The House of Uncommons

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Margaret Thatcher is tall, lean, and trendy; she could be an art museum curator if it wasn’t for her need to understand her own mental illness through others. Though, if she’s fucked up in her life, it wasn’t too catastrophic—she doesn’t put on airs during our sessions and appears to care for my wellbeing. Her office is shared and typical for a publically funded community psychiatric clinic; a khaki box otherwise empty besides a framed print of Picasso’s Guernica hanging on the wall. I feel agitated. Ms. Thatcher’s subdued presence triggers a smudgy emotion inside of me, one which has lingered far from the emotion that bore it, the feeling’s a cross between being nude in public and dropping food on the ground in front of strangers. There are no windows.

“How’s the writing?” She begins.

“Shannon left.”

Margaret Thatcher sits back in her chair and exhales the “Oh shit” she formed inside her mouth.

“Wow, okay. I’m sorry, Josef. You must feel very upset.”

“I know that I am, I know that I should be, but I feel unable to processes it—I suppose I feel guilty. I thought I was doing my best to make her feel better after the assault, but I didn’t help her recover at all.”

“Helping others through a traumatic experience is a tough business. Maybe you did better than you thought?”

I take a second to think.

“I concocted ideas of what she needed and tried to force them onto her without considering I was wrong.”

“How?”

“I let her alone when she needed someone close. I was too close when she needed space. I was thoughtful and patient—I was forceful and impatient to motivate her, but always on my terms. I did everything right and saw nothing get better, so I did everything wrong in hopes to inspire the opposite effect. I could have just asked her what she needed.”

“The former sounds like the flawed logic of desperation.”

“I was anxious and unable to wait. The weight was bearing down on me. Things had to get better when I needed them to.”

“So, since things weren’t improving quickly enough you took control of the situation by blowing it up?”

“It felt like things were going too slowly and I was close to a breakdown. If she were to see me lose my shit, like I’ve done in the past, she wouldn’t want to be with me anymore. Self-destruction wasn’t a conscious choice, but looking back, the only choice to reduce my anxiety.”

“Self-destruction is a common option we choose when we’re overwhelmed and cannot acknowledge and communicate our feelings properly. What’s troubling about patterns of self-destructive behavior is outsiders can clearly see the individual in question’s ill-conceived plans, but the individual is too wrapped up in self-denial to calculate that their trajectory is on a collision course with reality.”

“I remember thinking things were coming to a head and I should prevent that from happening. But, a second after the thought I reckoned a collision was the natural progression of the situation.”

“I hear that a lot,” Margaret Thatcher says. “We also know your family history and how much self-destructive behavior, perpetual conflict and overly simplified resolutions are the norm. It’s easier to stick with what you know.”

“When emotional responses are sought after like drugs to the addict,” I say. “How the hell did we become this way?”

“It was something your mother learned, something she and your uncles were raised with and used to survive in their broken home. You hold onto the ideas surrounding how positive relationships should be and begin a complex process of mimicking several archetypes of normalcy in the hopes you can fake it until you make it, but it’s still acting. It takes self-discipline, counseling, and time to rewire your brain from that kind of behavior.”

“We’re all high strung, anxious, co-dependent, and insecure— I wish I could control how rushed I always feel, how unsteady and ashamed. I wish I didn’t have this maniacal inclination to always be in good standing with everyone. To always quash conflict.”

“Conflict in the world or conflict you perceive is directed against you?”

“I suppose both.”

“I don’t see you trying to change the world?”

I smile and lean forward in my chair.

“Well, I’m apprehensive to change the world after what you did to it, Margaret Thatcher.”

She rolls her eyes.

“You have two more Margaret Thatcher jokes left this session,” She says, dryly.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about people not liking me.”

“I know, I’m your psychiatrist.”

“I look back on my life and think about all the wrong moves I made. How much I went out of the way to seek validation from those I thought were cool, while ignoring the extended hands from friends I took for granted. For someone who cares so much what people think about him, it’s bizarre who often I put myself in embarrassing positions.”

“What do you believe are your thoughts and feelings that keep you from having peace of mind? In other words, what is inhibiting you from being a consistent and dependable human being?”

“My thoughts are always agitated; I’m always anxious. Often Angry.”

“Why do you think you’re always anxious?”

“Because I can’t help but see everything in a state of decay.”

“What do you mean by that? Decay?”

“Entropy. I had to go to the hospital last night to see my mother in the ER and when I got there she was laying on the bed asleep looking like a dying child.”

“Is your mother’s mortality perhaps changing your thinking to see everything through this lens of entropy?”

“No, I’ve thought this way for a long time—I can’t stop thinking in the past. Often good times that are gone, or times I embarrassed myself. When something good happens I remind myself it will soon pass.”

Margaret Thatcher creases the right side of her tan bob behind her ear leaving a single tendril hanging in the gap between the arm of her glasses and her cheekbone.

“Why are these memories milestones of decay?”

“Because they ended poorly.”

“Or, is it that they just ended?”

God damn Margaret Thatcher going after my negative thoughts again.

“I don’t know, perhaps. But, when I think about the embarrassing moments, I cringe and think how can I have such a lack of self-control to indulge such poor behavior?”

“The process of nostalgia is often evoked to stir in us a sense of serenity and closure. However, if that picture is then compared to our image of the present, the here and now looks less than desirable. Perhaps you already know your nostalgic memories are as false as your embarrassing ones. In my opinion, nostalgic memories are more dangerous than self-loathing thoughts.

“I thought you were into nostalgia?”

“Is that another Margaret Thatcher joke?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, that was number 2, now say something smart.”

“I’ve never wanted a relationship of any kind to cease to be; I’ve wanted the connection to always remain even if our roles change.”

“Is this strictly romantically?”

“No, I mean all relationships. Friendships are the easiest to maintain, but somehow I’ve exhausted those connections too often as well.”

“I highly doubt that.”

“I lost many friends after my divorce. I lost more in New Zealand.”

“You’re not alone and friendships forged abroad will always be loose and eventually fade.”

“But, I want a perfect record.”

Margaret Thatcher stares at me as if she sees something inside me that I cannot and begins to smile.

“Your hopes are valid but unattainable. You will lose relationships, you will watch friendships come and go, you will be faced with the inevitable consequences of living in the world, where both good and bad things happen.”

“I wish I had a better grip on my emotions.”

“But to GRIP them, as you say, means you must be outside of them in order to secure them.”

“Okay,” I say, “To control them.”

“What is control?”

“To not give in to temptation.”

“Very Catholic.”

“I forgot, Margaret Thatcher, has a thing against Catholics.”

“Margaret Thatcher joke number 3 for the win,” she says, invoking a weak fist pump with her eyes scanning the chart balanced on her lap.

“How could I not?” I say.

“Control.” She says to keep us on topic.

“It’s to always respond in the right way. To instantaneously weight a situation and perform appropriately based on its demands,” I say.

“So, it’s some Victorian idea of behavior and restraint developed through good breeding and a high moral and ethical compass?”

“Uh, is that what my answer sounded like?”

“To me, it sounded like a bunch of, excuse the expression, poppycock.”

“Is that a Margaret Thatcher joke?” I say.

“No, it’s a you joke.”

“Ouch, nice one,” I say. “Look, I go up and down, left and right. I’ll have a good couple of days and then the anxiety comes back. I’d like to write more, but I can’t draft anything with a semblance of consistency. I’m unstable. I can’t work more than twenty-five hours a week without exhausting myself and getting worse. I’ve never held a real job because I can’t concentrate or be stable enough to do my tasks at a consistent level over time. I run my own contracting business because I can’t have a boss. I can barely work with others anymore because before, I’d get such profound performance anxiety I’d lash out. I’m something to laugh at. I have no control.”

“No, you suffer from rapid cycling bipolar disorder,” she says.

A pause. A dog barks, but from Where? Margaret Thatcher’s lips are pursed with the pride inherent in a well-executed bombing pattern. I riposte.

“No, I think it’s just a learned behavior from my mother; I’m not like her, I don’t eat my fucking meals over the sink.”

“…”

Margarette Thatcher’s green eyes glint just below her bangs and then pop with emerald smoke curling up towards the ceiling.

“So, I’ve been nuts this entire time,” I say, “and people have been placating me?”

“That’s a meaningless sentence. Tear it apart and ask yourself if it holds water.”

“It’s a reactionary thought which bears little on reality and more so upon my insecurities,” I parrot back to her like I’ve heard it a thousand times.

“Correct.”

“But, are you sure? Bi-polar? I’m actually fucking crazy?”

“Josef, you’re not crazy. I’ve been observing your behavior for a couple months now and have been almost certain for a few weeks. However, I wanted to wait and be sure, and to also notify you when you were ready.”

“How the hell is now the time when I’m ready?”

“Because your family needs you to fight for yourself to help them, and Shannon needs you to accept yourself so you can begin loving her.”

I resonate with what Margaret Thatcher is saying, but afraid of what it means. I feel emotional.

“Have you heard of lithium before?”

“Yes,” I say, less than excitedly.

“And?” She asks.

“I’m afraid it will turn me into an uncreative zombie.”

“Well, you’ve been complaining about being an uncreative spas the past two months, what do you have to lose?”

“Good point.”

“Look, it’s all about the blood work. We’ll get you on the right dose, which will stabilize your mood without making you feel like a manikin.”

“I suppose I’ll have to trust you,” I sigh.

I look again from Margaret Thatcher to the Guernica print and realize that I’ve been screaming in the inside like the cow in the painting for years.

“You put that print there on purpose, don’t you?” I say.

“No, but someone did,” she says.

I look away and my eyes begin to swell.

“This isn’t a loss, Josef. This is a chance to gain control back.”

“What if I’m scared to have control? I’d rather keep wanting it than to actually have it.”

Sunsets Over Troubles Immemorable

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My dad’s a vet. Vietnam. He graduated high school, took off to Iowa for the corn harvest, and ran with the carnivals selling postcards and knickknacks until one day outside of Baton Rouge he got a phone call from grandma telling her only son his draft notice came in the mail. His boss, Pennant Red, said to him, “Son, get your ass back to Seattle and sign up for the Army so you can go through Basic and pick what you want to do. Otherwise, you’re good as dead.” Lucky for dad, between Pennant Red, Little Joe, and Big Cowboy and Little Cowboy, there were enough war veterans working the carnival circuit to give my father the best advice to save his neck.

 

For him, not going wasn’t an option. Not because he agreed with the war, but because it didn’t seem like the right thing to do. So he went to Vietnam and felt wrong about it the whole time— and when he got back was told he was wrong for being a soldier and for going. He told me he was convinced his plane home was going to crash and sweated the whole ride home. He got off the plane at Sea-Tac Airport and went to the bathroom to take a leak. The bathroom was strewn with abandoned army suits. Dad refused to take his off, not because he agreed with the war, or even because he respected the army, but because he couldn’t disrespect those other soldiers who didn’t make it home.

 

He waited all night for a cab, but no one would pick him up in his green suit; so he called his dad, and Grandpa picked him up.

 

Settling back into American life was difficult. He told me he was really interested in a girl, but she told him one evening over a beer, “I just wouldn’t have gone.” That’s what she said, “I just wouldn’t have gone.” He disappeared for a few years after that but came out the other end. We are all thankful that he did. Some in our family didn’t.

 

Grandma told me, my Great Uncle, Ken died during WWII in Alaska. Ken was her favorite brother. I asked my dad, when I got old enough, how Ken died. Dad said, “He was stationed on a tiny island in the Aleutian Island chain and thought the war had ended and was forgotten. He ended his life with his service weapon and was found days later.” With Grandma, painful things were always masked in understatements.

 

She said her younger brother was a very sensitive boy, but brave. He began to leave the farm at six-years-old to work the railroads and would come back with money for the family. I think Dad reminded her of Ken. When I asked her what she thought of dad going to war, she said, “We took a road trip back to Iowa one summer when the kids were young and your dad insisted that he always got to a campsite before sunset so that he could lay on top of the car and watch the sunset slip behind a mountain, cast its rays over a cliff, or set a cornfield on fire.” She paused and stared into her past and then qualified her story, “A boy like that isn’t meant for war,” she said. “And, that’s the thing.”

 

Fighting hurts us all.

The Green Turkey —Preface

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I like this courtroom. It’s not modern—one enclosed in glass, secured with metal fittings and detailed with sculpted plastic moldings that make impossible shapes look natural. No, it’s an old oak-clad room with a high ceiling, a square space wrapped in over-waxed wainscoting and decorated with heavy art deco furniture. The floor is granite, the aggregate of which, the size of Perry mason’s eyeballs. There are tall windows to my left letting through the sun. The light leaks through the shades and I can see dust particles dance in it and settle on the empty seats of the jury box. The atmosphere’s pleasant, tranquil if it wasn’t for the feeling of impending doom inside my stomach. The jury is in chambers deciding if I killed my mother for the right reasons—that same question still burns inside of me, but I’ve lost track where it is; it feels like it will never be resolved, lost in my veins.

It’s complicated. I’m a murderer, but my conscious is often clear. I see things simpler now since I took a look inside my mother’s denture-less mouth and saw the image of the woman she used to be crawling up from the darkness of her throat. I see strands of DNA in place of skin and bright colored steam emanate off the bodies of strangers. Goodness makes me cry. All is passing, all thoughts are fleeting, every moment for me feels like this is the end of my life. I could be calm while drowning and smile while choking. I could be found guilty and bow to the jury. I’ve accepted all the possible outcomes.

 

My lawyer, on the other hand, has not, and she tells me I’m emotionally compensating due to my current levels of stress and anxiety. She calls my enlightened state of being, monking, i.e. pretending to be all-knowing and unaffected by a reality I have no control over. She’s right, but for now, must be wrong; going Buddhist monk is working, at least I’ve convinced myself so. Regardless, it beats the hell out of trying to go Albert Camus/existentialist with it, my first phase of denial. In the end, becoming L’Étranger made me feel like an aging hipster bursting out of his leather pants while trying to shine his beetle boots in front of an impatient firing squad of twelve jurors.

Speaking of annoying, my lawyer has a nervous habit of giving me pep talks when she’s feeling pessimistic, like right now. Ironically, She’s also trying to convince herself that she’s in control of a situation beyond her grasp. She’s not monking, per se, but it’s still a form of compensation. She’s lecturing me about what’s REALLY going on, and how our case has a fair chance of success. I stopped listening to her ideas a couple minutes ago, instead, counting what words she repeats the most. Strong—as in a “strong indication,” “strong chance,” and a “strong possibility”—twelve times. Perhaps, eight times. Regardless, five times. And, Not the end of the road, four. I don’t mean to be rude, and it’s not her inability to realize her veiled doubt is subconsciously leaking into her language which bothers me (I mean, I’m pretty much fucked), it’s the fact she thinks she can convince me otherwise. I know she’s coming from a good place, that she’s trying to deal with her own stress and anxiety, but it’s not like there’s anything we can do now, and convincing ourselves we did enough, isn’t enough. It’s better to monk the situation than to over-analyze it or turn beatnik.

Tamar Chansis-Corbin is such a good name for a defense attorney—a speed reading, top-5 Harvard Law graduate, type-A attorney. She’s taller than me and rail-thin. Her hands are long, slick and purposeful like shellacked shoehorns. She has a dense afro parted down the middle, which she lets eclipse on the weekends. Come Saturday, Her glasses likely come off too. On weekdays, in court, she rocks a pantsuit or a pencil skirt and blazer. Pearls every other day. Small earrings, irregularly. Eye mascara like Nefertiti, calligraphy on deep golden skin.

Tamar wasn’t the first attorney to visit me, but she was the first visiting creature who exhibited human traits. She walked into my cell confidently, but vulnerable, which matched the state I was in after being grilled by two Seattle homicide detectives for 17 hours, and 48 hours deep into a beltless suicide watch and three ham sandwiches. I won’t lie, I was attracted to her, but that attraction let me trust her at a time and within a system where I trusted no one. Plus, we are from the same neighborhood in South Seattle, pre-gentrification days, so there’s a bond that comes with that. She was new—backed by her father, partner to a firm, a successful defense attorney letting out the line on his protégé—and I was new to this too. It might sound counterintuitive to want a young and inexperienced lawyer, but she had the resources, and she was working the case pro-bono. I don’t know what else to say besides it just felt right.

“You listening to me, idiot?” she says.

“Just the words.”

She looks away, up to the bench, and sighs before looking back.

“I don’t need this monk shit right now; I need you to listen to me.”

“Yeah, okay, but don’t you want to know what words I was listening to?”

“No?… NO.”

“Fair,” I say.

“In the event you’re found guilty we can appeal.”

“I know.”

“I know you know, but I need to tell it to you again, so you don’t begin chanting Om instead of fighting your conviction because you’re one with the universe.”

“I can be one with the universe and also refuse to take it up the ass,” I say.

“How inspiring,” she says with zero affect.

“The title to my memoir.”

She disengages in refusal to admit she thinks I’m funny. She hates smiling more than Anthony Scalia’s ghost. I’ve tried really hard to crack her shell, but she’s tough and also smarter than me.

“You know what I should be found guilty for?” I say.

“What?”

“This outfit. It’s fucking hideous.”

Like my high-school picture days, I’m wearing my older brother, Eligh’s clothes. A dated black blazer over a massive jade green silk shirt stuffed into a pair of pleated khakis, all resting on top a pair of black and white oxford saddle shoes. It’s honestly the weirdest outfit imaginable, but my suit went missing this morning and Eligh raced home in rush hour traffic to throw something together. He’s in the middle of moving and found them in a trash bag of old clothes that hadn’t been moved yet, or opened since 1998.

“Guilty of smelling like Value Village,” she says.

“Or, teen spirit.”

“That a Grunge joke?”

“Don’t be so Kurt.”

“Oh, god, please stop,” she sighs. “Like I said, the jury can come in at any moment. This is day three of deliberations, so time is on our side. —If they’d took only a couple hours, we’d be screwed.”

I continue to nod to Tamar, but I slightly turn my head to face Eligh. I mouth, “What the fuck?” to him while pointing to my outfit. He smiles and mouths back, “Sorry.” Tamar looks at him and smiles; I can’t fathom this.

Eligh’s nearly twelve years older than me, the last of mom’s first marriage. We look like brothers, but there are distinct differences. He has more hair, I have more common sense. He loves money, I love books. He can’t hold a relationship, I can’t be alone. Though only the difference in hair volume is likely genetic, I’d like to think they all are. I suppose that’s what we have in common though, the ability to believe whatever we want to for the sake of convincing others of whatever we need them to believe. I suppose that’s another form of control, a way of monking with the masses, a way to temporarily put insecurity aside and be the one that is in the know.

“You’re going home,” he mouths to me, after giving Tamar too long a look.

“Where is home?” I say.

He rolled his eyes.

“Not here, idiot,” he says.

“Seriously,” Tamar interjects, having read my lips. “You’re a published author and yet your proclivity to descend into cliché and melodrama makes me want to puke.”

“I blame my mother; that’s why I killed her,” I say.

“That’s not cool.”

“Mom would have said that was my Irish sense of humor talking. Although, I could never understand what that really meant.”

“Um hmm,”

“You just um hmm’ed me; take it back,”

“Um hmm,” she repeats.

“Psst,” Eligh hisses. The press and other randos in the seats behind look over to us.

Tamar smiles, again.

Eligh points at his watch.

“What’s taking so long? I’ve got a WhatsApp date with Aja in an hour.”

Aja is our older sister. She lives in England and is married to a Morris dancer. They love Doctor Who and take travel pictures with a stuffed skunk. They’re dorks, but good people.

“My fate takes time,” I say.

“So does the freeway,” Eligh says.

“Don’t you dare smile at him again, Tamar.”

“Your brother’s cute,” she turns and whispers.

“He’s fifty.”

“But he looks forty.”

“If I lose this case I’m reporting you to the bar.”

“Um hmm.”

I turn around and look at the empty bench in front of me. I imagine The Honorable Judge Maddox is in her chambers eating a salad, drinking a blood orange San Pellegrino, and already knowing the answer to my guilt or innocence. This whole fucking show is so Kafkaesque because the law has so many doors with so many ignorant guards; because it mirrors our broken society, but still operates with such a resolute and cold logic; because my name is Josef and I’m on trial.

 

Another hour goes by and Eligh is gone. I again look behind me and the diehards are still here. Pete Sorenson, the jack ass from the Seattle Times who wrote that I’m “the epitome of white privilege,” when ironically, he is. Tabatha O’Riordan, who wrote, “What if he’s a saint and not a villain?” which is in the running for the most painful cliché title of the year. My favorite diehard though is Omeed Faraz, a second-year Seattle University law student who asked my permission to sit in on the trail as part of his fieldwork for a class called: Ethics, Morality and the Law. I’ve let him interview me a couple times to hear my side of things. I can never tell if he’s shy or afraid of me. This gives me no sense of power, but of loss. To be branded guilty is one thing, but feared by good people, something else. Still, the most objectively I’ve been able to consider my situation is with him. He’s a good listener, and like Tamar, a lot smarter than me.

The last diehard is my father. He sits in the back seats either playing Sudoku, solving chess problems or reading George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. The two former are staving off the aging process, while the latter negates his hard work. However, I’ve never read them, only watched the first two seasons of the series, so I should shut my mouth.

He looks up from his work and stares at me, but only when he thinks I’m not aware of it. I think he’s trying to understand why I did what I did to my mother. How he should care about her death after being divorced for so long. Perhaps, he’s trying to figure out if he still loves me, or if he can love me? I suppose, if I’m convicted he’s all alone; in a way, surviving the figurative death of his only son. He’s meditating on the prospect of mourning. Lately, eye contact between us is rare because I think he wants to spare me the embarrassment. He sees that I’m distressed and so wants to let me be, like an injured animal in the woods. He can’t do anything to help me, so perhaps keeping a distance is the safest way to manage? I get that being the defendant in a high profile legal case is way too much attention for Leonard, what I don’t get is Game of Thrones.

 

“You didn’t like Game of Thrones?” Tamar asks, rhetorically. “You’re such a hipster.”

“Why does that make me a hipster?”

“You don’t like anything that’s popular in the mainstream unless if it’s enjoyed ironically.”

“That’s not true.”

It’s totally true.

She grabs her purse and pulls out a stick of lipstick and applies the crimson fudge to her lips in front of an open compact.

“That’s a nice color.”

“Shut up,” She says but flashes a coy smile.

Finally! But, my triumph makes me weepy, and I look away to regain my composure.

“What’s up?” she says.

“I’m going to live out my days surrounded by dangerous men.”

“Welcome to my world.”

 

***

 

I lay awake in my cell staring at the bright red exit lights above the door where the guards come and leave. I can smell pizza, hear the excitement attached to men speaking about football, and the listless turning of my neighboring inmates. I’ve been called a momma killer by a guy who killed his girlfriend. I’ve been high-fived by a janitor named Karl, who only listens to John Lee Hooker on his classic yellow Discman. I’ve had a guard named Obi say he thinks I’m a good man. Another guard named Tommy, who hopes I get the chair. I’ve lost weight, but sit-ups still kill my back. I can’t read because I stare at the page and ruminate about all the things I cannot control. Trivial things like what will I be fed tomorrow, or which guard stole my suit?

Eventually, the overwhelming things flood my thoughts. I think about my girlfriend, Shannon who might be my ex-girlfriend now—After all, she did say I was fucked up, said it was over and hasn’t been in to visit me in over two weeks. I think about my brother, Fran and imagine what he used to look like before being eaten alive. He has long hair, wears a Hawaiian shirt and is leaning on a golf club winking at me. I think about mom and the times we recited the rosary after passing a car wreck on the road.

Even though I don’t believe in it, I think about what hell might actually be like, and then I imagine being strapped naked to a wet couch watching Game of Thrones with Martha Stewart. She whispers the directions to every recipe she’s ever published in my ear and begins to scream at me for making her life miserable. Another sex scene to obfuscate the banality of exposition erupts on the screen and my cock gets hard. Ms. Stewart gets a great idea and pulls a razor-sharp carving knife from her purse.

“I have an idea,” she whispers into my ear while stroking my penis, “It’s a take on zucchini pasta (zoodles)—dick ribbons.”

I begin to scream but bubbles come out of my mouth and children come into the cold room to play. They scream at the sight before them and their parents rush into the room. They initially turn away in horror, but then usher their kids out and blame me for it all.

“You started this. You, started this mess,” A distressed mother screams, coving her eyes. Blood spills over my lap and runs down my legs.

“I build my recipes for the common housewife,” Martha says.

Luckily, I have other nights where I’m fine and think of movies I like and try to re-watch them in my head. I can replay Wayne’s World, Clue, and The Usual Suspects in their entirety. On these nights I know my love for my mother is true and that I did the right thing. Fran enters my cell wearing his long hair and a Hawaiian shirt, swings his gold club and winks.

“It’s going to be alright, otouto,” he says.

My father appears sitting on the edge of my bed, how I remember him when I still played Little League and asks if I’d like to do a chess problem together. The other inmates in my block yell good luck tomorrow from their bunks and promise me small gifts upon my release, like a taped mirror to look down the hall with, and a quality shank with fresh tape.

Most nights I’m an empty vessel, like that dancing bag in American Beauty, or Ryan Gossling. I can read for hours but remember nothing the next morning. I write, I think some of the best prose I’ve ever written with a crayon (suicide watch), but when I reread it, the paper looks something akin to what a parent of a toddler would put up on the fridge and say “That’s great!” about. On these nights, I believe I’m being inhabited by my former selves. It’s not a reasonable explanation, but one that mystifies the world and makes life less predictable; Scientific query and western demystification are not allies in here. I feel depressed when I use logic to address my actions because perfection is implicit in logic. Linear modes of inquiry are so lame. My ghosts try and communicate with me, but there is static between us and that is why I can hear them, but when I write down their wisdom it comes out looking like toddler drivel.

So, yeah, long story short, I’m monking it and Tamar is right, I’m an idiot. I’ll admit it, but it’s a form of manageable insanity that’s keeping me from becoming too co-dependent, obsessive, and dark. That’s what happened to me when I got divorced. That’s what happened when I was homesick and moved back to the US. Those were the ghosts of me who visited and are trying to save my life. They know I will lose my case and are preparing me for the worst. I have agency when I get to decide what affects me or not; it’s my last ring of defense, my safe room.

However, tomorrow is the day the jury will make a decision and that decision will be my biggest test, one I will likely fail, it holds too much weight. It’s funny that this whole thing started because of writer’s block.

 

 

Too Late and On Time

It just sucks David is dying. There’s really nothing else to say, you know? My brother is dying and it can’t be stopped. And, at every turn—when he was diagnosed, when he was going through chemo, when he got better, and when it spread throughout his body—it was always, what am I going to do about work? How am I going to pay rent? My bills? There never was a time I felt I could afford to go and as a result I never got to see his life. So now I feel the least I can do is see his life in Japan while he’s expiring. Maybe I’ll visit his local haunts; his old bars, his old places of work, his neighborhood mini mart, and find his ghost. Maybe he will tell me what happened to my brother the past 15 years since he left. Maybe then this’ll make sense.

A Letter to Enoch Campbell 27 years after the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 (first draft)

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March 23rd, 1916

Dear Enoch,

It’s been 27 years since you threw me out the window of the burning cabinet shop on Madison and Front Streets. It’s still a mystery to me if you did it to save me, or kill me. Perhaps, it was a bit of both. In 1889, Seattle was a troubled city and we were troubled young men. You were still reeling from the death of your wife, and I was destroying the faces of Seattleites under the naive assumption that I could halt a thing as salient yet wraithlike as historical progress, through murder. I suppose, young men have a tendency to think they are mining the center of things when they’re still only scratching the surface. Ego, a basic understand of things, and tenacity get you far in politics, but no more than an inch into the stony skin of life. Sacrifice is a pure enterprise, but fails to mix well with modern intellectualism. You should know that I plan to kill again.

You and I are different in many ways—I’m sure you have spent more time considering and convincing yourself of that than I. However, what we have in common is a hatred for authority and a healthy loathing for fraternal orders. The schoolyard, the sporting team, the university, the office, government—fraternity infests them all. I saw how much you hated the law firm where you worked in Seattle, but how at home you were in Madame Lou’s “hotel.” Anywhere is better than in the midst of a group of apes beating their chests and strategizing their moves within a game no one else wishes to play. Here’s a word for you to ponder: patricide.

I cannot tell you everything about my motivations without telling you everything. You need to know how I was ruined. I want you to know how the events of my life affected me and sent me down a path of masculine uniformity. I once was a man who was willing to strip others of their dignity to maintain a world in which I was king. Now I’m a killer of fathers resolute in the fact that my own ending will be misunderstood and gruesome. So be it—the world is currently at war by such notions of domination.

Before you is a manuscript which tells the story of my life before our paths crossed in Seattle, and what followed after the burning of the city. Before and especially after, I met many people who for better or worse changed my life. It’s important for you to know because I want us to be clear before I end our lives.

Like I said, sacrifice is a pure enterprise, especially when our motivation is to appease a theme that is prehistoric, pre-conscience, and a central building block to our species: To consume and be nourished. To eat them. Eat them all up.

 

 

I’m Not a Newt! I’m an Author.

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“Could you please put down your phone,” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, without looking up.

“No, like right now.”

“I just need to finish this post,” I said, feeling like I was working against the clock, playing a dangerous game with my girlfriend’s patience.

She sat impatiently, looking at me like I was a cat she was about to throw across the room. All I had left was to add the hashtags. But, which ones to use? If they’re too popular you get lost in the shuffle, too small, what’s the point? Be clever, be funny, be humble; rather, be a humble-brag monster of explosive optimism and saccharine contentment. #superpositivebooklover. #blessed. Post.

Oh, for fuck sake, I’m a tool!

That’s how social media marketing often feels. Not only am I a tool, but a poor man with a gambling problem throwing coins down a well, waiting for one to jump back up. The big bite. Impossible.

When I received an offer from a publisher to publish my historical crime novel, Throw-Away Faces, I was excited. Finally, I’ve made it! I knew next to nothing about the industry, but my publisher seemed legit enough. Beggars can’t be choosers when approaching a publisher unsolicited. I told myself this on more than one occasion. Yeah, okay.

Well, now that the book is published, all I can say is that I’ve accrued thousands of hours of rewrites and edits (good), relationships in the industry which will serve me well down the road (good), and a huge phone addiction predicated on wagering the worth of my book on the amount of “likes” it gets on Instagram or Facebook, or my author’s rank on Amazon Central (VERY VERY BAD).

What I didn’t know getting into the game is that the book market is absurdly competitive and awash with a lot of shit. It pays huge dividends to have an agent when shopping the book, and once publishers show interest, to pick one who pays their publicists to manage your marketing. This is key.

Otherwise, get ready to hate your life, and possibly your book, because you’ll be throwing countless emails, letters and time into review queries that will never be looked at by newspapers, journals, and magazines. And, money into many .com black holes. This will boil down into an ill-conceived effort, commonly called a self-marketing plan, to master nuanced and disingenuous forms of marketing communication forged to manipulate strangers into clicking a link to buy your book. It’ll never be enough. You will look in the mirror and see a Gollum.

When you’re fatigued, your publisher will offer you cooperative packages that are vague in description, but enticing. They whisper sweet nothings into your ear, “Take a load off, Joe.” “Let us do the work.” “We’ll send your book into the hands of the most talented, sexiest, and trusted reviewers in all the land.” And, can you blame yourself for giving in? No, you really can’t, but you will anyway.

The other option is spending countless hours online making virtual friendships and alliances, which is fine, and the right way to do it, but the task is a full-time job and will yank you out of the world of the living.

Don’t get me started on the writer’s block I’m currently experiencing because I now have the attention span of a newt who happened upon a horsefly turd convention.

“How was your day?” she asked.

“Fine.” It wasn’t; I didn’t sell one book. I didn’t get a word written for the sequel. I didn’t do my research. I clicked the refresh button a lot. My phone says my screen time is up from last week. I drank too much coffee. I went down the spiral.

I forgot I’m an author.

So far, this is what I’ve learned from the experience: Do what you think is right to get your book out there, but not at the expense of your creativity. At some point, you just have to let it be, write the next one and make it better than the last. You’ve made your bed for now, but you can get a new one. The worth of your work has nothing to do with a stranger’s thoughtless click of a “like” button. If it was, your time would be better spent engaging in #vanlife.

In the end, stay an artist. Stay balanced. And next time, get a publicist.

You’re not a newt.

Throw-Away Faces—Historical Crime Fiction—Preface

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Greetings readers!

Throw-Away Faces will hit bookshelves January 10th, 2019. Here’s a sneak peek. I’ll be posting more in the coming days. If you’re interested in learning more about the book, including a more in-depth synopsis, visit www.throwawayfaces.com TAF will be available for pre-order very soon. you can visit my publisher’s webpage here: www.blackrosewriting.com

Thanks for stopping by!

-Josef Alton

Dear Doctor Dooley,

You will not remember me, but you tended to a friend of mine who died many years ago. At the time when we met outside Glasgow I had no idea we would be linked through a common fate, death following us wherever we settled. Unlike you, I did not choose an occupation waged inside the crypt; I became a lawyer. As I write I am aware of the irony entangled within my words, and I will leave it for you to ponder. I will say, however, it was not the opacity, rigidity or even the aridity of the law that deadened my heart, but
rather its miscarriage, and further still a disturbed individual who waged an ill-conceived crusade against a miscarriage of justice through an evocation of evil.

It is not my intention within this letter to explain the details of my ill-
fated journey into the forests of the American frontier. Rather, I tracked you down some years back to find you long since departed for Ireland and I let the case rest. It was not until last week that I picked up the newspaper and read about the strange patricides taking place in Dublin and their disturbing similarity to the murders I experienced in Seattle when I was a young man.

I have spent the past few days writing furiously to reconstruct the events of June 1889 in Seattle, as I saw them. I know of no one else in Dublin, and I am sure, based on your standing as a doctor, that you have the proper friends to contact if this manuscript moves you and perhaps compels you to inform the Royal Irish Constabulary of the innocence of the girls suspected of murdering their fathers, and also the resurrection of a killer. I leave this manuscript with you in good faith, as I left my friend in your care many years before. Let us pray for a more positive result than the conclusion to our first meeting those many years ago.

Your servant,

Enoch Campbell 

THE BILDUNGSROMAN OF MIKE ZUNINO

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Seattle Mariners Spring Training

June 19th, 2017 was the day I started believing that Mike Zunino’s improvement was irrevocable. Granted, he had been on a streak, but I’d seen plenty of those before. Zunino was hot, there was no doubt, but he’d been struggling for so long I wanted to do him a favor and not believe in him or at least ignore his improvement because I wanted him to succeed. I know that sounds contradictory, or even oxymoronic, but it’s a baseball thing to say, at least for a fan. When guys who’ve struggled at the plate heat up it’s best to not jinx the whole thing by making a big deal about it; it’s best to not change anything and let the good times ride out, even if it’s without you.

Fan martyrdom is a feckless and meaningless sacrifice when judged outside of the eye of the beholder, but necessary to the emotional content of the game. I’ve always judged Zunino in emotional terms because his progression has been defined by a myriad of struggles which, in my opinion, mirror the disarray and hardships of daily life. I root for Zunino like I root for myself, and curse his failures like my own. I’m not a super fan, I just search for metaphors where I can.

With all that said, 2015 was a shit year for Zunino, and it had everything to do with the 2012 and 2013 seasons. The college sensation—recipient of the Southeastern PlayerGold SpikesDick Howser, and Johnny Bench Awards—was rushed to the Big Leagues after a total of 81 Minor League appearances. Only 50 of those appearances were at the AAA level where in Tacoma his numbers indicated issues at the plate, namely strikeouts. His preparation was expedited without proper consideration taken for his long-term development. The shoddy construction of the scaffolding Zunino was forced to climb, namely at the order of former GM Jack Zduriencik would inevitably fail and threaten to collapse on the talented young prospect.

His debut in a Mariners’ uniform came on June 12th 2013. He hit a single on his second at-bat. On June 14th, he hit his first home run. June 28th, his first walk-off hit. Just as he was rushed into Major League Baseball, Zunino clustered his milestones in quick succession. He was speeding up his performance in a game that demands patience and punishes those that ignore its mechanics. As the season progressed, Zunino’s production became inconsistent. Sporadic home runs were encircled by hoards OF angry strikeouts. His handful of walks stood by and helplessly watched.

2014 was a disappointing year for the franchise and for Mike. The Mariners ended the season one game back from a postseason berth and Zunino was .40 batting average points back from a respectable offensive showing. In 476 plate appearances, he had 87 hits, 17 walks, and an anthill of strikeouts, totaling 158. He ended the season with a batting average of .199 and an on-base percentage of .254.

In 2015, his offensive woes increased and culminated in one of the worst at-bats I’d ever seen. On August 27th the Mariners were trailing the Chicago White Sox 4-2 heading into the 9th. Zunino approached the plate with the bases loaded and one out. I remember muttering, “Oh, shit,” to myself; you could see it in his face—fear. After he waited on a pitch in the dirt he flailed at three consecutive pitches placed in the same spot—low and outside—and struck out. It was embarrassing and sad. You could see he was defeated. Every swing was unfocused and conducted with desperation. He was chasing ghosts. He’d given up and I was mad at him for it; I’d defended him, silently cheered for him, and forked over all of my bargaining chips to the baseball gods to will Zunino into a better batter. My payments were gobbled without action and Mike was optioned to AAA Tacoma.

SO Z

He ended the season with the fifth worst offensive performance from a catcher appearing in over 100 games in MLB history. The shoddy scaffolding he used to climb to the Majors had finally collapsed, and he was buried deep in the rubble of another disappointing season.

Lucky for Zunino, 2016 signaled a regime change with the introduction of General Manager Jerry Dipoto and head coach Scott Servais. From afar, Dipoto saw what former Mariners GM Jack Z did to Zunino and publicly declared his commitment to Mike. However, he’d send down the young catcher to begin the 2016 season in the Minor Leagues to properly develop. The hope was that they could undo the damage Zunino’s rush to the Majors has done to him by propping up his defensive talents to then salvage the third overall draft pick’s hidden offensive abilities. In other words, work on his confidence first and then his swing.

Zunino put his nose to the grindstone and aimed to improve his game on both sides of the plate. He’d always been fantastic defensively but strove to improve his defensive performance, especially his game-calling prowess and put-out accuracy. He invested time with the pitchers and built a sturdier rapport with them.

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Mike’s work ethic and engagement with his teammates in Tacoma brought many of the younger guys, especially those yet to receive a call-up to the Majors, to look up to him. The residual effects of chasing his goal to return to professional baseball sharpened his skills as a leader. He carried that confidence into the cages where he worked with hitting coach Scott Brosius, who refocused his approach and simplified his swing. The results were immediate in 2016, where he hit .286—averaging a hit per game—and pushed his on-base percentage up to .376. The latter was largely due to Zunino’s increased walk rate—he was laying off the pitches he previously couldn’t help but hack at. Zunino was drawing walks and jaws were dropping when he did so.

Meanwhile at Safeco, Chris Iannetta, The Mariners everyday catcher during Zunino’s absence, had slipped in form and by July the M’s needed a change. Iannetta’s back up, Steve Clevenger sustained a hand injury and was put on the disabled list. As a result, Zunino was called up to add stability behind the plate.

On July 2nd, in his first at-bat back in a Mariners jersey, Zunino clubbed a 2-run home run. He’d go deep again later in the game and finished his day with a walk in the 8th inning. Coaches, journalists and fans alike commented that the walk was Zunino’s most impressive at-bat of the evening. Being that Mike had a history of hitting far more home runs than taking walks you can understand why. The walk signaled to everyone an improvement in his plate discipline.

For the remainder of 2016, Zunino was still somewhat inconsistent. However, in his 192 plate appearances he drew 21 walks, the same amount he gathered in 2015 with 386 PA. As a result, his on-base percentage leaped from .230 in 2015 to .318. What had changed was his new-found ability to hold off on pitches arriving low and outside; a quadrant where league pitchers had been punishing him for three years. Although not perfect, it became obvious that Mike was maturing as a ballplayer and learning some self-disciple in the process. He finished the season with a .207/.310/.470., but he showed significant improvement and a positive trend that went beyond his numbers. His offensive performance appeared like it could only improve.

That’s why the beginning of 2017 was so disappointing. Just when it looked like Zunino was over the hump, he came crashing down. In the first 24 games of the regular season he batted .167 (12-for-72), with a measly on-base percentage of .236. He managed only two RBI, no home runs, six walks and 30 strikeouts. What had happened to the new and improved Mike Zunino? No one had an answer, but when the Mariners announced, yet again, that they had optioned Zunino to AAA Tacoma Servais said,

“With where he’s at in his career, we thought, let’s take the foot off the gas here a little bit. Let’s get him down to Tacoma and get him right. And as soon as we get him right, he will be back. He’s not going to be down there for an extended period of time or whatever, but we do need him right. In talking with coaches and the front office, now was the time to make that move. Hopefully, he’s not down there long because we certainly need him. We still believe in him, but where he’s at in his career right now, it’s got to be more consistent. He’s got to put the ball in play.”

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Behind Servais’ diplomatic turn of phrase, “With where he’s at in his career,” what was being communicated to the public, and possibly to Mike himself, was that he’s in a position where he needs to turn the corner; that now is the time to make the change; that now is the time to break through. The words I heard come out of Servais’ lips were, “It really needs to be now.” Zunino had reached the crucible of his career.

Rainiers head coach, Pat Listach, former Mariner and hitting coach, Edgar Martinez, and recently promoted Mariners assistant coach, Scott Brosius, worked with Zunino to shorten his swing, incorporate a leg kick, and change the direction of his swing to focus more hits to the middle of the field. Three changes sound like a lot, but Zunino picked them up quickly and put them to use. On May 22nd, after displaying good results in Minor League play, he was called back up.

What transpired was a revelation.

But, not right away.

On June 19th I had a pair of 300 level seats that came with a stellar view of the Seattle cityscape turning into molten honey as the sun gradually descended to meet the craggy ridges of the Olympics. Heading into the game, Zunino was hitting .336, with 23 RBI, six home runs, and 10 runs since his recall on May 23rd. I was hesitant to get on board the Z-train just yet, as I was afraid the over-hype to do with Mike’s return could jinx his hot streak. I remember sitting in my seat, looking at the skyscrapers glow like oozing strips of honeycomb and recounting the gold road Zunino had been tap dancing on since his recall.

On May 23rd Zunino did what he usually does when he’s recalled and hit a home run to signal his return. However, the Mariners received a 10-1 thrashing against the Washington Nationals that day, so the mood was more subdued than usual. The next four games Zunino went hitless with eight strikeouts and one walk. On May 28th he had the night off. In the visitor’s dugout at Fenway, he watched his team beat the Red Sox without him. On May 29th he prepared to beat the month of June.

From May 29th-31st Zunino collected six hits, three doubles, and one RBI. From June 2nd-7th (he didn’t play on the 1st) Mike had eight hits, five runs, three home runs, and a staggering 12 RBI. June 3rd was a standout performance. Against the Ray’s he brought in a total of seven RBI by smashing a double for two, a Grand Slam for four, and a single to add one more. The real beauty of the performance was that he was staying ahead in his counts or fighting his way back into them—something that was rare for him to do in the past.

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The hits kept coming, besides the occasional three-strikeout game like the one he sustained on June 6th. Regardless, he was batting .302 with 15 RBI and four home runs in 13 games. The day after, he bounced back and did some serious damage against the Twins hitting two home runs including a walk-off homer to win the game. His offensive display continued to impress, but those that knew him best saw more in him than just the confidence that comes with a streak. Servais was quoted as saying in the Seattle Times:

“He’s been able to make adjustments. Last night he struck out three times and I asked him today and he knew right away what he was going to go to. ‘I got a little quick, I have to slow my leg kick down, my timing is going to be fine and I’ll be OK.’ Just getting that response back versus the wide-eyed, ‘I don’t know,’ he’s a much, much different player right now.”

On June 19th against the Detroit Tigers, I saw the change that Servais and the players in the clubhouse were seeing. It happened in the 6th inning. The Tigers loaded the bases with Steve Cishek on the mound with only 1 out. Cishek was replaced by James Pazos, the lights-out lefty that had been shaky as of late. The stadium hung in the balance—the tedium of the situation punching guts throughout the bleachers. However, dispelling the feeling of impending doom was Zunino who appeared to be in control of the situation.

Pazos struck out the first batter with a dime of a curveball grazing the outside edge of the plate. The third out, Andrew Romine, stepped up to the plate as Zunino visited the mound. I saw the dust cloud plume from his catcher’s mitt when he slapped it against Pazos’ back. He told the kid something, and I didn’t know what, but I believed it. Especially when Pazos canceled the threat with a 99 mph fastball for strike three to end the inning.

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Zunino came up to bat the bottom of the 6th and worked his way out from a deficit into a full count and created the opportunity to send a 2-run laser into the left-field stands. In the 8th inning, he hit another 2-run dinger for insurance. From my seat, what I saw that night was a single player step up to control the game like an able veteran. I didn’t see Mike Zunino, the kid that was rushed to the Bigs, but a calm and collected catcher calling on his inner faculties to maximize his efficiency for optimal output. I still kept my mouth shut, but I was so damn proud of Mike—a beaming and fulfilling sense of pride that you only have for another human being when you watch them rise above and beat the odds against them. Teammate Kyle Seager had this to say in response to Zunino’s battle:

“He went down there, made some real adjustments and it’s tough. He’s a competitive guy and ultra-talented. It’s definitely been tough for him, but he’s battled through it and been professional the whole time. He never lost track of the pitching and catching side of it. It’s been pretty impressive to watch what he’s done.”

It’s true, Zunino’s streak eventually ended, but he had a great September and finished the season with a .251 batting average, 97 hits, 25 of them home runs, 64 RBI, 39 walks, and an on-base percentage of .331. Numbers that superseded his prior best if not obliterated a few of his worst. In the grander scheme of things these numbers are good, but for Mike they’re great.

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In hindsight, when I recall the evening of June 19th I realize that Zunino’s performance summoned a feeling of pride that sparked an element of self-interrogation inside me. What I find challenging about Mike Zunino’s story is that it’s not altogether unique and also edging on the cliché. Many players struggle to find their form, and for every one that does, so many more don’t. His success story, at least as it stands now, follows the narrative of nearly every sports film—simple and formulaic. That being said, his story still moves me and stirs inside my gut a mixed bag of feelings.

In the end, I’m proud of him, but I also envy him because he had so much support and a team to stand by him. I envy the fact that he kept screwing up but no one gave up on him, including me; when if I were him I might have given up on myself. I suppose the real reason why I didn’t cheer for him was not just out of a superstitious gesture of support, but also out of a lingering note of jealousy. I support Zunino in emotional terms because I use baseball to escape certain aspects of life I choose not to face. He challenged his failures square in the face and still stands. Sooner or later I’ll have to face a few of my own.

Even in a realm so frivolous as baseball associations and metaphors can be forged that have larger implications in one’s life. The struggle of one is the struggle of many. The success of one fuels the confidence in another. The game of baseball fashions a catalog of situations which always display an opening for great things to happen. Ballplayers become archetypes when they exploit these spaces. The wheel keeps turning.

This Spring Training, five days before Opening Day, Mike’s on his way around the wheel. Currently, he’s batting .390, with 16 hits, 5 home runs, and 11 RBI in 41 at-bats. These likely won’t be his numbers in the regular season. He’s still going to be streaky, falter at times, and strike out, but he’s always going to bounce back because that’s what he does, and that’s what we do. We get up and play the next day.

I think I’ll cheer for him this year, out loud.

(Originally published on 03/25/2018 on my baseball blog, http://www.joebaseball.blog. Goodbye Mikey, we’ll miss you.)

 

TENSION WITHIN SPACE

Hey, Ink To Stone followers, I started a new blog about baseball. It steers away from the hardcore analytical analysis, to instead focus on the human element of the game. Check it out and give a follow if you like. Many thanks!

Joe Baseball

About twice a season my fiancé, Liz agrees to join me at the ballpark. The agreement doesn’t come easily and without its caveats; usually, the proposition isn’t settled before the promise of hot dogs, beer and Dippin’ Dots is established. Every summer we replay our first baseball compromise, The Great Safeco Compromise of 2014 when these terms of the agreement were struck into stone.

Let me sign-post this first by saying that I dearly love Liz, but in those early days she wasn’t that fun to go to a ballgame with, and she’d admit to this, at least I think so. Balls and strikes were hard for her to keep track of, balls hit into foul territory where confusing, and tagging-up on a pop fly seemed to her a bizarre rule solely created to make the game even less exciting than it already was. She had a hard time not squirming in…

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Tigers in the Thicket

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Screeching bottle rockets and hot ribbons from Roman candles ignited the orange night sky. He fell into me and swiped for my wallet. It was a poor attempt, frankly, a drunken attempt, and I expected it. His friends fixed their eyes on mine, worried, watching eagerly for my reaction. I was fine and he was light; I picked him up and set him down like a spilled drink. They yelled at him in Hindi—I imagined they said something like, “Dude, you’re an idiot.” However, it could have been anything. It was the early hours of the new year, at the foot of the Gateway to India, Mumbai.

I had already been in India for a fortnight, entering the country via Chennai, in the Southeast. Nearly every Western traveler that’s been to India has a story to tell about their first day, and it often sounds like a watered-down act stolen from the script of Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom. My memory of Chennai is sadly no different.

I traveled to India via Bangkok with a Kiwi. If you’ve ever traveled with a Kiwi you know that many make travel decisions as if they’re unaware that danger exists in the world. Their optimism of survival and thirst to enter spaces commonly observed to be dangerous often appears to the American traveler as an eagerness to satisfy some absurd dare. “A boundless naivety,” an Irish traveler once said to me in reference to this phenomenon (bear in mind, I never once saw him off our hostel’s sectional couch). On the flip side, the American’s self-proclaimed gift of “common sense” can easily appear as ignorant, fearful, and an utter waste of a “sweet as” overseas experience. In short, my travel partner, Joe gladly drank holy water from the hands of a Hindu priest and got sick; and I barely slept on the nights we bunked in shared hostel quarters and was usually grouchy except for when I was drunk. We balanced each other out.

 

Joe was nearly deported on our arrival into India. New Zealand is one of the few countries that hasn’t manufactured a terrorist, so India said Joe could sign for a travel visa upon arrival. However, the head of customs in Chennai—a short, bald man with pop bottle-lensed glasses—swore by his gold tooth that he had never heard of such a thing. We were called into his small green and blue office, and he hoisted a massive purple ledger out of his desk drawer. Taped on the wall behind him was a document titled Countries Allowed for Visa upon Arrival Thank You. Norway was crossed out with a thick black marker because of the domestic attack in Oslo the July before. New Zealand was not crossed out. I pointed out the list to Joe. He asked the customs agent to look behind him, but he refused. I couldn’t get over the blatancy of the bribe that laid in wait. Norway. Crossed out. Brilliant.

The bribe worked, but the transaction that we hoped was now closed remained a theme for the duration of the trip. We were in the country but eager to get immediately out of Chennai. In hindsight, I think it was our knee-jerk reaction to reject the cultural shift we were adjusting to. The experience in the airport and the game of bumper cars we played on the way to the train station only hardened our opinion that we needed to flee to Bangalore, as if Chennai were an island we could easily row away from. It was 1 am.

There were several hundred people sleeping on the stone floor of the Victorian-era station, so I cannot say what it looked like. However, the outer walls were constructed of red and white brick and the pillars that reached to the iron girded ceiling were thin and flaking. One painted brick per occupant, but no ticket window to be found. We ran from train to train until we found the one to Bangalore. We hopped on with no tickets. The ticket master said that we could stay on the train if we were willing to pay a penalty. We were already aware of the penalty. I spent the night looking out the train window thinking of all the tigers laying in the thicket that weren’t there. The transaction.

 

As the years have gone by, I’ve wondered what India was like. In my emotional memory banks tigers laid waiting in the thickets, but in actuality there were only failed attempts of connection lost amongst the weeds of meaning. The journal I kept of our journey still conjures many feelings inside me, but few memories outside the text. I’m the unreliable narrator of my own past. At times, it reads like a Victorian-era boy’s adventure novel and at others like a gothic phantasmagoria riddled with episodes of anxiety, estrangement and monsters. It also contains the popular features of an exotic Indian adventure: colorful spice markets, a straight-razor shave, performing as an extra in a Bollywood film, cow’s making cud of garbage, getting lost in a slum, chased by dogs, vehicular decapitation, and yes, bribery and endless haggling for tuk-tuk rides. All very strange. Very other. But more importantly, all elements that when reduced down to their core are based on my failure to find any greater meaning from my transactional relationships. Giving, buying, haggling and bribery did the opposite of breach the cultural divide, but harden the preconceptions that defined its walls. In the absence of such connections, I began to create an image of India and its people that I had heard and read about before—applying the clichés, constructing a universe less foreign made the cultural transition more palatable. The real penalty.

However, this is not a story about a Westerner making good on his original cultural and perceptual miscues; this is a story about real and imagined barriers and how the lines between the real and imagined get blurred when trying to make sense of things, on both ends.

 

Lenny, the cook and barman of the small café connected to our accommodation in Cavelossim Beach, Goa, spent Christmas getting hammered after work and slept on the faux-marble floor of the café. Joe and I were the first downstairs for breakfast and found Lenny on the floor.

“I got drunk for Christmas,” was the first thing out of his mouth.

“So did we,” Joe said. “But no worries, mate, get yourself sorted; we’ll be on the patio.”

We let Lenny pull his hair into place and reset his swollen eyes while, in the meantime, we talked about our plans after Goa. Lenny came with coffee and an apology, where we told him it wasn’t necessary.

“All I do is work,” he said.

That night, after Joe and I investigated our share of old Portuguese churches from the worn cobbled footpaths of Panaji, and met the brown waters of the Arabian Sea in the afternoon, we went back to Lenny’s. He was still there, same swollen eyes, but in a new shirt. He joined us for a cigarette after our dinner of pomfret.

“How did you like the fish?” he asked.

“It was amazing. Very delicate and rich.”

“Delicate is the right word,” he said.

He put his face into his hands and sighed.

“I’m so tired,” he said. “I’m sorry about this morning. I haven’t been to mass in six years, and I went last night and then couldn’t stop drinking.”

“I know the feeling,” I said.

I learned that most from the area are Catholic. I learned that there are still Portuguese held up in their private plantations. I learned that Lenny had a daughter two hours north of us who he didn’t get to see on Christmas. I learned that my good time, at least partially, was at Lenny’s expense.

We make choices based on the limitations of our circumstances, and Lenny’s hangover was not my fault, but I couldn’t help but feel involved. I paid next to nothing for an amazing meal. Lenny got a fraction of it and spent the holiday with us instead of his daughter. The idea of her seemed to keep him going and that at least was something no one could take from him. Even if, everything else was fair game.

 

In Jodhpur, the goats wore pajamas and many young Western tourists wore some article of Indian textile to blend in. We went to the market to buy supplies. We were no longer in the South, and the nights were cold. I found a scarf I liked and prepared myself for the purchase war. I had one hundred Rupee in one pocket and two hundred in the other. It was all part of the game. I asked about the scarf and the merchant tried to tie it around my neck. I said, “No, how much?” and he gave me an inflated price. From there we flashed looks, strange smiles, counter offers and re-counter offers. It can be fun or ugly, depending. I enjoyed it; I felt like I was connecting with the culture. But haggling is a dialogue of financial inequality, so it was really just fun for me.

I wouldn’t accept his price and tried to talk him down another 50 Rupee. A young man, running the booth next to us was with a group of other young Indians and he began to laugh at me.

“You realize, you’re refusing to pay half an American dollar,” he said.

I became defensive.

“If I let everyone take me for extra, it adds up.”

“But you get to leave,” he said.

My embarrassment quickly turned to shame and I paid the agreed amount. That was the most alone I felt in India and the last time on the trip I enjoyed haggling.

We slept in a two-story hotel at the foot of the Mehrangarh Fort. The owner was the best chess player I’ve ever lost to. She pitied me for my poor performance. She told me so and that was okay. We were on the patio. It was dusk. A loud group of young women from London sat close by. They wore shalwar kameez, and dupatta over their head, and it annoyed us.

“I hope they’re having a good time,” Joe said.

“Just subtly soaking up some culture,” I said.

“Just trying to integrate here,” he said.

We stopped ourselves and laughed—seriously, what Westerner really has the moral high ground over another Westerner when it comes to negotiating the obscure footholds up India’s cultural wall? The sun had set and the temperature dropped. I tied my Indian scarf tighter around my neck, and the girls put on their down-feathered parkas and fleece/Gortex jackets. Our hostess stared at them and then looked back at us.

“Too cold to be Indian now,” she smiled. “Time to go inside.”

I asked Joe what he thought about it.

“Just because you put on another woman’s dupatta, doesn’t mean you’ve seen what she’s seen.,” he said, being cheeky.

“And, another man’s scarf,” I said, running my hand over my own Indian artifact. We smoked cigarettes until late and listened to the dogs wage war across the blue city.

 

Jodhpur was the turning point. As we traveled north, news came that a winter storm had crossed over the Himalayas, and Delhi would freeze. I didn’t understand what that meant.

 

In Delhi, a social storm developed in tandem with the freezing temperatures and meant that everyone was cold and upset. Bus rides tripled their travel time. Indian time expanded from “Give or take a couple hours” to “Don’t plan ahead because who knows?” An icy fog consumed the Taj Mahal so we wrapped ourselves in thin wool blankets and disappeared into the smoky marble. On the frozen highway up to Delhi, we saw a man get run over and killed in front of our bus. Two days before, a girl was beaten and gang-raped on a Delhi bus and died. Riots burned there and cases of death by exposure loomed on the homepage of the BBC India news website. Delhi was frozen but on fire and we were headed straight for it. Or, this is at least the scenario I prefer to remember.

My past transactions had taught me that these were Indian issues and not mine, but I could walk as deep into them as I pleased and leave anytime. Delhi was going to provide me with a good story. That was then. Now, if I try and recall the more basic details of our stay a new set of events surface, all disappointingly mundane. In truth, the people of Delhi had a lot going on during that span, but from our vantage point, life there appeared quite ordinary. Merchants were selling and we were buying. Drivers were driving and we were riding. Restaurants were cooking and we were eating.

I’ve come to the embarrassing realization that I was disappointed that I wasn’t even given the opportunity to be rebuffed in my attempt to infiltrate the city’s woes. Rereading my journal, I believe that’s why I focused so much on the death we witnessed in my Delhi entries; to prop up the frail-bodied narrative of our Fear and Loathing-esque stay in Delhi, which was utter fantasy. Life was ordinary. We walked the streets—like visible ghosts—not participating, not shying away, just not knowing the city well enough to seek out it’s darkest recesses—the tigers in the thicket. There were many transactions and exchanges of currency, but no stories to steal to make up for the bribe in Chennai.

 

We arrived into Amritsar and to the Sri Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple, the holiest Gurdwara of Sikhism. It was zero degrees when we entered and a guard with a two-foot beard and a six-foot spear walked us quietly into a dark room with eight cots and gave us a sign of respect before leaving. I was apprehensive to leave my backpack on my bed but I had to just let it go; I was honestly too tired to care about my stuff anymore. We were asked to remove our shoes and socks when we entered the inner sanctum of the temple. The pool was still. Thin leaflets of ice floated by the unrobed men bathing in the frigid holy water.

“You know, in the last 500 years,” Joe said, “this place has been destroyed and rebuilt countless times. Enemies knocked down the temple, filled the pool with trash and bodies. But it’s always rebuilt.”

There wasn’t much to say to that and neither one of us felt like talking much more so we kept walking around the fiery golden ember in the middle of the pool and listened to the music coming from the temple play on and on over the compound’s loud speakers. The marble footpath surrounding the pool was slick and cold as ice, but I let my feet go numb to match the resolve of the men in the pool. I respected them immensely.

When it was time to eat we entered a mess hall full of worshipers both eating together on the floor and waiting patiently with their plates in front of them. It’s a meal that never ends. Joe and I waited with them and we ate together in silence. At the end of our meal we walked outside and to the rear of the kitchens and saw men stirring massive cauldrons full of lentils and others turning out roti from hot earthen ovens. We washed dishes in silence next to other men washing dishes in silence. But, it wasn’t for more than one meal before we realized that the silence was mutually self-imposed and a smile or nod easily broke the divide. I didn’t find peace in Amritsar, but it came as a welcomed reprieve and readjustment at a juncture in the trip when I was losing faith in myself. When it was time to leave, I left my scarf on my cot.

 

In Mumbai, my body collided with a young Indian man trying to swipe my wallet. He had every right to. If I could turn India into a booby-trapped wildland of lawlessness, inequality and exotica, he surely had the right to view me as a big dollar sign and the repository of some ill-conceived plan to literally grab the wealth away from me and make it his own. It was another transaction, but instead of exchanging money, we declared our cultural misconceptions to each other. The sad part was we couldn’t surpass the language barrier to iron it out and correct our false assumptions. We just stood there and smiled at each other like it wasn’t all our fault because we were just playing our bit parts in a much larger game. It was a new year, but the same tired story persisted—the story we tell ourselves to know where we are and who we are not.