Thursday, March 23, 2017

Here Be Monsters

Richard loved The Discovery Channel.  He knew most nature programming favoured sensationalism and rawness; feuding tigers or a lioness gruesomely tackling a gazelle proved more ratings-friendly than any real scientific insight.  Yet he still relished the primal, visceral thrill of such imagery.  In spite of this rare display of self-awareness, Richard fancied himself an amateur expert in ethology.  Like his favourite channel mistaking brutality for natural poetry, Richard quoted animal facts as though they were anything but anecdotal.  He was often found at parties interjecting nonsequitirs about insects or giraffes into conversations, armed only with a Coors Lite and countless hours of logged primetime television.  Without fail, this would result in hushed tones of friends uttering “blowhard” and “showoff.”  At no point would anyone refer to him as “interesting.”
                It was only on what would quite possibly be the final day of Doctor Richard Temple’s life that any of his trivial knowledge was put to practical use. 
                Two weeks prior, Dr. Temple was on call at Chicago Presbyterian past 1 a.m. when a nurse approached  him with an oversized manila folder.  The sticker on the tab read, “Foster, Thomas.”  He removed the X-Ray and placed it against a lightboard.  Instantly, he recognized the unmistakable dark mass in the pancreas.  Stage three.  Inoperable.  It was almost perfectly round, like a tennis ball, and large enough that even a layman would know it didn't belong.
                Richard cleared his throat, stifling a gulp. 
                He tracked down the nurse, shoving the X-Ray back in the envelope and then her hands.  He hurried through the radiology wing.  “Give this to Dr. Warner.  He’ll know what to do.”
                “Doctor, he’s your patient,” the nurse protested.
                Richard moved briskly.  “He was admitted under Dr. Warner.  It’s…it’s his responsibility.”  He ducked into a men’s room and clutched  the sink until his knuckles turned marble-white.  Exhaling heavily, as though he had come up from the deep-end, he turned the faucet.
                A thick, seemingly solid pole of icy coolness moved from spigot to drain.  He disrupted the flow with his right palm and slapped his face.
                With the exception of roleplaying in med school, his one year in residence had not yet demanded of Richard to relay a fatal diagnosis.  In his own mind, he had imagined various potential scenarios; the crying, the silent resolve or shock, the pleas of denial and bargaining, the panicky calls to loved ones.  Everytime he felt he could handing it when it arose.  Yet, in the few cases where such a scenario showed promise to become a reality, he found a way to avoid it. 
                Richard left the men’s room, nearly running headlong for the emergency room exit.
                Mr. Foster’s room was to his right.  Out of the corner of his line of sight, he glimpsed Dr. Warner standing by the foot of the bed.  His arms were neatly folded, moving occasionally for emphasis with the precision of a sage conductor.  The salient points of the diagnosis had already been delivered.  Foster was taking the path of grim acceptance, it seemed.  His mouth was firm.  Still.
                Richard went to the door and out.
                When he arrived in his bedroom, he quickly disrobed and wrapped his arms around his sleeping wife.  He then wrapped one leg around both of hers, as if letting go would send him into nothingness.  She nestled against his frame, letting out of a barely audible moan.
                “Molly?”  He whispered.
                “Let’s go on vacation.”
                They had started in Perth and traveled slowly toward Wyndham in Northeastern Australia.  They had traveled by caravan and it was well over 100 degrees.     
           Richard sat in the warm sand and pulled his first Foster’s of the day from a small, blue cooler next to him and sipped liberally as he watched the late-afternoon shift of surfers wade past the shoreline. 
                The coast had looked better in the pictures and blogs he and Molly had looked up two weeks earlier.  They would end their vacation here, they decided.  The sands were just as golden, but they neglected to show the hideous, lurching forest just beyond the beach.  The towering trees were flaked with brown and black mud.  Richard also didn’t expect the beaches to be as crowded as they were with bohemian surfers who intentionally left cheek stubble.  Their hair was only partially dreadlocked, as if they were too stoned to finish the job. 
                Nevertheless, the trip through the outback had been inspiring, Richard thought and tried to relax.
                He was soon distracted by Molly’s figure hovering over.  Her feet crunched the sand as she smiled brightly.
                “Mary just called.  She and Peter landed 20 minutes ago.  They want to meet for hardshells at the hotel bar in an hour.”
                Richard scoffed.  “Babe, I just settled down.”
                “We can come here after.”
                He swallowed the cool ale and shook his head.  “The beach closes at six.  Didn’t you see the signs?”
                Molly screwed up her face.   “Come tomorrow.  We have four days.  You didn’t fly halfway around the world to get drunk on a beach.”
                “That’s exactly why I flew halfway around the world.”
                She crossed her arms, half-pouting.  “I think you’re still avoiding Peter.”
                “For what?”
                “Usurping your office.”
                “’Usurping’?  He didn’t ‘usurp’ anything.  We’re not in a Shakespearean play.  I simply moved across the hall.”
                “To a room with no window.”
                “Yes, like a dungeon.  With the rats and the Cask of Amatillado.  I didn’t need a window.  I’m only in there two hours a week anyway.”
                The day after the Mr. Foster received his diagnosis, Richard casually mentioned to Dr. Peter Rosenswag that he and his wife were planning a vacation, perhaps Australia. Peter became unexpected enthusiastic, insisting the two meet somewhere during their sojourn.
                Molly had been right about the offices.  There was some residual bitterness between Richard and Peter – not because he particularly cared about the office, but Peter’s campaigning had been underhanded. 
                Molly sighed and sat next to her husband.  “You could talk to him, you know.”
                “Christ, Mol.  I’m not upset about it.  I just want to relax. We had a helluva drive.”
                In the past week, they had trekked through some rough Outback, with Richard reciting random,, supposedly little-known trivia about whatever wildlife crossed their path.
                “Kangaroos,” he’d say, “are actually quite dangerous.  It isn’t like Looney Tunes.  They have claws on the back of their feet that could disembowel you with one kick.  Most unnatural dog deaths here are caused like that.”
                It got irksome quickly, though not as much as the fact that, on the last stretch of their trip, Richard had become inert.
                A sly smile crept upon her face as she rose to her feet.  “Fine.  I’m going to relax, too.  Meet up with me later.”
                She walked to the sea in her small, red bikini that clinged to her slender build like cellophane.  Her goldenrod hair was in a bun and the freckles on her back and neck had grown and multiplied in the late day sun.  She was, in a word, stunning.  He watched as she untied her hair and lay in the shallow water.  As she swam out, surfers instantly surrounded her like panting animals waiting for dinner scraps.  One, a libido-driven land shark with a scruffy blonde beard and curly hair moved beside her.  He said something and she laughed.  Even a casual observer could recognize their body language grow progressively more flirtatious.
                Richard got to his feet, fuming.  He had been married long enough to see a passive-aggressive effort designed to piss him off for what it was.  Particularly annoying was that it was working anyway.
                He huffed like a petulant child  and stormed off, leaving his cell phone next to a half-empty Foster’s.
                Let her wonder where the fuck I am, he thought, satisfied with himself.
                He trudged through heavy sand bordering on the seemingly impenetrable greenery.  Had he been more calm,  in better possession of his faculties, he might have noticed the large, ominous wooden sign, or that no sunbathers took note of his sudden turn into the brush.
                Nevertheless, he pushed inward.  He was not fully conscious of his surroundings, nor of how far he’d actually strayed from the beach, until his bare right foot was immersed in mud-water up just past his ankle. 
                And it was then that he saw it.
                Floating stationary in a pond, lit gently by the sun through a clearing, was a perfectly round, marble eye.  It stared at Richard with indifference, surrounded by an outline hued only marginally more green than the water in which it lay.  He met its eye with his, following what he realized were the scales of a reptile along the body.  It’s rough hide glistened.  It drifted ever so slightly. 
                He pegged it, snout to tail, at twice the length of the three other crocodiles he’d seen on the tour.  Or perhaps it was just its proximity and his unbridled terror that made it seem between fifteen and eighteen feet long. 
                The awesome silence stretched for what seemed like hours, more intense than any verbal sparring in which he’d ever engaged. 
                The water around his ankle rippled.  He cemented his legs in place. 
                Though its stare was vacant, within the unblinking eye was an inherent air of malice.
                It was sizing him up.
                Richard’s mind tried to recall any travelogue that could provide insight on how to behave,  but nothing came; the screen in his head projected only a blank wall.  He was suddenly unable to remember if it was reptilian or mammalian.
                It is sizing me up.
                Ripples spread.  Richard ran.  The beast gave chase. 
                Its stubby legs sloshed in the mug.  He prayed he didn’t slip.
                Stubby feet.  Slosh.  The sound grew closer.  He imagined thick, malformed toes leaving imprints in the mud.  His breath grew shorter.
                He spotted the thick leg of a tree just feet away. Hail Mary leap.  His fingers dug in the crevasses between bark and scrambled upward.  Hot breath warmed his heels.  Every notch of bark – near-dead.  Just waiting for the bones of his fingers to tear it off and drop to the Below.  He reached higher, looked down.
                The animal had raised itself, first on its hind legs, then balancing on a thick, powerful tail.  Its jaws snapped shut with a thunderous clap.
                At first, he wasn’t certain all his limbs were intact.  He assumed a state of shock would mask any pain. 
                His head got lost in a layer of leaves.  Finally, he broke through.  A long thick branch was in reach.
                He grabbed another level of bark that peeled off the tree like masking tape. 
                Richard fell backward, his arms flailing helplessly. 
                A last-ditch effort.  His palm wrapped around the branch.  Dangling now, he swung his legs back and forth until they scissored the wood.  He forced himself upright.
                He bear-hugged the branch, looking to The Below and panting.  When ready, he leaned against the tree and exhaled.
                The sun had nestled under the greenery by the time Richard forced himself to look at the muddy Below once again. 
                It hadn’t moved since it settled by the base of the tree hours earlier. 
                Like most cell phone owners, he had abandoned the former necessity of a proper watch and his pager was on his nightstand in Chicago.  It must have been well past six by then, and even later than when Molly discovered he was missing.  Surely they were searching for him, and his cries for rescue wouldn’t be overridden by typical jungle sounds
                He cleared his throat, prepping it for a bellowing cry.  The sudden sprint through shrubs earlier had knocked the wind out of his body like a punch to the abdomen from a prize-fighter.  After a few minutes, he worked up enough air to shake the surrounding leaves with his yelps.
                Nothing.  Then another:
                He shouted variations on the plea, as though different phrasing would resonate better in the ear of a lifeguard, a couple passing by, anyone.  He shouted and heard his echo reverberate into the nothingness.  He shouted until he was hoarse once again and his chest ached.
                The beast didn’t flinch.
                Richard rested his head against the uneven, crude texture of the bark.  He thought of Molly.  Perhaps she wasn’t searching for him at all.  Perhaps she was cracking open exoskeletons of crabs and lobsters with Peter and Mary.  By then, Peter was beyond tipsy.  Molly would nurse her margarita until dinner was over, assuming he’d stumbled back angrily to their room.  She’d find him awake, annoyed.  They’d quietly resolve a fight that never should have begun.  Sex would be withheld, at least until morning, after which they’d enjoy brunch with knowing smiles and the last leg of their vacation would resume.
                But The Discovery Channel would not allow this.
                The Discovery Channel, and by extension Richard, knew that the length of that green beast or its maw  had no intention of moving.
                Crocodiles possessed a unique metabolic ability.  Most predators had adapted in ways biologists were only beginning to comprehend in the last century.  Even learning to camp downwind safely must have taken decades.
                One of the earliest known crocodiles, the Sarosuchus imperator, despite being over forty feet in length, sustained itself on the smaller fish of the cretaceous period.  Land-dwelling dinosaurs had a preternatural instinct to avoid large bodies of water in which one might be half-submerged.  However, should a Spinosaurus  wander too close, the Sarosuchus would feast for weeks.
                Paleontologists believe such a scenario to be a rarity.  It must have been during the lulls in between a fulfilling meal that this monster developed the ability to slow down its metabolism for up to two weeks.  An ability that modern crocodiles still possess to this day.  It would wait in hibernation for prey.  
                Prey that, for instance, scurried up  a tree.  The crocodile knew instinctively he would have to come down eventually.  Unlike Richard, it had no appointments to keep, no family who would grow concerned of its whereabouts.  And unlike Richard, its stomach had yet to feel hunger pains, its body was not weary from exhaustion.
                It waited like it owed him some debt.
                And it could smell him.
                An hour later, the pitch black of the night forced Richard’s eyes closed.

                He was unsure what time it was when the sensation of falling awoke him.  Sure enough, his right leg slipped off the branch and his body was leaning toward to edge.  He shot his left hand out automatically to steady himself and, in time, his bearings returned. 
                It wasn’t quite dawn, but a light blue aura was glowing around the higher trees.  It was dizzying, looking down again at the Below.  It was, though a very focused blur.  A blur fixated on the sparkling gold and black waiting for him.  In another circumstance, he would have deemed it beautiful. 
                What a miracle of nature, he would have said at some dinner during which everyone would excuse themselves as soon as possible – the news at 11 was typically the best excuse.  They’re practically dinosaurs.  They’ve been around for so long and they’ve so brilliantly adapted to nature that, in a way, I think nature has some kind of plan..  It doesn’t get tired, it doesn’t get hungry-
                Hungry.  Richard had not had a full meal since the day before he left the beach.  He had a banana at breakfast, but was too hungover from the previous night to consume anything beyond alcohol the rest of the day.  But now, a new threat far above the monster below had taken prominence. 
                He started on leaves.  He chewed on leaves for hours.  He chewed on leaves until the sun started to set and his voice was still hoarse and he vomited all of them up in his attempts to scream. 
                Then bark.  He couldn’t get past one large, jagged piece he’d torn off the branch he was sitting on.  It tore his throat tissue worse than the lack of hydration. 
                He removed his shirt, squeezed whatever excreted liquid within the armpits into his mouth.  He swallowed, gulped, swallowed again.
                Less than an hour later, he felt it, and he was never more grateful than that moment when he had to urinate.
                What he didn’t swallow, he’d soaked into his shirt.
He'd always considered it a necessity.  A blemish on a record otherwise untarnished.  But without his shirt, it stared right back at him like the Below.  His inoculation scar.  In the past, he'd considered plastic surgery, but didn't appreciate the stigma around it, even though his wife would be his only confidante.  He wanted her to still think he was sexy, as his young years were running down some opposite corridor.  They were running the other direction.  The one in which he'd still have drinks with Peter and his wife and Molly and the crabs would be amazing.  
                All there was in this direction was hunger.  And no food source was in sight.
                Richard chewed at his inoculation scar until it bled.  It bled and bled until he didn't know where it was that he was chewing.  He bit harder until his own flesh swam down his throat.  He bled and ate and bled until he passed out.
                There’s somebody, now.  There has to be somebody.  I don’t know how many days it’s been but I’m not going to walk up to Mr. Foster and tell him he’s got and I’m not going to tell my wife she’s a tramp and I’m not going to-
                Then he saw the branch.  It looked within reach, at least the end of it.  The adjoining tree was only an arm’s length away.  He cursed himself for not noticing it the previous evening, when the light was brighter.  But his state was too panicked and escape was unthinkable.
                The other branch jutted from a tree leg the size of a Brontosaurus and formed an arm with several compound fractures before ending in a knobby wooden claw.  It looked angry but, more importantly, it looked stable.
                Richard scissored his branch and arched his back, pushing forward.  He humped with his waist, edging toward the end as the wood became more and more narrow.  Raising one leg at a time, he placed his knees side by side and crawled gingerly.  He forced himself not to look at The Below.
                The other tree may have not been far enough away from the creature, but at the very least the added distance would give him a fighting chance.    As he reached the end of his branch, he extended an arm, his fingers touching the longest finger of wood.  Edging a few more inches, he managed to wrap a hand around it and yanked.
                In his first year on duty in the emergency room, he once witnessed a car accident victim wheeled in.  His arm had been mashed at the elbow by the wheel of an oncoming pickup.  When nurses tried to transfer him to an OR bed, his arm separated further, attached to the rest of the body only by sinew and decimated muscle.
                Richard felt the same urge to vomit as his did in the ER when the branch’s finger snapped off and fell into a pool of water below.  He didn’t cry.  Some ER doctors ducked into storage rooms and quiet corners to shed tears.  He even managed to choke back the bile building in his throat and move onto the next patient – another outstretched finger of the tree.  He grabbed it tightly.  It too snapped. 
                The branch swayed back and forth, recovering from its amputation with swift nonchalance.  It seemed to mock him. 
                Richard lay on his belly, hugging the wood.  No tears would come, though he desperately wished they would flow.  There was nothing left in his system – no fluid – to choke back.
                He thought of Mr. Foster and his cancerous tumour.  Cancer was an aberration of good will, cells desperately trying to repair something in the body that wasn’t wrong to begin with.  It was overcompensation. 
                Then he thought of Molly, still sleeping soundly expecting to wake next to him and mend their unnecessary fracture. 
                And with that, Richard Temple let himself roll off the branch to which he’d once held to so desperately.  He slipped into the Below.
                Like falling off a log.  Like-

                -like potato chips they sound like potato chips

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Night We All Died

They were in a stranger's backyard sitting next to a kidney-shaped swimming pool.  The sliding glass door leading to the living room had been shattered and they could hear and see CNN on the television.  There was blood spatter against the wall panel.  Elliot thought it looked like a spritz of red windex.

"Where do you want to be when it happens?"  He asked as he reclined in a lawn chair.

"Hmm?  Here, I guess.  I mean, we only have an hour.  Not much time to travel,"  said Grace.

Elliot fumbled with the box of wooden matches, trying to strike one against the coarse side of the box.  On the fourth try, he got a flame and held it against the end of the cigar between his lips.

"Hypothetically," he said.

Grace considered this.  "On top of something really big.  Maybe Empire State.  With my mom.  You?"

"There was this bar in Toronto.  I forget the name.  It was just me and the owner one night - the night of the hockey riot.  And he and I sat on the terrace drinking whiskey sours and watching police cars burn.  Smoking cigars like this one.  Somewhere like that.  Or Brooklyn Pizza."

"You're going to miss cigars and pizza most?"

"I prefer their garlic bread."

"You wouldn't want to be with your family?"

Elliot puffed and shook his head, "In the final moments of my life, I'd rather not have any revelatory or confessional talks.  They know how I feel about them."

"Do they?"

"I would hope so."

Four hours earlier, live television feeds from the west side of the country had gone dead after a sudden flash of white.  In an hour, Elliot and Grace would know what that flash was, then they'd know nothing.  The air already taken on a metallic resin that lingered by the uvula.

"But that garlic bread," said Elliot and he exhaled relieved.  "Did you cook?"

"When I was a kid, I wanted to. I just never learned."

"I wanted to be a marine biologist as a kid."

"What did you do, anyway?" Grace said after a long pause.

Elliot held in the stale smoke and let it leave his lungs as he explained.  "Not very much.  I did some telemarketing.  I wrote a lot.  Worked in a...Best Buy?  No, Circuit City, when it still existed.  Never settled.  Were you Catholic?"

"Just Christian, but-"


"Yes.  A while ago."

"Catholic.  Lapsed about...19 years ago?"

Grace laughed.  "You left church at seven years old?"

He smirked.  "Well, I wasn't excommunicated.  I just stopped waking up early on Sunday.  But, you know what I do miss?"


"Those - uh...what do you call them?  'The body of Christ' things and then the wine - well, I was too young for the wine but those wafery things?"



"You miss those?"

"Best part of church.  I'd sit there for an hour - 'Shut up, shut up, just give me the cookie'."

She burst out laughing.  "You called it the cookie?"

"Well, never out-loud."

Grace nestled in the straps of the chair, arching her back slightly, smiling.

"Are you married?"  Elliot asked after a pause.

"I was.  Briefly."

Elliot pressed his thumb and forefinger together.  "Came close."

"What happened?"

He motioned to the television inside and waved dismissively.  "Like this but on a lesser scale."

An hour ago, Elliot was walking down the middle of an unlined suburban street.  The tar was as yet unscathed, freshly laid only days before.  Four houses away, a small garden in someone's front yard crisp yellow and halloween orange.  Most of the plants lay dead, broken and crushed by the Cerulean pick up truck that had swerved and ran over them before crashing into the wall.  The front door of the truck was ajar.  A woman in pajamas was half-limping a little further down the street, a nasty gash on her left side.

His iPod battery died.  He removed it from his pocket.  The earbuds fell to the street as he punched the tiny screen.


At that moment, a young girl passed him.  She had bleach-red hair and gentle skin, paler than that which he was familiar with.

"Hey," the girl said and pointed toward the limping woman.  "Should we help her or what?"

Elliot stared blankly.  "Why?"

The girl paused.

They had found the house then and the porch and the lawn chairs.

"Figure it's getting close," said Grace.

Elliot nodded quietly.  He stubbed out his cigar.

Without warning, Grace stood and climbed atop him.  He pulled her in passionately, letting his tongue gently caress her lips as she pulled back to remove her tank top.




Elliot awoke in a strange bed.  He was staring at a mess of red hair and flesh and blanket.  His eyes adjusted.  In the next room, he could hear the din of cable news.  He rolled on his back looking at the sunlight pouring in through the open sliding glass doors; it crept along his hand as he reached out.  Alien now.

Grace nuzzled closer to him and then began to wake.  Her head shot off the pillow.  Her neck snapped around the room, bird-like.

Their eyes met.

Elliot inhaled through his mouth.

He said

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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Skydiving lessons from an acrophobic

I can still feel the blisters on the backs of my heels.  Roller skates, no matter how hard I tied them or which way I positioned my foot, always managed to feel incredibly uncomfortable.  But there I was, once a month, at the local roller rink.  I attended such affairs throughout my school years out of some sense of duty rather than my own personal interest. 
                This, I had decided early on, was what the regular kids did.  And I was going to be one, damn it.  Later, I'd find myself standing around the snack bars at school dances and wandering aimlessly solo behind the football bleachers.
                The first Friday of every month, Tanque Verde Elementary School organized a free outing to the Skate Country - the local roller rink (because apparently I grew up in the late '70s).  Skate Country had a simple constitution - no skating too fast, no intentionally knocking over other skaters, no foul language.  It was a large, rectangular building that in a past or future life could easily transform into a meat locker.  The exterior surroundings of the dodgy plaza in which it resided- - an environmental plant, a tractor rental shop - gave it an industrial, almost post-apocalyptic look.  Or it was something straight out of The Warriors. 
                There were special events - races, skating backwards, arcade.  I was pretty good at the arcade, but lousy at the other stuff.  The most awkward event for a sixth grader uncomfortable and unsure of his own physical appearance came about an hour into the evening.
                "Alright kids," the disaffected teen DJ would announce, "It's time for couple's skating!"
                This should be self-explanatory.  Kids paired off and skated slowly to then-current early 90's ballads.  Most of the songs were eerily inappropriate for sixth graders at the time, though by today's standards I imagine they're tame.  I quietly resigned myself to the small arcade conclave and killed aliens and predators and T-1000s until it was over.
                My favourite was an oversized console allowing four players to select an individual X-Men.  I was always Cyclops.  He had a laser.  Later in life, I'd learn what a lame character he actually was, always hung up and brooding about Jean Grey.  It is his uncontrollable grief (and the fact that James Marsden wanted to opt out of the film in favour of Superman Returns), that leads to his off-screen demise.   
                One night, probably because I was out of quarters, I exhaled heavily and skated clumsily toward a girl whose name I don't remember. 

Baby, I compare you to a kiss from a rose on a gray

I glided toward her as she leaned against the pink cement wall.

Ooh, the more I get of you, the stranger it feels, yeah

The skate dug a welt deeply in my right ankle and I couldn't raise my foot to hit the rubber stopper.

Now that your rose is in bloom
A light hits the gloom on the gray
(CD changes.  It's on random)
I believe I can fly

I settled on a bench nearby and rested until my foot felt capable of gliding back to the arcade, where girls never ventured.


                It is 2008 and I am lying in bed sleepless after a bad breakup.  She calls me and I listen to her play the guitar over the phone.  We are back together and it is nice for a while.


                It was around the same time Mr. Voutsas was teaching us history via Billy Joel and I was learning what a baby boomer was that I experienced a series of uncomfortable and humiliating missteps with the opposite gender.
                My best friend at the time was a young Mormon rebel - an oxymoron if ever there was one.  The seventh in a family of eleven children, Michael had been far more experienced than I.  There were stories about him being caught naked with the shop teacher's daughter.  The shop teacher had a nervous breakdown.  Only worsening his condition, his daughter turned her sexual preference 180 degrees soon after.

We didn't start the fire
It was always burning

                But apparently, Mike was trying to reform, or those stories were all lies, because he seemed to have a different agenda. 
                His cause was now an act of charity.  He decided, apropos of nothing, that I needed a girlfriend.  Being Mormon, however, certainly hindered his plans.   
                Wednesday nights, his parents' church held dances for the youth members.  I was to be his guest.  In order to be permitted into the church dance hall, I had to first meet with the pastor, answer some questions, and sign a guest card vowing chastity, let alone getting anywhere within a foot of my dance partner's body.
                Most of the girls were conventionally pretty, though like at any gathering, a few were hideous.  When you’re shooting for craps in the gene pool the way Mormons do, you’re bound to have a few misfires.
                At first, it seemed like fish in a barrel.  None of these girls, no matter how pretty, agreed to a dance.  Surely this was the place to be.  These girls were easy.  These girls were pleasant.  These girls laughed at my jokes and didn’t mind if I accidentally stepped on their feet a few times. 
                “So how long have you been a member of the church?”  one asked.
                “Oh, I’m not,” I said.  “I’m just here with that guy.  Mike.  He’s a friend.”
                “Oh, so what church do you belong to?”
                “I really don’t.  It’s been a while I…don’t really…church.”
                “Oh,” she said, disapprovingly.

                These girls, I realized, were trying to convert me to Mormonism.

When I was lonely and scared
I nearly fell for a TV preacher
In a hotel room in Tokyo
Oh, you truly saved me from that suicide
Because all the things, I die along with you

Remember the time
When I went to jump out of that apartment window
On the west side of town of ol' New York
Oh, you saved me from that suicide
Because of all my foolish pride

It is 2007 and I am at a wine and cheese.  Because of something I say, she chucks her wine glass at me with fury.  It shatters like a glass hand grenade against the steps of the reception.


                The phone rings in 1998.
                "Kenny?"  The voice is slightly menacing.
                "Who is this?"
                "Stay away from Kelly McClane motherfucker or you're going to die."
                Legend has it that, in high school, Kelly lost her virginity the way a future American icon would:  On the high school football field. I never spoke to her after the phone call.

                Ninth grade was the only year I ever utilized my school locker.  I did so not out of want, but out of legal necessity.  In April of 1999, shortly before the summer vacation began, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris stepped into a high school in Columbine, Colorado and never walked out.

And nobody’s gonna go to school today
She’s gonna make them stay at home

                The ensuing panic that followed played out much like I imagine the Satanic Panic of the 1980s did.  Parents feared their children.  "Lockdown" procedures were practiced - drills that felt to me like the duck and cover nuclear ads from the Cold War.  Us kids spent most of the lockdown drills grilling our teachers. 
                "If we're all against the wall like this, can't the shooter just hit us all in a line, teacher?" someone would invariably ask.
                "I know. I know," the teacher unfailingly shook her head. 
                But after the initial horror and shock of the day had set in, to ninth graders, the scenario mostly played out like a Bruce Willis movie.  The three young boys used the school map in their scheduling planner to mark up the scenario.  It was innocent enough.  Foolish, warped minds of ‘90s era kids.  They grew up the same way I did, playing Wolfenstien 3D and watching Terminator 2 fourteen times a week.  By the end of the day, they were in police custody and expelled.  It was Kenny Marsh (another Kenny, and the only of the Emily Gray Three with a past criminal history), Eddie Cusak and a third name that I've long since forgotten.  For the sake of argument, let's call him the fat one.  He wasn't small.

And school's out early and soon we'll be learning
And the lesson today is how to die

                So, when the next school year began, backpacks were no longer allowed on campus.  I recall at my Ninth grade graduation assembly, security was further heightened.  Mr. Keegan stopped me at the gate and wanted to check the only thing I brought, a paperback James Ellroy novel, to see if I'd hollowed out the pages to fit - what?  The tiniest gun in the world?  Even an un-brandished jackknife wouldn't fit between cover to cover.
                My unfamiliarity with the innerworkings of a locker often led to tardy slips.  Tardy slips soon added up to detentions.
                I had collected almost enough to keep me from going to Freshman prom.  I didn't have a date, and the last time I attended school dances was two years previous when I was forced to out of my duties as a student councilman.  I spent my time between working the snack bar leaning against the blue mats in the gymnasium, scribbling words in a notebook.  But this was Prom, damnitt.  Or at least Freshman prom.  This was a rite of passage.  Or it was a meaningless precursor to a rite of passage.  And by gum I was going to ask a girl to go.  I just had to remind myself not to say anything like "By gum."

                Chelsea Kavener had "nipples like pepperonis," I was told by Alex Garcia.  It always stuck with me because, to this day, I was surprised such a bland meathead could grasp a simile,  let alone use one that felt dead-on accurate.
                There had always been stories about Chelsea.  Stories in the minds of young boys you imagine are always embellished or just made up.  Whitney Carver got Chlamydia right out of high school.  Amanda Bleeker went insane after her longtime boyfriend abandoned her.  Leslie Johnson lives in the Park Mall and prefers a rather uncouth sex act.
                You hear these stories, and you don’t care about their veracity.  They are local legends, like Eddie and Kenny and the fat one’s plans for Emily Gray.  “Did you hear they had explosives?” 
                “I heard Eddie had a list of us.” 
                “I heard it’s because we called the fat one ‘fat’.” 
                “Guys, we came so close.”

So close.  But we were miles away.
                Jane had sex on the golf course at 49ers and had to hide in the man-made lake when security rolled by.  Chelsea was loose and-
                “Chelsea, will you go to the prom with me?” I asked in photography class one day with the all the charm and abruptness of Barney Gumble.
                I bought her a corsage after parental insistence.  She didn’t allow me to pin it on.  Shortly after arriving, the latest 2000 hits blared on speakers.  I was in student counsel again, hanging against the blue mats.
                Chelsea was not in student counsel.  Chelsea was freaking with football players.  Freaking, for the uninitiated, was what we called twerking back then.  It is a style of dance that essentially involves acting out sex acts while fully clothed.

Shake ya ass
But watch ya self
Shake ya ass
Show me what you workin with

                Some of the girls who knew me grabbed my arms out of pity and encouraged me to join my date.  Chelsea looked me over as she seemingly rode some guy. 
                “Another time, another time,” she said.
                At the end of the evening, Chelsea and I shared a slow dance.  She laughed, half-snorted, and held me close.  “Thanks Kenny, you’re a great date.”           


Ice is back
With a brand new edition

                It is 2005.  I am a smooth talker and a snappy dresser.  I am in a suit pieced together from classy, yet novelty, articles I picked up from Value Village over the years.  Probably somebody died in this sports coat.  It is a mustard yellow number with leather patches on the elbows.
                She is cute, almost spritely.  So far, the conversation has been going well.  Her letting out boozy giggles, me shrugging and smiling like it ain’t no thang.  Until she notices the patches on my arm.
                “Oh. My God, I’ve never actually seen a jacket like that.”
                I smile, smoothly leaning closer to her, as if my joke was conspiratorial in nature.  "You've never been to college."
                Immediately, she storms off.  She says something to her friends.  They all look at me, aghast.  Surely she understood I was making reference to the old, 60’s radical professor look.  Like Donald Sutherland in Animal House.  Surely I wasn’t implying that she was a moron.
                “What the hell?” I say.  “All I said was that she hadn’t been to college.”
                “She hasn’t,” says Kyle. 

From Wikipedia:  Eventually, Knight showed up at Van Winkle's hotel suite on the fifteenth floor of the Bel Age Hotel, accompanied by a member of the Oakland Raiders. According to Van Winkle, Knight took him out on the balcony by himself, and implied that he would throw him off the balcony unless he signed the publishing rights to the song over to Knight; Knight used Van Winkle's money to help fund Death Row Records.

                It is 2002 and we are sitting in the high school newspaper room listening to Elvis Costello, sharing earbuds.  I do not know at this time, she loved me.
                I had been in high school for four years, had attended prom stag, and was growing frustrated.  That summer, I had inexplicably become friends with Eddie, the would-be school shooter.  At the time, I had a thing for his sister.  Years later, I am told she had a freakishly long tongue.  This is something I could have gone without knowing.
                “So Hedges,” he was the first person to call me by my last name.  “You want to go where the girls are?”
                “Well, yeah.  I figure, I got one more summer here.  I may as well make it count.”
                “I’ll take you to the girls.”
                Eddie drives.  We talk.  He still has a grudge for the way the school over-reacted.  He has become more of a cliché.  He spoke in a broken, uneducated way, laced with fits of frustration and anger that subsided at random.  In the 50s, he would have had a pack of cigarettes placed securely in the rolled-up short sleeve of a white undershirt.  In the 80s, he would have been played by Judd Nelson.  
                He pulls into a plaza and parks.
                “What are we doing here?”
                “You wanted to go where the girls are.”
                We enter Skate Country – two seventeen year old boys on the prowl.  Well, one on the prowl, the other scanning the room for potential amber alerts.  If I was going to be here, at the very least I could try and help some poor abductee.
                “Excuse me,” Eddie says to a skinny girl who couldn’t have been over fourteen.  “Would you skate with this guy?”
                He put his arm around me and smiled.  To add further insult, the 14-year-old laughed at me.
                I skated away, over to the arcade, where I felt at home.

                It is 2009 and I am driving past the old arcade off 22nd.  I smile.  All arcade cost a nickel. Tucson had what felt like wormholes to different eras.  All the hit games were in the front room, but in the back corner, tucked away like the adult section of a video store, were the ones no one liked.  I stayed in the back room for hours, mashing the buttons on the Robocop console.  I was always in the back room. 
                The arcade is gone now, converted into an archery store.  The last I heard of it was during a graduation party for one of my younger friends.
                An Eddie – not the Eddie, but the type – told me about Robin’s Archery. 
                “My friend locks up there and at night we go into the back room and smoke out and just chill.  It’s fuckin’ awesome.  You should come.”
                I declined.  That wasn’t my back room anymore. 
                 I studied local history avidly – the monsters and the mobsters and the heroes that once inhabited this barren desert, but had I taken an inventory of the emotional? 
                In the 60s, Charles Smidt stalked the streets of Tucson, picking up young girls walking home and offering rides.  He killed his first victim, then several more to earn the nickname “The Pied Piper of Tucson.”  And I thought of Eddie.
                In 1997, I’m sweet on Melissa. She and friend accompany me to Sabino Canyon – a tourist’s hike around the rock formations and small bodies of water at the base of Mount Lemmon.  We come to a steep cliff that leads to a pool of dark water down below.  They had all jumped off what must have been a fifteen foot drop into icy coolness and were calling me to do the same.
                There are reasons I don’t skydive; logical ones.  The shoot could fail, or be improperly packed.  There are a number of things that could send me into an uncontrolled, 1,500 foot drop.  There are reasons I don’t skydive, but women are different.
                I jump in. 
                Six years later, I get on an airplane and move to the city, where things like this don’t happen.

And now and then, if we must start again
Well we were not sure, that I love you

I don't want to lose you - oh no, no, no
Lose you or abuse you - oh no, no, no, sweet doll
But if you have to go, away
If you have to go...
Now and then, I miss you
Oh now and then, I...
I know it's true to me...
- John Lennon's lost song

Quotes from Seal, R. Kelly, Billy Joel, John Lennon, The Boomtown Rats, Mystikal

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