27 December, 2010

The Only Laws In A Small Town That Really Mean Anything


Above all, make no waves
and make no enemies
unless you share the same ones
as everyone else.


Go to church, even if
you don't believe in it.
Otherwise people will
remember this and will
assume everything else.


Don't drink too early
or stay out too late.
And if you drink at home
buy your booze one town over
where no one knows
what you look like.


If you live in a trailer
people will assume
you're lazy, on drugs,
or a whore.


There are two kinds
of dirty: work dirty
and lazy dirty. Know
which one you are
and act accordingly.


If you vote,
only tell everyone
who you vote for
if you vote with the
majority. Otherwise,
you'll be taken for a fool.
Or worse, a Democrat.


Be sure to look the part
people have decided you
play, regardless of
how bad the casting may be.


Learn how to talk about NASCAR
and how to grow a garden.


Avoid sarcasm, since
no one will know
that's what it is anyway.


What people say about you
after you're dead
is far more important
than the fact
that you were a bastard
while you were alive.

You know you're redeemed
when they put your name
on a cement bench
in front of the courthouse.

26 December, 2010

Excerpt from THE MUCKRAKER'S CHRONICLE: The Flying Man From Pin Hook

The Flying Man From Pin Hook

By JJ Rafferty for The Arliss Star Advocate

Pin Hook – Wallace Gimley has carried the same dream with him since the age of five: he wants to fly. He says he was inspired by comic books and old film clips of inventors trying to test flying contraptions.

“Hawk Man was always my favorite,” Gimley told me as we sat together in his barn that he turned into a make shift study, design, and building space. “I read the comics first. Superman could fly, of course, but that was different. He flew because he was Superman. But Hawk Man, he had wings. Actual wings.”

It's not difficult to see that Gimley takes his passion seriously. The proof hangs from the rafters and are set around on tables; drawings and scraps of paper with scribbles and calculations and sketches cover nearly ever inch of the barn that once held animals back when he was growing up on the farm set far back on Pemblebrook Road. The only thing left of the tractor and the cows, horses, and pigs is that lingering odor of straw, old manure, and rust. Since inheriting the farm after the death of his mother after a long battle with cancer five year ago, Wallace Gimley has turned it from a working farm with 50 acres of good crop land to a design and manufacturing facility focused on the production of a single product – a contraption that will enable him to fly. Not an airplane, which he says puts too much between him and the air, and not even a glider, which he calls “cheating.” No. Wallace Gimley intends to build something that, in conjunction with his own body, will enable him to fly on his own power.

“I call it my own private Menlo Park,” he joked, showing me around. The allusion is intentional. Gimley says that Thomas Edition is one of his heroes and his primary inspiration. “Everyone thought he was nuts, too,” says the self-proclaimed inventor. “He went around talking about this thing called electricity and how people didn't need to light candles all the time just to see. He envisioned entire towns lit up in the night with these strange filaments. And look what happened! And just think,” he paused to light a home-made corn-cob pipe. “Just think about what the world would be like if Edison had listened to all those yahoos and forgot about electric lights.”

He points out several designs to me – all of them, failures. But he says with each failure he learned something new, something that he was able to fix in the next design. His early designs took him less than 6 months to design and build, starting from the age of 10. Now however, he says he takes more time to plan things out. He may spend as much as a year on design, and that much time on small scale testing. He throws out terms like lift, aerodynamic, wing span, center of gravity. That's the secret of his next design, he says. Center of gravity. He wouldn't go into details but said, “That's the mistake they all made. Even the Wright Brothers. “They all understood what Newton said about gravity. But they didn't move beyond the apple falling from the tree.”

And if you're thinking that Wallace Gimley went to school and studied aerodynamics, wing design, or physics, you're wrong. In fact, Wallace Gimley dropped out when he was 14 years old. “I wasn't learning anything.” But he points out that there's a difference between schooled and educated. His parents, hoping to encourage him to put himself back in school, made him work everyday on the farm; and he says that even though they were trying to manipulate him into giving up on his dreams, he's thankful for every day of hard work. Without it, his body might've gone soft... which would have ultimately made his dream impossible. “It's as much about the man as it is the contraption,” he said, smiling.

Gimley educated himself by reading. He read everything he could get his hands on, even when he was exhausted from work. He read history and science and math. He inhaled books about inventors and about flying. When his grandparents died, he inherited their collection of National Geographic Magazine, going back nearly 40 years, a complete collection fo Encyclopedia Britannia, and a four volume American Heritage Dictionary, including a Thesaurus. He claims to have read them all several times over, except for the Thesaurus, which he says is only useful “when a person wants to sound smart instead of be smart.”

So how does a man with an 8th grade education support himself enough to be able to focus on his dream of flying? He sold all the animals except for a milk cow, and he leases out the crop land to one of his neighbors. He grows a garden and hunts when it's in-season. He also sometimes builds things or repairs things for his neighbors; he's as handy at fixing a tractor as he is sewing a stitch. Most of the money he makes goes into building his contraptions, and what's left is enough for him to get by on.

“I don't need all kinds of nice stuff,” he says. “But I do need to fly.”

He's made six attempts over the years; the contraptions – or the remains of them – hang high from the rafters of his barn. Gimley says he's broken his collar bone twice, his left arm once, sprained both knees and gotten five concussions. But he has no intention of quitting, even if his neighbors, who have tolerated his … eccentricities … for years would prefer that he live quietly and farm his land much in the way his father and mother did. Gimley says it's not the contraptions that bother them so much, but the occasional explosions and “evidence of experimentation.” But he insists he's a good neighbor in spite of his oddities. He also insists that each and every one of them will change their tune after he tests his seventh contraption. That one, he claims, is the one that will fly. And when it does, they'll all brag about being his neighbor rather than commiserate about it.

Gimley leads me to a the back corner stall in the barn; there's a large object there, covered with a sheet. He won't show me what's under the sheet. “That's the contraption,” he says with a smile. “That's the one that'll fly.” He plans to test it as soon as the weather is warmer, maybe as around early summer. Until then, he tinkers and tests and makes his calculation and prepares to fly.


22 December, 2010

Untitled Lines / Post Solstice

Winter breeds patience out of desperation.
There is no instant gratification
When the snow plow buries you alive
And your only connection with the world
Comes in form of internet social networks
And high definition reality on ESPEN and the Travel Channel.
Realize (and remind yourself) this is a hermit's paradise;
All the one way talk you need
Without having to worry you're being judged
On how long it's been since you had a hair cut,
Or on whether you've taken a bath lately.
Snow outside made perfect by the thin layer of ice
Versus the dichotomous dirty snow left behind
By the shovel and the plow and the boot.
Look forward to Christmas, not for the gifts,
But because Solstice means
The days will get longer and the snow
Will gradually melt away, leaving behind
Something resembling Patience
Mingled with the hope
You have not yet dared to name
Or even appear to recognize.

21 December, 2010

Taking Out the Garbage The Morning After a Snow Storm

Up before the sun –
eyes pop open thanks to internal alarm clock
and the fear that the garbage men dug them-
-selves out last night. Pull on yesterday's
dirty clothes and go about bundling my-
-self up against the December winter outside.
Walk out onto the enclosed porch; the cooler air
pulls me out of my stupor as I
pull on my snow boots and turn on
the outside light so I can see what I have
to look forward to. Don't look up
I tell myself til it's done.
Grab the shovel.
Get to work.

                          It's me, a cheap shovel,
and the memory of a warm bed
against freshly packed snow
and a thin layer of ice that crackles
when the shovel breaks the surface. Don't look up
I tell myself til it's done. Get to the end
of the walk, meet the pile of snow and ice and rock
left behind by the snow plow. They don't pile it
in front of my neighbors' houses this way.

Start from the top
and dig my way down
thinking about about my landlord's
lawn tractor plow attachment
and I wonder if he's awake yet. Don't look up
I tell myself. Not til it's done. Slice through the pile
and step out onto the cleared street.
Snow reaches my thighs and I
can only revel so long in my victory
before I glance left
at the driveway.

                           The snow plow
didn't disappoint. Dig my way down,
through compacted snow and ice and gravel
hoping the shovel doesn't break – until
there's a space big enough to push through
and attack the thinner layer of pristine snow and ice
leading to the garage door. It breaks easy and I
move in a rectangle pattern
because it makes me feel like
it's disappearing faster, so that I
can feel like I'm winning
in spite of the forecast I'm
pushing out of my mind that calls
for more snow the day after tomorrow.
Don't look up, I tell myself
til it's done.

                      One last giant pile
tall as my waist and that
only so she can get the car out
when she leaves for work
in a few hours. Think about
the spaghetti dinner she cooked last night,
how it was heavy and warm in my belly
even though my hands and feet were cold
in spite of the heat. Dig my way down and
make my way through. Check my work
and allow myself a futile sense
of accomplishment.

                                Perch the garbage
atop the pile of snow. I know
the garbage men will throw
the recycling bin in the middle of the yard
to make me trudge through the snow
to retrieve it. Try not to think about it,
I tell myself.

                    Go back inside.
My hands and feet are warm. Strip
off cold sweaty clothes like I learned
from T.J. down in New Orleans
who warned me that a damp t-shirt
would kill me whether I was sleeping
on a park bench or soft bed.
That's how the elements finally kill you,
he said. They wait until you get sloppy.

17 December, 2010


 “Do you really want to piss off the only person in town that still likes you?”

Maude has a way getting straight to the point. “Parton doesn't like me. I'm not enough of a bigot.”

“ENOUGH of a bigot?”

“You know what I mean. He's a moron.”

“I'm not talking about him,” she said. Her voice was tired. She was almost always tired when she came home from work. When we first moved to Mount Arliss, I would try to have supper on the table when she came home. But it became impossible to know what time she'd be there; sometimes she worked late if she had a lot of ticket sales, or if she was working on a a new pamphlet or poster or some other marketing tool. Sometimes she said to hell with it all and came home early. But it was impossible to tell exactly what she had planned and she never called to say she was on the way home or to say hello. I'd call her sometimes, just to see how her day was going. If it was going good, she was too busy to talk. If it was going bad, she was in too lousy a mood to talk. We both have cell phones, yet I never seem to be able to get a hold of her; granted, cell phone reception in Mount Arliss isn't the greatest. But if she wants to find me and she can't, I end up hearing about it later.

She was tired because she'd had another in a string of bad days. There was a time when I would try to get her to talk about her bed day. Her strategy for dealing with bad days was different from mine; she would simply not talk about it and hope that by ignoring it all, that all the bad feelings would simply vanish. It's a beautiful system in idealized form; something out of the 1950's image of the prosperous American. Smiling wife serves dinner in a spotless, perfectly ironed dress. Husband smiles and shovels food in his mouth, content that he's done his bit for god, country, and family that day. Bad feelings? Depression? Anger? Push it away. Bad feelings are the enemy. They're communists. They're islamofascist terrorists. Ignore them and they'll go away. Then no one has to listen to anyone else's bullshit and everybody can be happy. Happy happy joy joy. The problem with her method was that outside of the idealized form, it doesn't work. The human psyche isn't built to hold in an infinite amount of negativity. When it reaches the fill point, rather than expand to take on the extra load, all that badness and negativity spills over into the body, becomes aches, pains, sickness. High blood pressure. Diabetes.

My strategy is less elegant. I simply howl at the universe until I feel better. This tends to annoy other people, but since they're generally part of the reason I'm howling, I figure they might as well take on their share.
Maude never says so, but from the way she acts, she thinks my approach is the more selfish of the two. She's probably not wrong.

“Well who ARE you talking about?”

She sighed and looked at me with a weary expression. Thick as a brick me, I finally got who she was talking about. I didn't answer and opted to pour myself another drink instead.

“Why do you have to do that?”


She pointed at my glass of scotch. “That. You're drinking more than you used to.”

“Not really. I pace myself better than I used to. I've slowed down, comparatively.”

“Compared to what? It was one thing when you sat around drinking beer...”

And, I thought, you didn't like that either.

“...but now you sit around drinking whiskey...”

“It's not whiskey,” I said. “It's scotch.”

She rolled her eyes. “It's the same thing.”

“Not really.” Maude didn't like it when I drank whiskey. She always said it turned me into a different person. I never really thought it did anything but make me more honest... temporarily removed the filter in my head that kept the more acerbic parts of my personality at bay. There was a time when I was horribly concerned about the little green demon in my brain. The one that scrapes and claws at me and wants me to simply be, without all the hang ups of worrying about anyone else. I sued to try and keep it under control because of a similar statement I heard once from my ex-wife. She used to say that when ever I lost my temper I became a different person. She said I even looked different. I never knew how to take it, and I wasn't absolutely sure that she wasn't just trying to manipulate me into feeling guilty; that was some she did often and was very proficient at. That was before I learned that guilt, and the heaping of it upon the self and others is all based on obligation and expectation. A husband, according to my ex-wife, was supposed to fulfill certain expectations, play a certain role. And I had certain expectations of myself too – higher ones than I was capable of, I eventually came to realize. That was when her manipulations stopped working, and it not long after that I left and we divorced.   

One of the wonderful things about Maude is that she doesn't try to manipulate me. She's far too direct for that, which makes her – as far as I can tell – a rarity among womankind. Most women manipulate the men they “love” because maybe there was a time when that was the only real social power they had. Like it a kind of defense mechanism against the patriarchy. Most women not only manipulate their men, they try and manipulate other women, too. It's about status, position. Men who pick up on this trick and adapt it to their own ends become politicians, local busybodies, church officers. But Maude, god love her, doesn't do that, and she hates it in other women. The impact of this is that it makes her more direct, more honest. And while I take this as a good thing, a rare thing to be cherished, there are times when her directness borders on something else.

When we first got together, I was a drinker. I've been a drinker for many years. Back then, she drank too. As a matter of fact, she could drink me under the table. But she tapered off and eventually quit drinking. I didn't.
“It IS the same thing.”

“Okay,” I conceded. “It's similar. But it's different, too. It's about the age and the fermenting time...”

“Don't change the subject.”

“Fine.” She knew me too well to be baffled by bullshit.

“It's not good to sit around and drink the way you do.”

“Some people eat chocolate. Some people drink.”

“Don't try and be cute.” She paused. “You're a drunk. You know that, right?”


“When was the last day that you didn't have a drink?”

I shrugged. Probably a truly miserable day.

“Do you think it's healthy?”

“I think it's healthier for me to drink than it is for other people.”

“Oh please...” she snorted. “Because YOU'RE so different?”

“Everyone's different,” I said.

“I don't like who you become when you drink.”

“Who am I when I drink?”

“You're just... different. That's all.”

I didn't answer.

“Sometimes I think you want me to end up sitting next you in a hospital, watching you die. Is that what you want?”

It wasn't. I'd seen people die from drink. Fucking horrible way to die. Besides the pain of it, the worst thing about dying is that people don't really care about you when you're dying. You're liver's cashed, your kidneys are failing, your body is swelling like an overfilled water balloon because you can't get rid of toxins anymore. If you're in a hospital, they end up jacking you up on morphine until your body finally wears out; this isn't mercy as much as a way to quiet the moaning and groaning. It makes the doctors' and nurses' lives easier. There's no mercy in the world for people who drink themselves to death, just like there's no mercy for junkies or the homeless or people who eat too much. No mercy. That goes back to obligation, too. It's generally agreed upon that the good, the upright, the useful, they live in a certain way and in a certain manner. They work. They save money. They pay taxes. They aspire to upward mobility. They live in nice neighborhoods and lease new cars every two years. And when you step off the worn-out path into indulgence, intoxication, or living in a way that most people probably would if they had the balls, the price you pay, among others, is the absence of mercy.

Maude wasn't merciless. On the contrary, she probably had too much mercy. But I was starting to realize that maybe I was wearing her down; that didn't surprise me as much as that it had taken this long for her to get to that point. But it wasn't just the drinking. It was that she was really the only person in town that I ever talked to, in spite of the fact that we'd been living there for a year. I never made friends easily. Not like her. People were just drawn to her, her energy, her enthusiasm for things she cared about. Part of the reason she was always so exhausted was that she always put everything she had into whatever she was working on. She was like that with every job she'd had since she and I had been together. Maude didn't know how to be any other way, even though her work ethic had been taken advantage of time and time again. She gave until there was nothing left, and then she would simply implode. I'd never known a person who had been hollowed out by the world so many times and still went back at it in the exact same way.

“That's not going to happen,” I said.

“How do you know?”

“Because I just do.”

She shook her head again gave up. But I knew we'd have the same conversation again, sometime soon.

“I love you,” I said.

“Do you?”

“You know I do.”

“Do I?”

“Yes, goddamn it, you do.”

She stood up, patted me on the head, grabbed her pack of cigarettes that were sitting on the end table next to my chair, and lit a cigarette. Then she asked what my thoughts were on dinner.  

14 December, 2010

The Bowling Alley Kaffeeklatsch Broadside

The Bowling Alley Kaffeeklatsch Broadside

Essay: Intractable, Part 1

I grew out of a narrow tradition; as a writer, my education began with The Great Books on the dusty top shelf of the reference section in the library. I read Descartes, Spinoza, Aristotle, Plato. But that was later, when I was in high school. The first book of any literary consequence I ever read was George Orwell's 1984. I was ten. The magnetic weight of that book struck me, even though I didn't understand it thoroughly until I had read it many more times. And even though I didn't understand it all that well, I did begin to understand one thing: I began to understand that if I was going to write – which, by that time, I had already begun – that my goal was to write something that had that same kind of magnetic weight.

Naturally, I had no idea what an impossible standard it was that I set for myself. I had no idea that most writers are NOT artists and that by deciding that I WOULD BE an artist was more or less assigning myself to more trial, misery, glory, pain, and epiphany than anybody would choose if they had any sense.

If Orwell was the book that made me want to be an artist, then it was James Thurber's story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, that made me an English major. He's a writer that's generally ignored by both the academics and the outsiders; academics ignore Thurber because he wrote primarily to entertain, sometimes to poke fun, but never to tear down the upper middle class readership of the then young and frenetic New Yorker. He was no Sinclair Lewis. Outsiders ignore him because the New Yorker has become everything that's wrong with contemporary American writing and the intelligentsia; it's insipid, snobbish, lacking in balls or editorial integrity, and is completely isolated from a large segment of writing in America, and has been since Steinbeck. When I read Thurber now, I see him as one in a lineage of American writers that began with Mark Twain; like Mark Twain, Thurber is often pigeon-holed based on his early work. But that's not the only thing they have in common. Twain and Thurber were successful as artists because they showed a clear sense of the absurd. Thurber understood that Mitty, in his day dreaming, had more to do with what America was becoming than the wide-shouldered, straight-backed version that played out in the movies and popular literature. America was, in Thurber's time, a land of desperate, spineless dreamers. And in that realization, there is brilliance that still shines even though we have changed from desperate dreamers to just plain desperate.

But I loved books, and I was developing a love for literature; so I did what seemed to make sense. I threw myself into academia, into the canon. Some of them I loved; most of them I didn't. A few of those have warmed up to me over the years... not because I've developed a greater understanding of their place in the canon but because I'm hitting an age where their words speak to me instead of at me. Robert Frost is one. Dickens is another... though I limit myself to Hard Times and The Old Curiosity Shop. Whitman spoke to me at an early age; but then so did Chaucer and Milton. Milton is one I have always appreciated because his humane treatment of the devil in Paradise Lost remains a literary achievement that few have come close to. I don't agree with his intent or his final statement on the matter of humanity, the devil, and what it all means; but he was a Puritan's Puritan. He put protest in Protestant. So I overlook my glaring disagreements because … well... he was kind of an asshole. And even when I disagree with other assholes – because I have often been accused of being one myself – I at least like them. Just a little bit.

But even though I loved academia, I was struck with how dogmatic it could be. All institutions are dogmatic, whether they're academic, religious, or political. So I sought out other voices: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Corso. On The Road and Coney Island of the Mind stick out to me as significant influences on my development. Development, not style. I discovered literary rebellion. And it was wonderful. But to really appreciate and understand it, I had to move outside of academia; which began a long series of bouncing from job to job, in and out of academia. Getting divorced had something to do with that, as well. But I see that less a cause and more part of the effect of how I was developing, what I was becoming. 

10 December, 2010

Eat, Drink, Write, Piss on Your Neighbor's Lawn: A Couple of Hours with Kap and Mick

Starting at 1pm Central Time, Kap (That's Noah Kaplowitz) will stop by the Dead Machine (that'swww.deadmachinefictions.com) where I'll be posting some of his work. We're going to be talking about writing, drinking, parenthood, and other forms of insanity. 

Then, we're going to change blog hop over to www.iamkap.net where he's going to post the latest bit from my novel in progress The Muckraker's Chronicle. At that point, who the hell knows what we're going to be talking about. We may be singing Irish and Russian fight songs by then.

Stop by, get in the conversation, read our stuff. Prove your old high school guidance counselor wrong... or just prove mine wrong. 


"Whenever someone throws the word “entitlement” at you, all that means is you're interrupting their trek towards mediocrity."  

                                                                --JJ Rafferty

"Do you really want to piss off the only person in town that still likes you?"

                                                     -- Maude Rafferty


05 December, 2010

Quote of the day from THE MUCKRAKER'S CHRONICLE

"It's not that I don't believe in the possibility of Grace. I'm skeptical enough to accept the possibility that God, like Bigfoot and mermaids,does exist. But until a beautiful bare-breasted woman with a giant fish tail swims up to me and says hello, I'm holding out for more evidence other than your say so."  

                           --JJ Rafferty

[Note: I'm changing the title of the novel currently in progress from In Season to The Muckraker's Chronicle.]


03 December, 2010

James Bond and The 9

My trip to the bar the day before had been a waste of time; but that didn't mean I didn't have to listen to the recording, anyway.

I got in the habit of carrying a digital recorder when they got to be cheaper than the mini tape recorder I had relied on in Cincinnati. It was just easier to record meetings and interviews and make little notes to myself along the way. No missed quotes, nothing taken out of context, nothing dependent on my sometimes inaccurate memory. When I forage, I use a small microphone clipped to my shirt and I walk around recording everything. Hours and hours of everything. After all, it's better to be over zealous than under prepared. Most of the time, people didn't even notice the microphone, though I made no attempt to hide it except to run the cord inside my shirt to avoid it getting caught on things. When they did I told them I had just gotten back from a meeting and that it wasn't even on. Maude warns me time and time again that I was going to get into trouble, recording people without their consent. “Who do you think you are?” she asks me. “James Bond?”

You know a woman loves you when she knows how to make concern sound like a caustic remark on your boyish fascinations.

I've started to think of what I do less as journalism and more like cultural anthropology. The things I write about remind me more of anthropological research, like this study I read in college about the Trobrianders in Papua New Guinea. Napoleon Chagnon writes up this study of a jungle tribal culture, focusing on the things they do every day. How they live, how they get food, what they believe in, how they die. Most of these studies make for boring reading – not that they're not important or whatever. But they can get dry. Clinical. Too much science and too little art. But Not Chagnon. There's this one part of his narrative where he describes when the tribe invited him to take part in one of their rituals: ingesting a hallucinogenic drug. There were only two problems. The first problem was that this drug is made from a plant, turned into a thick green paste, and ingested by having someone else blow it up your nose through a long bamboo tube. The other problem was that Chagnon had been getting into tangles with a Christian missionary that was trying to convert the heathen Yanomamo by drawing crayon pictures of dark skinned people falling into a fiery pit. Naturally, this approach pissed Chagnon off no end, as the other representative white man who was constantly having to explain to the natives that they were not, in fact, really going to fall into a fiery pit if their women didn't start wearing western style clothes. I mean, it's fucking ridiculous, no? Why is it that missionaries end up focusing on nudity and the English language instead of the state of people's souls? So while the anthropologist was in the midst of a massive sticky green hallucinogenic fueled trip, the missionary showed up with more clothes and English Bibles and crayola pictures of dark skinned people falling into fire. The missionary was, of course, horrified to see the only other white man in the jungle going native. But the anthropologist, in his narrative, goes into great description of the sensation of raising the middle finger of his right hand and flipping the missionary off.

That's where art meets science. But that's not really what I do, either. I haven't yet discovered the art in covering a room full of grown men and women who behave with less maturity than my teenage daughter.

I'm not young enough to assume I know everything and not old enough to realize that there's nothing worth knowing; there's so much I don't understand. I don't understand how Cincinnati sports teams defeat themselves in spite of colossal talent; I don't understand how George W. Bush won two elections; I don't understand people that think Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin qualify as MILF. And when it comes down to it, I still don't understand people, or why I always feel like I'm living in a fish bowl. There's this layer of something between me and other people, and it's always been this way. Maude tells me I just need to relax and show people that I'm really a nice guy. But she herself is proof that nice people get eaten alive, bit by bit. Her resilience is one of the best things about her – but still. She spends a lot time being let down by people rather than accepting the fact that they can't live up to a standard they don't understand.

For my part, I want to understand them. Other people. I don't like them very much most of the time, and for no particular reason. They just rub me the wrong way. All the time. Maude tells me I'm disgruntled. Hell yes. Maybe if I were more pragmatic, I'd be less annoyed. But think of myself as a hold out – a bitter idealist. And that means, in order to hate more effectively, I need to understand why. So I record people without them knowing about it.

I arrived at Moose Head in plenty of time for the daily lunch session of the Mount Arliss 9. Chris Wokowski, the County Recorder and ninth member, ate his lunch there every day with eight other people whose thoughts, beliefs opinions more or less represented the heart and soul of the town. Buck Harrington was a farmer whose family owned a fair piece of the county and what his family didn't own they leased and worked. Darnell Smith worked for the Highway Department. Gary Trudell owned the local grocery store. Don Parton was a farmer, one of the few who didn't lease his land to Harrington (though it was something Harrington himself hoped would happen one of these days). George was a retired mill worker. Chuck Lauserman was a part time policeman and full-time asshole who's wife worked in the county courthouse. Tom Pruitt was the local head stone mason, and Phillip Stauggersaun made his money selling most of the buildings on Main Street when real estate was good and now spent his time hunting and playing with his investment portfolio. It would be unfair to say that Wokowski owed his election to the other eight; but it would be closer to a statement of fact. Other than Harrington and Stauggersaun, who are small town rich and county affluent enough to throw some patronage Wokowski's way, the rest of the 9 are simply situated about town so that their influence can be felt if not seen. Parton is a member of the NRA and President of the area chapter of the John Birch Society; Smith was Deacon and Treasurer of the Lutheran Church. George is tight with the WFW and the Carpenter's Union, and Lauserman, is well respected in the FOP and a leading deacon at the Methodist church. Pruitt doesn't do anything except cut head stones for cemeteries, but he has been known to take a reduced rate for the grave headstones of beloved public figures.

And, of course, they were all born and raised in Mount Arliss – except Wokowski, who moved here when he was thirteen. But the others decided that it was close enough since he more or less agreed with anything they said.

When I arrived, Wokowski had just sat down and the rest of them were eating their lunches... daily specials all around. Coletta was working the bar. She's the owner's daughter.

“What'll it be today?”

“It's cold today,” I said. “Scotch.”
Coletta doesn't bat an eye when I show up at the bar at noon and ask for a scotch. I think I've been the only reason she's had to keep buying it. Mount Arliss is a Busch Light kind of town, with a few of the old guys who like Crown Royal and one or two who insists on gin. But mostly it's beer. I can feel the eyes of a few of the 9 boring holes in my back. Don Parton's in particular. He sniffed me out as an intelligent and reasonable person fairly early on … which of course means that he has no use for me. Coletta brought my scotch and picked up the money I set on the counter.

“So,” she asked, walking back towards the cash register. “What're you working on this week?”

“Same old stuff. What doya hear?”

“Not a thing.”

Coletta, like most of the stalwart residents of Arliss County, have an insatiable hunger for gossip and like to know the inside scoop of everything that goes on; and they will, on occasion, drop a tidbit that might turn into a little scratch. But most of them will do anything short of homicide to avoid having their name mentioned in the paper. Having your name in the paper – except for a thoughtful and loving obituary – is more embarrassing than being caught walking down Main Street with no pants. We exchanged a few more pleasantries and then she went back to the kitchen to check on Wokowski's lunch. The conversation behind me was pretty much the same old thing. The bad economy. Obamacare. Meaningless calls for another revolution. A rehash of Fox News updates.

“One of these days,” Parton intoned with a dramatic foreboding that I had become used to, “one of these days people are gonna wake up and see that people like US have been right all along.”

“Yep.” George shook his head in agreement.

“We got a goddamn socialist in the white house,” Parton went on, “we got pussies in Congress ...” he looked around to make sure Coletta was out of ear shot; he was, after all, a chivalrous moron. “we got illegals invading from across the border.”

“And they're taking AMERICAN jobs away from AMERICANS,” Darnell added.

“And they're all rapists and criminals and drug dealers,” Pruitt said.

“And what're we DOIN' about any of it?” Parton demanded.

“Not a damn thing,” Harrington answered.

“Nothing,” Lauserman said.

“You know it,” Stauggersaun echoed.

Wokowski just nodded in agreement and said nothing at all.

I downed my scotch and waited for Coletta to come back so I could have another. They weren't bitching about anything new.

“And what's worse,” Parton went on, “is that they come here and take job and they still don't want to better themselves. They live like goddamn cockroaches, they leach off the American tax payer ...”

“And then they whine and say their RIGHTS are being attacked when they're caught,” Wokowski chimed in.
Listening to the 9 talk about border policy is like sitting through bad karaoke. Nothing new, but still, you can't ignore them for all the passion they put into it. Coletta brought out Wokowski's plate, refilled the table's drinks; then she came back to the bar and refilled my glass with ice and scotch. We chat some more. The 9 are stuck on border policy and the impending doom that's being brought upon the country by the brown demons flooding over the border.

“And you know WHY they think they can come here and suck on America's Tit?” Harrington always has a way with words. Or so he likes to think.

“We should get a different opinion,” Parton proclaims, raising his hand. I knew what was coming because I felt his eyes, which had drifted from the back of my head to the plate in front of him,drift back and focus on the back of my head again like a rifle sight.

30 November, 2010

Excerpt from In Season: A Sense of Community

Walking home from the bar, two things invariably cross my mind: stars and sidewalks. One of things I was looking forward to when Maude and I moved to “the country” was being able to look up at the night sky and see stars for the first time in nearly a decade. We’d both grown up in the country – different parts of the country from northwest Illinois, the place we now referred to as home – and we had both missed it. Or maybe it was the idea of it. Clean air, small townie people, simple lives. It had been more than ten years for me. A decade plus of neon lights. Neon lights that wiped out the stars, cement that erased the landscape. Real cities, too; not those half-assed Midwestern city stand-ins where the streets mysteriously roll up after dark and there’s nothing to see or be afraid of in the shadows left by the illumination of street lights. Real cities – where the only interesting people are the ones who crawl out after the sun goes down, where the dirt and the grime and the stench are hiding some deep dark secret that’s worth knowing if you take risk. Real cities where you can sleep all day or not at all … though to sleep at all is to miss something. Something important. Sleep is for the lazy, the disinterested. Sleep is wasted time. Sleep means you’re not earning money to pay taxes and buy shit you don’t need; sleep means you’re not hanging out in bars or in clubs trying to obliterate those parts of the day – the majority of the day – that’s tedious and dull and insulting and debilitating; sleep means you’re not drinking or smoking or fucking. And to help us a long in our quest to work our ways into forgetfulness and a stress free retirement, cities provide neon lights. Neon lights that blot out the stars and allow us to lie to our bodies when they tell our brains we need sleep. Neon lights that allow us to believe that time is expansive and stretched out in front of our feet like a giant plush carpet, ready to get trampled, that allow us to convince ourselves that there are more secrets to be discovered, more money to earn, more movies to watch, more food to eat, more shoes to buy, more people to fuck.

But in the country, there are no neon lights. Even the street lamps are a little dimmer. I don’t know why. I don’t know if they buy cheaper bulbs or if the fixtures are just older and close to wearing out. I wonder sometimes if the people who manufacture bulbs for street lights make them in two kinds: city and small town. Which would end up costing more? Logically, city bulbs would cost more; better illumination, bigger budgets. But that’s not how economics works. The price index is determined not by who can afford things, but by who can’t. Those with the inability to pay are charged more for an inferior product that always has a FOR SALE sticker on it. And since small towns have smaller budgets and shrinking tax bases, I’d put my money on small town street light bulbs having the bigger price tag.

But fewer, less illuminating street lamps mean that the stars have one less layer of static to push through in order to be noticed. There’s still pollution, of course. All human life breeds pollution faster than it breeds more people. But there’s not as much mucky muck for the fading star to filter through.

When I was a kid, I used to know some of the constellations by sight and by season. I don’t know why I knew those things or what exactly made me decide to acquire that knowledge. I remember being told in Mrs. Ramey’s 5th grade Science class that the stars we see aren’t really stars, just the residue of light traveling through the universe. By the time the light reaches earth, the star is long dead. Burned out. Gone, but still beautiful.

The problem with being drunk and walking home and thinking about the stars is that while I’m looking up at the sky, I’m not really watching what my feet are doing. I have untrustworthy feet. Sometimes they take me places I never intended to go; many times they simply trip me up. Over the years, I’ve learned how to fall so that the impact doesn’t hurt as much; not as much, but it still hurts. Parking lots, crosswalks at busy intersections, well-manicured parks, mole hole besieged back yards, and uneven sidewalks – I’ve fallen on them all. I’ve fallen up and down flights of stairs. The trick is to go limp before and protect your head and face as much as possible. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

“So… where are WE heading tonight?”

My focus between the early spring stars above and the crumbling, piss poor sidewalks under my feet was interrupted by what had become a familiar voice. “Hello, Erle.”

“That’s deputy to you.”

There are generally two kinds of cops. There are cops who end up going to law school and cops who become cops in order to continue a lifelong pattern of abuse, bullying and intimidation. The first kind don’t stay in law enforcement for any longer than it takes them to get through night school. They get out of law enforcement for any number of reasons, none of which really matter. Sometimes they want to make more money and there just aren’t the opportunities to be a crooked cop like there used to be. Sometimes they’re worried about getting shot. Occasionally, they see the flaws in the system and are still optimistic enough to believe they can change it while charging $200 + an hour. This first type makes up a small number of the whole total, however.

The second type – which make up the majority – were those guys in school who punched you to see if you’d cry and if you DID cry, they’d punch you even harder. They were the guys who saw dodge ball as an excuse to bean you in the head and who always managed to turn a seemingly benign game of soccer into Extreme Dodge Ball because the cross hatch design on a soccer ball made for a more interesting welt. They were the jerks that always took out the prettiest girls – because the girls had learned at an early age to fall for bullies and jerks out of some misdirected belief that love will change them. Sometimes these guys went into the military. Sometimes they went to college. But they always end up being cops because they lacked the natural skill to be professional athletes and the basic IQ to do anything else.

Erle Scrogins was neither of those. He was one of the rare third kind. Erle became a cop because he suffered mercilessly at the hands of bullies his entire childhood. He lack the athletic prowess or street sense to defend himself. He wasn’t smart enough to be brainy. He saw that the bullies got all the respect and all the pretty girls, and he wanted them too. So he started copying the behavior in an attempt to win the favors of the real bullies as well as the girls. But that never really worked, either, and when he saw that people tend to respect the badge regardless of who wears it, he decided to put one on.

I’d only known one other cop that fit into this category. My ex-wife’s fourth husband. He was an Army MP, and a Class-A pig fucker. He was also as tall as a slightly abnormal leprechaun. Erle was on the short side, too. Guys like Erle usually end up being prison guards or mall security. But for Erle, there was no mall and the prison had closed more than ten years ago. Being a small town deputy was the only way, short of moving. And Erle would probably never move because all the people he wanted to impress still lived in the town he had grown up in. Besides, he was too scared of all the things he didn’t know to ever move more than two streets away from his parents’ house.
“Just on my way home,” I answered.
“Where you comin’ from?”
Are you serious? “You know where I came from. You were sitting across the street when I came out.” I nodded behind me to the Moose Head , one of the only two bars in town, and the one I tended to patronize the most. It was almost always deserted that time of night, which made it easier to drink in peace and get out of the house at the same time. Most everyone in town was an early to bed early to rise type. They were farmers, crew workers. Salt of the Earth types. Self-styled. Nearly all of them were older than me or Maude. Most were more than twice my age. Except for a few. Like Erle.

“Where's your car?”

“You know I don't drive home from the bar.” He couldn't even go with a new tact. Erle knew I didn't drive because he harassed me at least once a week... usually the day the paper came out. He didn't have any other reason to lean on me; but he had made a point of inconveniencing me as much as possible ever since I wrote an article about how the Mount Arliss Police Department was so poor they couldn't afford bullets. According to several people, including Erle, the mayor, the Chief of Police, one baptist minster and other concerned citizens, all of whom had declined to be quoted – except Erle – my article made the police department look “like a bunch of ineffective Barney Fifes.” That particular quote came from one of the several letters my editor Sam received in response. I know there were several letters because Same showed me each and everyone of them. Only one of them made an Don Knotts reference; but they all had one thing in common. Each letter began with the sentence “I do not authorize you to publish my letter in your publication.” Cowards, all of them. Sam showed me the letters as a way to encourage me, I think. He and I both tend to take the position that you're not fixing anything unless you're pissing people off and causing trouble. A few of the letters could have been construed as threats. But I wasn't all that concerned.

Erle never forgave me for the article or for quoting him for saying that he'd be in “real trouble” if he ever had to actually pull his side arm on more than one suspect because he only had one bullet. Part of the reason he never forgave me was that the quote got him in trouble – which was why he was pulling night shift in a town that usually rolls up Main Street at 6pm. The other reason he was pissed off at me was that he knew that while he was harassing me, Police Chief Dolarhyde was at that very moment at Erle's house in bed with Erle's wife, Eileen.

“That don't mean you're not drunk.”

Funny, I thought. I sort of thought that was the point. “Can't you scrape up any real criminals to bother?” I asked. “Isn't there some meth lab hidden in the middle of a corn field somewhere that you can go set fire to?” I was going to stop there, but I was doing so well. “I'd have thought there were meth dealers on every corner the way Dolarhyde describes it.” The chief of police didn't give me interviews, not since the bullet article. But he still talked to Sherri at the Mount Arliss Examiner. Of all the the papers in the area, they were Sam's biggest competition. I had applied for a job there, but Bill Watson was looking for somebody who could write and sell ads. I knew better than to think I had the temperament to sell anybody anything. Combining the writer and ad rep positions was the only way Bill could make it a full-time position; but I wasn't all that interested in being a full-time anything. Besides, selling ads is incongruous with journalism... even the small town variety. Sales is a smile and a handshake wash my back and I'll wash yours kind of gig. That's not my style. Sherri is a good at her job because she's a serviceable writer and a pleasant person, and the crusty old bastards in town have no choice but to be polite to her. She's smart because she uses their chauvinism to her advantage. Of course, she used to give me the stink eye whenever we crossed paths at meetings; I think she was under the impression that I had my sights set on her job. Eventually she must've figured out that I have no such ambitions, because we're more or less polite with one another these days.

If it wasn't the bullet article that made Dolarhyde run to Sherri and the Examiner, it was probably the fact that I would've asked him how he felt about the increase in DUI related traffic stops since he took office – especially since he was part owner of the only other bar in town, Bausenforfer's. That was where the younger set went to get drunk, fuck in the back of pick-up trucks, and play out small dramas fueled by cheap beer and schnapps. Dolarhyde sells the booze out of one hand and with the other reaps the benefits – a new squad car, for one, which was bought with proceeds from DUI fines and property seizures. Dolarhyde seemed to be good for a few things that made for a police chief – he was good at looking like he was cracking down, and good at skimming money. I had heard that he was working with the County Sheriff to shave money from prisoner commissary accounts – the money inmates have to buy bubble gum and cigarettes – to help offset the cost of their incarceration. Of course, that means he's pocketing a percentage. But I couldn't get anybody to go on record.

“OH,” Erle straightened his back and leaned in like he was ready to pounce. “You think the law's a BOTHER?”

Yes. “That's not what I said, Erle.”



That made him smile. “And just what were you saying?” He asked. “I wouldn't want to MISQUOTE you.”

Fucker. “You asked me if I was driving,” I answered, lighting a cigarette. “I'm not driving. I'm walking home. I'd RATHER be be driving, because it's too god damn cold to be walking. But I AM walking. I'm walking the way I'm always walking home from the Moose Head.” I'm walking the way I'm always walking when you stop me for no reason.

It's important to keep track of what cops say; one of the little tests they use to decide if you're drunk is to talk in circles and see if you can keep up or if you're easily confused. Beating this test is easier than beating a breathalyzer, and it's generally the first one they use to decide if they want to bother with making you blow and subjecting you to a road side sobriety test that most people can't pass sober unless their professional athletes. If you're smart and you pay attention, the talking test is the easiest thing in the world to walk away from. If you're smart. Keep in mind, this is not an objective test. It's specifically allowed as evidence in front of a judge; but it does fall under “officer's discretion” and is often written into the report as “Accused seemed disorientated and confused.” This tactic – making you sound like you have Alzheimers instead of a liver full of booze – is one of the unofficial perks of carrying a badge and a gun. Because that badge and gun aren't mere symbols of presumed authority and power. They are a license to fuck with people and get off on it.

“That's not what I said, Rafferty.” He used my name. That meant he probably thought he was close to hauling me in. I haven't yet had the privledge of seeing the inside of the Arliss County jail and I wasn't about to make that night my first. I'd sit until arraignment next Monday because we didn't have the money for Maude to come down and post bail. I has also developed the impression that Erle, Dolarhyde, and maybe even the Sheriff were just waiting to get me in there. In my few and far between interactions with Police Chief Alvin Dolarhyde, I got the impression that he was the sort of cop that kept drugs on hand to frame prisoners – the kind that would stab himself in the arm to justify a midnight escape/ self-defense shooting. Dolarhyde was a Class A Fucker; and that made him a Mount Arliss bad ass. Erle was nowhere near that; but he still tried to toss his shriveled little balls around.

“You asked me where my car was,” I answered. “You implied that I was going to drive drunk.”

“So... you ARE drunk?”

Yes. But it's fading fast. “Now I think YOU'RE the one not hearing things, Erle. You wouldn't have worried about me driving if you didn't get it into your head that you think I'm drunk.” Choose your words carefully
He sneered. “You think you're so SMART, dontcha?”

“Yes. I also know I'm able to walk home without hurting anybody.”

“I could make you blow. You'd probably fail.”

I wanted to respond with something like “Sorry, you're not my type.” But that would give Erle the extreme homophobe just the excuse he was looking for. I'd get run in, probably lose a few teeth, and end up with the only bull queer rapist in Arliss County as a cell mate.

“If you really thought I was drunk, DEPUTY” I said very carefully, smoking my cigarette and trying to remain calm, “you'd already have hauled me in.” I used to know this chick who was into tarot cards and far eastern chants who told me I needed to stay more centered. At peace. She told me I was too angry and that I drank to avoid dealing with the things that made me so angry. She was always telling me to close my eyes and focus on the quiet center of my body. She would say these things right before she went down on me. I didn't know if she was trying to help me become a better person or if she was just getting herself in the mood. I guess it worked. Not that I ever bought into that grocery store check out line brand of new age pop spirituality. But she gave phenomenal head.

“I could just haul you in on suspicion,” he spat.

I was winning. “Of what?”

“Maybe you look like you're buying dope. Maybe you look like you're going to steal a car. And there's always PDI.”

“PDI?” I didn't bother to answer the other things. “Public Intoxication? That's the best you can come up with?”

I couldn't tell if he noticed the sarcasm or not. That's one of the things that tends to get lost in translation around here. Sarcasm. I don't know if they don't recognize it or they simply don't know how to respond to it. Maybe it's a matter of appreciation, like art. I hadn't meant for it to slip out; but it had … like art. I waited and locked eyes with him. It was down to the struggle of wills, now. Tug of war. If I slipped even a little, he'd click the cuffs on my and shove me into the back of his worn out cruiser. All I really wanted to do was go home and slip into bed next to Maude. I suppose I could placate what was left of his ego and get away with a hollow warning for whatever it was that he wanted to pin on me. I could call him sir or something. I mean, it wasn't like I didn't like him. I did, sort of. I just didn't have any respect for him. And it had nothing to do with him being a cop, or with (apparently) being okay about his boss boning his high school sweetheart. There was something else about him. Something not right. Not dangerous, exactly. Not a victim of circumstance. A victim of himself.

I could hear Maude's voice in my head. It was telling me to placate the bastard so I could go home. Her voice is telling me that I'm being to damn stubborn for my own good. She tells me that a lot. She's not wrong.
After a few stretched out seconds of staring at one another he points at my cigarette. “What's that you're smoking, Rafferty?”

“It's a cigarette.”

“It don't look like a cigarette.”

The hell it doesn't. I roll my own because I want to actually taste the tobacco I smoke. I use pipe shag instead of the usual Bugler or loose leaf tobacco. Erle knows this. He's about to give up, but he wants to see if he can scare me just a little before he lets me go.

“You know I roll my own,” I said. And even if he didn't know, I know how to roll them. It doesn't look like a joint. Even when I smoked weed I never rolled it to look like a joint. A badly rolled joint … or a badly rolled cigarette … looks like a long bird turd. Who wants to smoke that?

“Fine.” He sighed and broke the staring contest. “Go home. But you better...”

“... be careful.” I finished the sentence. The bitter look on Erle's face told me I should've maybe not done that. I waited for him to grab me. He didn't. He turned, walked back around to the driver side of his cruiser, got in, and squealed away.

The son of a bitch didn't haul me in. But he did steal my buzz.