Orel stood in his kitchen, frozen in a movement, forgetting where he put the butter. He reached for the cupboard below the cups and there was the butter plate. He returned his attention to the cutting board where four slices of bread lay waiting for his culinary artwork to begin. There was only one way to make a sandwich, according to Orel Meyer. He’d perfected the art throughout the years, making slight tweaks to the quantities as his tastes slowly changed. The main ingredient was not your typical bologna, but mortadella, the real stuff. It’s hard to acquire, but there’s an Italian delicatessen in San Antonio where he’d buy four pounds at a time, paper in between the slices, packaged in one-pound bundles, double-wrapped, ready for the freezer. The same went for the Provolone Picante, paper in between the slices, etc., etc.
He was stationed in Bologna, Italy during WWII, not far from Genoa, where he worked in the Navy as an underwater welder. There, mortadella entered his life, and it never left. That is why he spent so much care with his sandwiches because he cared about the past, what it meant to him, how it shaped him, and the good memories he had of a time when he helped save the world. Through the years, somehow all that, the totality of the war and his life in Europe had been reduced down to a sandwich; into a perfectly edible box of meat and cheese. To Orel, though the past gets smaller the farther you travel from it, like a pearl of light at the end of a tunnel, the essence of that time stays alive and should be cultivated and celebrated.
It was late, perhaps eleven in the evening. Orel stood underneath a hanging light just to the left of the sink. He was a big man, 6’2 220 pounds, but all muscle. He’d always been that way, the big boy on the farm, a juggernaut of a football player. He stood underneath that lamp and shadows clung to him. It was in stark contrast to the pure whiteness of the kitchen. White cabinets, white tile floor, white walls, and even white curtains alongside the windows. Orel prided himself on not updating the kitchen. If you take good care of the past it doesn’t need to be updated, he always thought. So, though it was 1981 the kitchen was a reflection of 1946, the year he and his wife bought the house, on a secluded tract of land in the Hill Country full of old sunburned oaks and plenty of cedar to choke on come January.
Orel finished his sandwiches, set the table, and sat the two plates down. He prayed. “Lord protector, I’ve seen your light, and once I saw that light, I’ve never looked away. Though that light was hidden, it wasn’t too far, as long as I was brave enough to look for it. Lord, when I found that light I finally understood what powers you have, how you can turn things inside out, and make anything possible. Lord, with your guidance, I’m not afraid anymore because I see how trivial this life can be when I’m caught up in distraction. I ask you, oh Lord, to bless this meal and may it not be my last. In your name, we pray, Amen.”
Orel looked at the empty chair across from him, to the glass of milk, and to the plate with the sandwich and froze like he’d lost the butter again. How long had she been gone? He thought, how long from this earth. Was it this decade or the last? He used to know quite well, but with present circumstances, her passing had become a blur, nearly a figment of his imagination, or rather a bad dream losing steam on the back of time. They met in ‘39, married in ‘46, had kids in ‘47 and ‘49, vacationed to Italy in ‘63, he began diving again in ‘74. She died in… Orel imagined she was sitting with him, that she was knitting at the table, that she was listening to the radio and letting go of her obnoxious laugh. “No, but up here, that’s gone,” he said to himself. “Up here it’s all gone.” He took another bite out of his sandwich and it tasted stale. He set it down and began to pace around the kitchen. He couldn’t remember when she died and the thought hammered him with guilt.
The kids in ‘47 and ’49, landed a job as a machinist in ’50. Italy in ’63. My first dive in ’74… nothing. He went to the living room and stood there looking at her empty recliner. He thought back to the days she used to sit there in her curlers listening to the radio. She always had a cigarette burning beside her and a fan on hot days. She’d yell at the boys to do their chores while reading passages from the Good Book. She died in… He still couldn’t remember.
He remembered the cancer, how she acted like she wasn’t scared, but shut herself away like she was infectious. She shed weight in multiples. Then, she went to bed one night and never woke up and the smell of death permeated the sheets, the walls, and the rug. However, Orel kept the room the way it was, to respect the past, to honor it. Never mind though that he hadn’t been in the room since.
Orel crept up the stairs afraid to wake the dead. He slowly made his way to their old bedroom and pressed his forehead against it. “For the love of God, what year did you die?” he asked, but it was still a gaping hole like the answer had been extracted from his brain. He opened the door into the darkroom. Switched the light but it wouldn’t turn on. Dead bulb. He could see the outline of the bed to his right, centered on the wall, and on either side of it a bedside table. The alarm clock flashed 6:42 am and he began to ache because he remembered that was the time he found her. But the ache was quickly replaced by confusion as the strong odor of cigarettes clouded the room. He rushed downstairs for a flashlight and when he came back to the room he heard a wheezing sound coming from the far side of the bed. He aimed his flashlight at the source of the wheezing and turned it on. His wife sat on the floor, her back against the wall, curlers in her hair, pale as an onion, black and white, smiling at him, but wheezing. Cigarettes were everywhere, put out on the carpet, and piled into mounds. She just stared at him with tarred-over teeth, smiling like she was so happy he decided to open the door. Orel slammed the door shut and ran downstairs.
“That is not my wife,” he yelled descending the stairs. “That is not my wife.” He began to pace in the kitchen again and noticing her place setting, ran his arm across it sending the sandwich and glass of milk across the kitchen. If there was one emotion Orel Meyer had little experience with it was fear, Orel was afraid. He’d been so close to God lately, so close to his wife, so how was it that a demon like the one upstairs could appear to a man like him? He needed answers and he needed them now. Against his better judgment, Orel decided to do what he said he would never do, dive at night, alone. It was the only way he could get answers.
He went down the basement stairs, pulling the light cord halfway down. The dark stone floor was clear of objects, all storage behind sliding doors, his tools curated in a museum of pegboard and matching hooks screwed into the rafters. He heard the radio switch on upstairs. He shuttered and went to a workman’s armoire, and opened it. There, he pulled out a wet suit, stripped, and slithered his way into the foam skin. He put on his fins, gloves, and goggles. Mounted his depth gauge and flashlights, and made sure his tanks were full. He connected his regulator, and double and triple checked his equipment like an experienced diver does.
He then made his way out into the yard. He saw the silhouette of his wife in the kitchen window pulling a drag from a cigarette. It was evening, but sweltering hot. He walked to the old well on his property and descended the ladder, into the darkness. At the bottom, he undid the lock and hoisted the wooden hatch. He looked up and saw a narrow circle of the night sky above him, the stars shining brightly like memories. He looked down and saw nothing but blackness. He said one last prayer before diving into the blackness, where the room of light is, to ask his real wife when she died.
It was a half-moon, so half the light, but enough to see the crazy outline of your friends’ faces laugh, pull drags off of their cigarettes, and bemoan the wild actions of their other classmates. It was Friday, a late spring night, graduation was near and there was an air of fervor amongst the class of 2000. The students were partying where they shouldn’t be, at a park called the Black Hole, deep in the Hill Country. Ivory bands of limestone tape the edges of the valley they’re in. Prickly Pear cactus were built with their paws up ready to slap any drunk high school student not paying attention. The juniper is there, just below the mesquite and oak. In the car park there’s a long line of trucks and for every truck at least three pairs of boots. And for every pair of boots, a belt buckle, and for every one of these boys a case of beer and a tin of dip. Kickers. There was everyone else too, the jocks, cheer, the rockers, the skaters, theater, yearbook, etc. everyone was in good spirits at first; everyone felt a connection to each other because high school was nearly over, but the beer began to kick in.
“Okay, here’s the scenario,” Travis Herder stated to his friends, “You’re plane crashes and you’re stranded in the woods. Months go by and no one has come to rescue you. Winter is coming and you’re starving. Your best friend goes off into the woods one day and he dies. What do you do with the body?”
“Well, bury it, stupid,” Courtney Lopez said.
“Wait though,” Travis interjected. “You’re starving, winter’s coming, there’s no rescue insight. God knows how you’re going to survive. Still, do you bury it, or something else?”
“Oh, you’re fucking sick man!” Andreas Bernal laughed.
“Sick as it may be this is survival, man.” Travis takes a big swig from his keg cup and pulls a drag from his cigarette. “Look, we know what the civilized answer is, but when you’re no longer in civilization and you become an animal in the woods, the game changes.”
A girl’s voice from outside their circle said, “Pray for the soul of your friend, wear his neckless as a keepsake, and cut him up for the fire.”
Everyone turned around and there stood Amelia Guzman. One star converse, Ripped jeans, a black slip underneath a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt and a doubled-up nose ring.
Travis loathed her because she was smarter than him and always reminded him of it. However, she seemed to be extending a cannibalistic olive branch, one he gladly took.
“Exactly, exactly. Now, the question must be asked,” Travis smiled, “what part do you eat first?”
“His dick!” Courtney blurted out, already laughing.
“You would,” said Andreas.
The group went into babbling disarray before Amelia chimed back in.
“His heart,” she said.
The group began to laugh again, but when they saw that Amelia was dead serious they unwound like a top losing momentum.
“It’s ceremony. You give thanks by taking his heart, eat it raw, and then move on to the hindquarters to butcher and cook.”
“Holy shit,” Andreas said with a rubber band between his lips, pulling back his hair to tie into a ponytail.
Travis looked at Amelia with different eyes. She was always such a bitch to him; so self-serious and stand-offish, but tonight her curtness rearranged his feelings, and beyond his understanding, he felt some brand of kinship with her. Perhaps it was her unveiled honesty, maybe her Rage t-shirt, or even the fact that under all the layers of angst and eyeshadow he thought she was pretty.
“I agree with Amelia,” he said. “You’ve got to eat to survive, and if ritualizing the act by honoring his soul by eating his heart does the trick, then so be it…”
Kim Stevens stumbled by with a few girls from the cheer squad. They were all wearing Daisy Dukes and formed a perfect palate of pastel halter-tops. “Fucking freaks!” Kim said. She let off a drunken cackle that ricocheted off the limestone crags around the perimeter.
The group of would-be cannibals was silent, all but Amelia who wedged her way into the group. “Kim, you’re just jealous because nobody would eat your anorexic ass.”
“Shut up, you ugly bitch, Cody eats me every night,” Kim said.
“I’m sorry, half of the kickers are named Cody, which one are you going to fuck in the woods tonight?” Amelia responded.
Kim turned around to confront Amelia, but Travis blocked her advance.
“Forget it, Kim,” he said. “You do your thing, and we’ll do ours.”
Travis looked into Kim’s eyes, he’d known her since they were in 1st grade. Her eyes always looked like two beach balls floating in a sea of milk, but the milk had been bloodied.
“You want to fuck her, don’t you?” Kim said to Travis. She began to laugh and lightly slapped Travis on the cheek twice. “Good luck with that one, Trav, she’s clearly a dyke.”
Amelia looked at Travis, but he couldn’t decipher if the look was a look of disdain or a silent call for help.
“There’s just no need for drama,” he said.
“Just go, Kim,” Courtney said.
“We’ll see you later,” Kim said menacingly, her friend pulling her arm to disengage.
“Byeee,” said Amelia.
“Bitch!” Kim yelled with her back turned, already walking away.
The group was silent for a second until Courtney began to laugh. “You straight-up called out Kim for being anorexic, that’s bold girl!” She said to Amelia.
“Fuck that skinny bitch,” Amelia said.
The car park began to empty as more students took the cat tracks down to the river to party amongst the scrub and soapy rocks. Only the moon provided light, a spectrum of subdued blue light that made their eyes turn black and their cigarette cherries glow like lava balls. The group of cannibals stuck together. At Sampson Valley High they were the weird ones. They were the ones that dressed differently, found unheard-of music on Napster and Limewire. They read the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and the Yaki Way of Knowledge instead of their assigned reading. They idolized Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley, Jim Morrison, and Lou Reed. Got high to Pink Floyd and Radiohead, and thought about life outside of Texas. Life after Texas. But, here they were, at a Keg, “fitting in,” drinking with the rest tonight to forget about the cliques their class has been cultivating and refining since 6th grade.
“Boo!” Two shadows popped up from the brush. “Ouch, fuck!” One of them said.
“Jesus Christ!” Travis belted.
“Shit, I got bit by a cactus,” Pearl said.
Pearl and Rico attached themselves to the group smelling like weed, cig, and cheap beer.
“Where have you two burnouts been?” Courtney asked, the moon causing her long black hair to look like an oil slick.
“Hiding from kickers and getting high.”
“So, the same as at school?” Amelia said.
“Oh shit, it’s Amelia Guzman!” Pearl said. He pulled something out of his cigarette pack. “Here, I want you to have my roach. It’s a gift of goodwill.”
To their surprise, she didn’t insult Pearl—which was the usual—and instead took it and put it in her own pack of Dave’s lights.
“Damn, son, the girl is cool, right?” Rico said, pulling his bandana headband up so he could see.
“I’ll always take free weed,” she said.
The group descended down, passing random groups of students until they reached the river. It glowed electric and Pearl and Rico stopped talking to trip on it for a second.
“What would you do, Andreas?” Travis asked.
“Would you eat your friend if you were lost in the woods?”
Pearl began to laugh. “Shit, guy, Travis is always on some weird shit.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” Andreas said. “I’d die with dignity.”
“Is there dignity dying from hunger?” Travis said.
“It happened with the IRA,” Amelia said. “My dad told me Irish fighters against England would get caught and hunger strike in prison. A few of them died.”
“That’s fucking madness,” Pearl said.
“I heard there’s a point you can’t come back from, where your body starts to eat itself, you’re not hungry anymore, you’re just a shell of a human waiting for the light to go out, but like in a Zen way, so maybe there’s dignity in that?” Travis said.
They were quiet until a loud yip startled them.
“The kickers are drunk,” Courtney said.
The yips continued as did the refracted chatter of laughter and screams.
“They must be jumping into the Black Hole,” Travis said.
“Man, that place gives me the creeps at night,” Andreas said.
“It’s just a pool of water,” Amelia said. “I’m more pissed about how they’re going to trash the place.”
“I talked to a ranger here once, and he said they come out an hour before opening to clean up all the beer cans and scrub the puke off the rocks.”
“Gross,” said Courtney.
“Fuck the Codys,” both Travis and Amelia said at the same time. She smiled at him and he could have sworn he’d never seen her smile before.
“Love is in the air,” Pearl began to sing while walking away to the river’s bank.
“Shut up!” Amelia said.
Travis turned away to spare her any embarrassment.
They all laid down on the rocks and looked up to the sky. In the distance, their classmates played. But, they were still, contemplative, perhaps all thinking the same thing, “I wish the kickers were gone so we could go to the Black Hole.”
“You know,” Travis said after a moment, “they don’t quite know how deep the Black Hole is.”
“It’s 114 feet,” Andreas said.
There was a moment of silence before the group began to laugh.
“OK, OK, what I meant is that they don’t know where all the tunnels at the bottom of the hole go to.”
“There are tunnels? That’s crazy, man,” Pearl said.
“Yeah, man, divers have died down there,” Travis responded. “Ever heard of Orel Meyer?”
“He the popcorn guy?” Rico said, letting off his high-pitched giggle.
“Naw, naw,” Travis said, fighting off the group laughter. “Naw, he was this diver in the late 70s that went down and was never seen again.”
“Wait, I heard about that shit,” Andreas said. “Wasn’t that the case where they said he must have unhooked himself from his line?”
“Yes, but my dad said that the weird thing was that he was hooked up to a carabiner that had a screw lock, and when they pulled up the line it was screwed closed.”
“What does that mean?” Pearl said.
“It means, stupid, that he unlatched himself and screwed the lock back on the carabiner.”
“That’s weird,” Courtney said. “Why would he do that?”
“Maybe that’s the protocol?” Pearl said.
“Protocol?” Amelia said, “Where did you learn that word?”
“I think on Law and Order,” Pearl said. “My mom and I bond through that show.”
“Cute,” Amelia said.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Travis continued. “That’s the whole thing…”
“HOLE thing, good one, man!” Rico said.
“Shut up, Rico!” Everyone exclaimed.
“There are two possibilities,” Travis said. “One: he unhooked himself knowing he wouldn’t be reattaching himself, or two, he was ripped free from his line. Now, based on how he was hooked up, that would take 400 pounds of pressure.”
They were all quiet until Andreas spoke up. “You’re so full of shit, Travis.”
“No, I’m being serious. Look it up. And, he’s just one of ten divers that have gone missing in the Black Hole.”
“Hey, freaks!” They heard in the distance.
Spooked, Travis stood up and heard a rush of air come at his face and then an explosion detonated. The butt end of a beer bottle hit him square in the forehead. He staggered and fell onto the rocks.
Four kickers, Cody Lawson, Cody Cole, Cody Judge, and Ken Berg ran to Travis hoop’in and holler’in.
“Shit boy, you nailed him right in the forehead,” Cody said.
They circled around Travis and looked at him squirm on the ground like a dying fish out of water.
“You hurt, Trav?” Cody said. “Trav, you hurt?”
“Of course, he’s fucking hurt, Dickhead!” Amelia said, running over to Travis to check him out.
“What the fuck guys,” Andreas said. “Why did you do that?”
“Keep your pants on Maricòn,” Cody said.
“Fuck you, Cody,” Courtney said.
Another one of the Cody’s slapped her and Andreas made an attempt to leap at Cody, but stumbled under the rocks and fell short. He felt three pops land on the side of his head and he tucked into a ball to protect himself.
Pearls and Rico ran into the water waist deep and contemplated swimming to the other side. Amelia picked up a rock, ran over to Ken Berg standing over Andreas, and smashed him upside the head. Just then, her lights went dark, and she fell on her back.
While Ken stubbled about regaining his footing Cody Lawson, the leader sat on top of her, grabbed a hold of one of her nose rings, and ripped it out. Amelia screamed in pain. Courtney began to hit him in the back but was subdued by the other two Codys.
“Come on guys, leave us alone,” Pearl said.
“We just meant to startle you freaks, but Travis stood up into that bottle. Wasn’t our fault, y’all overreacted.”
The codys forced Courtney onto the rocks. She was crying. Lawson, with Amelia’s nose ring still in his hand, straddled Travis to check on him.
“He’s going to have a headache, but he’ll be fine,” he said.
He stood up, walked by Amelia, and threw her nose ring at her.
“Can’t fix this mess though,” he said.
Andreas laid still with his arms wrapped around his head.
“You fucking losers made this way worse than it had to be,” Lawson said, walking away backward.
Amelia picked up her head, a river of blood coming down her face, and screamed, “Get the fuck away from us!”
The Codys and Ken began to laugh and disappeared into the Juniper.
No one said anything. Courtney came over to Amelia’s aid.
“Got out of the water you fucking cowards,” she said to Pearl and Rico.
They complied with their heads down in shame.
“Give Amelia one of your t-shirts,” Courtney said.
“But,” Pearl said.
Pearl grudgingly pulled off his shirt and gave it to Courtney.
Andreas stood up and began to stagger towards the river not saying a word.
Travis began to laugh. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at him, all realizing that they’d nearly forgotten he was hurt.
Travis lay on the rocks, kicking his legs about to control the pain, but his arms spread and still, each hand grasping a rock.
“So much for class comradery,” he said. “I fucking hate this place.”
“Me too,” Courtney said, wiping the blood from Amelia’s face and neck.
“I hate this place!” Andreas screamed at the river.
Pearl and Rico just stood there, bewildered, unsure what they thought, and unsure how to be useful.
We should all move to New York when we graduate,” Amelia said. “Let’s just fucking do it.” She spit blood onto the rocks like she was made a blood pact.
They sat there in silence for some time. Their thoughts stretched between their hatred for home and their fear of leaving. They were in pain, all of them, both physical and otherwise. The night began so well, but it had turned dark. They knew there was always a chance that it would, but they’d suspended their apprehension to come, to have fun for once and be a part of something. But, the fact was they didn’t belong.
Travis slowly stood up and wobbled. He felt the knot developing on his forehead.
“No… no…” he moaned, “I can’t go to school like this.
“At least you didn’t get your nose ripped off,” Amelia said, still with Pearl’s t-shirt pressed against her nostril to control the bleeding.
“At least you’re not a fag,” Andreas said, crouched at the foot of the river.
Courtney walked over to him and gave him a hug.
Travis had an idea to lighten the mood.
“Would you rather eat your friends or your enemies?” he said.
“God damn it,” Andreas said.
Amelia started laughing and sat back on the ground.
Courtney began to laugh too, Travis was such an idiot.
“What the hell are you guys laughing about?” Rico said.
“Oh, you didn’t know?” Travis said. “We’re cannibals now.”
Two hours passed. It was late. One after the other they heard the kickers’ trucks fire up and peel out of the car park. They were waiting for everyone to leave. A couple classmates came down to the river and asked if they were okay. They didn’t look okay but said they were. Soon it sounded like everyone was gone. It was finally safe to go to the Black Hole.
“I don’t want to go,” The shirtless Pearl said. “My pant are wet, I’m hungry.”
“Then walk home,” Courtney said.
“I’ll come,” he said.
Courtney steadied Travis and lead him to the trail. Behind, Pearl and Rico followed. Behind them, Amelia stumbled with a shirt still pressed to her nose.
“I think this shirt is stuck to my nose,” she said. “Thank god I’m drunk.”
No one responded.
Andreas took anchor, he hadn’t spoken since the fight.
Deeper they went into the oaks. The cicadas hissed frequencies beyond their comprehension. The trail leveled out and then rose gradually over a bank. When they cleared the embankment they saw the moonlight sprayed across the Black Hole. Two naked white bodies lay at the side of the pool.
“Fuck, it’s Lawson and Kim,” Courtney said.
“I’m seeing four of them, must be an orgy,” Travis said.
“Shhh…” Amelia said.
“Are they boning?” Pearl asked.
“Shut up, Pearl,” They said in unison.
“Follow me,” Amelia said, ripping the t-shirt from her nose.
Before they could discuss, she was gone. They looked at each other, silently negotiating who was going to respond first.
“Let’s go,” Travis said.
They quietly made their way down to the brush beside the dark swimming hole.
Kim and Cody stood up and began to make out. Their slender frames intermixing in the blue night. Their white skin reflected the moon and Amelia watched them in disgust. The rest of the gang arrived, each looking at each other and then at the prom king and queen to be, necking each other, ready for another go.
“Fucking gross,” Courtney whispered.
Kim stopped and looked around.
“Did you hear that?” she asked Cody. “Hello?” she said, covering her breasts.
“Get a good look!” Cody said and grabbed Kim to resume what they were doing.
Travis looked at Amelia biting her bottom lip and he realized what was about to happen. Amelia left and made her way forward under the protection of the brush. She finally stopped ten feet from the unknowing pair. Then, like a silent assassin, she made her move and rushed them. They were so startled they didn’t know how to react and with all her might Amelia crashed into their naked bodies and sent them into the hole. She sent them so far across the pool that she heard to dull knock of one of their heads, or both, hit against a rock on the far side of the pool. She picked up a rock and waited for them to surface, but they didn’t…
Kim and Cody both hit their heads against something as they made their way to the surface. It was made of wood planks and covered the opening to the pool. It was pitch black, the water was intolerably cold, they struggled to keep their faces above the water.
“Cody, Cody,” Kim pleaded. “Cody, what the fuck is going on?”
They began to bang on the wooded slats. Kim was tearing at them with her nails until they began to break and bleed. Cody used his shoulder to rupture the wooden lid, but it was solid like concrete. Kim continued to scratch the wooden lid and began to tire.
“We’re going to fucking die,” She screamed.
“We ain’t going to die,” Cody said.
Several minutes had passed and the two were exhausted. Kim’s head was barely above the waterline and Cody felt his cowboy strength wane.
“Where the fuck are they?” Andreas said.
“I think they hit their heads,” Amelia said.
“They wouldn’t sink though,” Travis said.
“Oh my god, I fucking killed them,” Amelia said.
“How long has it been?”
“Over five minutes.”
Holy shit, what’s going on?” Travis said.
In the distance, they heard voices and the diffused glow of flashlights were arriving from the other side of the embankment.
“We have to go,” Courtney said.
“No, we have to help,” Amelia said.
Travis grabbed Amelia’s hand and she shook it off, but Travis didn’t back down.
“We need to hide and see what happens.”
He pulled her away and they fled.
“Cody, I can’t stay up anymore,” Kim said. “Cody… oh my God,” she gasped and slipped into the blackness.
“Kim!” Cody shouted, “Kim!”
He dove down for her, but her body was gone. He labored back to the surface and hit his head on the wood planks. He began to cry and expend what little energy he had left on breaking the wood planks overhead. Soon after he tired. He was scared, not wanting to die, still baffled by what had happened. How did they end up somewhere else? Now, only his lips were above water, as his arms and legs began to go numb. He labored, pushed for more strength, channeled the will to live into his movements. Finally, he succumbed to the water and he sank below the line of survival.
The other Codys and Ken came back with more beer and investigated the scene. They saw Cody and Kim’s clothes, but no Cody and Kim.
“They must be at it in the woods,” Cody said.
“Freaks,” Cody said.
They laughed and cracked their beers.
The young cannibals watched from afar with the horror of knowing that something bad was happening, something they couldn’t take back. Then, Amelia saw it first, she saw Kim’s body subtly bubble up to the surface. The kickers hadn’t noticed yet; they were too busy and drunk. But then Cody Lawson’s body sprung from the water like a jumping fish and landed face down in the water with a crash. Ken spit out his beer and looked at the bodies of his two friends floating face down in the Black Hole.
“Cody, Kim!” The gang heard them yell, but no movement.
The Cody’s jumped in to retrieve the bodies and Ken dragged them to the rim of the hole.
They slapped Cody, tried CPR, and frantically paced around the king and queen.
“We’ve got to get the police,” Ken said.
The three boys took off through the twisted oaks and disappeared, leaving the dead where they lay.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Travis said.
“Yeah, we need to go,” said Andreas.
Amelia stood up and began to walk to the pool like she was in a daze.
“I’m going with her,” Courtney said.
She took off too and after a moment of the boys looking stupidly at each other, they followed.
Amelia stood over Kim’s body. She looked into those lifeless blue beach balls and felt deep remorse.
“I didn’t mean to kill them,” she said. She began to shake all over.
Courtney grabbed her as Travis knelt down beside Kim’s body.
“Look at her hands,” he said.
They saw her nails nearly ripped off and blood puddled below them. Travis went to Cody and noticed his hands were swollen and that his shoulder looked like it was out of its socket. Cody’s eyes were open and his face looked like he died in terror.
“We’ve got to go before the cops get here,” Rico said.
“Yeah, not trying to be gay Mexican in this mug right now,” Andreas said.
Courtney tore Amelia away and Andreas did the same to Travis.
“What’s going on here?” Travis said. “This doesn’t make sense.”
They first checked that the car park was empty and then piled into Andreas’s parent’s Buick. The band, Hole was blaring from the speakers.
“Turn that shit off,” Travis said.
Andreas ignored him, peeled out, and floored it through the country roads towards the highway. As they neared HW561 they could see a line of colored lights flicker in the distance.
“Hurry, hurry, let’s fucking go!” Pearl said.
They turned away from the lights and they watched behind them to see if they were going to be followed. As the lights neared they collectively held their breath. The lead car turned right and the rest followed. It was just the Buick on an empty road.
Amelia was weeping in the back seat with Courtney’s arm around her. Rico was sitting on Pearl’s lap and whispered if they should ask Amelia for the roach back.
“No,” Travis said from the front seat, ending that idea before it got too far.
Andreas was keeping the ship steady but rocking back and forth. No one was talking, they were all stuck in a nightmare, caught in some loop of choice and consequence. Finally, Travis said something.
“We need to make a plan.”
“How about a fucking time machine,” Andreas said.
“I’ve got to turn myself in,” Amelia said. No one responded. “I got us into this, I’ll face the consequence.”
“Wait a minute,” Travis said. “Did you see their bodies? Did you see Kim’s hands and Cody’s shoulder?”
“Not closely,” Courtney said.
“Her hands looked like they were shredded on a cheese grater and Cody’s shoulder was out of its socket.”
“I don’t think you killed them, Amelia. I don’t know what but something else happened.”
“Now’s not the time Travis,” Andreas said.
“They looked like they were beating on something, that’s all I’m saying,” Travis said.
“He right,” Amelia said. “They were all fucked up when I looked at them.”
“They hit their heads and drowned,” Rico said. “Enough said.”
“I looked at their heads,” Travis said. “I saw a bump on Cody’s, but nothing bad.”
Andreas turned onto FM1086 and drove down the center of the road.
“Well, what happened then, Travis?” he asked, appearing to lose his cool.
Travis hesitated. “I don’t know, but what I do know is that we have to know for sure what happened before any of us turn ourselves in.”
Andreas pulled the car over got out and sat on the hood.
Everyone else waited for the other to make a move and Rico was first because he was sick of sitting on his friend’s lap. The rest followed. Travis passed out cigarettes and they sat in silence for some time.
“How long did it take for the bodies to surface?” Andreas said, looking up at the stars.
“More than ten minutes,” Travis said.
“Could have they gotten those injuries falling in?”
“I doubt it, her fucking nails were ripped off and filled with a bunch of black pulp.”
“And, you’re sure Cody’s arm was out of its socket?”
“I’m sure,” Travis said.
“Okay,” Andreas said. “I believe you, but what are we supposed to do about it?”
“We keep a secret and go to school on Monday,” Amelia said.
They turned to look at her. She appeared hardened. Sure of the plan.
“We tell the whole truth until the moment we went to the Black Hole. We say we just stayed by the river. People will know we got jumped by the Codys and we don’t deny it. We’ll say that we hiked all the way to Murchinson’s Turn and looked at the stars until the beer wore off.
“Because the last cars in the parking lot were ours, Lawson’s and the Codys.”
“We have a motive,” Travis said, but we’ll have to stick to our stories; maybe the Cody’s didn’t even notice the Buick was yours, Andreas. But, to be safe, you can’t drive it to school or to parties anymore. I’ll drive.” Travis said.
A coyote howled in the distance.
Courtney began to laugh, “If I had to choose who to eat, I’d choose my friends,” she said.
They all looked at her and knew exactly what she meant.
Andreas began to cry on the hood of his parent’s car because his feelings of guilt had transferred to a bigger mystery. Adulthood.
I’ve been craving tiramisu on the regular. How can something be perfectly wet? Every night I feed the cats and then crave tiramisu. The thought is forming into a habit. This happens with a lot of things. I have an arsenal of revolving obsessions. About once a year I go through a soccer phase, where I watch and play as much as I can. There’s a vinyl phase, where I want to cultivate and expand my record collection. A hat phase, a short window where I want a fedora of some kind to brush and model. A hiking phase, where I want to disconnect and focus on the connection between my heartbeat and the mountain breeze. Finally, a calm phase, where I don’t need to occupy my time with anything in order to distract myself from my anxiety. This reprieve is my favorite time of year. It’s the moment where I’m able to fully function and engage with others. It’s short-lived though, as it lasts as long as spring bloom. It’s a moment where I can read without distraction, listen to people without wondering off inside my own head, sit still and enjoy the present moment. I become who my parents wanted.
I don’t mean that to be mellow dramatic, rather it’s meant to point to the archetype of a happy child that every parent wants their kid to grow up to be. However, sometimes things take on their own shape. It’s just a fact, we can’t help how events reshape us. That’s why childhood photos of ourselves look all the more foreign the older we become. I remember talking to my grandma about aging and she said you become wiser but have less people to share it with. In the end all her friends were dead. I think, I don’t even have kids. How is my life going to look when the people in my life fade into the trees. I can say to the wall, I was one way until my divorce; I was this way until I stopped drinking; I was solid until my mother and father died; I was anchored to something until my wife died; I was okay until my chess partner at the senior center had a stroke. I am formless without anyone I knew available to lend me the signification I need to make the events of my life make sense.
Meaning is not solely made in the mind, but curated by the contact and memory of others. I suppose my anxiety is having exposed the truth that dying can be a family affair, but is commonly a solitary process. I want my life to have meant enough that my name is used for a while when I’m gone. Anything to stave off the slip into mortal obscurity that’s inevitable.
My cake phase will give way to a new preoccupation, but I’ll be thinking of other things.
Kyoto’s a steam room with a broiler for a celling. I’ve been to Arashiyama and somehow beat the crowds to bury Franny’s kerchief amongst the tall bars of bamboo. Sweat dripped off my brow and when I was finished I felt like I was one step closer to Franny’s death. I sat by a gem green river for a while wishing I had more control over what’s going to happen. I feel powerless and it’s distressing to know things beyond my control are on a collision course. I avoid a small Shinto shrine near me by the water’s edge because I’m not sure what to believe anymore. I decide to leave the forest and find food and air conditioning.
I’m still in Arashiyama, near the bamboo forest, at a small sushi restaurant. It’s a square shop barricaded with gridded paper screens. I’m sitting at a bar and next to me is a Japanese man wearing traditional Japanese clothing, which I assume means he works in the tourist industry. He’s pushing fifty. Freckles are chained underneath his eyes. His hair is greying. He’s lean and fit, and also oddly content to not have his food yet. He’s not reading on his phone, nor checking on a social media update. He’s simply staring forward, lost in his thoughts. Then, without turning to me he says, “Ahi tuna sushi is very popular in the States, but have you tried Yellow Tail? Now that’s a treat.”
“I have once,” I say. “But I’d had too much sake beforehand to properly taste it.”
“And today, too many cigarettes and Oi Ocha,” he says.
“He turns to face me and I see that he’s blind.”
“You’re right, can you smell it on me?” I say.
“As soon as the door opened and you entered. American. Smoker. Iced tea.”
“I hope it’ll not spoil your taste,” I say.
“No, but thank you.”
He remains turned towards me and seemingly hyperaware of my movements. As though, he can hear my eyes move and my facial expressions crane. He chuckles and turns back. He says something to the sushi chef in front of us and the chef looks at me briefly before continuing his work.
“I told him to not service you with the best fish because you’ve spoiled your tongue today,” he says, chuckling again.
I’m a little confused about how to receive this news, but I remain a keen participant.
“Maybe, that’s a good idea, I wouldn’t want him to waste his best product.”
Now, the blind man laughs.
“You’re not your average American,” he says. “Somewhere close to Canada, but with a Westcoast accent. Seattle, it must be. Yes, your restraint matches there as well.”
“Good guess,” I say.
His smile snaps shut and he says gruffly, “It is no guess.”
He loosens up again and smiles.
“Would you share a tokkuri of sake with me?”
The tokkuri soon arrives and we clink plates.
There’s an awareness to this man that defies explanation. He’s the one who grasped the tokkuri, he’s the one who pours the sake, he’s the one who clinked his sake plate onto mine. If it wasn’t for the fact that I can see his eyes rolled back inside his head, I’d have said he was a liar. Both of our meals come at the same time and we eat.
I mash a mound of wasabi into a pool of soy sauce and separate the leaves of pickled ginger from one another.
“That’s a lot of wasabi,” he says. “You like intense tasting things.”
“I suppose so,” I say.
“People who like intense tasting things are intense thinkers.”
“My thoughts are usually quite loud, can you hear them?”
“Yes,” he says, but then looks away and continues to eat.
“I hope I didn’t offend you?” I say.
“I was sure I had offended you.”
“No, I’m just unsure of your intensions, that’s all.”
He laughs and says, “My name is Akira.”
I introduce myself and we shake hands.
“Tell me, what tragedy brings you to Japan,” he says.
“How do you know that?”
“Because your demeanor is heavy and I’ve been around it enough to know when I sense it.”
“I wouldn’t want to bother you with it,” I say.
“You’re right, I’ve been rude,” he says, “it’s just that I don’t speak to many people, especially Americans from Seattle.”
I hesitate, something’s strange about this man, but to his defense, something has been strange with me since I arrived to Japan. Perhaps it’s not a bad idea to humor him—what’s the worst that could come of it?
“My brother is dying in Nagoya,” I say. “And, my mother is dying in Seattle.”
“I’m very sorry,” he says. “Is there anything I can do?”
“If you can ease their suffering and make it quick, I’d be much obliged,” I say.
“Of course,” he says and lifts his plate to toast.
“Well, that was easy,” I joke.
“You never know who you’ll run into at a sushi bar in Kyoto,” he says, chuckling.
The sushi chef looks up at me, then to the strange blind man, and then back to his fillet of tuna.
“Do you believe if two family members are dying at the same time they can bind to each other, and one feel the pain of the other?” I ask.
“It would take strong feelings to make something like that happen, but people don’t think like that anymore,” he says. “In old times if one person was showing the symptoms of another patient and visa versa, that’s what they’d think. Why do you ask?”
“It’s nothing,” I say.
“You find yourself thinking things you’ve never thought of before,” he says.
“Perhaps,” I say.
The man brushes his hand across the thick black cane resting beside him on the bar and smiles.
“We seek answers when there are none.”
“I’m just confused about what’s happening to me,” I say.
“Intense thinking leads to intense emotions,” he says, with his mouth full.
“Are both your mother and brother intense thinkers?”
“I’d say so.”
“Then the idea of their connection will be intensified by their legacy.”
“I don’t follow?” I say.
“When you ponder one, it will match their intensity, but if you ponder both the intensity is quadrupled. It sounds like they might be working out their past with each other. You must figure this is more important than their deaths.”
“So you do believe they might be bonded?”
“They are mother and son, of course they are, this isn’t magic.”
“I know, I—”
“You must sleep more,” he says. “Things won’t be as confusing if you sleep.”
I nod feeling as though this man is reading my thoughts.
We eat some more in silence, joke around a bit, and Akira tells me of some of his favorite shrines in the city. “From the train station you must walk to Fushimi Inari-Taisha,” he says. “When you arrive you must then walk through every gate.”
“I will,” I say.
He comes in close to my face.
“I mean it,” he says. “Inari is fickle and quick to anger. Every gate.”
“You seem like a good person, let the shrines cleanse you.” He turns his head around as if he’s hearing something far off and trying to identify where it’s coming from. “The rest of this sake is for you,” he says. He stands up, slips on a red yukata and grabs his cane, which looks more like a katana sword’s saya, and says, “I have a tour group to lead, I need to be sharp.”
“Of course you do,” I say, “Arrigato. Thank you for the advice.”
He bows and says, “It was a blessed chance encounter.”
He leaves. When I’m finished I ask for the bill. Akira’s meal is on the ticket. The extra sake softens the blow.
I could have taken the train to Fushimi Inari-Taisha, but instead I stabbed the hot concrete for an hour to get there because I didn’t want to deviate from Akira’s directions. I’m sweating profusely and out of Oi Ocha. I arrive to the great shrine of Inari and find that it’s a mountain. The old man made me walk all this way to the foot of a mountain and now I’m supposed to climb it. I begin snaking my way through crowds of tourists until I arrive at the first gate. It’s a large red gate comprised of two thick pillars called hashira holding up a two pieced lintel made up of a lower beam called the nuki and the crown called kasagi. I know this because I read the sign below it. Passing through it, there’s no other way to go, but up, so I remain with a large mass of hikers and climb the pathway.
Every several feet there’s another red gate. I turn a corner and look up to see a long train of gates stapled in a row up the mountainside. Like a dog, I want to run through all of them, but I’m frustrated because there are too many people in my way. However, the further I climb the thinner the masses become, but the more exposed I am to the hot sun. My shirt is soaked now, and my legs are beginning to burn. My pack is barely full, but it weighs a ton.
With each gate I begin to feel weaker, but I’m too hard-headed to stop. I feel as though I’ve been summoned to the shrine because there’s some meaning up there for me. I continue up. Soon, I pass through each gate alone. In between, tourists pass me and give strange looks. I ignore them. I’m weak and thirsty, uncharacteristically so, more than I should be and I wonder if something else is the matter with me. I tell myself, the struggle is part of the process, that this is a test of spirit. Akira told me to do it this way to challenge me. I accepted the challenge and I intend to finish it. I trudge on, the sweat on my skin makes it appear oily and iridescent. My mouth is as dry as a desert. My skin feels like it’s cracking like baked mud.
After an hour and a half I stumble to the top of Mt. Inari and I’m greeted with statues of foxes. I find a bench and sit. I feel as though I might be sick, but I concentrate on my breathing. I concentrate for so long that I stop thinking, and no longer thinking I stop remembering, and not remembering, I feel groggy. I fall asleep on the bench and remain there for some time. When I awake it’s night. Someone set a bottle of water by my head. I sit up and my head drains an ocean out from it and it feels as though all my hair could fall out. There are other people up here, so I’m not alone; I’m just surprised I wasn’t bothered by anyone. I drink the bottle of water in one go and try to stand up. I totter a little and realize the sun baked the energy out of my body. A group of University kids are laughing. One asks, if I’m alright, and I say too much sun, and they laugh some more. I’m not offended, because I’d think it’s funny too. I begin my descent, knees knocking all the way down, each gate reminding me I accepted a strange challenge with zero benefit. That’s yet to be determined, and all I should concentrate on is getting off this mountain to buy food and water.
I reach the streets and I have just enough phone battery to find my hostel. When I arrive I’m so happy to find Midori booked me a private room. I go to the bar and people from all over the world are partying. I order a hamburger and eat the whole thing in two minutes. I drink only water and I keep drinking glass after glass. During this whole process of recovery, from the foot of the mountain to the hostel bar, I’m not thinking and still not remembering. I just want food and water. I’m a machine for once and I’m happy. I eat and drink, resting in the total present, not taking on any responsibility, not administering guilt, nothing. That is until I receive a message from Midori.
“No time to discuss, you need to come home now. I’ve purchased a new train ticket for you. Can you be at the station in fifty minutes? Only answer if you cannot. Attached is your ticket.” [Text Message, Midori]
I get lost trying to locate the Kyoto train station in the dark, but I follow the Kyoto Tower and eventually find my way. I have a little time to spare so I order an iced coffee at Starbucks, and the teller can’t understand me. Finally I say, aisukōhī and she says, ohhhhhh, aisukōhī. Go fucking figure, if it’s not one way, it’s the other. I take out my change purse to pay her and I swear the coins pass though my hand. They splash across the counter and go everywhere. I pick up what I can and leave what I can’t see. I get to the train deck and step onto the Nozumi headed for Nagoya. It’s late, but there are still people on board. I have the isle to myself though, or at least an empty seat for Inari.
Something is following me or at least playing tricks on me. I have no proof, but ever since I nearly broke Franny’s feet, I’ve felt distressed. I’m losing it and I know it, but I’ve got no other choice than to remain on the road I’m on. I know it’s leading me to Franny’s death bed. It’s happening so fast, too fast. Franny’s never been the same since the seizure. I should have known then that he’d die while I was here. Even if I did know, nothing can prepare you. Soon, a brother I never really knew is going to die. I’ll be left putting together a puzzle of his image for years to come. But, the more I try to rebuild him, the farther away his true image will get.
I suppose that’s why I came here, to give it one last try to understand Franny and why he was the man he was. I figured if I put myself in his shoes, met his friends, and went to his haunts I’d know who he was. But, I’m no closer. Perhaps I’ve put too much into it, and pushed too hard to come to grips with a man that was rarely available, and certainly always gone. Selfishly, I’ve wanted more, too much, more than one life can give another. Still, I wish Franny was capable of being there for me because I’ve known this whole time he has what I have in my head. When his friends speak about his intensity, his creativity, his insatiable hunger for mood altering substances, I feel a profound force of empathy rumble though me. It makes me afraid to watch how he’s dying because I can’t shake the feeling I’ll succumb to the same fate. If not worse. I want to be more than that, but who I am won’t let me. Stability is a dream I’ll never acquire. Happiness is a fox hiding within a shrine.
Franny never found it, but he was so focused on his pain, how could he be? It’s such a shame mom and him are going to die together without seeing each other a last time. I wish Franny could have forgiven mom for her mistakes and that mom could have had a chance to ask for forgiveness. But, I hate Franny for hanging that over mom’s head, Aja too. At least Aja came to help out, but Franny did the Franny thing and went ahead and died.
Soon, I arrive at Nagoya Station and take the subway to Nagoya City University Hospital. There are barely any commuters, all is still and calm. I arrive Inside the hospital and a young man wearing a red Adidas track coat sits on a bench muttering to himself. He sees me and begins to speak in Japanese. He’s drunk and unhappy. I can’t understand him. I ignore him the best I can the take the elevator up to oncology.
Midori sits next to Franny’s bed holding his hand.
“Robbie, You’re brother is dying,” she says with tears down her face.
“I know,” I say and I sit on the other side of the bed and grasp her hand from across Franny body.
“I shouldn’t have gone to Kyoto,” I say.
“You couldn’t have known.”
“I feel so badly about what happened, I didn’t mean to hurt him,” I say. “If he was going to die I didn’t want our last words to be angry.”
I felt Franny’s hand squeeze mine and my whole body reacts.
“He squeezed my hand,” I say.
“Now your last words aren’t angry words. He talked to me about you last night,” Midori says, wiping her face. “He said he was worried that you dislike him,” she says.
“Of course I don’t. I love you, Franny,” I say to him.
“He said, he wishes you two talked more, that he had things to tell you.”
“I think I know what they are,” I say. “They’re things I have a hard time talking about too.”
“Robbie,” Midori says. “I’m sorry I took Franny away to Japan. I took him away from your family.”
“No, don’t think that, he needed to leave,” I say.
“I think he was happy here,” she says.
“He was happier here than he ever would have been in Seattle.”
“I hope so.”
We hold on as long as we can, but both of us fall asleep beside Franny’s bed. My dreams are troubled. Dying dogs, a Shinto figurine laying waste to the city. A homeless man set on fire. My mouth propped open with a dental gag and fish dropped in. Headstones regurgitating living skeletons like a bellowing smoke stack. An empty bed frozen solid. These images repeat themselves.
I’m roused by sobbing, and when I open my eyes I see Midori looking at Franny and by the pain in her voice I know my brother is dead. His mouth is open, his skin is yellowish grey, he’s more emaciated than before, he will be cremated soon.
“I love you, brother,” I say, and console Midori.
I look up, and behind her stands Franny.
“I’ll explain later,” he says, in usual fashion. “Just help Midori as much as you can before we leave for Seattle. In the meantime, I have a blind man to thank.”
My heart sinks because I know now this is all inside of me.
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?”
“Fair,” I say.
“In the event you’re found guilty we can appeal.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“But he looks forty.”
“If I lose this case I’m reporting you to the bar.”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 Player, Gold Spikes, Dick 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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…
Hey, I remember climbing those ancient hills with you to the fortress and feeling out of place without a mustache. I remember the brown ocean of the Arabian and shouting, “I’m on the Arabian!” on a beach full of overweight Russian men with spandex togs and cheese cutter caps. On that swollen beach we met the American couple, Josh and Leanne, and we hung together hard. She came back from the world and died in Texas two weeks ago.
I remember getting lost in Mumbai. I remember the straight razor shave I received amongst a crowd of curious onlookers on that foggy street in Agra. I recall seeing a life lost on the road, but then in Delhi, millions of lives moving on with things. Moving on with things…
India, you sweet bloodletting. I remember watching my past marriage turn from wilted flowers to strange peddles floating down the recesses of unknown rivers: wet cobra backs ticking by finger smudged train windows. I remember the little girl with glasses correcting her father’s english. He said she’d have a bright future. I believed him.
What about Serge—that mad Russian with a porcupine liver? He would have turned to stone if he ever attempted to enter the Golden Temple. As would have Dave. Fucking Dave. I bet he’s still dying in Mumbai. A mess perpetual.
You recall Bangalore—The neon in the dungeons of the market? The countless tuk-tuk rides, living in a demolition derby? I love to recall the giant fruit bats that hung down from the trees of Bangalore like unshucked cobs of black corn.
I remember all these things because they mean something to me. I remember these things as I lay alone on a memory foam queen size bed and feel compelled to burn it if it would fit out the front door. (I suppose houses are built in the West with the beds already inside.) I remember being within a continuum but never within it. I remember being touched on the streets. My skin a story of inequality. I learned to understand these realities and accept how things are—but after some time to reflect—regardless if I agree with them or not.
When we chatted the other day I thought about how much I missed you. How I missed New Zealand too and the illusion that I’d travel forever and never have to deal with all the mistakes I made back home. Well, Joe I did what any man would do in my case and repeated them over and over again until I had to return to the source. I’ll say one thing though, I’m glad I came home to set things right.
I only mention this because now that you are in Wellington, seemingly collecting all the precious things that you plan to hold onto for the long term, I can honestly say that you make me proud to be your friend. It’s good to know that you’re not a captive within my kingdom of memory, but a real friend that recognizes that in that unfathomable universe that is India, we shared time, and we still talk because of that bond.
And, in this tiny little pearl of fact, exists a single truth: that everywhere is India, and every moment is Delhi, and every up swing is being lost in Mumbai, and every down moment, is that awful bus ride from Agra to Delhi. That every experience with every friend is every trip into the ever present, which to me is the musical faith I place in experience. All this mess could exist in ten thousand Arabian Oceans or in one bottle of King Fisher.
What I’m trying to say is that we traveled light, but travelled hard, much like how we live. Lets meet again sometime.