Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tennessee (Fragment)

My Grandfather bought a one-room fishing shack deep down in the heart of Eastern Tennessee not long after coming home from the war. He'd disappear down there sometimes, sometimes in the winter and sometimes in the spring. He'd hole up, stay up pacing the floors all night long and deep into the morning. Smoke his Chesterfields, drink his whiskey all night long, never set a foot outside at all. He'd come back home to Lexington a week or so later, contrite as could be and ten pounds lighter, a fresh bloom of broken capillaries running red across his cheeks.

When he died nobody touched the place. They boarded it up and they farmed it out and they burned all the maps. My father, my uncles, nobody wanted anything to do with it. Bad memories and worse dreams. Eventually the State of Tennessee reclaimed the place on back taxes, held the place in escrow. My wife and two sons bought it back from the state and they gave it back to me as a present. We drove down, I stepped inside, my knees were shaking.

10 cent Veteran's Day American flags and paper devil's masks, dog tags hanging from a string. Postcards from Texas and California, the alligator farm in St. Augustine. A jar full of pennies and a jar full of rocks. A rocking chair and an old floral-patterned sofa he must've used as a bed. I stand on the bare wood floor of the shack and I catalogue this stuff obsessively. Empty coke bottles all in a row and Ira Louvin's smiling face. Pocket knives and arrow heads. An unopened case of Dickel. Ball jars, tobacco tins, a butterfly in a small black frame. Election poster from 1954, John Cline County Sheriff.

I step outside and look at my rented car, two boys sleeping in the back seat and engine still ticking over in the heat. I close my eyes and listened to the burble of the McMinn River down below. Down below and far away.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Time Comes Faster Than Horses

He hit the floor. He hit the floor and he wasn’t sure he could get back up. He scanned the empty room for his son, didn’t see him. Heard the morning TV chirping away in the background. He felt the blood at the back of his throat, tasted it in his mouth like wet copper, and then he scanned the room again.
The man steeped in closer and hit him a second time. He hit him harder.
“I said sit, goddamn it! Just sit!”

Their room was on the second floor. It was like every motel room Bill had ever been in, and he’d been in a few. Two double beds, TV, an untouched chest of drawers, a bible in a drawer beneath the reading light. A laminated menu from the coffee shop across the highway. Local map. There was a small window in the front by the door and another, much larger one in back. The front window overlooked the little horse-shoe shaped parking lot below, the swimming pool, the strip-mall across the highway. The back one aimed out at nothing but miles and miles of empty South Dakota nothing. Scrub land and brush and some mountains in the far distance, Bill didn’t know which ones. He thought maybe they were looking West but he really wasn’t sure.
They’d been in the room for two days now, two days, and Bill was trying to find the strength within himself to get moving again. He knew they had to, knew they still had a lot of ground left to cover. But every time he stared out that huge back window, at all that empty distance, he felt a weight come settling down upon him and he couldn’t find the energy to move, almost. Couldn’t find the energy to lift his arms.
His son Sam was oblivious to it. His son was only seven years old and anyway staying holed up in a motel room on the edge of Nowhere, S.D. made as much sense to him as anything else that had happened to him in the past few days. Kids are adaptable, Bill told himself, and normal was relative. So they watched a lot of TV, whatever Sam wanted to watch, and Bill watched a lot of his son.

Bill watched his son as he sat at the little round table beneath the big empty window, playing with a plastic bag full of little green soldiers Bill had picked up in a Texaco station along the way. He’d watch as one of the soldiers would line up a good shot. His son would let out a little diabolical laugh and say “I’ve got you now!” The other plastic soldier would cry out in anguish and surprise, sometimes even begging for his little soldier life, but Sam’s wars were merciless affairs, and begging did no good. Sam could keep one of these battles going for almost an hour, until all his plastic soldiers were spent. Then, almost immediately, he’d want to watch TV again.
“I’m bored,” he’d say.

The motel had a pool. The woman in the office made it clear that there wasn’t any lifeguard on duty, wasn’t any lifeguard at all, and the motel couldn’t be held responsible for anything that happened. But they were free to use it if they wanted.
“If you drown,” she said, “you drown on your own.”
Sam wanted, he wanted so bad he danced up and down where he stood, but Bill wasn’t so sure. The woman in the office made drowning sound almost routine, an everyday occurrence. She made it sound like a foregone conclusion.
“I know how,” the boy pleaded on the walk from the front office to the motel room. “We’ve been doing it in school. I don’t need water wings or anything. Come on, please?”
Bill kept walking, not meeting the boy’s pleas, the room key dangling in his hand. A shutter opened somewhere behind Bill’s eyes, quick and uninvited, and through it Bill could clearly see his son floating a few inches below the surface of the swimming pool water, eyes and mouth open and unmoving. He saw the boy’s blond hair rising and shifting in the rocking tide. He saw his skin, blue against the blue of the water. He saw his own heavy body crashing through the surface of the water, trying to reach his son but negligent and too late. Just as quickly, the shutter snapped closed, and Bill felt his head snap back.
“You don’t have a swimming suit,” Bill said.
“I could swim in my underwear,” his son said. “They’ve got Spiderman on them, nobody’d even notice. Come on, please? Please?”
“We’ll see,” he said. “Maybe later.”
“That means no,” Sam groaned, giving up for now. “Later always means no.”

Interstate 90, La Crosse to Buffalo, Wyoming. From there through Billings, Bozeman, Butte. Coeur d’Alene, Spokane, Seattle. Interstate 5 to Vancouver. Bill looked up from the atlas, sighed, and closed his eyes.

“She’s an Indian, I think,” the boy said, lining up his soldiers on the bed. A sniper was lying flat on the crest of a pillow, lining up to shoot an unsuspecting green radio man. The poor sap never saw it coming.
“The woman who gave us the keys. The woman in the office, the other night. I think she’s some kind of Indian.”
“Well, could be,” Bill said. “This is where they’re from.”
Bill didn’t know anything about Indians, and he couldn’t picture the woman in the office. They checked in two nights before and had hardly left the room since. Bill hadn’t wanted to look into anyone’s face straight on. It was dark when they checked in, they’d been driving since Rapid City, and Bill’s son was sound asleep in the seat beside him. His forehead was pressed up against the glass and his mouth was wide open. His dreams were a thousand miles away.
“It’s going to rain,” his son said. Looking out the huge rear window, Bill could see the rain coming in like an electric blue shroud. A quick flash of lightning cracked on the horizon, still too far for thunder, and the boy jumped. Bill looked from the sky to his son, and his son looked back at him. Bill knew he would never be able to live out here. He’d never get used to these skies, this distance. It wasn’t anything like Lexington. Here you could see what was coming a long way off, and there wasn’t a damn thing you could do.
“Let’s see if there’s anything on the TV.”

Bill had taken his son from elementary school four days before. He came bursting into the classroom a few minutes before the three o’clock bell with some wildly convoluted story for Miss McAlprine, a story so complicated with hospitals and grandparents and cars careening across the interstate median and anything else that popped into Bill’s sweaty fevered imagination that Miss McAlprine just stood there blinking as Bill hustled his son into his jacket and out the door.
“I’ll call the principal,” Bill offered, running out the door. “I’ll call her right now.”
By the time everybody caught on that something was amiss, by the time Bill’s ex-wife went to pick up Sam at the bus stop, by the time she called the Principal and the Principal called Ms. McAlprine and then the police, Bill had hoped to be forty miles down the road. That was the plan and that’s just how it happened.
That was four days ago and Bill told himself afterward that they’d be fine, just fine. But the truth was, now that Bill had taken the boy, he wasn’t sure what to do with him. He wasn’t sure what to do with either of them.

Radio news. The war. Cost of gas. Sports and China. Delegates and Super-Delegates and food riots in Haiti. South Dakota. The Corn Palace, Souix Falls, 300 Miles to Wall Drugs. The Black Hills, Mount Rushmore and Wounded Knee. South Dakota. He hadn’t been here in thirty years, easy, and he couldn’t wait to get through it. They were living on McDonald’s and Subway Sandwiches. It was like a vacation, he told his son. All bets were off. I love you, you know that? I love you. You don’t even know how much I love you.

“When my grandfather came home from the war my Dad didn’t even recognize him, didn’t know him at all. My Dad ran under the bed and couldn’t be coaxed out for hours.”
“Granddad?” Sam asked, and Bill shook his head.
“My grandfather. Your great-grandfather. You never met him.”

“Wait here, don’t move and don’t answer the door.”
“I mean it, not a soul. Fifteen minutes.”
“Okay,” the boy said, only half listening, tucked in and teeth brushed and not looking away from the TV screen as he said it. Bill paused for a second, then went out the door.
“I’ll be right back.”
Strip mall pizza. Shitty little strip mall bar like this in every town Bill ever lived in, tucked in between a grocery store and a card shop. Bright green neon shamrock in the window and Garth Brooks on the jukebox. Bill’s stomach had tightened as he walked past the place. God but he would’ve liked a drink. Just one, shot and a beer and a handful of popcorn. Feel that salty tang up at the back of his mouth, that welcome small explosion. Just to take himself away from himself a little bit.
But he kept walking, and soon he was past the urge.

“Baby, you don’t know.”
Bill heard the man before he saw him, deep ragged voice, tired and raw and trying to be soft. Bill was walking back along the motel walkway with the pizza and the cokes. The man himself was huge, country, all arms and shoulders and belly and neck. His thick black hair was oiled into a kind of 50’s DA. He stood at the motel door, one square hand resting gently on the jamb, and his voice rumbled out of him like a train.
“You just don’t.”
He stood with his forehead almost touching the locked door, almost whispering.
“You couldn’t.”
The window beside the motel room door was dark, and Bill wasn’t sure if there was anybody inside, if the man wasn’t pleading to an empty room. Bill edged his way to the outside border of the motel walkway as he passed, head down and eyes averted. The big man stopped talking suddenly and Bill could feel his attention on him, but Bill kept walking and soon he was at the door.
“You’re my moon in June, baby,” he heard the big man say. “You’re my heart and soul.”

The TV was still on by the time Bill was back with the food, but Sam was asleep. The TV was still on. Bill sat down on the bed next to the boy, always a little amazed at how quickly his son could be asleep, just dead to the world. One minute they’d be talking about school or Star Wars or something and the next minute Bill would be alone.
It was from a cartoon, he remembered. Some Walt Disney thing his son was watching, home sick from school one day. The Three Musketeers. Mickey was trapped and sentenced to die, waiting in his cell. Goofy and Donald were nowhere to be found. The bad guy, some kind of evil sheriff or something, is taunting Mickey in his final minutes, telling him that time comes faster than horses. Laughing cruelly as he says it.
Bill sat next to his son, watching the cartoon. He held his son’s feverish head in the palm of his hand, just like now or almost like now, and suddenly he had felt his whole life just slide away.

“Could I get waffles? And sausages?”
The next morning, pancakes at the coffee shop across the highway.
“And whipped cream on the waffles?”
Bill sat on his side of the formica table, newspaper unfolded in front of him, scanning the articles. The paper was concerned almost entirely with stabbings and car crashes, mostly in the dead of night. Today they would leave.
“Sure, whipped cream. Strawberries, why not? Shoot the moon.”
“Thanks, Dad.”
Bill ordered coffee for himself and scanned the paper. A woman found injured and unconscious, left for dead in the street. A nurses strike. A fire near the Governor’s Mansion. One page on horses, another page on weather. Church notes. Nothing about Bill, nothing about them.
“Time to hit the road, scooter. Today’s the day.”
“Where?” The boy looked up from his waffles, surprised.
“West,” Bill said. “I-90 West, more cowboys and Indians. I’ll show you on the map.”
“I’m not Scooter,” his son laughed.
“Well, you’re my Scooter,” he said, and the boy laughed again.

“A minute of your time?”
The man was waiting for them on the motel walkway, he was standing right there as they opened the motel room door, and Bill recognized him at once from the night before. He was dressed neat this morning, in a western shirt and a fresh pair of jeans, but his eyes were red and raw. He had his hair combed back from his forehead.
“It’s OK, son.” Bill smiled a little, nodded, and turned to the man. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, I was wondering if you had seen someone belonging to me. She’s got red hair, about yea long. Woman at the front desk thought maybe you’d have seen her.”
“No, jeeze. Sorry.”
“It’s just the woman at the desk…”
“Afraid not,” Bill said, and he tried to edge his way around the man to open his motel door. “Sorry.”
“I’m asking nice, Sir,” the big man said, and his voice lowered as he said it. Bill froze up for a second, then he turned and smiled. “You notice I’m asking nice.”
“As you can see, my son and I…”
“Hey, I’ve got a son,” the big man said. “We’ve all got sons. That doesn’t mean you can’t help me out here. That doesn’t mean shit.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t think I can help you, sir. Simple mistake.” Bill offered his hand and what he hoped was a reassuring smile, but the big man just stared at him.
“Sir,” Bill said, and he did his best to lock the little man’s frantic eyes with his own steady gaze. He felt his smile stretch dead across his face. “Sir, you’re scaring my boy.”

The man came on him like a dark cloud, and Bill flinched. He kind of knew it was coming, but he flinched anyway, and something inside of his mind shut closed tight. A sudden pain rocketed through his left side, and he heard his son gasp.
“Not here,” Bill said, but it was too late for here, too late for now, and the Man struck him again. Harder than before. It was a pain like fire.

Bill heard glass shatter and guessed that that was the mirror over the dresser. He heard a dull thunk as the little round table fell to the floor. He felt the man’s boots connect with any exposed part of his own body and he heard a rib crack before he could feel the pain of it. The pain was general, it washed over him like a wave. One rib wouldn’t even make a difference.
Throughout it all, Bill could hear the big man sobbing above him. Hard wet spasms being yanked out of the man by force, almost. The man was crying like a child. That sound scared Bill the most. He saw him and then he heard him and then he heard nothing at all.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been lying there. He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling, and he knew he was hurt. Hurt worse than he’d ever been hurt in his life. Hurt beyond blood. He wasn’t sure he could feel his legs. His left side felt very far away.
“Hey, sir? Sir, are you OK?”
The woman from the front desk stood in the open doorway, the Indian woman, and his son hid behind her out in the hall.
“Yeah,” Bill said, still staring up at the ceiling. “I’ll be fine.”
“You don’t look fine, Sir. Excuse me for saying, but you don’t look fine at all.”

“We called the police. Should be here any minute.”
At the word “police”, something turned over in Bill. Turned over and settled, and then it was gone. He tried to shake his head, couldn’t.
“OK,” he said. “Good.”
The woman looked around the room, and shook her head sadly. “What happened to you, Sir? What happened in here?”
Bill knew he wouldn’t have much time once the police arrived, he didn’t think he could stand up anyway. But when he lifted his arm his son came around from behind the Indian woman and came down to him on the floor. His son put his thin arms around his father’s chest, put his face up close to his armpit, nuzzling in. Bill wrapped his own arm around the boy’s side. He felt the boy’s wet fear through his shirt. He felt it seep into his own skin.
“Shhh,” he said, rubbing the boy’s hair. “Shhh now.”
The Indian woman looked at them for a second, splayed out on the floor, and then she looked away.
“Let me get some ice,” she said quietly. “I’ll just get some ice.”
She left the door open and disappeared down the hallway, and Bill felt his son nuzzle in tighter. His forehead damp against his shirt, his breathing.
They lay together on the floor, very still.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Under the Arches

They lived together for a while on 3rd Street, between B and C, and in spite of her mother's quiet scepticism for a while they did alright. They lived in a railroad flat on the north side of the street, they got sunlight in the morning and she brought some pretty blue curtains from Mays. He painted the walls, mopped the floors, and at night they made love while the Puerto Rican kids on the corner shouted and laughed.

He wanted to be a painter but he didn't know where to start. He didn't know anyone. He'd take his cardboard portfolio around the city and stare into the windows of the Leo Castelli Gallery on East 77th. Once he saw Franz Kline standing on the corner of Waverly and Broadway, but he didn't dare approach the man. He didn't know what to say, and so he stood there as the lights changed and Kline made his way towards Washington Square. He set up a little easel in the kitchen of their apartment and found a job with the Brooklyn Department of Welfare. On Saturdays they'd walk along the East River, and on Sunday mornings he'd paint.

She missed Texas. She missed the hills, she missed her family. She had never seen junkies before and they scared her. She had never seen garbage piled high on the street. They didn't have a phone in the apartment, they didn't have a television. When he went to work she locked the door behind him. Most days she would go to the library opposite the park and read, it didn't matter what. She would spend whole afternoons in there, oblivious to the comings and goings of the people around her. At four-thirty she would head back to the apartment, doing her best to ignore the city that was so quickly closing in. And when she became pregnant she was terrified, and put off telling him for as long as she possibly could.

He walked. He walked all night and all the next day. He walked all over the city, Inwood and Washington Heights. South Street, Spanish Harlem, he walked through the gray areas between areas, places he didn't know and wouldn't see again. He walked and then he went back home to East 3rd Street and she let him in. They were trying to make it work.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Sitting in the passenger seat of Mike's old Toyota pick-up, the one he bought with the money his dad left him, and staring out the windshield at Petaluma Boulevard. Back in a place I never thought I'd be again. I'm trying to figure out what to do with my car keys even though the car's long gone. The car's history, which explains why Mike's been driving me all over Sonoma County for the past week while I try to pull myself together. I'm still carrying the keys around in my jacket pocket, though. Seems wrong somehow to throw them out.

A couple walks by and suddenly your face comes down on me with real force. Out of nowhere, clear as day. The slight curve of your nose, the lines at the corner of your mouth. I see your face silently as it goes through all its emotions, all its shapes, from miles and miles away. From twenty years back. It must be here, I don't know. It must be being back here.

As Mike gets back in the cab and starts the drive back towards San Anselmo, I'm still staring out the window at your eyes, the color of ginger. All that was just yesterday. In the life I was living yesterday.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

New York, 1961

My dad left for New York in 1961, he took a Greyhound out of Lexington with a cardboard suitcase and a couple of art books he'd found somewhere around the UK campus. Names rattled around in his head the whole ride up. Paul Klee. Franz Kline. Rothko, Motherwell, de Kooning. His father, my grandfather, managed a Southern States feed co-op in Irishtown. He was a Kentucky Colonel, fought in the Ardennes. He sold salt licks and baling wire to Bluegrass farmers. He didn't know the first thing about Abstract Expressionism, had no interest in learning. Art, or at least his son's interest in art, was an embarrassment to him.

My dad found a two room apartment on Sullivan Street, bathroom in the kitchen and toilet down the hall, and took a job somewhere in the Garment District. He worked with Jewish girls from Brooklyn, Dominican guys from Queens. He heard Spanish being spoken for the first time in his life. Ate dinner in the Automat. Everything was new to him.

On Saturdays he'd try to paint something, but nothing came. He'd pore over his art books, bring back postcards from the Museum of Modern Art. He smoked, drank coffee, listened to the radio and he stared out his window at the traffic passing by. He rode the subways out to the ends of their lines. The L to Canarsie. The R to Coney Island. He'd sketch compulsively, trying to catch something, he didn't know what. On his 18th birthday he went to a bar and bought himself a beer.

He started coughing, he started coughing and he couldn't stop. When he starting bringing up blood he took the bus over to Bellevue, where a young doctor from somewhere told him he had double pneumonia. You need rest, the young doctor told him. You need fresh air. This city is not your friend.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Bright Day in May


Steve married Susan on a bright blue afternoon in the middle of May and she was already showing. Steve had wanted to elope, had wanted to just drive off somewhere in the middle of the night, but Susan couldn’t help mentioning that to her Mom and that was the end of that. So there everybody stood, on the flagstone steps of the Assembly of God and smiling into the camera. Susan looked pretty, everybody agreed, and Steve hadn’t seemed so happy in years. They made a handsome couple, they were going to be fine. Steve’s father got drunk at the reception and he couldn’t stop crying.

Before the ceremony Matt and his son took a spool of fishing line and tied an old pair of sneakers, some balloons and a couple of tin cans to the trailer hitch of Steve’s 86 Chevy shortbed, all spit-shined and gleaming. Matt’s wife and daughter were already inside the church with the rest. Even in the parking lot Matt could hear the organ, playing “Nearer My God to Thee”. Steve had parked in the shade of the elm trees, and black birds leapt from branch to branch above them as they crouched down together behind the truck. Matt tried not to get parking lot dirt on the knees of his suit.
“How’s that?”
“That’s great.”
Matt had written “Just Married” across the rear window in car-lot soap, and tied a long white ribbon around the antennae, the whole thing looked pretty good.
Matt’s son was seven years old, and buried deep in concentration. He jammed his tongue into the corner of his mouth as he threaded the fishing line through the holes in the trailer hitch and looped it around. His eyes darted across to his father as he started tying the knot, and Matt held back the urge to help him.
“Over and through,” he said. “That’s it.”
His son finished the knot and pulled the slack line as taut as he could before Matt finally helped him, trimming off the extra length with his pocket knife.
From inside the church the organ playing suddenly got louder and Matt stood up, holding out his open hand. His son took it, and together they headed off across the parking lot toward the church, the gravel crunching beneath their shoes.


Matt’s cousin died later that summer out on Hebron Valley Road. It was dark, the roads were wet, and he must’ve really been flying. He wrapped himself around a telephone pole in his girlfriend’s yellow Honda and his blood alcohol level was way off the charts. A couple of factory kids found him the next day at dawn. They were on their way to work, ran out of the car yelling, but there was nothing they could have done.
Highway Patrol got Matt’s number off of Billy’s cell-phone, which they found undamaged at his feet, on the floor of the car. His cousin had him in the address book, on speed dial or whatever it was called, and Matt was awake when they rang. It was six-thirty in the morning, the gray, pre-dawn light was beginning to seep in through his kitchen window. Apparently there were only a couple of numbers his cousin had bothered to save there in his phone, and Matt was the only one who answered. He talked to the tired-sounding woman on the other end of the line, thanked her for calling and said he’d take care of everything, then he called his boss and explained things. That’s fine, his boss said, take as much time as you need.

“What is it?”
“Billy,” Matt said. “I’ve got to go down to the hospital.”
“He alright?”
His wife didn’t say anything for a minute, rolled over on her side in the bed.
“Don’t wake up the kids.”

As Matt drove to the hospital he tried to remember the last time he had seen his cousin, and he couldn’t. Last Christmas, the summer before, he couldn’t pin it down. It threw him a little, the way his number had popped up so readily in Billy’s cell-phone. Matt certainly didn’t have Billy’s number, wouldn’t have taken it on a bet. Thanksgiving, he decided. Must’ve been right around Thanksgiving sometime, ran into him pretty much by chance. Some restaurant downtown. Even if he couldn’t quite remember it, he could still imagine the scene pretty clearly. Billy red-faced and laughing too hard at his own stories, talking too loud at the bar. His wiry little girlfriend nervous behind him. Matt saying how good it was to see him again and looking for the door. Must’ve been Thanksgiving.
Billy had gone down to Florida not that long back, thought he’d go down there and make some money, never did say how. Get fat and happy, sit out in the sun. Drink Coronas and fish for Marlin all day, that was the plan. He was convinced a whole new life of ease was just down there waiting for him, that’s what he called it. All he had to do was go down and grab it. He was back home within the year and he’d gotten fat alright but Matt couldn’t say he seemed particularly happy. He’d brought the girlfriend back up with him, the thin nervous girl with the auburn hair. The girl with the yellow Honda.

Matt stood in the bright, empty lobby of the University Hospital, waiting for the receptionist to get off the phone. It was cold, and there was some kind of floral chemical smell they used that Matt couldn’t get out of his nose.
The woman behind the desk was rake-thin, and she sat at her desk with the ramrod straight posture of a classical pianist. Matt could see the bones moving around in her wrists as she typed something into her computer keyboard. She was dressed head-to-toe in purple, and her skin was the color of coal. Her hair swept up high above the sharp angles of her face. She wore one of those wrap-around microphone headsets and she was reading something into the little silver microphone at her mouth, a long string of numbers and letters Matt couldn’t begin to decipher. He could see the computer monitor reflected in the lenses of her purple-framed glasses as she read.
There was a huge flat-screen TV mounted to the waiting area wall, CNN showing a cluster of West Virginia coal miners standing together in a muddy field. The volume was off but Matt knew what was happening, the story had been on the news for a week. One of the miners had his arm slung over another one’s shoulder, and through their sunglasses they both looked mournfully down at the ground.
The only other people in the hospital lobby were an older couple sitting side-by-side in a row of empty chairs. They were dressed in a hurry, and they stared silently into the empty space ahead of them. The older man was having a tough time with whatever was going on. He’d open his mouth a little and let out a kind of low, shuddering moan. The woman reached across to him and put her hand on his knee, but otherwise they stayed as they were.
“Sir?” The receptionist called to him, and Matt turned.

He had taken in the room all at once. Florescent lights and tiled walls, a stainless steel table and a drain in the floor. A radio. The hospital attendant stood at a respectful distance as Matt stared down at his cousin, at what was left of him. It was even colder now, and the chemical smell was stronger.
“Take your time.”
Matt hadn’t known what to expect, but Billy’s face looked more or less the same, bruised and swollen but more or less the same. There was a fine mist of dried copper-red blood sprayed across his chest and collarbone, his hair was flattened down on one side. Matt guessed that the real damage was lower, under the sheet they used to cover the body. He just looked battered and empty. Tired. Matt stood there for a long minute, trying to think of something to say, something appropriate, but nothing came. There wasn’t anything left of his cousin at all.
“If you need another minute…”
“No, it’s OK. It’s him. Where do you need me to sign?”

He called his aunt from back in the hospital lobby, he was alone now, the older couple had gone and the receptionist’s chair was empty. Matt dialled up San Mateo directory information and in another minute he was talking to his mother’s sister, who’d given up on all of them and left for California years before. He could hear the TV on wherever she was, blasting away in the background.
“So?” she asked him after saying nothing for a long time. Her voice was a little slurred already. “So? You knew it was coming.”
In the background Matt could hear the TV pretty clearly. Too loud shouting and clapping, the sound of a studio audience baying out for blood. What time was it in California?
“Are you still there?”
There was no answer on the other end, but the TV audience kept shouting. Then his aunt hung up and the line went dead.


Susan in the kitchen, making her mother a cup of tea. Slicing the lemon the way she used to as a girl. Same paring knife, same chopping board. Waiting for the kettle to boil. She’d lost a lot of weight all of a sudden, was smoking too much. Her rings fit loose on her fingers. She couldn’t stand the smell of herself in the mornings anymore, the smell she got off her sheets when she first woke up. Steve said it was all her imagination but she didn’t believe him. She was worried she was sick. She went to the doctor but the doctor said no. Doctor said she needed rest, needed more iron in her diet. He wrote out a prescription that Susan carried around with her in her bag. The kitchen smelled like lemons.
From the next room Susan could hear the TV playing. She could hear her mother cooing into the blinking face of her own little baby girl. Who’s a good girl? You’re a good girl. Who’s a good girl? You’re a good girl. Susan stood on the linoleum where the sunlight hit the floor and listened. She closed her eyes.
Steve wouldn’t come back down here anymore. Wouldn’t come into the county at all if he didn’t have to. She tried to talk to him but he just said no. Didn’t want to bother anybody, didn’t want anybody bothering him. He could be like a wall sometimes, he’d get these ideas. Susan still came down most Saturdays, brought down the baby and sometimes took her mom out to lunch. Sometimes she stayed the night, it depended. She never mentioned Steve and when her mom brought it up she’d just ask How’s Steve and Susan would say He’s Fine. On Sunday afternoons, after the baby was in the car seat and Susan was ready to go home, her mom would fold forty dollars into the diaper bag and they let it go at that.


Matt poured a small shot of bourbon into the bottom of his coffee cup. The cup was a birthday present from his son, it had a baseball painted on the side of WORLD’S GREATEST DAD written in big bold letters. Matt had seen the mugs on sale at the mall downtown and guessed that’s where his son had found it.
He looked through the kitchen window at the scrubby yard outside. It was already raining lightly, rippling across the surface of the kiddie pool out there surrounded by toys. Bicycles and hula-hoops. A disconnected garden hose. He imagined his son in the pool, suspended just under the surface. Eyes closed, very still. Listening for something.
Matt drank down the whiskey and rinsed out his cup in the sink. Enough. He filled the cup with yesterday’s coffee and turned the radio on.


The long-haired man had been sitting at the counter for over an hour, the waitress told him. He had sat there stirring sugar into his coffee and drinking down glass after glass of ice water like he was on fire. The waitress knew right away that that man wasn’t right. She knew that just looking at him. He had that kind of pinwheel look in his eyes, and she’d seen that look before. There was something wrong with that man, she said again. Agitated. Nobody wanted to sit near him.
When the woman with the baby came in he was still sitting there and she was looking straight at him. She called out his name across the floor, everybody got real quiet but that long-haired man didn’t even turn his head. The woman with the baby started walking across to him and the waitress tried to stop her, she did. She got up real close and she knew something about these situations herself. She tried to stop her but the woman with the baby walked right past her. Walked straight up to the long-haired man.
Matt nodded. He nodded and he listened and he wished he was a long way away.
Well, the woman said his name again real soft and for a second the man didn’t do anything at all. Just drained down another glass of ice water and set it down real careful on the counter. Then he turned and he hit that woman as hard as he could. He used his fist on her and sent her reeling to the floor, still clutching that baby close to her chest. The long-haired man walked right out of the restaurant, nobody tried to stop him. Just disappeared out through the door. They were going to call the police but the woman with the baby said no. Whole thing happened about an hour ago, the waitress told him. Less. Certainly didn’t need that kind of thing in here.

Matt walked out, numb and heavy. He found Susan waiting for him in the passenger seat of her car, jiggling the baby up and down in her lap. He walked right past her and climbed into his own truck, parked out there on the edge of the gravel lot. He sat there for a long time, staring out through the windshield and the field beyond. He watched the starlings rise up out of the long grass. They rose up in small black clouds, twisted up and around each other, and then disappeared back into the grass again.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

San Anselmo, 1989

“I remember getting some phone call from Richard, that's what I remember. He was in trouble and there was this girl.”
Jenny laughed, sighing at the same time.
“Goddamn right there was this girl. Followed him all the way out from Phoenix just to find him in jail. I must've been out of my mind, sixteen years old. Didn't have a dime. My mother, well... Oh, God, what a time.”
“So there you were.”
“Hmmm. There I was.”
“My little orphan.”
Jenny looked at him, laughed.
“Yeah, right. Well, let me tell you, you were a real good role model.”
“I did my best.”
“I was cute, that was my problem.”
“Yeah, you were. Still are.”
“Yeah, but back then... You remember that last trip up here? The three of us? What was that, Eighty-eight?”
“Was it? Eighty-nine? Goddamn. And Richard was so crazy then. That whole summer.”
“Yeah. But we were just, you know... We were kids.”
She looked at him again, serious now.
“I don't miss it, Bobby. I don't miss that time at all.”
“Sometimes...” he said.
“Un-huh, not me. Not any of it.”
“Well, anyway, it doesn't matter. It's gone now.”
“Yes it is. And it ain't never coming back.”
“And you were cute.”
Jenny laughed again, and pulled Bobby tight to her skin.
“Goddamn, I still am.”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Any Other Context

Should we keep walking? We can keep going, I don't mind. It's just so strange being back here, I can't quite explain it. Are you thirsty? Hungry? Would you like to get in out of the sun? It's hard to imagine I used to take this all for granted. Walked this route four or five times a day, rain or shine. Knew it so well I didn't even see it anymore. I have to admit these changes seem kind of random and all-at-once. That dry cleaners used to be a guitar store, I remember. That hardware store used to be a bank. It's a little unsettling. Where'd this giant hotel come from all of a sudden? Who even stays down here? I used to cut through this parking lot every morning on the way to school.

I used to define myself by this place, couldn't imagine myself in any other context. Does that make sense to you? I used to swagger around here with what I thought was a pretty decent approximation of the local accent, believe it or not. Let the place provide the narrative, I just had to show up. But I guess everybody does that. I guess that's the promise of the place.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Bright Blue Day

It was a bright morning, and hot already. The sun rose up over the eastern mountains and across the valley below. All across the county families were waking up, kids climbing out of bed, coffee being made to the sound of the TV news. Another blue bright morning. Even through her sunglasses Jenny had to squint into the sun from behind the wheel of her old Nova, but she felt alright. Window down, cigarette burning away in her right hand, music on the radio, she guessed she felt OK.

In the back seat, and in the seat beside her, she had suitcases and cardboard boxes full of everything she needed, and whatever didn’t fit was sitting outside on the curb on Sand Road. She was amazed at how little it turned out she needed. Years of shit just sitting there, just growing, just building up. Turns out she didn’t need any of it. Three boxes and a suitcase, and that was it. That was her.

She gunned the engine a little as the car passed under a sign that listed the miles to Phoenix and beyond. I-80 east, toward the rising sun. Pretty soon, the Nova disappeared into the flow of other traffic and she was gone.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

"A Thing of Beauty and a Boy Forever..."

"Another veteran of Pfaff's beer cellar arrived for an appearance at Maguire's Opera House. New Orleans-born actress Adah Isaacs Menken (real name: Dolores McCord) had just completed a wildly successful two-month engagement in San Francisco. Mark Twain, during his stay in the Bay City, had reviewed two of her shows, Mazeppa and The French Spy, for the Enterprise. The first, based on the Lord Byron poem of the same name, showed off Menken's best assets, her lush, well-rounded figure. Called "the most perfectly developed woman in the world" and "the Great Unadorned," the actress upheld her title by wearing flesh-colored tights and a scanty loincloth, which Twain compared to a diaper. He found her "a finely formed woman down to her knees," but judged her acting to be a little busy: "She pitches headforemost at the atmosphere like a battering ram; she works her arms, and her legs, and her whole body, like a dancing-jack...In a word, without any apparent reason for it, she carries on like a lunatic from the beginning of the act to the end of it." As for her performance in The French Spy, Twain considered it "as dumb as an oyster," although he conceded that "she plays the Spy, without words, with more feeling than she does Mazeppa with them."

"It is doubtful that Menken had read Twain's review when she arrived in Virginia City on February 27, 1864, with her full entourage in tow. This included her manager, her road company of actors, several horses, nineteen dogs, her third husband, humorist Robert Henry Newell, alias "Orpheus C. Kerr," and her beautiful blond friend from bohemian New York, Ada Clare, for whom Menken was planning to write a new play. Clare, in company with Menken, had formed the distaff portion of Walt Whitman's drinking circle at Pfaff's beer cellar. Her real name was Jane McElhenney, and she had relocated to New York from Charleston, South Carolina, to trod the boards. She was rather less successful at that undertaking than Menken - critics found her too thin, in both voice and body - but Whitman considered Clare "gay, easy, sunny, free, loose, but not ungood." As for Menken, the Good Gray Poet had been best man at one of her weddings.

"As usual, Menken was a sensation both on stage and off. She toured the Comstock Lode, boiling an egg in the scalding subterranean waters and accepting a two-thousand-dollar silver bar engraved with the vaguely suggestive name of the Menken Shaft and Tunnel Company. She boxed a couple of rounds at the Sazerac saloon with local bon vivant "Joggles" Wright - her second husband had been heavyweight champion John "the Benicia Boy" Heenan - and became an honorary member of Fire Engine Company No. 2, which gave her a red morocco best signifying her membership in the clan.

"Between visits to the various bars, gambling dens, and hurdy-gurdy parlors along C Street, Menken performed The French Spyand Mazeppa. The audience predictably favored her less-clothed performance in the latter show; one wag complained that her penchant for performing male roles in drag ensured that she would remain "a thing of beauty and a boy forever." The Virginia City Union, reviewing her performance, got in a gratuitous if satisfying dig at its rival, reporting that "Mark Twain is writing a bloody tragedy for her...which will excel Mazeppa in many respects. It is to be called 'Pete Hopkins, or the Gory Scalp.'"

-Roy Morris, Jr.
Lighting out for the Territory

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Friday, October 15, 2010

Red Bandana

He was mean, redneck mean. He worked hard for it. He was just a little guy, little banty rooster and tanned a deep dark red, dragged his feathers state to state. He used to say he was part Cherokee, said he was Welsh, said his granddaddy rode with Mosby for the Confederacy but he used to say a lot of things. He looked more Irish than anything, with blond curly hair, flattened nose, bandy little legs. Those white trash blue eyes, washed out eyes. Took you in before you could hide. He bore maybe a passing resemblance to a young Merle Haggard and he told that to everyone he met.

He’d show up drunk. He’s show up with his shirt off and this stupid red bandana tied around his neck. He’s show up swigging bourbon out of a Styrofoam cup, all pissed off and looking to start something. Those eyes would scan the place, just daring somebody to meet them. And, Brother, you’d be well advised to look away.

He fought dirty. Of course he did, a man that size. Man that scared. Voice used to fall down to nothing when your mom would pull up in the driveway. But he remembered, always would. Catch you later outside the bathroom and smack you in the back of the head just to let you know you were noticed. And you were always noticed.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Bill Cody, 1917

William F. Cody lay dying of kidney failure at his sister's house in Denver. He was 71 years old and his kidneys were shot, his own blood was turning against him. Family and friends surrounded his bedside, praying and witnessing. Touching the paper-thin skin of the old man's hand. It seemed like an unlikely way for him to go, they all agreed. He had seen his brother thrown to his death in Iowa, seen his father stabbed by Confederate sympathizers in Kansas. He fought Mormons in Utah and Souix across the plains, he knew his way around a gun.

He killed 4000 buffalo for the Transcontinental Railroad, sold their meat the the workers along the way. He prospected for gold in California, drove stagecoaches and rode for the Pony Express, acted as scout for Russian aristocracy. Nobody knew what was true and what wasn't anymore. He didn't know himself. He turned it all into a show and he took it around the world. He gave command performances for presidents and royalty, claimed "Wild Bill" Hickok and Kaiser Wilhelm II as personal friends. Queen Victoria presented him the cherrywood bar that still stands in his hotel in Wyoming. I ate breakfast in that same bar when I was just a kid. Smothered my pancakes in syrup.

He slipped in and out of consciousness for the better part of three days, and finally died on January 10, 1917. Word of his death was published on the front page of the next day's newspaper, between a Pueblo farmer who avenged his brother by killing his murderer, and an Indianapolis "negress" who made a fortune selling an ointment to straighten kinky hair.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The New York Theater Party

"Overshadowed by the better-known exploits of Mafiosi, the dubious achievements of the early Tong members remain sadly obscure. Undeservedly neglected is Sing Dock, the chief boo how doy, or hit man, of the Hip Sing Tong in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A methodical man who always carefully mapped out his assassinations and escape plans, he became known as 'The Scientific Killer,' and, in Tong circles, his exploits were well known and well regarded.

"Sing was born in San Francisco around 1873, the son of Gout Sum Choy and Wu Shee, who owned a small general store in that city. He was brought back to China as a child by his parents and schooled there, but at fourteen he returned to San Francisco with his father. He eventually joined the Hip Ying Tong, where he soon became a valued boo how doy. Eventually his main allegiance shifted to the Hip Sing Tong, one of the two groups active in New York. he rose to be the mainstay of the coterie of killers, the 'inner council of seven' of the Hip Sings, a sort of Tong version of the better-known Murder, Inc. of Albert Anastasia. They took care of the hits and rubouts that were from time to time necessary in the course of Tong business. The 'Scientific Killer' carefully worked out battle plans and methodically trained and drilled his loyal killers.

"He came to New York and settled at 13 Pell Street around 1905. Here he planned one especially vicious hit on behalf of the Hip Sings. On August 6 of that year a performance was to be held in the Chinese Theatre at 5-7 Doyers Street. Because the actor was sympathetic to the On Leongs, Sing knew that many members of that rival Tong would be in attendance. He realized that patrons would be searched that evening upon entering the hall, and so in the afternoon before the performance he smuggled in some pistols and hid them in accessible spots around the theater. Shortly after 10:00 PM, with the theater packed with four hundred people, a Hip Sing ignited a bunch of firecrackers and, in the same moment, fellow Tong members reclaimed their pistols and began blazing away. Total havoc followed as the audience screamed and fled in panic and On Leong members produced their own guns to return fire or their own knives to meet the enemy hand-to-hand. Reported the New York Times the following morning, 'The seats, curtains, and scenery were riddled with lead. The floor was littered with pigtails, pistols, hats, coats, and debris which had been shot from the ceiling and walls.' Four lay dead or fatally injured: Lee Yuck, Lee Yee Sing, Yu Yuck, and Wu Sing. Sing called this massacre 'The New York Theater Party,' which indicates that he was either incredibly ruthless or scathingly arch.

"On March 12, 1911, at Hip Sing headquarters at 16 Bowery, Sing was shot in the stomach by fellow Hip Sing and former protege Yee Toy, and died the next day at Hudson Street Hospital. Some reports say that Yee shot in self defense, another that the two had argued over gambling debts, another that the spat was purely personal. Yee Toy went down a year later outside of his home at 12 Pell Street, across the way from his mentor's last address."

-Andrew Roth
Infamous Manhattan

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Superstitions, 1988

She sat in her wheelchair, staring out the window at the cornfields. She said that morning she had a bad sickness right behind her eyes and needed silence. She had brown eyes but they looked black. I stared down at the laces of my shoes and waited, most of the afternoon. By dusk she was all right again.
“I dreamed last night that somebody shot you.” She told me later.
“Yeah? Who did that?”
“I don’t know. Somebody.”
“What for?”
“Watch out for yourself, Tommy.”
Later on we sat in the kitchen and watched the news. She rocked herself back and forth slowly while she watched. Above the TV hung a crucifix that my great-grandfather made. He carved it and painted it black and gold. It had hung in the kitchen of every house we ever lived in, above the TV.
“What time is it?”
“Around six, six-thirty?”
“You getting hungry?”
“Soon, yeah.”
She kept rocking back and forth, slowly, staring at the TV while we talked. I watched her grip the rubber wheels of her chair. They were strong, square hands, with almost no fingernails left at all.
“How’s your head?”
“Just fine.” She smiled. “All gone.”
She’d go blind sometimes from the pain. I’d carry her upstairs to her room and cover her with blankets. Sometimes she’d stay in her room for days, sleeping. I’d stay in my room across the hall and listen to her talk in her dreams.
“Did anybody call today?”
“I thought I heard the phone ring.”
Monica called. She said she was in a phone booth outside Joliet. She told me she could see the prison from the road. She asked if it was raining here yet and told me that it would be soon.
“Did we get any mail? Any bills?”
“That’s good. Eric said he was going to write, though. When did Eric call?”
“I don’t know. Last week sometime.”
She stopped rocking and took my hand. She put it in her lap and frowned.
“Watch out for yourself, Tommy.”

The next afternoon the sky turned gray and it started raining. She fell asleep in her chair so I carried her upstairs and put her in her bed. I could hear the wind hit the walls of the house. I stood at her window and watched the cornfields sway back and forth. It moved like an ocean.
“It’s going to storm.”
I found a dead crow on the porch later that afternoon. It was limp and its neck was broken. It had red eyes. I picked it up by the claws and carried it inside to the kitchen. Then I put it down on the counter and stared at it.
The eyes were already fading from red to black. I started smoothing down its feather and tried to straighten out its head. Water ran down its body onto the counter, making a puddle around it. It was a little bigger than my hand.
“I found a crow. It’s in the kitchen.” I told her later.
“Where’d you find it?”
“On the porch. It broke its neck.”
“It’s dead?”
I carried her downstairs to see it. She looked at it for a minute and lifted one of its wings carefully with the tips of her fingers. She let it drop.
“What’re you going to do with it?”
“Bury it, I guess.”
When it stopped raining I found a shovel in the garage, leaning up against the wall. It was rusty and old. I dug a hole in the mud and pushed the crow in. Then I said a prayer and asked God to take it. She watched from inside the house.
It started raining again that night. We sat in the kitchen and listened to the radio. She rocked herself back and forth while she listened. I looked at my hands.
“I had another dream last night.” She told me.
“Oh, yeah?”
“It wasn’t about anything, though.”
“What was it?”
“A train. In a desert somewhere.”
“Oh, yeah?”
“Yeah. It was like a movie.”

From my window I could see the clothes hanging on the line. The wind whipped them around. I could hear the sheets and towels snapping. They looked like ghosts, lined up along the side of the house. I counted the clothes from my window. They were drenched in rain.
She was afraid another spell was coming on. Another long one, she thought. The kind that made her go blind. She sat in the living room with the lights off and waited.
“When do you think it’ll happen?”
“Can’t ever tell. A few days, maybe.”
“Then why do you think it’ll happen at all?”
“I just do.”
The sky was dark all day long. It covered the land like a blanket. I looked at all the acres of corn swaying back and forth. In the far distance I could make out the lights of the highway. Then more fields. I could hear her praying in the dark.
She kept her money rolled up in a Band-Aids box in her closet. It was tied up with a red rubber band. I found it one day while she was sleeping downstairs. I held it in the palm of my hand and felt its weight. It felt like a rock. I held it in my hand and watched her sleep, all afternoon.

In the garage I could smell the rain. I was leaning up against the body of her car. The windows were smashed out and the metal was rusting away. The tires and engine were gone. Across the yard I could see the house. I found her window. The shade was drawn. I looked at the clothes, still hanging there like ghosts, and counted them again.

“You want some tea or something?” I asked her. She was lying in her bed with her eyes closed. She didn’t move. “You want any tea?”
“You sure? I’m going to have some.”
“No, thanks. I’m all right.”
“All right.”
“Leave the door open, would you?”
“Sure. Goodnight.”
When she fell asleep I closed the door and went to the kitchen. There was an old photograph of her taped to the icebox. She’s at the beach somewhere, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. A shadow runs across the middle of her face. She’s young in the picture. She’s standing up. The ocean spreads out behind her and her feet are buried in the sand. I studied the picture for a long time and closed my eyes.
She was still sleeping when I took her money out of the Band-Aids box. I shoved the roll in my jeans while I watched her. She was very still. I closed the closet door quietly and crept out in my socks. I looked at her one more time form the hall. She hadn’t moved.
I tore through the cornfields with the rain in my eyes. My throat burned. I tripped over some stalks and got back up. I could feel the house getting smaller behind me. I felt it fade in the distance. My heart was beating so hard I felt it in my fingers. I felt it in my teeth. The lights of the highway cut through the corn and I followed them. The cars hissed in the rain.
I thought, if I could just lift my arms up I’d be able to pull myself over the corn and fly away. I thought, if I could just do that.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


"Mr. Srinivasan
instructs us to call him 'Babu'
because no one can say
his name -

perverted letters mate
unnaturally, heretic
bloodlines (sex in high school
was like sports: we did our
best and hoped someone
important saw). This country

Absorbs into its blondness
darkness and we began
in darkness -

I wonder how a Hindu
falls in love in Texas.
I wonder where Ann Nguyen went
(who threw her books into my
hands and knew English
enough to say, 'You are my
boyfriend,' no matter what
I thought) -

who kissed engulfingly yet was
so tiny her ring sat only
a crown on my fingertip -
I thought I was the most
powerful chain-link boy
in school.

Mr. Srinivasan
was born in Rusk (a tiny
Texas town which still
dreams of the Republic)
and speaks only English.
His drawl is John Wayne or

Ross Perot and once in
Texas cows were sacred;
once in high school a girl
from Vietnam was more
beautiful than America."

-Jon Schillaci
1998, Ramsey I Unit, TDCJ-ID
Rosharon, Texas

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Another Country

He used to talk about the fifties like was another country or something. Used to sit right over there in one of the window booths, lighting one fresh Chesterfield off the dying butt of the last one, stubbing the last one out into the growing mountain of ashes he had built up on the table in front of him. He'd nod to the guy behind the counter and abracadabra another cup of coffee would magically appear right there before him. He used to talk about the fifties like it was another country or something. Used to sit there all the time.

There was a woman, he said. There was always a woman. This one used to wear her hair piled up in a high like some Hollywood starlet. Wore pearls around her neck and those tight Jayne Mansfield sweaters, the figure on this girl you wouldn't believe, and she loved him to death. Followed him everywhere. She swore she'd do anything for him and he believed her. In the end that's what sent him packing. He left her there waiting for him and he hit the ground running. Never did go back. But he was just a kid, and he figured he'd be better off down the road.

She died in a fire, at least that's what he'd heard. 1972, 73. Fell asleep drinking with the candles still lit, that's all it took. "The toughest thing," he'd say, and then he wouldn't say anything.

Friday, June 11, 2010

9th and 3rd, 1959

"I remember one time he was the Silver Tin Can. If there was a window open, or a door, he'd throw a in can through it with a note: 'The Silver Tin Can Strikes Again!' He'd wear a cape and give his Doctor Sax laugh. 'Mwee-hee-hee-hee-hee!' Everybody thought it was the dirty Greek, me. Jack's mother just couldn't believe Jack would do anything like that. He'd be in his cape - thirteen years old - jumping over fences and running, always running."

- G.J. Apostolos

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Galveston, 1900

"All over Galveston freakish things occurred. Slate fractured skulls and removed limbs. Venomous snakes spiraled upward into trees occupied by people. A rocket of timber killed a horse in midgallop.

"At the expensive Lucas Terrace apartment building, Edward Quayle of Liverpool, England, who had arrived in Galveston with wife three days earlier, happened to walk past a window just as the room underwent a catastrophic depressurization that blew the window outward into the storm. Mr Quayle rocketed to his death trailing a slipstream of screams from his wife.

"At another address, Mrs Willima Henry Heideman, eight months pregnant, saw her house collapse and apparently kill her husband and three-year-old son. She climbed onto a floating roof. When the roof collided with something else, the shock sent her sliding donw into a floating trunk, which then sailed right to the upper windows of the city's Ursuline convent. The sisters hauled her inside, dressed her in warm clothes, and put her to bed in one of the convent cells. She went into labor. Meanwhile, a man stranded in a tree in the convent courtyard heard the cry of a small child and plucked him from the current. A heartbeat later, he saw that the child was his own nephew - Mrs Heideman's three-year-old son.

"Mrs Heideman had her baby. She was reunited with her son. She never saw her husband again."

- Isaac's Storm,
The Drowning of Galveston

Erik Larson

Saturday, May 8, 2010

from "February"

The world’s always been an irrational place, you don’t need me to tell you that. You take that woman down in Florida, brought her boy down to a shooting range and put a bullet through the back of his head. Said later angels or something made her do it, she certainly didn’t want to. She loved her son, grieved for him now he was gone. Makes no sense, but I see no reason not to believe her.

I’ve lived here all my life. This is a fairly quiet part of the world, that’s what I like about it. And I’ve known Bill since we were both kids. He was a pretty good guy, all in all. Ran a little wild back in high school, couple of years after he came back home from the army. He was the kind of guy that you’d run into from time to time, always picking his kids up from school, etc and so forth. Little League. His wife, Janice, was one of those PTA milk-and-cookies types, knew everybody, always volunteering for things. You’d look at the two of them together and you’d think, well sure. I guess they had it figured out.

Last time I actually saw Bill, saw to talk to anyway, was at the bank, of all places. I don’t even remember what we talked about. Kids and weather, probably. He seemed OK that day, though I don’t know how anybody knows anything about people when you come right down to it. People show you what they want to show you, and that tends to be good enough. And then he went and did the most terrible thing you could imagine.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Vapor Trail

He thought she'd probably be gone before he even got there, and when he pulled up to the house, when he saw the empty driveway and the windows shut tight, he was certain of it. But he got out of the car anyway. Went up and rang the bell. Knocked on the window and called out her name, the whole bit.

She sounded strange on the phone, that's what brought him over here halfway across the county in the first place. Stoned or something, though she swore up and down she didn't do that anymore, swore those days were past her. She sounded a little too happy and disconnected. He didn't tell her he was coming, he'd learned the hard way not to tip his hand like that, but she must've heard it in his voice. She must've had the car keys in her fist before she even hung up the phone.

He stood there for another minute, shaking his head and staring at her goddamn locked door. Ringing the bell again and listening to it echo around inside. A landscaping truck drove past, slowing down just a little before continuing on. An airplane climbed up along the horizon. He stood there for another minute before giving up. Then he headed back down towards his own parked car, the engine still ticking away under the hood.

Monday, April 26, 2010


"Cowbirds are brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds and leaving them to the care of foster parents. Unlike parasitic Old World cuckoos, which lay eggs closely resembling those of a host species, cowbirds lay eggs in the nests of more than 200 other species, mostly smaller than themselves. Some host species eject the unwanted egg, others lay down a new nest lining over it, but most rear the young cowbird as one of their own. The young cowbird grows quickly at the expense of the young of the host, pushing them out of the nest or taking most of the food. It has been suggested that cowbirds became parasitic because they followed roving herds of bison and had no time to stop to nest."

- Audubon Field Guide,
North American Birds

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Monday, April 5, 2010

Yellows and Blues

Gray sits next to me in the hotel bar, sweating against the cold and drinking back his scotch. He's all twisted up over this girl, this painter he met out in Williamsburg, some off-the-boat Irish girl with a rose tattooed to the side of her hand. I haven't seen him like this in twenty years.

"She's slipping past me," he keeps saying. He chews down on an ice cube and signals for another drink. "She's slipping right past me."

As far as I can gather, he met her at a party he wasn't even planning on going to, one of those industrial loft deals where you have to shout up from the sidewalk below, where you can never find a taxi to bring you back home. Everybody chain-smoked and drank Rolling Rock straight out of the bottle. Talked about their "work" in falsely modest tones. This girl was 19 years old.

"I look at this painter over on Avenue C she wants to show me, some trust fund junkie she came across, and I like them. At least for a little while. 'Oh, look at that yellow. Look at that blue!' I sound like a kid. Just pure spontaneous responses. I can't remember the last time... I mean, she leaves the room and they're shit again, same old derivative crap. But, man. When she's in that room..."

"A nineteen year old kid."

"Right. Exactly. And she's good, she's really good. And in ten years, she plays her cards right, she's going to be huge. She's going to be huge and if she remembers me at all she's going to remember me as this fat cynical old piece of shit hack. Some critic. And that already breaks my heart. Because I do like her. I like her a lot. And I'm going to miss all those yellows and blues."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

McCreary Road

Billy poured a small shot of bourbon into the bottom of his coffee cup. The cup was a gift from his son, it had a baseball painted on it and WORLD'S GREATEST DAD in big bold letters. He looked through the kitchen window at the scrubby yard outside. It was already raining lightly, rippling across the surface of the kiddie pool out there surrounded by toys. Bicycles and hula-hoops. A disconnected garden hose. He imagined his son in the pool, suspended just under the surface. Eyes closed. Very still. Listening for something. He drank down the whiskey and rinsed out his cup. Enough of that. He filled the cup with yesterday's coffee and turned the radio on.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Zoot Suit

"In the spring of 1943, American servicemen attacked youthful Mexican - and, to a lesser extent, African American - civilians, particularly males wearing the flamboyant 'zoot suit' or 'drape shape.' These outfits consisted of narrow-cuffed pants pleated at the waist, long wide-shouldered jackets, knee-length key chains, and flat-brimmed hats atop pompadour hairdos. They were worn by Mexican youth - commonly referred to as pachucos - as well as by African American and Anglo youngsters, mostly as a show of teenage independence. The first confrontations seemed little more than harmless barroom scuffles, but on 3 June 1943 the encounters erupted into large-scale rioting. The GIs, mostly navy recruits stationed at a Chavez Ravine radar base, were incited by lurid street rumors and baseless press accounts of Mexicans attacking Anglo women. Charging that the Mexicans were avoiding military service, the young sailors hired taxicabs and cruised downtown to punish the 'guilty'. They seized their victims from streetcars, movie theaters, and street corners, beat them, stripped them of their clothes, and left them lying on the ground."

- Leonard and Dale Pitt
Los Angeles A to Z

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Los Banos, 2001

We sat there for a long time but there wasn't much to talk about. The five hours in that Plymouth had pretty much taken it all out of us already. So we sat there at a window booth and listened to the air conditioning hum. Listened to the short order cook splatter eggs all over the grill.

The waitress was tiny, I'd forgotten that. She might have been four foot nine. Her black hair was all piled up high atop her flat Aztec features and she was taking a keen interest in our son. She'd dart back to our table whenever she could, cooing and blinking into his shapeless little face.

"How old?" she asked, and when you told her she didn't believe you.
"It's true," you said.
"But he's so big."

But I was staring out the window at our car. Even from across the lot I could see all of our things piled high in the back seat. Cardboard liquor store boxes overflowing with sweaters and books, pots and pans. Things packed in a hurry. Toys from your brother and my Mom's old TV. We were looking at another seven hours, easy, and I hoped never to see Los Banos again.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Two Hearts

"Clyde had on his right arm the tattoo of a girl and the name 'Grace.' Bonnie had on the inside of her right thigh a tattoo of two hearts joined by an arrow, with 'Bonnie' in one heart and 'Roy' in the other. They kept a white rabbit, and took it with them on their travels. Clyde aslo brought along his saxophone and sheet music. Bonnie read true-romance magazines, painted her toenails pink, and dyed her hair red to match her hats, dresses, and shoes. When Frank Hamer and other Texas and Louisiana lawmen shot them to pieces on a road near Gibsland, Louisiana, Bonnie was wearing two diamond rings, one gold wedding ring, a small wristwatch, a three-acorn brooch, and a chain with a cross around her neck. Congress passed a resolution thanking Frank Hamer for his part in ending Bonnie and Clyde's career. He was also awarded their guns. Collectors offered a lot of money for the guns. Both Bonnie's mother and Clyde's mother wrote indignant letters to Frank Hamer, demanding that he turn over their children's guns to them."

- Ian Frazier
Great Plains

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bloody Bill

"William T. Anderson was a hard man. A handsome twenty-five-year-old, he had grown up tough in Kentucky, Kansas, and Missouri. After his father was killed in the Kansas Territory, he had drifted into simple banditry. Then the Civil War unleashed his full potential. Already an embittered, brooding man, he had filled with bile after one of his sisters died and two others suffered injuries in the Kansas City prison collapse. At [the raid on] Lawrence, he had killed the innocent with a special passion, telling one woman, 'I'm here for revenge and I have got it.' Afterward in Texas, he began his rise to notoriety by breaking away from Quantrill, leading his own column of guerrillas back to Missouri in the spring of 1864. He brought terror to the Unionists in Jackson and Lafayette Counties. As he operated outside of Lexington in July, he sent a letter to the newspapers that exceeded even Fletch Taylor's megalomania. 'I will hunt you down like wolves and murder you,' he warned the loyal citizens. 'You cannot escape.' Small wonder they began to call him 'Bloody Bill.'

On July 11, 1864, he crossed the Missouri River into Carroll County with twenty-one men. Archie Clement is usually thought to have been among them, riding as Anderson's close companion. They immediately killed nine civilians - murdering as many noncombatants in four hours as Taylor's band had in four weeks. Then they scorched their way across Chariton, Randolph, Monroe, Howard, and Boone Counties, killing and robbing with impunity. After gunning down one man in Anderson's hometown, Huntsville, the bushwackers told a sobbing woman, 'We would shoot Jesus Christ or God Almighty if he ran from us.'

At some point during Anderson's parade of terror north of the Missouri River, Jesse and Frank James rode to join him, along with the other Clay County guerrillas who had followed Taylor. Given the massive influx of Union troops into their old killing grounds, they may have linked up with him as early as the third week in July. If so, Jesse would have been back with his friend Archie Clement when the rebels ambushed a patrol near Huntsville, killing two. After the fight, Clement scalped the dead - an act that was fast becoming his trademark. 'You come to hunt bush whackers,' Anderson (or one of his followers) scratched on a piece of paper. 'Now you are skelpt. Clemyent skept you. Wm. Anderson.' Then he pinned the note to one of the bodies, and the guerrillas rode off."

-T.J. Stiles
Jesse James, Last Rebel of the Civil War

Saturday, March 6, 2010

San Antonio

"The street affrays are numerous and characteristic. I have seen for a year or more a San Antonio weekly, and hardly a number fails to have its fight or its murder. More often than otherwise, the parties meet upon the plaza by chance, and each, on catching sight of his enemy, draws a revolver and fires away. As the actors are under more or less excitement, their aim is not apt to be of the most careful and sure; consequently it is, not seldom, the passers-by who suffer. Sometimes it is an young man at a quiet dinner in a restaurant who receives a ball in the head, sometimes an old negro woman returning from market who gets winged. After disposing of all their lead, the parties close to try their steel, but as this species of metallic amusement is less popular, they generally contrive to be separated ('Hold me! Hold me!') by friends before the wounds are mortal. If neither is seriously injured, they are brought to drink together on the following day, and the town waits for the next excitement."

- Frederick Law Olmstead
A Journey Through Texas, 1857

Friday, March 5, 2010

Los Rusos

"Forgive me, I think I’m a little drunk. Let me see your hands..."


"Just let me see them. These are not city hands. Look at this. You don’t get callouses like those beating up students and typing reports. Why aren’t you out in the fields, Comrade Gorbulina? It’s nearly harvest time, isn’t it? Why are you out here in Mexico?"

"You think you’re smart, huh?"

Nikolai shrugged, saying nothing.

"Let me tell you about the harvest. My uncle was the oldest. He got the land, the house. Everything. When the harvest came my father, my brothers, we’d all work the fields along with everybody else. Sleep in the fields like everybody else. When the war came to us I was sixteen years old. My uncle sided with the nationalists, the Germans. He had the land, why wouldn’t he? My father sided with the Bolsheviks, and I sided with my father. They gave one of these. You see?"


"What you do is you take them to their front field, where they’ll be found. You want them to be found. You take them, you kneel them down and you tell them to pray. “Oh Heavenly King”, usually. You know it? O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, everywhere present and filling all things. Treasury of blessings and Giver-of-Life: come and abide in us, cleanse us of every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One. Every Ukrainian schoolboy knows it. Anyway, they kneel, they pray, and then you shoot them here, down into the backs of their heads. Sometimes the gun jams, or sometimes you miss. Sometimes you have to shoot them twice. You know, when they brought my uncle in to me he smiled?"

Len Lye, 1933

South Dakota

"I asked Eagan if he would hold my horse, and I dismounted, turned the Indian over on his face, put my left foot on his neck and raised his scalp. I held it up to Eagan saying, 'John, here is the first scalp for M troop.' I secured the rifle, which was a heavy muzzle-loading buffalo gun made at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and of the style issued to the Indians for hunting purposes. I also took a 44-calibre Remington revolver and a sheath knife, but did not bother with trinkets which he had. I believe some of these articles are in my collection at my home at the present time.

"Hanging the scalp at the sabre hook of my waist belt, I started to find our command, and on the way noticed that the skirt of my overcoat was covered with blood. So I threw the scalp away, and upon arriving at camp reported my experience to the company commander, Lieutenant Owen Hale. He asked me what I did with the scalp, and I told him. He smiled and said that I should have kept it, as it was considered an honor on that occasion. I called Lieutenant Hale's attention to the condition of my $14 overcoat, and he asked me how I felt about that time. I told him I felt like the Irishman who belonged to one of the New York regiments in my brigade, known as Meagher's Irish Brigade. The man's brother was killed in front of Petersburg on June 16, 1864, and he felt so bad about it that the next day he got behind a stump and killed 10 Confederates. His captain asked him how he felt about it, and he said that he did not know as it would help poor Tom any, but he felt a little relieved about the heart. That was the way I felt."

- Sgt. John Ryan
"M" Co., 7th Cavalry

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Bobby Sheffield

When the police arrested him they found everything. They found his drugs and his cigarettes, they found his works. They found his chewing gum and his lighter and his loose change. They found his gun where he left it, tucked under his car seat. They laid everything out on the hood of his car and they laughed. Goddamn, they said, we got you. We got you good.

It was broad daylight and he was wasted, he was gone.

The trial took up an afternoon, and Jenny wasn’t in court to see it. His family wasn’t called. He didn’t have a lawyer and he was guilty and the whole thing took a couple of hours. He spent that night in the county lock-up and the next morning they shipped him out of the county lock-up and off to Centinela. He was dope-sick the whole time, shaking and throwing up. It hurt him just to move.

The transport bus was a modified GMC school bus, with plexi-glass safety windows and a cage built right inside, and the prisoners sat there and looked straight ahead, avoiding eye contact and shivering in the heat. He was the only white guy on the bus, except for the driver and the heavy-set guard, and wire mesh separated those two from the prisoners. The guard was gripping a rifle in his two hands, and was joking with the driver about something. Some sports thing from the night before.

The prisoners weren’t too dangerous anyway, not now, inside the cage with their wrists and ankles shacked together like they were. They couldn’t even smoke.

Monday, February 22, 2010

For this we are soldiers...

"Bvt. Col. Guy Henry took a bullet in the head which pierced both cheekbones, smashed his nose, and destroyed one eye, according to journalist John F. Finerty. Nevertheless he somehow remained upright in the saddle with blood gushing from his mouth while he tried to encourage the troops. He was spurring his horse forward to lead a charge when he fainted and toppled to the ground. Finerty saw him later, more or less alive, with a blood-saturated cloth shielding his face from a cloud of flies, and tried to cheer him up.

'It is nothing,' the colonel replied. 'For this we are soldiers.'

Nobody thought he could last the night, and as Col. Henry listened to the mass grave being dug he might have thought the same. If so, he refused to admit it. Capt. Anson Mills, learning that he had been shot, went to visit and inquired if he were badly hurt.

'The doctors have just told me that I must die,' said Col. Henry, 'but I will not.'

They carried him out of the valley feet first on a mule litter, but the poles were too short and occasionally the second mule's head bumped Henry's head. Then they turned him around, which was more comfortable, although at any instant the front mule might kick his brains out.

Capt. Azor Nickerson states that during the retreat one of the litter poles struck a boulder on a mountainside and pitched Col. Henry into some rocks twenty feet below. When they reached him he was unable to speak. They wiped off the fresh blood and dirt and gave him a sip of water. And just how was he feeling? 'Bully!' whispered the half-dead colonel. He insisted he never had felt better and he thanked them all for being so kind.

Plenty Coups thought this was no way to carry a wounded man. A travois would not cause such pain. 'I should have liked to tell the soldiers how to handle their chief, but they did not ask me...'

The colonel's personal account of being shot in the head and his subsequent agony is depreciated to the extent that it sounds ludicrous. The bullet stung, as though he had been slapped, and he did not realize he fell to the ground like a shotgunned mallard - he thought he dismounted and lay down. He must have been dimly conscious because he could remember Sioux warriors charging by, and had it not been for the valiant Shoshone Chief Washakie fighting above his prostrate body he would have been finished off and scalped.

Concerning the trip back, he mentions a detail Finerty missed: a mule did kick him in the face."

- Evan S. Connell
Son of the Morning Star

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sibley's Retreat

"Sibley began his retreat on April 12, crossing the river with his main body to make camp that night, twenty miles south, on the west bank at Los Lunas. Next day, having stayed behind to bury their brass field pieces, for which they had neither shells nor powder, the remainder followed down the east bank to Peralta, nearly opposite. Canby marched in pursuit, his reinforcements having arrived that day from Fort Union. He was not trying to cut the rebels off and then destroy them. The last thing he wanted, in fact, was for them to turn and fight or even stop to catch their breath. What he wanted was for them to leave, the sooner the better; he wanted them out of the territory for whose protection he was responsible. At Peralta, coming upon the smaller Confederate segment, he gave it a nudge. "As we galloped across the bottom toward them they fluttered like birds in a snare," a Coloradan wrote. But that was all. When they scurried across the river, then turned south with the main body to continue the retreat, Canby turned south, too, but he remained on the eastern bank. For two days the retreat continued in this fashion, the two armies marching in plain view of each other, often within cannon range, on opposite banks of the fordable Rio Grande. Canby's men were outraged, shouting for him to send them across the river to slaughter the tatterdemalions who had been so arrogant two months before, when they were headed in opposite direction. The northern commander was deaf alike to protests and appeals, however passionate. If there was to be any killing done, he would rather let the desert do it for him.

"Beginning with the third day, the desert got its chance. When the Federals woke to reveille that morning near La Joya, they could see campfires burning brightly across the river. Dawn showed no signs of life in the camp, however, and after waiting a long while for the Texans to begin their march Canby send some scouts across, who returned with the news that the camp was abandoned; the rebels had left in the night. Sibley, it appeared, had wanted a battle even less than Canby did. Approaching Socorro, with Fort Craig only a day's march beyond, he had left under cover of darkness in an attempt to shake his pursuers and swung westward on a hundred-mile detour to avoid a clash with whatever troops the fort's commander might have left to garrison it. Canby did not pursue. He knew the country Sibley was taking his men through, out there beyond the narrow valley benches. It was a all desert, and he was having no part of it. He marched his troopers leisurely on to the safety and comfort of Fort Craig, arriving April 22. By that time Sibley's Texans were at the midpoint of their detour. Canby was content to leave their disposal to the desert.

It was one of the great marches of all time, and one of the great nightmares ever after for the men who survived it. They had no guide, no road, not even a trail through that barren waste, and they began the ten-day trek with five days' poor rations, including water. What few guns they had brought along were dragged and lowered up and downhill by men, who fashioned long rope harnesses for the purpose. For miles the brush and undergrowth were so dense they they had to cut and hack their way through with bowie knives and axes. Skirting the western slopes of the Madelenas, they crossed the Sierra de San Meteo, then staggered down the dry bed of the Palomas River until they reached the Rio Grande again, within sight of which the Texans send up a shout like the 'Thalassa!' of Xenophon's then thousand. From start to finish, since heading north at the opening of the year, they had suffered a total of 1700 casualties. Something under 500 of these fell or were captured in battle, and of the remaining 1200 who did not get back to Texas, a good part crumpled along the wayside during this last one hundred miles. They reached the river with nothing but their guns and what they carried on their persons. A northern lieutenant, following their trail a year later, reported that he 'not infrequently found a piece of a gun-carriage, or part of a harness, or some piece of camp or garrison equipage, with occasionally a white, dry skeleton of a man. At some points it seemed impossible for men to have made their way.'

"Sibley reached Fort Bliss in early May, with what was left of his command strung out for fifty miles behind him. Here he mad his report to the Richmond government, a disillusioned man. He confined his observations to the field of his late endeavor, and even these were limited to abuse: 'Except for its geographical position, the Territory of New Mexico is not worth a quarter of the blood and treasure expended in its conquest. As a field for military operations it possesses not a single element, except in the multiplicity of its defensible positions. The indispensable element, food, cannot be relied on.' Nor did he express any intention of giving the thing another try. The grapes had soured in the desert heat, setting his teeth on edge. 'I cannot speak encouragingly for the future,' he concluded, 'my troops having manifested a dogged, irreconcilable detestation of the country and the people.'

"The report was dated May 4. Ten days later he assembled the 2000 survivors on the parade ground, all that were left of the 3700 Texans he had taken north from there four months before. After thanking them for their devotion and self-sacrifice during what he called 'this more than difficult campaign,' he continued to retreat to San Antonio, where he took leave of them and they disbanded. It was finished. All his high hopes and golden dreams had come to nothing, like the newly founded Territory of Arizona, which had gone out of existence with his departure. Any trouble the Unionists might encounter in the upper Rio Grande Valley from now on would have to come from rattlers and Apaches; the Confederates were out of there for good. As far as New Mexico and the Far West was concerned, the Civil War was over."

- Shelby Foote
The Civil War,
Fort Sumter to Perryville