Excerpt from Bring Your Gun To Work Day

Slouched deep in the Blackhawk’s crew seat as we flew low through the pre-dawn darkness, I struggled to keep my eyes open. I’d been shaken awake around 0100 and told my squad was assigned to the Aerial Reaction Force. Though the name made it sound like some kick-ass Saturday morning cartoon, the ARF was generally quite dull. Often it involved nothing more than a handful of sleep deprived paratroopers circling above the area of operation, waiting to be useful while the rest of the unit carried out the important business of kicking down doors, searching alleyways, and terrifying farmers and their unfortunate goats.

During the pre-mission briefing, we were instructed to be on the lookout for “squirters,” who by fleeing the village being searched, had proven themselves to be highly suspicious and worthy of our undivided attention. The general consensus was that innocent men didn’t run. I’d seen COPS. It made sense. In the thirty minutes we’d spent drifting along in a slow holding pattern I’d identified nothing more interesting than a few clusters of infrared helmet beacons blinking along the otherwise empty streets of the small village below.

Should you ever find yourself in a war, trying to sleep in a Blackhawk, do your best to avoid the rear right seat unless you want to learn the hard way how it feels to be slapped repeatedly in the face by a mob of angry ghosts. Attempting to make the best of the situation, I found that if I positioned my face just right in the rotor wash, I could make my mouth flap open like an astronaut in a centrifuge. No one else seemed amused by this.

While we continued making wide passes over the squat buildings and palm groves, I periodically lowered the eye piece of my night vision. The sky was clear and cloudless. Through the lens the starlight was magnified, a distant glow displayed as grainy, green eyes staring blankly down on the toil of lesser things. The Diyala River Valley could have at least been scenic under different circumstances. A relatively lush oasis in the desert north-east of Baghdad, the region continued to produce palm dates, grapes, and grain crops alongside the river despite the mounting violence that had spread from the urban centers to the farmer’s backyards. For us, the fertile banks of Diyala offered little more than the addition of choking humidity to the variety of other hostilities we faced.

I was startled out of my half-sleep as the helicopter lurched to the right and started descending in a tight spiral. Around me, my squad-mates pulled their NODs[1] into position. The Blackhawk’s right side gunner trained his infrared spotlight on a shallow, dry canal beneath us and I guessed that he had spotted someone running into the thick, tall reeds bristling out of the ravine. My gloved hand fumbled over the magazine in my M4, checking one last time to make sure it was seated properly in the receiver.

As the helicopter touched down, we tossed our packs out and jumped into the torrent of dust and debris. A few moments later the Blackhawk lifted off and we got to our feet as the air began to clear. I pressed the pressure pad of the IR laser attached to the rail on the side of my rifle and a beam of neon green shot out toward the canal. I tried to wipe away the sweat that had already begun to creep into my eyes, but succeeded only in applying an additional layer of grime to my damp skin. Above us another Blackhawk joined the one already circling our position.

Our interpreter began shouting through his bullhorn in Arabic, ordering whoever was in the canal to come out with their hands up. Nothing else could be heard amid the whining drone of the helicopters. Staff Sergeant Hill barked an order and our squad formed a line parallel to the ravine and inched forward with weapons drawn toward the raised bank. The ground was flat and hard, covered with the brutal, long-thorn bushes I’d quickly come to despise. There was no cover between where I stood and the lip of the canal. Each step meant having to decide between looking down to avoid having needle-tip briars gouge my shins or keeping my eyes focused forward. The spotlight from the Blackhawk wobbled along the length of the canal, unable to reveal any of what lay beneath the thick vegetation.

Just as we were nearing the canal’s edge, a pair of hands rose up slowly from the reeds. I pointed my laser at the upraised palms and yelled “eyes on.” The fingers glowed against the pale black sky. It didn’t occur to me immediately that this was the first time I’d aimed my rifle at another human being. You tell yourself you’ll be ready, that you’ll be focused, but it all falls apart. Your thoughts become clogged with fearful questions. Is he alone? Are there more men hidden in the dark clutching Kalashnikovs and hand grenades? What does it feel like to get shot? A friend had told me that when he took two rounds to the chest plate of his body armor, it was like getting hit in the ribs with a baseball bat.

Two of my squad-mates fanned out from the end of our line to cover our flanks as our interpreter continued to yell at the man in the ravine. Instead of following our orders, the man crouched lower into the shadows. Now all I could see above the tall reeds were the tips of his fingers, a dozen beams of light dancing over them. We inched closer.

 Then in one swift movement, Staff Sergeant Hill leapt onto the berm and unloaded his magazine into the reeds. An awful sound like the shrill, wretched shriek of a dying rabbit, cut through the gunfire. Each flash from his rifle illuminated Staff Sergeant Hill’s face in a succession of brief snapshots revealing a determined and solemn expression. Thinking back on it now, that moment filled me with mixture of excitement and shame, like discovering a box of private photographs I had no business viewing. When the echo of the final shot dissolved, a relative quiet set in to fill the void. Even the constant thumping of the helicopters seemed to recede as I stood there, rifle aimed where the hands has just been, searching for any sign of movement, the specters of the muzzle flashes fading from my vision. So that’s how it is. I looked to my squad-mates, their faces revealed no surprise, no emotion at all, really. Staff Sergeant Hill turned and walked past me. “Come on, Doc. Let’s go.” No one was sent to check the body.

 

Back in the air, in the same unfortunate seat in the Blackhawk, as hot wind slammed against my face, nobody spoke. I kept my NODs over my eyes and stared out the open door without purpose. We passed over the field again and again where the ravine gouged a dark, irregular groove along the earth. Maybe it was because I never saw his face, or that I’d convinced myself he’d had his chance and chosen poorly. Maybe it was shock, but despite everything I’d been taught, everything I’d intuited about the sanctity of human life, I felt nothing. No regret or compassion or empathy. Innocent men had no reason to run.

I would be told later that day that rifles and a firing mechanism for an IED[2] had been found in the empty house near the dry canal. That was all the evidence I needed to quiet any remaining doubt. I’d thought then that the divide in our respective ideologies allowed me to view these kinds of men as inherently lesser. I assured myself that, though we weren’t perfect, at least no one wearing my uniform was dragging people out of their homes and beheading them for having a slightly different belief in God. I found it difficult to regret having one less violent extremist in the world to deal with. It wouldn’t have done me any good to dwell on it. Still green, unsure of my ability to competently perform my duties, and lacking the motivation of any strong moral conviction, I was eager to cling to any footing I could to make each day more bearable. 

Our helicopter touched down again in a field just outside the village and we joined another platoon clearing houses. My squad ended up in the walled courtyard of one home where a small group of men had been gathered to be taken away for questioning. As the officers and upper enlisted decided the next course of action, I took the opportunity to sit on one of the empty metal bed frames strewn around the yard. From a pouch on my chest that was designed to hold a hand grenade, I pulled a small digital camera and snapped a picture of one of the detainees sitting on the ground to my right. Hands zip-cuffed in his lap, a rag tied around his eyes, his body sagged to one side, shoulders curled in tense and defeated. His head hung forward, shifting occasionally toward the sound of a soldier moving past him. I didn’t ask why he’d been detained. I’d heard stories of what had been happening in this village: the death squads and bombings. Looking at him hunched over his crossed legs, illuminated by a dull, naked bulb hanging from the wall of the house, I was reminded of the way caged tigers could appear harmless behind steel bars.

When we got the order to move out, Private Johansen and I were put on detainee watch with an order to move a group of nine men through the village toward a predetermined landing zone where we were to be extracted. The light of dawn had just barely broken, but it was bright enough to see without the aid of my gadgets. I looked over the group I was now in charge of. They had all been caught sleeping or recently awake, all in the thin, loose shirts and pants they’d worn to bed. Some had managed to put on sandals before being taken into custody, but a handful were barefoot. As we walked, I stared down at the thick calluses on their heels, cracked and brown like the skin of a tortoise. While I concentrated on keeping them from stepping in the sewage rivulets that ran from each house we passed, our team became disoriented in search of the rendezvous point with the rest of the unit. As we circled around we ended up passing the same woman three times squatting in the doorway of her home. With each pass, her quiet sobbing erupted into a pitiful wail. I couldn’t look her in the face. Instead I stared down at the men’s feet and waited to look up again until we’d gotten far enough away to be out of her misery’s reach.

Before we’d set off, a line of 550 cord had been tied around the waist of each man to ensure they remained in a relatively straight line. I held onto the arm of the front-most man to guide them. This meant I only had one hand for my rifle and that made me nervous. As we struggled to retain control of the procession, I became aware that the main group of soldiers ahead of us was becoming increasingly distant.

The detainees walked with slow, deliberate steps, complaining in gesture and broken English that their wrists and feet hurt. They craned their necks to see under their blindfolds, stumbling and bumping into one another as we crept along. I imagined myself in their position, my hands bound, being paraded through the streets of my hometown. Being imprisoned had always been one of my greatest fears, and now here I was, leading a group of men to an uncertain future ofdegradation and windowless rooms. More so than anything, in that moment, I feared being left behind. Aside from Johansen the only other American in sight was almost one hundred meters ahead of us and we were losing ground. A slow, anxious creep had begun to wrap itself around my throat and my muscles grew tense. I flexed the carbon fiber knuckles of my Oakley gloves and considered striking the ox of a man whose arm I held. He was easily a foot taller than me and uncommonly muscular. In a fair fight I wouldn’t have stood a chance, but it was easy to feel bold given such a generous handicap.

As we turned the next corner I spotted a dog we’d passed earlier that morning laying in the dirt by the side of the road. Think of Nana from Disney’s Peter Pan, then starve her and give her a puddle of shitty mud to roll in. Thick, encrusted tendrils of her once grey fur sagged from her emaciated frame into the dirt as if she’d been laying there so long she’d taken root. As we drew closer, she reared up and snarled, snapping her yellow fangs. Johansen tried to move the men to the opposite side of the path, but the road wasn’t wide enough to get much distance between us as we began to move past her. The blindfolded men recoiled at the sound of her choked, raspy yowling and they began to mumble hasty prayers for protection. I tugged hard on the man’s arm to hurry him, but just as the last of us was about to pass, the dog lunged at Johansen. In a fluid, thoughtless movement I raised my rifle and shot the dog three times. I took a moment to check to make sure she wasn’t suffering, but it was immediately clear she had died before her body fell to the ground.

“Damn, Doc. You fucked that dog up.” Johansen laughed as he tapped the corpse with the toe of his boot. “Doc Death,” he smiled and walked back to the rear of the line. This nickname would take its place among the those I’d already earned in my short time in country and would rival my least favorite–tree-hugger–that I’d received simply by being raised in the ‘Socialist Republic of California.’ It was assumed I was soft. I kept a guitar on my bunk next to my M4. I wrote poems for Christ’s sake. I turned back to the detainees and shouted at them to keep walking. They no longer offered any resistance and we marched forward in silence.

 

When I was a kid, my friend and I used to shoot birds in his back yard with a pellet gun. One afternoon I bet against him when he said he could hit a humming bird we’d spotted perched on a branch some fifty feet away. He wasn’t a particularly talented marksman, and the bird was barely more than a flitting green and ruby speck in the distance; I figured there was no way he’d be able to shoot it with that cheap plastic rifle. Crouching next to him in the open second story window of his bedroom, I watched as he took careful aim. There was a split second after he pulled the trigger and the rifle had made its comically weak report that I was sure he’d missed, but as I was about to punch his arm and demand that he pay up, the bird’s tiny body fell from the branch and disappeared into the bushes below.

We stared at each other dumbstruck, unsure of what to do next. As I searched the bewildered expression on his face, it was clear that he hadn’t believed he’d hit it either. He dropped the rifle and we ran downstairs into the back yard. We hunted through the bushes and dead leaves where we’d seen the hummingbird fall but we never found its body. Eventually we gave up and walked back toward the house. The humming bird had not been much unlike the dozens of other song birds and jays we’d killed, but something about it, its diminutive size, its brilliant plumage maybe, set the arbitrary nature of our cruelty into sharp relief. The morbid fascination that had encouraged the game we’d spent hours playing was replaced with an unspoken emptiness and shared regret.

That feeling that had kept the pellet gun hidden away for years in my friend’s closet was now absent. I looked back at the dog’s body, dirty and motionless in that unnerving way dead things pantomime sleep. Fuck that dog. Fuck this place. These stinking, whimpering men. It happened so easily, I didn’t recognize it until years later. That moment when I slipped the skin of the boy with a soldier’s uniform wrapped around his shoulders and became something colder and meaner.

I’d forgotten that I had taken one of my earplugs out and was left with a sharp ringing in my left ear. As we walked on, soldiers and prisoners, the rising sun beginning to bring with it the heat of the coming day, I thought about how the dog looked as each of the three bullets struck her. Her defiant grimace snapping at the tiny red holes that bloomed in her chest. It could have easily been me on the berm of that canal, I thought, firing into shadows and flesh. A warm pulse of adrenaline soaked and shook my body, the ringing faded into a low hum, and I felt immense.

 

[1] Slang for night vision. Also sometimes called NVGs. For you mil-gear nerds, we used PVS 7’s and 14’s.

[2] Improvised Explosive Device. These ranged from homemade fertilizer bombs and simply rigged Russian artillery rounds to actual anti-tank mines. The latter were being employed more and more frequently during this time to devastating effect. 

On The Importance of Proof Reading

On the night of the incident, Carl had been a devil worshiper for 47 days, 3 hours, and 24 minutes. Of the many transgressions against God and nature Carl had been guilty of during this time, possessing a criminally superior intellect couldn't have been counted among the list. Impatient, coarse, and quick to anger, Carl often rushed head long into folly without second thought, leaving a path of destruction and misery in his wake.

Perhaps we should note, for the sake of clarity, that Carl had made the same mistake many do when they decide to stray from the path of the righteous. There is an often misunderstood difference between satanists and devil worshipers. A satanist believes in no god other than themselves. To them, the idea of adhering to the time worn fables of the endless struggle between heaven and hell is laughable. They believe that they can harness the power of their instinct and will to bend the world to their desires. Devil worshipers, on the other hand, make blood scarifies to their dark lord in the hope of being granted special powers and privilege. Carl, in his haste to gain some control over his spiraling fortunes, had failed to recognize these key distinctions. As a result he had emptied the shelves of three separate pet shops, carting off dozens of Siberian dwarf hamsters, seven gerbils, and one obese chinchilla to an unnecessarily violent and fruitless death.

On the evening in question, Carl sat at his desk angrily mashing the fingers of his left hand down on the keyboard of his laptop. As he searched message boards in hopes of finding answers to why his rites and incantations continued to fail in bringing him the dominance over his fellow man he so desired, he sucked on the wound on his right thumb that he'd received from the small, yet defiant jaws of his latest victim.

After hours of mashing, pounding, and printing, Carl believed he had discovered the breakthrough he'd been looking for. He rushed to the kitchen and flung open cabinet after cabinet, tossing aside boxes of pasta and cans of beans until his found an open bag of oatmeal raisin cookies that had been left by his ex who, to the best of Carl's knowledge, was still off "finding" herself in a vegan commune somewhere outside Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Breathlessly Carl sprinted back to the make-shift alter he'd cobbled together from scarps of Ikea furniture and an Oakland Raiders commemorative plastic plate. Brushing aside a cold, fuzzy corpse, he carefully placed a single cookie on the plate and grabbed several sheets of paper from his printer.

It should go without saying that Carl could not read Latin. It should be equally obvious that Carl in no way thought of this as a significant hurdle to his endeavors. His clumsy pronunciations of the ancient language poured out of his mouth with unyielding bravado, filling the cramped studio apartment with the sour odor of desperation and unbrushed teeth.

When he had reached the end of the last paragraph he stood in silent anticipation. He stared intently at the shriveled raisins that poked though the surface of the cookie, studying them like an archeologist peering into the depths of a freshly opened tomb. After a seeming eternity (approximately one and one half minutes), Carl's hands began to shake uncontrollably. He crumpled the printouts into a ball and tossed them out the open window, cursing and stomping his feet. He tore off the black cape that had been tied around his neck and kicked at it, tangling the thin, costume fabric around his feet causing him to lose his balance and tumble to the floor. Writhing, fruitlessly trying to free himself from the snarl of cape bits, he stood then tripped, crashing into the alter, which in turn crashed onto his head, knocking him unconscious.

Carl awoke to a throbbing pain in his temple. As he opened his eyes, his blurry vision first focused on the face of Sebastian Janikowski staring back at him in frozen concentration. Carl reached up slowly and turned the plate face down to save himself the embarrassment of having his hero see him in such a pitiful state.

Beyond the ruined alter, Carl became aware of a pair of feet in the red satin slippers dangling from the side of his bed. Slowly Carl raised his eye and saw two legs encased in flowing red silk pajamas and a robust torso similarly covered in shimmering ruby cloth. Carl gasped and tried to gather what sense he had as he struggled to his knees and prostrated himself in front of the figure before of him.

"Oh, Lord of lords! Darkest one. Tormentor of souls, I have waited so long for this moment." Carl pressed his face as deeply into the matted beige carpet as the thick pile would allow, completely ignoring the sting of the stale Cheeto digging into his forehead. "Thank you for answering my humble prayers."

Eyes closed tightly, Carl could hear the swish of the slippers gently stepping towards him. He began to shiver with excitement making tiny whimpering sounds like a puppy waiting for his master to throw a stick.

"Please, my dear boy, stand up." The voice above him was gentle and sweet. It reminded Carl of his grandfather, or maybe a grandfather he'd seen on TV, and suddenly he felt an unexpected and confusing mixture of joy and guilt. He rose slowly keeping his eyes tightly shut.

Still afraid to look directly upon the mighty Evil One, Carl got to his feet unsure of what to say or do with his hands. Summoning every ounce of courage he could muster, Carl cracked one eye open and peeked out to an empty bedroom.

"Ehem," the sweet voice seemed to echo out from Carl's chest.

Startled, Carl took a quick step back and looked down to see a man, no taller than his belly button, with a long, flowing white beard, staring back at him. In the dim light of the apartment, his plump cheeks seemed almost to glow with a soothing red hue like the embers of a dwindling fire.

"Oh, your lordship," Carl stuttered trying to mask his bewilderment at the diminutive stature of the universe's most powerful deity, "I–I thought you'd..."

"Be taller?" The man chuckled causing his belly to jiggle, not unlike a jelly filled bowl.

"Well, no I, I mean..."

"Common misconception, my dear child. No need to feel embarrassed. I say, if anyone should feel a bit sheepish right now, it's me," the man smiled as he motioned to his clothing, "It appears I've been summoned forth wearing nothing but my summer jammies."

"Jammies?"

"I shouldn't use it as an excuse, but it is the off-season after all."

"My lord, please..."

"Lord? Ho, ho! No one calls me that, child. Where are we, anyway?" The man wiggled his nose and a bright twinkle flashed in his eyes as he peeked out the window. "Denver! Lovely! You may call me Chris."

Apple vs The FBI: Encryption and the Question of a Right to Privacy

If anyone is confused/not that interested in the Apple v. FBI debate over what sort of tools law enforcement should have to bypass strong encryption, here's a brief breakdown of how it would probably go down:

What the FBI wants isn't a way to break iOS encryption per se. They want to be able to flash the iPhone with a software update that will disable the security features and allow them to use software to test all 10,000 passcode options nearly instantly. As it stands currently, you only get so many tries to brute force a password before iOS locks you out completely.

With this method they are proposing, the same risks you'd get with an encryption backdoor apply, though. Once this tool exists, every law enforcement entity will demand access to it through a warrant. A court precedent down the road will likely force Apple to comply. Apple will then have to comply in any country they wish to do business. Eventually some criminal working in law enforcement for this or any other country would have the opportunity sell the tool on the black market for a huge sum.

This is a slippery slope, hypothetical argument against creating such a tool, but that's the end game risk you have to consider.

Now, the question is: is the risk worth the benefit? Do we have a right to absolute security of our information even if that means that criminals also have access to this security?

Sam Harris proposed an interesting analogy on the topic. Imagine you could construct a room in your home that was completely impregnable to anyone other than you. No matter what crime you committed in that room, rape, murder, the worst things you could think of, no one would be able to access the evidence without your permission, including after your death. Never in the history of the world has something like this existed. What argument can we make for having the right to possess this sort of autonomy from the laws that govern our society?

Something to think about.

Credit: Reddit user jmcgit for the nuts and bolts of the method proposed by the FBI.

In Orbit

Tabitha–we used to call her Tabby–sat to my right amongst a table of 6 other strangers. It had been years since I’d last seen her and I’d hoped she would show up to Greg's wedding fat or ugly or pregnant with an unwanted baby, but of course she was none of these things. 

    She’d set her golden hair up in a delicate, swirling braid save for a few strands that brushed along her cheek like willow branches in a painting you admired but couldn’t afford.  A single diamond, braced in a silver mount shaped like a star, twinkled on her ear. When she'd arrived and stepped out of a two-door white Audi, she’d stood for a moment to smooth a small wrinkle from her dress before walking over to greet Greg. His eyes lit up when he saw her and he turned from entertaining a cluster of babbling aunts and clinically disinterested teenage cousins, opened the arms of his tuxedo wide in welcome. Her velocity had increased so rapidly, I’d thought maybe she’d trip on the uneven pavement like I had, but of course she didn’t. Her feet seemed indifferent to those three inch heels as if they were the same beat-up sneakers she always used to wear. As she and Greg embraced, I headed back to the bar and ordered another whiskey sour.

    After dinner I remained at the table while most of the guests attempted their best impression of dancing. A warm breeze twisted around the gnarled oaks surrounding the clearing where the temporary dance floor had been installed, carrying with it whoops of laugher set in time with The Village People’s Y.M.C.A. It occurred to me than half the people here, myself included, wouldn’t have been allowed in this country club under normal circumstances. Greg, by his usual dumb luck, had wooed the daughter of the club’s president and for an evening at least, the town’s normal social strata had broken down under the intense diplomatic pressure of inoffensive danceable pop.

    When we were kids, June nights like this were always when it was easiest to find trouble. The heat of the day lingered until well after midnight, giving us plenty of time to carry out our little insurrections. We’d often snuck onto the grounds of the club after hours to joy ride golf carts and shank glow-in-the-dark golf balls under the cover of darkness. Though we were neither, we’d called our neighborhood gang “The Quiet Professionals” after a story Greg’s dad had told us about a unit he’d served with in Vietnam. Tabitha had been the only girl who’d orbited our group with any regularity, though it became clear as we entered high school that she was headed for a life that measured success beyond sneaking tallboys out of the Seven-Eleven without getting caught.  

    Tabitha spun slowly in the middle of the floor under the open sky with her eyes closed, snapping her fingers with the beat. Greg, his bride, their families, their friends, all twirled chaotically around her, obscuring the blue light reflecting off her dress so that I only saw her in brief flashes. Barefoot catching frogs in the pond behind her house in the summer. Football games that I attended only to watch her bounce in her cheerleading uniform. The night she got wasted at Ken Meyer’s house party and pecked me on the cheek after I walked her home. Her gleaming white teeth set in a radiant crescent moon as she thrust her Yale acceptance letter in my face while I leaned on my mop in the dinning area of the Pizza Hut. I’d hoped she’d fuck it up somehow, drop out and come crawling back home to wade in the shallows of small town desperation with me. But of course she didn’t.

    She had come back some years later when her father passed unexpectedly at 47. Aneurysm, they said. The silent killer. At the wake she stood next to her mother, looking elegant somehow, despite the tears. I’d briefly considered telling her everything. How I’d loved her since we were nine years old. How I’d stayed up nights crafting ways to assassinate her boyfriends. How every girl I’d ever screwed was just a rag doll with her face taped to it. How she’d been my life’s biggest victory and tragedy all wrapped in a single, flawless body. But funerals are sad enough as they are.

    As the evening came to a close and the party thinned, aunts with wilting perms leaving with uncles too drunk to drive but too stubborn to spend the money on a cab, Tabitha returned to the table and sat next to me. Her fingers clinging to the thin stem of a plastic champagne flute, she smiled as her body convulsed, birthing the universe’s most delicate and lovely burp.

    “Things never really change around here, do they Skidd-o?” she said as she watched the parade of rented suits and baggy dresses stagger toward the parking lot.

    “Nobody calls me that anymore.”

    “That’s because nobody’s got as good a memory as I do,” the crescent moon broke free from the darkness and stabbed at my chest.

    “Greg really married up, huh?”

    “I figured he would. He always thought he was too good for this town. My guess was that he’d get hitched his first year of college and we’d never hear from him again. She seems nice, though. I’m sure they’ll be real happy.” Tabitha swayed a bit in her chair and brushed a willow branch from her cheek. “How about you, Skid? I thought I’d be introduced to some fine little thing on your arm tonight, but you came here alone and sat in the corner all night scowling at the dance floor.”

    “I guess the right girl just hasn’t gotten lucky yet.”

    Tabitha took a sip of champagne and as she pulled the glass away, her lip clung to the rim for the briefest moment like a goodnight kiss.

    “I could say the same for you,” I pointed toward the parking lot, “That’s an awful nice car to be driving alone.”

    “It’s leased. Got to keep up appearances, right?”

    “Sure.”

    “Say, you remember the party we threw out in the woods on the other side of the golf course junior year?” Tabitha said with wide, smiling eyes. “When Kate Bollin swore she could do a keg stand longer than any of the boys, then threw up in Greg’s truck? God, he was so mad I thought his head was going to explode. The cab stunk for months!” 

    The strap of her dress had been slowly edging its way off the slope of her shoulder and when it finally wilted over her arm, she made no effort to return it. 

    “I swear I do miss it here sometimes. I’ve grown to love Seattle but damn, you just can’t beat these summer nights.”

    “No, you sure can’t.”

     As I walked her to her car I offered to give her a ride back to her parent’s place. It was on the way after all and there wasn’t any sense in ruining a nice trip home with a D.U.I., but Tabitha declined with a flick of her silver bracelet as she sunk into the firm, tan leather of the driver’s seat. Her dress rode up revealing the firm, tan skin of her thighs and as she fumbled through her purse I briefly considered pulling her back out and pressing her gently against the car. Lingering there in her sour-sweet breath and cupping her hand between the rough skin of mine. Telling her that she wasn’t too good for this place and that I needed her to be here, if for nothing else than to let a little light shine off her dress as she danced in the middle of a crowd of happy, smiling, stupid small town nobodies. To give her a kiss on the god damned mouth this time and not look away and not feel ashamed and not regret another second as long as I lived. But of course, well, you know how these things go.

I Don't Look Good In Hats

I Don’t Look Good In Hats

You said I do, but I don’t believe you.
Actually, I do, but in that way I believe 
my mother when she says I write incredible 
songs. For her and you, each of my creations,
my creation, is perfect, shimmering crystal
cut to hold light from every angle.

In my drunker hours I believe you even more.
I forget my odd corners, my stink, the places 
where hair should and shouldn’t be,
and I cock an eyebrow up to congratulate
my blistering successes; the little-league trophies,
that I still breathe, that I remain un-incarcerated 
despite all my best efforts, that somehow, love 
always seems to find me though I’ve changed 
my name and moved out west to start a new life without it.

Hot August Nights

Carl sat baking under the ripe Georgia sun, picking at the hole in his arm. It had been getting bigger. Or the rest of his arm had been getting smaller. It was hard to tell compared with the general state of decay consuming his body. Above him, a family of plump, black flies droned around his head, landing occasionally on sticky patches of greenish flesh. He’d long since given up on trying to shoo them away and only really noticed their presence when one would get up the nerve to pace cautiously across his eyeball in search of some remaining pocket of moisture. In those moments Carl remembered vaguely that he hated flies, but the feeling quickly passed.

Later that afternoon, as the sun was beginning to creep behind the gabled roofs of the homes across from him, Carl stood up from the park bench, leaving a few pieces of himself as he did, and took a slow right down Jones St. Without any particular destination, he shambled leisurely past stalled cars, their windows broken and smeared, past the burnt out husk of the Midville Branch Library, and past the boarded up face of the Bus Station B-B-Q. The smiling face of the  colossal cartoon pig on the Station’s sign remained inviting, ignoring the fatal looking shotgun wounds that peppered its torso. Carl cocked his stiff neck up slowly at the handsome porcine visage beaming down at him and began to feel… something. It started as a softly burning ache in his gut and crept outward until his entire body was ablaze with need. Just as the ache had reached a fever pitch, a sound in the distance caught Carl’s attention. The low rumble of a small block engine growled against the darkening sky and caused Carl to reach a desiccated hand up and run a finger across the stitched letters of his name on his dirty blue cover-alls. The need was now confused with some other emotion. He turned from the Station pig’s idiot grin and marched hungrily toward the dusk.

By the time the car reached town, it was nearly dark. The two sparks of its headlights crested the dip in the neighboring hills and within minutes it was parked under one of the few working street-lamps adjacent to the Piggly Wiggly, a block north of where Carl had managed to catch himself on the barbwire of a hastily erected barrier. Carl’s eyes widened slightly as he gazed at the long, masculine hood of the two door coupe. Its aggressive posture was so familiar but the name wasn’t coming to him. Racing yellow with a thick, sable stripe down the center of the hood, mean as a wasp, it crouched in the middle of the street as the heat escaping its engine ticked in the calm of the night. As Carl tugged against the ripping cloth of his pants caught in the tangle of rusty spurs, two figures emerged from the car and walked slowly toward the market. They paused for a moment then disappeared through the broken front window.

Carl continued to pull against the snare. He swatted his arms clumsily at his pants but managed only to tear a sizable hunk from his palm in the process. Summoning the last pitiful bit of his strength, he lurched forward and broke himself loose, flopping hard face-long onto the pavement. There half of his cheek remained as he lifted himself back to his feet and continued toward the shimmering yellow beacon. The hunger began again to ring inside him. A long, steady moan escaped his mouth and his arms raised up involuntarily like a cartoon mummy.

When he reached the car he became suddenly still. Staring at the cursive chrome lettering splashed against the car’s siding, Carl tried to make out the name. As he leaned in to get a closer look, he lost his balance and fell forward impaling himself on the polished stem of the side-view mirror. Stumbling back, the mirror popped off of the door and then slid from Carl’s body hitting the asphalt with a sharp, metallic clang. Carl looked down to see the face of some monster peering back at him through a layer of dark grease smeared along the glass. Using the car to support his weight, he bent down and fumbled his dumb fingers across the mirror. Finally managing, with great effort, to clasp it between his two hands he brought it back up to the hole it had left in the door. His tongue crept out between his teeth with the strain of concentration, but despite his toiling, both the mirror and his tongue eventually wound up lying at his feet.

As he was about to reach down again, Carl noticed something moving from the corner of his eye. He turned toward the Piggly Wiggly and saw a man and a woman, duffle bags slung across their backs, carefully stepping over the shards of glass sticking up from the window pane. They didn't seem to notice him until a low moan gurgled forth from his open mouth. The man’s head snapped Carl’s direction and he unslung a hunting rifle from his shoulder. The woman reached a hand out as if in protest and began walking toward Carl as she took something long and slender from a holster on her belt. Her curly brown hair was wrapped up behind a red bandana and as she approached, Carl could see the muscles tightening beneath the deeply tanned skin of her forearm. 

There was something about her. Something, like the name of the car, that Carl knew but couldn’t, for the life of him, recall. He knew he wanted her. He wanted to tear into her. To bury his face inside her and take everything from her. But there was something else too; the determined walk, the look on her face when she reached the edge of the light shining down on them both. A word began to rattle inside Carl’s skull. Carl moaned.

The sound made her recoil slightly. Carl could see that she was crying. He looked down at the massive combination wrench in her left hand and then back at the mirror.

“I tried,” she said eventually. “I said we had to get the fuck out of here.”

Carl looked back at her tortured face and then at the wrench that had begun to shake as she spoke.

“What was so fucking important at the garage that you couldn’t live without?!”

The noises she was making should have meant more. Carl recognized that he was missing something important. He looked back at the mirror, then at his tongue.

The woman sighed and managed a defeated laugh. “It took all this for me to finally win an argument with you. Hope you’re happy, you stubborn ass.”

With that she wound up and swung the wrench at Carl’s head and he was reminded of a time when she’d done the same thing, but with a smile and a playful open hand. The word that had been desperately trying to tread the soupy waters of Carl’s brain suddenly shot to the surface as he stared up at her weeping face and the world went dark. Camaro.

The Boys

Crack open a cold one, brothers and sit
round my table, glass circled like the currents
where we touched shores of unfamiliar countries
and found our way again back home.
Speak loudly and spark fire,
we lost kings in ill fitting robes, 
who crouched round trees that echoed 
the firecracker burst, all these years later 
still ringing in our ears.
The sticks that were swords
turned to guns that were guns
and desks in offices 
with pictures of our more remembered selves
lined up neatly like plans 
for our more future selves.
We lucky few, we idiot adventurists,
that fell through cracks and far narrower paths
to be sitting here tonight, forgetting and believing
again in all that's good 
about cold pizza the morning after,
thinking about our love but never speaking it,
and finally coming together again
when it's been too long
since we last shared time.

Ankle of Betrayal

It was almost musical, like a percussionist rapping a drum stick against a hardwood block. My ankle, my trusted right ankle that had carried me through countless soccer matches, hard parachute landings, and nightly combat patrols, had just betrayed me in front of two squads of blissfully bouncing prepubescents.

As I crumpled to the trampoline, its buoyant cushion mocking my crippled body, I felt a electric shock rage up my leg and slam into the soft tissue behind my eyes. I was surrounded. Surrounded by jubilant 12-year-olds with nimble, elastic limbs. With each ruthless landing, my supposed teammates shoved the blade deeper into my weakened flesh and the pain in my leg intensified. My instincts took over. These imps were going to be the death of me. I had to retreat. Find somewhere safe to tend to my wound. I probably smiled as I limped off the court. Nothing wrong here. You kids have fun. I’m just going to sit this one out. They can smell weakness, you know?

Before the real misery set in, I hobbled over to the row of cafeteria style tables that lined the side of the trampoline-dodgeball court. Trampoline-dodgeball. What kind of Reichstag sadists had concocted such a ridiculous diversion? I cursed my girlfriend. “Let’s get out and do something fun for a change,” she’d demanded. Yeah, you’ll have your fun watching me crutch around the house for the next month.         

Carefully removing my shoe and sock I exposed the treacherous joint. It had already ballooned to twice its usual girth and a dark purple bruise had begun to bloom under the lateral malleolus. Jesus, what had I done? Was it the calcaneofibular or anterior talofibular that I’d demolished? Who could remember the bird’s nest of ligaments twisting around down there? I’d fucked a couple of them up for sure. A grade 2 sprain, maybe even a 3. Propping my leg up on the table I stared at my ankle. Traitor. Vile turncoat. How fucking dare you? As if these ballon animals skipping past me weren’t reminder enough that I’m slowly decomposing.

A few minutes later, the air-filled head of one of the blue shirted staff wandered by. He glanced at my leg and a look of pure horror replaced his mindless smile. He rushed off and returned with a bag of ice, some towels, and a manager who, like all men who fear impending legal action, wanted to know exactly what had happened. Could I put weight on it? Why hadn’t I been immediately tended to by the teenage referee who had been entrusted with the wellbeing of the players on the court? Was I sure I’d signed the waiver? 

They offered to call an ambulance. For what? My foot was still attached to my body. I could just imagine the faces of my old Army buddies as I’d got carted off to the hospital for something so absurd. Nice one, Doc. Don’t forget to take your Motrin. No thanks, I said. Just some help getting out to the car would be fine. The car would take me home where I could sit my 30-year-old ass on my couch, turn on my Xbox, and avoid having to consider what I was really doing with my life.

You’d think that an establishment that traffics in the repeated tossing of human beings high into the air would have had at least one wheelchair on standby for this kind of situation, or a pair of crutches. But Sky High Sports apparently dealt not in probabilities. Instead I was wheeled out to the parking lot on a black office chair, much to the amusement of all the sticky-fingered children who took a moment away from ruining the best years of their mother’s lives, to giggle at me as I rolled by.

A week later I received a phone call from Wendy or Wanda or whatever from the corporate office. She inquired as to how I was doing with a well practiced sincerity that reminded me of my customer service days. No, I hadn’t been to a doctor. I’m unemployed. Doctors tend to cost a lot of money. Don’t worry I have years of experience treating these kinds of injuries. I already know all the physical therapy techniques that I’ll undoubtedly abandon once I feel well enough. As our conversation wound down she asked me if I would like some complimentary tickets to return when I was healed. No thanks, I said. I’m a goddamn adult, and adults keep their stiff, old ankles on the ground as nature intended.

A Personal History of Food

I suppose it all began with breast milk, right? My mother doesn’t strike me as a woman who would have opted for formula. Swaddled in a small, blue blanket, I was introduced to that soothing if temporary relief from the trauma of entering into this world. In the years that have followed, food for me has played many roles: fuel, comfort, victory, and regret–sign posts along the winding roads I’ve traveled.

    As a kid, food was picking little chunks of hotdog from radioactive mounds of KRAFT Macaroni & Cheese. It was barbecued hamburgers under the awning of my grandfather’s RV in the camp grounds of the dozens of national parks. It was pizza at the end of another year of little league baseball, getting my greasy finger prints all over another short, shining trophy celebrating my participation. 

    I’ve been told that back then I would drink almost an entire quart of milk a day. This was of course before my family figured out that I was lactose intolerant. I remember laying on the brown carpet in our living room, doubled over in pain from the cramps in my abdomen, struggling to identify the cause of my agony. Feeling somehow guilty, like it had to be kept a secret. Perhaps unknowingly, I was teaching myself a lesson I’d need later in life. How sometimes the things you love most will be the things that do you the greatest harm.

    When I traveled, food was adventure. Camarones just minutes out of the ocean, grilled up in a little beach-side shack on the edge of a sleepy fishing village north of Puerto Vallarta. A days old panini, hard as a rock, in a snow covered train station in Milan. The most perfect bowl of ceviche sitting across from my dad in a bar in Lima, sipping on cold beer watching a soccer match on an old TV. The first time I tried abalone in Big Sur and realized that the pure joy of eating could transcend both time and place.

    As a musician, food was community. Being invited to a stranger’s house for take-out after a show in a town I’d probably never go back to. Laughing and playing songs deep into the night. A cup of tea, a biscuit and eggs before the long stretch of road to the next gig. When the inspiration struck, I forgot food all together. Writing and rewriting, arranging, experimenting, I’d let half a day slip by on a few sips of coffee. That ache in my stomach burning, reminding me what it meant to need.

    In the Army, food was relief. I learned to eat fast—a habit I’m still trying to shake. On mission when supplies got scarce, I worshiped veggie-burger M.R.E.s until I’d eaten them so many times that just the smell that soggy, gray composite made me nauseous. Sometimes breakfast was a box of Cheez-Its and a Redbull, maybe some homemade beef jerky. Staring out at the tan earth and the tan buildings through the bullet proof glass in the back seat of a HUMVEE, wondering if today was going to be the day. Laying prone on a rooftop, my rifle next to a plate of rice in a thin tomato sauce, prepared by a generous mother, probably a good portion of the week’s ration for the family whose house we had commandeered, wishing I could be anywhere but where I was.

    Now food is discovery. Making new recipes with my girlfriend. Pan fried bone-in pork chops and figs with a balsamic vinegar reduction. Fermenting my own kombucha and sauerkraut, learning about the secret world of bacteria and mold. Ruining perfectly good cuts of meat. Spending too much at Whole Foods. Watching documentaries about great chefs and traveling the world vicariously through Anthony Bourdain, trying in my own apathetic little way to recapture the feeling of how it was to wander aimlessly in search of what is new and what is good.

 

The Small Black Circle

On the morning of my seventeenth birthday
in the bathroom mirror I caught a glimpse
of the small black circle in the center of my chest.
As with most things I took no notice
and ran off to attend to the day's celebration.

Over the next year the circle grew until I could fit 
the tip of my finger in the hole.
Carefully I pressed and examined the space.
Like it had been numbed,
I felt pressure but no pain.
Had there been any discomfort
it may have raised some alarm,
but as it was the space seemed harmless
as if the small black circle had been with me 
always.

By the time I’d gone off to college
the small black circle was the size of a shot glass.
How perfect, I thought.
Into it I poured and I poured and not a drop dripped.
As I failed at my scholarly pursuits,
the small black circle 
grew to the size of a fist,
the tissue surrounding turned irritated and taught.
I signed my over my body and mind,
put on a uniform and covered the hole. 

In the desert the small black circle grew to the size of my heart
and I tried to fill it with anything and anyone I could find.
Sand and sad letters, songs about endings.
As an actor I thought myself quite convincing
though looking back I doubt I fooled anyone more than myself.

By the time I left the service the small black circle 
had become a cavernous and ravenous beast.
Regardless of what it was fed
it's appetite never diminished 
and I began to live in such a way
guided no longer by my own desire 
but instead to satisfy that infinite maw.

At thirty I turned to address the bathroom mirror once again
with purpose to examine the now gaping hole.
As I peered in I saw shadows of the things I'd once loved
stuck in the residue of the pills and booze
I'd tried to use as glue to stem the decay.
The amalgam, of course, had proven corrosive
the once perfect circle had grown jagged, ugly, and red.

Only then did I pause to reflect.

Reflection

Time and time again I thought it strange.
That I would walk these depths and journey home after
finding only that I had not changed, that the paths I wandered,
ruts sunk deeper with each season, carried me in such familiar fashion.
How could it be that feet so traveled and skin thickened
felt childish though they no longer marveled at the world?
Those thoughtless rows I cut through, bold like border lines
began to sketch a portrait as if I’d meant it all along.
But there’d been no course, no destination, had there?
Just piecemeal narrative muttered with a glance over my shoulder, 
crumbs and caricature for comforting reflection.

The Morning Meeting

    "This meeting will now come to order." Steve's brain lazily tapped the gavel on the desk. Sluggish before the electric buzz of the morning's caffeine, Steve's brain peered out over the gathering before it and collected it's thoughts.
    "As I'm sure many of us are aware, 'we' ingested an entire carne asada super burrito and a 32oz. Mountain Dew at 2:36am this morning." All eyes shifted to Steve's stomach who shrunk back into it's seat. "We've been over this. As of January 1st, a resolution was unanimously passed to curb this sort of reckless behavior."
    "Seriously you guys, I'm working double shifts on the booze already. I don't know how long I can keep this up," Steve's liver wheezed from the back of the room.
    "It's cool with us! We love a challenge!" Steve's kidneys piped up in unison.
    Steve's brain rubbed it's frontal cortex slowly. "Look, no one  here understands temptation more than I do, but this has to be a give and take. Yes, I make the final decisions but if we're really going to make any progress we're going to have to work as a team..."
    "Excuse me! I'm sorry to interrupt but may I..."
    "No, bladder, you'll just have to wait."
    "But I think it's an emergency!"
    Steve's brain sighed. It was _always_ an "emergency". "Steve isn't a child, nor is he still an active fraternity brother. He is an adult. You will wait."
    "Fine!" Steve's bladder scowled and looked off into the distance.
    Steve's brain waited a beat. "Now, to new business. Today we have work, as usual, but this evening we're scheduled for a date with..." Steve's brain shuffled a small pile of papers around on the desk in front of him, "Samantha." A hushed murmur fell over the gathering. "According to her profile, she's a 26 year old pediatric nurse. Brunette, green eyes, loves 'to have a good time.'"
    "Well all right, all right," Steve's testicles smirked and shot Steve's prostate gland a knowing look.
    "Settle down you knuckle-heads. This is Steve's first date in over two months, so we're all going to be on high alert today. Intestines, do you think you'll be able to deal with this morning's transgression before 7pm?"
    Steve's small intestine, coiled around itself and took a quick inventory, "I give it an 80% chance, boss."
    "Colon, as it standard procedure, you're going to be on lock down for the majority of the evening."
    Steve's colon puckered, "Aye sir, I've been briefed on my duties and will be sending reports at regular intervals to maintain compliance."
    "Great. I think we all know from previous experience, these things can go either way. I'll be taking lead and I'm going to ask, please, for minimal chatter from bellow deck."
    "Look man, we do what we do. Steve's a beast who can't be tamed!" Steve's testicles high-fived and began to dance in their seats.
    "That's all well and good, men, but if you want to actually have a chance to do 'what you do,' I'm going to need you to let me do what I do and pave the way."
    "Whatever, bro. If it was up to you we'd be, like, in a library all day reading books 'n' shit, talkin' about feelings" Steve's right testicle said with a defiant duck-face.
    "And if it was up to you two dim-wits, we'd spend all day doing Brazilian Jujitsu talking about supplement stacks."
    "Whatever, bro."
    "Yeah bro, whatever," Steve's left testicle, which sat slightly lower than his brother, said in solidarity. 
    Steve's brain wandered off for a moment and fantasied about a time, perhaps in Steve's 60's, when he wouldn't have to have this conversation anymore.
    "You'll all have further instructions sent to you as the day progresses. With any luck, things will proceed as scheduled and we won't have to deal with any surprises. If we're all through here, I'll begin the Wake Up Protocol."
    As Steve's brain reached for the gavel, the meeting room door burst open. In it stood Steve's tonsils hunched forward. The group turned and saw the inflamed tissue, the small white nodules specked across his reddened, slimy folds, and collectively they groaned.

Leviathan

The ocean stretched out before me an endless topaz gem. Sitting by the bow of my old skiff, sail fluttering listlessly over my shoulder, I dropped my line one last time. I watched as the bait slid slowly beneath the surface turning deeper shades of blue as it sank until all that remained was a thin filament of wire pointing down toward the ink black depths.

I sat back against the hull and let my gaze soften over the vast expanse of water. My left hand began to stroke my beard with the slow, meditative compulsion of accumulated boredom. Each breath took in the salt and sun and weariness of my toil. Closing my eyes I pulled the rim of my hat down over my face and imagined myself thirty years younger, a man of wealth and influence.

I awoke some time later as the sun was reaching the peak of its mid day heat. The line sat still as ripples of water lapped gently against the side of the boat. As I was about to reel in the disappointment of my efforts I began to feel strangely. Placing a hand on the splintered white paint of the hull I became aware that the boat was humming, vibrating silently beneath me. Looking up the cloudless sky was empty of the usual gulls and cormorants that circled in wait of an easy meal.

Suddenly the ocean began to froth and boil building heaps of green foam that popped spraying salty mist into my face. The sound that came next was like a titanic brass horn erupting from beneath the water, shaking my bones until I lost balance and fell over cradling my ears like a child.

The water continued to crash against my small vessel and soak my clothes and skin. The skiff shook so violently I feared it would capsize at any moment. Struggling to regain my footing I pulled at the rope to hoist the sail and as I was tying off I glanced over the bow and laid eyes on death itself. It’s head came first, a giant grey dome of slick shimmering scales that dwarfed that of any whale I’d ever known. Then it’s eyes, deep yellow and flecked with gold like a tiger, pupils so wide I could have sailed right through them into oblivion. But it was the teeth that broke me. The monster opened it’s gaping maw to reveal row after row of sickle sharp fangs tall as a man curving back toward the recesses of it’s immense gullet. It could have swallowed ten men in boats without notice.

I grabbed the handle of the rudder and prayed for wind, prayed that the waves would carry me away from this hellish beast, but like so many prayers these went unanswered. The sail sat limp on the mast and the water served only to fill the hull and wet my shoes. I looked back to see that the beast gaining on me. As it neared my vessel I could smell the acrid stench of rotting flesh on its breath. It’s tiger eyes darted wildly with the pleasure of the hunt. I let go of the rudder and cursed god. I cursed the sea. This boat and the wind. I cursed myself and my empty stomach. And as I was about to close my eyes a long ruddy brown tentacle speared forth from the water and shot into the air. The boat rocked and swayed at the tentacle came crashing down not on me but across the face of the beast.

The beast bellowed a deafening blast of hot, putrid air and I thought that even in the midst of my confused and fear I would find time to be sick. I closed my eyes tight and held on for dear life to the sides of the hull. The terrible trashing and wailing beyond my small vessel sounded like the end of days, a cacophony of screaming demons clawing their way into my skull. I dared one glance and caught the last of the beast, wrapped in the crushing hold of a net of tentacles, being pulled below the surface. A moment later the sea was calm. The frothy green foam clinging to the hull began to spread out and disappear. As I released my shaking hands from their hold on the railing and stared out at the still stretch of water where the beast had been, I felt something slither past my leg and I recoiled with a yelp. In the water pooled below me, back striped blue and black, swam a fat chub mackerel.

The Magician

Back in the darkness of my apartment I closed the bedroom door and slumped to the floor. I took the backpack from my shoulders and unzipped it slowly. Reaching inside I fumbled through my props until my fingers, fat and sluggish, came to rest on the doll. They way it remained cool even in the humid summer air sent a chill up my arm. 

Outside the rain was beginning to let up. The dull grey of the late afternoon peeked through the cracks between the blinds painting abstractions on the walls of the room. I lifted the doll up into a sliver of light examining the coal black recesses of its eyes. Two dead stars set wide apart on its round cloth face. On the street below a dog began to bark and I listened as a woman’s voice rang out to silence it.

“You’ve been given exactly what you asked for.”

My shoulders sagged and I pinched the skin between my eyebrows. Yes. I supposed that’s true. Though it hadn’t been much. A few dollars in my pocket, a steadily growing audience, a bit of recognition for my craft. I had to admit that it felt good to regain some control over things. I snapped my finger and the lamp on the nightstand flickered to life. Against the protest of my aching muscles, I stood and laid the doll on the bed face down.

What time was it? It didn’t seem to matter much anymore. I hardly ever slept before, and now I could scarcely remember the last time I had shut my eyes. I grabbed a cigarette out of the pack on the nightstand and held the palm of my hand out toward the ceiling. A small orange ball of flame appeared and hovered just above my skin like a tiny sun. The glowing plasma fluttered and arched and crashed down again under the pull of its own gravity. As I brought it to the tip of the cigarette, the ball hissed and sparked. A wave of my hand and it vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

I walked to the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror. In the harsh white light of the naked florescent blub I looked like a ghost. I took a long drag and the cherry red tip jutting out like an exclamation mark reflected brightly in my eyes. Blowing a puff of smoke I pulled my head back and stretched the grey cloud into a thin line like a snake. It’s body coiled in the air before me as it unwound it slithered its way slowly toward the shower curtain.

I reached my hand out and noticed that my skin seemed too thin, the veins and sinew beneath too easily recognized. Pulling the curtain back I looked down at the boy laying in the tub, his eyes black like the doll’s, his skin turned thick and brown like bark. The snake moved silently and wrapped itself around my shoulders. Peering down at the boy the snake’s mouth curled back into a grotesque fanged grin.

“For everything a price. Isn’t that right my friend?”

Untitled

As I lay dying in that field of wildflowers, my thoughts turned again to Mary. Not to how we had become quarrelsome and distant under the constant pressure of raising the children and the lack of steady work, but to the way she'd looked under that cherry tree in her favorite blue sundress the first time she'd allowed me to kiss her. How her eyes had always gleamed with a youthful mystery and mischief despite her intentions. The smell of her sweet summer skin. The smile that could break me into a thousand pieces that would take days the fit back together. That awful perfume she so loved that lingered lazily in the room long after she'd moved on to other endeavors.

The pain seemed to lessen. Lifting my hand to my face, the cooling blood red on my fingers, I thought it odd all I could think of was her lips on the rare occasion she would make herself up when we were expecting company or were planning to take the long trip into the city. I laughed at my foolishness and the pain returned sharp and cruel.

The bluebonnets reaching up above me swayed gently in the breeze, their outline blurring against the clear open sky. I closed my eyes and imagined them displayed in the vase her mother had given us when I'd announced my intentions to make her my wife. She would take such careful care of them. Under her hand they'd have stayed vibrant and bright long past their time. Why hadn't I the sense to do the same?

Fear

The first bullet made a very specific sound as it traveled past my head, like a fire cracker. I flinched and spun around toward the rooftops in the distance. In the middle of a long, open road between two rows of houses there was nothing to get behind, no ditch by the side, no crumbling husk of a burned out building, just me, the road, and a handful of forlorn sunflowers baking in the mid-morning sun. Crack! Another round went screaming by. Ahead, two of my squad mates were already posted up on the corner of the building looking through their scopes for the shooter. Someone was yelling. I started to run.

Everything they say is true; the world around me slowed to a crawl. My kit, still stiff and unshaped by sweat and heat, bounced on my shoulders and rubbed against my raw skin. Hot sweat dripped down from my helmet and burned my eyes. My vision blurred as I tried to wipe my face with a dusty glove. I passed each sunflower like a mile marker, their round open faces drooping toward the ground as if they’d grown tired of watching the violence.

As I reached the relative safety of the building’s edge I looked back. Breathing heavily, eyes still stinging, I stood there helpless, watching. One by one they ran: child, brother, father. Soldiers and sunflowers and a scared boy in new boots.

A Sense Of Home

At some point home became a memory, the yellow light of sodium vapor street lamps slogging its way through dense, wet fog. The sound of water beading at the tips of pine needles before tumbling to the sodden earth below. The constant hiss of distant waves crashing over rock and sand before being sucked back into the ocean. When I return now I notice so few of these details. Too busy looking forward to remember to look up the way we would as kids. Up at the twisting gnarled branches of the coastal oaks, at the blue-grey scrub jays squabbling over territories, at the occasional patch of blue sky punched through lumbering clouds.

Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring: were all just dates on calendars. They had no bearing on the weather. I wore flip-flops, shorts, and a sweatshirt. Blood running hot between football, soccer, and track practice. The crunch of the gravel of our old track beneath my feet. The sweet smell of grass and dirt caught between my cleats. The satisfying sip of thin, microwaved hot chocolate, cup warming my hands as I sat on freezing aluminum bleachers watching my friends play baseball. Tiny freeze dried marshmallows dissolving into foamy islands of sugar atop calm brown water before disappearing completely.

I can still smell her. The artificial tropical fruit in the shampoo she used. The way it would smack me in the face as she walked past me in the hall between class. How her laughter sent shivers down my back and shoulders. The excitement, the vibration of anticipation that I’ve never again found in adulthood. My disappointment, that aching knot in my stomach, when I found out she was dating one of my best friends. Some time later, our first kiss. The smooth skin of her arms and waist. Those near invisible downy hairs on her face, the ones she was probably embarrassed about, god, I could have studied them for hours. The salt of the tears I wiped from her cheek, sitting beside her, holding her in the corner of my bathroom where I found her after she’d gone missing from the party. I never found out why.

Every time I get a mouth full of sea water, every time I hear crying gulls, the thick, acrid stink of the rocks they’ve turned white with shit, every barking call between a mother sea lion and her pup, I’m back there. Standing too far from shore on slippery granite as the tide rolls in. Looking out at the gentle curve of the planet's surface, an unbroken blue.

Reflections Before a Train

 

Standing on the BART platform looking out over the hilltops west of Concord, the mirrored faces of a squat cluster of high rise buildings staring silently back, I fell into contemplation. The light fading over the darkened ridge, the remnants of a once lovely sunset past it's prime glimmered as I looked up at the thin wisps of clouds silhouetted against the dying day, I felt myself sink into a familiar, shallow melancholy. I asked myself how I'd let the comfort of my life make me feel uncomfortable in my own skin. 

The heat of day hung in the still air around the terminal, reflecting off the concrete stairwell where I was leaning. There's something in the way a warm evening lulls you into a sense of ease, freeing your mind to wander. You ponder what it would be like to sell your car, to make your way through the world with only your two legs and a pair of well worn shoes. Eventually you begin to ask where all the time's gone. How many afternoons, or mornings for that matter, have slipped into early mornings of the following day without complication? How did the fat around your waist inch itself outward ever so easily that you barely seemed to notice until one day you looked critically in the mirror and were disappointed with what you'd become? But these aren't the troubling questions are they? These are just what is reflected in the shallows before you dive in.

How many days do I have left? How long will I remain healthy? But more so than any of these thoughts which, to be honest, aren't all that interesting to me or anyone else, there's always a nagging reminder in watching the end of a day slip quietly into night that, no matter what I do, I'll never know all there is to know. Most of which I am lucky enough to learn, I will likely forget.

This is why we write isn't it? To let the page remember when the mind becomes weak. And it is indeed weak. Maybe that's why the distractions are so enticing. When we are left to turn the lens inward and take a careful catalogue of what is and what isn't in us, so much of what we come to find is worrisome. All of our quirks and our shortcomings, our fears and secrets. They're all there waiting for us every time like boxes of trinkets from our past we can't bring ourselves to throw away. The ones that accumulate forgotten on dusty shelves in the garage. Their whole purpose to wait to be opened, to remind us of what we've done, left undone, and what we've lost.

If I only glanced through the lens, my initial feeling would be that I'm afraid. But that's not it, not entirely. I'm occasionally startled by something I read or overhear but more so I'm disenchanted, like the switch that made me give a shit about anything got flipped a few years back and all I seem to do now is live day to day doing just enough to appear to others as if I have a sense of forward motion. Even this isn't the whole truth. I have motivations that drive me. A need to be recognized, an impulse to create. Recognizing the limits of these explanations I'm forced to look deeper, and it's there I find I'm confused.

Adult life seems a twisted mess of false imperatives. Everyone competing with everyone else, clawing over one another like rats escaping a sinking ship. But from what do we scurry? More importantly, what are we reaching for? Basic comforts? Food, shelter, the freedom that is afforded those who earn a wage sufficient to grant them access to the many thrills and wonders of our age. The car, travel by air, and maybe most importantly the computer and the wealth of information and opportunity scattered around the Internet. Beyond that what else is there? More of the same. Power. Influence. Fame: the chance to cheat death in the only way we've learned so far, by living on in the minds of others. Maybe it's all just various means to the same end of finding significance in the short window of time we're given.

So many seem convinced they've got it all figured out when in reality their position and opportunities just as often the product of chance and timing as they were of hard work and perseverance.

Of course there's hope. I see it in the heart-felt embrace of good friends reunited, and in the faces the young adults in class with me, now almost a full generation my junior. And I see it in myself. That I recognize there are many problems, many behaviors I'd like to change, doesn't mean that I feel imprisoned by that knowledge. Instead I feel it a great gift to have some sense self awareness, even if that comes at the cost of realizing the scope of my success may be more limited than I'd once dreamed.

As the last traces of light were extinguished over the hills, replaced by the artificial orange glow of street lamps, I looked out over Concord and thought of all of the roads I'd never walk. Of all the people I'd never know and of their stories that would remain a mystery to me. Taking a deep breath as the train pulled to a stop, I stepped through the glaring light that poured out of its open doors and exhaled. What choice do we have but to ride?

What's Wrong With Remember Me

What if you could shell out a couple bucks and forget your most painful memory? Better yet what if you could replace your memories with better ones and remix your life in your mind's eye to have unraveled exactly as you've always dreamed? Remember Me sets you in a world where this kind of power is a reality. But of course, as with all great power, there is a dark side.

You play as Nilin, an Errorist with the ability to not only erase the memories of others but remix them at will. The game begins with Nilin in a facility full of obnoxiously stereotypical scientists and meathead guards where she is being prepared to have her memory completely wiped out. Just as she's about to be strapped to the chair for a good old fashioned brain-scramble, a mysterious voice pipes into her thoughts and helps her escape. Then from towering high rises where robotic servants tend to the every need of Paris' elite, to the underworld slum where freedom fighters battle mutated human experiments gone wrong, Nilin parkours and punches her way through waves of robots of privately contracted corporate police all in the name of uncovering the truth. 

This is all well and good. The good intentions gone bad dystopian future is a easy backdrop to pit good versus evil - the righteous fighting to overcome the powerful. And this isn't what bothers me about Remember Me.

As you dig further into Nilin's past you come to find that her family is directly responsible for the technology that makes this whole world possible - her genius father, the creator. Great, we all love overly dramatic stakes. But what kills the plot for me is the actual reason why he decided to build these machines in the first place. It was a simple car crash. A car crash where Milin's mother runs a red light, gets t-boned, crushes her leg and blames Milin because she was being a distracting 7 year old in the back seat who wanted her birthday present given to her early.

Now I understand not every parent is going to win an award for how they relate to their children but the stakes of Milin's mother's life-long resentment seem so comically low that it's borderline retarded. It's not like her mother was an olympic hopeful, or that Nilin had a younger brother who put in a lifelong coma because of the accident. No, her mother comes to hate her only daughter because she has to wear a cast for a few months.

And Nilin's mother wasn't even permanently disabled. When you meet her later in the game, in her gigantic office as the CEO of Memorize (her husband's Orwellian mind control company) she is walking perfectly fine as she bitterly exposits how she's going to make them all pay...  who ever they are. At this point I stopped caring and just kept playing to see if it could possibly become any more melodramatic.

So now that I've basically ruined the story of the game for you should you even bother playing it?  

What works in Remember Me is the combat. It's fun and simple combo button mashing with the twist that you unlock new skill points called Pressens. Pressens do damage, regain health, lower the cool down time for a handful of abilities that you acquire along the way, and link combos to increase their point values. And these can all be mixed around depending on your fighting style and what kind of enemies you're up against. One of my favorites was a finishing move where you basically overload your victim's brain in an explosion of bright white 0's and 1's turning them into a heavily armored paper weight. 

The set pieces are beautiful and meticulously detailed giving you a real sense of emersion within the game world. The downside to this is that very little is interactive, so while Neo-Paris is gorgeous, she's also basically hands off.  I would have loved to have been able to speak with the courteous and diligent servant bots milling about, sample some of the "cheap proteins" on sale in the slum's open market, and who can count all the missed opportunities in the robo-whore house.

Overall I enjoyed the basic premise of Remember Me. What are we if not a collection of a lifetime of memories? How would the world react to being able to freely manipulate the past in such an immediate and visceral way. Would you want to be able to upload your memories to a public network, share them with your friends? Would this lead us to a more compassionate and understanding society? Or would it, as it did in Neo-Paris, lead to a epidemic of memory replacement addiction, sewer mutants, and unexplained psychic powers? Either way, teenagers would undoubtedly find a way to ruin it.

 

Spelunky and the Art of Damsel Foo

About 3 hours into playing Spelunky, a 2D platformer that puts you in the shoes of an adventurer on the hunt for the Ultimate Treasure through constantly randomized mines, I still haven't made it to the check point after the fourth stage of the first level. This is a game where you're going to die. Often. Normally with a game like this I'd put the controller down and move on to something else. Demon Souls, for instance, waxed me in under and hour - I don't think I've ever returned a GameFly envelope so fast. But here I sit, insisting on collecting just one more hunk of gold on my quest for buried riches.

Spelunky's random level creation keeps it feeling fresh and there's something addictive about the brutality. You feel like your little pith-helmated avatar is actually in danger. And he is. Giant spiders, walking skeletons, even tiny purple bats have a taste for your blood and your only constant companion is a flimsy leather whip, that only effective if time it's strike perfectly. Which I often do not.

As far as gameplay, I can't find anything to complain about. The controls are perfect and if you miss a jump or fall off a ledge, it's your fault, not the game's. But there's one thing that bothers me and it follows a common thread that's been saturating the entirety of digital entertainment media lately. It's the damsel in distress. 

If you play enough video games you start to notice certain tropes that rear their head again and again across ever genre. Many of them are hard to avoid given the mechanics the drive game narratives forward. Fetch quests, puzzles, character stat progression, boss fights, most of these are as old as the genre itself. Take for example, Super Mario Bros. It's one of the best selling and most recognizable gaming franchises of all time, and what's the basic story? You're a guy fighting through levels of baddies to save a princess who should have installed a more effective castle security system decades ago.

The point of Spelunky isn't to save a hapless woman though. It's an option. In each level she spawns randomly and it's you're choice to save her on not, and whichever you choose as no effect on the outcome aside from marking a check in the "damsels" column at the end of the level. On it's own this would be fine, I suppose. In the world of Spelunky, you just accept that a series of mute blondes have wandered aimlessly into ever deeper sections of this incredibly hostile system of mines. Just as you accept that a shop keeper would set up his wares 100s of meters below the surface of the Earth on the off chance that someone would occasionally happen upon it.

What bothered me was how you deal with her once you decide to "save" her. By pressing down and X you grab her and she's instantly knocked out cold. As she lays limp in your arms a pair of bright yellow lemons swirl around her head, as a sort of glasgow coma scale. Two lemons equals a 1/1/1 for anyone who's counting.  She remains this way unless you drop her, at which time she comes to and starts frantically running around with a distressed look on her face. I bet it's because she's glad someone as gentle and caring as you finally came to her rescue.

This isn't the best part though. Not only do you carry her around like a sack of rape potatoes, you can actually use her as a throwable weapon to kill enemies and set off traps. My hero (cried no woman in this game ever)!  Luckily for you though, as soon as you find the level exit she pops back to her feet and scurries though the door. In the following screen she's waiting for you happily to give you a big smooch before run past to the entrance to the next stage where the circle of violence continues.

Make of it what you will. Overall the came is incredibly fun, but if you're the type of person that looks for underlying messages in your entertainment, I doubt you'll find this a positive one. 

Stephen Score: 4/5

As a platformer, Spelunky is flawless. I just couldn't get past the creeper mechanic of how the damsel is utilized.