Burt and Me: The Fear of Bunny Weasel and the Harpsichord

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The anti-depressants are making me fat and I’m not even happy. They work, kind of, because I’m not sad either. I’m in an emotional fugue state, where my inner self sits slumped in a wheel chair beside the hotel window of a theme park. For now, we will call my inner self Burt Kalstrom and he’s not enjoying the view because he cannot participate.

 

Burt wants an adversary and a theme song, to taste his bacon and eggs in the morning, to feel appreciation and other novel emotions. He wants to feel jazz music, instead of vibing with the banal strokes of rococo court music being played on the harpsichord down the hallway by a zoomorphic shadow named Bunny Weasel.

 

Burt has an idea for a comic strip. Spaghetti Jim and Whirls, two cowboy hot dogs trying to evade being cooked. Their arch nemesis are the Dos Chorizos who want to poke them before tying them onto a grill. Spaghetti Jim and Whirls’ love interest is Bacon and Legs, she’s a pairs of greasy bacon strips set perpendicular on top of a pair of fishnet stocking cladded legs, garters and all. They usually see her in the desert as a mirage. At the end of each comic strip they end up getting cooked. Boiled, grilled, smoked, baked, sous vide, there are so many ways to die a hotdog death. It’s grotesque.

 

Burt deserves a fighting chance to be happy without the weight gain. To actually feel the sun on his face. To shut the lid on the harpsichord and tell Bunny Weasel to take a hike, but he can’t wake up. Outside, in the theme park, people are dying from plague. They are marching on the streets demanding a better park experience for all. Some are driving cars into people, and some are sitting in their yards on lawn chairs with automatic rifles and hand grenades. Some are still ignoring what’s happening and are trying to get in as many rides as they can before the sun sets. The park chair says everything is fine.

 

Unable to move, Burt watches and waits to feel moved by it all, for the collective comedy of human experience to bring him to tears, but he just slobbers a little. He knows if he goes off of his meds the theme park will be his, but he’ll grow bored of it and destroy it within days. At least he’ll be skinny, he thinks, but the cost-benefit analysis still doesn’t weigh in his favor. Bunny weasel has a terrible high-pitched giggle and it echoes down the hallway.

 

Lithium.

Myth or man: A conversation with Akira — Excerpt from The Green Turkey

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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.”

“My apologies.”

He loosens up again and smiles.

“Would you share a tokkuri of sake with me?”

“Yeah, sure.”

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.”

“I understand.”

“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.

Sunsets Over Troubles Immemorable

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Fighting hurts us all.

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

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March 23rd, 1916

Dear Enoch,

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

I’m Not a Newt! I’m an Author.

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

“Yeah,” I said, without looking up.

“No, like right now.”

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

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

Oh, for fuck sake, I’m a tool!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How was your day?” she asked.

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

I forgot I’m an author.

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

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

You’re not a newt.

Snippets—On Character

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

The Neighbor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eating.”

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

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

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

“…”

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

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

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

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

“Keep doing you, man.”

“You too.”

I turned into my door.

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

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

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

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

“Naw, next.”

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

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

“Yep,” I hollered.

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

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

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