seemingly present. If not present, at the very least coloring the bedsheets I’d left unmade back inside, me having been near malarial with sweat. Maggie certainly had more than I did the night prior, but by contrast was already properly coifed and perfumed, tight curls dried to her forehead like a magisterial wig.

The last time I sped through King’s County was with Bradley in a U-Haul truck. A trailer shimmied behind us bearing a vintage car and three bristling, sleep-deprived cats. The cab smelled of Kamel Reds and spent coffee cups. By mid-morning, just beyond the King’s County HP Station and directly beyond the rutted half-roads which finger out into the farmers’ fields, I felt I couldn’t concentrate any longer on the highway lines. We pulled over and slept on the grass beneath these wispy clouds that promised an unerringly still, cricket-shivering night. Brad slept on the trailer rig and, when he awoke, pointed out that I had slept in the grass beneath a sign reading: ‘Dog Lawn.’

“Does he have a lawyer,” she said matter-of-factly, and not as question.

Maggie and I both knew, contrary to American judiciary standard, that we were all—and without courtroom session necessary—guilty of something or other, no need for trial. Innocence was reserved for children and cats. Maggie’s Talmudic learnings plead otherwise, and she herself was a social-justice warrior—her collected poetry spoke to that end—but Maggie was wisened, jaded, fresh off a nasty divorce.

To her, life had become unfair, or at least only comprehensible if everyone shared in a free-floating and collective blame. You couldn’t exactly call Maggie a nihilist; still she wore black to weddings.

And she knew that what everyone needed, sometimes, was just a really good fucking lawyer.

“I don’t know,” I said rubbing my eyes. “I just found out. He was probably in the back of a police car when Dave was cutting the cake.” I borrowed Maggie’s cigarette and took a draw.

“My mom called,” I said exhaling, “Which means my brother’s already past his jailhouse phone call.” I handed the cigarette back. I still hadn’t showered.

“I mean, I’m sure Mom wasn’t the first one he called upon being brought in. Probably the last person he wanted to talk to.” I crossed my arms while waving away the smoke. “I’m guessing he’s out on bail.”

I thought of you arriving at Avenal, looking up from your handcuff-fisted lap, and seeing stark blue lights against a long-ignored landscape.

Maggie finally asked: “What’d he do?” She looked straight ahead, working backwards from her initial question. Mags was the esquire in reverse and, with black robes, presumed judge, too. I stopped my hand from stupidly waving and inserted it into an armpit.  I turned to her with one eye squinted.

“Mom said he thought I’d have known.”

“Known what?” Mags wasn’t impatient, but rather soft in her questioning, dissolving me of complicity before I could place my own self in manacles.

I didn’t answer, not directly. Instead, I turned again to look straight ahead, parallel to Maggie’s’ gaze. I changed the subject.

“You know, I finished ‘American Psycho’ this morning. Ain’t that some fucked up timing,” I snorted. We stared at the street while Mags extinguished her cigarette. A jogger labored past, out of breath.

“Is your brother a psycho?” Maggie deadpanned, still working backwards with her line of questioning.

“Naw. But he is American, so there’s that.”

We’ve both ushered that fire into the ground in different ways, but both bear darkened rings. We’ve both been conduits and have had the lawn throw up sparks beneath our feet. We’ve both had fire run through us, and wait for the ground to speak its response.

Maggie allowed a half-smile. In her less sober moments, which were many, she’d throw on a Clash record and shout along with Joe Strummer: ‘I’m so bo-ooored with the USA!’, just replacing ‘bored’ with ‘scared’. These words she’d shout with expatriate gusto as if her garden gate was border enough to keep out the particular stars and stripes she eschewed on her own freak flag.

Mags was a raucous rabble-rouser, yet still privately scared of her own rebellion. She was convinced her phone was tapped and that the FBI had a file on her six inches thick. “Fuck the police!” was one of her war cries. “Fuck the Man! Fuck a duck!”

“My brother hit a woman over the head with a rock, Maggie. On a greenbelt. He wanted to drag her into the bushes and cut off her panties as trophy.” I scratched my head and blanched at the word ‘panties.’ I widened my eyes to rid them of disbelief.

I borrowed Mags’ smoke again. She had lit a second one already.

“Then again, Maggie, I dunno. Maybe he is psycho. On top of being American.”

I’m damaged. You are damaged.

 Maggie simply nodded and placed her hand reassuringly on my knee as I blew smoke.

 

__________________________________________

 

Maggie and I lived in North Park, perhaps a mile apart, and though San Diego spans a 100-mile stretch of shoreline, there are densely populated islands in the median, one of which Mags and I inhabited, just shy of Balboa Park’s arcaded museums. Regardless of proximity, we drove cars to see each other. It was like living in Los Angeles, but with greater sun-bronzed apathy. The coastal architecture was made up of disused naval ships instead of gantries, and culture less varied than one would expect from a border town.

The first and last prisons built in California reside on the US-Mexico border. If the federal penal system could extend its reach into the Tijuana pleasure-lands, it would, depositing prisons like unwanted cargo just past the border checkpoints. As it stands, San Diego is where Father Junipero Serra built the first Presidio before heading North, waving judicial crucifixes at ‘savages’ and proselytizing others.

Since Serra days, the state has extended a thousand miles north, then back, so that at journeyed loop, there is also the last presidio, Donovan Correctional Facility, a concrete structure, Class III-IV, parked above CA on one face, MX the other. It can’t go further either way, and bulldozers scape the face of the hill where Donovan perches tenuously. There’s a watershed amphitheater down the canyon to one side and a landfill on the other. A mile distant is an amusement park.

Donovan holds Sirhan Sirhan, a  Menendez Brother, also one of the Toolbox Killers—all Los Angelenos with varying and gruesome psychopathy, all somehow housed in the same penitential block and classified equally despite the disparate sufferings of their victims. They’re all three hundred miles away from their respective crime scenes–the Toolbox Killers’ gore-theater in the Cleveland Forest being the worst—and now all are granted cinder block views of Mexico, in California’s fairest climate, all imperfect justice at the end of the Golden State Penal road.  My brother almost wound up there.

Maggie’s boyfriend—her ostensible boyfriend—as they’d only pressed palms against bulletproof glass, else talked on jailhouse phones, resided meanwhile in Corcoran.

He’d been serving time in the hole—an extended stay—for having too many postage stamps on his person; this in a facility where, across the yard, Charles Manson lived in a lush solitary all his own, free to write as many lettered manifestos as he pleased, relative to his notoriety.

Maggie’s boyfriend, Christopher, ran a poetry press from his cell, and was made medicinally contrite, weakened by the lithium he was prescribed, otherwise ravaged by years of meth abuse up and down the SW Sudafed Highway. He was a three-time loser, owlish in his spectacles and with jaundiced eyes; sleight of frame; and sporting slick-backed hair.  When the volume of Christopher’s correspondence became suddenly suspect, he was kicked to the Hole—this somewhere roundabout the time that Mansons’ third—fourth?—parole hearing was being televised.

There are no flashbulbs in the Hole, no video cameras, and precious bodily fluid certainly can’t be wasted on postage stamps, so Maggie—by default—ran Christopher’s press en absentia, dutifully licking envelopes and resuming correspondence where Christopher had left off, his Rolodex certainly less impressive, less shambolic than Manson’s. It was never talked about that Christopher may also have been dealing drugs during his Corcoran stay. It was easier to imagine his crime involved going postal, so to speak.

 

Maggie pours the scotch and we’re sitting on the back porch, which a friend of hers has fenced in with cheap lattice-work lumber, all to hem in the cat and otherwise give the ipoema a place to root, violet flowers sinking into wood, providing cover, but reducing everything to splinters in the meanwhile.

“What is this?” I jog a pill in my hand, white and nondescript.

Maggie rearranges her limbs to approximate queenliness. She has a crack in her glasses.

“A downer, I think?”

“Percoset?”

“I dunno. Let’s try.”

I shrug. Mags has a boom-box playing a bluegrass version of Pink Floyd. I swallow the pill with a hit of Dewar’s.

“Why—Mags—are your glasses cracked?” The Prayer Flags behind her are aged, evaporated with either over- or underuse, and there are two Guatemalan dresses left to dry in the evening air. Big purple blossoms break the lattice-work balcony, blue in the evening-set, and ‘Comfortably Numb’ plays, uncomfortably, on fiddle.

“I was so depressed today; and I got a second psychiatrist. I was prescribed something new and I literally hit the wall.” She shakes the rocks in her drink. “I mean, I fucking fell down.”

“Do your psychiatrists know about each other?”

“By name—shu-ure.”

“You really shouldn’t be mixing your meds,” I said, irony train neatly docking into station. The downer coursed my system, leaving behind a shivery wake. I fingered one of Maggie’s poetry books, which lay discarded on the patio table.

“Mayakovsky clutched a rivet, only the rivet metamorphosed into a gun pointing straight at his heart: Art”.

 Maggie literally wrote poetry to save her life when life was an otherwise confusion of conflicting meds and medicated conflict.

During Maggie’s divorce, when existence was the figurative wall she crashed into, and not the literal one that cracked her glasses, she wrote a book called ‘7th Circle’. It is a slim-spined collection of poems about suicides; she had sublimated her pain into researching and writing various pieces on Mayakovsky, Jean Seberg, George Trakl, Diane Arbus. It won the San Diego Book Award for poetry.

Despite having narrowly avoided the Seventh Circle herself,  still she says: “I can’t fucking take it anymoire.”

“I know Mags, I know.” On cue, ‘Comfortably Numb’ stops playing.

Maggie slept with a gun in her handbasket next to the bed, paranoid, anxious; she had a confusion of prescriptions, but always a neat handle of scotch in the pantry. I know because I unpacked it for her when I helped her move. Also, we hit it often when communally writing poetry, else editing other poets’ work. She was a mess and I was fast becoming one, all this speed and slowness, the cigarettes and pills; the walking into walls.

Maggie called life ‘Continuous Performance’, and that’s what it is, that’s what it was.

Brother…

 Sometimes I spent the night at Mags’ when the gun was too present in the handbasket, when she was drunk and scared; when I would sleep chastely in her bed, wrapping my arms around her, she the Maude to my Harold, the tobacco present on her dressing gown. I’d lie awake and smell her lavender and love her to sleep.

She had a boyfriend in prison; I had a brother in prison, and we’d fall asleep lotus-eaters, shot through with pathos, rocks settling in the bedside scotch.

 

___________________________________________________

 

I remember when Christopher was released for a brief time and how he held forum at Maggie’s house in front of an ashtray. He was smoking a long and almost effeminately thin joint. Which was “safe” he confided, because “California only looks for uppers in my system.” His hands were strange deep-sea jellyfish, fingers not unlike wavering tentacles. “California is a river of blue, ” he said tapping out an ash, “It is punctuated by a braking of bus wheels and penitentiary-blue lights.”

A wave of the hand, a drag on the tightly-rolled cigarette. “California is blue.” He looked pleased because, above all, he was a poet.

This all happened before and after 9/11. On 9/11, Maggie and I traded a bottle of wine back and forth on her bed and watched the news, saw the Trade Centers fall in occasional time-elapse, like films of flowers speeding to the ground.

“I always hated those buildings,” Mags said, handing me back the bottle of wine, but with tears in her eyes. She was a true New Yorker. Christopher had yet to emerge from the Hole and my brother was just skulking the greenbelts in practice-walks for his later crime. Maggie had vases of yarrow on her bedside, and rosebuds. We were both fiercely against the New Cold War and fiercely into drink.

I don’t know who said: “We deserve this, don’t we?”

And it may have been a personal revelation, on a duvet, in a house with a TV and with buildings falling down, or it may have been a revolutionary statement.

As Maggie wrote:

‘A Gestapo agent pointed to Guernica and asked/:Did you do this?/No—you did’

We may have had Mexican food that night. I vaguely remember. I just remember falling down in the restaurant and saying, “It’s all my fault” like a building crumpling, like a spent flower.

____________________________________________

Christopher was released from the Hole before my brother rode the sea of penitentiary blue. Christopher attended my wedding even—eight months following Tower One’s collapse—as Maggie’s date. And my brother was there, too, hands folded in lap in some premonitory idea of manacles, while my wife and I released butterflies into the June malaise.  Both Christopher and my brother would soon ride buses to penitentiary—in Christopher’s case, for the fourth go-round—near the same time.

Anyways, I thought of Christopher there on that dog-piss grass: I saw him last in the SD Jail. Maggie sobbed in the periphery of the visiting room and I took up the phone that lay unceremoniously on the steel-grey table. I picked up the receiver and looked at Christopher behind the glass–he was all slicked-back hair and waxed moustache; he wore a tight-lipped expression. By his admission, he was on a diet of heavy metals and liver medication. He wore thick glasses, which made his eyes look disproportionately huge and wallowy in the otherwise context of grey brick and cold, cold light. Maggie sobbed, and she sobbed. I held the phone to my ear and didn’t know a goddamn thing to say.

“Take care of Maggie,” Christopher had a habit of saying during his brief foray out of penitentiary, which I should have taken as premonition.

Christopher was picked up outside a house in La Jolla Farms, high on meth, having attempted to break into a house with clearly lit home burglary system alarms. He was seated calmly on the sidewalk in front of the estate smoking a cigarette in laconic fashion while flashing lights and a waiting pair of handcuffs coursed his way.

My brother, meanwhile, was found with blood on his shoes, walking in a daze after his victim had successfully fought him off. He had an unworn ski mask and a pair of scissors. He wielded other accouterments, too, he later told me, but he never revealed what. The full inventory must be recorded in some police ledger or stenographic receipt somewhere but I don’t have a transcript of his trial: I just don’t know, and some details are superfluous anyway.

To wit: I wore a black suit with a red shirt the only time I visited my brother at Avenal. I had IHOP for breakfast: buttermilk pancakes, black coffee, and two Vicodin Maggie had lent me for the occasion. Everywhere there were oil pumps in various stages of deterioration, piston heads slumped in mechanical inebriation, disused, rusted, their heyday sup of premium crude having long since been polluted with brackish transudation, a great and rusted machinery stopped. The fields were fallow and run through with weed-choked irrigation ditches. The suit which I caught sight of in the IHOP plate glass was the same I had been married in. My shirt was the otherwise feint at insouciance, a vintage find with a large collar worn unbuttoned at the neck. I was being an asshole. My visit was not so much out of compassion, and I hedged on it even being an obligation. No: I had come for my brother’s birthright. He was the eldest, the forever good son, and I had always been the black sheep—as evidenced even by my choice of black gabardine that day. I wanted to prove that after years in second place, my mere existence outside prison walls won me the favorite son pelt: I was Jacob, and my brother in his stupid penitentiary orange was Esau. Maybe he wore penitentiary green. Again, some details are superfluous. I just remember my brother ate from the vending machines in the visiting room, fingers childishly stained with orange Cheet-o dust, and I felt a snarling elitism. My fingers were clean, my shoes unbloodied. “Free, white, and 21,” as Maggie would always say, free in the sense I had virgin wrists, unlike my brother and Christopher, whose wrists had been defiled by the snapping of cuffs, their hands literally tied, manacled, courtesy of the penal system in the great and golden state Californ-i-a.

I first met Christopher on the phone 3(?) years ago when he corrected my pronunciation of Greek poet Yannis Ritsos. And here we were again–on the phone, but face-to-face. “Thom, take care,” he said. “Take care of M.” I took care of Maggie by kissing her in some hopeless manner on the cheek, and leading her out of the Piranesi-inspired civic building, phone hung-up and Christopher disappeared.

 In jail as in prison everything watches you. Elevators only open up to narrow corridors, there are mirrors everywhere. In penitentiary, there are gates upon gates, like steel-braced grimaces, and guards finger their clubs. It’s a matter of guilt by association, like Maggie said: ‘Everyone needs a good fucking lawyer,” even if there’s no blood on your shoes or if your system is clean of what the system says you can’t have. You’re just guilty for living, guilty by association, even if you haven’t been tried and accused of anything. We’re all guilty, and sometimes we sit on a curb waiting for the guillotine of justice to drop while waiting outside a burgled house, either high on Sudafed or with spatters of O negative on our boot-tip.

We’re all guilty. We’re all guilty.

At the Poetry Awards, Mags gripped my arm with nervous strength. A crooked arm flexed.

“I doin’t know,” she said, unsure if she should be here, there.

I kissed her cheek.

“Of course you should be here.”

We drank white wine and hid behind the junipers. When she was in her married house, citrus hedges hemmed in the house, and the wood was dark. Maggie always hid. Her current house was of a strange snail-shell design, her bed in the middle of a coil with an incongruent sunroof, briars out front. She decorated her windows with velvet draperies to hide in midday dark. She hid behind damask and dark sunglasses and drink.

“You ok?”

“Just noivous.”

She shouldn’t have been. She won. Maggie Jaffe for ‘7th Circle.’

I run too fast

I fly too high

I hit to hard

Too wide my eyes

Too full my heart.

Too deep the pain.

In the bathroom of the SD Jail I held her. She was in front of a mirror, red-eyed and cursing. There were so many cameras and squinched-in seats and phones and iron-greys; so many cramped elevators and narrow corridors and convex watching glasses; so many forms and disparaging looks; so much free-floating guilt.

She hunched over the counter with red-rimmed eyes, hands trembling, and her shoulder blades were butterfly-like when racked with sobs, pumping like wings.

“I just can’t take it anymoire,” she cried, jaggedly, and it was about being watched while simultaneously watching over, this curious opticon of prison existence where everyone is assumed guilty and no one is innocent.

“I just can’t take it.”

“I just. Can’t take it.”

“It’s alright, Mags. Let’s go home. I’ll drive.”

 

 

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Mikey

guitarMy roommate Mikey and I dug up a guitar from the rec room closet, some thrift-store quality six-string, small-bodied with a laminate top.

“I dunno, Mikey—the D-string is missing the fucking tuning knob.”

Mikey, though, was a scrappy ex-Marine—youngish—with a knack for problem-solving. He was sleight of frame, half-Portuguese half-Mexican, and could’ve passed for a young Che Guevarra were it not for his battalion tats and ear gauges.

“We can figure this out. We need some music up in here.”

I tuned the guitar save for the D string, which buzzed noisily against the frets.

“Well, it’s not like we can go up to the nursing station and ask for a pair of pliers. Sharp objects and all. Imagine: can I get my Librium—oh, and a needle-nose?”

Mikey laughed, which was good. He was in for PTSD and suicidal ideation after a training exercise had laid him flat on the ground, shot by his buddy on accident.

(‘Where’d you get shot?’ I’d asked him. He pointed to the area above his right clavicle, where the neck meets the shoulder. I thought of the Angle of Luis, the imaginary line used in Jacobin times to guide the guillotine blade: where the bullet entered then left Mikey’s body was at the angle’s apex).

We searched the Day Room for something to MacGyver the guitar. Mikey, ever resourceful, settled on a ballpoint pen. The pen is mightier than the sword, after all, or in this case a pair of pliers. He unscrewed the butt of the pen and held it up for examination, fingering its clip.

(Mikey fell on the training field into a trench, his right arm useless and tangled in gear. With his left hand he wrested a field knife from its scabbard and hacked at the strap of his assault rifle while spewing blood from the mouth).

“Let’s try this,” and Mikey pinched the clip of the pen against the cap like an impotent set of tweezers and set to work on the D-string gearwork. We took turns with the makeshift pliers and bullied the D into tautness.

“Just a smidge more.” I played the D against the G.

“Perfect.” C chord, D, A, then G. All sounded good.

(“What’re you in for?” he’d asked.

“Substance,” I said simply, though the answer could’ve been more complicated. I’d been on ludestra, topomax, vraylar, escitalopram, aripiprazole, naltrexone, buboprion, benzodiazepines, trazadone, mirtazapine. Oh—and vodka. Call me Tennessee Williams, albeit a Tennessee Williams who hadn’t yet swallowed the cap).

Mikey handed me the guitar and I started playing ‘Autumn Leaves’, just funked up with lots of staccato.

“Righteous.” Mikey picked up the guitar case and started drumming out a backbeat. Me and my buddy, the young Che look-alike, our own makeshift happy band in the Day Room of Sharp Mesa Vista hospital.

Melissa joined in, Veronica too. Lyndon, the blind guy who had lost his vision in a rugby accident (and I never got to ask him if he still dreamt in color)—we all sang along and tapped out rhythms while waiting for meds, for nighttime snack, for discharge, for second chances—maybe third–, for homes halfway and otherwise, for whatever spirit to escape its shivery place inside of us and make us whole. We were altogether too loud considering the hour, but because we were laughing, the nurses let us be; and it was proof that, despite our could-be sadness, despite our private desperations, there was in that moment the greater capacity for pure, unbridled joy.

“That was awesome, Mikey.”

“Feels good, Bro.”

I’ve not looked back since leaving that hospital, but instead look for Mikey wherever I go, in the Rooms, in my recovery, so that I can continue growing a joy undiminished, to live, and in the return to living, perhaps sing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Finn’s Eyes

brushfieldIt’s said the first person to live to two hundred is alive today, the wonder of science and this constant clamber for the New Methuselah. Why you’d want that kind of misery, I don’t know, but I’m just happy that my son has a new life expectancy, that the triplicate 21st chromosome doesn’t mean he’ll be living an antediluvian life-span before having his forever exeunt.

He’ll have eyes open sixty years at least, with eyes that are beautiful.

The nurse first noticed his eyes, his eyes being first notice. Awake and watchful in the recovery room, his orbits were wells of blue constellated by circles of concentric and white spots. Brushfield markers, cholesterol scars ringing his turquoise irises. It is the inheritance of his diagnosis, to have his eyes tattooed in quartz, like the face of an iridium watch.

And his pupil in the middle a wide and expanding thing, to take in the world while the stars keep watch over the incoming light. His eyes are the universe contracted, the necessary beauty of a confused chromosome, and Findlay, what do you see? When the images pass through these cerulean gates and before they hit the brain, these irises fantastic?

It’s said the first person to live to two hundred already walks the earth, but the immeasurable and infinite already exists beneath blond lashes, and when Finn sleeps, almond-eyed and innocent, the universe, too, sleeps.

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How Phil Got Cancer

scapegoat-Jesus-570x340He fell, his machine finally stopped, with the clamor of a mess tray and a final tintinnabulation of cutlery. A fork dropped at Phil’s feet and came to rest at the heel of his boot. Phil looked down at the fork.

The kid dropped to his knees as if in some final act of contrition, then slumped sideways with arms akimbo like a discarded marionette. The mess hall grew silent. Private First Class Dicknose was dead.

“Motherfucker,” someone behind Phil said, either a last epithet, or commentary on what had just happened. Phil looked at Dicknose and nudged him with a foot. Dicknose’s body moved slightly, but remained prone.

“Shit.”

PFC Dicknose had a mustellidae face, weaselly, with a broad forehead yet a needly and aquiline nose. The DS had given him the unfortunate nickname, likening his delicacy of feature to a a teenage boner, but his real name was Arnie. Arnie Armstrong, hailing from Louisville, Kentucky, bluegrass country. He didn’t stand a chance in the Army, wasn’t even deployed before the other men had made him a punching bag for their own and varied frustrations. The coroner would find Arnie’s torso beneath his shirt a  long and continuous bruise, one that extended from below the collar line to just above his kidneys.

He already had pneumonia, which would be his downfall. He became the goat cast figuratively into the desert, the one for Azazel, starved for compassion and left to die among the sands of the training grounds. With the pneumonia, he couldn’t keep up with his platoon and was the cause for numerous push-ups.

“Thanks, Dicknose,” the soldiers took turns punching the shit out of him nightly back in the barracks. “Fuck you, Dicknose.”

And PFC Arnie Armstrong died among the spilt mashed potatoes and with a glassy look of dead-goat motherfucking defeat.

The entire platoon was courtmartialed, Phil included though Phil had always been light with his punches. “This’ll hurt me more than it does you, Buddy.” Phil even saved Arnie a few times like that time Arnie was locked into a locker with a buckful of fulminating bleach, when Phil like some fatigued Simon, released him from his misery. (Phil received a few punches for that one himself)

The platoon, duly courtmartialed, never saw the bush, but were instead relegated to an arms factory where for a few years they rubbed phallic missiles with lubricants and noxious chemicals, the better to shoot you with was the joke, Turns out the chemicals were far more toxic than even the Orange deforesting the Nam countryside. Breathed in, breathed out, the vapors lined Phil’s lungs and set upon deforesting his alveoli with a vigor that later invited the cancer to set in. He would survive the War, but penance killed him, killed his fellow soldiers, like they killed Arnie, and with the crashing of a mess plate, the day the scapegoat died, a whole country of men signed their own death warrant, to rest in pieces in their own beleaguered manner. Somewhere, Arnie lies content.

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Magnus

I meet Magnus today, who resembles at first Jonathan Franzen, were Franzen to be the unofficial fifth member of ABBA. And, as it so happens, Magnus is Scandinavian who just flew back from Sweden the night prior. He’s the librarian (“of sorts” he’ll be quick to add) at the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur. We both agree that flying is strange.

“This may be lore,” he says as introduction.

“Go on. I like stories.”

“Well it was during the Eisenhower years, chieftains of the Lakota tribe were flown into DC for a meeting over land. It’d been their first time in an airplane, right? When they were summoned to meet Congress, the chiefs said ‘we can’t talk or pow-wow right now. In six days, once our spirits catch up to us, then we can meet. That’s how I feel right now.” I laugh.

“That’s a great story. I don’t care if it’s true or not.”

Magnus has a cup of coffee and a slap-happy look suggesting that this noontime may as well be midnight.

“The TSA harassed me, you know. Said what was my occupation. I said ‘librarian.’ The agent looked up at me, put a finger to his lips, said ‘shhhh’, and handed me back my papers.”

I like Magnus immediately. And he has a quiet befitting of a librarian just without the air of taskmastery. There are flying mobiles and posters and books all around us, and this is the place where purportedly ‘nothing ever happens.’ But we continue talking, and at conversation’s end he hands me a card and says: “Send some of your writing to the Henry Miller Library,” and I am honored and glad to have met him. Things do happen here.

 

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How Phil Got Sober

old-big-book-white-background-bible-52328831Spooty lost a tooth that day, and it was in the back of Phil’s head. A black Lincoln, leather interior, T-boned in an intersection. It wasn’t Phil’s fault, but he was drunk, so he’s the one that went off to jail. Spooty was a cocker-spaniel/dachshund mix, long-hair black and white, and she was thrown from the backseat into Phil’s skull and dislodged a canine. Phil was wearing a Nike T-shirt, swimming trunks, and flip-flops and was set on picking his wife up from work. Pilloried, he never made it, and Tammey bought pizzas that night; she cut the pizza slices in half, carefully, and stored them in the rented freezer. She would have pepperoni and sausage, September 7, 2001.

“Do you want to stay in my house?” Tammey’s friend asked, while Phil langoured in prison—a six month sentence—and Tammey agreed. This was in Ypsilanti, MI when the factories were closing, and dilapidation was relevant. The house was terrible, but Tammey had pizza.

On a phone call, trying to settle legal matters, Tammey was cut off because that’s when the second plane hit.

Phil had to move off of general pop because he was mouthy, a wordsmith and wordy. His fellow inmates couldn’t figure out his insults, in return threatened to just kill him instead.

Ypsilanti was a town populated by Muslims, and the mood was tense. Hate everywhere and accusing eyes. Tammey lived in a slum-house and when Phil kept calling her for cigarettes, dry-drunk, and demanding monies, Tammey just eventually unplugged the phone. Money had run out.

Spooty was ok, but minus a tooth.

Spartacus: And what does one dream of when he’s longer a champion?

Phil was released when it was snowing, Christmas Eve, committed to a 90+90, and Tammey picked him up outside the walls; Phil was released in the clothes he came in.

  1. A Nike t-shirt, hot pink.
  2. Swimming trunks, drawstrung.
  3. Flip-flops, black.

They ate at the Coffee Manor for X-mas Eve, and it was alright.

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Mr. North Park

His name is Dennis, though I refer and have referred to him as Mr. North Park for years. I see him everywhere, riding Kermit on his bicycle with spindles for legs, often clutching a walking cane in defiance of his ten-speed, and sometimes an umbrella in defiance of the weather. The other day, there was a slight sprinkle, but the umbrella that he clutched was ultimately beachy, like a tasseled parasol, and he pedaled his bike with one hand, his shillelagh on point.

Dennis always wears a felt beret, either green or burgundy. His thin but longish hair coils out from beneath the hat like greying payot and sometimes he smokes a pipe, though it’s usually an itinerant cigarette. When I met him, the fact of his tobacco was obvious in his dearth of teeth, the remaining ones brown-tinged and worn, like miniature ice cream sundaes in his mouth.

“Hi. I’m Thom—” I offered, “What’s your name?” Dennis was cooly smoking a Nat Sherman on the street corner with a paperback novel tucked under his arm. He wore his typical moustache, which was Burt Reynolds minus the Grecian Male. We shook hands.

“Dennis.”

“I see you all over town. Thought I’d introduce myself.”

Because you see, I’m also Mr. North Park, the neighborhood being my peripatetic beat and I can quote to you all the architects that built this town in concrete slab and inspiration—the Requas and Gills and Meads. I’ve been to every establishment, and everyone knows my name: from Dougie, the homelass man who lives by the Qwik Stop; to Tomaso the acne-faced kid at the defuncting coffeeshop; to Timothy the fire-pit boss at the BBQ joint. Gabe, Lauren and Mike; Rose who mixes my ras el hanout at the spice shop; and Tony, who like Dennis, has worn down teeth at Holiday, just from eating too many sunflower seeds. He can be caught speaking Aramaic on the phone, heatedly, with his who-knows-who friends, but Aramaic was the language of Christ.

“I’ve lived here ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” Dennis said, in which case both he  and the grasshopper have grown—just like the city—and we talk about looming gentrification. We talk about the ashes of old establishments gone the way of the dinosaur, and the new eggs which have appeared in their stead.

“So long as it doesn’t become downtown,” I complained.

There, however, is a concept of amor fati, in which case you wouldn’t have it any other way, the idea of eternal recurrence, and looking at Dennis’ semi-myopic eyes, we see each other for a second, and shaking hands, Mr. North Park meets Mr. North Park and I walk back into the city.