Category Archives: Short Fiction

Conspiracy Tales

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the new normal

The town where I grew up is a hotbed of effete radicalism and low-grade mental illness. I came back in my mid-twenties to finish community college. There’s this hipster coffee shop downtown where I used to do all my homework—I’ll call it Café Tangier. One day I noticed a girl there reading a Hebrew novel. Let’s call her Shirley. We hit it off. She was going to university and working in a mall kiosk with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend—all Israelis.

None of these three were bad people. However, they had a friend who was. We’ll call him Lior. Lior had a friend named Jake. They claimed to be working for some kind of IT start-up, but the two of them were always just down at the Tangier, scoping people out, or hanging around the various student co-ops around town: the Caesar Chavez Co-op, Food Not Bombs House, etc. They gave the impression of a couple of con-men with a traveling act, like there was an invisible mist between them that only the two of them could see.

A cell of would-be ecoterrorists had been uncovered—entrapped, really—at the Tangier by an undercover FBI agent about a year before. At the nearby anarchist co-op (which had a neat little bookstore I would occasionally peruse) there was a flyer on the corkboard denouncing the cafe’s owners for allegedly cooperating with the FBI from the get-go of the case, denouncing Tangier hipsters as sell-outs, and warning people to stay away from the place. But it was a hopping little place, lots of coeds, good music, good conversation.

There were other odd characters around the Tangier, too. One of them looked like Bruce Willis—cue-ball bald, mid-forties, in decent shape (but bedraggled in a way that wasn’t convincing) and constantly at the Tangier as if he had nothing else going on. He had this shady gregariousness about him. I’d watch him befriend impressionable looking loners and overhear him shit-test them by peppering them with the most astounding BS.

Anyway, this Lior and Jake—there was something off about them, too. They couldn’t have been younger than 27. Lior was Israeli, in the States (according to him) since adolescence. Jake was a regular American. Their back story kept changing, not in the sense of glaring inconsistencies, but in the sense that it seemed improvised. We used to go out with Shirley and her sister and the sister’s boyfriend, and these two weasels—this Lior and Jake—would hone in on the youngest, most vulnerable looking girls they could find at the bars. One night, Lior showed up at Shirley’s place with a girl who was obviously a high schooler, painfully shy, homely… The whole thing looked very bad.

Now, if you’re thinking I’m a POS for not intervening, what can I tell you? Degeneracy is a triage situation. It was a boisterous house party and I had my own concerns. If I’d walked in on him fucking her, that might’ve been different.

Anyway, I used to ride my bike around town a lot, and one day I started seeing these flyers all over, on lampposts and bus benches: “We are anarchists. We are everywhere.” There was additional text. All I remember was that it contained some threat of violence, but the grievance wasn’t too clear. This was odd, considering not only that the campus radicals and cat-lady activists around town never threatened anyone, but were always very impassioned and particular about whatever cause they were into. But this “We are anarchists” business just looked like a vacuous art project from some out-patient rehab.

One day I was on a foot path beneath a bridge when I got a flat tire. I used to do these road trips in the summer, by bicycle, from the coast up into the Sierras, and I was very proficient with all aspects of bike repair. So I knelt down to patch my tire. Once I had it patched and the glue was drying, I cast my gaze up the path. It ran along a river, but there was a park on the other side. Basically, I’m in the shadow under this bridge, looking up the path, with the river on the left side of my vision, and the park on the right. In the distance, I notice the Bruce Willis-looking guy from the Tangier. He had on a white t-shirt tucked into cargo pants, with this pair of absolutely autistic looking bus station urchins, half his age at most, straggling along behind him. He also had a stack of paper in one hand and a roll of packing tape in the other.

It was mid-morning on a weekday. The park was empty, but I was in the shadow of the bridge, so they couldn’t see me. I watched as this guy directed these two mouth breathers to post flyers on the park benches, and (with no one around to see him) his bearing was just unmistakably military. I went back later to the park, and just as I’d suspected, it was those dumb-fuck “We are anarchists” flyers, all over the playground and picnic tables. Less than a week later, there was a little kristallnacht along the main downtown drag. Someone smashed up the windows of about a dozen shops late one night and spray-painted a bunch of menacing slogans, “We are anarchists” among them. After that, the city council passed emergency regulations, applied for (and received) federal grants to blanket the downtown in surveillance cameras, and the FBI permanently stationed a squadron of some kind at the local police station.

A month or so later, Occupy Wall Street broke out. Hippy liberalville being what it is, a camp mushroomed up at that park where I’d gotten my flat tire. Meanwhile, Lior was the ringleader of a cadre that broke into and holed up in a vacant storefront across from the county courthouse. He ran their Facebook page, and throughout their “occupation” he was constantly on Facebook posting appeals for food and blankets and for people to join in—a rather odd commitment for someone who was supposedly working full-time at a start-up. His rather benign LARP-sesh was broken up after a week, and four of the participants—all lily upscale thrift-shop type college students—got hit with serious federal charges, including “terrorism” shit.

But Lior never faced any consequences.

I didn’t like the guy, nor respect him, but before that I’d have at least greeted him when we saw each other. But afterwards? No way. I stayed the fuck away from that dude from then on, and I never went back to Café Tangier.

Boatman’s Bluff

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spare me

The year after college I was an ambulance EMT. I started in July, and it wasn’t until September that I was assigned a steady shift with a partner. Before that I just bounced around between paramedics, snoozing, reading, and writing this blog on my cellphone between inventory and 911 calls.

My first code blue was an OD, on my first day of work. We arrived on scene before fire to find a supine fat kid unresponsive on a back driveway, with a gaggle of bleary-eyed teenagers who’d obviously waited too long to call, and were real quiet and vague about what happened to their friend.

I attached the EKG nodes and started bagging while my paramedic trainer pounded on his chest. No cardio activity. Fire arrived and they started banging on his chest in a rotation. Still no activity. Then someone offered to bag while I pumped, and I went to town so hard on this kid that I cracked his sternum. The snapping sound was horrific, but the moment it happened the heart monitor gave a beep and started going.

The thing about it was, everything happened in under ten minutes, and although he died later that day, when we dropped him in the ER the kid was still alive—unconscious and intubated, but alive. It wasn’t until November that year that I actually witnessed a death.

Now, I’m an omega, a contrarian loner who hates rules and rarely strikes up a lasting friendship. I’m also fairly tall and large-framed. My first paramedic partner, Tommy Gonzales, was a medic second lieutenant in the National Guard, the kind of beta-simp who joins the service to compensate. He looked like Eugene Levy—gaunt, about 5’6″, and very uptight, but highly intelligent, which necessitated bending the rules as often as they got in the way of logic. I respected him for that.

One night just about dusk as I was driving Tommy around the Sonic drive-thru, we got coded to a trailer park. Again, we got there before fire. Again, the patient was supine, this time on a shabby carpet. It was a double-wide with fake wood paneling and a bunch of taxidermied elk heads on the walls. The guy must’ve been in his mid-sixties. He was shirtless and barefoot in a pair of jeans that hadn’t been washed in a coon’s age, skinny-fat like alcoholics often are, and covered in a half-inch layer of wooly grey body hair that went all the way up his neck to an untrimmed beard. The place was strewn with empty pint bottles and crushed-up Coors cans.

The family was all assembled—son, daughter, daughter-in-law, adult grandkid. They said they’d found him the way he appeared, unresponsive, not breathing. They thought he’d choked on a turkey sandwich he’d been eating lying down, and that he must’ve rolled off the couch onto the floor. That was what it looked like. I had to shave him to place the EKG nodes, then Tommy and I started doing our thing.

It was a long night. The monitor gave just enough activity after a minute of CPR that we had to keep going even though the guy’s chances were very slim. Fire got on scene and Tommy started trying to intubate, but the laryngoscope kept bringing up turkey sandwich. The firefighters and I rotated doing CPR while Tommy smeared gob after gob of partly digested food like pâté onto the inner lining of a red haz bag. Eventually we got the guy tubed. His cardio kept flopping and starting back up with just enough activity for hope.

At one point I stood up to stretch my legs. Across the room, the family was piled around a card table in the corner, faces downcast, their arms draped around one another, watching their patriarch recede into eternity past indifferent, knee-jerk bureaucracy. Past us, on the other side. We were the boatmen.

Above the family on the wall was a framed and faded portrait of a proud and fearsome Marine with a flag half-draped across the background. That was the guy we were trying to save. The two of them couldn’t have looked more different. He wasn’t in his body anyway, yet he might not’ve been further away than that portrait. I felt this sudden sense of reverent foreboding in the pit of my stomach, that this man lying dead at my feet was witnessing his family’s despair from just out of reach of them.

After three hours, Tommy advised the family that things weren’t going to turn around. They nodded stoically. We called up to the hospital and signed the necessary forms. Then we packed up our equipment in haz bags and debriefed with the firefighters before leaving them to wait for the coroner.

That shift went long. We went back to base, cleaned up, and tried to get a nap, but the calls just kept coming. The 24-hour shift that had begun just before that code in the Sonic drive-thru turned into 35, 36, then 40, and topped out at 51.

At one point we dropped someone at the ER. It was about 9 in the morning. I was sitting in the driver’s seat of the ambulance waiting for Tommy to snag Graham crackers and juice boxes from inside at the nurse’s station, when all of a sudden I started sobbing maniacally, just huge choking sobs without any kind of buildup or anticipation whatsoever. It was so primal. There was no reflection, no social pressure (I was completely alone) and no reason to feel anything. I hadn’t known the guy, the Marine—I hadn’t known him. I’d run plenty of codes, seen lots of pitiable people in sorry states and felt bad for them, and I’d gone hours by then without it occurring to me that I’d been impacted at all. It was just a job, I was just exhausted, I just wanted to go home to my family, I just wanted a burrito. This is America—nobody has real feelings. I remember that I’ve had them, back when I was a kid, but I don’t even remember what real feelings feel like. It’s been six years since that 911 call and in all that time I haven’t experienced a comparably spontaneous and authentic emotion. And yet it happened, in spite of every social pressure militating against it.

It’s strange how things incubate in us when we thought they didn’t matter, or that we’d forgotten them. Sometimes when I discipline our kids, my wife gets on me and says, “This isn’t the army, you know!” On the one hand, when I hear this it sounds odd, because the army is the furthest thing from my memory and my motivations. On the other hand, my first reaction is to feel she’s being unreasonable, because life is rough, and it’s better they learn it first from their dad. But what she sees me doing that I can’t see myself is sublimating an experience that’s constantly with me in ways I’m almost never aware of. Sublimating the untold humiliations and death by a thousand cuts of being a king, and a piece of shit, all at the same time.

A shopping excursion

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this weimerican life

I keep having these dreams where I can’t get out of the room. Some grim dinner party or shabby hotel cafeteria where I’m exposed somehow to a whole room of faces I can’t quite make out. Where I’m stuck with someone from my past or present who wants something I can’t give, or knows something I’d rather they didn’t. Sometimes I’m able to escape, but then can’t seem to find my way out of the building—the trap just expands, until at some point I’m hit by the dread realization that no matter what they look like, each person I encounter is exactly the same on the inside.

Sometimes it’s a labyrinthine airport, incredibly futuristic, where I keep following bad directions or encountering incomprehensible bureaucratic obstacles requiring me to traipse back and forth between ticket counters and security checkpoints and terminals. I can never seem to make my flight, yet it’s always imminent, and panic builds until finally I wake up grinding my teeth and repeating incomprehensible nonsense to myself in a low whisper until well after I’ve had my coffee, like I got high the night before and it still hasn’t worn off.

Other times I’ve committed a crime of passion. As I begin to realize what I’ve done, my surroundings become dim, narrow, subterranean. Acquaintances and passersby all take on a uniform, alien quality. I feel I have to hide from them as I go about planning how to cover my tracks, but I can’t get out of public and they keep questioning me and I keep piling lie upon lie until I’m all out of lies and no longer believe myself.

Lana wanted to have a date—clothes shopping at the mall. It’s not how I would choose to spend a couple hours away from the kids, and she knows it. The clock slows; my blood congeals. I’d resist, but I’ve got to buy my next reprieve. We’re living on borrowed time, so why not live on a little more borrowed money?

On the way, we discuss what to buy. What the kids may like. Then a hopeful note underlying the subject of job prospects turns to debts, bills. Once that subject is wandered into, we fall silent. Her phone comes out of her purse. Like having to eat a failed attempt at some new recipe, I’ve ruined our afternoon, but still have to see it through.

The unspoken tension ratchets up as we near the mall. I fight traffic on the proximate boulevards and join a rotating queue of drivers, presumably all grimacing and overweight, as we circulate the packed rows of parking spaces, now stopping as some optimistic rube slams his breaks behind a pair of glowing tail lights, now proceeding again, now stopping, all in a row—trapped together, but unknown to one another. Some ham-faced slob in a ginormous pickup nearly backs into us as he jerkingly vacates a parking spot without looking over his disgusting shoulder. Honking, shouting, shaking his fist, he ejaculates his soul’s phonetically memorized plaque and drives off in a cloud of diesel exhaust. In my grey-green, calcified heart I blame Lana, realizing all this could’ve been avoided. She feels it, and lowers her face into the refuge of the pillar of blue light emanating from her stupid smartphone, which may be the only thing keeping us married.

The mall is filled with wretched refuse and flooded via loudspeaker with the vacant crooning of some new ethnically ambiguous slag of the month. Huge families of eggplant shaped Mexicans block our progress as they amble along at a snail’s pace, shoulder-to-shoulder across the width of the walkways, stuffing their faces as they go, from carafes of nachos, fries and mega-sized slushies all teetering precariously atop the canopies and cupholders of baby strollers occupied for some strange reason by five, six and seven-year olds. I nearly trip over a morbidly obese preteen in ankle shorts and a Nike shirt that reads, “Skilled in Every Position” when the family’s uppity little garden-gnome patriarch casts a threatening glance, holding up his cartoonishly oversized pant-waist with one hand like he’s somewhere on a prison yard.

Lana peruses the racks of a store. We stand in the massive checkout line with her items. A couple of shameless, mercenary orientals are in front, delaying everybody’s day to interminability, yapping scarcely comprehensible harangues at indifferent teenage cashiers in an attempt to find some grift in a system that permits no haggling otherwise.

Some ghastly, freckled, androgynous high-yellow in a denim vest and fedora is staring out of a wall-length advertisement with a quote emblazoned along his misshapen flank: “sometimes, you just gotta do you.” Somewhere in an oak-paneled office high in a glass tower some shrewd hypnotist wants you to think of these pontoon-lipped vacancies like a quotable Confucius or St. Matthew. It seems with each passing day that being white and remotely genteel in America is more and more like being a ruined old noble in a Chekhov play. We’re living through this long night, and we can’t bring ourselves to turn the lights out, but we’ve had too much time to ruminate and it isn’t getting us anywhere.

Lest you find all this bigoted—which it is—allow me the caveat that I consider these plague rats the real Americans. Their ready, unreflecting belief in magic, their vulgar fixation on commerce and utter abandonment of traditional scruples in the hubbub and banal, intermittent terror of this strange new land—as new to me today as it was to them last week—make them far worthier to be called Americans than all the brokeback whites longing for cowboy chivalry as they use their bottom incisors to greedily scrape the Dorito dust of this neurasthenic consumerist birdcage off the tips of their fat, diabetic fingers.

We pass the food court, the metastasis of sickening flesh in sweat pants with little cups of frozen sugar and cardboard palettes overflowing with cheap sauces. Then we make our way into another one of the undifferentiated neon storefronts so Lana can look for jeans. Somewhere over the rainbow, beyond every sales display and stack of merchandise lies the smoke-shrouded neo-Dickensian charnel house it all emanates from, the ant-farms and blood-sausage of Christmas present, and corrugated metal dwellings stacked along alleys strewn with plastic rubbish, flowing with human excrement, and interminable fields of shipping crates transiting ports. It’s only mid-July, but in my head I hear jingle bells. I start to wonder whether we’ll ever get away from this, whether we’ll ever be self-sufficient and free, or will we always just be employees and consumers and patients, avatars and reflections, bar-coded replicants, objects to whom all meaning in life is provided, administered, and presented like food to a capricious toddler. The wax paper burger wrapper wafting along the ground that fifteen hundred people just stepped over, the cigarette butts floating in the urinal, the fluorescent lights overhead, the LED screens in our palms, the model on the wall poster like a whore in a red-light district window, her snide smile doubtless masking every private misery, and the thousand hidden thoughts or inarticulate nagging doubts between hand-holding couples with lowered expectations, their acne, their cankles, their flat feet, fat asses, and venal cravings—the yawning gap between what you own and what you owe, and the sense of resignation to a trap so thorough we dream what it feeds us and conceptualize nature itself like a kind of unknowable death.

This is the cross. These are the nails.

“I’m so fat.” She’s in front of the mirror in the narrow corridor across from her changing room.

The worst part of marriage is the lying. Falling in love is this perfect kind of exposure that relieves you of everything you thought you needed to hide, and you reciprocate this to your lover and she accepts it with tender ecstacy and you’re free and she’s free and the world is light and song. But marriage builds lie upon lie, just in order to function. There are never enough sorries. There are never enough I love you’s.

“You look great, babe.” And she does.

How to Respond to Microaggressions

I come from a town where the locals can be a bit territorial.

In my mid-twenties, I went home and decided to finish college. Throughout this period, I moved around a lot between shared quarters of various kinds. At one point, I rented a backyard bungalow from a divorcee with two school-age kids.

Jenna was a petite blond in her early forties whose ex-husband was a schoolteacher. She took good care of herself. Apparently, it had occurred to her rather late that her sexual power was never fully realized, so she rebelled against this weak-chinned fellow to live the independent life of her dreams, in his house, on half his salary, with some strange renter sharing a bathroom with her poor kids—though I wasn’t around much, and it was only a two-month sublet anyway.

She devoted herself to jiu-jitsu, and would invite the whole staff of Brazilian instructors and other students over for wild parties. She had turned her living room into a salon, and whenever I got back from campus there’d be a gaggle of gibbering yentas all getting their hair and nails done. And she seemed to be dating quite a bit, with numerous types of guys. There was an uptight, white attorney who’d come for dinners after work in a suit. One of the Brazilians was definitely getting in there. Also, a high school classmate of mine who played bass for a local fixture rock-reggae band. And a couple of times I noticed a short-statured but muscular, intense looking black dude.

I was in very good shape back then. I had a weight set and a tower with dip handles and a pull-up bar, and in the afternoons I would lift in the backyard. It was springtime. One day while I was working out, I came through the back porch to the kitchen for some water. No one was home, so I had my shirt off. Just as I finished washing my glass and putting it on the dishrack, Jenna came in with this black fellow. Like me, he was shirtless, in basketball shorts. I was feeling friendly and self-satisfied. I greeted the two of them warmly and chatted with her a bit, but I could sense him sizing me up as competition.

When you’re from a place, you can just tell who’s local and who isn’t. Black people are no exception; in my town, I knew all of them, and he wasn’t one of the ones I knew. On the other hand, a part of me despises not just provincialism, but territoriality where no territory has really been earned. Out of both a cosmopolitan impulse and a certain penitence over my past, teenage life of petty robbery, I liked to be open and cordial to transplants, tourists, and students. One can learn a lot in this manner, without making any real compromises. So I extended my hand and introduced myself to this guy. He seemed a bit on edge, which was understandable. I assume it’s not pleasant to be brought home by a woman, only to encounter a shirtless, sweating bodybuilder when you arrive there. Immediately after learning the man’s name and telling him mine, I asked where he was from. He wasn’t from there, after all.

My question pushed him over the edge. He glared at me with intense hostility. “What do you mean, ‘where am I from?’” White people normally like to retreat when put in such a position. Whether they’re intimidated, or simply keeping their powder dry, the aggressor makes of it what he will. But not only was I not intimidated; I was in a good mood. And it would be incorrect to say that I wasn’t going to let my good mood be dampened, because I was in such a good mood that that would have been impossible. In other words, it was beyond my control. I felt great about myself. It just wasn’t a matter of what I was going to let or not let happen.

“What do I mean, ‘where are you from?’” I smiled calmly, but with a look indicating that I regarded the question as ridiculous.  “I guess I mean, where are you from?” I uttered this last part with slight but zesty sarcasm, making direct eye contact all the while. This whole thing was going to go my way. I could feel it.

“Yeah, what’s the problem?” Jenna asked him. “I don’t get it.” If he was mad before, now he was positively steaming. It was no longer a matter of whether I wanted to offend him, but of how far he wanted to take his own counter-productive bullshit. He was the houseguest of a loose woman, after all. Such encounters should be carefree. And although he was clearly in good shape, I did not look like anybody he wanted to fight.

I went back out and resumed my weight routine. Though I couldn’t make out the words, they were bickering in the kitchen—he in a strained, frustrated tone and she in a calmer, uncomprehending one. Frankly, I understood exactly what he objected to about my question. She, however, did not. He was trying to explain it to her, and having no success. By and by, the two of them came out back with a couple of beers. Her backyard was pretty big, so this wasn’t an imposition on my workout. She had a koi pond with a little bench. I was on my back in the grass, doing chest presses.

The two of them sat down. He was visibly perturbed. I stood up and started a set of curls. After what appeared to be some deliberation, he craned his neck my direction. “Hey Sam.” The use of my name signaled a painful concession to civilized mores. “How old are you man?” This was his attempt to shift gears from intimidation to condescension, but the fact that he was older than me only made things worse for him. Try as he might to tone it down, there was considerable edge in his voice. Not even bothering to turn my head his direction, I continued my set of curls. “It doesn’t make a difference and it’s none of your concern.” This was a devastating blow. Under the circumstances, it wasn’t something Jenna could hold against me. I hadn’t started anything with him and I didn’t need to reciprocate his softening up.

“You know, I don’t think you understand what it means when you say certain things to people.” He sounded more agitated this time. It was an impotent threat wrapped in an unsolicited lesson. “I don’t give a fuck what your issue is” I snapped back. “It’s your problem.” I got down and started a set of push ups. When I got back up, they were gone. Jenna later apologized profusely. She told me they’d argued more in the house, and she eventually kicked him out. It was a beautiful little triumph over the forces of arrogance and entitlement. Later that summer, I transferred to a university out of state, and I haven’t been back since.

A Death in Reno

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If a man dies in Reno, did he ever really live?

Lou was a Serb from Cincinnati. I knew him because his mail-order bride was a friend of my Russian mother-in-law. Her name was Yulia. She’d been a schoolteacher in Ukraine.

Neither of them had any kids. Except for her mother back home, neither of them had any relatives, period. They lived in a one-bedroom apartment a few blocks down from us. I’d see him maybe twice a year at my in-laws’ place, and when we had them over for Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving—that was my big act of charity for this guy, and a week later, every year, we’d get a package with treats and toys for the kids, and a thank-you card with a hand-written note that couldn’t have been more heartfelt. Just thinking about those packages, I feel awful. This guy languished and died three blocks down from me, for six years, almost totally alone—no kids, no friends, no extended family—and I knew, and I saw him less often than I see the garbageman.

At one time, years ago, Lou had a good-paying, white-collar job with some big company, but he’d been in a car wreck and lost a good deal of his mind. He was soft-spoken. He liked to talk politics, or high-brow movies, but he’d get confused real easy and lose his train of thought in mid-sentence. Once in awhile he’d make a wicked, salty joke, and you’d catch a glimpse of the man that used to inhabit him—witty, irreverent, self-assured. But mostly he just seemed vulnerable, because he knew he was crippled in the head, and when he realized that you knew, he’d get real embarrassed and clam up. I made it a policy to make conversation and treat him like he was perfectly normal. This was easy to do, because my in-laws and a lot of the friends they’d have around for parties were all educated and very self-righteously liberal, but Lou was conservative, which meant that even with his 6.5% rate of brain usage (or whatever it was) he was still smarter than most of them.

He and Yulia lived on his social security, and a pension from his old employer, but it wasn’t much, so they had to work. They were well into their seventies when we met. He worked “security” (I’d make the scare quotes bigger if I could) at a golf course. The place paid nine bucks an hour. She used to fold clothes seasonally, at department stores, which scarcely paid more. A couple of better-off Russian families in the neighborhood would hire her to give their kids language lessons, but they never stuck with it.

Yulia was already in her sixties when Lou brought her to the United States. She got her green card after they married, but she never became a citizen, because she spent six months out of the year with her elderly mother in Ukraine. She had a meager pension over there that she lived off of and used for airfare. This couldn’t have been entirely for her mother’s benefit, because she never went back during the winter. While she was gone, Lou would subsist on the McDonald’s Dollar Menu, and cheap TV dinners. He had a tremor in his hands. I doubt he could’ve opened a can of tuna.

Eventually, the golf course let him go, so he started driving for Uber. It made him feel pretty slick, like he was on the cutting edge. He even bought a pair of sunglasses and a faux-leather jacket, but he drove so far below the speed limit and racked up so many complaints about it that Uber fired him, too. Then he started driving for Lyft. This was right around the time the iPhone 7 came out, and some floozy passenger left one in his car. A couple hours later, as he was driving around, the thing started ringing like crazy from beneath the seat, so he pulled over and retrieved it, but he was embarrassed to answer because he was too confused to know where it came from or how to give it back, and too embarrassed to admit that he was too confused to figure it all out. So he went to McDonald’s to get a coffee and think things through, but all he came up with was to toss the phone in the bathroom trashcan and delete his Lyft app for good, forfeiting three or four hundred dollars of his own in the process.

The cancer took him quick—it couldn’t have been more than six weeks ago that I heard he’d gotten the diagnosis. It had probably been a decade or more since he’d even had a routine physical. I never went to see him in the hospital. My wife works sixty hours a week, I’m in medical school, our kids are growing—who has time? Yulia reached out to his nearest relative, a grand-niece somewhere in Illinois. Apparently, she isn’t interested. Yulia’s not going to host a funeral for him either. She’s trying to save money. She didn’t even bother to have his body dressed up, so he wore a hospital gown to his cremation. She plans to send his ashes to this niece by regular mail, probably in a store-brand freezer bag, and go back to Ukraine with his life insurance payout.

Thanksgiving—that was my big act of charity that I did for Lou. Everything we do for others in America is fetishized, performative, peremptory, and remote. Toys for Tots, breast cancer, all this kind of de-personalized annual bullshit. If we listened to our hearts, we might have to take Jesus’s advice. And then what would become of Uber, and McDonald’s, and the iPhone 7?

A Serb—a man—died this month, in Reno, on All Souls Day, alone, in an indifferent hospital ward named for the mother of God, off an interstate freeway that never stops. I hope there’s something better for him beyond.

Crypto-fascist, Crypto-Jew

zionism-equals-nazism

Bro I wish

Part II of a series in progress….. Part I here, Part III forthcoming

I.

When I was eighteen, I beat up a white power skinhead. My late-adolescent self-seeking had taken a schlocky, Daniel Deronda kind of turn, so any opportunity to defend Jewish honor I felt I had to take, no matter how contrived. I guess I fancied myself a little like the Jewboy Schwartz in Porky’s. 

Anyway, as I was standing with a gaggle of crust punks one weekday afternoon on a downtown corner across from the bus station, a sinewy little guy with a shorn pate and narrow mustache strolled up in boots, braces, beater and bomber, drew one of my punker compadres aside and transacted a drug deal inconspicuously. Then he started back on his way—that is, until I shoved him, hard, from behind. On that day I decided I would simply refuse to accept that neo-Nazis should make themselves visible.

He turned around to face me, breathing through his open mouth, his incisors streaked a scummy, bacterial yellow. He had grimy pores and crusted-over scabs, his fingers were nicotine stained and filthy under the nails. There were little SS lighting bolt runes tattooed on one side of his neck, an iron cross on the other.

I stepped forward and poked him in the chest. Fear flashed momentarily across his eyes but he steadied his gaze, grinning as he reached into his beater and flipped out a brass swastika on a long, thin chain around his neck. That was when I hauled off.

I managed to land a solid several thumps upside his noggin as he flailed, until suddenly he surged into me at chest level, Hail Mary-like—head down, forearms up blocking. He managed to back me up a few steps, grabbing me by the shirt collar as he poked his little radish head up to bite me, square on the nose. The shock of this lent him the further momentum to bare down and take me tumbling to the pavement, back first. I almost rolled him but he bore down hard again, straddling my chest as he tried to strangle me. He overplayed his hand, though: as he wound back to clock me point blank, I availed myself of the empty space between my sternum and his groin, gripped him square in the nether region with one hand and up under an armpit with the other, then pulled him sideways into my chest and flipped him square on his back.

I mounted, I grounded, I pounded. Quite often the toughness of recidivist scumbags has more to do with the capacity to absorb a beating than to mete one out. He struggled, quivering with desperate futility, like a live fish held down for gutting.

Then suddenly I heard a crisp “snap!” I thought the sound was his nose breaking, which it was. Although I didn’t feel the pain immediately, it would also turn out to be the distal metacarpals on my mean right shattering in several places each. The pain settled in a second later, as I looked down and noticed that my opponent, though conscious, had given up, and was bleeding profusely from his nose and mouth.

Just then, someone yelled “cops!”

I looked up to see two peace officers, a man and a woman, sprinting towards us down the sidewalk some fifty yards off. I hopped up, bolted and rounded the nearest corner. Within two blocks I’d completely lost my pursuers and cut through the parking lot of a gated condo complex to a corner hamburger shack on the other side that had a pay phone booth in its back parking lot, out of view of the street. My dad was just getting off work and I called him for a ride.

II.

Awhile after that, once my broken hand had mended, I saw a member of the same local clique of white power skinheads strolling past me on the same downtown block. He was wearing a trucker hat on which he’d stenciled an iconic punk-rock anti-fascist symbol….

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Only $12.99 on Angry, Young & Poor LMFAO

….only in his rendition, the stick figure was trashing a Star of David, not a swastika. I was so shocked by this meager display of literacy that I doubted what I had seen until he was well out of sight, but twenty minutes later he came back in the opposite direction with a slice of pizza in one hand.

As he passed by I snorted, ‘Nice hat.’ He turned to see who’d paid him the compliment and I mean-mugged him like I intended to do him harm. He froze, gazing back indecisively, whereupon I decked him in the face with my skateboard, an act I hadn’t planned nor even anticipated from myself. His pizza slice went flying as he dropped, hard, straight back. As soon as he hit the pavement he began seizing violently. I found out later that I had actually cracked his eye socket.

If you go out of your way to seriously insult strangers, you should probably be better prepared for a backlash than this guy was. But then, if you set out to harm everyone who says stuff you don’t like, you’d better know your limits a little better than I knew mine. I’d been reading a lot about the Irgun and Murder, Inc., but imitating them didn’t feel so good. I had beaten people with fists before, but this was the first time I used a weapon. In an instant I had become a more brutal creature than I realized I was, or ever had been. Frozen in shock, staring down at my victim, I experienced the disembodying sensation of a strong compassionate impulse concurrent with the realization that I had now forfeited my right to feel it. When I reemerged into linear time I heard shouting, and glanced up just soon enough to outrun bus station security.

I was less than six months out of high school then, and while I was heavily into pot and earning C grades at the local community college on my Jew-doctor daddy’s dime, my best friend Max (a goy, if you must know, and a profoundly goyische one, at that) was getting heavily into meth. He used to flop at a mutual friend’s apartment, where a female roommate was dating one of the skinheads, who also happened to be meth retailers. They would party there too, and crash on weekend nights. Word got back to me from Max that the White Power crew was looking for me and that their leader, a hardened ex-con by the nom de guerre of ‘Panther,’ had vowed to handle me personally. I didn’t know what Panther looked like, but he sounded fearsome.

III.

At that time I was also running a moderately lucrative sideline in pot (re-upping weekly by the quarter-pound), and one of my occasional customers was a six-and-a-half foot homeless high-yellow, also an ex-con, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Lawrence Fishburne—pockmarks and all—and went by a nom de guerre of his own, ‘The Reverend.’

In some visceral, sub-conscious nether region I understood perfectly well how predatory blacks can be, but at that age the psychic patina of racial pathos and Pavlovian guilt-inculcation at the hands nearly two decades’ worth of Hollywood movies and civics lessons prevented me from metabolizing this information to the full benefit of my survival instincts. If defending Jewish honor was a legacy passion project, evasion of actual danger was a work in progress.

Perhaps intentionally, The Reverend dressed a lot like Morpheus from The Matrix, in a ratty trench coat over an unwashed hoodie, with greasy cargo pants and army boots. His hustle was fortune telling for racially solicitous post-pinko granolas at a card table he used to set up in front of a health food store on the downtown strip, with a purple velvet table cloth where he’d lay out crystals for sale. Obsequious in characteristically downtrodden-black fashion, with that opportunistic malice lurking plainly underneath, The Reverend used to call me ‘Young Buck,’ and I showed my appreciation for his backhanded flattery by over-weighing his twomp sacks by a half-gram. Sometimes I’d smoke a joint with him just to be friendly. I was listening to a lot of rap music at that age.

One day as I was making my rounds on the downtown strip, I passed by The Reverend’s tarot table when he hailed me. I was carrying a bag of fruits and vegetables I’d just purchased from the health food store. He asked if I had any bud for sale, and slid a twenty spot onto the table. I snapped up the bill, slid my backpack down one arm and fished out a half-eighth (about half a gram more than I normally charged twenty for). But The Reverend gave a pensive, dissatisfied grimace and deadpanned, ‘Now why you tryin’ ta short me, homie?’ My balls dropped a bit as it dawned on me exactly what The Reverend took me for—ironically, this Morpheus-lookalike kind of redpilled me that day. As I returned the weed to my backpack and tossed his twenty-spot back onto the table I told him, “Go fuck your mother you shitty fuckin’ nigger.” It was the first (and second to last) time in my life I availed myself of that epithet in the second person.

Well that must not’ve made The Reverend’s day, because no sooner had I made my way half a block up from where he sat than I heard someone murmur, “The fuck you say to me?” and when I looked back over my shoulder, there was The Reverend in hot pursuit. I turned, snarling to face him and he stopped about three feet shy of me.

The Reverend was fairly big. He probably could have fucked me up; he probably could have fucked me. A crowd gathered ’round as we stared each other down, but this didn’t register immediately. All that was going through my head was that fight-or-flight electric slow-mo, and while (relative to his size) I might not have had the ablest fight in me, there was no flight. On that day—in spite of the stifling, kumbaya college-town atmosphere and the gaping hipsters and granolas gathered ’round to spectate—I simply refused to accept that I owed a predatory hustler anything but flagrant contempt.

The Reverend looked around at the assembled throng and decided to go for a half-measure: kicking around the back of my shins in big circular motions, trying to trip me. I jumped, took a step back, and grabbed an apple out of the grocery bag I had dangling from my wrist. My side-hand curve went ‘thwap!’ upside The Reverend’s head and dropped to the sidewalk broken open, dripping juice; then I hurled another, and another, each one landing with a ‘thwap!’ as we danced around in circles like a folk jig, him still trying to trip me, until I was out of apples.

Realizing, I suppose, that this spectacle was liable to cost him business, after a minute or so The Reverend stopped, hung his head sullenly, and skulked back to his tarot table to pack up his things. As I moved on up the strip, the atmosphere around me seemed to inflate with a laden tingling of shame. Had anyone heard me say nigger? Would word get around? Would I now be labelled a racist?

In just a few short months, The Reverend had made himself such a figure in town that at one point, about a month prior, he officiated a well-attended, interactive ‘white privilege’ self-flagellation demo organized by some intrepid sociology students at the university campus. It even got written up in the local weekly. But after our confrontation I never saw him in town again.

But the day of our confrontation, as I tender-hoofed my way up the strip and away from the scene, the strangest thing happened. A lousy, shirtless, sunburned little man with a shorn pate, wearing blue jeans, combat boots and braces came straggling along behind me. When he caught up he blurted out, breathless, ‘Are you having trouble with that nigger?’ Unsure of his intentions and leery of being judged by any proximate third-parties who might’ve seen what just happened, I replied ‘Hey man, that’s some pretty strong language right there.’ But when I glanced over I noticed that he was covered from torso to neck in Nazi tattoos. This dude intended to lend me moral support on the grounds of white solidarity. ‘Man, I hate that fuckin’ nigger. Just out here preyin’ on dumb fucks in this town. You don’t have to take that shit.’

‘I don’t know if you wanna take my part, bro. I’m Jewish.’

‘Well…..’ He paused. ‘I don’t have anything against Jews. I just have a problem with certain Zionists.’ I was taken aback, not at the note of acceptance but at the vocabulary, and not because it was impressive, but because it existed at all.

‘Name’s Panther.’ He extended a hand and we shook. Panther was small enough I could’ve picked him up and tossed him in a trash compactor. ‘Stay out of trouble, brother. Just look at me’—he was pretty haggard—‘it ain’t worth it.’ And off he went into the evening.

Nazi Hussein

the_lone_gunmen_b

“I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn…..”*

Part I of a series in progress…. Part II here, Part III forthcoming

In an absolute sense, you never really know what’s true. In the case of second hand stories, you can only relate what you’ve been told.

The year was 2005. I had an eight hour layover in Amsterdam. It was sometime in that cleft between dawn and the start of business hours on a frigid weekday in late winter, and if you’re getting high at that hour it can only be for one of two reasons: because you have a serious drug problem and have been up all night awaiting your chance to smoke, or because you’re a tourist in friggin’ Amsterdam and this just happens to be the time of day your plane landed. Although on that particular day the latter reason was certainly true of me, I was getting high for the former reason.

After a forty-five minute stroll past shuttered storefronts, I happened upon a coffee shop that was open and operating. Beside a squat, bald, mustachioed Turk with greasy facial moles who apparently ran it, the place was empty of customers except for two guys having a conversation in Arabic, whom I sat down next to at the bar.

The one nearest me, on my right, was late-middle aged, stocky but dapper and a tad swarthy, with piercing green eyes, a bulbous nose and a five o’clock shadow. He wore a dark blue trench coat and grey slacks, assiduously polished black leather shoes and a felt fedora, and assessed me guardedly as I pulled out the stool to his left and goofily nodded my unmistakably American amiability. To his right sat a tall, gangly youth with a long, acned face and wavy, greased black hair, wearing skinny jeans, Adidas, and a beige turtle-neck. This younger Arab was adamant about something, intent on his interlocutor and bantering at length a mere inch or two from the right side of the latter’s face. Periodically this older gentleman, staring straight ahead, would indifferently muster a monosyllabic reply before taking a hit off the little green plastic house-bong that stood between them, filthier than a store-sock and giving off little whisps of stale smoke from its top-hole. When the old Arab exhaled, the Turk, stationary behind the bar and leaning against the back wall in front of us with his hands in his pockets, would grimace conspicuously, give a passive-aggressive grunt of objection and slowly, begrudgingly turn his head away from the oncoming cloud.

I paid the harried little Turk for a gram of hashish and set to mixing half of it with the contents of a Winston light, with all the ritualistic lighter-flicking and foil-oragami that entails. At that age I was naively enamored Levantine hospitality and the contrast it posed to the American wariness and insincerity I had known all my life. So when my mixture was complete I gestured in the direction of the bong and, when the old Arab handed it to me, packet the bowl and passed it back to him. His face registered surprise without breaking the exasperated pallor the younger man’s ranting seemed to have induced, and he lit up, inhaled and passed the bong back to me.

I packed another bowl and offered it to the younger man, who gestured refusal without a let-up in his Arabic banter. So I lit up, and as I exhaled it the older man, in unaccented American, asked “Where you from, kid?”

“From California. I’ve got a layover on my way to Tel Aviv.” That last bit of information was superfluous and intentionally provocative. I have no major objection to the basic Arab view of Israel, at least not on strictly logical grounds. If I was Arab, I’d share it. My objection to that viewpoint, such as it is, is mostly an accident of birth, and I figured that relations with an Arab who isn’t entirely determined to not get along with me are liable, ironically, to be all the more fraternal on that account.

The older man snorted an amused and oddly satisfied chuckle and glanced snidely at his compatriot, frozen of a sudden as though he’d just been slapped in the face.

“Where you guys from?”

“Palestine!” bellowed the youth, also in unaccented American, with a force he perhaps hadn’t anticipated from himself.

“He’s from Los Angeles” the older man, now in better control of his amusement, corrected him. Not being in on the joke, I was starting to feel rather like the object of some conspiratorial roast.

“Oh cool, I’m from Santa Carla! What do you do in LA?”

The younger man glared at me with unselfconscious hostility. The older one continued, “His family owns some kind of bodega in the hood down there.”

“What brings you to Amsterdam?” I asked the youth.

“I’m on my way to Kuwait” he sullenly replied.

“What’s going on in Kuwait?”

“My uncle owns a business.”

“I see. And is this man your uncle?” I was still concealing my provocations beneath that insoluble veneer of American obliviousness. The older gent let slip a snort that broke into a chuckle.

“No, no, no, we just met in here and this kid” (he pointed with a jerk of his thumb) “started talkin’ Arab at me. I’m from Michigan. Name’s Nazee, nice to meet you.” He extended a hand.

“Likewise; Sam” I said as we shook hands. His handshake was not lithe but firm and smothering, more midwestern than middle eastern.

“What brings you to Amsterdam?”

“Well, I’m moving to Israel to enlist in the Israeli army.” The younger man’s jaw and brow dropped an inch apiece as if he hadn’t figured his day could get any worse.

“You’re from Santa Carla and you want to move to the middle east?” asked Nazee. “Why in the hell would you wanna go and do a thing like that?”

“Well, I think it’s a beautiful place.”

“That’s certainly true. But what are you going there to do? I mean, why join the Israeli army? Are you Jewish? Are your parents Israeli?”

“Well, my parents are both American. I’m half-Jewish. A couple years back I lived over there for a few months, and since then I just haven’t been able to think about anything except going back. So I figure, if I learn the language and enlist in the army, that would make me a part of the place. I wouldn’t just be a tourist. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an ideologue. I’ve got nothing against you people, and I can imagine how you must view an American joining the Israeli army. But I figure once I’ve become a real part of the country, I’ll stay out there and pursue peace in my own way, as a journalist and an author. So I dropped out of college and I’m on my way.”

“Well, I agree that nobody really needs college to make it.” A silent moment passed and the youth recovered from his disbelief and resumed ranting in Arabic. I took another bong hit. Pretty soon they got up, and Nazee said, “My pal and I are going to grab a bite if you wanna come.”

A bit surprised, I threw on my huge backpack and set off with them.

We meandered through the red light district and along the canals for about half an hour, occasionally passing a joint between us. Very little was spoken to me in English. Finally we came to an Arab restaurant where we sat and ordered. As their conversation continued, I got the feeling I was the butt of some joke unbeknown to me. When the food came, I dug in with my hands. “He eats like an Arab!” Nazee exclaimed. The conversation switched to English for awhile. At length we paid our tabs—separately, like good Americans—and got up to accompany the young Palestinian to the train station. As Nazee and I were leaving the platform we’d seen him off from, I said blankly, “Well, he was a nice guy.”

“No he wasn’t. He was making fun of you the whole time.”

“Well, I can understand his resentment. I shouldn’t have said anything about Israel.”

“Look, kid. I got two boys your age, that kid’s age. You’re all a bunch of fucking retards. You’re going to Israel, right?”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t mean I can’t respect other people’s feelings.”

“Respect away. But you wanna go work for Sharon and Peres? That’s no joke. Those guys are fucking gangsters, man. Gangsters. Not movie actors, not mixed up kids with silly tattoos. Mass murderers. And you’re softer than rotting fruit. You can’t think the way you do in the place where you’re going.”

Laden with that whole post-9/11 constellation of enemy-of-my-enemy stereotypes, I was still confused about something. “I thought you and that guy were friends.”

“Fuck that guy. What’s the problem with being friendly and just speaking English? All three of us speak fluent English, but he spoke Arab the entire time just to exclude you from the conversation.

“Fucking Arabs, man. They’re always trying to implicate one another in some little pissing contest. You’re suspect unless you’re pledging loyalty over and over. They need Israel though, ’cause they all hate each other. And Israel needs them, ’cause the minute there’s peace you people will be at each other’s throats. How much can a Russian and an Ethiopian really have in common, anyhow?

“That kid’s parents made good in the States”, he continued. “He’s going to make good money living in Kuwait on a US passport. People like him want all the benefits of being American, but they hate America. I live in Michigan, yeah? There’re a lot of Arabs over there. Most of them hate Americans. Not just George Bush; their neighbors, too. Fuck that. I didn’t go to America to just hunker down with my kind.

“I came to America from Syria almost thirty years ago. I was nineteen years old. Back then they took you to the army right out of high school. Still do, as a matter of fact. It was the mid-seventies and there had just been this God-awful war against Israel. I didn’t know a thing about politics, I just couldn’t see the point of dying for the asshole that was in charge over there. So I took a bus to Jordan and found my way to the US embassy. I swept floors at a bakery, slept on the street and just waited in line at the embassy for hours, every day I could get down there, for about nine months.

“By some miracle I finally got in to see this woman, I didn’t know who she was, her title, or what gave her authority to decide my case, but she asked me why didn’t I wanna go back to Syria, and I told her straight up that I didn’t wanna get drafted. She asked what I wanted to do in the US, and I couldn’t tell her, and she looks me right in the eye, something about her voice and the way she’s facing me kinda changes, and she says—I’ll never forget it—she asked me if it mattered to me to marry Muslim, or if I could marry a Christian or a Jewish or a Chinese girl, and I said through the interpreter, I said, lady, I don’t give a rat’s ass, I’ll marry who I love. And she stamped my passport right there.

“I didn’t speak a word of English. I spent three years cleaning toilets and flippin’ burgers by the beach in Miami, almost didn’t eat anything except hamburgers in all that time. But I learned English. Over the years I spoke Arabic with my parents and sisters by phone, but it got harder and harder. The truth is I haven’t really spoken Arabic in thirty years. I don’t know if you noticed that kid was doing most of the talking. I can’t speak much Arabic anymore. It’s too emotional for me.

“I been back to Syria a few times though. I’m considered a deserter, so I gotta fly through Amman, cross overland and pay a shitload of money. I can’t fly straight in or they’ll arrest me at the airport. I paid $10,000 the last time. One time, there was some kind of disturbance at the airport in Jordan, and our flight just circled and circled above Amman for like, half an hour. Finally, the captain got on the intercom and said we may just have to land in Damascus. I almost shit myself, ’cause they would’ve cut my balls off if I showed up at the airport in Damascus. But we ended up landing in Amman.

“My kids don’t have that problem. When they were old enough, I sent them to see their grandparents and cousins. They can just fly right in on US passports. But the police followed them everywhere. Fucking everywhere. That’s why I don’t understand this ghetto mentality a lot of the Arabs around Detroit have, ’cause they don’t have to put up with that over there.”

“But that’s not true!” I interrupted. “What about the PATRIOT Act and all the domestic surveillance of Muslim-Americans?”

“Look man, I got a welding business. Sheet metal fabrication. I work with my sons. All the contractors around town, we all know each other. On 9/11 I was in this lunch spot we all go, and a bunch of these guys were at the counter, they came in without noticing that I was already there at a corner table with my back turned. The World Trade Center was on the TV above the lunch counter for like, the five-thousandth time that day, and they all started talking about the fuckin’ ragheads and how we need to bomb ’em to smithereens.

“Then one of these guys pipes up, he says, ‘Wait a minute, what about Nazee? He’s Arab, ain’t he?’ And someone else says, ‘Yeah, but he’s not like that.’ And they all kinda quieted down after that, maybe they felt like they went too far with what they’d been saying. That’s just the way people are. The PATRIOT Act ain’t about Arabs. Arabs are an excuse, like the Jews used to be. You think they’re just gonna spy on Arabs now? They’re gonna fuck everyone. What you gotta be worried about is not getting fucked! But racism? Racism’s older than prostitution. Get over it. You can hate people’s guts and still get along with ’em if you’re willing to try. Most of the Arab immigrants in my neck of the woods don’t try though, they stick to themselves. They’re hostile. But they want all the benefits. Like that Turkish guy in the coffee shop giving us dirty looks every time we blew smoke. For christsake, asshole—you sell weed for a living!

“Look at this fuckin’ Arab over here” he whispered, jerking his head rightward to indicate a snowy-haired man some meters away, walking along an adjacent canal with a hijab-clad younger woman by his side. “You think they put those grocery bags on their women because they think it’s wrong for a man to stare at girls? Hell no. It’s because they’re busy looking at everyone else’s girls. They come to a place like this so they can do that. Guy probably brought his daughter to the fuckin’ Netherlands and then put a bag over her head and forced her to marry a stranger or a cousin just because the guy’s from the same country. Well stay the fuck over there if all you’re interested in is the old country.

“You got these mass murderers like Sharon—same story. He’d have fit right in at the KGB. It don’t matter for some people what to believe, as long as they can get their little hard-on. You know what they want? Approval. Behind that tough guy stance, they’re only doing what other people let them get away with. They want to be admired, be remembered. Same reason the pharaohs built those pyramids, man. It’s in our DNA to want to leave a legacy, to shape the future, especially for men. So we come up with all these bullshit rules about what’s best for other people, and pretty soon even a mass murderer thinks he’s doing everybody a favor.

“Look, I think it’s stupid for you to go fight with people who ain’t done you any wrong, but you gotta figure that out yourself. Maybe you got a point, a good reason. I can’t know. Maybe, if I’da been born in the states, I’d have gone the opposite direction. I mean, I’m not much smarter than you. But at some point you gotta worry about yourself and stop implicating the whole damn world in your bullshit, stop trying to make the whole world’s bullshit your own. It’s just a matter of making that choice yourself, or being forced to by circumstances.

“You know how easy it is to get along with people? Look, I’ll prove it. My name’s Nazee, right? Nazee Hussein. This is my business card.” He reached into his coat pocket and handed me a little white rectangle of tagboard with blue letters on it that read, “Nazi Hussein and Sons. Sheet metal fabrication.”

“You spell your name Nazi?”

“I spell it like it sounds. Politics aren’t my department.” In his fedora and trenchcoat, the Bogie quote was well played.

We continued in silence for a few minutes and eventually stepped into a little souvenir shop where there was a big glass display case full of iron-on flag patches for backpackers. The clerk sneered as Nazi reached in and took out the little Israeli flag and handed it to me. I looked at the clerk and pointed to the Palestine flag, and she started to reach for it, but Nazi laid a hand gently on her forearm to stop her. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?” he asked me.

“I want to wear both flags to show that I’m open-minded, that I want peace, that we can all get along. Like you said!”

“You walk into the Tel Aviv airport with a Palestine flag on you and they’re gonna tear open your ass. Think, man! You gotta firm up. We all want peace, but that’s not where you’re going. You want people to be reasonable, but what’s reasonable to a guy who had the good fortune to grow up in the states is different than what’s reasonable for an Israeli kid working airport security who grew up his whole life with his neighbors wanting to kill him. If you wanna be with your people, then be with your people. America’s the opposite direction.”

I paid for my Israeli flag patch, handed Nazi a couple safety pins and turned my back to him while he pinned it on my Jansport. Then we walked back to the train station together and stood on the platform smoking a joint. When the train to the airport came I gave Nazi Hussein a big hug, stepped onboard, and made my way to Israel.

I can’t say that I really strongly countenance or object to any of Nazi’s criticisms of his people—I’ve just never walked in his shoes. But his words have been kicking around my head for over a decade now. They were there when I was living in Israel, when I served in the Israeli army and when I returned to California with my tail between my legs.

a love story

....same old, same old....

….decisions, decisions….

Let us dispense with all things superfluous and suffice it to say that in the bitter wake of mutual recrimination and hopelessly consternated tears they make the magnetized love of absolute acceptance and limitless forgiveness, headily giving off their most concentrated warmth, climaxing in rapid succession and then, repose.

Each met the other in the same place they met each other. It doesn’t matter anymore; it never did. His forlorn family’s low estimation of his admittedly deficient judgement led them, in their bottomless prudence, to conclude he had succumbed to the wiles of a conniving single mother who would clip his wings and harness him to her petty neediness. Meanwhile, her harried mother bitterly conveyed to her ex-husband the sub-optimal news that once more their hapless baby girl had entangled herself with a loser. Familiar stories, each.

They weren’t much more certain of each other. Like a typical student he cut that woefully disheveled figure that mistakes puerility for charm. Because of this, she suspected his standards bordered on canine and that his broad-mindedness would precipitate mischief. Indeed, her unmistakable allure offered him precious little occasion to impute charm to blemishes, a habit he had cultivated over a series of relationships with brooding types as self-esteem deficient as himself. In contrast, her every gesture evinced that carefree femininity he had always taken as a signal to suppress his expectations and keep his distance.

Of course they couldn’t be constrained to use contraception. (What other criteria is there?) He often joked, nervously, that if she were to conceive, he would marry her and join the service. And when it happened he sat at her flabbergasted mother’s table with her hand in his and declared without even the minutest betrayal of equivocation that to his way of thinking abortion was not an option. Her mother, like his own parents, had not been prevented by the advent of the pill from snuffing her fair share back when peace and love were in vogue, but each family’s dismay at his obdurance only solidified his brittle sanctimoniousness.

A mere week thence, as he sat late at night in sweatpants and a tanktop in the driver’s seat of his chewed-up car in the skeevie parking lot of a 24-hour coin-op, that threadbare confidence came undone as an exponentially magnified inventory of every selfish luxury of the solitary life he stood to lose struck him suddenly with the overwhelming force of a bullet train splattering the viscera of a lowdown dog. In his late twenties, he was still plodding through college on his father’s support. Insufficient for his own upkeep, he wondered how he would ever support a family. He estimated his chances of ever saving enough to have a life, alone or otherwise, as exceedingly low. Suddenly, these constraints took on the appearance of mitigating factors, and a weight seemed to float from his shoulders. No, this pregnancy just wasn’t possible, he thought. In a sense, it wasn’t even happening, because it couldn’t. There was only one option.

The following afternoon she dropped by his ratty one-room after work, as usual, and as they lay spooning she mentioned that the night before she had the most unsettling dream. “We were together, and it was you I saw in front of me, and we talked like normal, but somehow, it wasn’t really you, and I woke up really scared.” He grunted and shrugged but was too preoccupied to consider what she had said even just long enough to dismiss it.

“I’ve been thinking,” he rejoined, deciding to rip the proverbial band-aid right off, “We should probably just abort this one and decide how and whether we want to proceed together without the unnecessary pressure of a pregnancy.”

In an infinite nanosecond she had gone through all the stages of grief but acceptance. It had all seemed so simple to him the night before, and in his solipsism her reaction came as a genuine shock. She streaked out the door and across the parking lot, howling, blubbering, shrieking, beet-red, radiating tear-steam and nearly choking on drool, while he sat up in the bed, enveloped in a surreal, otherbodily numbness. Icy resolve to disregard the unanticipated obstacle her feelings presented gave way eerily to a sense of having penetrated the membrane of a metaphysical continuum devoid of all human warmth and future hope. In a tingly storm of nervous electricity he told himself that she had no right to demand of him everything her pregnancy necessitated, that anyway there could be no backing down because things couldn’t possibly be worse nor get better than he had just made them. On the phone his parents concurred, as they had the night before.

Her mother, meanwhile, now had all the proof she needed that no one gets very far through life contented and entirely sane, that this right of passage would therefore be necessary, and that it was all his fault. He hadn’t disappointed her there. His only distinction was his amplified despicability, that he’d sprinkled his false assurances so liberally with the righteously empty platitudes her daughter had been taken in by.

His name is Michael. Perhaps it always was and always will be.

He would have been born petite and handsome, and not cried at all but given his parents a contemplative look when he was placed on his mother’s chest, as if to say, “Ah yes, you two again.” As if the spark with which he’d been entrusted was as old as time and space. He’d have been thoughtful, discerning and vigorous, with saucerbrown eyes and dimples, a guileful smile and a tender disposition. He would have been adored by his parents and lonely older brother.

He is crying out to them.

Van Dammed

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If looks could kill

I’m not going to deny that there are some tough motherfuckers in the Israeli army. But once inside the institution itself, you’d have to look real hard to find them. Maybe this is the result of an elaborate ruse intended to inspire gross underestimation, though it probably has more to do with the fact most teenaged Israeli conscripts are pretty well cowed compared with American kids, who by the age of eighteen have (on average) done way more fucking, fighting, shoplifting, drug ingesting and all-around troublemaking than their middle eastern counterparts despite being (on average) a good fifty pounds heavier. Whereas stateside, stealing a car or beating a classmate to a bloody pulp can (in ever rarer instances, it is true) be a ticket to Fort Benning, in Israel, getting caught with a swiped laptop or a vile of ecstasy is taken as a sign not of potentially useful daring-do but of dangerous non-conformity, and those with juvenile rap-sheets are actually denied the option of military service. Ain’t that bass-friggin’-ackward?

On the day in 2006 when I officially became army property, a family friend drove me in his late-model Peugot and dropped me off outside the grounds of a 1967 Six-Day War battle site, Givat Hatakhmoshet (Ammunition Hill) that is now the location of a military museum. A group of fellow twenty-something male English-speakers and several Russians was milling around the entrance in the orbit of a middle-aged Tennessean and her distractingly pretty teenaged daughter, both of whom were handing out shiny new electric razors, tins of shoe polish, bags of Cheetos, candy bars and little squeeze-it juice boxes. These were hard-core Christian Zionists, permanent residents of Jerusalem and members of a far-right evangelical organization that doesn’t even expend its resources proselytizing, so eager are its members to hand out squeeze-it juice boxes to Israeli soldiers without the potential constraint of theological controversy. I guess they figure we can sort ourselves out when Jesus comes.

By and by, several female corporals, armed with clipboards, emerged from inside the gate and led us through a series of metal detectors and into a building where we were briefly interviewed one by one and each made to sign a sheaf of papers; then around back to a row of bleachers where we sat for an hour or so. The Russians, most of whom had recently graduated from high schools in Israel, talked amongst themselves in Russian. The Anglos, all recent arrivals in the nineteen-to-twenty seven year-old age range and mostly American but including a few Canadians and South Africans, introduced ourselves. Soon the corporals returned and led us into a movie theatre in the museum building, where we were treated to grainy footage of the 1967 Battle of Ammunition Hill. The gist of the piece’s narration (in Hebrew, Russian and English) seemed to be that it is good to die for one’s country. The whole angle of appeal seemed rather low-literacy, and I wondered, where was the more nuanced propaganda geared toward well-read bourgeois malcontents? I wasn’t sure I would be able to subsist in this army if my emotional needs weren’t going to be taken into more careful consideration.

Eventually we were herded onto a bus and taken to an army base where we spent the day in endless lines as we were processed: shorn, vaccinated, fingerprinted, made to sign more papers and issued dog-tags, military ID cards, boots, berets, class-A uniforms, C-bags and squeeze-it juice boxes.

Now, Israel is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, and although it often fails to behave like one when convenience trumps adherence, we were nonetheless issued little pocket-sized tagboard documents, to be kept on our persons at all times, enumerating the rights of POWs under those very agreements—–in French, for the apparently singular edification, amusement and rolling-paper needs of possible Hezbullah captors, who obviously are not a party to any covenant on the laws of war. Maybe the logic was that if we could get them laughing uncontrollably, this would buy us enough time to escape back over the Israeli border before they could slather the insides of our rectums with gasoline using soldering irons.

Every single new conscript on base that day was a recent arrival, either from a French or English speaking country, the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia or South America. The vaccination line alone contained an incredible spectrum of backgrounds and experienecs. Among the former Soviets it ranged from Mikhael, a hale and hearty, ethnic Russian former Uzbek-army sergeant from Tashkent, who wore a massive gold crucifix burrowed neatly among his many chest hairs at the apex of his V-neck tee, to Valerie, a spindly, doe-eyed Ukranian waif who looked as though conscription was the only thing standing between him and continuing to be breast-fed at home. At the behest of Mikhail he was being kicked around by some rough looking and very nearly toothless fellows whose body odor suggested they’d never been fed out of anything but tin-cans. In outhouses. Next to toxic waste dumps.

Among the Americans the spectrum ranged from Josh, a four-foot-seven east-coast bus-station rat runaway from a Nassau County trailer park whose regular intravenous heroin consumption went unnoticed by army authorities until many months later—after he had passed the physically grueling tryout and a significant portion of the training for a top-tier infantry commando—to Daniel, a half-Jewish Nicaraguan jeweler’s kid from Miami, who recited sentimental rap lyrics in Cholo drawl.

In short order a Russian had dubbed me “Van Damme” in self-satisfied obeisance to my apparently strong resemblance to the Belgian movie star. Indeed, a summer’s worth of construction work in the Tel Aviv suburbs had rendered me lean and chiseled. The word soon spread like wildfire and before we even boarded the buses for training camp I had become the object of intense scrutiny, with French, Russian and assorted other Doubting Thomases making the pilgrimage from all over the base to crowd around me and behold with their own eyes the Van Damme lookalike in their very midst, whose legend they’d heard imparted in myriad languages. Given that the preponderance of bootleg DVDs on offer in the open-air markets of Eastern Europe are in fact movies starring Jean Claude Van Damme, I was in no position to challenge my fellow conscripts’ expertise.

By that evening we found ourselves, after a three-hour bus ride, at the training base of the Israeli Army Education Corps for a three-month basic training regimen designed to improve our Hebrew. As boot camps go, this one was pretty light, basically the same minimal program that non-combat soldiers endure, with an added six-hours per-day of classroom instruction in Hebrew-as-a-second-language, taught by female corporals (and several male ones, all of whom either sported orthodontic headgear or evinced an ostentatious level of femininity). Despite the low physical intensity and my impending admission to the training program of a hardcore combat unit, this Hebrew language program would be the toughest three months of my service, because unlike elsewhere in the Israeli army the age range was mid-to-late twenties; because not most, but a good proportion of the former Soviets had seen either homelessness, prison time (relatively few of those, I have to admit), military service or assorted other hard knocks in their countries of origin; and because the base itself was a converted former prison. In short, I found myself in an actual prison with the dregs of the former Soviet Union—toughened petty criminals, urchins and proverbial red-headed step children, some of them sub-literate even in their own languages, all (ostensibly) being supervised by nineteen-year old female corporals (one of whom we nicknamed “sexual chipmunk” for her small stature, ample posterior, overbite, apple cheeks and big, sultry eyes) and orthopedically challenged male ones, selected not for toughness but because at home they spoke one of their charges’ first languages.

Wild shit quickly transpired.

Several of the former Soviets had been involved back home, whether formally or by proximity and mere diffusion, with the post-communist extreme right. Upon arrival, a couple of these guys quickly took to cheekily decorating the bathroom stalls with swastikas. The dozen-strong French/Belgian contingent, all of them dweebs from dunderheaded, religious Zionist households, soon caught one of them red-handed, cornered him in the very stall they’d caught him defacing and kicked the crap out of him.

The poor guy had to be airlifted to the hospital, but before the bird touched down word had gotten around to the Russians, a dozen of whom decided not to stand idly by while the honor of a fellow Ruski was violated with such brazenness by an incautious bunch of effete Frogs, who quickly found themselves on the receiving end of their own poorly-considered tactics in a battle royale straight out of Mortal Combat.

The following morning, two dozen of our fellows were either in the brig or the hospital and the rest of us were subjected to a stern lecture by a pot-bellied major who admonished us to never permit abuse of the memory of the Holocaust, and to never lift a hand against a fellow Israeli soldier—which sounded like a catch-22 considering the chain of events that aroused the officer’s concern.

Saturday Night’s Alright for Fightin’

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Love

What can I say? I was a middle-class brat running away from a broken home. I dropped out of community college, sold my Gibson Explorer (I know, don’t remind me) and bought a plane ticket to Israel where I had hackneyed, weed-addled fantasies of becoming an Israeli army scout sniper. I promised myself I’d exhume my good liberal conscience after I had become a war-hero—a war-hero peace activist. What an all-around great guy I would be then!

First I volunteered on a kibbutz. For those who don’t know, the kibbutz used to be a rural agricultural collective where the residents tithed their earnings, dined side by side in a single cafeteria and sent their kids to be raised together in on-site communal dorms. There are over a hundred such communities in Israel, though nearly all have privatized by now, which means two things: that they’ve basically become bedroom HOAs organized around vestigial on-site enterprises owned by outside investors, situated on seriously prime real estate; and that the back-biting and nosiness one might expect in such a tight-knit community is exacerbated a thousand times over by the floodgates of income disparity being suddenly thrown open. So while kibbutzniks cling to their self-image as veritable founders of, and best damn folks in, the country, they actually hate one another, because throughout the years of collectivism some of them had been shrewd enough to keep money invested (or just stashed) off-site, while others left, only to return highly educated or married to more affluent people, leaving an underclass to languish as well-kept but resentful proletarians who give tours, rake leaves, man the cafeteria, stack palettes at the factory or supervise while Indochinese temp-visa coolies do any of those things.

Within a week of arriving I had befriended half a dozen male high school seniors, with whom I bonded over plastic bong hits of godawful filler-cut hashish first melted on a butter knife, then massaged into the emptied-out contents of a Winston Light. They suckered me into helping them with their English homework.

One of these kids, Shai, was slightly off. At first he was my go-to homie on account of his superb English, but I quickly noticed that when teased by his peers in even the most innocuous manner he would erupt into fantastically infuriated violence, throwing furniture, kicking holes in drywall and screaming at the top of his lungs. When this happened everyone would just clear out of his way, and I came to find out through the merciless little kibbutz grapevine (which, unbeknownst to me, was well aware of my drug use—I was considered a bad influence and mistaken by half the parents on the kibbutz for a big bad American drug dealer who preyed upon hapless teenagers) that Shai’s father was dead, his sister was in a mental institution and he himself was on psychotropic prescription medication of some sort. The army was well aware of all this, and come late July, Shai would be left behind while his schoolmates shipped out for the quintessential rite of Israeli adulthood that he had been raised to anticipate.

Later that summer, the kids had all been drafted and I was living and working in Tel Aviv, doing odd construction jobs and working on moving vans, when I got a call from one of the recently-minted soldiers, asking if I would like to replace him at his six-day a week landscaping job in the town nearest the kibbutz. He even offered to let me stay in his now-vacant dorm room. Hells yeah, I told him.

The job was ten rigorous hours a day. On weekends I would take the train north from Tel Aviv to an affluent foothills town above Haifa to luxuriate at my girlfriend’s parent’s house. Unfortunately, life around the kibbutz had gotten pretty dull without the boys around, but Shai had it much worse than I did, languishing, playing video games and half-heartedly tending to the humiliating odd jobs his neighbors pityingly offered him. In the evenings he and I would smoke weed and play video games. Every few nights he drove me to Tel Aviv and parked out front of the apartment building of a former co-worker of mine who moonlit as a drug dealer, while I went inside and took care of business.

In those days Shai was pretty down in the mouth all the time. Once he even took a swing at me when I tried to turn down his car stereo so I could take a phone call. It was around that time that I decided to stop procrastinating and go cold turkey on the reefer. I was expecting a letter from the draft board and wanted to be clean in case they piss-tested me at my physical. But when I informed Shai that I could no longer be of assistance in procuring his hash, he threatened me. Then he started ringing my phone off the hook. Finally, one evening as I was returning home from work, I turned on my phone to discover a string of Hebrew text messages threatening to kill me and warning me not to return to the kibbutz. Fuck him, I thought.

Late that night, while I was telephoning my mother from the little orange Bezeq payphone along the frontage road outside the kibbutz (payphones are orange in Israel), Shai’s beat-up old blue Subaru wagon came screeching up, kicking up a dust cloud as it swerved into the dirt along the shoulder. He burst out, slammed the door behind him, took four or five tense steps in my direction and yanked the phone away from me, slamming it down onto the receiver as he bitch slapped me with his ginormous opposite paw.

Did I mention that Shai is about six-foot-five? I’m six even. With those figures in mind I abruptly decided not to fuck around with formalities and just reached out, wrapping my fingers around the back of his skull, plunging both thumbs deep into his eye sockets. He writhed and roared, kicking and clawing as I held on for dear life. After a five to ten second infinity he broke loose and began flailing at me erratically, attempting fisticuffs. I took a boxing stance and commenced thumping, landing a good, direct four out of five. Deep in the throws of frothing rage, Shai’s attempts to straighten out and focus yielded limited success; he must’ve landed about three out of seventeen. But for as good as I gave, he just wouldn’t go down. Hell, you try fighting Frankenstein’s creation three days out of a years-long, everyday weed habit and see how well it goes for you. Again, considering the options, I decided it was best to quit fucking around, so I hightailed it.

Just then, Shai dove into the driver’s side door of his station wagon, hit the ignition and fucking floored it. I felt the whoosh of his front bumper sweeping my ass as I hopped into a bush. The crazy motherfucker tried to kill me.

He slammed the brakes and reemerged from the vehicle in hot pursuit, this time on foot. I fled once more, but because at this point I was thoroughly convinced that Shai would have no problem chasing me all the way to my door, beating it down and murdering me with a brick, I ran in circles. Before long I had worn him down to the point that I was about to start lapping him, which (considering the sheer length of his arms) would have been a major tactical blunder on my part. So I caught my breath as best I could and put up my dukes for the round two bell. This time I landed a hundred percent, each thumping blow as ineffective as the last. Giving up on throwing punches, Shai started walking me backward, lunging as he tried to get me in a bear-hug. Again, it seemed best to run, so we resumed our track meet. Once more I gained a good head start and with ten or twelve meters between us I noticed a big boulder, big enough to do damage but just small enough to hoist and aim. So I gambled on it, turning around to face my attempted murderer. As he closed the distance between us he lowered his head, charging as if to tackle me. I stole the opportunity and bent down to swoop up the rock, hoisting it with two arms up over my head. As Shai came within grabbing distance he reared his awful cranium. That’s when I slammed the rock down upon it. “Thud!” Then silence. Crumpled on the ground, Shai rolled over, gave a moan, then slowly pulled himself up to his knees and began bawling like an infant in choking, stentorian sobs. I froze, dismayed and remorseful (I’m not a fucking sociopath, after all).

Those waterworks were like sprinklers on a timer, for at that very moment an old man emerged from around a bend in the frontage road, out for a walk with a poop baggie and a Standard Poodle. And this is what he saw: the big bad American drug dealer, heaving but erect, looking down at the poor mentally ill kid who was clutching his wounded face and emitting a by-then shrill whimper. The old man came running over, crouched down next to Shai and gingerly helped him up.

Cops were called. We were detained. As we sat handcuffed in the back of the police jeep, we were asked if either of us wanted to press charges against the other. Shai was over it, but I could hear the old man a few feet away from the vehicle, telling one of the cops that he would press charges against me on Shai’s behalf, that I was a drug dealer, etc., etc. Recalling the threatening text messages that I still had in my phone, I decided I had better press a counter charge and avoid the risk of being the only one on the defensive. I informed the officers of my decision when Shai told me, in English, in a whisper, that if I pressed charges against him he would rat out my dealer, whose address he knew from our trips to Tel Aviv together. So I told the officers that, on second thought, I wanted to decline the opportunity to press charges.

Those cops must’ve been lazier than shit. Apparently not wanting to fill out the requisite paper work, they prevailed upon the old man not to press charges against me, either.

We were let out of the Jeep and our handcuffs removed. Shai was taken to the hospital where he was treated for a concussion. His right eye was swollen shut for the next six weeks, big bandage, stitches across his forehead, bruises all over the place. Given the size difference between contenders, the kibbutzniks developed the impression that I was some kind of Chuck Norris/Bruce Lee hybrid. Little did they know I remained scared shitless of ol’ Shai, swollen eye or none.

(originally published April 18th, 2012)