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.


The Bowling Alley Kaffeeklatsch

Everything is too shiny and too new
so the old women huddled at the corner table stand out
in the way all tedious and determined old women
stand out – they have long accepted
the disappearance of youth and power.
But still they linger here
in a town whose borders have not changed
though they have watched their own
gradually sag and wither away, bits and pieces
of body and memory blowing away
in a cold November wind
that seems colder by comparison
than the ones they lived through
when their backs were straight
and their eyes were clear
and the faces of the other women around them
looked forward to the unknown adventure of a long life
instead of the cold solace that a grandchild has promised
to bring fresh flowers to her grave each Spring
and that the picture the newspaper will use
to announce her obituary is one in which
her hair looks nice and one she remembered
to put her teeth in for.

23 November, 2010

Quote From IN SEASON ... a novel in progress

"I've started to think of what I do less as journalism and more like anthropological research. 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 are fuckable. 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."  -- JJ Rafferty

20 November, 2010

18 November, 2010

Excerpt from In Season: Nada

A hangover is your body's way of telling you that sobriety is overrated.

“Are you fragile this morning?”

“A little.” Fragile is my polite term for being hungover; I'm not sure why I still bother with the distinction. Ten years ago, it made a difference. Hungover meant I wasn't making it to work and farthest I'd move from where ever I ended up sleeping the night before was maybe to the bathroom to hurl. Fragile meant that I pretty much felt like crawling back into bed and dying, but that I'd make it to work anyway. Maude, much to her credit, mostly allows me my little word play... though mostly it's out of habit than out of any agreement about the meaning of things on her part.

“What do you have going on today?”

“The usual. You?”

She sighed instead of articulating an answer. That meant she was in for a long day. I was trying to remember; she'd told me a few days before what she had going on; she'd told me a couple different times, though it was in passing and sometimes mumbled under her breath like a long string of curse words. She'd been in one of those moods where she didn't like her job. I had every hope that the mood would pass, though not out of any attachment I'd developed to Mount Arliss. It was a place, like every other place, and we'd ended up here for the same reasons we ended up in Knoxville, Cincinnati, and Phoenix. A job was our usual excuse. Mostly, we moved because none of the places we lived ever really felt like home. To be fair, I expect that we both have unrealistic expectations of what home should feel like. We both want home to feel the way we think it ought to feel rather than taking it for what really is. Home is the place you never get lost driving around in. Home becomes home not out of some abstract sense of community but out of lethargy. Home is the place you're too lazy to leave and too bored to forget even if you do happen to get out.

The job that brought us to Mount Arliss was hers. Phoenix was my fault, so I told her our next move was on her. I'd landed a job – a full time one, as improbably as that sounds – because I'd been writing for this low circulation arts and culture rag in Cincinnati and one of my articles --- about the visit of a famous author at the University – had gotten someone's attention while they were surfing the internet instead of working. I ended up never getting paid for the article because shortly after its publication the rag closed up and the publisher ran off to find god in some Hindu monastery in India. I got an email from him about a year later – it was a group email and I was one of at least 100 other people that he most likely owed money to – wishing me well and thanking me for helping him on the path to enlightenment.

I tried to email him back to tell him he could thank me by paying my the $45 he owed me. The email failed to send and was bounced back to me three days later. I guess you can say I took that as a sign.

About a week after the article was published and two weeks prior to the rag's unceremonious implosion, I got a call from an arts and culture editor for a small paper in West Phoenix. His name was Carl Berger. Carl, like so many editors with more ambition than talent, had taken the job as editor of a small paper that barely survived in the long shadow cast by The Arizona Republic. Carl was desperate for good talent, he told me, and wanted to know if I'd be interested in coming out and writing for him. He read my article and liked the way I wrote and said I'd make a great addition to The East Valley Bugle. He was honest about it not paying much, which I appreciated. But he added that there were advantages to having a press pass and to moving out to desert on the wave the giant real estate driven economic boom.

“You've LOVE it out here,” he said. He spoke very fast and tried very hard to avoid answering my questions about just how “not great” the pay was.

“How much are they paying you there?” he asked.

“They're not.”

“Well,” he said, “we can definitely pay more than that.”

I talked it over with Maude. We were both wanting to get out of Cincinnati. She was working as a scullery maid for a posh downtown restaurant, scrubbing dishes and throwing away the thrown away food of Cincinnati's upper crust and spending nights and weekends working with local independent theater companies that were too poor to pay and too avante garde to attract more than a small following. I was hiring out my keyboard to anybody who might look like it was possible they would pay. It wasn't going well. We were college educated, debt laden. Her family thought I was a hopeless reprobate who didn't want an honest job. My family thought I was causing my poor wife – who they love, probably more than they love me – endless suffering because I was unwilling to grow up and settle down and get the kind of job that mothers and fathers wish for. Like a lawyer. My mother – a good, honest protestant soul and kindergarten teacher – always wanted me to be a lawyer. Not because she liked them. No. She wanted me to study law because it is in my nature to argue. I argue even when I'm not in the mood for it. I argue in spite of any evidence that I'm wrong. I argue for the sheer pleasure of watching someone else grind their teeth in frustration. And the way she figured it, a person should get paid for doing something that comes naturally. 

My dad never voiced an opinion on the subject of my future vocation, except to say that I should choose something reasonable. When I wanted to be a rock star-- and truly my ambitions exceeded my talent, but no one could tell me that – he said nothing and frowned. When I told him I wanted to be a writer – where my ambitions were unreasonable, but I had shown some small skill – he recommended an easy day job so that I could have my nights to write. After college, of course. My old man had been a smart ass kid who dropped out of high school because the principal caught him smoking behind the building and rather than listen my dad told the geezer – he never referred to the principal as a geezer, but I like to think he still thought of him that way, even as he tried to use his own life as an object lesson for his youngest son – to fuck off. Then he joined the Navy and discovered that there was more to being a man than pissing while standing. And when he was finished with the Navy, he joined the Air Force because the food was better and bases were nicer than Army bases. He wanted me to go to college so I would have an easier life than his. My mother, who eventually returned to college to become a kindergarten teacher, wanted me to go to college because she wished she had gone when she was younger.
So I probably became a writer as much because of spite as because of natural aptitude. And when I was offered an actual job – a FULL TIME job – writing, it was a nice way to win the argument I'd been engaged in since the age of 15. An argument that outlasted my dad, my first marriage, and several years of lost, drunken reverie.

As far as I know, my mother still holds out hope that I'll go to law school. But she doesn't talk about it anymore.

So there was every reason to go and not really any to stay. I called Carl back the next day to make arrangements.

“I'll get reimbursed for moving, right?” I asked him several different times in several different ways. “Yeah, man, Yeah,” he said. “It'll be awesome when you're out here! You'll love it!”

I didn't like that I could hear the exclamation marks in his voice. And when we got out there, I found out there was good reason. The editor-in-chief wasn't exactly behind Carl hiring me. The editor-in-chief was a member in good standing of the Maricopa County Republicans, the NRA, and contributed regularly to the campaigns of the jack-booted county sheriff. Art for him was a warbly and out of tune church choir. Culture was something that liberals talked about. It didn't take him long to see that he and I had very little in common. Compared to him, Sam is a goddamn editorial saint, and I try to remind myself of that whenever he cuts up what I send him. The job at the East Valley Bugle was a miserable one and I stuck at it for as long as I could. But eventually the economic wave that brought me there broke. It broke, the paper was broke, Carl ran crying like a burned out hippie to Flagstaff, and I was shit out of luck.

Maude's job landed in her lap serendipitously. We were sitting around talking about getting out of the East Valley and the phone rang. Her friend Ferdinand called because the Managing Director position opened up at a theater company he was the Artistic Director for. It was a perfect job at a perfect time. She applied, interviewed, and was offered the job in less than two weeks. It took us less than that to get ready to go.
The problem was that there is very little to do in Mount Arliss that didn't involve corn, the production of corn, or discussing the future of corn. That corn is in virtually everything doesn't seem to change the fact that corn growers feel abused, neglected, and back stabbed by the entire world. Seriously. Every garbage bag, every car tire, every bottle of diet coke they buy at the corner gas station, they are all made of corn. Corn is in food that should have no business having corn in it. Fruit juice, for fuck's sake. Fruit juice has corn in it. Steak has corn in it because the cow was fed corn. So were the chickens that used to be attached to every drumstick in the refrigerated poultry case.

Of course none of that matters; the farmers still know they're being screwed over. And up to a point, they're not wrong. But the fact is that farmers are just one more segment of the population that gets the shaft. Not to minimize the importance of corn or of the suffering family farmer … but that's one of those myths best left to commercials. The family farmer, I mean. Yes there are still family farms, but mostly the families live in the houses and lease the acreage out to somebody who leases farm land all over the county. I'm talking thousands and thousands of acres, because that's the only way to break even if you're a farmer in America's Breadbasket.

“So what have you got going on today?” Maude usually only asks me questions twice when she thinks I'm too hungover to remember the first time. I have learned not to take this personally. I know that I never look like I'm paying attention, or that I'm thinking, or feeling. Which is funny because I think I'm the most obvious person in the world.

I didn't have much of anything. My trip to the bar the night before netted me nothing except the usual stuff. Nothing new. Nothing that Sam would think was timely enough to put in the paper. Nothing that I could convince myself was worth spending the time on. Nothing. Nada. Nothing worth digging deeper into and turning into something that paid at least $50. That would make for another long and desperate day.  

11 November, 2010

Excerpt from In Season: The Nuclear Option

Between the scratch I bring in and her salary, we can get by about as well as we've ever gotten by. Catching up is a distant dream, and one that I don't think about very often. Too depressing. Maude thinks about it a lot; she has her third eye focused on that ethereal moment you see in stock broker commercials during the Sunday morning talk shows. Lately I've begun to feel like I'm letting her down. She hasn't said anything like that; but the weight is still there, bearing down on us both. I'm starting to wonder about her old age, how she'll live, how we'll get by. I don't worry about myself so much because I figure I'll keep going until I collapse on the street; maybe still writing about chili cook offs, maybe mumbling to myself and scribbling odd two line poems on the back of fast food wrappers. And I'm really okay with that … for me. But Maude deserves more. It's just difficult for me to see that far forward.

When I don't have anything on the burner to write about, that means foraging: which is by far the most meaningful part of my job. I think of it as loafing with purpose. That means I hang around looking useless, eavesdrop on conversations, pay attention to local gossip. One of the problems with being a small town freelance hack is that most of the news isn't really new. Everybody knows what's going on before the paper even comes out on Wednesday; so it's not really a matter of informing people as much as confirming what they've already heard. This frustrated me, initially. But once I realized that I was under no real obligation to inform anybody of anything, I was free to write about whatever I could find that was timely and interesting. The highest hope I have is that I can at least dispel the inevitable hearsay that's a part of every well-established ear-to-ear gossip network. This may not be the kind of illumination I always looked for in poetry; but it's something.

Then I figured out that no one really read the paper except to get the high school football, basketball (boys) and baseball scores.

But in a way it was also a liberating experience to realize that regardless of whatever got printed in the paper from one week to the next, people most likely choose to believe the shit they overheard in the line at Blaine's Farm and Fleet instead of anything I carefully researched. Then I came to understand that the issue was not that I wrote it as a member of “the liberal media”, or that it was too honest, or even that they saw my articles as an out and out lie. The major hurtling point was that I actually took the time to research it instead of just talking to the Pharmacist or getting my facts from the grizzly old bastards who ate lunch every week day at the Moose Head. They sat around this one large round table, where they were often joined by the County Clerk – who had the clarity of mind to get most of his opinions and at least half of his ideas from the eight men sitting at that table – and called themselves the Round Table. Most of them were round, too... though that had less to do with the table and more to do with a diet consisting of fried food, salt, and shit beer. They meet each work day at noon for the lunch hour, order whatever the special is for that day (Monday Chili and Fritos, Tuesday Tacos, Wednesday Open-Faced Pork, Thursday Pizza Burgers, Friday Fried Fish Sandwich) and solve all the world's problems. They loved politics and especially loved that each of them agreed with one another on three basic tenets:
  1. Country life is the only way God intended man to life;
  2. Cities are bad, and only made worse by all the blacks and illegal Mexican immigrants living there; and
  3. The only thing worse than blacks or Mexicans is a democrat.
Their solutions for all the world's problems: war, poverty, the national debt, the educational crisis, gun control, or anything else not listed, were as uncomplicated as they were predictable:
  1. Shoot the democrats;
  2. Shoot the blacks and Mexicans; and
  3. Shoot anybody that didn't look like they belonged there.
As a matter of fact, they often sat and talked about the advantages of full scale nuclear war, which they saw as the sum total solution to all the world's problems:
  1. All of America's enemies would be destroyed.
  2. Most of the cities and tainted horrible people in them would die. And
  3. The ones who didn't die right off would eventually because they didn't grow up in the country and didn't know how to take care of themselves. Plus, they'd be deformed and if they wandered into town, they'd be easy to spot.
It took them the entire hour to actually say these things. Or things suspiciously similar.

Not much going on, and I still had some cash and nothing to do. It was important that I be productive, that whatever I do that day in some way relate to getting paid; I decided last night that I would get work done, no matter what.

It's harder than people think... not working. You drop a enough points below the poverty line and you have to be smart. Sneaky. Like being turn a few pennies into a hamburger. Or being able to turn the money for one scotch on the rocks into several cocktails and maybe a beer or two. It requires finesse. And if I was careful, I might be able to extend my scotch and get a story or two for the week, and earn a little scratch.

That, I told myself, was all I really expected from a good day. That, and a night of restful sleep.

But I have to get through today first. And then... we'll see what happens.

09 November, 2010

Essay: Of Love and Football

I can't believe you did this to me, she said.

My wife and I sat through the last quarter of the Steelers/Bengals game feeling the same hope and excitement mixed with shame, anguish, and disappointment that seems all too familiar to the Bengals Nation. My wife, like every dedicated fan, has her list of people to blame; we talk about it. Sometimes it's the Bengals' cadre of wide receiver divas. Sometimes Carson is still playing like he's worried about being hit. Sometimes the offensive line plays like they're working for the other team. Sometimes the defense plays like they haven't been playing football since they were old enough to support a helmet and shoulder pads. This year, and part of last year, our post-game conversations have focused on the half-life that is Marvin Lewis's career in Cincinnati.

Without reservation, I blame Mike Brown. I always blame Mike Brown.

He tinkers with the team the way I tinker with my chili recipe – except my results get better over time. Mike Brown suffers from the same delusion that another micro-managing football team owner – one Jerry Jones, owner and GM of the Dallas Cowpokers – suffers from. Each of them had one idea that worked once upon a time; and now they believe they are football geniuses. Jones gave us professional cheerleaders – though, as my friend and fellow scribbler Jose recently pointed out to me over Facebook, knowing that guys who watch football will also watch hot chicks in skimpy uniforms isn't really an inspired idea; it's more like common sense.

And for those of you who don't know or remember, Mike Brown's one good idea was to start the Bengals franchise in Cincinnati. It was, I admit, an inspired idea, and one that I am bound to be grateful for. If little Mikey Brown hadn't gone to Daddy Paul and whispered the name “Cincinnati,” the Bengals might have been playing in thrown away Browns' uniforms in some other city – which means that my Dad, who was content to live in Florida until he heard that Cincinnati was getting a professional football team, would have never moved home and married my mom. But one good idea – and a business idea at that – in no way qualifies him to micro-manage. Mike Brown is the brain behind the stadium deal that nearly soured the team's relationship with the city – a relationship salvaged by Marvin Lewis and the no huddle offense. Mike Brown has narrowly avoided being run out of town by the grace of a once solid defense and the fact that other than people he's related to or people he pays, Mike Brown doesn't have any people physically close enough to actually lay a hand on him. He lives in a germ free bubble at some undisclosed location in Indian Hills (where the Nati Affluent guard themselves from the hordes of rednecks and displaced downtown blacks that have the audacity to question terms like “gentrification.”) and only speaks through coded transmissions from a ticker-tape machine.

And while the season isn't over yet, any chance of a post-season appearance is as dead as the fish that get washed ashore from the Ohio River. Last night's edition of the Cincinnati/Pittsburgh grudge match had all the elements I have come to expect; I liken it to Greek Tragedy. Think Oedipus Rex. No, the Bengals didn't fuck their own mothers; but they sure as hell set themselves up for doom, failure, and to wander around blindly. For the next 8 weeks, at least.

The problems aren't new ones. People will talk about Carson's injury and wonder whether he'll ever really “get his swagger back.” Talking like that is about as idiotic as people talking about whether Obama “got it” from the recent mid-term election... only at least swagger is a bit more specific than “it.” When I was 13, “it” meant sex. And while I think Carson Palmer came back from that injury a different quarterback, his swagger isn't the entire issue. The real issue is that the Bengals organization has nearly worn him out, and the only real question I have is the same one that my wife posed last night: so if Carson Palmer were to leave Cincinnati, would his brother Jordan leave too?

I've also been wondering about Marvin's fate. I'd hate to see him go, but maybe it's time. If Marvin goes, though, then there's some other deadwood that needs to go, too:

  • Paul Alexander, Assistant and Offensive Line Coach: He's been a coach longer than any of his players have been playing the game, and has been in Cincinnati through several Head Coach changes. My only thought is that he must get on bended knee ever year and give Mike Brown one hell of a blow job … no small trick through a germ-free bubble. That's the only way I figure that he's been able to keep a coaching job.
  • Bob Bratkowski, Offensive Coordinator: This guy's Cincinnati career can be clocked with an egg timer. The fact is, he does have an eye for talent, but not an eye for stacking the offensive side of the ball to account for inevitable injuries. And his play calls are predictable. My wife pointed out several times during the game last night that if she could read what the Bengals offense is going to do, then the Steeler's defense must have precognitive knowledge of it.
  • Kyle Caskey, Offensive Quality Control: From what I can tell, this guy's a glorified intern. Unsure of what this position actually entails, I did what any dedicated researcher would do. I googled it. And according to the only source that sounded at all reasonable, Legion at finhaven.com posted in a forum two years ago that basically someone in Caskey's position prepares game film, gets the coffee, and has something to do with the scouting team. I guess Caskey's responsible for getting the hookers.

If it seems I'm picking on the offense... well, I am. The defense has problems, but it's player related. Injuries and inexperience have hurt us on both sides of the ball; but with the offense, it's rooted in a coaching structure that's become predictable.

The only way that the Bengals have ever had solid seasons is when they run the ball – which they haven't been able to do this year, in spite of having talent like Cedric Benson. Running Backs are always the most under-appreciated and most critical players on the offensive line. They carry the weight. But this year, with our dual divas, T.O. and Ocho, the offensive strategy has been to throw the ball. And while I will admit I was wrong about T.O. as a talent, I am sick and tired of all the Batman and Robin bullshit. And if something doesn't change, Ocho will get sick of it too. Last night he looked several times like he was suffering from ball envy. And Ocho doesn't like it when he can't show off. The only upside to a break up of the friendship between T.O. and Ocho is that there will be fewer reality tv shows to ignore. Play football, guys, if you want to play ball. If you want to have VH1 reality shows no one will watch, go with god and get out of the way.

When the game was over last night, my wife said the same thing to me she always says when they lose: I can't believe you did this to me. Her claim is that I somehow turned her into not only a football fan, but a Bengals fan. I did no such thing. I only wanted to be able to watch football in peace. The fact is, though, that if we were able to go to home games, she would be one of Those Fans – the face painting waving at the tv camera and trying to psyche out the visiting team kind of Fan. And I love her for that, among the many reasons I love her. I try and tell her that the years of frustration makes for a True Fan; if you can love your team after watching them self-destruct season after season, when the the golden years come – and they do – then you've earned the right to be as obnoxious as you want to be. And my wife, I can tell you, is no bandwagon fan. And while the rest of the season will drown in the rhetoric of trying to “end the season with their heads held high”, the Bengals will disappear from the conversation until next year's blooper reels. Maybe Caskey puts those together, too.

05 November, 2010

Excerpt from In Season: The Burn

I got into freelance writing because my dream job – if I've ever had one – disappeared. I used to tell people... including my high school guidance counselor Mrs. Glick … that I wanted to write for The World Weekly News. Bat Boy was my favorite item, a brilliant little ironic nugget I found buried in the black and white pages – pages that still had that ink smell newspapers used to have. The cover story about a toilet possessed by Satan was my second favorite. People underestimated the WWN because it looked like every other grocery line rag; but it wasn't. The other ones pretend – in a badly affected tongue-in-cheek kind of way – to be real news sources. They write about celebrity fat camps and California divas giving $5 blow job on Hollywood Boulevard to buy crystal meth. The WWN never had that kind of pretense, which is what made it brilliant. Fantastic stories with only a pinky toe hold in reality; and they all worked because the honesty of it all wasn't sidetracked by something as abstract and subjective as Truth. People who don't know any better, or people who are still naively optimistic, look for Truth. In absence of Truth … and it's always absent … they replace it with many little truths. Little puzzle pieces meant to make feel better and to justify what they think they already know. That's the problem with journalism today; it barters in what it considers The Truth, and leaves honesty by the side of the road. Bat Boy and the the possessed toilet spoke to something deeper in the human psyche, something more honest than “accidentally” released sex-tapes. Down deep we want our monsters to be soft and cuddly because really down deep we're still afraid of beasts under our beds and demons in our toilets. Urban legends about alligators in the sewers and snakes sneaking up sewage lines are some of the things that highlight who we are as scurrying bipedal critters under the sun. We can identify genomes, we can see atoms; we've mastered the art of mutually assured self-destruction and happiness in a pill. But we're still afraid of something crawling up the pipe and biting our nuts off.

The digital age and people's need for more objective-sounding lies killed The World Weekly News. And now all that's left is Rush Limbaugh, John Stewart, and a corporate owned media structure that looms over a dying small town press establishment.

Sam has problems. His biggest problem is that he actually cares. He and I don't agree on much, other than a few large and abstract principles; but I do think he cares. He cares so much that he makes deals on advertising and doesn't squawk when they don't pay on time or at all. He sees himself as anti-establishment, even though the conservative slant of the paper is more in tune with the general attitude of people around here than any of the other local rags. There are a few principles he will actually go to bat for; but like all small town newspaper publishers he will cede in the end to the will of his advertisers. Which is why he guts my articles down to unintelligible drivel, because unintelligible drivel will not, by it's nature, offend anyone's sensibilities. I tried to explain to Maude once why his linguistic clear cutting bothered me; her response was that there would always be somebody cutting my words because I would always have an editor. In other words, I should get used to it. Probably the reason why I'm still freelance – and why I have always been freelance – is that I don't handle editors or the editing process very well. It's not that I can handle criticism. I (mostly) ignore criticism. Editing is not the same as criticism. A critic will spout a thoughtless, pointless, gutless critique – like my Victorian Literature professor in college, Dr. Mortise. They'll go through with their red ink and redder eyes; but in the end, the work stands in spite of the deluge of bullshit. An editor has the god-like power to change the words themselves, to alter them in such a way that the message itself is alter, changed, or lost. Sam has the power to make me sound like not me at all.

This makes having to hustle a bit more complicated, because now I have to decide whether it's worth it to put my time and sweat into doing the footwork for an article that'll come under his editorial scalpel. But what other options do I have? Work at the DQ? Try and get a job bagging groceries at the IGA? We knew moving here that there would be nothing for me to do; that was part of the appeal. For me, anyway. At least life in Mount Arliss is cheap; of course that also means that the options are limited and what options there are – for entertainment, for food, for libation, for camaraderie – are also limited.

Halfway through my next cup of coffee I decide to take a shower and get started. It's after 10 in the morning. Most everyone in town is looking forward to lunch and I've barely moved. This is the story of my life. Starting later than everyone else and not nearly as motivated.

The shower feels nice, though. I always make the water hotter than it probably ought to be because that's the only way I feel clean. Maude makes fun of me, tells me I obsess about being clean. But I never really feel clean unless I'm just out of the shower or unless I'm halfway through a bottle of scotch. I switched from bourbon to scotch because Maude says bourbon brings out the redneck in me; she's the only one in a position to know, so I rely on her observations when I lack the proper context. Of course, like all criticism, I take her observations with a certain skepticism; but in the end, when they are useful, or not too contradictory to my daily life, I listen and adjust accordingly.

It's all about the burn, really. Hot water burns. Liquor burns. And with the burn I know it works, that I'm clean... in the way that medicine should taste bad and the way my father's mouthwash always burned. Listerine. I don't trust things that don't have some burn or bitter taste on the tail end, whether it's mouth wash or booze or anything else. People that can take the bitterness may not always be the best people to be around, but they're reliable. I may not be the most pleasant person, but I like to think I'm reliable.


03 November, 2010

Excerpt from: In Season -- Taking Stock

No time for poetry today.

The mornings are predictable, in the way that all small town mornings are. The only real difference is that today is garbage day. Tuesday. I set the garbage out last night and this morning when Maude left for work, she had to come back in to tell me that something had gotten into the garbage after I set it out the night before. I knew which little son of bitch it was, too. And if I didn't already know I could sure as shit guess by looking at it. Big dogs throw trash all over the place, leave big gaping holes in the bags. Whatever had gotten into the garbage gnawed tiny holes in the corners and sides of the bags. Small mouth. I told myself that at least the little fucker hadn't strewn our garbage all over the place; it was relatively easy to clean up. Maude left for work and I picked up the garbage, re-bagging it all so that the garbage men would pick it up and so that when they did it wouldn't make an even bigger mess. After that I go back inside, wash my hands two or three times, pour another cup of coffee, and light a cigarillo to get the morning chill out of my bones.

Winter's coming. Summer hung on longer than I expected it to and Fall has been shorter than I wanted it to be. I wanted to enjoy the changing the of the leaves. That was one of the things I missed. Leaves changing. Though I'm starting to realize that my brain, yet again, played another massive trick on me – the same trick it always plays. Things never work quite the way I remember them. I remember Fall in Eastern Kentucky and in the Ohio Valley where I was born and grew up. I can almost see them again when I close my eyes. Lots of vibrant colors; greens exploding into red, orange, yellow, like the last charge of the light brigade. I always think of that poem when I think about Fall. My 7th grade English teacher, Miss Mallory, made me memorize that poem and then stand in front of the class and recite it. Maybe it was the Fall when that happened. I don't really remember all that precisely because I didn't pay much attention to things when I was a kid. All I really remember about that year was that I had to memorize two poems – Charge of the Light Brigade and Poe's Annabelle Lee – and recite them in front of the class. I also remember that Miss Mallory had the biggest set of tits I had ever seen, and that was around the time I started noticing those kinds of things. Tits and poetry. When faced with the weight of those things, most teenage boys simply aren't bothering to look out the window and pine over the beauty of the changing leaves.

But when I close my eyes, I can almost see the leaves as I think they should be. And in my imagination, they are invariably brighter and more beautiful than they ever really are. Maybe I've watched too much television. Or maybe I stayed out of of the Midwest too long. I thought that maybe moving back to the Big Empty would unearth something in me; that small town boy, the one I also remember with probably too much revision and creativity. Over the years through the different places I've lived, I have always identified myself as a small town boy. I suppose the problem is that when a small town boy becomes a man somewhere else, those things that really made him a small town boy disappear.

These are things I mull over, trying to get the idea out of my head that I should walk across the street and tell the neighbors to pay more attention to their dog when they let it out. It's a chow mix; one of those hairy little snarky ankle biting bitches. That it's a tiny mop of a dog isn't the most annoying part. No, the most annoying part is that the people who's dog it is have a fenced in back yard and they don't let the dog shit there because they don't want to have to clean it up. Even if I did walk over there and thank them for the mess their useless little dog left me this morning, nothing would change. I'm already the neighborhood oddball because I don't obsess over manicuring my lawn and because I'm not a Bears fan. Being the neighborhood freak puts me in the running for town rube. There's already a couple of town drunks, a few trailer park whores, and the dog catcher ahead of me. But the drunks work, the whores perform a necessary, albeit frowned upon, public service, and the dog catcher grew up here. I'm a freak AND an outsider.

And that means, among other things, that when people's ill-mannered dogs get into my trash on an early Tuesday morning, my only option is to clean it up and say nothing. Because even though other people's trash has been similarly attacked in the past, they get around it by not putting it on the curb until after the dog has done it's business.

I suppose I should forgive the people their little snarky dog. They're from Ohio, originally. I know that because we've gotten their mail in our box by mistake before. But they're from Wooster, which might as well be in a different state. And while I remember being told about the divinity of forgiveness, I'm fairly certain that nowhere in the bible does it say I have to forgive people for not wanting to clean up after their pets. Although from what I hear at the bar in town sometimes, everything is in the bible, in spite of the fact that I don't remember it being there. One of the bartenders will, whenever the discussion borders on politics, say that all the troubles we're having are “in the bible.” I like the bartender well enough, so I haven't bothered to inquire as to her meaning, or ask her to prove it. I know how that'll work out, anyway. I'll be godless AND a freak AND most likely a communist … because here, they're all the same thing. Plus there will be the added bonus of wearing out my welcome at the only bar in town I can tolerate.

Maude keeps trying to tell me I need to be nice. “If people knew how you really were,” she tells me, “maybe you'd make some friends.”

“If people knew how I REALLY was,” I tell her, “they'd run me out of town on a rail. I'm sure they still do that here.”

I wonder sometimes if she wants me to act How I Really Am or How She Would Prefer Me to Be. That's probably unfair, I know. Sometimes she reminds me of how I wasn't always so bitter. That's what she calls it. Bitter. When my general demeanor gets in the way, I'm bitter. When it's funny, or poignant, she says I'm turning into a Cranky Old Man. She smiles when she says that.

Nice doesn't seem to fit into things, though. Nice gets you a smile and a handshake not much else. Nice is the trait bullies look for when they want someone to beat the shit out of. Nice. I was told once that I act like an ass because I'm overcompensating. Because down deep I'm really insecure. Well no shit. Everybody overcompensates for something. Everybody has some thing about them they don't like. Maude overcompensates for her deeply anti-social feelings by being nice to everyone. We're more alike behind closed doors than most people would think. I'm a little nicer. She's a little meaner. We share a bitter disappointment in the human race, and we both laugh about it on a regular basis. The difference is that I don't mind voicing my disappointment for everyone to hear. But I also know that she'll get where I am eventually. I used to try and be nice. But the world wears you down. 

Everything about it wears you down until all that remains are those honest feelings and true thoughts that don't go away, that stay with you. The ideas that dance behind your eyes when you're busy mediating your way through another day, the ones that give you solace and feed your darkest revenge fantasies. I went to a counselor once at the urging of my family because they thought I was too depressed. I told the counselor that I had violent fantasies, that I used to imagine myself ripping someone's throat out. I described the sound I thought the esophagus made as it tore free... like hundreds of suction cups being ripped off hundreds of windows. A pleasantly gory series of syncopated pops. The shrink asked who I pictured in these fantasies. I told him I was imagining him at that very moment.

He offered to medicate me. I told him to go fuck himself. My anger and depression may annoy the shit out of everyone around me. But at least they're mine, goddammit.  

02 November, 2010

“Poor People Have Poor Habits”

The Main Street ninnies say 
she lives in an abandoned truck camper
down the way and she
only walks into town
every other day or so
for a half case of beer
and another pack of cigarettes. Everyone
remembers her when she went to high school
and insist they knew even then
the girl would amount to nothing. Then
she confirmed their judgments,
got mixed up
with one of the Boyd Brothers
got herself pregnant
before her 16th birthday,
was kicked out of her mother's trailer
(that wasn't much of a home anyway, people say)
and was left on her own
because in a town like this
you reap what you sow –
especially if your last name
isn't one
that people respect
before they meet you. She doesn't work
and her son
is in grade school now,
but lives with some other family;
and people suspect she's a whore
though no one in town
will go to see her
and no one knows how
she will make it through the winter.