Brothers and Sisters: Sketches of Imaginary People I Once Knew

A bone once broken heals stronger, not so the mind.

No, brothers and sisters: when it breaks, it breaks hard, it shatters.

Just a warning.


A friend of mine recently posted some lyrics to a song he sang years ago – a song he still sings – when I was in a band with him. I can see him, to my left, over the headstock of my bass: half bent at the waist with the effort, microphone cord around his neck, tendons shredding out of his skin. Through the drugs and the liquor I can just make out that his eyes are closed. Out in the audience, the eyes are open in astonishment.

I had the lyrics wrong, all these years. And maybe we didn’t know each other very well at all. My hell, his hell, not different rungs on some inverted ladder, but different mansions in our father’s house. A book jacket glance at each other, a motel room with the mirror ripped off the wall and laid on the bed, spilling guts, swapping stories. Two things are true: I know him better than I know most people; I don’t know him at all.

But a man doesn’t scream those things – the things I thought he’d screamed, the things he was actually trying to say, things in between – and not like that, not for fun. He seems better these days. I’m sure I do too.

The doctors left the bullet in you, too close to all those vitals, all that precious wiring. It sings when you’re standing under the high tension wires. It sings all the time.


And the preacher’s oldest son, out there like a country song, a different dive bar every night. He’s quit more jobs than I’ve had, and he’s been better than me at every one of them. Same with women, more than likely. Most men lay awake praying – to someone, to everyone – that their house won’t burn down, that the sky stays sealed up for one more day. He’s burnt his own house down, with his head high and his heart full of song, and he’s done it more than once. He makes it look honorable, glorious, like a good fucking time.

It isn’t, it’s hard work. But prodigality ain’t a weekend in Vegas, now is it? You can’t simply drink yourself down onto your knees, crawl into the nearest marsh and die. No. An inheritance isn’t something you can smash with a hammer, not something you can burn down with a Molotov cocktail or two. You’ve got to be disciplined about it. You’ve got to take it apart brick by brick.

Your father, my father. In a way they understand, as all fathers understand. We get some of the very best of what our fathers are. We get some of the best and all of the worst.


Then there’s her, eyes on the window, the door, any and every exit, ready to OD again on wanderlust.

By the time you’re good at something you’re taken for granted, you’re machinery, you’re fucking furniture. By the time you’re good at something, it’s boring. And boredom is what death feels like, and there’ll be plenty of time for that, soon enough.

But it’s not as simple as that, because she hates to leave, agonizes over it every time. On travel shows, where the world-weary, jetlagged, hung-over host limps through another exotic city, stopping briefly and mournfully to share a bite to eat with some village chef, making beautiful food – simple and pure – there is a moment, the host and the chef, standing side by side. The chef spends his life over some little cast-iron range, the host forever on stand-by at the airport, in buses and trains and cabs. The chef can name every person who eats at his restaurant, except the host, who can’t remember anyone’s name.

And, watching this, her heart goes out – pours out – not to the host, who is kind of a prick anyway, but to the chef. The person who stays, who could not be compelled to leave, who in the ashcan of history makes a home, a home just the same. A beautiful thing in a bloody world miserably lacking in beauty.

Parents want their children to grow up and explore the world, and they want them safe at home. They want both, they can stand neither. We pull up anchor, hands off the rudder, let the sails fill, let the tides decide, let the wind be our answer, let fate obey itself.

You cry, a little, and then change the channel, finish packing your bags.


And then there’s Pilot. The space cadet. He looks like you, looks like me. But he does the thing we didn’t do – the things that were right, the things that were wrong – a test pilot, a fistful of drugs and a pint of liquor, up there at Yeager altitude, head on fire, falling through the sky, to see if its possible.

He hits the ground, mangled, burnt, and walks away.

It’s possible.

Our father is the sky, all we can do is fall away from it. All we can do is climb back up towards it.


They’re out there, years after I dreamed them, sketches that only mocked me: timid, near-sighted, young. There’s more to them than there is to me, my brothers and sisters. I can’t remember, sometimes, what is real and what isn’t. But I know they’re out there.

Hang in there, hold on to yourselves. Bend if you must, but don’t break. Your time is coming,














Mayfly started as short stories, ten years ago, in Wilmington, North Carolina.

I wrote the first one – strung out, hung over, and nursing a nasty grease-burn – while hiding in the manager’s office of the restaurant I was working in at the time. I showed it to this girl I knew: too cool for me, tattoos and funky hair, friends with all the bands in town. She liked it – it was less juvenile than the parodic crap I’d been writing in college. I wasn’t trying to be smart when I wrote it, or really ‘going’ for anything.  It was just how I felt at the time. It felt right. She told me to keep it up.

Fast forward: we move in together, get a dog, get married, split town, move to NYC, make more money than we’d ever dreamed of (keep in mind, we are poor by NYC standards, but wealthy beyond reason by gutter-punk standards). I struggle to juggle catering and cooking jobs alongside school; my wife gets a real job. It keeps the roof over our head, it provides healthcare, it is a soul-sucking corporate abyss. It takes a little bit of her everyday, like trench warfare. I try and help her stay sane, stay human. I write her stories while I’m in class, pretending to take notes. I email them to her. Her job is still a bureaucratic pig-fuck, but the stories help, a little. She tells me to keep it up.

After a while, the same characters start to show up, something of a narrative starts to congeal. The stories now add up to some five-hundred pages that I think of – in a heady, grad-school state of mind – as a late-modernist collage, a punk-rock Ulysses. It’s a barely-readable monster. But I trick myself into thinking it is a novel  and I show it to my sister, my wife, and a few friends. They fall into two categories: (1) people who actually kind of like it, or like me too much to hurt my sensitive-artist feelings, and who tell me I should try and get it published, and (2) people who know nothing about the publishing industry.

I’m just kidding. There’s only one category.

Still, I manage to get it to a literary agent who will actually read it. The reading takes over a year. I hear back. It is a rejection, of course, but what I will learn later is an incredibly kind and thoughtful rejection. The agent tells me the prose is good, sometimes truly great, and that my work is completely and thoroughly unpublishable. I think ‘that’s it,’ but of course that’s just Day One. My wife smiles, and you can guess what she tells me.

Fast forward: five years pass, we leave NYC (relieved and heartbroken, the only way people ever do), and return to the southern coastal town where we met, meet up with our old friends, the old dives, the old bands. I make new friends, but – in this town – they feel like the old ones. The cooks and tattoo artists, the punks and the musicians, my ersatz family: they welcome us back. It feels right. They know something in this town. Hard to put it in words, unless you write a whole novel. Or rather, unless you write fifty short stories about it and then rewrite them into something that’s almost a novel, and then rewrite that another five or six times. (By the way, if you’re a writer, and you don’t already know this, learn from me: this is the shittiest possible strategy for novel writing).

So, here I am, a decade later, not even close to the end of the long game, back in the town where I started writing. Still, now I have a little momentum, a few friends out there in the literary world, a wonderful agent, and – of course – my wife, who is still too cool for me, but who sticks it out with me anyway, and tells me, as always, to keep it up. She says moving back to this town is a re-do, a chance to do the things we used to do, but to do them better, to do them right. A revision, probably not the last, but the best yet.