Matt Coplon

Work by day. Ride by evening. Write by night.

Posts from Matt:

Collapsing Into The Whatever.

How in the hell did this happen?

The placement exam, eighty multiple choice, covering everything I knew nothing about.
In it being so wide open on material, I could never make a decision.
Erasing answers, frantically bubbling in other options.
Ticking away at the exam, I tried my hardest to prove that I wasn’t an idiot.
And it worked, unfortunately.
Too well.

And now, out of pure chance, I was suffering this advanced High School English class.
Junior year. College prep.
This wasn’t what I wanted.

Instead, I wished to be left alone to do busy work.
To have a disconnected, laid back teacher.
To chat with my friends. Maybe chat with some girls.
Now, for an hour each day, I sat in the dead center of class, enveloped by complete boredom.
That’s what I got for trying.

To add insult to injury, Mrs. Martin, our instructor, was simply miserable.
Wafer thin with enormous eyes, she never said hello.
Never addressed the class with any sense of cordiality.
I never once saw her smile.

But her condescension was what grabbed at me the most.
Her sligh comments followed by a sarcastic, blank stare.
This was a room full of forty students where, because of her, none of us gave a shit about literature.

What I remembered most clearly was our subjection to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter.’
I got the historical symbolism: stuffy, superstitious puritans in early America.
And the questioning of morals: mental abuse suffered from the obstruction of a strict status quo.
But as far as pure narrative, there couldn’t have been a more unbearable read.
Two Hundred pages of human cruelty, of lost love, of guilt ridden adultery.
All, guided by a hateful instructor who looked like a broom stick with glued on googly eyes.

Yes, I hated school. And I didn’t hide it.
But now, no thanks to Mrs. Martin, I hated literature the most.
Jackson Browne’s ‘Running On Empty’ echoed through the room.
Years later in college, this was Classic Literature for me.
Within studying Greek myths, applying thousand year old ethical concepts to our day and age, we sat back, with lights off, and listened to Browne’s ode.
His words painted a life on the road. For no reason other than pure experience.
It was a break from the concrete.
In it, I felt something new, a sense of collapsing into the whatever.
And it felt good.

Our Professor made reading palatable.
And if it got too dense, we’d take a break and chat real life.

He made literature subjective, each word an ethereal experience.
It was a philosophy of the personal.
Campfire talk as a legitimate, academic movement.
Feeling at home in this new process of learning, I was sold.

Giving it little thought, acting solely on emotions, I decided to alter my major.
Though, on spilling the news to my advisor, his reaction lacked the support I was hoping for.
Instead of encouragement, I got a warning, swaying me from literature’s impracticality.
He offered a reality to it all: I could use the degree to teach.
Or even more far fetched, have it under my belt as a springboard for law school.
But in neither did I have the confidence nor the mental capacity to pursue.

This was the first real life decision I’d made on my own.
And according to my mentor, I was off to a bad start.
Obtaining a B.A. was an expensive endeavor.
To offset the twenty year student loan, I landed a part time job at a local donut shop.
Considering the high turnover rate, I was hired on the spot.

I worked hard, not afraid of the mundane work, diving into what others avoided like the plague: scrubbing the deep fryer’s hood, mopping the sugar caked floors, and cleaning the stink filled bathrooms.

Persistent industriousness paid off.
And within a month, I progressed from janitor, to clerk, to assistant donut maker. Because of my reliability, I’d often get stuck in eighteen hour shifts, covering for those employees who would just not show up.
I’d work late into the night. Perfect for me, with plenty of silence to dive into the modern novel, of which I had twenty or so assigned each semester.
I plunged into D.H. Lawrence, Saul Bellow, John Updike. Missing much of the literary kernels relevant to class, I grasped reading for entertainment instead.
And what I found was that the cast of donut making management became parallel to what I was mentally consuming.
Pure human drama.
Surrounded by it, I became a witness, lucky on the sidelines, to the convoluted lives of my coworkers.

Dean would come it at 5pm, have coffee with his mistress and her husband.
The two men were biker buddies, with their washed out, ancient tattoos, having been baked in the sun for eons. Both had long hair pulled back into pony tails. The movie Easy Rider could have been the story of their lives.

By 6:30, Dean would bring in an ex-worker. Mike was his name, I found out that he was banned from the premises for having sex in the walk in freezer.
Mike, as Dean’s subcontractor, made the donuts. This allowed Dean to power away on his Harley to enjoy the night–every night–at one of Tampa’s many strip clubs.

By 5am, after I dressed the donuts to completion, I’d hear Dean’s Harley, rumbling closer in the distance.
On my way out the door, Dean would meet me at the time clock. We’d punch cards together, say our goodbyes and I’d leave amazed at how he’d worked so hard to work so little.

Sara and Liz were hopeless romantics. I’d get them on separate days as managers.
Both of them much older than me, they’d tend to bring a different weirdo to visit each weekend.
Liz liked Goth. She liked gaming.
Her boyfriends, metal heads dressed in leather with bad teeth.
Sara, on the other hand, was a mother, hoping to find Mr. Right in a sea of computer geeks. Before she quit she landed an older man, a pushover obsessed with Amateur Radio.
He’d pull up in his station wagon, a giant antenna on the roof, and sit in the parking lot conversing with truckers.
To know that Sara found love in a man obsessed with logistics was, in a sense, humbling.

Ted was another. His mustache so thick and unkept it would sop up his coffee. His facial hair was naturally brown, but his mustache always stained soot black.
We’d often work late nights together.
A donut Renaissance Man, he went from unclogging the sink, to light electrical work, to filling in on baking: the hundreds of donuts belted out of the fryer each night.
Ted didn’t get along with many people, he often sulked around the shop buried in his handy work.

He and I handled everything on Saturday nights. But, to my benefit, late on those shifts, I could count on his mood swing.
Last call would avail a lone ringing of the drive through bell.
Ted’s frown would upturn, buried within his perpetual grimace.
He would quickly walk over to the donut shelf, select the most well groomed raised donuts. The one’s with the most chocolate icing, the best, most colorful sprinkle assortment.
He’d then pour two dainty cups of black coffee. One cream. One sugar in each.
On his opening of the drive through window, I’d hear two women cat call, drunk from utter debauchery. They’d both lift their shirts, exposing both sets of their giant tits.
Unlocking the key to Ted’s happiness, he’d reach halfway out the window to give them their prize.
On their driving away, Ted would slowly shut the window, turning towards me he’d take a deep breath.
‘Damn,’ he’d say.
Sparing words, yes, but powerful in their simplicity.
His utterance, summing up a brief, inconsequential event that seemed to make his life worth it all.
Ayn Rand’s first novella, Anthem, was the only book I’ve ever read in one sitting.
I’d heard her name tossed around the literary canon and wondered why she had never been taught to us.
One night, late, having caught up on my donut duties, I dove into the narrative.
Between minimal customers on a deathly slow night, I barrelled through page after page.
Like Orwell’s 1984, Anthem was a dystopian narrative warning against the ideas of Collectivism. And with it, the impending doom of individuality.
Anthem, like the rest of Rand’s hits, alluded to her philosophy of a cut throat social and economic selfishness.***
I enjoyed it, which made me hate it.
I wanted so badly to stop, to toss it into the garbage, but I was hooked in, as if addicted to a substance.
On finishing, I closed the final, shellacked page, and discovered that there, on the jacket of the book was Rand’s face.
With her short cropped hair, her big, radiant eyes, it was as if I communed, years in the future, with that old high school hag, Mrs. Martin.
Literature, something I was finally growing to love, shat on, once again, by yet another literary heretic.
The six hours it took me, between customers, to finish the book, left my conscience burgled.
I felt violated.
Weeks later, I was put back on morning shift due to the complete unreliability of other employees.
I’d tack in a shift before class, those rush hours where customers were more apt to spare their change as a tip. I needed any financial help that I could get.

The morning rush was also the most filthy.
With coffee stains on my pink and purple work shirt, donut icing like stalactites hanging from the brim of my hat, I’d keep my head down, rushing from bean grinder, to bagel case, to the final deliverance of a handful of goods through the drive through window.

On sliding it open, I’d finally raise my head to greet the customer.
This time, sitting below in her car, was Mrs. Martin.
I stood speechless, feeling a mix of disdain and fear.
Slowly handing her the order, buying time to formulate the beginnings of a conversation,
I subconsciously hoped for closure.

‘You know I had you as a teacher?’
Handing me her cash, I punched the register keys and opened the drawer to give her change.
I returned quarters usually, the coinage most commonly given back as a tip.
‘I’m actually studying English now,’ I said, throwing her a bone, making her feel as if she played a hand in my decision.
Taking all her change, she stared up at me.
‘Excuse me?’ she questioned.
To her, I was a stranger.
A bum working at a donut shop.

‘Good for you,’ she said, finally.
But was this her superficial praise out of recognizing me?
Or maybe, more like it, our brief conversation was just a small-talking speed bump, obstructing her drive back to the classroom.

‘Hmmm,’ she said, ‘Well at least you’re inside in the air conditioning.’
Sealing our conversation with an insult, crushing me in her wake, she drove off.
Standing alone in the drive through cubicle my blood pressure rose. Becoming light headed, I could feel my heart pounding from being so pissed off.

I watched Mrs. Martin’s car trail off out of the parking lot.
She was heading, I’m sure, back to my old high school, to convince another year’s worth of innocent and impressionable students just how badly English Literature could absolutely suck.

***Ayn Rand’s novels and personal philosophies became a foundation for both Anton Levey’s Church of Satan and, most recently, the Tea Party Movement.

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Vocal Shrapnel.

Was the word that started all this.

I used it to express exasperation.
Driving while on the phone, my wife in the passenger seat,
‘Fuck, what a mess?’ were my exact words.

I over use it, yes.
Like most of my friends.
To ‘cuss like a sailor’ couldn’t be more accurate amongst us.

I use it as an expletive while I’m alone.
Unable to pull a trick when riding, I mutter it under my breath.
Sometimes, I scream it, out loud, in parking lots.

Or after I’ve fallen.
Looping out.
Sliding improperly off a ledge.
Or diving headfirst, down a handrail.
A steep one.
My weight carrying me halfway down the stairs to the end, shoulder and face into the sand.
‘Fuck me!’ was what I screamed, lying there.
My upper extremities throbbing.
Parents with their children, in bathing suits, desperately trying to enjoy the summer.
They must of thought I was crazy, writhing in the dirt.

‘Why would you say that?’
My wife asked me, in a very calm and collected, very rational tone.
With little hesitation, I responded, ‘It’s just a word.’
This was my lame comeback,
a puerile defensiveness,
blurted out through guilt.

A word, powerful enough for parents to use ‘ear muffs’ as a protection against adolescent absorption.
Its meaning, so taboo, that ‘F-word’ commonly, and universally substitutes it.

I’d like to purge my ignorance starting now.
After all, words are sometimes enough to insure peace,
are powerful enough to initiate war.

To simplify any word as hollow?
I was horribly wrong.
Any use of the word ‘Gun’
brings back stale memories of Sunday with the family.
My step-grandfather had a cache of rifles at the lake house.
We’d load up that morning and roll out into the front yard.
With a manual skeet shooter, clay pigeons were lofted through the air.
We’d spray bird shot up into the sky. Hundreds of pellets in each round.
A killer cast net of death, minimizing any iota of our amateur accuracy.

My step-grandfather was squat and wide, his shirt never buttoned more than half way.
Imbedded in the pile of grey hair on his chest was a 24 karat gold chain, at the end, a giant anchor.
He was the family icon: a solid, stubby, boulder of machismo.

I’d try to bang out a couple disks, although for me, hitting one was a miracle.
On pulling the trigger, the hammer, cracking against the round, laid havoc on my eardrums.
And the wooden butt, its reflex leaving a deep purple bruise on my shoulder.

Mostly, I sat on the sidelines.
To watch the pissing contest amongst the men in my family.

The word ‘gun,’ skewed for me, connoting something it is intrinsically not:
An ache in my right shoulder,
loss of hearing,
or a phallic, family shit show.
‘Immigration’ was the topic of my final.
I was tossed, freshman year, into a technical writing class.
The professor, a very solemn instructor from Central Africa,
he asked that we compile an essay regarding immigration in the US.
Boring I thought, a waste of my already flagging interest in school.

With little knowledge, and absolutely no research, I procrastinated to produce a bullshit diatribe against illegals.
How our jobs here in Florida were getting taken by the ‘Mexicans.’
My thesis: regurgitated racism stemmed from table talk so typical of my grandparents.
West Virginia born and raised,
my grandmother, a poor, uneducated waitress,
my grandfather, a jazz musician in an all African American band.
You’d think their camaraderie alone would have subdued his ignorance.

On submitting my final draft, the professor corralled me in his office.
It was late April in Florida, and although the tiny wall unit belted out cold air,
I was sweating uncontrollably.
His tone solicited no pressure, with nothing but kindness and concern in his voice,
he asked me in a low, bellowing tone, if I truly believed what I had written.

‘I don’t think so,’ I answered, honestly.

Maybe I was scared of him.
Maybe I answered out of academic self preservation.
Or maybe, on the spot, I realized how absurd the whole situation was:
my groundless, indirect disdain for him.
For him, the immigrant.

Days later, I received my final grade.
Writing wasn’t for me, I accepted that fact and was ready to fail at something else.
But on opening the letter, I discovered, somehow, that I had passed.
To ‘Slaughter,’ literally, is what you do when you cut a living creature to zero.

The Tuvans are a small, almost extinct culture in Siberia,
a people in the back of beyond who rely on little provisions for survival.

When bringing sheep to slaughter, the Tuvan’s make a small incision in the lamb’s skin,
where the executor reaches in with a finger and snaps an artery.
The sheep falls out so peacefully, its eyes are often checked to confirm death.

In the dying Tuvan language, the word slaughter also means ‘kindness.’
‘Gay,’ but not ‘gay’ as in bad taste.
Not the ‘gay’ defined as ‘wrong’ by the Christian Right.
Not a creative fax pau, as in ‘that shit’s gay,’ told to me by a younger kid at the skatepark.

Gay was my professor’s sexuality.
Like a dark bearded Santa, his cheeks became rosy when he joked around.
His practical intelligence was contagious,
he delivered to us the abstract, brought it down to earth with a touch of humor.

I attended his media studies class, where we covered theories on advertisement, on pop-culture.
He introduced us to Semiotics.
A theory of signs and symbols, and their functions in language.
An applied philosophy.
Something as young adults we could digest.

Semiotics taught us that words have many layers of meaning.
Infinite and fickle like the universe.
Words like dwarf stars. Millions of them.
Born, they eventually supernova,
become invisible dark matter,
and forever lurk, manipulating perception,
in the hidden compartments of our minds.
During the past couple weeks, ‘gun control’ has been THE headline.

The feds chipping away at the second amendment.
‘He’ll take our guns away, like Hitler, Mao and Stalin,’
an absurd take on reality spread by Alex Jones.
Some think that the president should be impeached for this legal atrocity.

But what does ‘control’ mean?
Its linguistic ‘Hard C’ sounds threatening, guttural almost,
as if spoken off the tongue of a language historically allied with totalitarians.

Or maybe, just maybe, it connotes something a bit more commonsensical.

By definition, ‘control’ is ‘to reduce the incidence or severity of, especially to innocuous levels.’
To regulate the amount of rounds in a semi-automatic weapon.
To thoroughly background check those seeking firearms.
To raise the price of a gun permit.

Is the ‘control’ of firearms simply a step to reduce gun violence in the US?

But that would be too apparent.

Instead, those words have been manipulated by paranoia.
Its pragmatic intentions, smelted down and cast into vocal shrapnel,
to defend against those mythical tyrants,
coming soon, to snatch up the very last of our inalienable rights.

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Resurrecting a Corpse.

The Law of Conservation of Energy.
One of few ideas I retained from a year’s worth of high school physics.
Its main premise: energy cannot be created nor destroyed.

My teacher, Mr. Dove, was a stereotypic science instructor.
Heavy beard.
A muted, bland daily dress code.
And a monotone deliverance of information that, when it got down to brass tax, explained how we, through pure luck, survive in a universe mired in flux.
I sucked at all maths. Toss in some theoretical stuff and my head borders on implosion.
But this theory struck a chord.
It proved to me, in a roundabout way, the existence of a person’s soul.
You know, that electrical energy firing brain waves.
Energy that, when you die, exits the body.

On mulling over the idea, I procured a half cocked personal theory: human energy can take a two fold path.
It either floats away, becoming absorbed into other forms of Nature.
Or, if disgruntled, (maybe more so, pissed off) it might hang around for a bit.
Floating in mortal space.
A ball of bad vibes lashing out.
Jealous of the living.
Growing up in a mid century suburb, life was mundane.
With minimal friends I found escape in books.
History. War. Horror.
But mostly, I was smitten with a good ghost story.
My library cue was consistently stacked with obscure, dusty anthologies.
Of weird tales passed down through the generations,
painting the picture of old ghost towns, civil war battlefields, of shuddered, north eastern coastal villages overflowing with angry spirits.

I read on, consumed by tales of hearsay, continuing to fill my head with paranormal paranoia.
I hoped to one day experience what was beyond.
A buddy of mine went to a local college in Rhode Island.
The campus, like everything in New England, was ancient.
Doing the math, I calculated that the thousands of bodies rolling in and out each year, ramped up the potentiality of death.
Those tragic ones, hypothetically, being the most vulnerable for a haunting.
Like a janitor getting electrocuted.
A lawn maintenance man getting stabbed with a spade.
Or a commuter getting sandwiched in an elevator shaft.
My mind reeled.

Instead, tangible history paved the way for its paranormal activity.
As if made up, the college’s track record exhibited all the conventions of a haunted tale:
Built in the beginning of the Twentieth Century, it was situated next to a hospital that treated communicable diseases.
Considering those illnesses were taboo, patients were wheeled underground through a series of tunnels connecting each ward.
And, as if in a chapter of a horror novel, by mid century the hospital was condemned.
The local college scooped it up, and the wards were turned into student dorms.

Decades later, one of the dorms caught fire. Ten women died inside.
And those spirits of the victims were said to do everything in their ethereal powers to let the earthbound know of their presence.
We swung by the college, through an iron fence its red brick facade loomed on a hill.
Here, Ben laid out his personal experiences.

Grimacing faces in glass.
A high pitched, ghastly whistle reverberating through the dorms.

During finals week, he and two friends studied in the basement.
From behind him, a grey-green ball shot past his face and into a brick wall.
Sealed up, the brick wall once served as an entrance to a tunnel.
That tunnel, an artery connecting the defunct infirmary wards.
Around the same time, I had become pen pals with a Canadian named Pete.
He lived in the no-mans-land between Detroit and Toronto.
One winter, I paid him a visit.

Pete made me a copy of a tape recording he’d produced at his childhood home.
Labelled on the case, in black marker, were the words ‘The Billing House.’

Throughout the Billing House, he arranged his ‘surveillance equipment.’
An old VHS camcorder in the living room.
A handheld voice recorder in the kitchen.
As Pete left, he surveilled the unoccupied house for 90 minutes.

Back in my bedroom in Florida, I’d often play the recording late at night.
For half an hour it was silent.
On occasion, you’d hear the house creaking, its wooden frame shifting among the elements.

However, mid way through, static broke silence.
And cutting through the static, a religious station, distant at first, became more audible.
Building in volume, the Billing House’s kitchen radio served as host to a preacher giving a fire and brimstone sermon.
Of the need to repent.
Of souls burning in Hell.
Until finally, a key slides into a lock, a deadbolt opens, and the sermon quiets to silence.

Pete had returned to the house.
The haunt-er, creeping back into wherever it came.
I had woken up sometime late that night, compressed to the bed.
It was a force unknowable in the dark.
It pressed so hard on my innards, my bladder pounded in pain.

I heaved upward using my core.

I tried moving my legs.
I used my arms to push out against the mattress.
But this paranormal force kept me down.
I was immobilized.

As I woke up the next morning, my eyes focused ahead as I stared out the window.
Through the frame, it was a sunny morning. A family of jays guarded their nest in the old magnolia.
And then I realized, upon waking up, that I was already sitting up in bed.
For years, this experience continued.

The same sequence in each event:
Pounding bladder.
Fighting to move.
Finally giving into the paralysis.

I was now certain that my childhood home, the most unlikely structure, tucked into a typical Florida neighborhood, was haunted.
I’d gotten what I subconsciously wished for.
Over the course of years, droves of friends had stayed the night at our house.
Next to my single mattress, a bed mat was always set up on the floor for guests.

One night, mid winter, a friend visited from London.
We got in late, well past midnight, and I fell out in exhaustion.

The next morning over a bowl of cereal, he spoke out, half jokingly, in his cockney English.

‘That was some weird shit last night.
You do that often?’

Concerned, I pressed him to describe what he had witnessed.

‘For hours I laid there on the floor.
I couldn’t sleep.
Then you started mumblin.’ ‘

He took a bite of his Wheatabix.
Having floated in a minimal amount of milk, he crunched on the morsels a bit, then swallowed

‘You sat up, slowly. I mean real slow.
You mumbled some more. Something about needing to ‘˜take a piss.’
Then you just stayed there, hunched over in bed.’

Suddenly, everything came into perspective.
I was given a moment of clarity.

Here was the mortal solution to my anxieties:
a failed, delirious attempt at a midnight bathroom break.
This was my bogeyman.
My apparition was pure human exhaustion.

‘Bloody hell man, I was freaked out.
You raised up real slow.
It was like a scene in one of those horror movies.’

He took a long sip from his tea.
Pulling the cup away from his face he placed it neatly back into the saucer.

‘Yea mate, you rising up like that, it looked like someone had resurrected a corpse.’

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Till Death Do Us Part.

We had spent the entire Fall building our jumps.
Four total at that point.
The main lip dug about six feet under sea level, we’d hit the water table often.
You’d dip down into the ditch, fire off the lip and land six feet above.

Reminiscing, I can’t believe they lasted long.
For starters, the land was private property.
Beyond that, our massive holes with accompanying mounds were in plain view, adjacent to a major highway.

It was a vacant lot hugging the entrance to one of the most popular pizza restaurants in North Tampa.
Customers loved us.
No pads, no helmets.
Filthy we were after eating shit in the dirt.
A carnival act free to watch as kids snacked on their gourmet pizza.

On that Sunday, our whole gang was waist deep, shovels in hand, breaking old ground.
Months prior, after our first week of trespass, two managers from the parlor approached us.
We thought for certain things were getting shut down.
Instead, and much to our surprise, they complimented us on our work.
On our daily dedication: to maintenance of both the jumps and the lot they were built into.
Tedious, we cleaned everything we laid down.
They mentioned how much their employees enjoyed watching us ride.
On smoke break, the preppers, the waiters and servers wandered from the back of the building to stare over the hedges at the action.

We introduced ourselves.
All eight of us.
Minutes worth of small talk: what we did, who we were.
Some of us lied to protect our identities.
Then we broke away to continue digging before sundown.

Within ten minutes, one of the managers returned.
Kim was her name.
She brought a couple pizzas and drinks to share.
For once, we didn’t feel like delinquents.

If only she’d have known how much that meant to us.
Grandpa Joe was a big man.
He pounded a six-pack of NABS every afternoon.
All that sugar caked in his gut. His barrel chest showing it.
Grandma cut him off years prior in so many ways, with so many things.
Alcohol was first on the list.
That non-alcoholic barley water was his refuge.

Grandpa Joe was a genius.
A musician, a contractor, a math savant.
In retirement, he conjured just about every idea to make extra loot.
He made fruit sorbet. For years he created product displays for the local Bodegas.
In the mid 90’s he was heavy into artificial plant arrangements.

His life’s blood was to stay in motion. Creating.
His aura, his productivity set a benchmark at the house.
But that pressure to produce huddled me in a corner.
Me, a perpetual underachiever. A child.
Me, inept.
But even more so, apathetic.
School ended at 2:45pm.
By 3:30 I was home.
By 4:15 I had made my daily grilled cheese–no butter, just partially melted slices between two pieces of Wonder Bread.
Soon after, I was out the door, well on my way to pedalling twenty minutes to the jumps.
We all met there, every day, the whole crew. Such was our daily routine.

On weekends it was an all day event.
We’d stay out late each night, and with little sleep, wake early and dig.
Early meant there was still dew on the ground.
The grass maintaining moisture underneath the topsoil, keeping the Florida sugar sand malleable.
By noon, the sun would beat down at full force, drying our dirt.
Once dry, it cracks. Once ridden on by rubber tires for an afternoon, it turns into dust.

On weekends the parlor was slammed.
One in particular, a Saturday night, their entire prep and cleaning crew bailed.
Kim returned, and in desperation asked if any of us were interested in a job.
We were young and industrious.
But more importantly, dispensable with no money on hand.
Perfect candidates.

But I was too arrogantly punk.
The family restaurant, too cliché.
As they went to work–their first jobs–I remained in the ditches in the afternoon, slinging dirt.
The local Hungry Howies had a help wanted sign in the window.
I opened the screen door to their heat pit. Ovens cooking their unprecedented amount of signature Howie Breads.
It was a yellow and black mosaic shit hole: much more my speed.
Metallica blasting on a silver Samsung radio, cacophonous above the fans wafting heat and onion out the door.
And the employees: a cast of metal-heads with hair pulled back into pony tails.
It was anarchy, but with food.
I was hired on the spot.

Training commenced after the assistant manager finished his joint.
With no preface to what they needed from me, with no such working my way up,
he slid out a shelf of pizza dough.
Pulling the cellophane back, he flopped the tan paddy on the table and began kneading the edges.
It moved outward quickly, reaching toward the boundaries of the pan, taking shape, amoeba-like.
The stoner picked it up, by balancing the dough on the tip of his finger, he spun it into the air.
Surreal, almost epic was his technique.
Once the dough landed, perfect to shape on the pan, it was ready to be dressed.

With weed–like the smell of burning trash–emanating from his hair, I was told to repeat what I had witnessed.
And he walked away.

I fumbled with the dough.
My fingers felt square and disconnected.
My coordination mis-firing.
My muscle memory having no recollection of the culinary miracle I had just witnessed.

After working the dough for ten minutes, I had somehow compressed it into a ball.
Somehow I had moved backwards.
Embarrassed by my ineptitude, I tossed it into the garbage.
Pulling another pile of dough off the cookie sheet, I began again.

After some time, the manager returned to witness progress.
His eyes bloodshot.
His shorts splattered with old paint, his black wrestling boots brindled white with flour.
Two hours into my first job, with a trash can full of sixteen blobs of pizza dough, I was told to leave.

‘You can keep my paycheck,’
I muttered as I walked out the screen door.
Although the lot was sparse with shade, it served just enough to keep direct sunlight at bay.
Towards late afternoon, the shadows turned everything a warm shade of orange.
This was our witching hour: cool, with perfect lighting.
We rode until the crew locked up their bikes and went to work.

It was that Sunday afternoon when Brent rolled up in his white, late 80’s Puegot.
Freshly detailed.
He too had gotten a job, and with it, a new car, a new girlfriend.

Brent rolled down his window, the A/C pushing full output, cooling even the outside of his car.
‘There’s an ambulance at the house. Your mom asked me to come get you.’

Stashing my bike under some bushes, I stepped into the passenger’s seat and was enveloped by the acidic,
lemon scent of upholstery cleaner.
We sped off, winding back into the neighborhood.

Cutting down side streets, we drove under the oaks arching over old Carrollwood.
This was the artery to everywhere we pedaled on bikes.
Calming through our habit of repetition.

In Brent’s car, there was no physical act.
I sat back, my conscience blank.
In constant ‘flight’ mode I felt nothing.
Empty: the easiest way to cope.

On getting home, I wasn’t prepared for the sight of my Grandpa Joe.
The ambulance doors open.
He, being lifted inside on a stretcher.
A lump under a sheet, his head sticking out from the top.
And the doors finally closing, consuming him.

To witness him being taken to the hospital, his appendages littered with blood clots.
To imagine both of his legs amputated on his arrival there.
For him to die amongst strangers.
Brent delivered me back to our jumps.
The sun had set and I could see my friends through the windows of the restaurant.
Their hustle on high, making due.

Finding my way through the dark, I dropped down into the pits.
With calloused hands I wrapped a tight grip around a shovel.
And I began to dig.

My short-lived job: weak, minimal evidence to my grandfather that I wasn’t a failure.
Lackluster at life, a bum.

But this small creation–that plot of throw away land, consuming our time, our energy–soothed our angst.
That precious dirt justified our inconsequence.
And unlike everything else, made our lives, as teens, palatable.

I dug well into the darkness.

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Cyclone Barbiturate.

It was a shotgun home. Narrow and rectangular.
An old cigar worker’s abode from the early twentieth century.
Up front, facing the street, two absolutely tiny, closet sized rooms.

In the rear, a half assed addition served as a master bedroom.
Added as a lower level, it laid on the ground having sunk into a pit of sand.
The sand, a litter box, a perfect place for all the feral cats to piss.

Across the hallway was a bathroom, another makeshift addition with cheap beadboard walls.
Water damage was already evident on moving in.
With each hot shower, the thickened humidity forced another inch of the wall to bow outward.

Above, throughout the whole house, was an institutional drop ceiling.
Hanging from the original wood frame, it was suspended in air by old wire clothes hangers.
The aesthetic, like a high school biology lab.
Instead of animals in glass tanks it was me and a roommate.
In celebration of the ‘investment,’ I painted the interior neon.
I thought the scheme went well with my inherited space aged, mid-century modern decor.
A Broyhill Premier Curio with lunar lander legs.
A Zenith Console stereo, a copy of Hawaiian classics propped on the turntable for posterity.

Minus the bear skin rug, minus the olive on the end of the martini’s toothpick,
the house was a live-in Shag painting.
A mess of colors.
A sour sight to anyone living in the proper century.

There were tikis.
Loads of other Florida tourist boom paraphernalia.
That garbage celebrating the 60’s land grab, when the Sunshine State was a perpetual beach party: a safety blanket, concealing the peninsula’s hard living.
But even more so, its cache of natural born things ready to kill you.
Beyond the mortgage, I knew nothing of residual expenses.
Not an inkling regarding property taxes.
Not an inkling about homeowners insurance.

I discovered that hurricane protection was an additional fee.
Base price, plus hundreds of extra dollars in preparation for the inevitable cyclone season.
Every year, massive storms lurk near our Peninsula.
And on the occasions when they smash into the state, countless dollars in damage accrue. Houses are washed into the sea. Lives are lost.

Looking back, I was lucky as hell to land the last resort insurer:
the only company to gamble in ancient wood framed houses.

But I remained blasé.
An apathy ingrained, when young, by a local myth.
Folklore is peripheral ‘knowing.’
Table talk of the mysterious.
Of those things that lean towards the irrational.
Those things that transcend science.
Like when Florida folk speak quietly about the Tocobaga storm myth.

Driving home from work, their shell middens hide in the mangroves off of Weedon Island.
Tucked behind the old power plant, broken crustacean carapaces are all you will find.
Hard evidence of their ancient community is minimal.
So myths abound.

Within living memory, no hurricane had set a direct disaster coarse for the Bay Area.
This blanket of security was credited, for years, to the indigenous.
To their close ties to the land.
Their communing with mother nature.
They bound a pact creating some type of barometric force field.

The myth reassured us locals.
So much so that real estate agents milk it, to lure in naive snow birds.
It was late Summer. The end of the wet season.
Pedalling home from elementary school, a single, ominous cloud crept on the horizon over the bay.
Getting closer to home, I watched as three water spouts slowly descended from the sky.

I sprinted inside.
Grabbing what I deemed valuable–my toys, baseball cards, a brand new electronic game system– I carted all of it into the tub.
Huddled in the dark, next to my trove of junk, I hid.
But nothing happened.

Those three columnal vortexes sat idle over Tampa Bay.
Floating in air, ghostly, they twisted for minutes.
And then they disappeared.

Leaning next to the tub, I waited.
Concerned more so for my materials than my safety.
Until the silence bored me out of fear.

Cutting through the garage and out into the elements, I was surprised to find a pristine sky.
Above, dozens of tiny, innocuous white puffs pitted the crystal blue.

The Tocobaga’s arcane mysticism hung over Tampa Bay.
I was sure of it.
On that day, the myth had been solidified.
More than ever, I believed.
In August, intense storms breed heavy in the Atlantic.
Since the new millenium, global climate change predicts more chaotic seasons to come.
So it went in 2004.

Two massive storms had already barreled over the state.
Both exceeded previous records of historic damage,
yet, somehow, both minimally affected Tampa.

I took shelter in my shot gun house through most of the seasonal activity.
Though the intense winds often made it creak,
so loud at times it sounded as if the frame were splitting.
Miraculously it held up, and I huddled safely within my bedroom.

Then came Ivan.

Ivan: a category five that measured the size of Texas.
As it gained momentum, it travelled North through the Gulf of Mexico.
The eye, although hundreds of miles off the coast, whipped its arms clockwise, lashing Central Florida with abnormal gusts.

Ivan’s mass was terrifying.
More so than any of the other previous storms.
My gut feeling was to get out.
Once Ivan crept well up into the panhandle, I drove home.
The sun cut through the clouds for the first time in days.
And as I arrived back into the neighborhood, my dead end was unchanged.
Except for my house.

Pulling into my driveway, the roof was shrouded in the boughs of a giant pecan tree.
The tree, like an earth tone blanket, sat diagonal across the apex.

In shock, I walked inside.
Everything was slightly damp.
The rainwater having oozed through cracks spidering out to every corner.

Through the living room, I followed the tree.
The neon blue walls eerily illuminating the interior, reflecting the dull, grey light from outside.
The kitchen, an obnoxious beach ball yellow, was perfectly intact.
And as I walked past the bathroom decorated in bright purple and fluorescent pink, an untouched, fresh roll of toilet paper propped on its stand.

I pushed open the door to my room.
It was as if a grenade had exploded.

My chest of drawers split in half. The contents scattered over the stained carpet.
Both windows broken, the vertical blinds shattered on the floor.

The middle of the tree laid, wedged, in the ninety degree corner of my room.
The angle, the convergence of the two walls, held up its lofty mass,
and prevented it from crushing through the house.

Over my bed, the roof had collapsed, leaving piles of debris on the comforter.
And the ceiling fan had dropped, imbedding itself in the dead center of my mattress.
The exact spot, where, having still believed in the Tocobaga myth, I would have been asleep.

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Soul Sucking Literary Suicide.

It’s been a year. Twenty Six posts. Roughly twenty six thousand words.
Half a novel.
Each entry a tiny sample of things running past and present in my head.

The sentimental crap, easy for me. Most people will tell you I’m a softie.
On the other hand, I’ve had a really difficult time writing humor.
Humor is based on quick whit. A sharp tongue.
Unfortunately my processing and delivery is dull.

So I’ve concentrated on stories that have some sort of punch line, some sort of ethical kernel. Something small, added up, that makes our crazy ass lives just a bit more meaningful.
Its been therapeutic.
Maybe not for you. Maybe not for anyone else, really.
But for me, it helps keep my head on straight.
I had a Professor once tell me ‘is what you’re trying to say really important?’
In the grand scheme, not at all. And it hurt digesting this as truth.
That comment resonated for awhile.
Taking it personal, it kept me silenced for years.
But that wasn’t his point.
More so: make words count.

Therein lies the art of the Aphorism.
Like this one, by Henry David Thoreau:
‘How vain it is to sit down and write when you have not stood up to live.’

Since my discovery (or more so the stumbling upon), these little bursts of info offer a quick impetus.
Those lines of witty common sense that punch you in the gut.
You think, ‘Damn, why didn’t I think of that.’
Or, you simply get chills from it being such an honest selection of words.

It’s real life in a nutshell.
Maybe more so a land mine of knowledge.
When read, it explodes.
Instead of death, you’re enlightened.
For post number Twenty Seven, I was going to call it a day.
That was my original plan twelve months ago.
Write for a year. Write short stories that were quick to the point: an extended aphorism.
In retrospect, to be able to look back at a collection of hundreds of hours spent on something tangible.
To feel a sense of productivity.
Then go out with a bang.

But to get there, I suffer this:
Every week, sitting here at my computer.
Tapping regurgitated notes that, for the most part, never make sense.

Hours getting pissed while brainstorming, putting myself into a stupor, having to hide my shitty mood.
The writing, the rough drafting.
And then the dreaded editing process.

It’s something my wife and I have fought over for more than a decade.
Her: an editor by trade. A word surgeon. An amputator of language.
And me, the amputee who despises seeing his words bone sawed.
To watch them disappear into the digital ether.
Its torturous.
This past weekend, I took a few days to visit my brother in Manhattan.
A seven mile island, it’s a massive city condensed.
Efficiency in motion.
I felt the pressure to produce something.

I’d wake up early in the morning to read, in hopes to get some sort of inspiration. To search for that ignition, that spark of subjective association.

Meandering through the city by day, I’d post up late night, jotting away, filling my notebook with jumble.
Nothing came to fruition.
Just pages of nonsensical anecdotes.
On Friday night I took a break to visit the MOMA. Its seven floors packed with tourists like myself.
The others; a mash of stuffy, suited old men, and droves of fine arts students, chasing the dreaded hipsters posing as museum docents.

Wading through the fog of pretentiousness, I did my best to appreciate High Art.
I know little about it. But I know what pieces conjure an amiable feeling for me.
In particular, the works we know to be arduous.
The ones most time consuming, the one most soul sucking.

The hall opened up onto The special exhibit. A collection of long dead Post Impressionists.
And in the center, like a beacon summoning aesthetes, was The Scream.
One of four versions by Edvard Munch.
People crowded the painting, its glass visor reflecting dozens of camera flashes.

On the canvas, the artist’s strokes, thick and heavy, as if executed with a crayon.
Blue swirls downward.
Orange streaks lateral.
This version, the most iconic, the most colorful, worth One Hundred and Twenty million.
In the corner, tucked in by itself, hung Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte.
You’ve seen it. Men in their fin de siecle bowlers, the women holding parasols, each fully dressed, completely unsuited for Sunday at the beach.

It never occurred to me that Georges Seurat painted in dots.
Pointillism I discovered, a technique he coined.
So much detail in small specks of paint.
The Island of Grand Jatte is one canvas, an estimated six point four million dots.
This beach scene took him two years to finish: It’s the epitome of the utter consumption of time.

I stood there in the corner alone, amongst hundreds of people spread throughout the room.
As the herds shuffled towards the Van Gogh’s, the Cezanne’s, I felt a connection to Seurat.
His years at the easel. His trial and error.
I empathized, not so much with the Art but with the Artist.
His pain in attaining subjective perfection.
He as his worst critic.
On my last morning in Manhattan, my notes came together to formulate what’s written above.
Might I have wasted a year?
Were all these posts best suited in a personal journal?

But like my ingestion of Seurat and his work,
If I had someone, reciprocating,
tucked in a corner on their computer screen,
appreciating just a minutiae of what I’d written,
and feeling an ounce of empathy,
then to me, it was worth all the frustrations, pain, and time it takes to write.

Thanks to The Least Most for the opportunity to share this.
Thanks to you for reading.
Here’s to another year.

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Revving Up Like A Deuce.

To have an Achilles’ Heal is inevitable.
To have a laundry list of Achilles’ Heals is inevitably human.

For me, my metal weaknesses include and are not limited to a terrible short term memory, adult ADD (self diagnosed), anxiety about existential things out of my control, and never saying ‘no’ quite enough.

Physically, I’m going bald.
I’ve been struck with a bout of stress induced alopecia (my beard resembles patchy mange). And my longest running, and the most dire ill to my existence, is the unfortunate circumstance of an over active bowel.
Basically, when its time, its time…

It probably doesn’t help that I drink a pot of coffee a day. The diuretic pushes everything out. Quick.
Beyond that, being a strict vegetarian for 17 years speeds things up. Eating all that ruffage, your body breaking down piles of plant matter and forcing it to eject.
I’m shit out of luck either way. Pun intended. My diet/habits aren’t changing anytime soon.
And, it seems that as I get older the situation just gets worse.
My wife and I share a euphemism. When announced, the only, thankfully large, bathroom in our house is immediately limited to single occupancy. If she is inside, cutting her finger nails, brushing her teeth, she knows to exit fast.

‘I gotta’ rev up like a deuce.’
Our code.
Our safe word.

It started as a joke.
More recently it’s blurted as an expletive: a warning.
A warning, in essence, to stay out and away.
Considering I’m constantly pedaling through the city, I’ve got emergency spots hidden in just about every quadrant.
It’s a mental list of easily accessible public/private bathrooms that are seldomly used.
I can’t wait in a line, I just can’t spare the time.

Or for dire emergencies, a host of less convenient locales:
Secluded underpasses,
Abandoned lots with plenty of unkept foliage for camoflage,
and numerous secret spots along the river where no one, not even boaters, can spot me.
When its time, I have to consider a combination of geography, timing, and how much energy I need to exert to get from here to there across the cityscape.

So far, with plenty of planned emergency routes, accidents have been avoided.
Initially, It hit me in class. 7th grade.
Ms. Constatine wouldn’t grant me a hall pass.
So I held it. Curled over in one of those industrial, iron-curtain-like work chairs.
I held it, tight, for 50 minutes.
And then the bell rang.
With my jean jacket and matching denim book bag, I sprinted out of class and down the hall to the loo. Rushing in, it seemed that every kid from our floor was inside. Ten classrooms worth. Hanging. Shit talking. The ones with the most gall smoking cigarettes in the corner, wafting their exhalations out of the louvered windows.

Going down the line of stalls, I grabbed each of the handles.
One, two: locked.
The third, missing a latch.
The fourth, wide open.

Toilet paper was piled a foot high in the commode. The martian green tile floors wet from God knows what.
I shut the door behind me, and with the scraps left over on the cardboard tube, I persisted to clean up the scene as best I could.
Finally, I flushed the toilet. It wasn’t until third pull that the pile of waste paper went down.

Planting my torso on the stool, the teen-aged, primeval rage climaxed outside the stall. Their voices, a cacophonous growl as water logged, toilet paper balls cascaded over the bathroom door.
I was hit. My thigh. The crown of my head. The rusty water dripping over my exposed skin.
This was their attempt at insult.
My punishment for committing personal business, for committing what was taboo.
To sink so low as to have to use the school shitter?
It was uncool, it was uncivilized.
I stopped eating breakfast. Eating anything that early could adversely affect the forty five minute bus ride to school.
And I knew the bus wasn’t stopping under any circumstances.

I stopped eating lunch.
Instead, each day, I spent $.90 on two cartons of chocolate milk.
My rationale: no solids going in, no solids coming out.

And after a while, during the school week, I just stopped eating.
Problem solved I thought.
Until my digestion went haywire. My situation exacerbated: liquids only, churning inside my gut, failing to properly digest.

The problem I so desperately tried to solve, made exponentially worse.
And once again I found myself, in pain, back inside the miasmal bathroom, huddled over the commode in fear.
By high school I had learned to be a decent student. And by being a decent student, instructors preserved my inalienable rights. Mainly, the one needed to get to the boys room in time.
Things were under control, and with control comes the confidence I needed to become social, to meet friends, and most importantly, to meet girls.
I tried to break into the dating scene.
I had noticed her for awhile. She sat at the back of the bus. Quiet.
I liked her solemn eccentricities.
Her awkwardness.
Beyond that, her dark hair, extremely thin frame, and dark eyes.

One afternoon I decided to get off at her bus stop.
Jill was her name.
She liked reading and music.
She went to church on Sundays.
I liked her.

After a couple weeks of innocuous courtship, Jill invited me over to her house.
It was dark out, a cold front had raked across the state.
I pulled on my grass green hoodie and started to walk five blocks to her front door.

Out of nervousness my stomach began to creak. Things churned and sputtered as I walked past a dozen houses to get to hers.
At her front door I knocked. A minute seemed an hour, the anticipation, the nervousness tied my innards in knots.
The deadbolt unlocked, and as she opened, my bowels felt like they had dropped.

‘Jill, I forgot something.’
Unable to come up with a concrete, legitimate excuse, I quickly walked away.
‘What?’ She hollered.
Keeping my cool, I waved, ‘I’ll be back in just a second.’

Half way down her road I picked up my pace. Before I knew it I was sprinting full speed.
Breaking a sweat, I had passed a dozen houses.
Every muscle in my body clenched tight, holding everything in that so desperately wanted to escape.
Until I just couldn’t hold anymore.

I ran into a corner lot.
In it was a house, with a long winding driveway skirted by a half dozen well pruned bushes. Each bush, prime enough for some sort of cover.

I fumbled with my belt, finally unbuckling it, and squatted as the hateful pain drained itself.
Lightheaded, I was left vulnerable to the elements.
Vulnerable, when the owner of the house walked up his driveway, a dog beside him, and found me, hunched over, relieving myself in his front yard.

He stopped. His dog winced.
And we made eye contact.

Naked from the waist down, freezing in the chill night air, I had no alibi, no code word to excuse myself.
Exposed to my lifelong existential fear, I was caught, revving up like a deuce.

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Neo-Nazi House Party.

Wherever they were, we went.
We, the middle class kids, flexing behind our socialist, do-good for all banner.
We served food to the homeless on Sundays.
We hosted our grassroots environmental meeting on Wednesdays.
We were the ones who broke away from home because we could afford to.
Because our parents supported us financially.
We got the apartment in the shitty crime filled and drug enveloped neighborhoods.
We lived in pseudo squalor because we could. Because we wanted to.
It was an escape from a life too easy.

And they were the same. Middle of the road, but from a different part of town. Rural suburbs. Where you had to drive ten minutes to the grocery store. Instead of a paradisal river cutting through their brick, historic neighborhoods, they had cow pastures and a couple dirt roads. For Tampa, they were roughing it.
And roughing it was unfair, it was oppression.
An oppression that had to be lashed out upon regardless of who you were or where you came from.
They stood for National Socialism. For white empowerment.
But, what was it, really?
Simply a justification to stomp your ass into the ground.

We hated them.
They hated us.
Down the road from our punk house was the Yacht Club. Its ancient pine frame rotten, its walls melting sideways over a sand cliff hovering the river bed.
This was the polluted end.
Brackish waters filled with brown beer bottles.
Old plastic sacks covered in slime.
Fish choked out, dotting the river sand, laying lifeless on the shore.

On weekends at the Yacht Club we hosted our punk shows. Loud, fast, discordant chaos. Where our ‘radical social politics’ served as a recurring motif through lyrics.
Those lyrics that taught us to be kind to our neighbor.
To hold friendship and camaraderie on a pedestal.
Those lyrics, graced upon us by the band The Dead Kennedys, informing all ‘Nazi Punks’ to ‘Fuck Off.’
We had gotten word that they were organizing a skinhead party at the club.
To us, it was a territorial pissing.
They knew the dive was ours.

We stood out front, fifteen deep. All of us, vegetarian, skinny for the most part.
Forming a barrier along the sidewalk, we did our best to obstruct the entrance, the coming and going of cars delivering the Neo-Nazi’s to their pow wow.

Across the lot, the Nazi-Punks formed an opposing line. A front. Like a civil war stand off.
They wore suspenders.
Some of them shirtless with shitty jailhouse tattoos:
A bald eagle with talons grasping a swastika.
An American flag conjoined with the confederate rebel.
Their ink, once black and red, faded blue, dulling in the ultraviolet sun.
Each Nazi-Punk, a meaty mass, a machine ready to pound us into oblivion.

Behind them, a pastel blue, 1970’s Econo-Van winded through the lot. Parking, the doors opened. Out exited a man in a three piece suit.
His blazer, also pastel, matched his ride.
His hair, blond, cake-like, as if a Ken Doll had been animated human.
His sympathizers quickly ushered him inside.
David Duke had been many things.
An ex-Louisiana, state representative.
A former Presidential Candidate for the Republican party.
And, most unbelievably, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku-Klux-Klan.

His political and ethical beliefs were beyond absurd.
He supported holocaust denial.
Formed the National Association of the Advacement of White People.
As a student, he once walked the LSU campus in a Nazi uniform.
This was a man who threw parties for Hitler’s birthday.

I had no idea this scene was a celebration. A rally for his political visit to Tampa.
It was no longer a territorial scuffle between us punks and our ongoing punk vs. Nazi feud.
This was real.
A real and serious threat.
By evening we had settled back into our punk house. We ate in masse, and sat on the porch as the indian summer chilled Tampa.
Mike set up the clippers. It was a weekend tradition. Most of us took a shave down. Short. Down to a quarter inch.
But with this cut, I wanted it shorter.

Across the street, the neighbors were throwing a party. Christmas lights lined their walk way. Parked cars littered the one way drive. We could see shadows moving through the house as dusk called on the street lights.

It was my turn.
Curled over, my head down as the clippings dumped over my shoulders. I watched those black bundles of hair cascade onto the wooden slats of the porch.
I was now freshly bald.

‘Done,’ he announced.
And I lifted my head. The night air cool, the humidity gone. I peered over the railing, where, to my left, an Econo-Van pulled up.
Baby blue, it parked directly across the street.

From the neighbors house, a half dozen people meandered out to meet their guest. The van door opened, and from the black pitch interior came that Ken Doll head. That pastel blazer.

David Duke got out. A giant smile on his face as he greeted his supporters.
They circled him.
Going clockwise, he granted each his hand.

Duke looked across the street. With my head lifted, my skull shaved bald, we made eye contact.
And then Duke waved, mistaking me for one of his skinhead minions, one of his sympathizers.
It was a cordial ‘hello,’ a superficial, political hors d’ouevres as he, the guest of honor, walked into his Neo-Nazi house party.

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What The Desert Brings.

Simulacra, by definition, is the ‘˜imitation of someone or something.’ Jean Baudrillard goes even further, ‘˜the substituting of signs of the real for the real: a hyperreal.’
Las Vegas is the essence of this.
A living definition.

Walking out to get a taxi, Elvis brushes past us as he struts over to a rented limo. His spray on tan so thick he looks rusted.

The Luxor Hotel. A modern marvel erected in glass as black as pitch. A Nevadan pyramid that, to school children unbeknownst, could harbor the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun.
Ironically, the Luxor is where a permanent Titanic exhibit rests.
The hotel, a complete, historic anomaly. An utter anachronism.
Its Nile created by the vomit and piss trickling behind its casino. Through the gutter it flows, down the drain to fill the empty underground caverns once inundated by groundwater. That groundwater (what’s left of it), the life’s blood to the Bellagio’s fountains where, every half hour, the recycled liquid dances to forgotten tunes of the good ol’ days.
A sentiment to those retirees, dumping millions into penny slots.

At Mandalay Bay, the Moorea Beach Club allows topless sunbathing. With tits out, you can swim in waters sucked out of the distant Colorado River.
Mandalay Bay: a tropical paradise. Its name an homage to a locale on the Irrawaddy river.
A totalitarian city, which for decades, has been crushed under Burma’s police state.

We choose the Mirage. With its over active volcano, rumbling hourly in honor of Vegas’s gambling cartels, bursting flames and molten lava into the dry desert sky.
The Mirage. A hyperreality. A symbol for the whole of the Vegas strip.
In 1931, gambling became legal. And here in the desert, waves of people migrated West to push the boundaries of chance. By 1942, the Manhattan Project was underway. By 1945, Trinity was detonated, and soon after the Nevada Test Site was established just sixty-four miles north of the city proper. And as the cold war became warmer, droves of government employees filled the strip while amplified atomic tests (totalling 928 in the state of Nevada) brought in tourists.
To each onlooker, a pair of military issued goggles was handed out.
Each detonation, an atomic testing soiree.
Dancing drunk, you could witness pre-dawn Vegas lit by a blast brighter than the sun.
From Vegas, we drive one hundred miles North, traversing three highways that cut deep into nowhere Nevada.
I-15 to 93.
93 to I-375: The Extraterrestrial Highway, where, for years, conspiracy theorists have come for potential alien contact.

On the ETH, we pass less than a half-dozen cars. Millions of stunted Joshua Trees litter the moonscape. Each slumps, ghostly, marking a gravel plot blessed by Mother Earth.
It’s a miracle that anything survives.

We continue on, forty miles Northwest to the trailer town of Rachel, Nevada. Here, there is one tourist spot, the little Ale’E’Inn.
For years, the proprietors have amassed paraphernalia celebrating what lies over the adjacent mountain range: Nellis Air force base.
Nellis, a military complex cut into zones.
Each zone an ‘˜Area.’
The most famous: Area 51.
‘Must have been interesting to grow up here?’ I asked the cashier.
My hands filled with knick knacks. An ‘˜all species welcome’ magnet. A fake license with an alien mug-shot. A bumper sticker: ‘˜I visited Area 51 and all I got was this anal probe.’
‘I guess man,’ he finally answers.
And I begin to realize that the paranoia surrounding this place, a paranoia feeding a feeble economy, must get old.
There is life. Real life.
And then there is this place.
An imitation of reality where simulacra feeds an existential faith.
And faith in what’s beyond, feeds income.

Behind me, the screen door slams open.
Sitting down at the diner stool, a biker slides off his dusted leather jacket and asks ‘Can I get an alien burger?’
Out in front of the Inn is a tow truck hoisting a flying saucer. Eight feet round, its imperfect, beaded welds identify it as human. Of Earth. Terrestrial.
To its immediate right is a mock tower. One you see often in top-secret exposes. Metal, like a small oil derrick. Its aluminum wind sock rotates uncontrollably to designate speed, direction, and barometric pressure.
At the top, a security camera points directly at you.
Under surveillance, your knowledge is their knowledge.
In the corner of the Lil’Al’Inn’s bar, locals have made a shrine to their microcosmic phenomena.
A Polaroid of a botched alien autopsy, its dummy guts spilled on a dissecting table.
Flying saucers photo-shopped on a dusk embraced, desert horizon.
And dozens of long exposures spread like patchwork across the wall.
In each photo, starlight is stretched laterally. We’re to mistake it for spacecraft travelling at the speed of sound.

What really caught my eye were the handful of snapshots capturing tangible, supersonic, military aircraft.
One of a B-1: The atomic bomber set in secret motion in 1974.
The picture was old, pixellated and grainy, like your parents at the disco. It swooped low over the desert, no more than a hundred feet above ground.
The photographer caught the jet late, in passing, almost too far gone.
Its carapace, shaped like a peregrine slicing sound.
Its bay doors open, ripe to deliver a nuclear explosion.

I wondered what the photographer had thought upon seeing it?
This was, no less, his communing with the Gods.
We had gotten directions to the infamous black box.

On arrival, and to our disappointment, it was a white box.
A white box representing a black box.
A white box representing a black box, representing the tangible evidence of Area 51.

Baudrillard would have been proud.
We got out of the rental car.
For miles, the desert stretched. Tumbled weeds froze in stopped motion, waiting for the faintest gust of wind to resurrect them.
But there was absolutely no breeze.
Instead, complete and utter silence.

In front of the mailbox, a narrow, gravel road lead into Nellis, AFB.
It cut southwest, then doubled back, piercing the craggy mountain side and disappearing into the void.

Behind us, from the direction of Rachel, a weathered tanker truck sauntered down I-375. As it approached, it down-shifted and the engine snorted like a raging bull.
Turning onto the dirt road, the truck sauntered past us toward the mountain range.
With the window down, the driver, wearing a wide-brimmed Stetson cowboy hat, nodded at us in acknowledgement.

Was he secret service? A cloaked member of the CIA?
Or was this just a simple reality: a stoic trucker, making due in an unforgiving desert, delivering jet fuel.

**Thanks to Keith Treanor at for being my co-pilot on this trip.

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The Unbearable Greatness of Being.

In November, I visited Gram C. at her nursing home. Although I stopped by as often as possible, it was always hard to visit. Each patient/resident in a different stage of the disease. The most well on, walking in circles, mumbling indefinitely. The rest, sitting at tables spread throughout the dining hall. Silent, they stared incoherently at a diminutive TV blasting Fox News.
As I sat with Grandma, a much older woman, suffering full on dementia, made her rounds past our table.
She mouthed words, but it was as if she was speaking in tongues.
Gibberish to us, yet in her head, it was an eloquent language expressing exactly what she wanted. Her arm bled from having scraped her thin, chicken skin. Moaning, she reached across the table and swiped Gram C’s brownie.
Gram C. let her have it: she was always much more interested in others well-being anyways.
My Grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four years ago. I’d always associated it with soldiers, on some giant ship in the Pacific, eating out of arcane aluminum bowls. As they stabbed at their food, the utensils scraped heavily on the contours. Loosening the aluminum, they gobbled down the hard metals.

After partially tuning in to a medical report, I was certain aluminum blocked brain transmitters. Metallic things just sitting in your skull. Flashy like a tin can. Reflecting emotions. Reflecting your reflex. The brain stops moving forward, dumping you in a cyclic state of emotional ups and downs.

During the report I’d caught word of the over consumption of caffeine. Medical studies where patients were given a load–in excess of 300 milligrams–and their blurred memory, miraculously, became just a tad bit more clear.

I went home and sucked down coffee.
Four cups a day, at least.
Silently and subconsciously hoping the disease wasn’t hereditary.
In her single bedroom, my aunt had furnished one wall with photos of each family member. Tokens of remembrance. Small firecrackers, that when lit, could spark a memory for Gram C.. She didn’t remember most of us. Me included. Though once we started to talk, the fog of things past would lift.
‘I don’t know them,’ she’d say, pointing to the framed photo of my wife and me.
‘That’s me and Ariel,’ Gram.

‘You and Allah?’ She asked. Who’s Allah?’
She called me ‘The Artist.’ Though I never understood her grounds for the moniker? I work in cahoots with a machine shop. They create. I sell it.
She, however, was much more the artist. With the knack for telling stories. Good ones. Epic anecdotes of a life initiated in hard times.
In that case, she had the brush. Her synaptic landscapes conjured for me through her distant memory and painted through our conversation.
She had the one gift that Alzheimer’s sufferers are blessed with–to recollect the very distant past.
And although she often stuttered, she painted well.
Some things, even in this state of hers, as clear as day.
‘I’m going to jot down some of your stories, Gram. Sound good?’

On her bed lay a copy of Prevention Magazine. On the cover, in bold type, ‘˜50 things nurses won’t tell you.’
Gram picked it up, thumbed a couple of pages and then threw it to the edge of her bed.
‘I don’t want to know,’ she said, and laughed, nervously. As if her reality, the clear definition of what she suffered was outlined in those pages. The truth inside. On page four. As if it were there to hurt her.

‘I guess you can,’ she responded, finally getting around to answering my question.
‘But it’s nothing to write about.’
She paused. And after collecting her thoughts:
‘But, you should write it, I’ll probably forget it.’

Again, she picked up her copy of Prevention.
Reading another sub-title she blurted out ‘Swimming With Sharks! That’s not a good idea.’
And she pelted the book back to her feet.
Her thoughts like a typewriter. It was as if her brain hit the return key, sending her thought process back to the beginning of the line.
With Alzheimer’s, instead of starting fresh, you start over. Again and again.
In the dining room, an hour’s old pot of coffee lay steaming in a corner. The liquid, black ink, stewing and watering itself down with a heavy dose of caffeine, swirling in its midst. I grabbed a styrofoam cup and poured a swig. The acid felt good going down. And I took pleasure in the taste, even if it were a placebo.

Having a seat at Gram’s table, we were joined by another woman. Her conversation was loud, boastful, and oddly coherent.
She introduced herself: ‘I’m Virginia, and I’m from Virginia. And you? Who are you?’
Without a second to answer, her persistence dove in:
‘Lucille, who is this man?’ She asked Gram.
Gram C’s memory lapsed. She thought hard as her lips twisted in puzzlement. When there was any delay in association, it took some time for her senses to return.
‘He’s my friend,’ she said, ‘He’s just visiting this evening.’

Virginia grabbed Gram’s arm. Pulling her out of her chair, Virginia led Gram no more than five feet away. Protecting her naivety, she warned Gram, announcing my intentions to the room:
‘I don’t trust that man. He’s not your boyfriend, you know.’

Gram looked over at me. Deep in those tangled fibers was an unconditional love.
I was familiar to her.
She pulled her arm away from Virginia, and walked over to say goodbye.
At ninety-two she recalled memories far beyond. The Dust Bowl. The Depression. The Second World War.
She told vivid stories of growing up in rural Illinois.
Her life started on a farm.
A family dominated by a matriarch, her mother. The girls worked hard. With no electricity. No running water. An outhouse. A well.
Lives self-contained. Lives sustained by the fruits of their garden.

She often talked about her mother in the present.
‘Mother works so hard,’ she said. Her mother having been gone for decades.
And through hard labor, Gram C. became resilient.
A dual knee replacement in the early nineties.
Two years ago, a broken neck.
And finally, just weeks ago, a stroke.
Laying in bed, comatose, her Being, beating death.
With life support she would have treaded on: In a dream world, no less.
Remembering unto herself and repeating the amazing life she lived.
A film reel. Playing her most beloved movies.
Those comedies.
Life’s tragedies.
And the occasional reward of romance.

**In memory of Lucille M. Coplon.
May 22nd, 1920–August 7th, 2012.

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Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair.

”˜The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer in San Francisco.’
I think that’s how it went?
Was it Thoreau? Maybe Emerson?’’

I listened briefly to the yammering. Some dude behind me on United flight 1589.
Houston to San Fran. 7AM.
He was making small talk with my wife.
She brought up literature. He, with embarrassing flirtation, threw in some anecdotes to impress.
But I lost interest from pain: my skull pounding from the pressure change.
I slipped back asleep, red eyed, into what seemed like an everlasting flight.

I’d heard the quote before. Several times. But it was never attributed to the Transcendentalists.
It always came out of the mouth of Mark Twain. In a quotation bubble.
His wild, cartoon hair. His broom tipped mustache. Both covering a face, or rather a brain, that told the story of middle America.
The great hobo adventurer that he was.
And out of all the old heads of practicality–those lords of mundane literature–he would have been most suited to take the trip. Beating the Beats by decades. Arriving in the chilled city, to breathe the antiseptic, Pacific air that breaks heavy off the headlands. Twain arrived right before the San Andreas fault cracked.
Shaking the city flat.
Leaving the Bay Area ablaze.

I sat just feet away. My head between my knees. Sweating from the pain.
It was numbing to hear the dude’s lousy come on.
But, I will give him one thing. There’s truth to it. San Francisco is fucking cold.
Haight-Ashbury was the same. On every visit, it simply remains unchanged. The dopplegangers of trends past, kicking hacky sacks, tossing their mystic juggling sticks. The wind blowing their warm patchouli. Their weed smoke more intense than burning sage, creeping through tiered alleyways. Scott McKenzie’s lyrics–setting the Summer of love in 1967–still grabs at the puppet strings of those hangers on.

‘If you’re going to San Francisco,
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.
If you’re going to San Francisco,
You’re gonna meet some gentle people there’
We walked through the Haight to Golden Gate Park. Within second growth redwoods–and the semi-tropical brush that defies equatorial lines–stagger the crust-punks, the homeless, and droves of incapacitated drunks. The mild, year round weather is prime for those folk down and out.
Some, victims to unfortunate circumstances.
Some, by choice.
To ask a dollar from every tourist could get you by.
Sometimes it does.
But just barely.
‘I don’t have a dollar, man,’ beating him to his question.

‘How about this, I’ll give you a newspaper in good faith.
I know the next person will spare a dollar for sure’

Holding out the periodical, he so badly wanted to give me something.
He wanted to give without taking. Maybe a sad attempt at communion with another person?
In the cold streets, filled with colder people, he needed to connect.
With the tourists.
With us.

His lips were swollen and diseased. His gums, rotting, with stalactite teeth drooping from his sad mouth.
In the sea of those hardened by their own self inflicted hard times, he was a survivor.

I did have a dollar. But I had committed the lie. It was too late now.

‘Well I appreciate the consideration.’
His elocution, calm. Humbled in hand-me-downs. He was through with any attempts to convince.

Folding the rusted paper back into his shoulder bag, he moved on. His gait, skewed. His right leg suffering a terrible limp. He hobbled down the grey pebbled path, as the mouth of Golden Gate park swallowed him up.
I felt as I had just shunned a leper. Banishing him back to his colony on the periphery.
Out of sight, out of mind.
In san Francisco.
The newest addition to the Haight is a compact Whole Foods. There, a historic city block was cut in half. And in its place–out of place–a cement foundation laid over its lovely grit and dust, and fed to the new age yuppie.
Crowded to the brim with hipsters. Packed with weekend warrior foodies and hippy vegans. The two of us were part and parcel. My wife and I. Part of what we pick fun of.
Between the wall to wall selection of Tom’s shoes, we ordered a Kambucha tea.
As a snack, a gluten free donut. And for environmentally sound travel, we snagged a Eucalyptus scented Dr. Brauner’s three ounce soap.
It feels good to be a part of something bigger. Something perceived as more politically correct. We consume it.

You are what you hate, in San Francisco.
We walked out of Herbivore. An all vegan dive near Haight. Its logo, a red pepper, carved in redwood, charbroiled amongst flames. There, the fog rolled in off the Bay. Engulfing street signs. Masking the sky: a nothing loitering along roof lines, conjuring the icy cold.
We bundled up. Two layers deep.

Hobbling along the sidewalk, the homeless man from Golden Gate and made his rounds. He couldn’t be missed. His head ducking, unnaturally, in and out of the commuting masses.
I reached for my wallet. Opened it as receipts feathered their way to the cement. I pulled out some dollars.
A token of good faith. A reward for his honesty, for his unnecessary kindness.
But more so, a selfish reprieve: To be forgiven for having lied.

‘You guys want some Barbeque?’
In both hands he held white plastic bags. On the sides, printed in bold red lettering were the words ‘˜Thank You.’

Opening the styrofoam he presented his cache. Each container stacked high, overflowing with greasy ribs.

‘Some guy at a bar…just right back there. A cook. He gave me all of this.’
Over his shoulder, he thumbed behind him, pointing into the fog.

‘I’d love to share this with you.’

Somewhere in that cold void were people–Benevolent–practicing the altruism that continues to save us from being pieces of shit.

And this was the perpetual, golden city by the bay.
Where gentle people wear flowers in their hair.

**The folk singer Scott McKenzie died the day I started this project. Coincidentally, I stumbled upon the unfortunate news the day I finished the first draft.
Thanks to him for uplifting words.

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Cock and Balls.

Driving has always been difficult for me. Depth perception. Speed. Using the proper signals at the proper time. But, the more I drive, the more the act becomes an innate sense. I could close my eyes and make that 66 mile commute to work. I’m not claiming it’d be a pretty one. I’m not the best behind the wheel, but I’m sure I could make it there nonetheless.

I was a late bloomer on the desire to drive. It seemed much easier to bum rides from friends. Sometimes, it was just easier to pedal my bike across town.
But, in the mid-nineties, my mom decided to get a new car. And upon the arrival of her investment, I was offered the hand me down. A champagne colored, late 80’s Honda Accord.
It drove. It had a stereo.
For me, those two facets filled the bare minimum for usage.
I gladly accepted.

My buddy Ryan gave up his time for instruction. He’d been driving three years. Four if you count the one where he’d steal his parents car and haul us, late night, around the neighborhood.

With him at the wheel, and a worn out Black Flag tape moaning slow on the stereo, he chauffeured the two of us to the local dog track. In the vast, negative space of snowbirds gone home, we switched places.
There, I listlessly criss-crossed the parking lot, never making it over thirty-five. And that initial, conservative speed limit set the tone for years to come: I was nicknamed ‘Grandpa.’
The light turned yellow. Driving five miles under the speed limit I squeezed through the intersection. And like clock work I switched lanes. A bad habit, yes. I tend to do it at every light. Maybe a subconscious re-loading? A new lane equals a renewed chance to make green through the next crossing.
But I was pulled over.

‘You been drinking tonight?
My window was already down: the first thing you set straight in an air-condition-less car in Florida.
‘No sir,’ I responded, clear and concise.
‘Sir, step out of the car.’

The officer drew a pen from his pocket protector. He placed it two feet in front of my eyes.
‘Follow the pen.’
And I followed it. Back and forth. A half dozen times.
‘Step over here, sir.’
I followed him to a white line. A parking divider. He at one end, as if a pitcher, ready to drive the ball. He wanted so badly to strike me out.
‘Walk towards me.’
I laid my arms out as if balancing on a tightrope.
With torso erect, I shuffled slowly. Toe to heel, toe to heel, until I met him at the end.
‘Again, please.’
I turned around, waited for him to assume his authoritative position.
And, once again, I walked. This time, much faster. My arms swaying like a Cessna in turbulence.

‘Can I ask you something?’
I nodded, waiting for his barrage of questions.

‘Why were you driving slow?
And why did you switch lanes so quickly after the light?
You been drinking, haven’t you?’

I gave my answer, a default I took pride in:
‘Sir, I couldn’t even tell you what alcohol tastes like.’

For a second, the officer stood blank faced. With squinted eyes he cocked his head to the side. His frustration steeped.

‘Son, you’re a damn liar.’
We were four deep. Another night. Late. We sat at a stoplight with windows down. Planted in the slow lane, our light chatter–that late night delirium–filled a pre-dawn silence.

Above, the red light stood still. Glowing, crimson on the asphalt.
We waited.

And there was a squeal.
Behind us, headlights rolled closer out of the distance.
As they approached, the car moved from lane to lane. Right turn. To left turn. To three lanes over and back to start.
The impending car rambled clumsily, like a bowling ball pushed down an alley.

I looked up at the light. Unchanged. Bright. Bloodshot.
I looked backwards. White lights. Swerving.
I braced for impact.

And it came. Like boredom hitting you. Slow.
And the sound. The metallic crunch of steel mashing. The skid. The acrid smell of rubber burning.
And our skulls hit head rests.

Somehow, we were still alive.
There were three police. Swarming. Questioning. Annoyed at our situation.
The drunk driver, inebriated and draped over the median.
I wasn’t angry. And for some reason I felt no sense of relief.
Instead, I felt sorry for him. The drunk.
A bad decision. Those oblivious bar rats–his bros–having let him creep into the night.

‘What were you doing out this late?’
The officer questioned me, condescension on his tongue.

‘Driving home is all–We take this road every weekend.’

‘You guys been drinking?’

There it was.
Another hollow accusation stiffening the hair on my arms.
With my sober, geriatric driving, and the fact that we were stuck behind an unchanging red light, ‘Grandpa’ had done everything right.
‘You think you can draw the scene? The path the driver took?’

The scene was simple. I had explained it to the officer. Once, twice.
But a schematic was what they wanted.

So I drew the median. Long. Tubular. With a rounded end.
I penned the drunken man down the center. A stick figure.
His arms splayed out. His legs spread apart, bent and crooked.
His image, a series of connected capillaries.

And at the end of the median, I scribbled two tightly cut bushes.
Round. Like traditionally pruned, Japanese Yews.
As a finishing touch, I dotted a broken divider line, sprinkling out from the bulbous head.

Sunlight shed on the horizon. We were all exhausted. And there was still a long way home, to drive my debilitated, champagne tinted wreck.
I looked down at my shitty drawing.
Then I looked over the roof of my car.
And there lay the drunken man who could have killed us.
He was lucky to be alive.
But we were luckier.
‘I hope this helps sir…’ I said, as I handed the officer my masterpiece.

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