So I posted a story today that I’ll only leave up until tonight. It’s one if those tales I’m particularly protective of, ya see. Anyhow, it’s available in the post below. For anyone interested, catch it while ya can!
I’ve only just now finished a short story I’ve been working on since late August. I’ve written it, re-written it, restructured it. There have been so many abandoned reconstructions of it the files would’ve filled a small thumb drive. I can’t think of another story that took me this long to finish, at least one that wasn’t novel-length. This story, all nineteen pages of it, fought me with bared teeth every word of the way.
As satisfying as it is to have something pour out of you, for me it’s even more satisfying when I finally wrestle down a piece that seemingly had no end. There were a few months when I was sure that this story just couldn’t work, that even I didn’t know what I was trying to say with it. The genre is irrelevant; there are just stories, some true, some fictional, that won’t be told until they can be told right.
It might be emotional masochism, but I like to believe the enjoyment comes from the impression of accomplishment that comes when a piece finally seems to work. Typing and deleting and rephrasing words calls to my mind the image of a lost hiker, hacking through brush as he tries to find his way to saner land.
There’s always relief when you get to where you’re going.
Spring in the southeast lasts for all of about two weeks. Seasons in Middle Georgia typically divide into summer, less-hot summer, a month of winter weather the rest of the world would call fall, and spring. You know spring has come because you see flowers everywhere, then two weeks later they all die, and you’re stuck in the steaming taint of summer for another six months.
Since spring is little more than a cruel tease in this part of the country, you see people walking everywhere. We’re all hungry to experience this bizarre twilight time when the sun is shining but isn’t simultaneously flash frying us. Cold drinks don’t sweat until you’ve had a few good swallows. You sweat but only after earning it by walking a few blocks.
I make sure to meet my springtime quota by going for frequent walks in the local cemetery. That might sound morbid, but this deep into Baptist country cemeteries are basically public parks with occasional tombstones. The air is rich with the smell of azaleas and honeysuckle, and birds sing like they’ve broken into your speed stash. Artsy college women in sundresses take photos, and married couples walk their dogs while holding hands. The atmosphere is slightly less foreboding than an episode of Arthur.
If you go deep enough into the place you quickly run across graffiti written by teenagers in love. On a huge tomb by the railroad tracks a boy named Dylan once scrawled his affection for a girl named Sarah. In an enclosed area by a local crypt, it’s not unusual to find condom wrappers. Sometimes you even find underwear, tossed into the brush in the heat of passion and lost forever to the dark of the sweaty, grunting night. There’s a tree by a creek, deep into the graveyard, that is covered from roots to branches in carved initials encased in hearts.
I find all this absolutely beautiful. Sometimes people like to pretend it’s strange that anyone would get romantic in the cemetery, because we’re a species of idiots. If you honestly don’t get why a dark space hidden from authoritative eyes would appeal to horny teenagers, then I have an exciting time share opportunity for you to invest in.
I always get sappy when I see all the color and clues of affection out there. Out in the gentle quiet, my thoughts set in time to the rumble of a nearby passing train, I’m hit with the poignant thought that we all need each other, and we’re given only so many years to grope in the dark for each other’s hands. That might sound sad but it doesn’t strike me that way. I get a feeling of challenge at the thought. My heart pounds and my arms tingle. With the challenge comes the prospect for adventure.
I’ll stay until the light begins to fade, and cars turn away onto the main road. Here, paradoxically, there is so much life. Tall flowers shimmer in the breeze. Trees rustle as squirrels build their homes. A teenage couple holds hands. They walk between old tombstones, their footfalls cushioned by young and vibrant grass.
My cat is just getting over a rash on his belly. To treat it the vet gave me an antiseptic spray to squirt him with three times a day, and by squirt I mean really soak him with each dose. He despises this with the heat of a thousand suns, hating only the vacuum cleaner more than being sprayed with this mentholated gunk. But he puts up with it because he trusts me. He hates the vet, and all the stabbing and blood-letting and anal violation it entails, but I feel like he’s noticed that he only goes when something’s wrong, and always ends up feeling better pretty quickly after coming home. He still shows his displeasure, but mildly. Some cats would bite or scratch, but he just gives a pitiful little groan and squirms a bit. A minute later, he’s eating cat treats and curling around my ankle. He loves me and knows I love him.
Whenever my cat suffers a health issue, I want to sit down with the universe and ask why it finds the suffering of a small fluffy animal so amusing. This is hyperbolic, of course, and I’m sure my cat has gone full Mengele on a few unsuspecting chipmunks in his day, so it could be hypocritical as well. We love to despair over the unfairness of life and the apathy of the universe, but I’ve come to suspect the universe actually does care. Generally speaking, anyway.
I mean, yeah, politicians sell out the lives of their constituents for the gain of corporations they own stock in. Assholes will cut you off in traffic and pass stopped school buses. The neighbor will subtly encourage his dog to shit in your yard when he thinks you aren’t looking. Meteors may or may not play shuffleboard with human existence.
But the universe keeps growing and evolving. Star systems keep forming. New flowers and fluffy, adorable woodland critters pop up all the time. People kiss. People fall in love. People masturbate. There’s hurt, sure, but the universe also trusts us to find happiness.
Mo and I dated for about a year and a half before becoming serious. It was mostly necessitated by distance, but additionally it seemed like a good idea. Latching onto a relationship with little knowledge of the other person rarely seems to go well.
On the day we became official, we’d spent most of the day tramping around an abandoned asylum a few towns over. We picnicked in a cemetery that had been converted into a park, and took photos of graffiti warning us not to trust voices in white coats. We were dirty, sweaty, and breathing heavy when we finally got back to my place.
We were in my bedroom, but not on my bed. I forget why but we sat on the carpet, and after a while I pulled down a couple pillows and a blanket. We cuddled and talked about nothing. I told her I loved her and she said she loved me too.
“Then we should be an item,” I said. “Just us.”
She smiled, and traced an X with her finger on my lips before kissing me. “There,” she said, trusting me to understand. “Sealed with a kiss.”
A month or so before moving out of Nashville, a neighbor cat took to wandering into my apartment whenever I’d come home. We’d feed him and play with him, and soon he’d stay whole weeks without leaving the place. I’d come home and he’d be begging to be let in. I would find myself anxious to be away from home, afraid he’d be left outside if it started to rain. It would take me a few moments before I remembered he was somebody else’s cat.
I got attached to him and started calling him Eddie. He’d sleep under my arm while I read in bed, or curl up on my gut when I went to sleep. He’d tackle my arms and play-bite me when I’d exercise. He followed me to the mailboxes and was patient enough to let me take photos of him with tiny hats on. He was a quality cat.
I say was but I should say is. He was clearly young when he started hanging around, and well cared for. I pulled a tick off him once but he was in good health otherwise. Someone was obviously feeding and sheltering him. But still I got attached to him. And when we had to leave town one weekend, I found myself hanging back till late. He didn’t want to go outside, and I didn’t want to leave him alone. I did eventually, of course, and a day after we came back, he strolled up to our porch while I was reading, mewling to be let inside.
Moving day came, and Eddie weaved between us and our stuff as we broke it down and loaded it up. He’d leave for an hour, then come back and play with someone taking a break. The activity got him excited, and he’d disappear again chasing children and bumblebees. We worked till two in the morning emptying the place, and by the time we were done, Eddie was off somewhere for the night. Probably back home.
Mo had gotten a place an hour away, on the opposite side of the city. I was leaving the state altogether, but I crashed at her place for a few nights, sorting through things of mine that had been mixed with hers and building up the courage to finally, permanently go. I went back to the apartment once more, to clean a little before we dropped off our keys. We’re the kind of people who are paranoid about deposits, and we wanted to make sure we got ours back. It was dark when I pulled up, and as soon as I got out, there was Eddie, on the rail, mewling at me.
I spent a couple hours there, scrubbing, vacuuming, trying to usher the cat out every now and then so he’d go home. But he just batted at my pant legs and purred when I’d pet him. When I was done, I cooed at him to follow me out, and locked up.
I loaded up the vacuum and Eddie hopped onto the roof of my car. I petted and kissed him, and a neighbor commented that he obviously didn’t want us gone. I waited until he got distracted by something in the grass, and climbed inside. He looked back once when I started the engine and began backing out, then went back to playing in the weeds. I trusted him to be okay.
I try not to think about it, but sometimes I’ll get the image in my head of Eddie mewling on a darkened porch. In my mind he paws at the door, trusting it to open, until the empty echo from inside convinces him to go home.
The annual family reunion is always a mixed bag. There are relatives I can actually, like, relate to, and relatives who seem as though their parents were likely related too.
Somehow, I always end up watching everybody’s kids when I’m there. I don’t quite understand how this happens. Kids seem to like me, parents seem to trust me, and somehow I’m put in charge of a small line of young’uns who insist on following me around.
Not that I’m complaining. I never want to have children, but I do enjoy their company. They’re simple and earnest and when things get irritating, I can always hand them back to their parents and go on my merry way.
I also remember what it was like to be little and opinionated, and how desperate I was to be regarded by adults with anything approaching respect. I try to keep this in mind whenever I find myself locked in a conversation a few grades below the general age of my peer group.
One reunion I found myself on the porch swing, watching over some cousin’s eight year old. He was as average a kid as you could get. He liked bugs and Pokémon and was just discovering the wonderland that is the Transformers franchise.
Every few sentences, a wrinkled old woman in the bench beside us would lean forward and say: “Have you ever heard a child who talks so much?”
The boy didn’t seem to hear her, and I’m not one for dignifying cruel statements with a response, so we kept talking. If anything, the kid was a little on the quiet side. He liked the talk but I was definitely the chattier one between us.
“Hush,” the strange old woman eventually scolded when the boy was answering a question I’d asked him. “He doesn’t want to have to listen to you.”
The boy looked at her then looked away. I don’t think he knew she was talking to him; he was just vaguely aware she was speaking nearby.
We kept talking.
“Shhh.” I looked over, and the hunched old woman was leaning forward, scowling. She was staring directly at the (thankfully) oblivious little boy. Context was irrelevant. She did not consider my presence, our talk, anything. It dawned on me that all she could see was something small she wanted to crush, something she was furious with for being out of her reach. We trust family to be there for us. Maybe that’s why so many predators choose to hide in the brush of blood relations.
“Blood is thicker than water.” The phrase is exploited frequently by relatives desperate for an excuse to be accepted despite their bad behavior. It’s paraphrased out of context. The original line is “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.”
Bonds are forged. DNA is coincidental. No one ever intends to be related to monsters.
A year or two after the breakup, Mo and I sat on her mother’s porch during a rain storm. She visits every so often, and we usually find at least one night to sit around and catch up.
That night was the first time we’d seen each other since I’d left Tennessee. It’d be a lie to say I was over her already.
We drank coffee and ordered pizza, and sitting on the porch, we listened to the rain. Midnight crept up on us, and we dozed off despite the caffeine.
We woke up to a crack of lightning and intense thunder. The wind as screaming and rain blew hard enough we could feel the mist. We watched the storm and I put my arm around her. She trusted me to move on, but at that time it was beyond my abilities.
So I sat quietly with the woman I still loved and watched the storm. The breakup had come up in conversation, and I told her I was fine. What I meant was that I would be. I at least owed her that minimal honesty. Holding her, I was determined not to break the trust she put in me to move on.
The rain fell, and we trusted it not to wash us away.
I have a weird habit of sitting on the floor. I enjoy overstuffed recliners as much as the next American, but I’ve noticed that even if I’m the only person in the house, I’ll usually opt for sprawling across the carpet when I feel like getting comfortable. Walk into my place unannounced, and you’ll catch me stretched out across the living room, all three of my cats resting comfortably on the couch above my head. They’ll probably look at you and shrug. Hell, don’t look at us. We don’t know what his problem is either.
I once drunkenly missed a come-on because of this habit. Given the choice between a friend’s loveseat and the carpet after a night of drinking, I opted to pass out on the floor.
“You sure you’ll be comfortable down there?” the girl I was sharing the living room with asked.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
She propped herself up on the couch she’d taken and leaned over me, her face close to mine. Her breath still smelled of the moscato we’d passed between ourselves for an hour, after everyone else had gone to sleep. Moscato, and a few of the cigarettes she’d bummed from me. “This thing folds out into a bed, you know…”
“Naaaah,” I said, like the drunken idiot I am. “I’m fiiiiiine.”
Annnd…sex didn’t happen. Suh-prize.
This habit of mine is so regular my longtime friends don’t bat an eye when I abandon my Laz-E-Boy to sit cross-legged for hours on the linoleum. Given the option between park benches and the ground, I’ll usually opt to saturate the ass of my jeans in grass stains.
At parties, if there’s a dog or cat in the room, I’ll drop to knee-level and sit until the little critter curls up beside me. Despite the risk, I’ve managed to avoid what would seem like the inevitable, punishing rain of beer slosh and cigarette ash this course of action would lead to. At a shindig in the woods once, I petted a fox after chilling in the dirt for half an hour. A toad the size of a thumbnail hopped on my knee and bellowed surprisingly deeply. A mantis crawled over one shoe, walked across some leaves, and crawled atop the other shoe. For a moment it looked at me, then seemed to turn its head to the circle of chairs by the fire. It looked at me, looked at the chairs.
Seats are over there, fella.
And then it was gone, its wings chopping the air like helicopter blades.
My cat’s a rescue, or at least seems like he should qualify as one. He was born feral, but at six months old he was hit by a car and suffered a broken hip. We saw him dragging his hind legs and brought him inside. The vet set the bone, gave him a shot or two, and told us all we could do was wait for him to heal.
He was wary of us, so we kept him in a little cat bed beside some food and water, and put a litter box in a close corner. Even with the injury he immediately took to the routine, and so he spent his convalescence hidden in a calm and quiet back room.
Sometimes when I’d pour food or water, or scoop his box, I’d reach out and let him sniff my fingers. Sometimes he’d lick me, or rub his nose against my knuckles. I started petting him on his head when I came and went, and it took a while for me to notice that he’d started to purr when I came into the room. I’d sit for longer periods of time, stroking his back, until he’d doze off or start cleaning himself. Then I’d leave for the day.
A few weeks into this routine, I was leaving the room when I heard a sudden thump behind me. I turned and there he was, following me, dragging his hind legs like luggage. I crouched down and stroked him behind the ears, and he lied down and started to purr.
He fell asleep, and eventually, sitting beside him in the hallway, leaning against the wall, so did I.
I spend many a weekend night at a married couple’s house, which sounds unsavory except that I’m friends with both of them. A few other friends are usually there too. There’s drinking and laughing, and somehow I always end up with food stains on my clothes, even if I never actually eat anything.
By two or three in the morning we begin to drop off. I usually volunteer to take the couch. It’s leather and cool to the touch, and shifting position on it is like adjusting a pair of silk boxers. By that I don’t mean to say it’s easy to masturbate with; I’m saying it’s comfortable.
Their dogs seem fond of me, too, so when I begin to sleep, they’ll hone in on me until their owner shoos them into her bedroom for the night. The little one will hop on top of me, but the big one, a German shepherd that a horse could ride like a horse, is somewhat hindered by his size. He’ll lick my face a couple times, then drop to the carpet. The Chihuahua, not willing to abandon him, will hop back and forth, torn in his loyalty, until exhaustion forces him to join his comrade on the floor.
They’ll sit like that until they’re called away, occasionally whining for company. And hindered as I am by social norms, all I can do is drop my hand down to scratch their chins, an arrangement that satisfies no one involved.
When I go to bed, my cat and my sister’s cats will all hop in with me. There is little in life that delights me more than to have three plush boat motors rumbling around me as I nod off. Unfortunately, I sleep like a ninja with an inner ear problem, and the cats have learned to abandon ship as soon as I lose consciousness.
But sometimes my cat’s hip will fail him, and while Boots and Charlie snuggle in beside me, Magpie is relegated to sitting by my bed, looking up at me with the look that says he wants either attention or canned meat byproducts. Boots would yowl for attention, but Magpie sits quietly, gathering himself into a cat loaf as he settles in on the carpet.
While my sister’s cats doze like adorable alcoholics, I’ll carefully lower my pillow to the floor. Taking a loose blanket with me, I’ll slide off the bed, leaving it to the other felines, and stretch out beside Maggie. Thus situated, I’ll close my eyes and drift to sleep. I will feel my cat work his way beneath my arm and lay his head upon my chest. His purrs will then fill the dark, reciting the definition of comfort.
I make frequent visits to Nashville. I love it there. It’s a city with culture and great food and amazing music, and you can make a life for yourself there without spending a fortune. Country music isn’t quite as omnipresent there as popular belief would have you think, thanks to Jack White and the rising popularity of indie folk. Money matters, of course, but you can get by with spending very little of it.
There’s a store there I visit called McKay’s. It’s a gigantic used media warehouse, and with spare change you can walk out with an armload of books and music and vintage video games. You can find rare collectibles for absurdly low figures, and half my Stephen King collection came from the “Free Bins” by the door, where they dump excess product they don’t have the room to stock and sell.
This business model works because of the unbelievable volume of transactions there. The building is a hive of genre enthusiasts, scavenging for out-of-print paperbacks and classic games for discontinued consoles. The registers are manned by disaffected teenagers, attracted by the store’s off-beat inventory, and disillusioned with its obvious function as a place of business.
I almost feel bad for them, these kids who want to work with old books but not with customers or POS systems. I imagine they feel that they are being ground away by the constant flow of bawdy bargain hunters, and when you consider the fact that money is an imaginary concept, it’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for them.
Money is so strange. Its value is completely arbitrary. People are uncomfortable with admitting it, but its value, its amount, its existence hinges entirely on what we choose. Money is solely an idea. Economists know this, but your average person depends on a line of thought in which money exists in definite and finite amounts. Your average person can drown in too much thought.
I wander the aisles of McKay’s, packed so tight you imagine the nails holding the shelves together will start to creak at any moment. I see these hundreds of thousands of printed ideas and I think: how much value is there here?
For a completely imaginary concept, money binds us in exceptionally heavy chains. Why then do we focus so heavily on it, when so many other ideas would set us free?
The teenagers behind the counter think they are better than pushing buttons on registers. The folks piling used hard covers on the counters believe themselves better than those allowing them access to the words printed on the pages. Too often we fall into the trap of basing value on a system of antagonism, of how much we can debase or deprive the other. We fail to see the devaluing effects of that behavior. We are too greedy to notice we’re losing money, losing value, by overlooking the richness of holding one another up.