Knowing your love of artists,
I’d draw you pictures
of demons, smack, and flowers
Crazy just like you
I fell in love with you
when you promised to stab a man
in a street fight,
and he took three steps back
A bigger, more broken spirit
I’ve never known
A warrior to the bone
But I won’t chase you anymore—
I’m better off alone.
I went to grab a piece of paper and randomly read this page from my journal, describing a hospital stay after my first son had a stroke:
We just finished capturing Sam’s seizure activity on video tape. We heard some bad news last night. The neurologist is leaning towards a diagnosis of infantile spasms, which is a bad form of epilepsy. We still don’t really know anything yet. I feel positive about the future. I don’t know why; I just do. When I came back into the room last night, Lisa was crying so much her shirt was wet with tears. I knew I was in for bad news, so I think I went into survival mode. Lisa was on the phone with her mother I think. My mom was there too, doing what she always does in crisis situations: remaining calm. She told me what Dr. Schwartz had said. I nodded and absorbed it, feeling strangely detached. I hugged Lisa, told her everything would be fine and said we had to stay strong for Sam. She said that’s what her mom said. She calmed down, held Sam, and started playing with him and talking to him. That’s when I lost it. I sat at the table with a glass of beer I’d smuggled in and buried my head in my arms and cried. I cried so hard I had to go into the bathroom and shut the door. I sat in the door of the shower and begged God not to take my son. I apologized for everything, for laughing at things I realized just weren’t funny. I asked Him to take me instead of Sam if he had to. I think the only time I’ve felt a depth of sadness close to that was when we first learned he’d had a stroke.
Please God, Thy will be Done
Preserve my Son’s Health
Let us Raise him Happy, Healthy
Strong and Smart.
That’s enough journaling for now.
I love you.
Are there three words more misused and misconstrued? Three words more powerful? Three words that can wound the betrayed more grievously with their hollow echo?
I don’t know, but I fucking doubt it. I’ve never spoken those words lightly, and I’ve meant them whenever I’ve spoken them.
I don’t believe a person can stop loving someone the way you can turn off the light, despite how much jilted lovers and estranged family members might pretend. And I know time is a slow-won salve for myriad heartaches.
But Death has taken many of my loved ones, and because of that, I’ve learned that not speaking to a person close to you due to some petty shame or trifling anger (and almost everything is petty and trifling in the face of Death) might be something you’ll come to regret until Death welcomes you as well.
If there is something you should tell a person who has ever been important to you, please just tell them.
“Bowels of the devil / let me tell you what the muthafucka eats” –Body Count
By February I’d made it into Lovelock, and just as I’d hoped, the screws placed me in the PC Unit. That stands for protective custody, but what it really means is Punk City. It’s where they put all the chomos and snitches—inmates the state has to segregate from the convicts who want them tits up and leaking out in the yard. Not that the state cares what happens to them, but the prisons have to project a façade of humanity and justice. PC cases make me fucking sick.
Now you might say to me, “Joey Cant, you’re a snitch, so you should fit right in.” Yeah, I’m a snitch. But on my skin, I didn’t rat anybody out to save myself. I’m no punk, and I can hold my mud. What I did, I did from a righteous place. I had a reason. I’m not happy about being a snitch. I swore I’d never rat on anybody. Seems like people often become what they hate. But I made up for it, believe that.
I had things rough growing up, so I jumped out at thirteen in order to get away from that apartment full of hell. My father was totally sober—no drugs, not even a glass of wine. He had other addictions. I took the opposite path. I stole my first twelve-pack from the grocery store at eight years old. I held it together long enough to walk in and walk out. No one noticed, and if they did, they didn’t care. I drank one after another in an alley behind the store while sobbing uncontrollably until I blacked out. I learned if I stayed drunk, I wouldn’t have to face what was going on. Drugs worked way better than booze. Pot was ok, and I gaffled anything with a prescription label I could find. Two days after my twelfth birthday some older cats at a party lined me out with some meth. That was the same night I met P—–. We became road dogs real quick. We did what we thought at the time was a lot of dope. P—– even learned how to cook from one of his uncles. When I left home, I had a good enough connect to sling dope, so that’s what I did. That crystal is a motherfucker though man; that’s no lie. I went from doing key bumps and tiny lines to keep up with the cluckers I was selling to, to melting puddles and snorting hot rails. I never shot it though; I promised myself I’d never mainline. I held my own for about three years, using, but not heavily.
After my homeboy learned to cook, we started smoking day and night. P—– helped his uncle out with his operation and we had plenty to sell and to smoke. I always had dope, so I always had pussy too. Shit man, I was living the American dream right? I had money and bitches. I worked my own hours. I didn’t own a big house with a white picket fence, but I could fly higher than any private jet. The dope game is capitalism in its purest form. But my American dream became my American nightmare.
There’s not a feeling in the world like that first rush after blowing out a huge rolling fog from a hit of crystal meth. It’s like a free-form orgasm and full body massage all rolled into one. Watching those shards melt as you twist the glass—and watching them crack back as they cool—is beautiful. It feels like being possessed by a demon of ecstasy. That feeling doesn’t last though. Before long, I was smoking just to keep from coming down. I’d sleep an hour, maybe two here and there. I wouldn’t even call it sleep, more like momentary oblivion while my body shutdown. When I finally crashed, I slept for close to a week. I was headed for prison by then.
I started geeking real hard. I saw trolls and gnomes popping out of bushes on a daily basis. LSD hallucinations got nothing on what you see, hear, and believe when you’re sleep deprived and twacked out. Day and night, whole communities of shadow people lived in my peripherals. I heard their whispering conversations, but they were elusive as mirages—always darting away when I turned to look at them. I heard voices in my heater vents. I spent hours peering out of a carefully lifted window blind into the parking lot below my apartment. If I turned the lights off, my whole living room would fill up with phantasms—dead friends and family members, old girlfriends, teachers from elementary school. I saw skulls leering at me with their empty sockets from underneath the cracks of a closed door. Someone traded me a pistol, a 9mm Beretta, for an eight ball. I kept it loaded and packed it in a stolen holster everywhere I went. I even shot it once after walking home from P—–‘s because I thought someone was following me.
I started staying home more—locked up in my pad, selling less—spending my time melting shimmering shards into bubbling pools and blowing clouds of pure white smoke. I turned the piece with precision, never burning the dope. I was obsessed with the ritual of glass, crystal, smoke, and flame. As I’ve said, it was beautiful. But my paranoia became an entity onto itself. It was my invisible boogey man, lurking in every shadow, every pipe. Often I crouched in darkness in my living room, hiding behind my couch, gun in my hand, listening to the clock tick, tick, tick, tick, tick until my muscles seized with the tension. I kept right on smoking though.
P—– met a broad named Leann, his own little Spinderella, who convinced him to give her the ice he was fronting me. I can’t blame him really. He wasn’t really fronting it anymore, since I wasn’t moving it. I’d become a meth charity case. He kept me in supply because we were both junkies and he thought he was doing me a favor. But even he didn’t have enough to support two big habits besides his own. At least she was giving up the pussy to stay high. I wasn’t even talking to him that much anymore. P—– cutting me off probably saved my life. I still had contacts, and I still stayed high, but not like I did when P—– was cooking.
It didn’t take long to smoke up what little I owned. After my eviction, I couch-surfed until I ran out of suckers to use. Then I took to sleeping by the river. During the summer, I didn’t really mind. I felt like I was camping. I spent most of my time watching girls in bikinis and panhandling. Somehow, I’d managed to hold on to my nine and two magazines. I jacked a few tourists and boosted electronics and tools when I could—this kept me in enough go-fast to stave off facing the things inside me that emerged in silence and sobriety. Even got me laid despite my filthy clothes and pungent odor. Summer went away and my life turned to shit. The cold weather made being homeless far worse. I developed a hacking cough like some kind of goblin. I had almost nothing left and nowhere to go.
On Christmas Eve I had a teener in my pocket and the muzzle of the nine in my mouth as I sat shivering violently under a bridge downtown. I don’t believe there’s a god in charge of this fucked-up mess of a world—and if there is, he’s a sick son of a bitch—but I had a revelation the moment before I pulled the trigger, like a celestial pimp-slap. I took the piece out of my mouth. For the first time in my life, I had a purpose. And I mean something other than trying to cop a sack. I had a reason to live—one worth dying for too. My path was clear. My tribulations faded into nothing. I existed to serve one righteous function now. I only felt freedom like that again one more time in my life.
I crawled out from under that bridge and trolled for rollers until I found a black and white parked at a Taco Bell. The pigs were inside eating, nice and warm, laughing—probably about some homeless woman they just threw in the frigid river. I stepped close enough that my breath left fleeting ghosts on the window. I reached underneath my stained hoodie and withdrew the piece tucked into my waistline. They saw me then. One made a shooing gesture and then patted his pepper spray without putting down his Chalupa. He didn’t see what I had in my hand. I stepped back, sat down on the hood of their car, and loaded the piece. That got their fat asses up. I flicked my lighter and brought the glass stem to my lips, twisting it from two-to-ten. As I blew out my hit, they blasted me with pepper spray. I exhaled one poison only to inhale another, nothing new to me. I busted the bigger one in the jaw. I told you I wasn’t a punk. My swing had no juice because of the pepper spray overwhelming my system, but I think I made my point. The pigs wanted to make a point too, so they went to work on me with their nightsticks. In the end though, I got what I’d set out for: a possession charge for the one-sixteenth of an ounce of methamphetamine I had left. The assault on an officer, the Berretta, and my priors ensured me a prison bit. How long didn’t matter to me. I was already locked-up inside my head. That’s why I put a gun in my mouth and almost pulled the trigger in the first place—I wanted to escape.
As soon as I’d healed up enough to speak, I started putting on the big show. I acted like the law expected a junkie should—out for myself and dumb as dirt. My priors pointed to trafficking, but they had never nailed me with anything big before this. Now they put the pressure on me to give up names, assuring me safety and a reduced sentence. Whatever. I rolled over on some Mexican cats I had scant dealings with in the past, some carnales connected to La Eme—effectively sentencing myself to death—but more importantly, ensuring that I landed in PC. I insisted they send me up to Lovelock as part of my deal, gave them some bullshit about feeling at home there. I hate Lovelock. I always have.
Turning snitch didn’t sit well with me. I pulled it off, but later, back in my cell, I wondered if it was all worth it. I suddenly wanted that pistol back so I could make everything right. But I kept my purpose in mind. I re-created the feeling of my epiphany under the bridge as best I could. Remembering helped—it got me through.
They processed me, sent me up to Lovelock Correctional Center, and placed me in segregation. I spent the time outside my cell keeping to myself as much as possible. I didn’t pry into anyone’s shit, and I didn’t let anyone pry into mine. It took me some time to adjust, to learn the ropes. Once I did, I took up watching chess games on my tier. I had played chess with my dad growing up, and he never once let me win. Only way I’d get better, he’d say. I had never played anyone but him, so I gave it try. I picked the game up quickly. I guess my pops taught me something after all. He taught me everything I know, really. I smoked one diddler and rat after another. After a few months, I’d beaten every player on my tier except one. Lloyd. No one knew his last name. People started bumpin’ their gums about how he was better than me, and how I wouldn’t play him because I was afraid to lose my rep as the best player. I kept saying I’d play him. I’d say what’s the rush? We got all the time in the world. That usually shut ‘em down. No one liked to head trip too hard on that reality.
I knew one of the bulls, a dude named Jake who used to buy from me, so I’d chat it up with him whenever possible. I knew the effect these conversations would have, so I threw down on the first bitch I heard mumbling about me being a leg-rider. The fight got me pencil whipped and I racked up some more charges, but the talk stopped; I’d nutted up on him and stomped him when he was down. What did it matter what charges administration saw fit to add? I had no illusions about ever being gated out. I watched my back and kept on keeping on. I was clean now, had been since my stint in the ICU, courtesy of the Taco Bell pigs. Though I had access to dope in small amounts, I steered clear. My head felt cold and sharp. I spent too much time focused on getting by to be haunted by my past. Even when things were slow, my purpose kept my fear down. I when I abandoned my old life, I abandoned my ghosts too. Well, almost. I hit the iron pile daily. I was eating healthier than I ever had, I was working out, and I was sober. I was the fittest I’d ever been. Prison life honed my body, and my purpose honed my spirit. Like the Peter Tosh song, I was a walking razor. I kept up my conversations with Jake, and we helped each other out a few times, on the down so as not cause unnecessary trouble. There are no secrets in prison, but I only needed a little more time.
In spring, the screws held a chess tourney. I still hadn’t played the champ, Lloyd, though I made it known I intended to win the tourney. Lloyd was a quiet man. He had been some kind of accountant or data entry cat on the outside. Though I did my best to avoid him, I did catch a glimpse of him a few times at chow. He kept his eyes to his plate and his jaw trembled when he ate. I’d heard he taught illiterate prisoners how to read, often successfully. He had some kind of white-collar jacket, but nobody knew the length of his bit. The stories conflicted—some said a dime, others said he’d be gated out in a year. I even heard someone say he was a lifer. A white-collar lifer? That shit didn’t add up. I knew that already.
The day of the tourney came. Everybody talked it up, screws included. Everyone wanted to forget about where they were. Diversion. Diversion is what keeps you sane inside. Books, games, drugs, television. Not too different for most people on the outside really. The chess tourney was an escape from the nightmare routine of prison and, as such, generated a great deal of excitement. Lloyd and I began in different divisions, which I am sure was fixed to heighten the excitement. I defeated one player after another, never losing a match. Lloyd did the same. He kept glancing at me, never holding my gaze. I had bulked up considerably and not too many cats held my gaze anyway, especially in this unit. He looked at me the way someone does when they think they see an old friend in the supermarket, but they don’t want to walk up and start blabbing to a possible stranger. The timed matches lasted throughout the day until both Lloyd and I eliminated everyone in our divisions. Ours was the last game, as predicted. Finally I had my shot at Lloyd.
After a thirty minute break, the guards had set up a card table, draped with a sheet and arranged the pieces on a beat-up board. Jack stood by, waiting. He held a black piece in one hand and a white piece in the other. Due to his seniority, Lloyd would pick a hand thus determining the sides. We approached the table and Lloyd eyeballed me. He was clearly troubled by my presence, but I don’t think he knew why. I must’ve seemed familiar to him in some vague, forgotten way. When we reached the chairs I looked at Jake. A ghost of a cruel smile fleeted across his face and he dropped the pieces.
“Shit,” he said and bent over to pick them up.
“Hi Dad,” I said as if I were a middle-class kid just walking in the door of our suburban house after baseball practice. “Looks like it’s your turn to get fucked.”
He recognized me then, I could read that much in his face. I side-stepped the table before he could speak. Jake was still fumbling around with the chess pieces—he knew the real reason Lloyd was doing life in this shit-hole. Lloyd was slow, and didn’t even raise his hands as my initial thrust pierced the side of his neck. I withdrew the shank just as quickly as I’d inserted it, and he buckled as a gout of hot blood splashed over my arm. He released a gurgling, inhuman shriek—befitting the monster he was. A great cacophony of shouts and voices and clambering bodies descended around me, but I ignored it all, enraptured with executing justice. My mind emptied of all thought. I experienced freedom in pure awareness. I knew only the sensations of that fleeting moment—my arm pumping like a deadly piston, the sucking sound of contraband steel pulled repeatedly from his flesh, the stink of his innards and released bowels, his face contorted with agony, his eyes ablaze with terror. I wondered how many times he’d seen that same look in my eyes.
His screams ended as abruptly as they had begun, and I dropped the shank, panting heavily. The cacophony rolled over me like a tsunami. The floor reeked of blood and meat. The moment passed and my purpose died with my father.
I returned to my prison, and longed to be back under the bridge.
I’m speaking from my limited point-of-view here: white, male, straight, working class, punk rock by heart, redneck by trade (my neck is literally red from working in the sun.) It has been my experience that when individuals get knocked around by life a little harder than usual—and they are lucky enough to form bonds—they tend to form strong bonds with others who maybe have had a rougher go at it than most. I am extremely grateful for the blessings and opportunities in my life, but it’s taken me well over forty years to even begin to find some peace that is more than fleeting.
One blessing in my life is my friends. I grew up afflicted with crippling shyness and wretched self-esteem, which left me feeling socially awkward and highly uncomfortable in almost any social situation. When I gave in and started drinking at 18, it was like I found the cure for that affliction—but that’s another story. What I have always had is a solid group of friends. Where our society sees heathens, junkies, bums, drug dealers, psychos, and white trash, I see intelligent (in different ways—book smart ain’t the only one), determined, compassionate, protective, and up-standing human beings who’ve been down through thick and thin for decades. Maybe we go a year or two without talking, but when we do, it’s usually like we never missed a beat. When your life goes off the rails, when you behave like a junkie or a violent ass, when you’re fucking up so bad your blood relatives turn their collective back, and you look around and see those rugged fools who love you anyway and have empathy for you because they’ve been there and know how easy it is for a man to fall (pardon the sexist viewpoint), those are your friends.
I’m not saying they’ll condone your addiction-fueled destruction, or that you’re always going to see eye-to-eye. In fact, one has to have heart to keep rising up after every fall, and stubbornness often comes hand-in-hand with tenacity, and all this will lead to arguments, possibly fist fights, but you can’t be a pussy about this sort of thing. A good friend might tell you how it is, call you on your bullshit so to speak, or not loan you money because he or she doesn’t want to be the one who facilitates your final overdose. I value my friends for many reasons—they do their best not to judge me, they’ll show up if I need to protect my family with guns, they put up with my moody, bipolar ass and still love me, and many other reasons. I try to take care of myself and flourish so that I don’t have to stress them out by needing their help overmuch, and so I can be there the best I can for them when the time comes. One thing I’ve learned only within the last five years is the importance of taking care of one’s self in order to be of better service to others. That being said, we all need a hand up from time to time: I know I’ve had my share, and I’m grateful to have had the help.
Most of my friends have known more than their fair share of suffering (as if life were fair and suffering were doled out equally like pudding cups in a school lunch room). These tribulations, though difficult, have refined the spirits of my brothers (and a sister or two), making them the beings I cherish and respect today.
To all my brothers, you know who you are, thank you for the good times, the support, the camaraderie, and even just taking the time to sit and listen to me at my lowest—when I felt I didn’t deserve to keep breathing valuable air that an actual human might need—and hear me, actually hear me without judging me. Thanks for having my back in street fights, even when my drunken ass probably had it coming. Thank you for caring about my boys and sharing an understanding with me that has oft made me feel like an alien when I’m not kickin’ it with y’all. I hope I can be as good a brother to you as y’all have been to me.
I dedicate this song to my homies:
“What is it now?” damn he’s annoying. All I want to do is finish my nap.
“I’m having a problem with him again. He won’t eat his gruel. Says it tastes like monkey poop.”
I want to fly out of bed and lock my hands around Jason’s skinny neck and squeeze until my fingers snap. Instead I take a deep breath and whip the covers out of my way. My pajamas are thin as rice paper, and I feel the cold air shriveling my nuts. Why did I get chosen to work in a stupid cave? What the hell did I ever do to anybody? I mean damn it anyway, I’ve sucked more ass than a gay mosquito, and still I get stuck babysitting a freaking head.
“I’m gonna drown that moron in his gruel.” I take long strides, setting Jason’s stumpy legs scurrying to keep up.
“You shouldn’t talk about the General like that. He’s a great man. Without him, the slugs would’ve got us for sure.”
Jason’s sniveling slithers into my ears, threatening to drive me to rash acts. I stop and pivot sharply. The little rat bounces off my chest and stumbles back. As he tries to catch his balance I crack him a good one on the mouth with the back of my hand. He clutches his already-swelling lips and cowers as I make to smite him again.
“Don’t tell me how to talk about anyone, understand? Everyone thinks it’s so goddamn funny that I’m the Head Nurse, don’t they? Even you, you whinny little turd. I’ve caught you snickering behind my back! You can’t even feed the freakish thing, and you’re gonna tell me all about how great the General is? I’d rather the slugs have pulled me down into their stinking hell with the rest of the Southsiders. It would have been better than playing caterer to an ungrateful, gangrenous head. Now get yourself together, shut up, and let’s get this over with so I can get back to sleep.”
The twerp quivers like a wet chihuahua as he stands up and smooths out his muddy smock. I really don’t like Jason. I never have. We proceed the rest of the way to LAB 7a in cold silence. I slide my level one ID card through the slot and the laser instantly decodes the information. The reinforced steel door before me swooshes open, and like always, I feel like I’m in a goddamn episode of Star Trek.
LAB 7a greets us with the usual potent stink of formaldehyde and rotting flesh. I just never get used to that smell. My stomach jerks and tries to liberate my lunch. My mouth waters and fills with pre-vomit bile, but I force the whole delicious mouthful back from whence it came. I spot what’s left of the General.
General Justin Cornhower Jr., decorated war veteran, began his career as a draftee in the Conflict in the Middle East and soon discovered he had a penchant for military service. He rose through the ranks in the subsequent and frequent wars at an uncanny pace, finally landing himself inside the upper echelon of the Pentagon. About a year or two later the slugs came. It seemed a much-anticipated meteor was going to strike the Earth after all, but don’t panic they said, it’s much smaller than originally thought. What they didn’t say however, was that it was infested with colonies of semi-solid parasites that bore an innate hankering for human blood. Within a week, half the population of the southern hemisphere had been turned to gelatin and sucked into the ground. They drank us like soda pops on a hot day. General Cornhower, while de-escalating a nuclear pissing contest between India and Pakistan, fell victim to a slug and remains the only survivor of a slug attack to date.
He was subjected to considerably less of the body-dissolving goo than most victims, and some folks account his miraculous and gruesome recovery to this fact. And there are those still clinging to a tattered faith in a benevolent omnipotence that feel he was chosen by the Grand Wazoo to lead the human race to victory. Some even whisper that he’s the second incarnation of Christ, come to crack a few sinful skulls. Whatever he is, all he’s got left is his own head, pumped full of brain-stimulating chemicals and shocked to life every ten minutes. Since his attack four years ago, he’s learned to tune into the primal hive-mind shared by the slugs. All the science geeks figure it has something to do with the residual parasites still feeding on his flesh. He’s a living detection system and the sole early warning system for enemy attacks. All that aside, he’s a stinky, hateful prick.
He’s thrashing around on his serving platter, wallowing in overturned NutraGruel and howling as a surge of life-sustaining electricity rips through him. What’s left of his thinning hair stands straight out from his scalp, like gray needles stabbed into a pin cushion. I suppress my laughter with some difficulty.
“General, sir,” I choke out the words, trying not to sound like I want to play basketball with his moldy melon. “Jason tells me you’re giving him problems with the gruel again. We’re not going to have another incident, are we?”
“NutraGruel tastes like monkey poop and you know it! Christ in Heaven! Don’t we have any chicken noodle soup around here?” His words issue from speakers wired into his vocal cords in a disturbing, mechanical voice—kind of like a trash can trying to talk through an amplifier. Watching his head rock back and forth with the motion of his jaw makes me queasy, so I avert my eyes.
“Sir, as I’ve stated countless times, NutraGruel is the only sustenance you can intake when you’re lacking things like a lower body and a stomach. What the hell are you going to do with chicken soup? Slurp it up and piss it out your neck?” As I speak, I feel my tenuous control over my anger dissolving further. “You need this paste, and you need to let it absorb under your tongue. Like it or not. And if you’re not going to eat it on your own, I’m going to stuff you like a Thanksgiving turkey full of the nasty stuff.” That voice I try to ignore in the back of my head hisses at me that I’ve gone too far, that after all, he is a General. Too late now, I guess.
Gen. Cornhower shoots me a look born both of hatred and shock. I feel him willing me to die, trying to kill me through an act of sheer mentation.
I snort and force a grin.
“So how ‘bout it? Are you going to eat your dinner or choke on it?”
Silence. We stare at each other for what seems like an hour, locked in a kind of old west showdown. High Noon, just me and the head. Finally, I break and scoop up a double portion of monkey poop in my right hand and advance on the General in a semi-crouch. I see the strategic fires leap up behind his eyes, plotting, conniving. Damn, this isn’t going to be easy.
“Touch me and I’ll bite your heathen fingers off, so help me Jesus,” he barks, snapping his teeth together to emphasize his threat. That’s when I bolt forward and try to snatch him off his tray with my other hand. Why is he grinning?
Ah, no, the shocks! How could I forget about that? Just as I grab a handful of gruel-greased hair, electricity rips through the both of us. I swear I hear him laughing.
I can’t scream. All my muscles contract at once in a burning symphony of galvanism. My teeth feel ready to crack in the vice of my jaw. I want dearly to let go of the General and punt him like a football, but my hands only clench tighter. The electricity ceases, and I collapse, hair smoking and nerves aflame. My last thought before I fade out is this: It’s not quite as funny from this end.
I open my eyes to behold Jason’s weasel-like mug grinning down at me. My body is blessedly numb from a morphine drip.
“I guess I’ll be spending time in the brig, eh?” I grunt more than speak.
“No, the General said you were helping him eat when the LifePulse fired out of sequence,” he says and his thin grin wriggles back into place.
Well I’ll be dipped. I thought the old stump would’ve ratted me out and asked that I be drawn and quartered.
It’s then I realize the General is a great man. Now the two of us get along fairly well. We have an unspoken understanding and mutual respect. I keep all that to myself, though, at least around Jason.
I’m going to post some short stories here. I’m not sure about them, so any feed back would be appreciated. The first one is pretty new, and I forced it out of my brain in an attempt to overcome a prolonged inability to write. I hope you enjoy it.
It was one of those days—a dark and stagnant day, devoid of joy or reason—black and cold and empty as distant space. Jeffrey marshaled his feeble resources and forced himself to take a shower. He wondered how a task could one day be mundane and common, yet the next take a feat of will power to accomplish. It was one more joyless thought in a stream of hopelessness. He had so much that needed doing—cleaning, writing a resume, finding work, finishing side jobs, making payment arrangements for his unpaid bills—and by late afternoon he had barely managed a shower.
Coupled with his emotional malfunction, Jeffrey was developing a monster headache. What started out as an uncomfortable pressure behind his eyes and tension at the base of his skull crescendoed to a brilliant star of a pain blazing in place of his brain. The slightest stimuli, be it sound, light, or motion sent lightning agony tearing through his head. The pain was enough to bring nausea.
The headache was an odd comfort, however, because it replaced the haunting apathy with something palpably wrong, which alleviated some of his spiritual angst despite the immense pain. By midnight, he longed to replace the headache with depression. Whatever comfort it had been at first had long dissipated. He lay perfectly still, not wanting to risk a chain reaction of misery by turning his head or adjusting his body. The tick of the clock and his ragged breathing were the only sounds inside his cold, dark apartment, and the clock crashed like thunder to him with each passing second.
Sleep came to him like an angel of mercy. His dreams were pained, relentless episodes of being overcome by quicksand, by vines, by bills, by death. He had a vague memory of birth and light upon awakening at three AM, but it faded like candle smoke in a gust.
The pain in his head had subsided to a dull ache, which was blissful by comparison. He thought it odd how the absence of pain could transmute into pleasure—but he was immensely grateful to feel any measure of joy: it was like a single breath of air to a drowning man—ephemeral as it was invaluable. For the first time in hours he was able to rise from the couch. He turned up the thermostat and listened to the heater kick on. He was surprised to find himself hungry. He’d been so devoid of desire the past thirty hours, the presence of it felt momentarily alien. But humans are nothing if not birthers of desire.
Eventually his hunger outgrew his apathy and motivated him enough to dress, find his keys and wallet, and venture out into the winter night. Unable to afford the registration and insurance on his Ford Fiesta, he opted to walk to the Latino corner store.
It was warm inside and clinically bright. Primary colors assailed his vision—rows of shampoo bottles, stacked next to beans, arranged next to a rainbow of hard candies. One shelf, six rows high, consisted of nothing but various hot sauces. Despite the low volume of the radio, a laughing shout accompanied by frantic, polka-like music was clearly audible. Cheap shampoo and bleach merged into one cloying scent.
Jeffrey paid for a frozen pot pie and a bottle of cream soda. There was no one in the store except for him and the cashier, and neither tried to bridge the language barrier, though Jeffrey did notice a widening of the cashiers eyes when the man looked up at him.
He left the store, followed by the electronic ding of the door and noticed the pain returning to the very center of his head. He caught his reflection in his front window as he unlocked his door and understood the cashier’s expression: his head was starting to swell. It was as if a grapefruit were pushing up beneath his scalp, right out of the top of his skull.
He hurried to the bathroom mirror to examine it more closely. It was red, hot, hard, and sore to the touch. The pain was steadily increasing. He wrapped some ice in a towel, leaving his pot pie, forgotten, to thaw on his cluttered kitchen table. He sat down on the couch, holding the ice to his head and worried. As his mind conjured fantasies of cancer, his free hand subconsciously touched the needle scars in the crook of his arm.
Though it did little for the swelling, the ice numbed the pain some, and his mind wandered from worry to day dreaming. A spark of inspiration glowed within him, and he discarded the ice pack to retrieve a notebook from atop his tv. A pen was clipped to the metal rings of its spine. He wrote slowly, neatly.
When? When I’m haunted
When the clock ticks thunder
When hope dies
When I long for escape
When I pray to Oblivion and observe the needle rites
When I lose reason and forsake joy
Then I wonder: When?
Just as he finished writing, a flash of blinding pain seared the inside of his head—enough to elicit an involuntary yelp from him. He clutched his head in both hands and writhed on the couch, squirming like a spitted worm.
He heard a sickening wet rip as his scalp split and glistening skull emerged like an egg. He had the surreal experience of hearing a scratching both inside and outside of his skull simultaneously, but the feeling was quickly forgotten in unbearable pain.
He screeched and convulsed as a sharp claw broke apart the skull from inside like a beak pecking apart an egg. First two, then four jointed, spider-like legs squeezed out of the hole, then trembled as they pulled a fist-sized, bright red, spherical body from his skull with a soggy pop. It was free now, perched on top his opened head on eight legs supporting a perfectly round sphere of flesh, in which an unblinking human eye was set dead-center. The eye looked frantically around before the creature scurried down his back and under the couch.
As quickly as it had appeared, the pain subsided. Jeffrey, still in heavy shock, reached up to feel the certainly fatal wound he’d just received, but felt only a deep gash where he expected to feel his brain. When the shock subsided some, he convinced himself he’d fallen and cut his head. He was already feeling better. Even his depression had subsided.
It watched from beneath the couch, waiting for the cover of darkness, to make its way into the world.
October 2020 was the last time I would have a conversation with my mom. After nearly dying in 2016, she made a miraculous recovery from lung cancer, and enjoyed four relatively healthy years before the cancer returned. It happened quickly–in the space of a month she went from doing chores around the house to calling me to come over and lift her up the single step in her foyer. I was at work when she called, building a deck in the midst of a pandemic.
“I’m dying,” she said, her voice husky but free of fear. “I want to die.”
“I understand,” I said. I did. She’d fought like a savage to come back from the edge of death and debilitation the first time. She felt my disabled son still needed her. I didn’t want her to suffer any more. It was her choice to make.
“I love you very, very much.”
“I love you too, mom.”
“Stay in treatment. Your boys need their father.”
“I love you very much,” she said again. The air compressor kicked on behind me, making any further conversation impossible. I didn’t try to call back. What was there left to say?
For me, it was the natural order of things, painfully tragic, but natural. I felt a keen sadness for my grandmother, who had already lost a twin sister. Now she would bury her child. I can only imagine the horror of having to do that, and I have great admiration for anyone who comes back from losing a child.
My mom was the best parent I could hope for. She was compassionate, intelligent, driven, creative, and she loved me far more than I deserved to be. She taught by example. Even cancer and death were hers to overcome. She was utterly non-violent, yet when it came to determination and sticking it out, she was the goddamn baddest motherfucker I’ve ever met.
I love you mom. I wish I’d shown you that more when you were alive. We all miss you. Thank you for everything I am that is life affirming and good. I’m not sure too many people would’ve been up to the task of raising me as well as you did with what you had. And if you can read this, mom, Sammy is doing great, though he really misses his grandma.
Heroin’s that lover
whose beauty one regrets
that fantastical, maniacal
that has you rivaling Zeus in orgasm—
body driving deep with one sublime focus
of nerves and brain and skin and chi
shuddering, then spent
awash in flowing life energy
Or is it?
Closer maybe to that
picking, pecking, poking, pest?
accusing you with sharp tattoo?
We crave that which is forbidden
And sweet oblivion!
Soothing me with her nepenthe kiss
in embrace eternal
I sink into the Styx
and learn to breathe those poison waters
as only the dead know how