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 speaks. The marble footpath surrounding the pool was as 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.

 

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Snippets—On Character

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There’s this recurring character who appears in my stories. He’s not of one fixed identity; she can be another. Together, they build and destroy, damage and revive memories under a chain-linked arbor of narrative. I’ve called him Simon, her name has been Mary. They’ve both meant the same to me: an undisturbed arc of life after death.

Snippets—A lost and found poem of a buried hour

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We could bloom into green hours. We could smile every time the green hour arrives. We could watch green hours burn the sky. We could watch King Kong descend the hills among the fog. Watch the bush tumble behind his heals. Watch green ignite the red carpet leading to the Church. And there, there exists loving grandparents and Saturday markets and the feeling that this is how it’s supposed to be. On the way back visit a ghost town of old things adorned with wide windows ribbed with paper-thin windows. Harbor Street made us old like black-and-white reel, but also young like artists: inspired tangible blasts of ink to coat the therebetween with parted clouds soaked in sun-spray. Like infinite infants and how they track mud on granite windowsills.

We could just drive forever and never stop. I never wanted to stop because I knew that was it, so I drove until I couldn’t. I swear I would have driven to Alaska or back to New York, but I stopped at Denny’s, and then Denny’s again until I couldn’t, I just couldn’t anymore.

But no matter because we have the mansion in the nothingness that kept me dreaming of all the hidden history absorbed in the South Island’s naked creases of green and river rock aprons.

Making pizza until always, because it’s too good to never say no to. Talking about Fitzgerald, and Kerouac, and Hemingway. Reminiscing about ages we missed and the present we aspired to wrangle. Of ideals and future lands.

Never of the unsaid. Of anxiety. Of self-loathing. Of insecurities to do with loving. Of barely coping alone. Of sadness. Of guilt. Of the barriers surrounding accepting the love you think you deserve. Of sameness. Of entropy. Of the next attempt after you.

The Beginnings of a Hotdog Party — an abandoned story worth revisiting?

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Burt had been depressed for weeks before he decided it was time to buy a luxury condo and throw a party. The idea came to him after a botched purchase of Amazon recommended self-help books proved to be a fruitless exercise to make “meaningful friendships” because he hadn’t the time to read them. To Burt, though he had soaked up all the information provided on the their back covers, he still couldn’t enact any of the advice provided. He still smiled at the wrong times, looked concerned when he should have joked, and joked when he should have looked concerned. Burt, as per usual, embarraseed himself around his work superiors, emasculated himself around the bros at the bar, and alienated a quarter of Seattle’s female Tinder population, all in a matter of weeks. He gave every book 1-star and a scathing review.

His motivation, like his heart, had been crushed. It was May. Summer, fast approaching and Burt felt as alone as ever. The late snowstorms didn’t help. He watched the daffodils bloom in March and freeze in April. The frozen spring showers kept his spirits damp. It wasn’t until Jon C., his spiritual advisor and self titled “tech recruiting guru” brought up the idea that a change in kitchen counter tops could do a world of good for Burt.

“Have you seen the granite counter tops going into these places?” He asked Burt, referring to the plethora of high-rise condominiums sprouting weekly in the city.

“Yes, the granite counter tops,” Burt said in the same uneasy tone he always uses when he answers in the affirmative about things he doesn’t know about.

Jon C. flickered his eyelids to control his disappointment and sighed.

“Burt we’ve talked about this bad habit of yours.”

“I’m sorry, it’s hard to admit when I don’t know something.”

“I’m talking about your surroundings, Burt.”

Burt looked confused. He hadn’t recalled Jon asking him about his surroundings.

“Burt, I’ve been telling you to look at the condos. I’ve been telling you to look at construction sites to internalize the visual metaphor into your own life — to build yourself up like a big expensive luxury temple.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t remember,” Burt said, anxiously.

Jon C. closed his eyes again, uncapped a tiny brown bottle of essential oil and took a deep whiff and exhaled slowly. Burt bobbed his head in support. Jon C. slowly opened his eyes, as if he were reborn and continued.

“Are you listening in the evenings like I’ve told you?” Jon C. said.

“I do, but I’ve been going to bed late.”

Burt, I’m asking you a yes or no question.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Well, no you haven’t, because if you had, you would have been getting my messages.”

“You mean, on the dreamscape?”

“IN the dreamscape, Burt, IN it,” Jon C. wiped his lips with his fingers. “The dreamscape isn’t a platform, it’s an unconscious superhighway we all tread on between our waking hours.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you about this…”

“Burt, I’m talking right now.”

Burt blinked and sealed his mouth.

“These meetings only get us so far, and you know that my best work comes right before bed. I have to be ready for them when they come. When was the last time you received a transmission from me?”

“Umm…”

“Jesus, Burt.”

“I’m not too sure.” Burt felt sheepish for failing his spiritual guide.

Jon C. unwound his legs from his kneeling office chair and walked to one of the ten electro-glass orbs scattered around his office. He pressed his pointer finger to the glass and watched the current strike it. He slid his finger across the orb and the blue snake of energy followed. He smiled. Jon took his finger off of the glass ball and walked to his bookcase. He reviewed his library of new age prophecies, tarot card decks, and the long column of Ayn Rand paperbacks categorized by duplicate and triplicate. “She was so right on.” He whispered to himself. Swiftly, he turned to reengage with Burt.

“Burt, your new condominium needs three things: granite counter tops, a hot tub and Cards Against Humanity.”

“Cards against Humanity?” Burt said.

“Yes, it’s a game where you can be racist, sexist and all the other ists and get away with it because you’re just matching unrelated phrases on two different cards. The most shocking combination wins! It’s risk-free and makes people like you and me feel safe and empowered.”

“Okay,” Burt said, not sure what he and Jon C. had in common besides their beards.

“Do you know what else makes people feel safe and empowered?”

“What?”

“Hot dogs.”

“Really?”

“No, but buy the condo and throw a housewarming party and all your problems will be solved.”

 

 

The Neighbor

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I was on a call, in front of my apartment building, telling a friend I couldn’t make it to trivia night because I had to get more work finished on my dissertation. He asked, “When’s that going to be finished–it’s taking forever.” “Soon,” I said. I saw a guy fumbling with a couple boxes enter into my building. I quickly ended the call and chased down the door before it closed.

The first time I met my neighbor was in the elevator. He cradled a box of papers in his arms and looked at the elevator’s floor buttons like they were about to tell him something interesting. There was another box at his feet with an Irish drum and a ukulele in it. I said, “Hi.” I said, “Nice bodhran. Nice ukulele.” He said, “Yeah.” That was the extent of it. We got out on the same floor, walked to the two doors closest to the elevator, and acknowledged that we were neighbors without acknowledging each other.

The next week, I saw a strange man get out of a green hatchback parked in front of the apartment building. His small, tasseled, black leather coat awkwardly hugged his soft body like an ex-girlfriend. He wore a newsboy cap, oval glasses, and fucking bike shoes cloaked by a pair of baggy boot-cut jeans. He turned, looked at me and either smirked or sneered, I couldn’t be sure. His beady eyes followed me as I passed. I felt that he was as judgmental as me. What a dick.

A couple weeks went by without seeing my neighbor. I forgot about him. His little coat, his newsy, and his wire rimmed glasses faded from my memory. But then he returned. It was hard to tell if it was him at first sight because it was nighttime and he had a head lamp on. He was by the front door, standing over his road bike, plunging his spandex-wrapped cheeks between its top tube. He was fiddling with his phone. I approached. He didn’t look up. I held the door for him and waited. After a moment he looked up, and then shewed me. Shewed me with a flapping hand. Shewed me and then smirked or sneered. I stood my ground, held the door, and he looked up again, raising his hands like he didn’t understand. I said, “Oh, I didn’t hear you say anything and thought you were swatting at something.” He said, “As if,” and looked back down at his phone. “As if.”

At 6am the next morning the knocking came. It started as a soft tap on my bedroom wall. It had a rhythm: boomp, boomp, boomp. But then it grew louder and faster, and then there was a soft whimper followed by a loud growl. A sex growl that was so vulgar and tactless, I felt less annoyed by being woken up by my neighbor having sex than sorry for his partner. But after his egregious sexual release, I heard her giggle, giggle like it was cute. Cute sex growls. I looked over at my girlfriend and she was staring at the ceiling. That growl will be seared into her mind all week, maybe longer even. The growling continued, every morning, the loud animal-like interjection soaking through our bedroom wall.

Things were going too far. The boomps and the growls and the annoying howls from his two miniature long-haired terriers began to wear on me. I couldn’t write in the morning any longer, I couldn’t read at night over the irregular strumming on his ukulele. I prayed for peace and quiet, for evenings in silence and mornings filled only with the sound of chirping birds and the whoosh from the local bus driving past. But things continued to get weird, and the frequency of our meetings increased.

The following week, I went on a walk to clear my mind and who was it coming toward me in full gallop but my neighbor, wearing an olive-green, wrestling onesie and a red, white and blue terry cloth headband. His pectoral flaps oozed through the straps of his ill-fitting suit, and I could tell the depth of his bellybutton from 50 feet away. Half inch. He and his girlfriend drew nearer, and I could hear him giving her running advice about proper running form. “Make your spine an oar.” “Envision that your feet are rocks wrapped in pillows.” “Don’t look at me, look straight, past the finish line, to your goal,” he said, all in the span of thirty-feet. They passed, and he gave me a nod.

It was at this moment, just after his incoherent mansplaining, that I realized that this psychopath is happier than me. In fact, way happier than me.

The reckoning came yesterday. It was a long day at work. My hands were swollen from swinging a hammer all day. The elevator opened and he was standing outside his apartment door in a blue kimono, both his dogs tied around his leg, with a bowl of cereal in his hand. He slurped a thimble of milk from his spoon and looked up at me. His dogs began to circle and bark. I’m sure the expression on my face asked the question that he immediately answered. “My dogs need a break from the apartment,” he said. “But this is the time of day where I don’t allow myself to put any effort into anything, so I can’t walk them.”

“I wish I hadn’t put any effort into anything today,” I said.

He nodded in agreement and pulled the lapels of his kimono a bit tighter to hide his chest hair.

“I have a regiment,” he said. “Sex daily, coffee daily, work M through Fri, lunch at 1pm, run every other day, bike to work three times a week, ukulele every night to settle my existential disquiet. All great, but it’s the hour after work, the block of my dia” (why he said day in Spanish, I have no idea) “where I don’t allow myself to put any effort into anything, when I feel the most special.” His face made that pained crease again; his smirk or sneer, I realized, was a signal of his hope that you understand what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. “Shit man, I must be boring you though,” he said.

“No, not really,” I said, in a state of confusion and pre-hilarity. “I’ve noticed that you take your regiment seriously.”

“You mean the kimono? Yeah, I’ve got a costume for every phase, changing into the right uniform for the job,” he said. “Helps me complete the task.”

His little greasy dogs stared at me, tremoring in place.

“Well…” I said, taking a step towards my door.

“What’s your best part of the day?” He said.

“Eating.”

“Besides eating,” he said. “Carnal desires are dope, but I’m talking about that human shit.”

“Human shit,” I repeated. “Okay, writing.”

“I knew it. I knew the construction thing was a front.”

“…”

“I mean, you’re not a football fan, I can see it, so you start tracing it all back, and nothing makes sense, man. You ever trace it all back while you swing that hammer, but none of it makes sense?”

His lips turned into the letter ‘o’ and he stood assertively still like he just dropped an existential A-bomb in our hallway.

“Yeah, well choosing the path of least resistance can keep the pedals moving, but a bicycle can’t get you over an ocean,” I said.

“BOOM!” He said and opened his fist, palm to the floor, to imitate a mic-drop.

“Keep doing you, man.”

“You too.”

I turned into my door.

“I forgot to mention,” he said, “that we play Settlers of Catan every other Friday night at 8pm if you and your lady want to come by?”

“What do you wear on your gaming nights,” I asked.

“My periodic table t-shirt,” He said, proudly.

“Sounds good. We’ll be there. This Friday?”

“Naw, next.”

I entered my apartment and both my cats were there to greet me. It smelled like the cat box. Feline wasabi. I pulled off my work clothes and looked at my dirty face in the bathroom mirror. Despite the grit and dust, I knew I looked better than I have in a long time. I reached for the hot water knob when I heard pounding coming from the other side of my bathroom wall.

“Put me in a story,” my neighbor shouted. “Enjoy your shower.”

“Yep,” I hollered.

I took a long, hot shower and watched the sediment on my body funnel down the drain. I toweled off and shaved. Clean, but alone. Liz was still working at a coffee shop up the street. I thought to myself, “I quit drinking nine weeks ago, so why do I feel so depressed?” My little cat waited outside the bathroom door and looked up at me when I opened it. “Have you ever tried to trace it all back, Kitten?” I asked her. “Tried to trace it back and ask yourself, ‘why do I always wait outside the bathroom door while dad takes a shower?’” She gave me one of her gravelly smoker’s meows, and I took her as answering, “No.”

I checked my email and saw that my university will not extend my deferment for another year. “It’s been four years… pay and finish or don’t… we don’t care…” was the gist of the head of the Postgraduate Department’s email to me. I checked the box and sent it to the trash bin.

I tried to write but was too tired to put down anything meaningful. I need a regiment, I thought. Liz came home and I told her I love her. I’ll write good words tomorrow. Better words tomorrow.

 

Throw Away Faces—The Cell of Nostalgia

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XI

       When I was a child in Glasgow I could see Ben Lomond[1] on a clear day from my father’s office window. It was not often but when he was free he would tell me stories of the Highlanders that lived above the city. He told me tales of the Highland caterans[2] stealing livestock for blackmail and tales of Rob Roy[3] MacGregor’s blood feud against the Duke of Montrose.[4] I would look at the dim outline of the mountain as he recited the long list of events that led to both the Stuart Rebellions.[5] And when he was done with those stories we would look down onto the city and he would tell me about the riots that took place against the Union with England[6] and the Malt Tax Riots.[7]

He said long ago our family were Highlanders, but not anymore, no matter what my grandfather and uncle said. He said that we were outlaws, but at a time when most men were. Back then there was enough lawlessness going around between those abusing their powers and the malnourished, that it was pointless pointing fingers at people from so long ago. Ben Lomond and the city below it held these stories.

When I was a few years older a factory was erected next to my father’s office and blocked our view of the Highlands. Ben Lomond was gone and Glasgow was too for that matter because all we could see out of the window was a wall of stones.

“They brought the Highlands closer to us,” father said, to console me the first time I saw that the view was erased, “all this stone and mortar is from there.”

His words did not console me. I recall it was about that time that I stopped daydreaming about the Highlands, what my ancestors might have looked like, and of Rob Roy. The tall buildings kept my eyes turned inwards, when maybe lang syne the vastness of Scotland’s countryside made men more contemplative of their relationship with the wild. Our summer visits to the Isle of Skye never made me feel that way. I remember my feet always being wet, and shivering in bed with little more than a sheet to keep me warm.

Upon my first break from university I visited our new country home in Bearsden. The white-capped Ben Lomond was framed inside a windowpane rising above my father’s desk in his study. It meant nothing to me, but it did to him and so I smiled and said to him he did the right thing to move mother away from the retched smoke of the city. 20 years had been too long in one place and Bessy, our old castle, had become a prison.

 

[1] Ben Lomond: Mountain north of Glasgow located at the foot of Lock Lomond. It’s doubtful from Enoch’s central Glasgow location on Byre’s Road that he could have seen the mountain, but I made it so.

[2] Highland caterans: A Highland band of marauders, professional thieves, and/or mercenaries.

[3] Rob Roy MacGregor (1671-1734): A Scottish outlaw and folk hero. A traditional Jacobite, MacGregor was pro-Stuart and Catholic. He was also a cattle herder, and engaged in blackmail to protect people’s herds from theft, sometimes from his own theft.

[4] Feud with the Duke of Montrose: After losing his lands he (MacGregor) waged a blood feud against his dispossessor, James Graham, 1st Duke of Montrose. The tales that follow include a series of adventures where Rob Roy escapes capture and execution. Bloody brilliant!

[5] Scottish rebellions of 1715 and 1745: The 45’ explained earlier (Pg. 47, note XXX) both were failed uprisings to reinstall the Catholic Stuarts to the English monarchy.

[6] The Act of Union 1707: At this time, England and Scotland were two separate states, each with their own parliaments, but under one monarch. Following the War of the Three Kingdoms (1639-1651) and the Glorious Revolution (1688), which saw the overthrow of the Scottish Stuart Dynasty from the English throne, the new Protestant English monarchy increased its effort to consolidate power on the isles. Scotland, politically fractured and near economic collapse, was forced into union in order to open England’s colonial markets for trade. The Act of Union expanded English control in Scotland at a time when Scotland was looked at as a threat, and physically speaking, a harbor for England’s continental enemies to exploit, namely the French.

[7] Malt Tax Riots: Began on June 23rd, 1725 in retaliation to the imposition of the English malt tax. As the economic promises of the 1707 Act of Union had yet to materialize, Scottish citizens took to the streets in protest and openly riot. The fiercest riots and anti-English sentiment existed in Glasgow.

The Elusive Salmon

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Across my little apartment is the city locks. The locks see every boat coming in, or going out to sea. Though there are a lot of boats coming and going there’s also a good portion of the day when the locks are empty, and when they’re empty in the late summer and early autumn, schools of spawning salmon enjoy the peace by leaping out of the water, and going plop back in.

I say plop because that’s usually all you hear. It’s not as easy as you might think to spot a jumping salmon. Try as you may, staring in one spot and waiting for a salmon to jump is a fool’s errand.

Today’s Friday, and I have no work to keep me from the locks. I was also here this past Monday, and the Friday before last, not working, instead listening to the salmon go plop.

The rest of my time spent has been in my apartment. I’ve been on the computer, looking through job postings. With the click of a button, another resume goes into the blackness. For each prospective employer, I tell them that I’m qualified, a quick learner, and nearly perfect. I wait and watch for a reply. I wait, and watch.

While I wait, I try not to think about how hard I’ve worked to be broke, how maybe my quest to define myself as independent, unique, and a stand-alone has greatly compromised my ability to write a good resume and cover letter—I can’t seem to connect.

I finally pull my eyes away from my computer screen and make something to eat, and when I return, another rejection letter has been sent from a web address that begins with, “donotreply.” Cowards.

All these rejections come when I’m not looking. It’s the second I break my will to force good news that the tech world tells me to keep fishing (and to follow them on Twitter, etc.). I get angry, and then sad, and then I tell myself that I’m an anomaly, a force of nature that their vetting algorithms cannot grasp or define. When these half-truths escape my lips, I become thirsty for alcohol; for a cigarette before I return to my seat at the gambling table.

Yesterday, I spent the day doing something different. My mother had called to tell me that my brother lost custody of his daughter and threatened to kill himself. He texted me later and asked me to take care of his life insurance policy. He then turned off his phone and disappeared. I spent yesterday hunting.

When a salmon goes plop and you turn to the noise there’s a gentle wake. It spreads and rolls from its starting point in perfect symmetry. The succession of arches spread until they are swallowed by the bigger currents surrounding them. They die into the fold.

My brother’s wake continued for some time before he jumped. Not off a bridge, or a building, but by text message. He contacted his daughter to tell her that everything’s fine. He was alive.

I spent yesterday guessing where my brother could be, but I didn’t know until I did. I haven’t seen or talked to him. I’m not at all ready for that.

Some boats have arrived now. In particular, a fishing vessel with three deckhands chattering in Italian. The salmon are still jumping, and I can hear that language too. I’m too tired today to apply for jobs. It’s a fool’s errand anyway.

Today, I came to the locks and saw a large salmon, looking green and pink, she jumped right in front of me while I was looking at the boats waiting to go out to sea. She went plop and I saw the whole thing.