It seemed that in this town you could get by with a couple singles in your pocket and nothing more. He remembered Chicago days, from before he moved to this small town in North Carolina, that he’d ride the el for what seemed like hours, transfer from the red line to the blue and take a bus out to the lake. He did that a lot in those days, when his life was crashing down around him and he felt like he had no way out.
You needed a Ventra card to ride in Chicago, and the monthly pass was outrageously expensive. If you didn’t have a card, you couldn’t ride. But this bus, this bus he stepped onto and out of the North Carolina heat, you could get on with a single.
He sat down, his first bus ride in NC even after living there for two years, and he pulled out his headphones. He took out his phone and put Spotify on shuffle. The first thing that came up was “Coming of Age” by Foster the People. He smiled. “Fitting,” he said. Someone sitting near him looked at him when he said that, but he just kept smiling.
1944. A year before the end of war. My grandma Joan was ten, and sad, sad because her best friend Crystal was moving away. Crystal lived across the street, and Joan wasn’t to cross. She did anyway.
Joan caught insults on her walks to and from school with Crystal, some older boys saying things she couldn’t make out except for the word “nigger.” She didn’t even really know what that word was supposed to mean, but she saw how it affected Crystal, so she knew it was bad.
Crystal’s mother was institutionalized, so she was raised by her grandmother. Joan’s mother died shortly after childbirth, so she was raised by her father and later her stepmother. Crystal’s grandmother was never home, and Joan’s father buried empty liquor bottles in the cellar’s dirt floor, so the two girls got along fine.
On the day Crystal had to go, Joan took her to the playground one last time. They didn’t get on the swings, but they watched the other kids who were on them. They didn’t say anything, but that was okay. They just watched the other kids swing back and forth, back and forth. And that was the thing–no matter how far you pushed off, you’d always end up right back where you started.
You were always unavailable when I was single, and vice versa. Our feelings for each other would constantly reach dead ends, like wires crossed and sending only static. It was the opposite of synchronicity.
We spent many nights out at the old playground, swinging on creaky swings and watching our breath enter into the night. We’d talk about the afterlife, and art, and aliens, and anything else that entered our brains. Conversation was never difficult.
You’d sketch out little doodles for me, and I’d tell you all about the three act structure, characterization, and form. We’d watch movies, and I’d predict things a half hour before they happened. When you asked me how I did that, I’d let you peek behind the curtain too.
I wanted to so bad sometimes, but I never pushed things. I might not have always respected who you were with, but I respected you and your relationship with them. Months later, when we finally ended up together, you’d tell me how much you appreciated that, that I never came onto you or tried anything.
Kissing you for the first time was like taking a breath after being underwater for years. You’d think that feeling might fade, but it hasn’t happened yet. I don’t think it ever will.
Midnight was three hours past curfew, and he wouldn’t be home for another two hours after that, at least. The Virgins were being brought up onstage, pink Vs written in lipstick on cheeks to signify that they’d never seen the film. He’d seen it in bits and pieces over the years, snuck in whenever it would come on TV at Halloween and he could catch some before his parents walked in the room. So he thought this meant he wasn’t a Virgin. His friend disagreed, and she shouted as much to the emcee.
The crowd erupted, and the emcee went over the microphone about how we almost missed one, how he almost got away. He got two Vs and some pink lipstick to go with them as punishment, and he was brought onstage with the rest.
His friend kept laughing at him as he was made to swing a dildo over his head, sit on a balloon till it popped, and take his shirt off. He felt himself going red at first, but then he went for it, winking at her in the crowd and blowing kisses.
And then, when the Virgins were back in their seats and “Science Fiction Double Feature” was issuing from the sound system, he turned to his friend and the blown kisses became real ones.
(Happy birthday, Richard O’Brien!)
I realized one day, last week, in the shower, that I was the healthiest I’d ever been in my life. Physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, the whole thing. Honestly couldn’t think of a time I’d had everything going well like that. It was hard enough to be healthy in one area of your life, but in all of them? Don’t get me wrong. Things could always improve. Things could get better. But that was simply the nature of life. Perfection exists only in the minds of men, after all. So I stood there in the shower, at first humming some Mac DeMarco song but then stopping once the thought hit me, just standing and letting the hot water pour over me. This is one of those things that only came to you when you least expected it, one of those shower thoughts that once it hit you could make you stop what you were doing, and well up, and not be able to tell whether the water on your face was coming from you or the shower.
I wasn’t the lightest I’d ever been, but I was definitely the fittest. I’d been skinny before–too skinny. Like 1,200 calories a day for an adult male skinny. Nearly passing out after a run just to squeeze a half pound off the scale. And there was of course being way heavier than that, heaviness that was the reason for the lightness, of watching your body float away from you in the mirror, from the core of who you were. But there was none of that now. There was a healthy carrying weight and plenty of muscle on the frame. There was doing MMA and having my striking, grappling, and submissions on point. There was waking up in the morning feeling refreshed instead of dead.
I wasn’t a saint, but I was more in touch with my spirituality than I’d ever been. No longer encumbered by a Catholocism that insisted I was going to hell no matter what I did, no longer chained by my aimless wandering, searching and fumbling and creating a hell for myself in place of the one I was given. There was Zen, but not the one I thought I’d found before. I was no longer sanctimonious, no longer pushing so hard for something that ran away faster the more you chased after it. It was waking up early in the morning and meditating, having breakfast, listening to some music and starting the day off right. Cuddling with my woman in the wee hours of the night, a tenderness coming from me that I’d never quite seen before. That old tension in my shoulders going away. Looking up in the night sky, seeing Orion’s Belt, and feeling like I was a part of it.
There were still times when the depression would flare up, moments when anxiety would creep in or PTSD would remind me of its insidious presence. But these were now minor nuisances, just quiet whining voices that I could smile at as I walked away. There was this feeling, something I’d never felt before: stability. That middle path I’d heard so much about suddenly seemed doable, because it was already happening. There was not getting too excited or too down, just kind of enjoying life as it came. There was medication and therapy, sure, but those were things I needed years before I got them. There was the feeling of ditching a heavy weight and bodily floating out of the pit I’d been living in all my life.
I could still get angry, or sad, or anything else, but it wasn’t some big production anymore. No more would I have those huge outbursts where I wouldn’t vent and so would set up the inevitable explosion down the road. I could get peeved, but I could just as easily take a breath and let things go. It was a choice to be made, not out of my control like I used to think it was. I realized that I had free will, and I was making the best of it.
When I was clean, I turned off the water and towelled myself off. It seemed like seven years of dirt had been cleansed from me, and that might as well have been the truth.
I’ve decided that while I’m editing the second Waldo novel and developing the third, I’m going to research and write a new, completely different novel. Bloodwood is the story of a Viking seeking a chance at redemption while carrying on the story of the family he has lost. Here’s what I have of the first page so far. Now it’s time for more intensive research and writing! I love this phase in every project, but this is especially exciting for me given my Viking ancestry. Onward!
The day I saw my mom again, it was cloudy, and gray, and cold, and I got off the bus about a mile early to pick up kitty litter. I hadn’t planned the stop, wasn’t even sure I needed to, but I did it anyway. Maybe a part of me knew what would happen.
Lugging the 20 lb. box home wasn’t practical, but I was stubborn. On the way back, there was a rehab facility. Physical rehab, not drug. I always had to make the distinction later, when explaining to others where my mom was living. The thing was, at base, my mom was homeless. Sure, she was staying at this rehab facility and getting just enough surgeries to prolong her stay and keep herself off the street, but she was technically homeless. I don’t know, though. Saying that implies that she had a home to begin with. She had houses, apartments, and duplexes, but no home. I guess I never had one either.
I definitely knew that she was staying there, but the part of me that knew that wasn’t conscious at the time. I was just lugging the kitty litter home, already breaking a sweat even in the chilly November air. By the time I got to the rehab facility, I was swimming in my thoughts.
I saw her standing there, smoking a cig outside the place, talking with a fellow resident. She was about a block away and hadn’t seen me. She hadn’t seen me in years.
I actually froze. I remember that. I stood there, totally still, kitty litter in hand, and had no idea what I was going to do. I looked across the street, considered jaywalking and moving briskly past, hiding my face until I was out of view. I thought of turning back, no destination planned. I thought of doing many things, but what I actually did was walk right up to her. What I actually did was greet her, and set the kitty litter down, and tell her that we needed to talk.
She didn’t know what to do.
The person she was talking to gave me a knowing look and walked away, cigarette cherry glowing in the wind. And there was my mom standing in front of me. Her face was bloated, scarred, and worn from all that the elements had done to her, all of the rage that her body had inflicted. Her eyes were hazy skies threatening rain, foggy like antique marbles. Her mouth was a straight line.
Historically, her thing was to initiate a hug in the hopes that it would make me forget about how she’d treated me. But she didn’t do that this time. What she did was stand there with her arms at her sides, awkward and tense. She was never contemplative, not one to ever stay silent, but no words would come to her. She’d look like she was on the verge of saying something, but then she’d falter.
Looking at her there, standing in her tattered shawl draped over hunched shoulders, face wrecked and body worn out, all of my anger went away. It wasn’t replaced by love, but by a mournfulness. It was like I was looking at a dead person who hadn’t been put in the ground yet.
I hadn’t seen her in years.
It looked like she’d only anticipated being outside for a quick smoke, her shawl insufficient against the cold Chicago air. Or maybe that’s all she had. I remembered hearing that she’d had all her things stolen from her one night while she slept at a homeless shelter in the city. And there I was, standing in my nice jacket, wearing my nice jeans and nice shoes. Everything was nice.
We talked for hours. I led the conversation at first, updating her on everything that was going on in my life. For a time, we were able to set aside the past, all those hurled insults and slammed doors and broken homes. We were old friends maybe, catching up over a cup of coffee.
She told me all about how she’d regularly walk over to the Vineyard Church in Evanston, detail the services and the people and the conversations. We were just C&E parishioners growing up: Christmas and Easter. But now she was going to church once a week, if not more. I could tell she needed it, and that was fine.
I remember feeling the heat escape my body, noticing the cold as it seeped into my bones. Me, with my nice jacket, half-frozen. But it didn’t seem to bother her. I figured all those months of homelessness probably got her used to it.
We both knew when it was time to go. I’d realize when I got home, after I fought past the preliminary tears, then the cries, then the sobs on my walk back that we’d been talking for four hours. But I wouldn’t know then. All I knew was that I had to hug her, and to hug her for real. Like it mattered, because it did. And when I turned to go, she called out to me in a worried voice I’d never quite heard before:
“Don’t forget the kitty litter.”
When he first came across it, it looked to him like the bowl of a giant toilet. It was porcelain, gleaming white, and it curved up to a lid at the top. The bowl was about six feet around, the black hole of a drain it fed into three feet around. But that was it–no tank, no handle to flush. Just the bowl of a giant toilet in the middle of a room.
It seemed like a living room. Every other room in this abandoned house was rotting away, but this one seemed immaculately kept. The carpet was vacuumed, there was art on the walls, and there were clean couches and chairs. He realized, standing next to the bowl, that all of the couches and chairs were pointed toward the drain. And then, from the side, he was pushed.
The back of his head hit the inside of the bowl with a crack. His arms and legs splayed out instinctively, but it was too late. He was already going down. His body got stuck about three feet down, shaped like the letter U, with arms, legs, and face pointed upwards. He could be a large drain plug.
Already, he could hardly breathe. His own chin was closing his windpipe, the back of his neck twisted in an unnatural angle. Pain shot out of his lower back like a fuel-fed fire. A putrid stench rose up from out of the blackness. Above him, figures started to appear.
They weren’t people.
They seemed to be perpetually in shadow, their features always just out of view. They stared at him with passive curiosity for a moment, then reached for his feet. Several of them worked at his shoes even as he kicked and thrashed. His spine exploded with pain at each movement.
They removed his shoes, then his socks, their fingers wet and cold on his skin. The smell from down the pipe seemed to be getting worse. He started to gag. The figures had cracked, uneven fingernails. Fingernails or claws. They raked them against his toes, slid them between his nails and the underskin of his toes. Some of them squeezed his toes till they felt like they might burst like overripe cherry tomatoes.
When the tongues touched, they were oozing strips of sandpaper on his skin, scraping between the toes to get the full taste. His vision tunneled as he slowly blacked out from lack of oxygen, but one feature came into view as everything else faded away. He saw their jagged teeth as they bit into his toes and ripped clean through.
He fought when they started to pull him out of the bowl by his feet, but eventually he slackened. The figures chattered and moaned like lovers in coitus as they waited for him to reach the top. When he did, he kicked everything he could make contact with.
And then, there was freefall.
And then, there was the sensation of losing yourself.
And that was all right.