Category Archives: Short Fiction

Belly of the Snake

We get very little wisdom from success.” —William Saroyan

Knowing people is useless, for I am unable to change my attitude toward any scoundrel.” —Varlam Shalamov

When I was in law school my buddies and I had a word to describe shameless careerists. We called them Batemans. These were the type of guys who were never frank, constantly opportunistic and frequently in professors’ offices licking ass. When one of my pals was doing an internship at a large, well-established and extremely arrogant civil defense firm, he used to say that it was full of Batemans.

In his memoirs, Menachem Begin once wrote that the key to survival in NKVD interrogation, and later the gulag, was learning:

One should, in all circumstances, give free reign to the thirst for knowledge which is in every man. Even if you are brought down to the depths of humiliation, to the Valley of the Shadow of Death—open your eyes wide, and learn! For as long as you are learning, your inquisitors will not succeed in establishing between you and them the relationship they desire; they, the superior beings, and you, the degraded. As equal to equal you will talk with them…. And from the knowledge that around you are not only crudity and humiliation, but also material for study, you will draw strength to stand up to the test of degradation—and remain a man.

I’ll warrant that coming from Menachem Begin this may sound a bit vindictive, but a pugilistic creed can at least offer such advice without too much sanctimony. Either way, it is absolutely sublime in my opinion, a piece of the utmost superlative wisdom. The whole meaning of life is to learn, at whatever level and in whatever manner the gods have ordained for you. If you doubt me, just live a little longer. As for the late prime minister, his only mistake was to assume that the thirst for knowledge is in every man.

When I first got out of law school I had a job interview where a great deal of learning took place, because the interviewer was a boomer firm partner who took me for a potential “mentee” and wouldn’t cease doing me the ginormous favor of blabbing about himself and his hollow philosophy.

I had seen this kind of mentorship before. My best friend from undergrad was an Iranian MBA guy I met in a Spanish class, and he was in the Rotary Club, where the college chapter was full of exchange students trying to work these boomer buffalos for Green Card employer-sponsors. They tended to get as good as they gave—worse in fact, and my pal’s “mentors” among this seriously corrupt and inbred local business elite exploited the fuck out of him for three years without ultimately helping him find a long-term job to stay in the country.

Boomers are the stupidest, most effete, self-absorbed and money-grubbing generation of blood suckers in the history of the world—the Saturnalia of generations. If you think we’re living in the Kali Yuga, fret not—we’re really just living in the after-stench of its nadir. It’s all uphill from Woodstock, which is why Gen-X is a bit less insufferable, insufferable though they may be.

My last year in college, I worked as a bouncer in a nightclub. The owner was an extremely arrogant boomer, wealthy but insanely cheap and well connected, politically. He was also quite brazen about breaking a number of laws, apparently because he felt he could get away with it, which he did. I was never an accomplice to any of this (I left as soon as I became aware of it, and tried to report it—to no avail), but the head of security may’ve been. He was a smart but boyish light-skinned black guy my age who tended to be a tad too obvious about always trying to be strategic. One day when I was working with him, we had some downtime and got to chatting. Apparently he wanted to impress me, and ended up giving me a tutorial in handshakes, and all he knew about the subtle, multifarious ways they can be used to communicate.

A lot of this stuff wasn’t any big secret—overhand versus underhand, how far you extend your wrist, that sort of thing. But some of what this guy had apparently been learning from our boss was quite obscure, and it reminded me of some of the wealthier and better connected Rotary Club people I’d met—they all seemed to have litanies of exquisite little hang-ups with body language, screening for “tells” all the time and using muted gestures to signal dominance or distain. If you’re a powerless student or junior associate rolling in these circles like a courtesan, trying to get ahead, this stuff can easily be mistaken for a kind of perennial, vigorous man’s wisdom. But it’s extremely catty, and beneath contempt, and it belongs strictly to the era circa Brown Bros. Harriman thru the adults in Beavis and Butthead.

But back to my interview. This firm partner—whom I’ll call Gary—looked to be in his early sixties, energetic in the weaselly manner of lawyers, with narrow features and impish, bright blue eyes. Now, I’m not a laser-beam eye contact kind of guy. No two people who genuinely like each other ever interact like that, but in a business environment I can do it, and obviously in a job interview it’s expected. But as soon as I was shown into the office, took a seat across from this man and began chatting, I noticed he was in the odd habit of looking way off to the side of me as he spoke. This struck me as a snide little tactic that could only have been developed out of a sense of weakness. Indeed, I was about thirty years younger than Gary, about two inches taller, and much broader in the upper body. As he filled the air self-importantly in response to some meaningless question I’d lobbed for preliminary chit-chat, I realized that he was physically intimidated, and that his flex was going to be professional rank and business acumen.

I took the opportunity of his gazing past me to study him a bit. He had on a gold Rolex, and his hands were smallish and soft. Like the upper-tier Rotarians, he made disdainful little gestures that seemed calculated. When it was my turn to speak, he crossed one leg over the other, leaned way back in his chair, and folded his hands behind his head, or else would pick very deliberately at his cuticles. He would bluntly cut me off, never giving me the opportunity to say very much, yet seemed to take offense at those natural, minute interruptions that keep a conversation flowing past lulls, and would stammer forward in order to cut them off. When I addressed—unprompted—a couple of blemishes in my background, he took this not as reverse due diligence and transparency, but as naïveté, and launched into one of several fifteen-minute lectures as if I was a twenty-three year old kid who’d come to him for advice. (I was in my early thirties). The substance was always the same: that the meaning of life is to play the game, that winning is measured by money and connections, that personal development is secondary and sincerity is for rubes. He blew a lot of smoke up my ass about how rich I’d be if I’d aim to make partner within seven years. In other words, let me exploit the shit out of you and pilfer your weekends for the next seven years while your kids grow up without you, and then maybe….

“Where do you see yourself in seven years?”

“Well right now my goal is to learn. I can’t say with certainty that I’d like to be here in seven years because we’ve only just met, but wherever I am at that time, whether here or elsewhere, my primary goal is always to learn and refine my capabilities. Because I’m essentially asking you to train me, I would want to work as hard as possible, not only to learn but to make it worth your while to teach me.” It was a thoroughly honest response. I wasn’t going to give this douchebag seven years—he’d already taken my whole afternoon. Of course I needed to make a living, but being able to do it proficiently was more important than the precise bottom line in any given job. Money is all well and good, but it’s just a means, after all.

Gary chuckled and kind of rolled his eyes. “That’s all fine—but it’s the wrong answer. Do you wanna know the right answer?”

“Sure.”

“The right answer is, ‘In seven years I hope to be making you a pile of money.'”

Literally Violence, Pt. V

It’s dusk in mid-October. We’re situated in a row, slumped behind an embankment along a muddy, sulfuric canal somewhere outside Ramadi, flush against the ground at about an 80 percent grade, craning our necks with our spines curved in and trying not to slide downward. The earth beneath our bellies is loose, blond and gravelly, making the SAW a bit inconvenient to set in place without burying the tripod and sending kitty litter down into our faces. But the reeds poking up from the canal side are profuse and they’re good cover.

About a hundred yards north across the desert, three old Toyota pickups come into view, traveling eastward with a squad apiece hunkered into the flatbed. That’s them – the martyrs of the local God-Knows-Who-Brigades, of which there are too many to keep track in Iraq nowadays. For reasons unbeknownst to us, our assignment is to torch these motherfuckers extra crispy. We crawl toward the crest of the embankment and begin firing wildly into the encroaching darkness. The crawling was about as much coordination as we had in us.

The trucks all come to a halt. The one in back plows into the one in between, but the one in front floors it in the direction of a mud brick shanty down the mesa, about 200 yards east. At that point we all directed fire toward the escaping lead, like cats tracking a ball of yarn. This gave the back two squads respite to bail and take cover behind their vehicles – the guys who weren’t dead, anyway.

Under fire, the lead truck managed to make the shanty, and now we’ve got x out of a dozen or so guys dug in real good, and we’re taking fire from two directions. The shanty has no roof but there are pretty high, thick walls and it’s farther away than the two trucks, but Lieutenant orders some of the guys with M4s off to my left to start firing grenades at it. Obviously these would be better spent on the dudes behind the trucks, and pretty soon Sarge and Lieutenant are conferring at the tops of their lungs. 

Sarge and Lieutenant are way off to my left, about a dozen guys over; I’m at the far right, on the 240, so naturally I’m firing in the direction of this stupid hut. Because of the high walls, our counterparts don’t have a real good way to aim, but they manage, and every minute or so a spurt kicks up dirt and rocks right in front of me. Pretty soon a game of telephone makes its way down, and the guy to my left is shouting into my ear to do exactly what I’m already doing. Then all of a sudden I hear the shrieking of the Jav. In the darkness the back blast blinds my left peripheral vision, and in seconds the building I’ve been firing on is a cloud of ash and smoke. 

The boys have been on those two trucks with the grenades meanwhile, and as the dust from the mud brick hut is settling, the return fire from that direction starts to die down. Then a lone Iraqi staggered out from behind the Toyotas, which were shredded pretty badly. He wasn’t moving fast, but he was ambulatory, and he just started screaming curses at the sky as he made his way toward us, firing his Klatch erratically. Then Sarge stood up, slapped a new magazine into the 249, and emptied it into him.

Literally Violence, Pt. IV

With no job I was pretty discouraged, so I decided to join the military. This was an old, recurring fetish of mine. You know: heroism, adventure, they’ll be sorry when I’m dead; that sort of thing. There was a recruiting center out by the mall south of town, off the highway. I took a bus.

The building was a U-shaped strip mall, with a PayLess, a coffee shop and a dojo all facing the surrounding parking lagoon, and the recruiting offices arrayed around an inner courtyard in back.

First, I went to the Navy. The recruiter was a big horse-faced ruddy peckerwood who looked to be playing snake on a flip phone when I walked in. After making me wait a minute he looked up and smiled wide, right at me. “Good to see ya, brother. What can we do ya for?”

“Well, I’m thinking about joining the service.” I walked over and reached across the desk. His red hand was massive, his handshake smothering. I took a seat across from him.

“You’ve made a bold decision. Boy I’ll tell ya, joining the Navy was the best thing I ever done in my life.” Judging by his folksy accent, he didn’t seem to be from the area. “I’ve been to Hong Kong, Saipan, Australia, the Philippines, paid off m’truck.” He jerked a massive thumb in the direction of the window facing the back lot, where a Dodge Ram was parked, lifted on ridiculously large tires, with Monster Energy decals and a star-spangled Punisher skull on its tinted back window, and an “America’s Navy” sticker on the bumper. Then he leaned forward, looked left, looked right, then straight at me with one eyebrow raised. “You ever been to a brothel?”

“Uh, no?” There was an awkward pause. I looked down at my feet. He leaned back, sighed, and put his feet up on the desk.

“Well, I’ll tell you what. Decision’s yours, but I’d sure like to make it easier on you by having you take a practice exam and get some idea of what you’d be qualified to do for America’s Navy. You got your driver’s license, state ID card, something like that?”

“Uh, I think I left it in the car.”

In the summers it’s always foggy in Santa Carla. I walked back out to the front and looked up at the soupy grey sky. Then I went back around again, but along the opposite side of the building so the Navy guy wouldn’t see me go into the Marine recruiter’s office across from him. I waited there in the front entrance for a couple minutes until a neckless, Sponge Bob shaped little Hispanic Oompa Loompa came waddling intensely from the back in jogging gear and dropped a Walkman loudly on the front desk. Scowling, he pointed at me and asked, “You think you got what it takes to be a Marine?”

“Uh…. Yes?” We each took a seat across from one another at the desk.

“Name’s Marquez, but you can call me Sarge,” he said, self-importantly. “It’s rough out there nowadays. Unless you wanna join one of these inferior branches of service and jack off all damn day, your only other options is pretty much delivering pizzas.” It was clear he had practiced this little monologue many times over. “So, what do you do for a living right now?”

“Uh, I uh, I’m uh….” I paused for a minute. “I’m a stand-up comedian.”

An awkward couple of seconds passed with him staring at me blankly. Then all of a sudden, this taciturn little beaner let out a belly laugh like he’d just heard an incredible joke. “No way!” he bellowed. “Hey Richie, Satchmo, come on out here.” He swiveled around, shouting down the hallway around the corner from his desk. “We got ourselves a comedian!” He turned back to me, smiling ear-to-ear with his mouth agape and a vacant look in his eyes. Before long a rail thin blond-blue farmboy-looking high school jock in fatigues materialized behind Marquez, along with a diminutive black dude in gym shorts, a Marines t-shirt and thick glasses.

Marquez leaned back in his ergonomic chair, arms akimbo. “Let’s hear a joke!” They all had the same open-mouthed smiles, preemptively transfixed in anticipation of raucous laughter.

I lobbed a one-liner. “Uh, I go to hospitals and sell imaginary friends to sick kids.”

Crickets. Same fixed, grinning stares.

“Yeah, that one’s no good. Okay, okay, how ‘bout, uh…. Oh! I know.” I cleared my throat. “You really gotta watch out for undercover cops in this town,” I started. “The other day a homeless dude asked me for fifty cents. I told him, ‘Suck my dick!’ and next thing I know I’m under arrest for soliciting prostitution!” Their faces just stayed the same, all three of them, like wax figurines. Vacant eyes, gap-jawed grins. It wasn’t just that the material was lousy. They didn’t realize they’d missed the punchline.

“Hey, listen guys. I think I left my ID in the car.” I left and walked over to the Army office.

Behind the front desk sat this tall, gangly Asian in coke-bottle glasses with a snide, jaded mug. The name on his shirt was Park. He glanced up from his paperwork, gave me a once-over, then back down at his desk and continued filling out the form he’d been working on. “You sure you wanna do this?”

“Well, I like a kiss before I get fucked.”

“Can you count to ten and touch your toes?”

I gave a demonstration.

“Know how to read?”

“Backwards and forwards.”

“Well then you’ve got the makings of a goddamned hero.” He looked up and motioned toward a chair. “Have a seat.”

Literally Violence, Pt. III

That first semester in community college went poorly. My weed money was running out, and my dad wasn’t going to help me if I wasn’t passing my classes. I could’ve begged him for help and promised to change my ways, but that would’ve been a lie. Groveling was not beneath my dignity, but lying was. So instead I just forgot to enroll in spring classes, went downtown the day after Christmas and got a job bar-backing at Fred’s Tiki Lounge, a dive bar so filthy your shoes stuck to the floorboards whenever you tried walking around in it.

Fred was a greying, mustachioed little gay Jew who liked to wear denim short-shorts and Hawaiian shirts with his ginger chest hair flaming out the top. He had a house promoter, this gangly, sullen hipster named Lonny Abrams, and a gimpy, ginormous bald biker doorman called Forehead. On slow nights, Forehead used to summon me to his stool in the front entrance for special assignments. He’d be getting off his flip phone, hand me the key to a padlock and specify some boarded up shack down by the beach where he wanted me to hop the chain-link gate to the overgrown back yard, wade through the cat feces and rusty cans (that part was never specified) and bring him back the box of laptops in the tool shed without asking questions (that part was amply specified). Or else he’d tell me to go down to the trestle, look for a guy in a tracksuit with a camouflage backpack, and bring it to the office around back of the club. He never paid me less than $250 cash for these odd duties, and I never thought about the legal ramifications, because the unknowable consequences of refusal or failure were far less pleasant to contemplate.

Anyway, Lonny Abrams used to put on a stand-up comedy showcase every Wednesday night. Stand-up’s pretty ballsy, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, so one week I slapped together a routine, and Lonny gave me a four-minute warmer set that went so well, they let me keep going for ten minutes. Flush with success, the following week, as I was writing my next routine, I hit on a real edgy theme that I figured was sure to gratify the counter-culture crowd by pushing the limits of free expression.

That Wednesday night I was in high spirits as I mopped the bathroom floors and replaced the urinal cakes ahead of the show. When the time came, Lonny introduced me, and as he handed me the microphone, I could see through the stage lights that the crowd was decent sized. I cleared my throat. “In this diverse, wonderful country of ours, there are so many ways we can all get along. But to make clear just how many, I wrote for you a song. The yellow, black and brown are here, the beige, pink, red, and tan, and they all have different ways to appreciate their fellow man. Some are gay, some are straight, but in our own special way, we all know how to hate. You could be a slope who hates darkies, a mick who hates spics, or a wee parish priest who thinks kids are for tricks. You could be a raghead sand nigger suckin’ camel cock for kike money, and if you think it ain’t funny, go blow yourself up for bus money!” I had another couple dozen stanzas of this, but before I could go on, my mic stopped working and the lights in back of the house came on. The place was dead silent. Then, as Lonny ran over to hustle me off stage, I heard a lone guy, way off in back, heaving with maniacal laughter.

Southern Exposure

There’s only one great road trip in Israel, a three-hour drive from Tel Aviv’s sweltering, interminable bumper-to-bumper through a great empty desert of sandstone canyons and date palms and camels, downhill all the way to the little manicured pubic-strip of beachfront hotels along Israel’s flea-speck of Red Sea shore. The Arava is a single arroyo so big you can see it from space, straining south toward furthest Arabia, punctuated by a massive below sea-level crater you can see a hundred miles across as you descend into it along serpentine switchbacks to its soft, sandy belly. Emerging at the other end, from eastward the craggy red mountain spine of Jordan leers down at you the remainder of the way to Eilat.

This dramatic topography belies the relative size of the speck of map that it crosses, and the contrast gives itself to a sensation of wild freedom comparable to driving from Denver to Taos, or from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe. When the highway finally reaches Eilat, you’re still looking downhill, across a long, gentle slope extending between foothills through town, down to the water and off down the coast of Saudi Arabia, as if the whole southern half of the country was one great funnel-shaped beachhead. To the east of you is Jordan, Egypt is immediately to the west, and the bay is full of Panamax tankers. No other place so small and narrow as Eilat could ever feel so wide open.

“They’ve got all these crime families in Israel, kafkazi, Moroccan. Mafia, mafia,” Boris informs me in slow, steady Hebrew as if he’s talking to a chinaman. We’re cruising south in Betzalel’s Lamborghini, top down, full moon beaming, the cool night air swirling in the desert around us. Boris is a street-wise general contractor who grew up in a pnimia, a kind of low-class boarding school for foster kids. Shrewd and charismatic, he has dreams of getting rich and a habit of cultivating useful friendships: Betzalel is the indolent and airheaded rich-kid pushover, and I am the American. I regard Boris with wry skepticism and he respects me for it. Plus we have a mutual sort of anthropological interest going on.

“And it’s true they pimp and run drugs,” Boris continues, “but would you believe where the bulk of their income is derived? From recycling. Municipal recycling! You get 10 agorot for a Coke can, right? Half a shekel for a bottle. So these guys extort restaurants and falafel stands for recyclables. Isn’t that wild?”

“No one in America would think to make a criminal enterprise out of saving the planet,” I respond. “That’s for damn sure.” (Actually, nowadays that’s not true anymore.)

Yotveta is the last stop before Eilat. We pile out. Boris and I grab chips and chocolate milk while Betzalel fills the gas tank.

It’s 1 AM on a Friday night when we check into the hostel. The room’s like a county jail cell, with eight bunks for a total of sixteen beds, a couple of violently buzzing fluorescent lights and a shitty ceiling fan. It’s not Betzalel’s kind of digs, but he was going along to get along because he didn’t want to be too generous.

A boisterous group of guys our age is drinking arak and playing dominos around a card table, monopolizing the space in front of the room’s single window, overlooking a boulevard where revelers are transiting back and forth loudly. These roommates are a half-dozen hairy kafkazi guys in skinny jeans and beaters, with two raven-haired broads standing, because the guys have all the chairs. One of the girls is frumpy and the other is pretty. They’re both wearing heavy layers of make-up. We nod to this group and the girls glance at us furtively, but I can tell the cute one had been looking at Boris.

We go out. We bar hop. We drink and dance and try to pick up chicks. Everyone comes to Eilat in discrete groups and it can be difficult to separate the women. Eventually the night finds us at a bar in this little cabana type place by the water. A largish group shuffles in behind us and in the dark I make out our roommates. As they pulled out stools Boris looked wary, but Betzalel struck up with them very amicably and before long we were all up the street in a nightclub with strobe lights, fog machines, a DJ and everything. Some drunk, sweaty chick was grinding on me, spilling her RedBull and vodka down my shirt in slips and slops, when I realized Boris and Betzalel had vanished. My dance partner was way too drunk for me to fuck honorably, and she smelled like faded Axe body spray and patchouli, so I took off looking for my friends. I found Boris around back by the dumpsters, making out furiously with the cute kafkazi girl from the hostel. Betzalel was off a ways, puffing on an L&M with his collar popped and pissing against a chainlink fence.

I walked right over. “Hey Boris man, where are those guys? You sure that’s a good idea?”

He tore himself off her face like a suction cup and looked around blankly. Then he said, “We’re taking a cab back to the room. You coming?”

“Uh…. Yeah, but what about those guys? You’re not worried?”

“Just stand guard down the hall for me.”

Ten minutes later I’m leaning on a vending machine with Betzalel when our douchebag roommates come bowling up the stairs like West Side Story. You could hear Boris fucking the shit out of this girl down the hall. “Hey, guys, how’s it going?” I put on a shit eating grin and tried to distract them, but they brushed right past me and into the room. I wasn’t gonna let them beat up my friend, but as I started to follow them in they burst out, dragging Boris by the scruff of his neck, shoeless with his belt buckle dangling. As the girl came slinking out, shamefaced and shoulders arched, Betzalel slipped into the room behind them and shut himself in. Betzalel’s grandfather owned an oil refinery in Greece, meat-packing plants in Israel, and God-knows what else. I’d been trying hard to like him but the fact was he was exceptionally stupid and contemptible.

In any case, I decided I’d play dumb with these kafkazi guys and see how far it got me. I trailed close but not too close behind them as they made their way to the parking lot, and when we emerged into the early morning I put on the thickest, most ham-fisted American accent I possibly could. “Hey where we going guys? We going back to the club?”

“Go back to the room, Sam!” Boris entreated. But as they opened the sliding side-door on their Mercedes Sprinter I slipped in behind the driver’s seat. “We going for breakfast or something guys?” I tried to look as moronic as I could. They all glanced at each other sidelong and kind of shrugged. Then they shoved Boris in beside me and five of them hopped in behind us. The sixth and runtiest one had bad acne, a ridiculous overbite and coke-bottle glasses with a headband. He grabbed the girl by the hair and slammed her face against the passenger-side window, then walked calmly around the front to the driver’s side. She snuffled and wiped a profuse stream of blood from her nose up her forearm, then from her forearm onto her pants. Then she climbed in the front passenger seat resignedly and buckled up.

There’s a ring road that goes up around Eilat into the burnt hills and comes out at a highway that winds up to an observatory and on along the Egyptian border. Dawn was breaking over Jordan as we turned east off the highway down a dirt track and off onto an endless, sandy mesa. Pretty soon we pulled over by some bushes and the driver snuffed the engine.

Boris was not the kind of guy to go quietly like he had, and the fact that no explicit threats had been made nor weapons brandished told me that on the one hand, these guys had good reason to be confident of being feared, which was very bad for us; but also that the situation was negotiable, because if you don’t need to make a threat explicit you don’t lose face by back-peddling. The question was how to give them latitude.

I hopped out ahead of the other guys in back as they dragged Boris out by his armpits like he’d been condemned to a firing squad. They threw him on the ground. I helped him up. Then they surrounded us as the biggest one, this choad-like, walleyed kid with a ginormous globule of neck fat separating his head from his shirt collar, brought out a tire iron and waddled over to right behind the little guy with the glasses. The runty one got right in Boris’s face.

“The name Benziad mean anything to you?”

“Yes, of course.” Boris replied. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything. I didn’t know.”

Eyal Benziad was one of the most feared names in Israel. I hadn’t lived in the country eighteen months and barely spoke the language, but even I knew that. The resemblance suddenly asserted itself: we were face to face with the son and protege of a mass murderer.

“Guys please,” Boris continued. “This is all a misunderstanding. I apologize. I really mean it. I didn’t know. I’m sorry. Please….” His voice was breaking. He was on the verge of tears.

Now, we may have been facing death, but I wasn’t going be murdered without my dignity, and Boris’s groveling pissed me off. At that time the U.S. wigger imitator of boogie lip-flap was a well-known comedy trope internationally, and I’m not proud to admit that I was going through a bit of a phase myself. In fact, at that moment I was dressed in a Sprewell jersey, Timberlands and basketball shorts down to my ankles. I looked like J-Rock from Trailer Park Boys. I even had on a sweatband. That’s when it dawned on me. I knew just what I had to do.

“Yo dawg, this some bullshit dawg!” I shoved Boris aside and got right in this kid’s face. “This my boy, dawg. We aint’ going out like no punks!” I said all this entirely in English, gesticulating as niggerishly as I possibly could. I tapped the runty kid lightly in the chest. “You fuckin’ with my boy, you fuckin’ with me dawg! We ain’t goin’ out like that. My boy ain’t no punk.”

The others tightened the circle around us. I’d tried, but now we were completely fucked. Just then the corner of the runty kid’s mouth turned up, and he glanced wryly around at the others. The walleyed kid in back burst out laughing like an orc receiving a handjob. That set off a chain reaction. First, the runt started cackling, then the others until they were gasping for breath. Boris glanced at me for a nanosecond, subtly enough to not be seen, with a look of supernal relief and amazement.

“What’s this guy’s name?” the runt asked Boris in Hebrew.

“Sam.”

“Sam? Nice to meet you.” He gave a mirthful snort as he stuck out his hand and we shook. “You America? America good. George Bush. Dr. Dre. You many good, many ha ha ha.” He said all this in English. “You friend name?”

“Boris,” I replied.

“Okay, Boris,” (now in Hebrew). “I think we can call this a misunderstanding. You need to have respect and be aware of who you’re dealing with in the future.”

“Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you.”

Then we all went back into town for omelettes and hair of the dog.

Literally Violence, Pt. II

After this inauspicious start to adulthood, I graduated high school with a 1.9 GPA, and spent the summer scrapping on a downtown high-rise construction site. Then I enrolled in community college for the fall and rented a room in a ratty old house off Highway 1. The other housemates were a female Asian grad student who was never there and a big, ruddy PG&E lineman from podunk inland named Brad, who had a blue heeler and a van, and spent all his free time up the coast, surfing. I was selling pot and had a pretty good book of business.

One of my customers was my dad’s paralegal. Her husband was a cop, but they’d been married too young and she was clearly checking out of the relationship. She’d recently had ginormous fake tits installed, and was not discriminating when it came to getting attention. One afternoon she dropped by for an eighth. We smoked and one thing led to another, but I came the moment she wrapped her fingers around my dick. With a disdainful flap of her hand she flung my load onto the carpet, gave me a look like, are you fucking serious?, and after that it was just business. She referred me a lot of customers though, and her best friend became a regular.

Dana was an ER nurse in her early thirties. She bought an eighth every few days, and would always hang around after and smoke me out. One day we were passing her little glass pipe back and forth and she goes, “Lacy says you have a big dick.” Well, that was that, and for a few months it was a pretty good deal. I knew she was fucking other guys, but I had no particular feelings for her and I always wore a condom. She even started referring me business from the hospital, and pretty soon I had a couple of doctors dropping by regularly. One of these guys, a squirrelly little Arab anesthesiologist, was also fucking Dana, and I used to invite him in to smoke with me, just to be cheeky and shame him with his bad habits.

This whole arrangement went south real fast. For one thing, I broke my right hand in a fight downtown and had to have surgery. After that I got a rather large prescription for Vicodin and my grades started dropping. Winter was coming, and finals week with it. Also Brad, the lineman whom I was subleasing from, was starting to get wise to my weed business and although he didn’t say anything at first, I could tell he didn’t like the customer traffic, which was considerable.

Meanwhile Max, my high school bestie, was getting further and deeper into hard drugs, living on the streets and hanging on the periphery of a local latchkey whiteboy gang that used to run heroin for bikers. Occasionally, one of the lower ranking members of this cohort would show up at my place trying to fence a stolen fixie or a laptop for a small amount of pot, and when I told them cash only they were not happy with me.

One night, Max showed up drunk with one of these colleagues, a vicious skinhead named Neal. It was late, and it was cold, and to refuse them a place to crash would’ve meant a definitive break from Max and this whole cohort. I let them into the front living room and put on a movie, but I was wary, and they started roasting me for it, passing a fifth of Ancient Age back and forth and cracking wise about what an uptight cunt I was. This recompense of my hospitality displeased me, and I decided I would prove them right. “Hey guys,” I said. “Come out on the front porch with me and have a smoke.” I handed them each a Camel and they followed me to the front. Then I locked the door behind us. They eyed each other.

It was drizzling. There was a big moist nasty old sofa on the front balcony, and we all sat down. As I lit their cigarettes I said, “Listen, guys. You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.” Max slouched where he sat, supremely entitled, took a long drag and exhaled it.

“You’re a miserable, arrogant little prick Sam. You need to relax,” he deadpanned. He wasn’t even trying to make it seem like teasing anymore.

“I don’t need to do shit. I said get the fuck out.”

“And what if I don’t?” he snarled. He thought I was bluffing.

I rose with a start, my eyes boring down into his, and said “Get the fuck up.” He stood straight up into my face and blew smoke. “What if I fucking don’t?” He was still calm, but this time he was louder. It was potentially now two against one, and I was intimidated and resentful of being regarded as a pushover. The moon glowed near full behind storm clouds to the west. The house was set into a steep hillside, with big eucalyptus trees towering up behind it almost touching the sky, and it had an abnormally long staircase running from the front balcony down to the sidewalk. Max and I were face to face, nostrils flaring. He grabbed me by the front of my shirt. That was when I shoved him backwards down the staircase. Then I shot an icy glare over at Neal, unmitigatedly, zoologically prepared to immediately and severely injure him by any means necessary. Neal was too drunk and stunned by this whole turn of events to react. It was just he and I there on the balcony now, and he froze in place, avoiding my eyes and regarding the situation with a calm if mildly disturbed kind of moron’s perplexity.

Max tumbled backwards; flew, really, in an arc. His heels reconnected with the stairs about a third of the way from the bottom, his backside at a 45 degree angle to the street, at which point he fell straight back over the sidewalk, his head crashing into the mailbox, which flew off into the street in one direction as Max rolled to the other, veritably splattering onto his side with an eerie, semi-liquid thud against the pavement. The impact to his right shoulder had saved his head, possibly his life, and amazingly he was still conscious. As he got up he clutched the shoulder like something there might be broken. Then he started off ploddingly down the street with the slow caution of a newly walking toddler, muttering incoherently, clutching himself like a mental patient. Neal took a drag, stood up, and scampering down the stairs followed Max off into the night.

Around that time Dana had gotten exclusive with a neighbor of hers in the condo complex where she lived. I wasn’t particularly hurt by this, but the motivation to be available to her as a buddy and a sounding board was gone. One day while I was waiting to re-up and struggling through some homework I’d put off until I couldn’t really finish it, she blew up my little old school Nokia about a thousand times, leaving voicemails, trying to get a quarter ounce. I was irritated about my homework, irritated to not have weed, and it bothered me to be treated like a recalcitrant waiter, so finally I picked up and got very testy. In response to this, she drove up to my place an hour later with this guy, who followed her as she stormed up the balcony. Easy girls never want to accept that their opposite-sex friendships are all predicated on pussy, and as I opened the door to be confronted I noticed that the guy she was with was quite large. I guessed she’d finally found somebody with a bigger dick, and I did not appreciate the attempt at intimidation by security retinue. “Dana, what the fuck are you doing?” She glared at me, intensely hurt, and stormed back down to the car. Her other half just shrugged and followed her down the stairs.

The next afternoon, Brad came back from surfing up the coast and told me there’d been firetrucks and helicopters everywhere at Wilder Ranch because some girl had killed herself out there by jumping off a cliff. High school classmates I hadn’t heard from all year started calling, and it turned out the girl was a friend of mine. Kelly was this depressive and painfully shy poetess with big saucer-blue anime eyes. She was rail thin and small-chested with a cute overbite and wore her dark red hair in a bob. As freshmen and sophomores we’d hung out in the same cohort of AP-lit nerds and thespians, and all the guys had a crush on her. Apparently she’d gone off to some liberal arts college in Vermont and started hearing voices. Maybe it was the onset of schizophrenia, maybe something happened to her out in the north woods, or maybe both, but she’d decided on Christmas break to kill herself in Santa Carla. That was her assessment of adulthood, and it was valid.

After the funeral, Dana called me, apologizing for our spat and asking if I could sell her an ounce. This surprised me because I didn’t often sell that much at a time. We met at my place. She was a mess. Sweatpants, no makeup, pale, her eyes watery. She collapsed into me at the front door and started sobbing into my shoulder. I carried her to the couch. She started to tell how this guy, her neighbor, had gotten her pregnant, how she really loved him and thought he was the one, but when she told him she wanted to keep the baby, he disappeared. It was her day off; she’d spent the morning at Planned Parenthood. I didn’t know what to say. We smoked, I fed her, and she passed out on the couch. Sometime in the middle of the night she woke up and drove off. Someone told me later that she’d left town, but I never heard from her again.

 

Literally Violence, Pt. I

The first place I lived away from home was my father’s boat.

It was the summer of 2001, a week before my seventeenth birthday. Eddie was fifteen at the time, a formidable JV defensive tackle who was extremely socially awkward—in a very outgoing way, unfortunately—and basically had zero friends at school. I was in a punk band and when we weren’t practicing or playing out I spent most of my time around town on my skateboard, getting high and drunk at the beach, in parks or at friends’ houses. One Friday afternoon, Dad took us to lunch at a Chinese place off Highway 1 in Santa Carla and announced that he was leaving our mom.

Ever since Mom retired from running dad’s law practice three years prior she’d been a housewife. It wasn’t pretty. She had a lingering painkiller addiction from an orthopedic surgery, and basically spent all day getting high and drunk and cleaning the house to a sparkle. Their marriage had always been rocky. Now, if she and Dad interacted at all, it was either totally sterile and perfunctory, or a horrific fight. He started spending more and more time at the office. The last-straw knock-down drag-out happened out of town a week before the Chinese lunch. I hadn’t been home in all that time, and I didn’t want to go back, but I knew my mom was there alone.

For the next few months, on top of all the garden-variety agonies that go along with being seventeen, I became an emotional crutch for an increasingly embittered and scarily delusional fifty-year old woman. At one point she gave me a ride drunk—she drove drunk a lot, actually—and when we got home I made a comment about it, whereupon she completely broke from reality and violently attacked me, shrieking senselessly like a stuck pig, with beet-red eyes and foam gathering at the corners of her mouth. It became clear that in the moment she didn’t even know who I was; it was as if she had dementia. When I broke and ran, not wanting to hit her back, she hurled one of those big, wooden, high-backed domestic bar chairs at my head with impressive velocity. I swerved; it careened past me and shattered a wall-mirror in our inner hallway. The whole thing was like living in Grendel’s cave, but I felt I had no choice because otherwise no one would be there for my mom and she would drown in psychic torment.

That summer, Dad and Eddie stayed with my uncle, but before long, Dad bought a sailboat, rented a slip in the harbor and decided he was going to live on it. He wanted to sell the house though, and around Christmastime obtained a court order to have Mom thrown out. So while she was carpetbagging at friends’ houses pending a final disposition of the divorce, I had to stay on the boat.

Eddie and I had never been close, and he felt like I was encroaching on his space—which went without saying because, for one thing, it was a fucking boat. But also, he and Dad had really bonded over the sprucing up and maintenance of the place, and he felt very defensive of Dad, whom I was not getting along with at all. Dad had been the one who dumped Mom, and his newfound power to emotionally detach extended to me and my resentment of his self-centeredness. I was mad that he’d left me to clean up after him, and he’d been royally chickenshit to kick Mom out of the house at Christmas.

So I was snarky. As best I could, I stayed away for days and sometimes weeks, but while I was there I acted entitled and avoided doing chores, which especially pissed off Eddie. One day while Dad was out we got into it. I was always the verbal contortionist of the family and to this day I can be very frustrating to argue with. Things just ratcheted up and pretty soon Eddie stormed down into the hull where Dad’s room was. I heard him rack the slide on the .45 and he stormed back up the deck and brandished it right in my face. It was late on a clear, windy March afternoon in northern California. The air was crisp, and in my peripheral vision the tide was rising against the south jetty.

I could see Eddie’s finger to the side of the trigger guard and I was betting the safety was on. He was infuriated, but he didn’t know what he was doing, and I quickly disarmed him and pistol-whipped him hard, so hard I immediately jumped back, shaking from shame and remorse. He dropped into a corner on one knee and looked up at me with huge, watery eyes, his cheek slashed open and bleeding badly. I de-chambered the round, removed the magazine and threw it in the water. Then I dropped the gun, grabbed my skateboard and left, and never came back. Aside from a handful of shouting matches off to the side of weddings and funerals, after that my brother and I didn’t have a substantive interaction for over a decade.

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 specific about what they were advocating. 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 American Apparel shopper 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 at least have greeted him when he saw me. 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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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, but 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, with two forms of state-issued ID over his eyes. 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, and screaming desperately 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, forgotten humiliations and death by a thousand cuts, and spinning the wheels of borrowed 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 gallery 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 own 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 a stock photo lean-in 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 sweltering 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.