Throw-Away Faces—Historical Crime Fiction—Preface

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Greetings readers!

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

Thanks for stopping by!

-Josef Alton

Dear Doctor Dooley,

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

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

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

Your servant,

Enoch Campbell 

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THE BILDUNGSROMAN OF MIKE ZUNINO

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Seattle Mariners Spring Training

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

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

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

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

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

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

SO Z

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

so z 2

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.

z hitting

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.

catcher zunino

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.

high 5 zunino

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

TENSION WITHIN SPACE

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

Joe Baseball

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

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

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Dear Joe, THIS is India. — A letter to a friend


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Dear Joe,

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.

Yours truly,

Josef

THE STORIES THAT ENDURE

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There were good times and then there were the other times where my hair started to fall out in clumps in my hand and when I’d ask people to tell me how I looked they’d say fine and I thought they were just being nice until I looked in the mirror and everything was in place and I was just imagining things. I’d get a pint and we’d all drink together and I’d wander off in my head every so often thinking about a new story and how we were all going to be a story once the night was done when all of our clothes would be scattered on our bedroom floors, our conversations echoes, and the looks shared between us absorbed and stored away. There were many of those occasions, the times when we would all text each other from locations around town and slowly but surely tighten our proximity to collide at the pub and recite the happenings of our respective days in the cadence of comedy. There were good laughs, and the more there were the greater the magic to multiply empty glasses and fill ashtrays. But the whole time I was feeling this eruption in my heart that I couldn’t explain or control and I knew that something big was growing in me and I couldn’t tell anyone because I didn’t even know what was happening and it was too much anyway.

At night I’d feel like I was drowning — but I eventually learned how to be a submarine in the murk of my subconscious. I’d wake up wet in my room and feel really cold and alone and would want to talk to somebody about it but there was no one except the end of a cigarette and they were the wrong kind of little mouths when I needed a big hug and some self-love to carry me through. But I knew I’d get over it eventually; all I had to do was put more effort into others and get outside of myself.

I’d take walks to the harbor from my office and imagine packs of wolves combing the stretched green skin of the hills on the other side and watch them scatter in a wisdom of full-sprint and hunter’s architecture — chasing down my anxiety and devouring it so I could be normal again. They would tire and look around confused like their prey had disappeared into thin air, leaving no scent to retrace.

When I was a boy I used to watch my father sit at the breakfast table with the cereal box, jug of milk, bowl and spoon always in the same spot. He was in his uniform, but he seemed seldom in his body and I remember being scared if I’d be a ghost like that in the mornings. And at the height of my depression, I’d carry myself around in a sack sewn from my father’s old post office uniform like a bag of hollow bones licked clean by my own wolves. I knew that I was eating myself alive and I was both the hunter and the hunted — so I stopped eating and stopped running. I knew that my anxiety was temporary and that I would get over it; the last thing I wanted was to leave and return home to America. That would be accepting defeat.

This all sounds rather morose and sad when in actuality I was still enjoying my friends, the green hour before sunset, coffee dates, music, cooking, baseball… I was still laughing, still having fun, but quietly housing hungry wolves in my stomach. I couldn’t write anymore. I was all locked up, dry, mouth full of sand, in dream still sinking to the seabed. I was falling apart. It was terrifying to know that I loved what I had so much but would have to leave it for my own good. Most frustrating was not even having a reason. Not knowing what was wrong with me. Not being able to figure it out. Not being able to make it all better. Watching things fall to pieces without needle or thread to repair the damage. Just having to watch it all float down stream. It was heartbreaking. And I remember laying in a cobblestone alley on my last weekend with my shirt off, feeling the cold cobblestones press in my ribs, so in a daze about leaving this old town behind that I couldn’t understand what leaving really meant and what it would mean to everyone. I was near collapse I guess and all the laughs and comedy and pints and filled ashtrays from the good times were just as I predicted, stories, but of a sad nature at that moment because the ease of those moments was temporarily suspended and replaced by melancholy and I felt like it was all my fault. I just wish I could have gotten better. Maybe I should have told someone that I wasn’t well and it wasn’t their fault.

Now that I’m back home and there are no longer any wolves, or a submarine, or anxiety, or little mouths not doing their job, and big hugs at the ready, self-love appears to be blossoming in the dead of winter. I have so much, the same as I had when I left, but even more. I didn’t burn down as much as I thought. I guess people’s capacity to love is greater sometimes than your madness. I feel nothing but gratitude for those I call my friends. Everyone of them.

So, I suppose this is an apology for a poorly written chapter. Perhaps it’s an admission of honesty. It’s maybe just another one of my stories. However, our stories of the times when we were all smiling outside the pub planning adventures together and just being kids are the best. I like those stories most because they’ll be the memories that endure.

IDENTIKIT — SECTION FROM MY FIRST NOVEL — MEET THE ARISTOCRAT

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My friend Jesse Montini-Vose and I are working on turning my first novel into a series of short animated films. Here is the first sketch and a section from the first chapter. 

Surprised that the Aristocrat knew her name, she snapped her head back to face him. She studied the terrible scene in front of her: the hooded man, the guillotine and the roses, and felt terror for the first time as if she was unaware of the danger she was in before, and had just now realized the severity of her situation.

“Why won’t you let me leave?” she cried desperately. “Can’t you see that I’m wounded and need help?”

“…”

His silence made her ashamed and she dropped her head in misery. Every creature within the oasis relaxed and allowed the evening breeze of the late sunset to pass through them. The aristocrat looked down at his coat and picked a piece of lint from his lapel. The collective exhale of the oasis normalized and the Aristocrat looked up, but refrained from pressing Beth any further. He turned in his chair and resituated his body, crossing his legs.

“There is no bother looking,” he said.

“At what?” She thought, defeated.

“It has been healed.”

Beth felt around her stomach, but couldn’t find the pain; the hole had been plugged. She felt actual fear in the bullethole’s absence.

“What are you?”

“…”

She closed her eyes to escape. She returned to the opaque plain of her subconscious and stood beside the petrified bodies of Alex and Cole, who still lay where she had left them. She looked up into the blank atmosphere and saw a black crow flap its wings overhead. “Crow?” She said, confused. The bird hovered overhead. She worried that he would get tired and fall. A snap popped at her feet and drew her attention down to Cole’s hand punching through his rock mold. The blue hand felt around for her ankle, then a black loafer came into view and ground its blunt heal into Cole’s icy flesh. The Aristocrat pivoted and swung around on the hand to face Beth. His lanky body towered over her and his chest heaved at her eye level as he peered down at her.

“These corpses are worse than bullets to you.”

“They were my friends.” She mumbled.

“Corpses will always be dead.”

“And memories?”

“Burn them.”

He raised his arm and attempted to place his hand on her shoulder, she pulled away and opened her eyes — she was back at the pass and caught herself from falling off of her horse.

“Twice in one day.” Their voices said together in her head — the Aristocrat sitting again at his chair.

“Stop it.” She yelled. “You have no right to be in there.”

“But I must know.” He said.

More ivy climbed up the legs of his chair.

“What?”

“I must know what brings you here?”

“I told you, I don’t know. I’m only here to cross over the mountains.”

“You are lost?”

“No.”

(He read her thoughts)

“You have a very limited concept of time to think that I am strange. If you knew where you were I would not be so wicked to you. You would know me quite well and know me as part of the mechanism.

“Mechanism?”

“Yes. So, I ask you again, what brings you here?”

“Brought me?”

“No, brings you. On what moment did you arrive?”

She closed her eyes to think, to disappear again. However, he still stood close to her in her mind, unwilling to give her peace. She jumped back, startled, but this time unable to pass back into consciousness.

“Shall we take a walk?” He asked.

He turned away from her and looked out onto the flat grassy plain.

“What secrets must mingle here?” He asked himself aloud.

Beth stood and watched him scan her thoughts.

The Aristocrat grabbed the collar of his mask and pulled the heavy canvas bag from his head and turned back towards her. Beth’s eyes mapped his face; for a moment unsure of what was missing to make it so grotesque. The lower jaw of the man was missing and all that remained were a set of decayed molars rotting at the back of his splintered mandible and a sick tongue unrolled. In contrast, his upper teeth were pearly white and hung down, exposed for exhibition. His nose was thin and pointy. His eyes were clear and encircled with bruised eyelids and a thin pair of bleached eyebrows to match his white periwig. His pallor was as if he had walked inside from the cold.  He ignored Beth’s hand pinching her lip, and in one unconcerned flourish pulled a blue kerchief from his coat pocket. He wound it tight and tied it around his head so a triangle piece covered his teeth.

“It’s rude to show your teeth to someone.” He said, turning only slightly to make slight eye contact with her.  Now, shall we?”

Beth’s world went dark. It brightened to a bustling café. He looked around in wonderment, scanned the white walls, the ornate crown molding, and the brass handrails of an iron spiral staircase that stood behind Beth. She stood at the opposite end of a round granite tabletop.

“Sit.” He said, as he took his chair. “Oh, my this is wonderful.” He gasped. “I’ve been forward in time, but never outside of, well…” He closed his thoughts.

However, Beth hadn’t heard a word from the Aristocrat. She was looking at a table on the other side of the room at a young woman wearing a white dress and black cardigan. Her hair was short. It was her. She sat with a young man wearing a black suit and a rounded white collared shirt. His brown hair was parted. Beth was unresponsive to the Aristocrat’s ploys to rouse her attention. She looked at the two, ensnared within the vines of melancholy, saddened by a memory she felt guilty to have forgotten.

“Guilt?” He questioned rhetorically. “No, no, your youth is nothing to mourn.”

His cold white hand pinched her chin. She pulled away, shuttered, and gave him a disgusted look.

“I’m not feeling guilty.” She snapped, noticeably upset. “I just don’t want to be here.”

“In your past, or with him?”

“Neither.”

“But, he seems like a nice boy?”

“A coward, actually.”

“I see.”

The young man stood and walked to the front counter. He collected two cups and saucer in his hands and returned to the table. He leaned forward, fumbled in a last ditched attempt, but the china crashed to the tile floor. Everyone in the café turned to see what the matter was, but Beth looked away.

“I want to leave.” She said, affected, nervously looking out the café’s large front window. “I’ll take you to where I can hurt you if you don’t let me leave here.” She said, now understanding the power of her own mind.

“They’re so in love.” He said, disingenuously.

All went black.

FIVE DAYS IN NEW YORK CITY

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The fog had been thick for days in Seattle and that wet molasses which had descended from Alaska got me all caught up in myself and I needed to die in a good way and get out and forget about New Zealand too and become all that newness that comes when you leave home. I wanted all the heavy in my life to glance off my shoulders and I watched those good and bad memories slide off the airplane’s wings when it took off. I fell into New York City in the late afternoon and got wrapped up in her iron veins and was spit out in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn and watched football at Cody’s where our waitress Kelly treated us like royalty while we drank pitchers of the local IPA and I was already making plans to never leave. I ended that night with a shot of grappa to wash down the wood pigeon ravioli I had just swallowed. The scent of big city and autumnal decay filled the blanks and I turned off whole.

The next couple days kept me spinning and loosing where north was or where south should be or where west was when the sun was going down. All that was there were building tops and stacks of brick, and limestone and granite edifices hammering their permanence down on the cityscape. Scurrying in between their toes were us little ants running around digging in the sand, forging paths which were erased as soon as they were dug. Footprints are impossible to imprint in cement, and you can’t make records of the past in New York City I don’t reckon. All that is there is the present and I liked that so much that I didn’t mind about getting lost in Manhattan. In fact that’s all I wanted to do was be lost.

Whenever I got hungry I ate a slice of pizza or a buttered bagel and every time I got thirsty I had a glass of water with a red wine and looked at my map while everyone else at the bar looked at their phones or the NY Times or sat chatting with a friend about this or that. I found the tether of a thousand conversations, the footsteps and heel clicks, cars honking, the rumble emanating from the subways the most refreshing braid of chaos. Seattle and Dunedin disappeared in her folds, which they had needed to for quite some time and I felt less buried than free and less forgotten than apart of a collective stream of volition, like a powerful river I suppose, and the last time I had thought of that was when I was in India flowing down stream with the wheel traffic. So I walked everywhere with everyone.

My steps took me all over and one day I walked from SoHo to the Lower East Side, to Hell’s Kitchen to see the M.I.A. show and met a whole bunch of crazies that could share a great time and then agree to never see each other again. This made the whisky burn less but the heart peak and all night felt only like a second. I woke up the next morning and thought about all that I used to have and what I can have in the future and what I had right then and all I knew was that I’d start with a glass of water and figure it all out after that.

That afternoon I Walked down 5th Avenue and swam through stone faces from Central Park all the way to 30 something Ave and went inside the Live Bate and loved how the dim lighting inside let the green and red walls speak nostalgic. In my head towered the cutouts of skyscrapers and bridges that I had only seen pictures of before. The city was real to me finally and that was what I was trying to get my head around over my morning glass of water. And everything after that was just a catalogue of good food and good old friends and art museums and parks and people watching. I thought to myself on a park bench in Central Park when the sun was setting on my last day that I’ve loved everywhere I’ve been and everyone I’ve shared life with during my travels. And the thought made me so relaxed I realized that I was exhausted.

Five days felt like one, but a very long and satisfying day. Living in the moment was effortless. I felt a part of something that had no end goal or sole purpose just an unapologetic attitude for existing. Everyone talks about the energy of New York City and I agree, but for me there was also an absence of absence and a different kind of redundancy far removed from always having one street to walk down or one store to buy milk at or one part of town to go to shop. It was also the diversity that was so invigorating; that there is every kind of person everywhere and we comingle with so many different stories being unsaid but regardless mixing together in the air above our heads. It’s what seemed to me to be an allowance to be whatever it is you want to be and an onus amongst the many to harness that and take it as far as it can go. I constantly had the feeling of diving head first into something and that is always a special feeling for me because it means I’m living. It felt like the kind of place where you could work to get found in or work to get swallowed in, like a spring or a well of endless possibility or distraction. The city is the center of the earth because it’s a profound statement about how we exist separately and together.

I want to be a humanist in New York City.