Long Arm

Brace yourself like a man;
    I will question you,
    and you shall answer me.

Would you discredit my justice?
    Would you condemn me to justify yourself?
Do you have an arm like God’s,
    and can your voice thunder like his?

-Job 40:7-9

*

This is fiction. So we’re clear.

*

The Chef’s got the day off – mowing the lawn, the kind of shit people with houses and families not only do but seem to look forward to – so the sous chef (let’s call him Ben) is cooking sans jacket and apron, just shorts and a black t-shirt, music loud, half-way into his second beer after having finished the lunch rush. He’s a little hungover but in otherwise good spirits. You can tell because the stove-top is a crowded skyline of stocks and soups, a cast-iron of garlic slowly spitting and browning, and a pot of dried chilies re-hydrating, anchos and guajillos, a few cascabel for that rattlesnake bite. There’s a bowl of warm dumpling dough proofing in the radiant heat of the panini grill and a pork shoulder, pulled from a long, slow overnight braise, resting on a cutting board. Ben’s rushing around in his typical way, washing dishes, playing a drum break on the counter top with metal tongs, slowly nudging a half-dozen projects along. Though this look like madness, yet there is method in’t. Slowly and steadily food – pretty good food – is coming out of the kitchen.

All is right with the world.

One of the counter-service girls comes back in the kitchen:

“What’s your last name?”

Ben tells her.

“Oh. Okay. I didn’t know. But these guys are her for you…so…”

Ben peaks over the counter: two guys, office manager types – sweater over dress shirt, sports-coat with no tie, comfortable shoes – wave politely at them. They look too relaxed to be health-inspectors (who travel alone, like giant squid, and kill for fun, also like giant squid), so Ben figures they’re product reps.

Coming around the counter he greets them:

“Hey boys, what can I do for y’all?”

The greeting – ‘boys,’ and ‘ya’ll’ – sounds almost natural, after ten years on and off in the south, Ben’s shaken any trace of south Jersey ‘kwoifee’ accent. But the bigger of the men draws back his lips over his teeth when he hears it. He’s not a food-rep, he’s under no obligation to make or take small-talk bullshittery. The man is not fooled. He extends his hand, a domineering almost vertical grip that pinions Ben’s hand. Ben doesn’t catch his name – no, he’s distracted by the top of a photo clipped inside a binder under the man’s arm, a ten-year-old photo of himself – but he does catch the agent, and treasury department, and he does not miss the pistol holstered under the man’s arm.

“Do you know what this is about?”

The man asks, but its not a question. Not really. Ben knows what this is about.

“Fucking twitter,” he says.

“Is there someplace, quiet,” the shorter man says, in softening good-cop tones, almost pitying, as he gestures to the office door in the back, “somewhere we can do this?”

*

Three days prior, on Friday night, Ben and his wife get drunk to blow-off steam: working opposite shifts they’ve seen far too little of each other and – unlike the proverbial couples of yore – absence makes their hearts grow chapped and raw. But now they’ve got the night off and they celebrate, happy just to be around each other, and then they accidentally watch the news.

Things are bad – as the man once said – everybody knows things are bad.

They watch the news and drink too many bottles of wine and then Ben’s wife is crying. She has a heart, after all, and what sane person – their defenses already strained just making it through a week – takes a look at the world stage today and does not take it for a tragedy? Which is to say, bawl their eyes out?

Ben, for one. He has a heart – he doesn’t not have a heart, to be cagey and litotal about it – and he’s not a complete monster. But he does have a bad Russian habit, like Chekov, of misreading tragedy as comedy. If you squint, drunkenly, those drama masks look awfully fucking similar.

And so Ben, feeling six or seven fingers of whisky-clever, takes to social media to crack wise about the political circus slowly burning the country to the ground. He facetiously offers his assistance to candidate Marco Polo, flailing in the polls and getting ineloquently but effectively thrashed by the circus’s latest ringmaster, Donald Duck. Something along the lines of hit me up, assassination is the only way you’ll make it in the primaries. Or close to the that, 140 words or less. Not his best joke – three fingers is whisky-clever, six is whisky-daft – and likely disappear into the clamorous chatter of Twitter, like a pea-shooter fired into a hurricane.

But that is not what happens.

*

In the conference room of the office, the short agent is congenial – he complements the joint, mentions he’s glad to visit someone at an actual place of business, says he appreciates Ben taking the time, etc. – and the big agent is laconic but mellow.

“The last guy, oh, he was one of the sign twirlers, you know, like a tax-season guy, dressed up as Lady Liberty, he was at his mother’s house, still, um, in uniform, as it were…”

Then the questions. Ben’s married, coming up on ten years. The big agent warms, slightly. They talk about the different ways they’ve lost their wedding rings. Ben, twice when pulling of gloves, once in a batch of pizza dough. The shorter agent starts, “we’ve seen some fucked up…er, some situations, with rings, that wouldn’t come off, you just wouldn’t…” He glances at his partner, trails off, without explaining why the treasury department would need to remove someone’s wedding ring.

Car, make and model. Home address. Phone number. Parents residence. Last employer, reason for leaving. Level of education. They ask, Ben answers.

Don’t be mistaken, these are not questions. It is not a question – not truly, not an honest question – if you already know the answer. And the answers are arranged in a long list on the agent’s clipboard. They ask, Ben answers, and they put a check-mark if he tells the truth.

“Okay,” says the short agent,”So, why don’t you tell us about what you posted.”

Ben considers lying, someone hacked my account, or I left it in the office and someone kid was playing with it, but he decides lying to federal agents is a bad idea. So he tells them what happened: a bad and drunken joke.

“Just a joke,” he says, shaking his head, “and I get that, you know, you have to come out here, and I’m sorry for that, but it was absolutely a joke. A bad joke. I’m sorry.”

The agents look at each other, then back at Ben.

The short agent says, “Yeah, look, we get that. And we appreciate how cooperative you’ve been, you seem like a normal guy. But, uh, the thing is, it’s still against the law.”

The big agent chimes in, arms crossed, “Let’s be clear, you’ve committed a federal felony.”

The short agent shoots him a look, then glances back at Ben, saying, “Well, yes, it is a felony. And we do have to, now, of course, contact the district Attorney. And we have to ask you some more questions.”

*

You imagine your life a certain way. You have hopes – of course, foolish or realistic, you’ve got plans – and more than that you have a rhythm, what you do today, what you did yesterday, what you’ll do tomorrow. With whom you’ll spend your time. That rhythm is the bedrock of your life, and it’s difficult to disturb, hard to shake.

Death, can shake it. When someone you love dies, you get a feeling, like you’ve been knocked loose of your foundation. It can be freeing – a horrible thing to admit, but true just the same – and oddly exhilarating feeling. The death of a loved one frees you from social protocol: you don’t have to make small-talk, don’t have to pretend to like doing things you don’t like, you can get shitfaced at 9a.m., you can skip work, run naked into the ocean. Whatever you like. For a short period of time. Then the rhythm returns.

This, for Ben, sitting in a small conference room, florescent lights flickering, a pair of handcuffs glinting under the flap of the agent’s jacket, this is something similar, but more. A loved one dies, you’re thrown off course, but you recover. Now the threat is imprisonment, the long arm of the law reaching out, like God’s own grizzled paw careening down from the heavens to swat him into oblivion. Prison. Like a living death. No more nights with his wife, no more writing or music, no more cooking, no more anything.

*

“Have you committed suicide?”

Ben looks up, blinking. The agents glance at each other. Ben glances at his own wrists, tattooed but otherwise un-scarified.

“Um,” he says, venturing a faint grin, “have I what?”

The agent glances down at his checklist.

“Oh. Sorry. Have you attempted suicide?”

“Oh,” Ben smiles, “no, no I haven’t.”

“Have you thought about it?”

Ben pauses, just for a moment. Is now the time for a joke about Camus? And didn’t he say, anyway, that the only really serious problem left is the consideration of suicide? What intelligent person doesn’t consider it, at least academically. And what sane person, whose heart is not cinders, does not look around this world and – at least once – say, ‘okay, I am through here.’ Beam me up, Scotty, I’m fucking done.

But Ben smiles and lies, “no, God. Who’d run the kitchen?”

The agents nod, smiling back. The Protestant work ethic, still earning hot’n’melty brownie points.

The shorter agent asks, “Are you ever depressed? Anxious?”

Ben lies.

“Are you political?”

Is it an option not to be? Is this the time for a conversation about imperialism, or capitalism, a chat about white privilege or the patriarchy… is this the time for anything, anything at all, anything but shit-eating lies, desperate like a man caught trash-talking God himself, now slapping a bloodied palm over his own mouth and dropping to his knees?

No. Ben lies.

“Do you ever consider violence against the government, or any political candidate? Do you have any interest in guns, or weapons, or political revolutions? Do you use drugs? Do you drink heavily? Do you have any eccentric religious beliefs?”

The answer to these questions – which, again, are nothing like questions, nothing at all – is to say, ‘no,’ and ‘Jeez, not really,’ and to laugh nervously and honestly. To fucking lie your ass off. This Ben does, and the agents wrap things up.

Near the end, the agents hold a 8.5’x11′ piece of paper, with a low-rez printout picture of Ben. He’s sweaty drunk, playing a bass guitar in some dive-bar, wearing a t-shirt that reads “Fuck You You Fucking Fuck.” The agents show it to Ben.

“Needs a comma,” Ben says.

“You look like a pretty angry guy here,” the big agent says, arms crossed, “turns out, you played in a pretty angry punk rock band.”

“Post-punk,” Ben says.

The big agent furrows his brow, the shorter agent starts to say something, but gets cut off.

“You said you weren’t political.”

“Punk isn’t…and we weren’t…look, that was, what, ten years ago? I was a kid. Angry, sure, but what kid isn’t angry. Right?”

“Lot’s of kids aren’t angry,” says the big agent, “you come from a nice family, went to a fancy school…”

“It was a state school.”

The agent glares, then continues, “A pretty fancy school. Lots of kids who had those opportunities wouldn’t be angry. And lot’s of people aren’t. Wouldn’t be here, sitting here, having committed a federal felony.”

“Okay, okay.”

Ben shrugs.

“I was selfish, you know, narcissistic. I didn’t think about anyone else. It’s easy to be mad when you do that. I was angry, just about personal things. I didn’t see any bigger picture.”

He surprises himself. He’s told the truth. The short agent, sensing an opportunity, says, “And now?”

“And now I do. Now I just worry about local stuff, things I can help with, like working here.”

The shorter agent nods at his colleague, satisfied. They fill out a few more forms. Ben signs away his privacy rights: medical records – to see if he’s been on prescription drugs or treated for mental illness – and the rights to search his house and car. Ben figures, what’s the point? They aren’t Vampires. They don’t really need permission to come in. The forms – like the questions – aren’t real. They’re tests. To see if you’ll behave. To see if you’ve learned your lesson.

Ben signs them.

*

Now Ben sits alone in his apartment – still unsearched, unraided by black-armored government forces – and drinks a beer, strumming a strange chord on the guitar.

The gods are all quiet, hushed. When the old Volcano god of the desert shows up, all hellfire and whirlwind, even those brash Nordic types slink off. It’s just the trickster gods, who stick around. Loki. Dolos. Coyote. Even they’re pretty rattled.

Coyote, who is doing his best cat imitation to keep his profile low, scratches behind his ear. Ben looks at him.

“What?”

“You’re really chickenshit. You should have given them what-for. You didn’t break the law.”

“I kind of did.”

“Horseshit on toast! You didn’t threaten anyone.”

“I offered -“

“Right, well, they only way your threat was real, would be if someone took you up on it, and I think he’d be in a bigger tub of hot shit than you.”

“You’re a lawyer now?”

“Hey. When you’ve been on the receiving end of as many treaties as I have, you start feeling your way around the legal tongue, you know?”

Ben sips his beer.

“Well, you’re hiding in a cat suit, so, there’s that.”

Coyote cocks his head at him.

“You’ve got to be smarter. Or at least less literal. That’s the thing about the big G. Super fucking literal, that one.”

“What, so now I’ve got to be a magical realist?”

“God I hate that term. That term is fucking racist, did you know that? And reductive. No. I’m saying, be smarter, okay, smart guy. After all, you went to a pretty fancy school.”

Ben sips his beer and smiles.

“I did.”

“Next time be smarter.”

“Next time I’ll be smarter.”

Coyote smiles, and then – distracted by the glint of a Christmas ornament under the couch, bolts across the room and disappears.

Advertisements

Long Year City

Last year was a dark year, a year of the old gods. We fought the good fight and lost. The war ground on. Attrition. A slow and unstauchable bleeding. At work, we tried to hold the line, for good food, for good people, losing ground all the time.

Then our work casloppy ript Sloppy died, drowned in a weeklong deluge. We had, over the the year, earned her trust. Brought her from her nervous perch in the forest to the edge of our kitchen, fed her, and even petted her, once or twice. But Sloppy was a wild animal and would not – perhaps could not – be changed. She came as close as she did to teach her sole surviving kitten that we could be trusted. Her kitten – Biscuits – was trusting and friendly, allowing us to pick him up, play with him, take him to the vet, and eventually our baker adopted him.

It was the last thing Sloppy did, her final and instinctively devoted sacrifice. We found her body and buried her. Pete and I dug the grave. Christopher sang ‘The Pipes are Calling.’ It’s you must go, and I must bide. We poured out our liquor. And we went our separate ways that day, knowing it was over for us. When the gods cast their judgement, they cast it deep in your heart. You just know.

After that, it was just a matter of time. Some quit, some got fired. I stayed behind, to fight the lonely fight, the war against callow mediocrity and bloodless corporate cheapness. I stayed, but not heroically. I stayed out of necessity, and stubbornness, and blindedness. I stayed because my heart was too broken to move on.

Heartbroken, because last year our best friend died.

I’m just now almost able to talk about it. ‘Almost,’ meaning I can joke about it: awful, cruel jokes. But hurling hurt back at the world is not the same as coming to terms with it. My wife is getting a tattoo – the first, last, only portrait I think she’ll get – and our longtime artist could barely make it through the sketch without crying. I doubt either of them will fare better during the actual session. Tattooing – the time, the pain, the process – is often about catharsis. I hope it will be for my wife.

As for me, I’ll be getting the same portrait, in a few months when the money’s saved up and our artist has recovered. But I need something more. For three months, I’ve needed to scream and had no mouth. The death of my friend wrecked me. I woke up early, long before the sun, everyday. I woke up and I just stood in the empty kitchen, staring at the empty living room. He wasn’t there. My hands felt like numbed stumps. I walked, alone, around the collecting pond near my apartment. The gravel crunched, ospreys cried out in the trees. I picked up my guitar, strummed an old chord progression, and felt nothing. I stared at blank screens, cursor blinking, ticking away time, ticking away nothing. I tried: wrote a few weak false starts.

I was writing pointless sentences, playing boring chords, cooking meager food. All I wanted to do was sleep and I was developing chronic insomnia.

I’d stare at my ceiling, stare at the woods, stare at the road. I’d remember his face.

It’s hard. It is very hard to make yourself accountable for the grief of a dead dog. For many people, I did not try. What words could close that chasm? They’d have to be there, with me, to be me, as I stood there, in the quiet little room at the veterinary hospital, pushed the plunger on the syringe, and felt my best friend slip away in my arms. Every day for ten years, for the entirety of my marriage, the entirety of my adult life, I have woken up to his face and fallen asleep to it. Now it just a memory: his eyes, growing heavy, for the last time.

I have a picture, that I will not show you here, of his tired, swollen face. My face is pale and tired, my wife’s face is bruised from crying. A ruptured cancer in his stomach caused him to bleed out. His heart was so strong that he survived for a over a week; most dogs would have died instantly. When my wife and I adopted him, his heart was so weak he was not allowed to play, or walk more than a block. But he was, in the end, the strongest living creature I ever met. In the picture, you can see what that strength granted him: grace and dignity. He didn’t die in his sleep, or in the back room on a metal table. He waited, until we were there, to see him off. In the picture you see it, in his eyes, through the drugs: resignation, peace. He was ready to say goodbye.

He was ready, I was not.

I am still not.

.

unnamed

Maximilian Caesar Bear, 2003-2015

It is so hard to make yourself accountable to people. Dogsgrief. That should be a word. It should mean, to the lucky, to the uninitiated, a kind of secondhand mourning, a minor injury. And, to the unlucky, to those who have lost a best friend, it would mean something else. A dog is not a human, though so often my friend seemed like a human in a dog suit. They are something else, an alien intelligence, a kind martian: wiser and dumber and different than us, but no less worth our love – and thus, our grief – in their time with us.

We lost a lot in 2015, too much by far. It was dark for nearly half the year.

But Bear, my best friend, hated sadness. He would not tolerate crying or moping. He would press his face into yours, on the verge of speech, trying to cheer you up. He would be annoyed and ashamed at me, for the fallow months that have followed his death. A pitiful thanks for the years he gave me, the joy, the heart.

And so, 2016. My heart still feels broken, like a black meteorite stuck in my chest. But I cannot wallow any longer. Bear would be pawing at the floor, pressing his muzzle to my face, nipping at my hands, barking at the door. Bear would want rock’n’roll, and stories, and food, and adventure.

And he shall have them.

The gods be damned, he shall have them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Anarchist’s Song

August and September burnt fast, hard days and short nights. If nothing else, I put a decent dent in the world’s whiskey supply. It’s been a rough few weeks, but not without something to show for it. So, without delay, some news:

EML V2.0

 Exploding Math Lab is back, after a very brief hiatus, with new bass player Shaun Paul. As a four piece, we’ve been recording new songs (some of which you can check out at our Bandcamp site: https://explodingmathlab.bandcamp.com/releases). They’re like the old songs, but 33.333…% better. (Can’t argue with that; it’s just science.) We’re currently working on a proper LP release, and we’ve been getting some nice support from the Wilmington music scene to that end. Hopefully, a really-existing, hot-in-your-hand album is in the fairly near future. Christmas is coming, kids, whether you like it or not. It’s thoroughly rewarding and insanely frustrating to write and play original music in a world that doesn’t seem to much care for it, so we’re grateful for every single person we can reach. Spread the word, and – if you live in the Southeast area – we hope to be coming to a city near you soon. Hit us up on Facebook. We’ll play your local bar, your high school, or your fucking backyard.

WIP

I should say – that is, I should have said this earlier – that it’s far easier to talk about myself as a musician than a writer. I would never introduce myself as either – my personal rule is that, if you can’t put a roof over your head by plying a trade, that’s not your fucking trade (I’m looking at you, poet-baristas of the world) – but, of the two, guitarist sounds less wretchedly self-aggrandizing than novelist. For one thing, you can’t go into a brick-and-mortar bookstore and find any of my written work (except maybe one place in Brooklyn, but I digress), but you can come down to a bar in Wilmington and hear my band play. For another, playing music is a group activity, and it’s almost intrinsically less autistic and narcissistic than writing. Even if nobody shows up to a show (it’s happened, and it’s mighty grim looking), I’m still playing with three other people. It’s not completely masturbatory. It’s definitely better than eating at Olive Garden.

Okay. That said: I have some new short fiction out – check out the ‘Short Work’ page for details – but, of late, I’ve been plugging way at the WIP (Work in Progress, or Wrangling It Painfully). This is, in large part, the reason for relative scarcity of activity on this site this summer. When I have time to write – which is like saying, when I can manage to tread water long enough to breathe – the WIP is what I’m working on. The goddamn thing is nearly cooked through, and – unlike previous and more narcissistic manuscripts – this one’s been beta-tested a couple-few times. Hopefully there will be no news about it for a while, and then really good news about it. I’ll keep you posted.

CHAOS A.D.

Finally, and this is not the total non-sequitor it appears to be, I’ve been thinking about anarchy a lot lately. Not in the navel-gazing undergraduate sense, or the snot-nosed punk sense. In fact, I’ve always found myself disenchanted with the punk-anarchist pose. Sample interview with a punk: Q. How is putting a safety pin through my nose supposed to disrupt an established order so engrained that two world wars couldn’t budge it? A. Fuck you! Yes. It’s not a very satisfying philosophy.

And, intellectually, I know anarchy is a bad idea, for a number of concrete reasons. But, mostly, I know it’s a bad idea for me. Selfishly. I know a lot of people that I care for would perish, pretty quickly, in the event of a complete breakdown of social order. The young, the old, the sick – all fucked. What if my wife, the person I love most of all in this world, got sick? I feel nauseous even thinking about it.

Not to mention that pretty much everything I’m striving for in my life would become overwhelming irrelevant. In an anarchistic world there are no publishing houses, no editors, no printers, no book stores, no magazines and newspapers to review books. No universities or colleges, no classroom and no students. There are no concert halls and venues, no record labels, no Spotify or Pandora. There are no restaurants, no food magazines, no seafood delivery companies. As a writer, or a guitarist, or a teacher, or a cook, I’d be pretty much out of luck.

I’d be hunched over a fire, cooking squirrel.

But the heart wants what the heart wants. A tautology that’s usually deployed to explain unrequited love, or the foolish dreams of the young. In my case, the heart wants anarchy, wants the big wave, Roland Emmerich style, the Zombie apocalypse, the rise of the machines. Whatever. I don’t want to want it. I don’t think it’s a good idea. But, deep down, when I close my eyes, I know it’s what I dream about: the end of everything. Running mad, naked and screaming, through the burning streets of the world.

So, if I can make something out of my life, whether I’m teaching or cooking, playing guitar or writing books, I’ll be happy. I’ll be blessed. But if you run into me, ten years from now, and I’m doing well and the world is still standing, and you notice there’s still something just a little melancholy about me, you’ll know what it is.

Please, please, please, let me not get what I want.

Cheer Up, You Weirdo 

Alright, well, that got dark quick. But don’t worry, it was all just a dream. Next time: good Pod vs. bad Pod, adventures in self-sabotage, in defense of Hemlock Grove, and short-short fiction vs. long-short fiction vs. long-long fiction vs. Godzilla.

 

 

The War

…I have a dream. I’m watching a titanic battle between my brother and the monsters of the underworld, and my brother is killing one after another with a huge shotgun. The monsters are cartoonish and murderous and it doesn’t matter how many he kills because there’s an endless supply of them.

Eventually he just runs out of ammo, I realize. Eventually the monsters will win.

Sebastian Junger, War

 

Where did July go? Evaporated in the triple digit slow cooker heat? I don’t know, but it seems likely. I’ve been head down, in the mud, working, trying to push the boulder up the hill – fuck that Sisyphus slacker – I’ve been pushing a half dozen boulders up a half dozen hills. Something’s gotta give, my wife says. I love her, need that optimism, something to cut the bitter, overproof whiskey doubt in my heart. But nothing has to give. Nothing gives until you break it. So, in lieu of a status report, let me just say things are cooking. Slow cooking, but cooking. (Less obliquely: in the fall, there’ll be new fiction – including a piece in Sixfold’s Summer 2015 release – and new rock and roll – Exploding Math Lab’s EP2 is going to be a thunderous monster. New stuff, even better than the old stuff. Guaranteed.)

In the meantime, it’s war.

Not the war abroad. No, though I mean no disrespect; we’ve all got friends and family over there, somewhere. Whatever the (shitty) politics that got them there. I’m talking about a different war, an older war. The war at home.

The war inside.

Turn on the TV, and you see the casualties. The ruined cities, monuments to the victors: apathy, complacency, sloth, and fear. ­Makes you wish the real horsemen would show up. But instead we get EL James, Guy Fieri, Jeb Bush, and Stan Lee. Yes, Stan Lee – you aren’t off the goddamn hook, no sir. Stan Lee phoned in a lot of his creations, and they’ll be clogging the bowels of Hollywood for decades to come.

I turn on the radio – ill-advisedly, I know – and you can actually hear the sound of people surrendering. It sounds like 4/4 timing, mid-tempo ‘rock’ that sounds just like mid-tempo ‘pop’ and mid-tempo ‘country.’ White flags flying over every radio station.

Okay, so it’s the mediocrity in the arts rant? Not so original. And not so bad, either, if that was the end of it. Because, honestly, if you’re going to write, or make music, or cook food, then maybe it’s not so bad to have nothing but mediocre hacks as your competition. Just lined up – dumb faces upturned – for you to trounce. And maybe, then, you could startle people out of their stupors. I remember the first time I ate real cheese. (Wait. What? Hold on, stay with me.) Unpasteurized, unhomogenized, unfuckedaroundwith. I thought: this is how the gods eat. That’s how you could make people feel.

But the war isn’t about artists versus imitators, or the stagnation of American creativity (by a school system and a broader culture that enforces safeness and timidity, no less). Those are symptoms, cropping up here and there.

The war is everywhere.

The war is at work, for example.

Last week, I fired a long time employee. There were lots of reasons. First and foremost, she made terrible food. She only knew about four or five recipes, and – even after she’d been warned, ordered, begged, not to make these things – as soon as you turned your back on her, she’d scurry around, making one of these awful creations. Cinnamon-sugar sweet potatoes, in July. Roasted vegetables, deflated and unseasoned, some raw and some cooked to shit. Broccoli salad that was 90% mayonnaise by weight (and also, for no apparent culinary reason, contained wildly expensive amounts of raw pine nuts).

When she washed dishes, she’d cram four or five times too many things into the machine, leaving you with racks of food-flecked dishes after she left. She’d go on break during the busiest hour of lunch, sitting at the computer in a room adjoining the kitchen, smiling dumbly, the way a child does when they shit their pants without even realizing it.

At one point, a few months back, she asked, ‘when you fire me, can you please give me two weeks’ notice first?’ Not if. When. She knew, in the dimmest possible sense, that she was bad at her job. She didn’t know why and she didn’t want to. She didn’t want to learn, or improve, or change in any way. She wanted to punch her time and then leave. When you told her, the way you cut vegetables is so wildly ineffective and insanely dangerous that it is difficult to watch for longer than a split second, she’d just say, ‘oh, I’ve been doing it this way for a long time.’

And there it was, the battle cry of the enemy: it’s always been this way.

Every day at work, our pay gets docked a half-hour. Why? Because, a while back, when the kitchen was run by a brigade of crackheads and slackers, employees abused the paid breaks to the point where they’d wander off, for hours at a time. Hours. So management’s solution, with their signature mix of underhandedness and cowardice, was to automatically dock all employees a half-hour. And now, that the kitchen is being run by actual cooks, who do not take breaks (because, quite simply, there is too much goddamn work to be done, at all times), why does the deduction still exist? Management scratches their head, as if this is some kind of eternal mystery. Well, it’s always been this way. It’s a felony – wage theft is a fucking felony, let’s be clear – and an insult. Management rubs their belly, eyes drifting to the buffet, conversation already stillborn and cold, I dunno, it’s just always been that way…

There’s no devil, no demon, in any myth or nightmare, as vicious and vile as that sense of complacency.

Well, you know, summer blockbusters, they’re always kind of dumb…the radio always sucks though…well, some people like unlimited breadsticks…we’ve it’s always been a man’s job…it’s always been illegal to buy beer before noon on Sunday…but marriage has always been about a man and a woman (or seven hundred women)… the shit was actually already on the floor, it was here when I got here so…well…but…you know … it’s…always….been…this….way.

We fight it. Try to educate, recruit, at least hold the line. One battle at time, dispelling one stupid myth after another, cutting down one stubborn, mule-headed motherfucker after another, on our hands and knees, shoulder deep down a clogged drain, scrubbing until our hands bleed, working harder and longer than the summer sun. I don’t think the war will ever be over. It doesn’t matter, how many fires we put out, how many rocks we shoulder up the hill, how many monsters we put down. The enemy has the sheering force of brute stupidity. He’s got the high ground, he has numbers, he’s got time.

But that’s why the gods allow evil, to give us something to fight. To prove ourselves, if only to ourselves. (Running joke: shouting ‘prove it to yourself,’ to guys who clearly have something to prove, rag-top German coupes, diamonds on their watch, running shirtless through downtown. Still, beneath the joke, a little truth: who else would you want to prove anything to?)

But that’s the story: you’re born, you fight like hell, then you die. Better than nothing, better than boredom. Better than eating at Olive Garden. So, if you’re out there, and you give a goddamn – about something, about anything – and you know what I mean, then may the gods give you their blessing, or at least stay the fuck out of your way.

American Ikarus: The Rise and Fall of T-Bone

There is a scene in Sons of Anarchy where Henry Rollins, playing an Aryan Brotherhood lieutenant, gripes about having to pull his son out of school when he discovers that all the children are receiving the same trophies, regardless of how they perform at sports. It’s a clever bit of writing: Rollins is playing a scumbag racist, but you want to agree with him here: the ‘everyone gets a trophy’ phenomenon is close to the root of the way our modern generations of soft-skinned entitlement fail to measure up to the beach-storming, self-possessed ‘Greatest Generation.’ Watching the scene, I immediate started nodding. My wife, who also agrees with the sentiment, and also loves Rollins, is smarter than me, and poked me in side, saying, ‘baby, stop agreeing with the neo-Nazi.’ Rollins follows up his trophy rant with the line, ‘teaching everyone that they’re the same is dangerous.’ The line is tinged with racial menace, of course, and then you can see the slippery slope between a pragmatic dismissal of our modern ‘everybody is a special snowflake’ culture and the sick miasma of racial logic.

But it is dangerous, to tell everyone they’re the same. Not because of any perverted racial ideology.

Everyone’s reach should exceed their grasp, but not everyone’s reach is the same.

*

Two years ago, I met a young man; let’s call him T-Bone. T-Bone came onboard the new restaurant – the one I recently departed – along with an astonishingly strong crew of cooks and a great chef. I’ve spit up some purple prose about how good they were, and I won’t do that again here, but it’s important to mention that T-Bone was not a member of this group. He had washed out of training for most of the hot-line stations and ended up as a fry cook. For the first six or seven months, he was frequently high on crystal meth – sporadic bursts of incredible and useless energy followed by deep, frustrating troughs of listless indifference – and was less reliable than your standard-issue kitchen drunk.

But T-Bone had potential, he had a fire. When he was a teenager, he’d had a disagreement with his parents. Rather than go on the petulant warpath, or try to keep his discontent submerged, T-Bone simply left. And moved into the woods. For a year.

Did we mock this wild move? Yes. But who amongst us had the fucking stomach for that kind of commitment? Thoreau lived in Emerson’s backyard. T-Bone lived in the woods. It may have been an overreaction, it may have been plain stupid, but it was bold as hell. You were hard pressed not to admire that.

About six or seven months into our tour together, the restaurant hired a cook named Chelsea, my sister from another mister (we may actually be distantly related; more on this another time). Chelsea was attractive, talented, and funny – and twice T-Bone’s age. He fell in love immediately. And, immediately, T-Bone blew it on the line in epic style. On one of Chelsea’s first few days, T-Bone – drunk on cooking wine and high on meth – crashed and burned. Forty-five minutes behind on fried Calamari. (If you’ve never worked a line, or seen a cooking show: that’s really goddamn behind.)

But, again, you had to admire T-Bone, because the next day he got his shit together and kicked the meth.

It didn’t matter that Chelsea had a boyfriend – who was a sous chef at one of our sister restaurants – she was fixing to marry. T-Bone was in love, and love is meth, smack, and coke all rolled into one.

*

T-Bone was also in love with the sous chefs at our restaurant. Let’s call them the Copelands (because that’s their name). The Copelands were brothers from Tennessee, by way of a lot of other places. Self-taught and self-styled, the Copelands were larger than life kind of guys: fast, smart, outspoken, foul-mouthed. They also sang like church boys (because they were church boys). The Copelands drank, smoke, and did drugs, and were better on the kitchen line than anyone else around. They paid very little attention to rules except for the ones they had made for themselves (which they adhered to fairly rigidly). If this was a story about living in an insane asylum – and, in a lot of ways, it is – the story would end with them getting lobotomized, if you get what I’m saying.

I wish to the gods I’d made them up. But life is better – stranger and stronger stuff than fiction – and so you’ll have to excuse that they sound like clichéd characters from a war movie.

They were real, and T-Bone loved them. Let’s not get nit picky about kinds of love, or where – exactly – the boundaries of homosocial behavior are. It was love. T-Bone wanted to talk like they did – machine-gun comic riffs, complete with musical numbers, arcane references, and theological musings – and he wanted to cook like them, to be so good at his job that he could flout rules and nominative authority figures.

And, bit by bit, day by day, T-Bone began to improve. He developed the confidence to do things the way he thought they should be done, not they way they’d always been done, or they way some old, grease-stained recipe book demanded. He showed up earlier, stayed later, worked harder. Not for the money, but because it was the right way to do things.

And, when that extraordinary season came, when the whole line was working together, when each of us loved and trusted the other, when we tore through holiday madness and plus-five-hundred-cover nights, T-Bone was with us. A real boy.

*

It was around this time that our singer invited T-Bone to come play with our band. Why not? He’d come so far, in such a short period of time, all he’d needed was exposure to the right kind of people, the right mind-set.

*

Time passed: the restaurant endured Tobin, and Brian, and Frank. Eventually things came to a head: T-Bone quit, then the Copelands got fired; I quit and then got fired. We all ended up at a new place, a co-op, a smaller and more intimate kitchen, happier and saner, making good food for people. The pay was less, and we all coped in our own ways. T-Bone got a second job, a place out by the beach with good seafood and terrible cooks. After two years of trying to live up to our standards, T-Bone was the strongest cook there, by an order of magnitude or two.

Shit yeah, we were proud of him.

Finally, T-Bone came to one of our practices. But he seemed a little overwhelmed. We don’t play particularly complicated music (an unspoken rule: the songs have to be good, but we have to be able to play them reasonably well after three beers and some whiskey). After that practice, we didn’t hear much from him. He seemed confused about how to ‘jump in,’ about how to write bass parts. Weeks went by, and we didn’t jam again.

Meanwhile, T-Bone’s performance at work started to ebb and wane. When he’d arrived at the co-op, he’d immediately been one of the stronger cooks, but with the Copelands there, he had fallen back down the totem pole. Inevitably, the stress of two jobs, and – one suspects – the absence of Chelsea to shame him out it, T-Bone started using meth again. He was drinking at work, earlier and heavier than he could handle. He showed up late, missed a day, lobbed a few slapdash bullshit excuses, slow and underhand, knowing we’d forgive him.

And we did.

We’d seen T-Bone be good. We’d seen him aim for great.

*

T-Bone’s reach exceeded his grasp. It happens. It should happen. But T-Bone was imitating, not creating. He could adopt the Copelands’ work ethic, copy my guitar part, but it wasn’t coming from him. In the end, we got a different bassist, one who kept up with our jokes and our riffs and who dove in head first to our weird little tribe. We changed the schedule around at the co-op, to take some responsibility off of T-Bone’s shoulders. We’ll be holding an intervention to get him off the meth. Maybe we’ll invite Chelsea.

The point is not that T-Bone failed. He’s playing with some guys from our old job: lead guitar, not bass.  He’s making changes – good changes, thoughtful changes – at his other job. T-Bone is not in our league, but that’s okay. He’s the best in his own league.

The point is: don’t have fucking heroes. They aren’t gods. They’re scumbags, monstrously flawed human beings, dragging a ten-ton boulder of mistakes and regrets. They just happen to be a lot better at something than you are. Not everyone is equal. It’s dangerous to believe that, dangerous to try and make it true.

Do something different, or do it your own way. Don’t try and be a Copeland.

To someone out there, you are a Copeland. A hero, a god.

Just, lay off the fucking meth.

 

 

 

 

 *

 

 

 

 

 

Lucky

You’re a child of eighteen, and you’re playing a game: down four shots of vodka and then hop in the car, try to make it to the local diner before the booze kicks in, and then wait out the buzz, sharing one plate of fries with four friends, drinking endless cups of black coffee. It’s snowing out, it’s been snowing since sundown the day before, and now there’s a slick covering of refrozen snow and ice on the roads. You’re racing your friends: they take the longer, safer route, around the county park; you cut through, hoping the inline-four in your wagon can tackle the grade of Dead Man’s Hill.

Yes, your town actually has a Dead Man’s Hill; no, no one in recorded history has died there. You’ve been sledding there in the winter, since you were six, the slope as crowded as a ski trail, parents and children. You once drunkenly made out with a girl there, in the summer, laying in the grass, until things got a little too intense and she laughed, rolled away down the hill, giggling in dizzy bursts and then throwing up in the creek at the bottom.

Your car makes it half-way up the hill, slides – a shimmy left, a feint right – and stalls out. You start your car up again, and gun it, tires spinning madly in the snow, but nothing. You think: I’m clever, I can sort this out. You see your friends’ car, pushing through the dark on the far end of the park. You think: I better hurry. You stumble out of the car – the vodka is catching up, it seems – and take your coat off. You kneel down, hoping your coat – stuffed under the wheel – will give it some traction. But then there is a crunching sound, ice breaking, and the car slides backwards, headlights blazing and contracting. Your car slides down the hill unmanned. Backwards and then sideways, as you watch stupified, it goes silently down across the snow and ice and over the little creek bridge and comes to rest in the parking lot.

It is a perfect shot, put-put golf with a 2,500 lb ball, sweeping around the obstacles – the fence, the water hazard, the ravine -with steady, confident grace. You laugh, running down the hill, and hop back in your car. You start it up, and drive down the access road out of the park. Your friends beat you to the dinner, the vodka beats everybody. You throw up in the diner bathroom and then drop down at the table, all smiles.

You tell them the story; they laugh.

You are this lucky, this fucking blessed, this goddamn stupid.

You are me. Lucky you.

*

My wife and I say, probably too often, that we’ve used up all our luck. It’s not true. What is true: we have not won the lottery. My band has not yet been signed to a major label; my fiction has not yet been picked up by a major publishing house. And, if that was the point – to play rock’n’roll, to write stories, the way you’d buy a scratch-off ticket – then I’d probably have quit by now. What else is true: we are lucky – embarrassingly lucky – to have survived ourselves long enough to meet each other. Nothing is more decadent, more narcissistic, than self-destruction. And we both took a pretty good crack at ourselves. We were gutterpunks, the lumpenproletariat, the scum of the earth: we liked to think it was hard. But the gutter is easy, climbing out is hard. And luck won’t help you.

*

This short little post – of necessity: new job, new works in progress, my days are full-up – is as close to ‘inspirational’ as you’ll ever catch me writing. It’s the closest thing I know to a moral, to this or any story: I’m alive to tell it, you’re alive to hear it.

Lucky us.

 

 

 

 

Ever Newer Waters

I quit my job last week. And then they fired me.

Back up.

First there was Frank. No, wait, back up some more. First there was a parade of increasingly untalented chefs, each who bullshitted their way into the gig, and behind this parade was cast a stretching shadow of gloom and disappointment. With each chef, another cook would stand up and say, ‘this is unacceptable’ (except, they’d say it like a cook: ‘this is fucking bullshit’) and then they’d be fired. Good friends of mine, some of the best cooks I’d ever met, fired for refusing to cook bad food on purpose. Frank was only the latest in a line of hacks. And, finally, it was my turn, so I told him, ‘this is unacceptable.’

Except I said it like a cook.

So, that was probably the end for me. But I played nice, and gave my two weeks’ notice. I offered to help train the new crop of ex-felons and crank addicts and whatever poor sobs they can find to reheat food for minimum-ish wage. I worked hard, even though my heart was broken. I tried very hard to be professional, which – how can I say this? – is not always the way I play things.

On Wednesday, Frank called to fire me. It was hurtful and unprofessional and my goddamn day off, and it’ll leave me with a week and change of not being employed until I start my new gig in April. But, I’ll make good use of the time – WIP abound, plus I’ve been promising my wife I was gonna put those guitar racks on the wall since February – and, more importantly, when Frank called, he gave me the opportunity to say something I’ve always wanted to say.

‘You can’t fire me because I quit.’

You really should say that, once in your life, I promise, unlike those foot-massagers in the Sky Mall magazine, this feels as good as you think it will. I mean, technically, I think it’s a touch ambiguous, and for clarity’s sake a more articulate phrase would be: “You cannot fire me, logically speaking, because I’ve already quit.” But, screw it, I like the Cobain way.

Now I’m at home on a Friday night, while every kitchen in town gets hammered. I’m sitting here with a narrow finger of bourbon, having worked diligently all day, but something feels wrong. My hands are dry and clean, no burns or scratches. My shirt is clean. It’s the first Friday in quite a while I don’t smell like shit and spaghetti. My stomach is not a knot from a diet of coffee and bread-crusts. I ate sitting down this afternoon. At a table. With a fork.

I’m back from the war, not entirely sure what happened to the rest of the platoon.

And the part I hate most: we lost.

We won a moral victory, one by one, we were fired for our principles, we quit for our principles. But if you know anything, you know that moral victories are the fucking O’Doul’s of victories. The bad guys won: they choked us out, cut our hours, stripped us of any creative outlet, made our lives an assembly line. A painful lesson – painful because you can learn it so many times, and it feels fresh, and stunning, and wretched, each time – is that sometimes you cannot win. The restaurant will have lousy food and a lousy environment and a profitable year, because capitalism. Because America.

But that I can live with; I’ve lived with America for quite a while. What I miss, are the men and women I worked with. One thing I especially hated about Frank* was that he constantly called us ‘boys and girls.’ He hadn’t earned the familiarity, and he failed to recognize how amazing these people were. I loved them, as brothers and sisters. I could not, if I wanted to, exaggerate. Some of them I’ll be working with again, soon. Some of them have been scattered out. I doubt we’ll ever all be in the same place, at the same time, again.

I miss them. I wish I could go back, appreciate it more. I wish arson was legal. I wish this post was funnier.

My father told me, ‘you’ll never step in that river again.’

Because my father understands, in his weird way, and also has a tendency to quote cryptic Greek philosophers in casual conversation. You have to love a father like that. But he was right. Frost was right. Heraclitus was right. Nothing gold can stay. Nothing at all can stay. Panta rhei.

But the old Ephesian also said that nothing is ever destroyed, only exchanged, like gold for goods, and goods for gold, like fire into air, and air into earth. So there’s that.

He also spent a lot of time wandering the mountains of Asia Minor, chewing on herbs like a goat, and he died covered in cow-shit, eaten by a starving dog. So there’s that, too

But enough maudlin navel-gazing. As Doug E. Doug said in Cool Runnings, ‘you know what my grandfather said? Get back to work!’

The upshot: a lot of new stuff coming out. New songs, new stories. Less bitching about work. A fresh spike of piss and vinegar in my veins. That ‘true story’ I promised? I’ll tell it. More rock and roll? We’ll play it.

Back to work.

*And Frank? Oh, don’t worry about Frank. As Heraclitus says, ‘strife is justice, motherfucker.’