Tag Archives: nonfiction

Fade

IMG_1268

 

There’s an alley in Macon where you can see the word “EVERYBODY” scrawled in faded paint along the side of an old, red brick building. I have no idea what it used to advertise, though I imagine it wouldn’t be very hard to find out.

There are old advertisements like that all over downtown. Macon’s not a big place, but it’s an old one, and it’s always had a substantial population. I think you can almost measure spikes in growth by the number of painted ads you find along the sides of buildings. Right now Macon is at the cusp of a minor boom, and murals praising it as a hub for history and music are slathered all over. In a few decades, the paint and prints will fade into sun-bleached ghosts. People will photograph those old hustles, and imagine the atmosphere the ads tried to promote. The product will be long out of date when it finally sells.

 

old advert

 

I’m reminded of the “EVERYBODY” ad when someone who is shockingly rude to me is inexplicably gracious just a few moments later, a look of anxiety telling me they fear being written off by anyone, even inconsequential twentysomethings they don’t know. I think of the ad when exes leave voice mails I’ll never return. I think of it when I text friends in Nashville, and we pretend there’s a possibility we’ll hang out again one day.

 

kessler

 

In nearby Rose Hill, there are graves so old the lettering has been nearly ground away by rain. There are whole tombs you can only reach if you climb down embankments and weave your way through brush. They are built of brick, and they are faded pink by time. In the stillness of those alcoves of kudzu and camellias, where whispers are nearly shouts, it is impossible to believe that moving hands ever laid the mortar that holds those vaults together. I think of the ad even then.

 

tomb in alcove

 

The ad pops up in my mind when I hug my parents after a visit. When my cat is asleep in my lap. When I see reports of terrorism on the news, and when I throw out homophobic pamphlets I find littering the post office.

 

get on out

 

The ad says more than the capitalist who commissioned it ever meant to say. It’s an accidental message, one that could only emerge when the old message washed away in the sun. Even that adds to the telling.

 

Dren's Museum

 

It’s neither melancholic nor optimistic. It simply is. The meaning transcends mood.

 

Everybody Fades Away

 

Everybody fades away.

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Adultolescence

adulthood

 

During a slow period at work, when there are no customers and everything’s been stocked and cleaned, I sit at the computers by the registers and look up random things on Wikipedia. My coworker, a nice enough guy, looms over my shoulder, talking a mile a minute about every subject I search for. It wouldn’t be so bad except that he’s explaining the meaning of whatever it is I’m typing in, not understanding that I’m just passing the time. I try to be polite and engage him while he speaks, but it becomes tiresome and eventually I just ignore him. He’s in college and eager to show off what he’s learned. He lectures me on subjects I’ve studied more thoroughly than he has. He wonders why I’m not amazed by information I already know. He’s young and he resents it.

While I study for my GRE, I’ve taken a job at a local grocery store. It’s a cute, mostly locally sourced place owned by two friends I admire a lot, who were kind enough to hire me. The pay is low but the work is light, and there are days where it feels as though I’m simply being paid to hang out.

I’m one of the older employees there, and while the age difference between me and most of the other workers isn’t tremendous, it’s enough that I notice it. At 28, there’s no way I can pretend I’m not young, but I feel disgustingly grownup compared to the other workers. It’s silly, really, but when I refer to them, I don’t think the word “people” so much as I think the word “kids.”

The early 20s are often referred to jokingly as extended adolescence, but whenever I mention that to someone in their late 20s, there’s this knowing nod that we both share. It’s awkward when jokes are unintentionally accurate.

Do you remember what you were doing when it hit you? When you realized life after 25 was noticeably different than life before 25?

There are people who have forgotten how dramatic this dichotomy is, and they’ll scoff when you bring it up, but how many of you remember waking up with a staggering hangover at 26, and remembering how you would shake it off with zero effort just four years ago? When did you feel the first tell-tale sign of buckling in your knees after jumping the last stair, a jump that had never registered in your hips at 24? How many of you remember the exact moment when you understood you were only growing older from now on, instead of growing up?

The kids wouldn’t believe me if I told them any of this. Other “kids” haven’t, and I suspect they can’t. It’s almost impossible to understand the dramatic change in their self-perception that waits for them around the very next visible corner.

And it’s not just the body that has changed on me, it’s perception as well. I see these kids groan over workloads I’ve come to see as routine. Easier than routine, really. The café will get four sandwich orders at once, and complaints will fly when customers are out of earshot. At my last job, twenty orders at once just meant the hotel guests had woken up.

You have to understand that they’re not ungrateful or lazy or spoiled, or any other bullshit coded anti-youth phrase you were about to mutter. They’re just kids. They’re getting their feet wet and remarking on the temperature. They’re not rejecting the world, they just have to force themselves to mold into it, the way everyone eventually does.

And I know this, but still they seem so young and even at just 28, I think to myself they have so much growing to do. And then I laugh at myself for being so ridiculously patronizing. Who issued me the license to discount them for their slightly more noticeable youth?

But I do it anyway. Sometimes it’ll take me a moment to register when teenagers I’m around are talking to me. They probably think I’m awkward but the truth is I simply don’t have any interest in what they’re saying. They seem put-off when I brush off invitations to hang out. They stammer when I cut them off mid-sentence so I can get back to work.

Part of the wisdom of adulthood is in remembering the social power you wield. Teenagers will never threaten your place in the world the way you think they will. Every bully thinks they’re the persecuted one.

My coworker notices I’ve stopped responding. I didn’t do it out of spite. I only did it because it was never truly a conversation. He’s a person who talks at you, not to you. But he’s sensitive and worries a lot, and he’s only 20, so he asks if he’s bugging me. I say no and keep reading, but he’s still unsure.

“You can tell me if I am,” he says. “Am I? I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just if I am you can say something.” Like everyone who doesn’t yet know how to be taken seriously, he affects a condescending tone. “You know that, right?”

And he keeps talking, and asking questions, and I can say nothing back. I can only answer the questions he asks by waiting until he lives through the next few years of his life.

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Pumpkin Grins

pumpkins

It’s cool tonight, and I light a cigarette and sit down among the leaves. The pine trees rustle from a breeze that doesn’t quite make it to where I’m sitting. The dim sodium light by the road outlines the bare branches above the house. Candles flicker in the laughing faces I’ve carved.

My earliest memory of Halloween involves my sister and I dressing up in stuffed costumes and going to our grandparents’ houses for candy. There is little memory beyond those vague recollections. The clearest image I have is of walking to the car, the streetlight having flickered out. I remember the comfort I took in holding my parents’ hands as we moved through chilly darkness.

A stray cat is walking along when it takes notice of me. It’s clearly nervous, and stands completely still while I smoke. I don’t move except to breathe. The cat looks off to the side, and something startles it enough so that it breaks into a run. I look where it looked. There isn’t anything there. I tell myself it’s the wind I hear sighing.

When I was about five, there was a Halloween when I was left alone in the living room. Not really alone, mind you. My parents were less than half a dozen steps away. But when you’re that small a shadow is an impassable divide. I sat beside the electric jack o’lantern, dressed in my plastic vampire costume, and listened to a battery operated ghost moan in the window whenever someone walked by. I became aware that I was alive on a magic night.

A light comes on inside the house. A shadow moves across the curtains. I’m apprehensive even though I know it’s just my sister. The light goes off. The shadow I saw won’t leave my vision.

When I was ten I rode through a spook house at the city fair. It was one of the better ones, before traveling dark rides let themselves get irredeemably cheap. I screamed when a rotting corpse hanging from the wall waved us by. I had never felt more miserable and scared than I did then, cowering in that electric car, my father’s arm around me. When it was over, I begged my dad to take me through again.

I carved three jack o’lanterns, even though Halloween is over a month away. They all have triangle eyes and triangle noses. Two laugh with square teeth. One screams with hastily carved fangs. The dark swirls like floodwater when the candles inside threaten to flicker out. The backyard is deathly quiet, and the streetlights do not reach where I sit.

Halloween when I was twelve was unusually robust. Every other yard was flooded with fake spider webs and plastic zombies. Three haunted houses left eager lines of giggling children trailing into the sidewalks. I filled two pumpkin pails with candy, and stayed up till two watching scary movies because it was a Friday. The next morning the decorations hung like crumbling ruins, and the city was quieter than it should have been for Saturday morning. It occurred to me that November 1st is the saddest day of the year. I consoled myself that weekend with a private marathon of old Hammer horror movies.

I lie back in the leaves, and watch the orange grins shimmer across the walls of the shed. At this angle I can hear the wafting of the candle flames. They each have a secret story they will only share with each other.

One Halloween, when I was nineteen or twenty, I met a girl at a party. We were probably both a little too drunk for it, but we ended up in a back bedroom. We kept our costumes on…mostly…and when we were done she was the first to leave. I dozed off for less than ten minutes, but it felt like I’d been out for hours. Before going back to the party I watched the shadows the tree branches made against the streetlight, and listened to the moan of the air as it rushed through a crack in the windowsill.

There are footsteps in the leaves around me. I tense up, until a telltale rustle tells me it’s a squirrel, out late to forage. It breaks away when an owl calls into the night. I hear movement in the trees.

I felt bad for eating the last of the candy. The last trick-or-treater had gone all-out, giving herself bloody makeup worthy of a Jason flick. I made up for my transgression by breaking into my secret stash, the cupboard where I stored my Lindt chocolate and my Ghirardelli bars. It was either that or give her a bottle of Maker’s Mark, so I erred on the side of caution. When they saw the fancy candy, her parents told me lightheartedly that I take Halloween too seriously. I told them earnestly that that was impossible. Later my roommate and I navigated our way through a haunted house, a warehouse to be exact. A rainstorm screamed against the tin roof while we scrambled through the dark. We were soaked to the bone when we made it to the car. The rain kept coming when we entered a haunted trail off a nearby mountain. I screamed and cowered as we went through cabins and actors whispered in my ears. Usually the performers went after my roommate. She’s five feet tall and petite, but between us I’m the coward. One actress picked up on this and terrorized me brilliantly. By two a.m. I was in my underwear and drinking beer, watching a horror movie while a strobe light flickered through my window. The light from the television imparted an eerie quality to the ventriloquist’s dummy sitting on my bookcase. I didn’t remember it facing me when I first lied down.

The cigarette has gone cold. I need to get up for work in the morning. I lean forward and blow out each of the pumpkin’s candles. For a moment I sit there. I let the chill in the air soak into my clothes. I can smell burned candle wax. The wind has picked up a little. It tells me a story, but only in whispers. I stand up, walking carefully through the leaves. Something instinctive tells me not to make too much noise. Even if I can’t hear it, something hears me.

I go inside, I lock the door, and I go to bed. Halloween comes every night, but only for the diligent.

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Little Family

My friend isn’t very fond of cats, for understandable reasons. He doesn’t dislike them, but give him a dog over a cat any day. I’m the exact opposite. I love dogs, but I’m not much of a fan of dependency. I’ve always preferred cats.

So it was surprising when one day he texted me saying he had a cat now. She’s adorable, an almost freakishly tiny stray he saved from the front yard of his apartment building. She’s very affectionate, and it makes us laugh to no end when she breaks into a run, and slides three feet on the hardwood floor when she tries to stop.

It turned out she was pregnant, but she’s really young so she only had one kitten. Eventually he decided to keep this one too, as two cats wouldn’t break him. They’ll both be sterilized once the kitten is old enough.

He still prefers dogs. Cats freak him out when they stare at him, and he hates their habit of tackling people’s ankles. But the new cat is having known of his sassafras.

“Stop melting my heart!!!” he mock demands of the four-pound kitty, wrapping his hands gently around its neck and pretending to choke it. She just purrs and nips at his thumb.

***

Childhood neighbors of mine had a golden retriever they never played with. The dog was starved for attention, so my sister and I would play with it through the fence all the time. One time it broke loose while the family was away, and we spent a great afternoon petting it and playing fetch. It actually made me cry when she was taken back into the yard, and locked back up behind the fence. She was eventually adopted out, hopefully to someone who knew what kind of treasure she was.

The police loved few things more than stealing the pets of black citizens and taking them to the pound. My general distrust of the police began when I found out another neighbor’s dogs, three dalmatians I liked playing with, were mistakenly seized. The animals that were supposed to be taken lived on another street with a similar name, but in their haste to destroy precious things that were loved by a non-white family, the police in my town had them put down almost immediately. This was against pretty clear policy, and the police were actually pretty hostile when the family complained. A few town hall meetings later, and the officers involved in the incident were fired and fined. It’s almost worthless compensation, compared to losing those three babies so cruelly, but it was at least an acknowledgement.

There are a lot of pit bulls in my hometown. Occasionally a couple of assholes will try to start up some kind of dog fighting ring, but it’s never more than a handful of people out of the nearly 80,000 that live here. If you see a pit bull around here, you can usually assume it’s as beloved a family pet as a miniature poodle. There are plenty of idiots around here who buy into the vicious myths about the breed. They do so out of a misguided notion of pity, not realizing that they’re perpetuating the cycle of animal cruelty they believe they’re opposing. I once saw a pit bull lick and nuzzle an injured kitten a family on my street had rescued. Nowadays dog and cat spend plenty of afternoons napping, wrapped around one another, on front porch and back. It’s important to realize this is neither the exception nor the rule. Animals, like people, come in all shades.

aww

***

When I was twelve, we took in a cat that was over twenty years old, because its owner, the mother of a friend of my father’s, couldn’t care for her anymore. The cat lived another year and a half, and she slept in my bed every night. She got sick eventually, and one day I heard her begging desperately behind the hallway door we used to keep her and the other cat from fighting. I tried to let her out, since the other cat was outside, but Missy would only walk in quick circles, begging. I went in and sat down, and she hustled to curl up in my lap. She fell asleep, purring, and about ten minutes later she died.

***

We had one cat, Gray Baby, who would follow me everywhere, even to the shower, as soon as I came home. Spotty wanted me to carry her 24/7, and had a habit of hugging me with her front legs. Princess could somehow sense, no matter where in the house she was, that I had just sat down, and she would run at full speed until she dived onto me, full force, before curling up and going to sleep.

***

I had three gerbils: Karma, Dharma, and Samsara.

I had Samsara first. He was kind of old by gerbil standards, and the pet store I got him from wasn’t very diligent about keeping him safe from the other gerbils. It was shut down and forced to make upgrades a few months later. He only had half a tail, but he was friendly enough. He liked to ride around in the crook of my elbow while I fed him sunflower seeds.

He died of natural causes, and a friend of mine gave me a little black gerbil I called Karma. Karma was a vicious little bitch, and would leap to bite me whenever I fed her. I was resigned to just having a shitty gerbil until someone reminded me that gerbils live in colonies. I adopted another gerbil, Dharma, and put her beside Karma’s cage. Karma immediately become fascinated, and followed her down the length of the cages as she moved around. I moved them in with each other, and afterward I could pick them both up with no problems. Karma developed a habit of licking the end of my nose if I held her close enough. When they slept, they made a little yin yang with their bodies.

***

Magpie was a rescue. He was born feral, but he and his brother seemed way more at ease around me than their mother did. We fed them a little but generally left them alone. One day he was dragging his hind legs behind him. The vet said he’d broken his hip, probably from being hit by a car. We took him in and fed him. I would sit with him some mornings and pet him. Even with his hurt hip he would climb out of the cat bed and follow me. When he healed up and could walk normally, he decided he didn’t want to go back outside.

Boots literally demanded adoption. When he was little he’d race inside at every opportunity, amusing my late grandmother to no end with his persistence. He was an adorable, almost freakishly sociable ball of fluff, and he was already allowed in by the time we took in Magpie. He isn’t as inside-oriented as Magpie. He spends all day, every day lounging in the boat outside, or sunning in the grass, only coming inside to eat and drink. We keep him in at night, and though he loves us he’s never okay with this. He’s like a puppy, mewling for attention and prancing when he gets it.

Their mother had another litter of kittens, but all but one died. The little black kitten would come inside, curl up, and purr for hours when he stroked it. We stopped seeing it for awhile, and were afraid a nearby owl had gotten it. Eventually I saw one of the neighbors had a new black cat, with little white spots exactly like the kitten’s. The mother, feral to her bones, is probably long gone.

We also have Charlie. We love him and he loves us. He’s the only cat I’ve ever had declawed. He’d be a nightmare to deal with otherwise. Nowadays instead of wincing at random pinpricks in our ankles, we feel as though we’re being batted by tiny clusters of pillows. Charlie’s a bit murderous. We love him and he loves us, but he would probably try to eat us if we slept just a little too long.

***

One drunken night I had to sleep at an unfamiliar house. I didn’t feel unsafe at all – the people who lived there were close friends of mine – but I very much crave the security of a familiar place when I sleep. I lied in the dark, wide awake on the pleather sofa. Eventually their little rat terrier hopped onto the cushion I was lying on and snuggled up under my arm. I was out in five minutes, the rat terrier’s cold little nose pressed against my chin, his body a furry little furnace warming me against the air conditioner’s chill.

***

When I sit around my friend’s apartment, his cat likes to hop up and head butt me. She’s the kind of cat who just keeps her head pressed against your face, and it’s hard to resist to urge to just indulge and kiss her forehead. It’s a painfully effeminate mannerism my friend only mildly shames me for.

We’ll sit and drink beer and make bawdy jokes we will never repeat when female friends of ours are around. His cat will sit on my leg and I’ll start to pet her, and in a stern tone, my friend will command me to stop stroking his pussy.

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Scrub Clean

Dishwashing

 

There’s a six hour orientation I have to sit through before I am entrusted with the task of running clunky ceramic platters through an industrial dishwasher. The chef running me through the course is affable but a little absorbed in himself. He’s tearing through the workbook at twenty miles over the speed limit, and the bartender nearby jokes that I can’t possibly remember everything he’s saying. It’s nothing I haven’t heard countless times from every other restaurant I’ve worked in. If this seems tough around here, I should be fine.

 

***

 

The first night I have a really sympathetic trainer, who shows me where everything goes multiple times, and carries the brunt of the workload while I learn my way around. After two hours I’m put on the fry pit, where a nice fry cook runs me through the timing that goes into deep frying the greasy meat that subconsciously suicidal patrons will be shoveling down their gullets. I don’t intend to be frying much but the managers want me to cross train in something, so here I am. The cook I’m with is a master of timing, and he cooks twelve batches at a time with the four fry baskets he’s given. I’m told I need a menu matrix before I’ll be able to hold my own in here. The restaurant won’t have new matrixes for a month.

I go back to the dish pit before closing, and watch the trainer break the machine down. We scrub our corner, then hit the lights and leave. I smoke a cigarette and listen to Roy Orbison as I drive home. I barely stay up long enough to shower. My GRE workbook sits untouched in its Amazon box.

 

***

 

Rolling silverware is the easiest job you can possibly have in a restaurant. I know this from personal experience. It literally doesn’t get any easier than rolling silverware. I’m actually amazed that in some places it’s a shift all by itself. Here there aren’t even any special folds required. You just wrap a napkin around the flatware and go.

Naturally, the teenager given the job bitches about it ceaselessly. She’s horrifically rude to everyone around her, and has already been called aside twice tonight by the equally bitchy manager on duty. He’s given her two warnings but she’s sixteen, so what’s she gonna do? Modify her behavior?

I drop off fresh forks and she blithely says: “Hey, can you take that back with you?” She sweeps generally at me.

“Take what with me?”

“THE THING IN YOUR HAND!” she snaps, meaning the dish rack. She’s seething, hissing the words through her teeth.

“What the fuck did you think I was gonna do with it?” I ask her, then immediately forget about her once she’s out of eyesight.

I ignore her through the night. I don’t do it consciously. It’s just that she’s sixteen; my default action around teenagers is to just not care. I don’t mean to not notice them. They’re just so…boring. Caring would require a greater man than me.

She drops off my radar until around ten, when she starts begging other people to come help her. At one point she offers twenty bucks…half a shift, without taxes…to anyone who’ll help her. No one takes her up on it.

“You mean help you with your own work?” a friend of hers snickers as he walks past.

“You’re such a little bitch!” she snaps back, but without the good-natured tone of her friend. She sees me, and comes over.

“Hey, I’m sorry I was mean to you.”

“I don’t care,” I tell her. I don’t say it to be mean. It really doesn’t bother me. It’s amazing how little you can care about things when you’ve legitimately grown up.

“Really? Cuz you’ve been ignoring me all night.”

“Not ignoring you,” I tell her. “Just not caring.”

“You really take shit personal, don’t you?”

“Pretend my answer is whatever you want it to be,” I say, and unload the last platter before retreating back to the dish pit.

 

***

 

The cooks and dishwashers want to play football after work. I don’t want to join them. I will stop caring about this place the second I clock out.

The people here think I have a son I take care of. They think this because I have a habit of calling my best friend “my boy,” and also because I’m old enough where, this far below the Mason-Dixon Line, pretty much everyone my age has a kid. I’ve never corrected the assumption, as it gives me a convenient excuse to just head home at night without what seems to be the requisite socializing.

I don’t mind hanging with coworkers after work. In the city I lived in before, I did it almost every night. But Perry, GA is a place where only bitterness and boredom come up in conversation. When the sun sets, I want to be around the few people I know who aren’t desperately chasing distraction until morning.

 

***

 

“Hey man, how you like it?”

The silverware roller is a guy tonight, the same guy who actually referred me here. He’s really nice, actually, so I feel bad when I reactively I blurt out: “I don’t, but I didn’t expect to, so it’s all good.”

He laughs at that. “Yeah, I get that.” I could actually hang with this guy without minding. He and I met through his sister-in-law. I guess he’s reading my mind because when I remember that he asks me how she and I are doing.

She and I have our own lives. We’ve gone out once, but only once. We’ve basically been opposite sex dude-bros for a decade, give or take a couple years here and there. Not best friends but good enough.

I tell him she doesn’t want to go out again. “Aw, damn. Don’t that suck,” he says.

I shrug. “Could suck worse.”

“How?”

“Coulda got married.” And I can see myself hanging out with him because he laughs at this. Everyone else in this church infested area would wonder what my beef against the holy union of marriage is. This guy just laughs.

 

***

 

I’ve been at it a couple weeks now. I’m falling into a familiar rhythm, one I remember from my days at the hotel. My arms are swelling and my stomach’s flattening. I fancy myself a worker-scholar on days when I don’t have cigarettes waiting for me in the car.

It’s late on a holiday, and we’re running every removable piece of equipment through the washer. The manager, who’s sat and talked the entire night, looks us over and curtly tells us that we “need to move it up about ten notches.” She walks away before she can see that we give her instructions less than zero regard.

The line cooks help us break down and clean up. We hose off the kitchen, squeegee the water, and hit the lights. The manager grumbles that it’s after midnight when she locks up behind us.

Cigarettes are lit immediately. Applications are emailed. Eight hours later I’m back inside, opening up the kitchen. The grill cook also had a turnaround, and he comes in after me.

“You did a good job last night, man,” he tells me, putting on his apron. I thank him, praying the compliment doesn’t become an endorsement, and roll the first rack of plates through the machine.

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