26 February, 2009

Wolves at the Door, Barbarians Up My Ass

They always sounded so damn perky.

“This is Eugenia Blatherton from Shultz, Shucks, and Hogue Realty. I’m in your area today showing clients around and I was wondering if I could show them your unit?”

We’re in the middle of an orgy. You’re welcome to stop by if you want, though. There’s always room for more.

“We’ll be there in about 20 minutes.”

That’s just enough time for me to warm back up. Do you prefer it up the ass or are you an old fashioned kind of whore who just likes to get fucked?

Usually they called or stopped by on weekends. Sometimes there was five or six of them a day. Sundays, too. The realtors all smiled big, bleached smiles and the clients all tried to act like they weren’t intruding. The realtors all left a business card that I promptly ripped up and threw in the garbage. “In case I had any questions,” they would all tell me. The only questions I could think of involved which orifice they preferred me to stick my foot in.

“They’re just doing their job,” my wife said. “There’s no reason not to be polite.”

“There’s every reason,” I shot back. “What if we were busy? What if we were walking around naked? People do that, you know. In their own HOMES.”

“Are you planning on walking around naked?”

“No. But I could.”

She didn’t answer. She only shook her head and went back to her Sudoku book.

“We don’t have to be nice to them.”

“You’re not.”

“I know. You don’t have to be, too.”

She couldn’t help herself though. It was just who she was. A nice person. The nice people of the world usually end up putting up with the rest of us with a great deal of magnanimity. Her behavior could at times even be called noble, and I loved her for it. But there was a point. A point when being polite was no longer the appropriate response.

“We need to move,” she said.

“We can’t afford to move.”

I didn’t want to fight with her. It wasn’t her fault. I wanted to emaciate every realtor who stopped by with shit smiling clients looking to displace us. I wanted to bitch slap my idiot landlord for getting in too deep and not being able to pay his bills. We paid rent on time… most of the time. He was a nice enough guy, I guess. But they’re all vultures. Real estate attracts the lowest common denominator, just like the legal profession, psychology, and school administration. People who need just a little power to feel better about the powerlessness of their lives.

“When are they getting here?”

I was busy fantasizing about the horrified look on the blonde bitch’s (they’re mostly all blonde, for some reason) face when I answered the door with my dick hanging out. I remembered watching a news report on people ripping all the appliances and copper pipes out of houses after they’re foreclosed on. The talking head said that this behavior was having a “deeper negative impact” on the already nose diving real estate market. It was costing more to repair the homes than they were worth. Damn right, I thought. Why make it easy on them?

“When are they getting here?” She repeated the question and shook me out of my fantasy of tearing into the dry wall and pulling out electrical outlets.

“20 minutes,” I mumbled. “They’ll be here in 20 minutes.”

She looked around. “Should we pick up?”


She sniffed the air. “Maybe we should go ahead and change the kitty litter.”

“I’m not doing anything that might make it more pleasant for them. Maybe they’re allergic to cats.”

She didn’t try to reason with me.

Waiting for them to arrive was almost as bad as them actually being IN the place. “I’m going to check the mail,” I said.

“Isn’t it early?”

“Yeah. But I forgot to check it yesterday.”

She looked up from her puzzle and smiled one of those smiles wives reserve for absent minded husbands. “Ok.”

I slipped into my sandals, grabbed my keys, and walked out. The weather was warm, and there was a slight breeze. It could be worse, I told myself. We could live somewhere cold. Even if we did end up out on the street, at least we wouldn’t freeze. It wasn’t the idea of moving that bothered me. Granted, we had more stuff than I wanted to have to move: the furniture, the TV. All the accoutrements of our life on the installment plan. My books. I had been planning on going through them and thinning down the collection – but then I’d have to decided which ones to part with. I couldn’t do that anymore than I could part with one of the cats, even though they destroyed the furniture we’re not done paying on yet. I’d tried a couple of times to convince her that we needed to get rid of the furniture. I told her we could just not make the weekly payment and they’d come and take it. She seemed to think they wouldn’t because of the damage caused by the cats. But even having to move the furniture wasn’t an issue, other than finding a truck. It was the fact that we would be forced to move without having any say, and that I was supposed to smile and show people around my home like a god damn butler.

We lived in the back of the complex and the mail boxes were in front. If you didn’t know any better, it would be easy to think that the people who lived in our complex were well off. That was what I thought when we looked at the place. There were more empty units than the week before. For Sale signs in the windows and the phone numbers and email addresses of realtors. I wanted to take all of their numbers and prank call them. I wanted to use their emails and sign them up on kiddie porn sites. I wanted to leave little envelopes filled with white powder at their offices.

When I opened the mail box, it was stuffed full. Ok, so maybe it had been more than a day since I checked the mail. I tugged on the wad of paper and envelopes. Mostly advertisements. No wonder I never check the mail. Just a bunch a of fucking garbage. I sorted through the pile looking for envelopes. She liked to save the coupons, and maybe we should… but I didn’t feel like taking all that shit back, only to throw away two weeks later when we got around to picking things up for another realtor who would call when they were five minutes away with a young married couple from Minnesota looking to buy their first place. That actually happened once. They stopped by when I was home alone. Very nice people. A few years younger than me. Bright-eyed with a solid credit rating. I glared, grunted, and smoked a cigar while they were there. The realtor, a short pudgy guy, gave me a dirty look when he left his card.

Once I was finished fishing out the envelopes, I looked through them to see what was there. Some junk mail about switching car insurance, and another one about switching cell phone carriers. There was one envelope addressed to “Current Occupant” but the address was handwritten. I usually tossed that kind of mail. But it WAS handwritten, and the hand writing was unshakably neat and feminine. So I opened it.

Inside the envelope was a form letter notifying us that the condo had been foreclosed on. The bank’s name on the letter head was familiar. I remembered hearing about it being bailed out by the government. The letter laid out two options. One was to move. The other was to stay and suffer more realtors and prospective buyers, while paying higher rent. The agent stapled her card to the bottom of the letter. It had her picture on it. She was a blonde.

I walked back through the complex. When I got to the condo, a bottle blonde with a spray tan who could only have been Eugenia Blatherton was there. Three people were with her: two people who looked like parents and a college age girl. They were probably looking for a place for her to live while she went to school. They smiled and were very friendly. My wife was in the middle of answering some question about the size of the walk-in bedroom closet. The realtor smiled at me – one of those You’re-Going-To-Help-Me-Out-Here-Right? smiles. The college age girl was trying to pet one of the cats – the one that usually hissed and scratched strangers. I didn’t warn her.

I grunted and kicked off my sandals. I looked over at my wife. She knew exactly what I was thinking.

24 February, 2009

Living Broke

The clerk eyed us suspiciously when we checked into the hotel. It was clear she was trained NOT to, though, because as soon as she became aware of it, she smiled even wider, elevated the tone in her voice, and started to speak a little faster.

“And how long will you be staying with us?”

“One night.” I looked at my watch. It was eleven in the morning. For a second, I thought my voice echoed. The lobby was large and tasteful. Lots of polished wood. Marble floors with conservatively colored carpets bearing the hotel logo. Everything was well-lit and wide open. The lobby opened up into a large waiting area accented by an attractive looking bar on the far left side that was open all day and night. In searching for the appropriate term to describe the lobby, the only word I could think of was “magnificent.” I’d stayed in plenty of hotels – but most of them were small, dimly lit, questionably ran, and a few even charged by the hour.

“Very good, sir.” I wondered if she would make a note to have all the sheets in our room burned after we left. She looked like she wanted to.

I looked over at Clarice. She was looking around, taking everything in. She’d worked in nice places before. But this was a special occasion. Worth remembering. The clerk gave us an efficient looking pamphlet containing our key cards, smiled, and told us to enjoy our stay.

The elevator ride up to the third floor was seamless. The interior air was the perfect temperature and maybe even slightly perfumed. The ceiling to floor windows that were the three external walls of the elevator allowed us to see the entire lobby as we rose above it.

“Where are all the buttons?” I asked.


“The buttons,” I continued. “You know. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The Glass Elevator. Buttons.” I pretended to push non-existent buttons on the glass. I left finger prints.

“You think you’re so funny,” Clarice said.

“So do you.”

She wrinkled up her nose and sighed. “Behave,” she breathed. “Can’t you, just once, behave?”

I didn’t answer because the elevator doors opened. We walked off the elevator. I looked up and down the hall. Clarice started walking to the right. We turned the corner and passed the ice machine and eight or nine doors before we got to our room. I tried to open it with the key card, but the little green light didn’t blink and I didn’t hear the sound of the lock tumblers clicking open. I tried it again. Nothing again.

“Why can’t they just use a regular key?” I muttered.

“Give it to me,” she said. She took the key card from me and slid it through the reader. The tumblers clicked and the little green light flashed. I grabbed the door handle and pushed it open.

The room was large. The bed was king sized. The ice bucket looked like polished silver and the glasses were actual glasses – goblets, really—with little paper caps to show they were clean. There was a large flat screen TV on the dresser in front of the bed. Next to the dresser there was a writing table and comfortable looking chair. The banker’s lamp illuminated the carefully arranged pamphlets highlighting all the tourist attractions we had no interest in seeing. In the corner by the floor to ceiling windows there was another comfortable looking chair with a matching ottoman. The room overlooked the lobby. We had a great view of the bar and of the comings and goings. I closed the blinds.

“Nice room,” I commented. I looked back at Clarice. She was staring at the bed.

“That looks like a down comforter,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I bet it’s cozy.”

She looked at me. “I’m allergic to down.”

Oh. I hadn’t thought about that.

“The pillows are probably down, too.”

“We could call down for another blanket,” I offered.

“There’s probably another pillow and synthetic blanket in the closet,” she said. “There usually is.”

I walked over to the closet, and sure enough, on the top shelf, there was a plastic bag with blanket and pillow. “No problem,” I said. “It’s right here.” I tossed it on the bed and sat on the edge. The bed was soft. The down comforter was cool to the touch. Clarice looked at me and smiled.

“This was a nice idea,” she said.

I nodded. “We deserve it.”

She sat down next to me and sighed. “One night?”

“Is that enough?”

“It’ll have to be.”

“I bet they have killer room service.”

She nodded. “Probably costs.”

“So what?” I countered. “If we’re going to live it up, we might as well live it up.”

“In a little while,” she answered.

I shrugged and stood up. There was a small binder sitting squarely on the writing table. It contained a list of services and amenities, including the room service menu. I picked it up and flipped through it. “Says here they even have a laundry service.”

She didn’t answer.

I looked at her. “Do you think this is one of those places that has robes?”

“Go check.”

I did. There were two, folded neatly in the bathroom. Large, plush. Very comfortable looking. I picked them up and carried them out to her. “Check this out. They look really comfortable.” I tossed one at her. Then I tossed mine down on the bed and kicked off my shoes.

“What’re you doing?”

“I’m taking off my clothes,” I said, “and sending them to get washed.”

“Won’t it cost extra?”

“So what? Come on, babe. Let’s take a shower and relax.”

She smiled, stood up, and started peeling off her clothes. I walked over to the phone, called the appropriate number. There were clear plastic bags in the closet that were supposed to be used for the laundry service. We put our worn out clothes in one of the bags. For a moment, we stood naked, looking at one another. She smiled the way she smiles when I look her up and down. “Stop it,” she whispered. She didn’t mean it. I opened the door to our room, peeped out, quickly dropped the bag of clothes, and closed and locked the door. “Let’s take a shower,” I said.

“After.” She smiled. She had pulled to the down comforter off the bed. I walked over and kissed her. Then we fucked – a nice, deliberate fuck. We finished and then took a shower together. After we were dry, we put on the soft robes. I walked out and turned on the TV.

“Are you hungry yet?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she called from the bathroom. Then I heard the hair dryer. I walked over to the table and looked over the menu. Since I would have to wait for her to finish, I down in the corner chair, put my feet up, and watched TV. The local news was on and the talking head was going on and on about the war and how many soldiers had died that month. I looked at the clock. They were ten minutes into the news. They had probably talked about the economy first. That was how things went, anymore. I didn’t need them to tell me about the economy, anyway. I was trying not to think about it. I’d worry about all that soon enough. Tomorrow. We can put it off until tomorrow, at least.

Clarice stepped out of the bathroom wrapped in her robe. She was smiling. “Anything good on?”

“Porn and tragedy,” I answered.

She smiled and looked at the TV. “Let’s not watch the news,” she said.

“Fine with me.” I switched over to another channel. It was an old Gene Wilder/Richard Prior flick. “That’s better.”

“What’s it about?”

“Nothing,” I answered. “They’re always about nothing.”

She was looking over the menu. “Do you know what you want?”


“I think I want the grilled barbeque chicken sandwich.”

“I’m getting a steak.” She looked at me, and for a second I thought she was going to suggest I get a hamburger instead. “I want a steak,” I insisted. “cooked medium rare with a baked potato and a nice beer.”

“I was going to suggest a bottle of wine.”

“We can get one of those, too.”

She shrugged. “What’s going to happen tomorrow?”

“We’ll wake up, order breakfast, and hopefully, our clothes will be back from the laundry.”

“And then?”

I shrugged. “That’s tomorrow.”

“I think I’ll have the grilled salmon instead,” she said.

“That sounds good.” I stood up and walked over to the phone to put in the order.

20 February, 2009

yard work

[Note: This bit is a few years old, but it's still got some legs on it.]

I learned manhood from my father and other men he despised.
Each Saturday morning he allowed himself the reward of sleeping in an extra hour and a half. Waking at six, he read the morning paper, and drank his coffee black. Just as I woke up for Saturday morning cartoons, and my brother left his room long enough to piss and grab a bowl of corn Chex, Dad stood and walked with purpose into the garage, where he would prepare to mow the grass. Sitting a top the bright red machine, he methodically cut even squares around our half-acre lot. Smaller and smaller and smaller until the house made it impossible to continue.

Wives ran out every few hours with lemonade, iced tea, or cold beer. Old Lady Callahan sat on her front porch and watched the neighborhood men each Saturday cutting their yards on red, orange, or green lawn tractors that looked nothing like the rusted heap behind the collapsing hay barn, from mid-morning until the evening time, when the men stopped their work in time for the evening news. Our house was in the middle of what was once her husband’s farm. Mr. Callahan died from a stroke not long after they sold the property and the houses began appearing. All the houses were built around the same time and in the same style: rectangular ranch style homes with a car porch. Before the doctors told my parents I was sick, I spent the summers riding my big wheel in circles on the cracked cement –around and around until I was too dizzy to finish. Mrs. Callahan walked stiffly, like her hips and knees hurt. Her face was pitted and wrinkled, accentuated by the pearl white curly perm and floral print dress and heavy black shoes. The neighborhood boys called her crazy and tossed rolls of toilet paper into the tall pine and oak trees in front of her house. It remained there until the wind or rain blew it away.

The summer after my tenth birthday, the rain stopped in mid-March. From my bedroom window, I watched Old Lady Callahan’s garden across the street. It was full of tomatoes and green beans and corn, drying up into wrinkled and rotten husks. Mom told me that as long as no one cut their grass I could go outside and play.

But the drought didn’t stop Dad. He still woke up every Saturday and went outside. Mom didn’t say anything at first. She went through her own habit of housecleaning, laundry, mopping down the walls and ceilings for fear the dust might kill me. The grass stopped growing. The other neighborhood men gradually gave up and went inside. Dad kept at it, kicking up a steady trail of dust. Mom stopped cleaning and stood by the large window facing the road watching him make his turns in the front yard. With each concise pass she grew more and more silent. We learned through the years of living with Dad that was better for everyone if he played it out. Mom still said nothing, Saturday after Saturday when the trail of dust became a large cloud of dirt and dead grass. She stopped bringing him lemonade on the front porch when he billows started turning the outside of the windows brown and house was consumed.

On a Friday afternoon in late May, Mom said to my older brother, “Do something to the mower.”


“Do something to the mower.”

Dad went out to the garage the following morning and discovered that the lawn tractor wouldn’t start. He checked all the wires. Tested the battery. Changed the oil. Nothing. Not even a choke, click or cough. Frustrated, he kicked a can of white latex house paint, causing it to splatter. It covered his clothes, the mower, the workbench, the walls, the floors. He walked back in the house, changed clothes, and sat in his recliner while I watched Bugs Bunny. Mom cleaned around him. Then she suggested they go to the mall or see a movie.

The next day, instead of going to church, Dad stayed home and cleaned the garage. When we returned from service, it smelled of turpentine. But there wasn’t a drop of paint left anywhere. The mower wasn’t repaired for the rest of the summer. He still woke up at six, but he and Mom went out for breakfast instead. Sometimes, they went shopping. When they returned in the afternoon, Dad always looked a little lost.

Mrs. Callahan died during the winter. Her house sold in the spring to a couple of young men who sat on the front porch every evening and held hands. When the tractor worked again, Dad didn’t say anything. He only went out and began mowing the grass again.

19 February, 2009

UT Creams Itself Over James Agee

When we moved to Knoxville, the memories I had of the place were mostly positive. I remembered going to the 1984World Fair, riding to the top of the Sun Sphere, and feeling like I was looking out and down at the entire world. I was 10. So when I found myself back there right before my 30th birthday, I felt like I had some kind of handle on the place. Plus, there wasn’t any work where we were living, and I had just graduated from college. Knoxville, in addition to being the home of the Sun Sphere, is also home to the University of Tennessee’s main campus. Surely, I figured, I could find work there. I had my CV prepared and my letters of recommendation lined up. All I needed was to get a teaching gig and we would be set. We were waiting to get married until we both had jobs and were relatively settled. This, we told ourselves, was a sign that we were actually mature. Mostly. We found a decent apartment off one of the main strips that led straight into the UT campus. We didn’t have much in the way of furniture. But that didn’t matter. Things would look up soon enough.

She found work almost immediately. This, we told ourselves, was a good sign. I wasn’t at all confident I would get hired simply by my CV because I WAS fresh out of school and I had very little teaching experience. I figured my best shot was to get dressed up and just walk into the English Department myself. I was my own best resume, after all. She thought this was a fantastic idea.

“It makes you look assertive,” she said. “Ambitious. Employers like that sort of thing.”

“But I don’t want to LOOK assertive,” I said. “I want to BE assertive.”

She looked over the outfit I had chosen. “Pick another tie,” she said.

I went on a Tuesday. I figured no one would be in a good mood on Monday, and by Wednesday most everyone would be focusing on Friday. I found the correct bus schedule, got dressed up, put my Curriculum Vitae, a copy of my college transcripts, and my recommendation letters into a slick blue folder I had bought for the occasion. Before she went to work that morning, she wrote me a note: GOOD LUCK. I LOVE YOU! She drew a big heart with an arrow through the center.

I made my way to the bus without any problem. Looking around on the bus, I noticed I was best dressed one there – which made me feel good. I am a professional, I told myself. I found myself in the heart of UT’s campus in less than an hour. I felt a rush of confidence. My shoes were uncomfortable and pinched my toes. My tie seemed to be tied a little too tight. But I needed to stay focused. I had done a little research and found out where the English offices were. The map of the campus I was using was old, and some of the buildings I was seeing weren’t on the map. But growth was good, right? If they were growing that meant they’d need more teachers.

I found right building. It was one of the taller buildings on campus. Most of the humanities departments were in that building. I rode the elevator up to the correct floor. Just breathe, I told myself. Just breathe and sound confident. You’re doing them a favor by offering your services to the. They’re not doing you a favor. The elevator stopped and I stepped off. The hallway was small and crowded with boxes, desks, and tables with piles of used books on them. There weren’t any windows, of course, and the overhead lights were dim. I followed the trail of discarded materials straight to the English Department office. The lighting was much better. But I was temporarily blinded because my eyes had adjusted to the dungeon quality light in the hall.

“Can I help you?” I was greeted by the nasally voice of a woman. It took me a minute to focus on her. When she first spoke, all I could see was the blinding light of the sun pouring in through the wall to wall windows behind her.

“Can I help you?” Her tone wasn’t pleasant. She clearly was not accustomed to having to repeat herself. I told her who I was and why I was there. I tried to smile. I had my blue folder in my hand, ready to give to her so she could run it in to the department chair, who at that very moment was probably sitting and silently bemoaning the lack of qualified instructors. I was the answer to his problem, and there I was, just standing in the office.

The secretary wasn’t impressed. She looked over at a woman who was standing next to the copy machine. “Did we put out a call for an open position?”

“No. No, we didn’t,” the automaton bitch answered.

“What do you want to teach?”


“What degree do you have?”

I told her.

“What makes you think you can teach writing?”

“Because,” I answered in a deliberate tone, “I am a writer.”

“You’re a writer?”


“Have you been published?”

“Not widely, no.”

She sighed. It wasn’t going well. “Have you ever read James Agee?”

I went through the card catalog in my head. “A Death in the Desert,” I answered. “Fun little story.”

“Well, he went to school here,” she continued.


“Yes. They named the journalism school after him.”

“I didn’t know he was a journalist. I thought he wrote stories and novels and screen plays.”

She glared at me. “HE was a writer. HE was published. How do you know you’re a writer if you’ve never been published?”

“I have been published,” I answered, pointing to my CV. “Just not widely.”

She snorted. “You need to go to human resources,” she said. “If we need anybody, we’ll go through them anyway.”

“Ok,” I said. “But if I could only…”

“Go to human resources.”

I thanked her, turned around on my heels, and walked back into the dark hall. I nearly ran into a large box full of old composition textbooks. The tiles were loose under my feet. When I got down to the ground floor, I was again blinded by the wave of light coming in from the outside. I made my way outand looked at the map of campus. Human Resources is usually in the admin building, I thought. On my way to the administration building I passed a brand new looking brick building. The sign in front of it read THE JAMES AGEE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM. I tried to remember what I knew about him. He was one of those southern writers – though not so long and whiny like Wolfe or Faulkner. Drank and smoked himself to into a heart attack, maybe. The story I had read of his started out good – but then he felt the need to explain everything at the end. That must have been why he ended up a journalist, I thought.

I found the administration building and looked on the board in the lobby for the Human Resources office. Second floor. My feet were hurting more with each step and I had already loosened my tie so that I could breathe. I didn’t think I could respect myself, though, if I took the elevator to the second floor. What kind of message did that send? That I was lazy? I found the stairwell and forced myself up the two flights of stairs. When I got to the second floor, the door was locked. I peeked out through the small square window in the heavy metal door. The hallway was well lit. I could knock on the door and hope that somebody let me in, or I could just go back downstairs and use the elevator. My feet had their own opinion. I hobbled back down the stairs anyway and found the elevator.

The Office of Human Resources was well lit. The carpet was new. The furniture was new. The chairs in the waiting area looked comfortable. But I was on a mission. I walked up to the desk, trying not to look like my feet were killing me.

“May I help you?” The woman there seemed friendlier, at least.

I explained why I was there.

“Just moment.” She typed on the computer keyboard and looked at the screen. “We don’t have any current openings for English Faculty.”

“Can’t I put my CV on file?”

“No,” she said. “But when we do put out a call, we’ll be happy to accept your application.”

“Listen,” I continued, “What about in the journalism school? Do you have any positions open there?”

“Your degree is in English, correct?”


“Then you’re not qualified to teach in the School of Journalism.”

“James Agee was a journalist,” I said. “And he also wrote poems and short stories and novels. Just like me.”

“That may be true, sir,” she answered. “But you’re NOT James Agee.”

You’re right, I thought. I’m not dead.

I turned and left without answering her and took the short elevator ride down to the ground floor. I looked at my watch. Almost noon. I hobbled back towards where I knew I had to meet the bus to get home. On the way I again passed The James Agee School of Journalism. The front steps looked clean, like freshly pour cement. The bricks were in perfect condition. With the mid-day sun reflected off of them, the windows sparkled. I looked down at my feet, bent down, and picked up a rock about the size of my palm. Then I studied the windows, and took a look around. There weren’t that many people. I got a little closer to the building. From that vantage point, I could see into some of the first floor classrooms. All the desks looked brand new. The grease board had never been written on. The walls were all soft white or yellow. I was about to throw the rock at one of the second story windows when it occurred to me that there was no way I could run if I had to. My feet were beyond sore. I had managed to develop a few blisters and I could tell they had already popped from the sticky feel of blood soaking into my one pair of decent socks. I dropped the rock and hobbled off to catch my bus.

The Sacred Relationship Between a Writer and His Audience

No one gives a shit
if you’re happy. Those
inspirational stories they have
one good go around and are then
forgotten. What matters
is how you react
after you’ve stepped in fresh dog shit,
had a fight with your girl,
got tossed out of the bar –
only to then be arrested,

after which you discover
you left your phone
in the bar and there’s no one
to call for bail
except your girl
and she, most likely,
will hang up on you
after telling you
she hopes you get
gang raped.

17 February, 2009

Person of the Year, Part 1

Tess was exhausted when she got home after working her third double shift in a row. The trailer was deserted. She sighed, relieved JJ wasn’t home. Her feet and lower back ached from standing on the cement floor for 16 hours. The rattle and hum of the industrial printing press echoed in her head. It was a good job, she supposed. She was lucky to have a job when most everybody they knew was out of work. The pay was lousy, the benefits nearly non-existent; but there was plenty of opportunity for overtime. It was her overtime that was keeping them afloat; if they had to depend on just her regular paycheck, she and JJ have been living out of his truck months ago.

She looked around. Everything was a mess. The dirty dishes were left soaking in the sink. He’d managed to track mud in from outside, where he’d probably spent the morning four-wheeling through the woods; the footprints stood out in contrast, even against the cheap, dirty tan carpet. The heat was off; JJ was supposed to have fixed the thermostat. It was in pieces on the kitchen counter. She wasn’t surprised. Their home was usually in worse shape. Most of the time, she went ahead and cleaned it up. He would expect it to be clean when he came home from drinking and hanging out with Darryl and Billy. The two of them stood up with JJ in Tess and JJ’s wedding. He’d known them since elementary school. As far as Tess could tell, they still thought they were Mrs. Morgan’s fourth grade class.

They sure as shit act like they are. Of course, if JJ was out with them – and there wasn’t a night when he wasn’t -- that just meant he was out drinking and pushing up on those girls at the bar. Those WHORES, she thought. That’s what Granny would’ve called them. Whores. Each one of them knew JJ was married. But it didn’t matter to them because it didn’t matter to him.

She soaked in the silence and slid her feet out of her shoes. She knew better than to look in the mirror that hung next to the door. She didn’t want to see how tired she looked. She especially didn’t want to see how she looked in a novelty Time Magazine mirror with a caption that read PERSON OF THE YEAR.

“But it’s funny,” JJ had told her when he brought it home from one of his unsuccessful days at the flea market. “Besides, it might boost your self-esteem.”

She snorted. Like he ever CARED about my self-esteem.

The wall clock told her she still had time. Time to soak in the silence. Time to relax. Time before he stumbled home smelling of warm beer and the cheap perfume they sold at the Speed Mart next door to the bar. She walked towards the back of the small trailer they called home, stopping in the closet sized bathroom to start her bath water. She turned the hot water way up. She wanted it to burn her. After she got the water at the right temperature, she got the small canister of bath oil balls out from under the sink. There was one left. She sighed, dropped it in, and walked into the bedroom, where she peeled off her clothes and put them in the dirty clothes hamper. JJ’s dirty clothes from the previous two days were on the floor around the hamper.

On nights like these, she tried to imagine how Granny had put up with it. How she’d put up with her husband, Tess’s grandfather, when he went out drinking and chasing pussy. Then she reminded herself that Granny didn’t put up with it. Her grandfather had been a good man. A better man than her own father, who ran off and deserted her after her mother died. A better man than any of the boys she’d dated growing up. Of all the men she’d met in her life, her grandfather had been the only one who was worth a damn.

She tried to tell you, Tess thought. Granny had tried to tell her JJ wasn’t any good. When they started dating, Tess was a sophomore in high school. If JJ had stayed in school he would have graduated Tess’s freshman year. The first time she saw him at the Tastee Freeze, and he smiled at her with that shit kicker smile, she was done. It was love.

“Why you running off with that Tremaine boy?” she asked the second time she caught Tess trying to sneak in after seeing JJ. “You know where his family lives. Johnny Senior hadn’t done nothing worth a damn in his whole life. Nor his father before him. All they do is find some poor girl who’ll lay down, then get her pregnant.” Granny spit on the front porch for effect. “You better not let him do NOTHIN’, Tessie, or you’ll end up regretting it.”

She stood and looked at herself in large mirror that was attached to her dresser. As long as she didn’t look at her face, Tess liked the way she looked. Her body was still good. Her tummy was smooth, when most of the girls her age had been stretched and pulled by multiple pregnancies. Her tits were still high and tight. Her ass had always been a little round and flat – but she had her dad to thank for that. Granny had been wrong about one thing. JJ hadn’t married her because he’d gotten her knocked up. They got married because they were in love. He said he didn’t want kids. At least, not for a while. “I’m still trying to grow up,” he told her. “I can’t deal with no kid.” Of course, he wouldn’t wear a condom. She had to go on the pill. But it had been for the best. She couldn’t imagine having to take care of TWO of them.

She walked the two and half steps from the bedroom to the bathroom naked. If JJ had been home, he wouldn’t have even batted an eye. Tess couldn’t remember the last time he looked at her. Mostly, he looked through her; as if she were the only thing between him and the door. She tested her bath temperature with her big toe, and, satisfied, stepped in. She sat in the water and slid until her body was submerged under water. Then she turned off the water using her foot. That was when she heard the foot steps on the wooden porch that JJ was supposed to have repaired months ago. From the sound, JJ was bringing the boys in with him for a night cap and a few games of Deer Hunter on the PlayStation. She sighed, reached up, and swung the bathroom door closed, bracing for the moment the silence would end.

13 February, 2009

Party Fouls and Other Non Sequiturs

The driveway was full of cars I didn’t recognize, so I parked about half a block away. The house looked pretty much the way I remembered it. That was comforting. I was tired of the same old bars and silly people downtown, and thought that a night with the old crew might do me some good. I walked through the door into a crowd of people laughing, drinking, fucking on any available surface, in secluded corners, or the convenient closet. There was a couple on the end of the couch, a guy and a girl, him seated, jeans at his ankles, she straddling him beneath the folds of her Catholic school uniform skirt He had her nearly topless, white shirt sliding slowly down her smooth back as he suckled her breasts like a starving infant. On the other end of the couch a man about my age sat, drinking a can of cheap beer and counting out small piles of pills on the coffee table. He looked up when I walked in and nodded in greeting before focusing on his piles of pastel colored pills. The party had been going for a while—it was somewhere around the halfway point, which meant that before midnight, most everyone would be coupled off or passed out.

“Hey bro,” a stoned out kid stumbled up to me. He didn’t look any older than eighteen, straight blonde hair in his eyes. “Iz dis your house?”

“No; don’t you know whose place this is?”

“Nope,” he laughed. “I came here with some people, but they’re upstairs.” Christ. There was no telling what number if naked bodies there were up there. An occasional thumping sound and instantaneous laughing from upstairs indicated that things were well under way.

“Why don’t you go upstairs and join in?” I asked him.

“Naw,” he choked. “Don’t know if I should.”

“Why not?” I asked. “If you don’t, somebody else will.”

His dilated eyes glowed with peaked interest. “Really?”

“Sure,” I said, turning him around by the shoulders and pointing in the direction of the staircase. “Somewhere up there is a half naked cheerleader wondering why you’re down here playing with your balls. You’re missing it.”

“Missing it?” He didn’t sound convinced.

“Sure,” I said. “Why you hanging down here with these losers? Go on up and grab some love.”

“Grab some love?”

“Look,” I was losing patience. “You bring anybody with you?”


“Okay then,” I said. “There’s got to be somebody up there that isn’t occupied.”


“Yeah sure, sure,” I said. “I’ll bet he’s up there now wondering where the hell you’re at,” not knowing whether I ought to feel more sorry for the kid or Mike. Whoever the hell that was.

“Okay,” the kid resolved. He smiled over his shoulder at me. “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

He started up the stairs, trying to make sure he didn’t stumble. “Say,” he turned around.

“What?” I asked. “You nervous already?”

“No man,” he said. “I was just wonderin’...”

“Wondering what?”

“Are you sure this ain’t your house?”

“Positive,” I answered. “Why?”

He shrugged, started up the stairs. “You just seem so... adult. I d-d-don’t know...” and he wandered on up in the stairs in search of Mike who may or may not have been pleased by the prospect. Fucking kid, I thought. Then the Catholic girl from the couch bumped into me, “ Scuse me,” she giggled.

“A little preoccupied?”

“It’s so tight in here,” she giggled. “Everybody’s so packed in.”

“Yeah well; it promotes a relaxed atmosphere.”

“Is the door that way?” she asked, pointing behind me and trying to straighten out her clothes.

“Yeah, “ I answered, indicating the door behind me, now wide open from some stumbling jackass. “right there. You out past curfew?”

She laughed. “Yeah,” she answered. “Curfew. Ha. Gotta go. Will you be here tomorrow?”


She shrugged, looked away. “Too bad,” she said. “My boyfriend says I can suck the chrome off a Harley.”

“Lucky for your boyfriend.”

She laughed again, slapped me on the arm. “Yeah, I guess so. Bye-dee-bye, now.” She waved back at me like a fallen girl scout, stumbled through the crowd and out the front door.

I finally made it into the small kitchen, which wasn’t as crowded as the rest of the house. But it was still difficult to get through the stationary herd, oblivious and laughing at those party jokes that are only funny when everyone’s too fucked up. Eddie was sitting alone at the small circular kitchen table, with a bottle of imported beer and the minuscule roach of what appeared, by the sour expression on his face, to be an unsatisfactory joint. He actually owned the house.

He looked up, saw me standing there, and suddenly became animated. “Hey, you! YOU SON OF A BITCH!” He stood up and hugged me. “What’re you doin’ here?” He hit me in the chest. “You shoulda called and told me you were coming and I would’ve cleared out these assholes.”

We sat down. “You want a beer or something?” he asked. “Let me get you a good beer so you don’t end up with that cheap watered down shit they’re drinking.” He stood back up and started in the direction of the refrigerator to his left—or more appropriately, the crowd of people blocking the way to the refrigerator. “Hey!” he yelled. “Get the fuck out of the way!”

One of them, a kid barely old enough for his first shave squinted at Eddie and slurred “Whas’ the deal, man?”

“Are you deaf? Get the fuck outta the way. I need to get in the fridge. Scoot.”

“We’re not s’posed to get in there, man,” the kid said. “The guy who’s house this is...”

“It IS my house!” Eddie thundered, “All of you, out! There are other parts of the house to do nothing in. Go there. Clear the kitchen.”

“Geez, what’s his problem?” asked a girl wearing a black studded dog collar, tearing her drunken girlfriend off her left nipple so she could face him.


The herd moved on, muttering and shaking their heads. Eddie watched them leave, an expression of pure contempt chiseled into his face. His eyes were set back in his head, ape-ish, neandrathalic, and I half expected him to follow after them with the baseball bat he kept under the sink. He shook his head, opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle of Guinness.

“Your favorite,” he said, “if I remember correctly.” He looked at me. “You’re still drinking piss water, aren’t you?”

“I drink what I can afford.”

He shook his head. “I just make sure I can afford what I drink.”

He was a booze snob. Besides the parties, that was his claim to fame. He never drank swill, no matter what. His beer and liquor was imported and expensive. He had the entire history of beer committed to memory. Back when I hung out on a regular basis, every night was a lesson in whatever brew he picked for the night. One night it was from Belgium; the next night from Amsterdam. Like some kind of divining force, Eddie Moran could pick up any bottle of beer (never, ever cans—no cultured person drank beer from a can) and could recite the brew’s entire history before turning it back. It was his gift.

“Dude,” I said, “who are all these little idiots? You lower the entrance standards or something? Most of them are kids.”

“Don’t I know it.” His voice was full of self-pity. “Inconsiderate little piss ants, too.”

“Why are they here, if you don’t like them?”

He sipped his beer quietly, staring down in to the cheap panel board grain of the kitchen table. There were chicken feet etched into the corners of his eyes, and deep, black circles beneath them. He looked tired. If I hadn’t showed up, he’d still be sitting at the small circular kitchen table by himself, hoarding his imported beer and quality weed in silence, never saying a word to the house full of strangers that were fucking in his bed and tearing up his furniture. The kitchen table was his only refuge—the last piece of ground he had to stand on and defend He was the picture of a man drowning, trying to hold on to a life preserver.

“So what’re you doing?” he asked, attempting to be spirited. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

“Same ol’,” I answered. “As little as possible.”

“You could head upstairs to the rumpus room,” he suggested. “You might find some friendly company up there.”

A picture of the kid I sent up there flashed in my mind. “Nah, that’s okay,” said, taking another drink. “I’m getting a little old for that Olympic class shit.”

He laughed. A little too hard. “Know what you mean, Bro,” he said, then grimaced. “Bunch a fuckin’ kids, anyway.”

“So why let them in?” I asked again. “What happened to the old crowd?”

“Moved on,” he answered. “Like you did.”

“Who the hell are these people? Do you even know any of them?”

He shrugged. “They came in with the old crew.” His voice had a note of drunken sadness in it.

Wistful, like some old drunk on a barstool in some bad made for TV drama. I felt sorry for him. He looked beaten up. Haggard.

“They came in with the old crew,” he repeated. “Then the old crew left.” He gestured out to the living room. “They’re the ones who stayed.”

“Do you know any of them?”

“No,” he answered. “They don’t even know it’s my house.”

“Then why let them in?”

He looked at me, his head half cocked, smiled the sad acquiescent smile. “If not for them, no one would be here.”

We talked some more, but the longer I sat the sadder I felt. I stuck around for one beer and a few more stories from way back when. The beer didn’t soothe my discomfort. Besides Eddie and the guy counting out ruffies for all the cute underage girls, I was the oldest one there.

I made some excuse to Eddie. I had somewhere to be, I told him. I suddenly remembered. He offered me more beer. He offered me a rare sip from his secret stash of single malts. Then a hit off his quality weed. He even tried to entice me with a piece of ass. “I’m sure she’s legal, dude, and she’ll do ANYTHING.” he insisted. The panic showed in his eyes. He didn’t want to be left alone in that house full of strangers. I didn’t blame him a bit. The thought even crossed my mind that I could invite him out and we could go downtown, get into trouble. But he’d never leave his house; that would be like admitting defeat. So I told him I’d call him and that I’d visit him again. I had no intention of doing either. I left out the back door to avoid having to wade through the kiddie pool. As I walked to my car, I could hear the noise coming from the house.

Somebody will call the cops soon, I thought. I didn’t look back.

12 February, 2009

Kentucky Wood

As we drove by, I read the sign in front of the Immanuel Salvation Southern Baptist Church: MAYBE YOUR SOUL PURPOSE IN LIFE IS TO BE KIND TO OTHERS.

“Shit,” I muttered. There are few things as annoying as badly attempted double entendres.

“What?” Gayle called from the front seat.


“Did you say something?”

“Uh? No.” I was too busy thinking that I’d walked into one of those Dateline reports covering snake handler’s wives with bee hive hair, little old ladies who sing off key in the church choir but have an uncannily perfect green bean casserole recipe, and dirty deacons with a quiet penchant for young boys.

We hadn’t been back since we moved west. The absence was largely deliberate; at least on my part. I wasn’t from there, but the unusually large number of churches in a geographically small area reminded me of the place I grew up. Once, when I was a kid, I counted the number of churches in my hometown. I counted 35. I hadn’t made an actual count since we hit the incorporated limits of Harkenville, Kentucky – but I had seen at least seven in our short time on Main Street. All Baptist churches.

Our visit, however, wasn’t a vacation. We’d been planning a vacation – ok, we’d been TALKING about planning a vacation – when she got the phone call that her grandmother had died.

“We need to go,” she said, the tears welling up in her big blue eyes.

I didn’t argue. I understood. Her grandmother had done more to raise her than either of her parents. When we first got together, it was Grandma’s approval that was important – and luckily, I must’ve been having a good day when I met her. This was typically not the case. The parents of every girl I ever seriously dated, going back to high school, always eyed me with a suspicion bordering on contempt. But Grandma liked me, and so, as a result, I was a little soft on her. She was, in her way, a sweet old lady of the Old Time Religion who believed that bar codes were the sign of the beast, that the democratic party was trying to turn America into a communist country, and that most women who were not married were either homely or whores. But she was also wonderful cook and I learned early to never turn down food when I was there. After I proposed and Gayle had what some called the shortsightedness to say yes, her grandma beamed with pleasure. Her granddaughter, the apple of her eye, would be settled down, married, and respectable.

We found the quickest flight we could – which meant frantically packing and finding somebody who could come and feed the cats. The trip would take most of the money we’d managed to put away for the vacation we were trying to take – but we would be able to save money by staying with her uncle and his wife. We also decided against renting a car – also to save money. Besides, I told myself, it’s not like there will be any place to GO.

Gayle’s grandma’s funeral was not the first Kentucky funeral I had experienced; so I had a fairly good idea of what to expect. I went simply to be supportive and because that’s what you do when someone in your close family dies.

The problem I had, of course, was the same old problem I’ve always had. I have never known how to behave at funerals. Not because I haven’t been to enough of them. But because there’s something about the entire event that hits me funny. Not maudlin or sad. Funerals, I learned a long time ago, have nothing at all to do with the person who died. They have everything to do with the people who are still alive. This means that regardless of the wishes of the newly not living, most funerals have certain things in common. Hymns.Prayers. Talk of heaven. Regardless of what kind of person the corpse in question was alive, the basic assumption is that he or she is in heaven with Jesus. One of the common questions people in that part of the country ask people when someone is near death is “Are you right with Jesus?” There are variations on this. But they all mean the same thing.

I understand how I’m SUPPOSED to act. But that does me little good. My problem with funerals is that generally, I think people attend them, not to grieve, but to make sure that the person in question is actually dead and not simply trying to get out of paying taxes. Death makes vultures out of otherwise barely tolerable people; circling and watching to make sure the corpse isn’t alive and taking up good breathing air and space that somebody else can use. Once, at the funeral of a good friend who died in a car accident, I had to restrain myself from breaking out into laughter. At my own grandmother’s funeral, I audibly growled at certain extended relatives who were there to vulture and not to grieve. I treated my own father’s funeral like it was a stand-up act, trying to tell bad jokes and flirting with all the cute girls from my high school who’d come out in their cute and clingy dresses because their parents knew my parents. I copped my first under the sweater feel in the back hallway of a funeral home.

We were in the car, on our way to the Fifth Avenue Laurel Baptist Chapel – the family church. Gayle and I were supposed to get married there – but the stress of all the planning and intruding of future in-laws made us change our plans abruptly and run off to a JP to get married. It was a decision neither of us regretted, but one we ended up having to explain several times. Gayle’s grandma died in early Feburary – which meant Kentucky was cold, snowy, icy, and gray. I’d forgotten just how gray everything looked in the winter. The trees were all devoid of leaves. Except the evergreens, but they got lost the background of snow and shit colored sludge that lined the streets and backroads. The cold crept into my bones and stayed the entire time we were there. I was sitting in the backseat of the white, four door Oldsmobile. Gayle was sitting up front with her Uncle Clay – Grandma’s second oldest son out of four. His wife, Vera, was sitting in the back with me. I liked Vera as much as I like anybody; but I had dodged her questions as to my status with god several times. I was only hoping she wouldn’t use the funeral as an evangelizing moment.

One of the things I liked about being back in that part of the country in the winter was the smell of wood burning stoves. Her uncle used a wood burning stove to heat the house and save money on the electric bill. The smell brought back every positive memory I had of living in the land of ice, snow, and biblical determinism. My large collection of warm and fuzzy sweaters. The winter nights I spent indoors with friends, drinking and making proclamations about our future greatness. A few girls came to mind – ones who I probably hadn’t treated very well, but who were very kind and giving towards me on cold nights. Winter afternoons in the university library digging for books that nobody bothered to read anymore. (That was before I realized most of them weren’t still read for a reason.) The early years with Gayle. Nice times.

“You sure are quiet,” Vera said, shaking me out my thoughts.

“Sorry,” I said. “I haven’t been sleeping very well.”

Vera nodded and looked concerned. “It’s not the bed, is it?”

“No, no,” I said. And I wasn’t lying. The bed was fine. The only problem with it was that it wasn’t mine. Also, I was stuffed and sluggish from all the food. Whenever someone dies, people feel the need to bring food to the grieving family. We were working our way through a dozen different kinds of casseroles.

“What are you saying, honey?” Gayle called back from the front seat.

“Nothing. Nothing.”

“He was just saying that he hasn’t been sleeping well.” Good old Vera.

“I’m fine, really,” I explained. “The time change just throws me off.”

Gayle didn’t respond. I figured she had other things on her mind.

Fifth Avenue was a lane and a half wide trail that somebody had decided to pave. It was curvy and uneven, the way Eastern Kentucky roads are, which made it impossible for the ice trucks to clean very well. All the trucks managed to do was get the top layer of snow off – which took away any chance we had at having traction. I kept my eyes off the road in front of us. If we were going to slide off into one of the massive ditches or culverts, I didn’t want to see it coming.

We made it to the chapel in one piece. The preacher was there to greet us. He was a kindly old man with a gnarled face and a permanent stoop in his back. If I didn’t know any better, I could swear he was wearing a toupee. He greeted us solemnly. First he shook Clay’s hand. Then Vera’s. Then some kind words for Gayle and a few anecdotes about knowing her from the time she was “knee high to a grasshopper.” Gayle introduced me to him. When he shook my hand, I had to be careful not to squeeze too hard; he had that preacher grip that came from shaking hands with a lot of little old ladies.

I walked up to the front of the small sanctuary with Gayle so she could look at the coffin. This particular funeral tradition always struck me as gruesome and odd. The open casket. The religious insist the body be interred so that it can rise again on That Final Day. Funeral directors make their living off of embalming corpses and selling overly priced hermetically sealed coffins to grieving families. Preachers use the opportunity to talk about heaven and hell and the importance of being redeemed before death. Redeemed. Hearing the word always made me think of grocery store coupons.

Gayle leaned on me as she looked the body. Clay and Vera were there, too. Clay wasn’t much of a talker – men of his generation and of that region rarely were – but I heard Vera whisper, “She looks like she’s sleeping.”

Fuck, I thought. Sleeping? Really? It made me wonder what Vera thought sleeping people looked like. Grandma looked like every other embalmed corpse I had ever seen –shoved into an expensive wood box, overdressed, and over painted. When my own grandmother died, my mother had to reapply the lipstick because the beautician (there are stylists who specialize in the dead) used a bright red color that, when she was alive, my Grandma referred to as “hussy red.”

Gayle clung to me. I was determined to be there for her – whatever that happened to mean. I wasn’t really sure what she would need. Mostly, I figured she would need me to say very little and hug her when she needed me to. I was fine with that. There were some more words with the preacher. Then people started filtering in. Friends of the family. People who had known Gayle when she was a kid. Then the extended family. After about 45 minutes of mulling around and socializing, everybody sat down so the service could begin.

The service began with the reading of the death notice, then a warbly rendition of “In the Garden” by a member of the church choir who might have been wearing as much caked on make-up as dear old Grandma. Then the beagle-faced preacher stood up in the pulpit and gave a funeral sermon about the shortness of life and the permanence of heaven. It could be worse, I thought. Then the warbly singer got up and sang “Love Lifted Me.”

That was when it happened. Gayle noticed immediately, because her hand was sitting on my leg. She kicked me. I looked over at her, and I couldn’t tell if she was mad, or just incredulous. I was sitting in a church pew with her on one side and Vera on the other side and Clay on the other side of her, and I had somehow managed to develop a raging hard on. In the particular pair of pants I was wearing, it felt like the king of all erections. Everything I could do was making it worse. I tried to cross my legs so that Vera wouldn’t notice. That only made the fabric rub. I tried shifting my weight. No good. I tried to think of things to make it go away. Baseball scores from the Big Red Machine. My high school social studies teacher who always smelled like cat shit. No good. I thought of dead puppies. Nothing. The only thing to do was to put my coat over my lap and hope for the best.

Gayle shook her head and turned back to face the front. When the warbly singer stopped, the preacher got up and prayed. After the prayer, everyone sat in silence. After a few minutes, Vera whispered, “I think they’re waiting for us to leave.” Shit. Even with the coat, I was afraid I’d poke somebody if I walked too close. We stood up. I kept the coat close in front of me. We had to walk the from the front pew, back the length of the sanctuary, to the door that led outside. From there, we would go to the car and drive to the cemetary for the burial. It was small chapel, but it was still full. Lots of old ladies and small children who were forced into going and so were entertaining themselves on Gameboys and Pocket Playstations. I stayed close to Gayle and didn’t look at anybody. As we neared the door, Gayle put her coat back on. I kept mine folded in front of me. Gayle opened the door and the cold air hit me. It was snowing again. I kept my coat off until we got to the car.

10 February, 2009

the final moment

there’s nothing noble or beautiful
about the body fighting
inevitability: choking and
drowning in its own viscera
— one last hurrah—
and then
that pain,
so exquisite
and so human

Meat Grinder Opus

I rode my bicycle to the temp agency because my car died a month before and the management company of the apartment complex I lived in had it towed away. They called it “unsightly.” While I didn’t disagree with them – rust and primer orange tend to stick out in the parking lot when potential new tenants are looking around – I couldn’t afford to get it fixed and I couldn’t afford to get it out of whatever impound yard they’d stuck it in. I hadn’t actually ridden a bicycle since I started driving, but I figured, what the hell. It’s a bicycle, right?

The weather was hot and humid, and the distance was further than I expected. By the time I got there, not only did I ache from the seat being jammed halfway up my ass and from using muscles I hadn’t used in more than a decade, but I was also a sweaty, miserable mess. I dismounted the bike and locked it to the nearest tree I could find; it was an ugly bike, but it was the only transportation I had. The outside of the building was a discrete looking white panel and brick face. (I knew better than to think it was real brick; nobody used real bricks anymore.) The door was clear glass, except for a small sign that read

HOURS: 8:00am-3:30pm

I looked at my watch. It was just after three. Shit. I should’ve started out earlier. Who the hell closes at 3:30 on a business day? Every other temp agency I’d ever been to stayed open until five. I was hoping that they wouldn't tell me I had to come back tomorrow; the way home was up hill and I didn’t have enough cash to even stop in at a bar and wait for the sun to go down. I tried to calm myself. I took a few deep breaths, smoothed my hair back, and walked in the door.

The interior was an innocuous gray and off white. The carpet was cheap industrial. There were some solid but uncomfortable looking chairs in the waiting area, along with small tables covered with magazines like Fortune, The Financial Times, and Small Business Weekly. The woman sitting behind the reception desk was a vacuous looking bottle blonde (her roots were starting to show) who was clearly more interested in filing her stoplight red fingernails than in talking to me.

“Can I help you?”

“Uh, yes. I’m here to try and get on with the agency.”

“Do you have clerical or office experience?”


I could tell by the way she looked at me that she didn’t believe me. I did my level best to come up with professional looking attire – but I didn’t really have any. While I had suffered through office work in the past, most of my spotty work history was made up of monkey work – low paying light industrial and warehouse work. Sure I had a college degree ; but what the fuck did that count for in the end? Besides, I wasn’t looking for a career. That’s the problem. When they graduate from college, most people still suffer from the delusion, often inflicted on them by their parents, that they will get a job, get married, move up in the company, and eventually retire. AND THEN, they tell themselves, THEN I’LL BE ABLE TO ENJOY LIFE. And even those who know better – those who realize that nobody works for the same company forty years and then gets a gold watch – still buy into the dream of retirement. World travel. Nice cars. Plenty of time for golf and photography. Pure bullshit.

I was just looking for another job that I fully expected to quit eventually; which was why I tended to stick to low paying monkey work. It was the easiest to get and the easiest to quit. The only reason I was trying to get an office gig was that it was too hot to work where there wasn’t any air conditioning.

She handed me a clipboard. “Fill out this application,” she said in an unconvinced tone. I took the clipboard from her and sat in one of the waiting room chairs. The clipboard held a standard application form, which I filled out from memory. It wasn’t hard. The only problem I had was trying to keep from sweating all over the form. I wasn’t worried about them checking my work history. They never did. I made up names for personal references, then handed it back to her. She sighed and looked at the clock . Ten minutes to close. Then she picked up the phone and called someone. At first, I thought it was a girlfriend or her manicurist.

“Somebody’s here,” she said. She didn’t look at me. “Yeah. Sure.” She hung up the phone.

“An employment coordinator will be out in just a moment.”

“Thanks.” I was starting to cool off. I was about to ask if I should sit back down when another woman came out. She was a shortish, shapely brunette in a very tidy looking gray business suit. She extended her hand. I wiped my palm off on my pants before I shook it.

“Why don’t you come this way,” she said walking quickly towards the back. She didn’t look at me either. It didn’t bother me much because I wasn’t really paying any attention to her face.

“What kind of work are you looking for today?”

“Uh, office work,” I answered. “I have a lot of clerical and data entry experience.” I was only lying slightly. I had a little of both, and both were pretty horrible. But I stayed focused on the dream of central air. The brunette with the nice ass led me into a small room with several cubicles lining the walls. There was a computer in each one.

She stopped at one, leaned over the chair, and typed some kind of password. “You need to complete this series of tests,” she said, “to give us a good idea of your skills. That way we’ll know where we can place you.” I nodded and said ok, though mostly I was imagining her bent over the same chair, naked. She stood up and turned to face me. Not a bad face I thought. Nice lips.

“When you’re finished, go on out into the waiting room. Claire will take care of you from there.”

“When will I hear something?”

“We’ll call you.” She was smiling in a way that told me she had no intention of ever calling me.

“Ok. Thanks.”

She walked away without shaking my hand again. “Good luck,” she said.

I sat down. The instructions on the screen were pretty simple. HIT ENTER TO BEGIN TESTING.

The first test was a simple typing test. There was a laminated sheet next to the keyboard with about long paragraph about the qualities of a good employee. I recognized it immediately from at least two other temp agencies I’d been with. I remembered it because it began with part of a Mark Twain quote, and I always felt bad because the poor white haired bastard was always being taken out of context. I ran through the typing test pretty quickly; not because I’m a great typist, but because my fingers remembered doing it before.

The next test was a math test. Math was never my strong subject – if it wasn’t for online checking, I’d be screwed – but I muddled my way through what I thought probably basic math that any twelve year old of average intelligence could do half asleep. I didn’t bother to check any of my answers.

The next test was timed. It was a data entry test that corresponded to a laminated handbook that was also sitting next to the computer. I had to go through and enter some five hundred items in less than ten minutes. Data entry isn’t hard. It’s just boring as fuck. The trick is to not hit the tab key too many times and skip a cell. I’d taken these kinds of tests before, of course; but they’re never the same. I didn’t even come close to finishing, but I felt confident that I made hardly any errors.

When I finished the tests, a message flashed on the screen, thanking me for taking the test. I had no idea what my scores were. I stood up and looked around. The brunette was nowhere in sight. I wandered back out into the waiting room. It was empty except for Claire the vacuous bottle blonde receptionist. I could tell by her expression and body language that the brunette bombshell had left and made her stay until I was finished.

“All done,” I said, trying to sound friendly. For some reason, whenever I try to sound friendly, it disturbs people.

“Ok.” She started turning off her computer.

“When will I hear something?”

“We will call you,” she answered, not looking at me.

“Should I check back tomorrow?”

That got her to look up. Pretty quickly, too. “NO,” she answered. “WE will call YOU.” She went back to getting her things together.

I stood there for a few seconds, feeling like an intruder. I turned and walked back outside. The humidity hit me in the face and I immediately started to sweat. I looked over at the tree where I’d locked up my bicycle. It was gone. Someone had cut the chain. I thought briefly about going back inside and asking for a ride, or even some change so I could take the bus. Then I heard the door lock and the mini blinds fall. I checked my pockets again. No change. Not even a piece of lint.

I started walking home.