The Novel

After so much feedback on my scripts that my work is good, but too literary, I decided to write a novel.  I’m almost done with a second draft and it feels better than writing a script.  I must admit that I am a mild narcissist and writing a novel feeds that demon.

Two people very close to me read that first fragile draft and their criticism didn’t kill my confidence.  I think this is a good sign.  Another good sign as I close on the second draft is that I’m feeling much better about the story I want to tell, I feel more comfortable in these pages than I did in the last draft.  It’s like getting used to a new home.

What isn’t comfortable is trying to decide how to market the book.  I went to school for writing, not business, and now I realize I went about it all wrong.  I’ve always been a writer, so I should have studied banal market reach, consumer bases, and branding.  At the same time if I could do it all over again I would still go all in for that screenwriting degree.  To this day I still want to punch those business majors in the face.  I have nightmares that I will never get exposure because I have no idea how to seduce an audience.  Those business majors with copies of their resumes at the ready and smug attitude knew this was coming to every art student to cross their path.

Green Bananas

He buys green bananas.  That’s it.  Not yellow ones, not ones with spots.  His bananas must be green.  He doesn’t buy the coffee he takes from the free sample station.  He talks to the person handing out samples, exchanges pleasantries because he feels he must.  He feels he must do this because he knows he’s going to be a pain in the ass.  He’s a pain in the ass because after the third or fourth Dixie cup of free coffee he sneaks up to the door that leads to the EMPLOYEES ONLY back room and peers through porthole-sized window of one of the double doors.  He does this because he knows from experience not to open the doors and yell for help, or to walk inside and look through the bananas himself.

He watches for someone.  

He hopes he spots someone who doesn’t know him, someone who doesn’t know him like the sample station employees know him.  He doesn’t want someone who knows him because he doesn’t want a snarky attitude, he doesn’t want to draw any aggression or rancor.  All he wants are emerald green bananas.  The kind of green you find in Columbian banana tree fields.  The pure, organic, free-range green you cannot find in a supermarket thousands of miles away from its source.  The kind of green that only exists in a petty jerk’s imagination.

This is his day.  

One day out of his week, sometimes two, he spends it finding five to seven impossibly green bananas.  If there are green bananas on the sales floor he either does not notice them or, more plausibly, believes better ones are in the back of the store where shoppers are not allowed to go.  Except for him.

They call him “that fucking guy” or “that green banana perv mother fucker” or “for fuck’s sake he’s at the door, again.”  They call him these things because none of them want to know him personally.  He doesn’t offer anything more than anonymous small talk because he himself doesn’t want to humanize them.  They are robots, market place robots, and they must fetch him the greenest bananas – or even better – allow him to peruse a few unopened cases of bananas where he stands in their way looking for his weekly quota of under ripe fruit.

They don’t believe he eats anything else.  They think he should have died a long time ago, like koalas, because they only eat one fucking thing.  Koalas have eucalyptus.  Koalas will at least devour eucalyptus at any stage of its life because they are programmed by nature to only eat that plant.  Koalas have no choice.

This dude has a choice.  He can get back to his life, whatever that may be, or he can spend a day of his life getting up in the morning, getting dressed, looking at himself in the mirror and preparing for his trek to the grocery store for green bananas.  

He chooses green bananas.

They imagine he consults his reserves of patience by talking to himself in the mirror, pumping himself up for those green bananas, the secret ambrosia of life.  They wonder if he likes what he sees in the mirror (beyond the spittle and dust) but they’ve come to the conclusion that he doesn’t notice the pest he is to them.  He’s a pest because he blocks the doorway with a pitiful look, which is the equivalent of parking on the 405 (or heathen-car-madness for those who do not know) and gives this pathetic look to passing employees, requesting of all things, perfectly unripened bananas.

If he were asking for humans he’d be requesting fetuses.  This is the hard green banana he needs to survive.

Banana Perv is well-dressed, clean, and smells like he showers regularly and uses deodorant.  His sanity is not exactly in question.  But…

It’s all in his head, right?

Yes.  It is.  They do not entertain that bit of fancy, they don’t even voice it.  The vote is unanimous – Banana-Man is an asshole.  And yet… by being an asshole he makes them reflect upon their own lives.  What the hell am I hung up on?  What am I wasting my time with?  And, as sudden as his appearance and disappearance in and from the store, one day an employee sees the waste in their own life.  They are able to excise their “green bananas” from their own lives by watching this man waste his life for literal green bananas.  Through the magic of vicarious existence, the employees watch and learn what wasteful behavior looks like and how it kills a human soul.

Thank you, Banana-Man.  You are making a huge sacrifice for our well-being.  May your wisdom be as fresh and green as the moss that grows on Sisyphus’ boulder.

Social Currency

Ben sawed off the wing with a butcher knife.  The whole chicken, roasted in the oven, screamed for its life.  But it’s dead and smells delicious, Ben thought.  It had been two weeks of clicks and snaps in all of his senses, and like a worn out record, he could still understand reality but the breaks in his sanity were getting in the way of life’s music.  The first time he suspected his schizophrenia was returning was three weeks ago when his daughter cut her arm.  Just last week he had heard the table saw in the garage, but when he went to check on it the machine wasn’t on.  Things would taste different for a moment, a shadow moved on its own the other day, and now the roasted chicken screamed like a haunted house banshee.  The golden brown chicken hadn’t had a head since the slaughterhouse.  Ben was losing his mind, again.  He took his medication, Serpazine, like clockwork, so this should not be happening. Ben stabbed at the chicken to kill it again, but at the same time he knew it was just an auditory hallucination.

Maybe you should get rid of the snakes with the table saw.  A voice whispered.  Ben was definitely losing it.

He rinsed off the butcher knife and put it away.  Sharp objects would be a danger to himself and his daughter, Dana, if his antipsychotic was losing its power.  Ben wasn’t about to panic, however.  Giving in now would mean losing a long battle to be normal.  Ben believed he could overcome this change in his condition quietly and without incident.

Ben heard Dana shake herself awake in the living room where she had fallen asleep in front of the TV.  He wasn’t going to ruin her birthday and he had to be the strong one because she was sick, too.  He smiled when Dana slumped into the kitchen.  She was eighteen, now.  She had his green eyes and untamable waves of brown hair but Dana lost her olive complexion because her body was exhausted from fighting an infected laceration in her arm.  The infected area from her elbow to her wrist had the color of Victorian virgin cheeks that radiated heat in a diseased halo.  Her arm didn’t look like a part of Dana anymore, Ben thought, but that could just be the first whispers of his returning schizophrenia.

Three weeks ago Dana had stumbled and sliced her forearm on a jagged slab of rock while hiking a rigorous path in the Devil’s Punch Bowl.  It was the same arm she broke in a playground fight when she was eleven.  After cutting her arm on the rock, Dana refused to go to a hospital and would have refused First Aid from the park rangers, but Ben had listened to an inner voice that whispered violence and grabbed her arm like he was going to wrench it off.  Holding Dana like that was the only reason the rangers could do their work.  That was when he suspected the Serpazine was losing its hold on his sanity because he didn’t act out of love.  He held onto Dana like someone would after catching unknown animal that could be poisonous.  He had been frightened of being infected with her resolve to deny medical treatment.  Her resolve seemed suicidal at the time.  Later he realized she was just scared and he should have been there for her.

The bleeding stopped on the walk back to the car, but when he returned Dana to his ex-wife the cut reopened and seeped puss with a pink puffiness spreading up her arm.  Dana’s mother rushed Dana to the hospital and launched Ben into a legal gauntlet.  He succeeded in proving himself a responsible parent, again, thanks to the fact that he was still seeing his doctor and taking the Serpazine.  Dana was a trophy won against Mom.  He hoped she didn’t feel like an object.  He really did love Dana and cherished the bittersweetness of watching her grow up.

Dana’s visits broke up the monotony of the retail job he had advanced beyond minimum wage.  With his record Ben couldn’t get anything better.  The journey to control his schizophrenia was an unreal hell where he racked up two aggravated assaults and five public disturbances, and those were the charges that stuck to his record.  There were countless others he dodged because of his sickness.  Ben’s weekends with Dana were proof that he wasn’t a complete loser.  He had earned his visitation rights by staying out of jail and out of the asylum since the divorce.  He had been trouble free for seven years when Dana hurt her arm during that hike.

Ben set the table for three.  He felt the paranoia swell inside him like a balloon filling with polluted gas.  This was a sign of a relapse, suspicion edged into every thought and he’d begin to regard everyone, including Dana, with increasing judgement and fear.  If he started seeing diseased, oozy snakes, then it was too late and he’d be incapable of helping himself, or worse, incapable of saving Dana from himself.  He went to the bathroom and popped two Serpazines instead of one. He chewed them and braced himself for the uncut, absinthe bitter flavor.  The pills tasted sweet and made his teeth hurt.  Either his pills had magically changed to candy or his schizophrenia was messing with his senses.

Ben returned to find Dana itching her arm, a habit she had formed even with the special ointment that numbed the irritation of the stitches and bandages.

“Who’s joining us?”  Dana said.  Ben forced a chuckle and unset the third place at the table.

“I’m so tired these days.”  He said and it was the truth.  He couldn’t sleep, which was another sign his medications were wearing off.  His thoughts at night multiplied, all of them good ideas that crashed into one another.  His thoughts wanted him to do things, but the last remnants of the drugs in his system were still fighting back hard enough to make those thoughts unclear.

After dinner he got Dana’s medicine ready for the night.  She watched with an intensity that betrayed her anxiety.

“What is it, honey?”

“Nothing.”

“Boy trouble?”

“Shut up.”  Dana said and cracked a smile.  Ben was glad she was over the boy without legs.  He believed she said yes to a date with him out of pity.  It would be easy for a guy to use a freak accident to buy a girl’s pity.  By the time she cut her arm they had stopped going steady.  Now she wasn’t seeing anyone.  At first she’d get visits from friends, but as the infection raged on the novelty of a sick friend wore off.  Ben felt bad for her.  She was alone and Ben was thankful her condition was temporary.  The loneliness that mental diseases gift to their hosts is a disorder in its own right and far more terrible.  He set down the pills and a glass of water on a TV tray.  A tube of antiseptic ointment, a pain killer, and the last of the industrial strength antistaphylococcal penicillin.  Ben changed the bandage around the source of the infection, a jagged laceration ribbed with black stitches.  He spread the ointment over the bumps the stitches made of her swollen skin.

Cut it off.  Dana winced in pain and Ben had to remember that he shouldn’t listen to that voice, the voice that sounded like Dana’s and showed up in italics in his mind.

“Dad?”

“Yes?”

“I can do this if you’re preoccupied.

“No, I want to.  Sorry.  Just thinking.”

“You think a lot.”  Ben finished with the ointment and wrapped a new bandage around her arm, gentle this time.  She knew he was slipping, or so he thought.  If she told her mother then he’d lose her for good.  The horrible thing was that he couldn’t ask probing questions to see if she suspected anything.  The best thing to do was act normal and sneak out to the doctor tomorrow when he got groceries.

Ben saw Dana’s antibiotics were shy a full day and the pain killers were almost gone, too.  The missing antibiotics had to be accounted for or Dana would have to go back to her mother’s not seven hours after she arrived.

“Did you forget some of your pills?”

“Mom packed my bag.”

“That explains it.”

“Don’t take me back, not yet.”

“In the morning you’ll have to go back.”

“But I’m be an adult.”  Dana insisted.  Ben stood silent.  He let his suspicions wander and connect dots as he stared at his daughter.  Maybe Dana was playing them both for affection, blaming her mom for sabotage while in his house, yet telling her mother that she left her medicine on purpose just to go back.  Then, again, his ex-wife was capable of engineering short weekends.  Maybe they were both in on it, trying to appease the crazy man in their lives without having to spend too much time with him.  Ben felt angry and betrayed.

“What do you want to do for your birthday?”  Ben asked.  She didn’t have much freedom with that arm and the feeling was exasperated by turning eighteen today.

“Nothing.”

“Oh, ok.”  He said.  He wanted to hang out with her, watch a movie or play a board game.  He also knew this was a cardinal sin.  He was already uncool for being her father, but being crazy on top of that was a reputation killer.  Leniency was his choice of credit with Dana.  Hers was obedience.  It all gathered interest in a joint account that wasn’t quite love.  Ben knew what they had was some form of currency they needed to survive in a world they did not enjoy.  Ben noticed normal people made similar exchanges everyday.  A mother appeased a child with some forbidden corn syrup candy, a wife made a husband feel like a man for two minutes just so she could be at peace for a few days.  Ben didn’t see love in the world anymore, just denominations of quid-pro-quo.

Dana was heavy on withdrawals in their father/daughter dynamic, but it would bankrupt their relationship if he were strict like her mother, who was plagued with snakes coming out of her sleeves.  Ben couldn’t tell if he was remembering a hallucination or if his ex-wife really did have snakes for arms and he was having a concrete memory.

Cut off her snakes, whispered the voice that sounded like Dana’s if she were speaking low without moving her lips.  Ben bit the tip of his tongue to snap him back to reality.  He hoped his cover wasn’t blown.

“Here.”  Ben said and she gulped her pills and chased them with tap water.  She listed down the hall to her room.  Ben searched for the missing antibiotics his daughter needed tomorrow.  He searched his memory for gaps in the timeline.  If he had hidden them in a fugue state then his schizophrenia had gotten the best of him.  If his ex-wife had set him up then she knew he’d have to bring Dana back.  He wished he had thought of this sooner because now he was delaying the inevitable.  Ben marched towards the phone.  Photos of Dana over the years watched him like the inmates of neighboring cells.

Ben shut his eyes, what would he say to Dana’s mother?  She had placed Dana in peril by sabotaging her pill count, yet he would take the blame.  The day their marriage ended she had found out what crazy really was and that was seven years ago.  She and Dana, eleven-years-old with her arm set in a cast, had caught him stoking a bonfire in the backyard.  He had cut the arms off all of their long-sleeved articles of clothing to get rid of an infestation of snakes.  He then tried to cut their fingers off with pruning shears believing they were baby snakes sneaking back into the clothing.  Once he was back on the Serpazine Ben had agreed to the divorce.  To his ex-wife his compliance was like finding a strand of soft hay in a marriage of needles.  She allowed him time with Dana after he proved he was more responsible with his illness.  There was no forgiveness for hiding his schizophrenia from her or himself.  The pills and behavior therapy had worked so well that he thought he could be normal on his own.  He thought he had built some form of credit with his wife, but her faith in him was counterfeit.

Ben thought of his ex-wife.  He missed her no matter how hard he tried to make her the villain.  He had never apologized for what he did because he didn’t want to admit he failed at being normal.

The telephone rang.

“Hello?”  He said, expecting the voice to speak at him.

“She’s gotta come home.  I found her antibiotics.”  Dana’s mother said in strained words.  She was fighting panic.

“Dana is home.”  Ben said.

“I’m not looking for an argument.”

“She’ll be fine until morning.”

“She’s hurting herself.”  Dana’s mother said.  The last time they were in a room together they listened to a doctor talk about Dana’s broken arm when she was eleven-years-old.  She had gotten into a fight in school with a girl twice her size.  His ex-wife asked if it was possible that Dana was schizophrenic like her father.  Now, those worries were back after hundreds of reassurances that Dana would never be like Ben.  They had argued about this over and over and he was sick of the worry.  Didn’t his ex-wife see their daughter was an incredible person?

Hang up, she knows!  Said the voice, but Ben thought maybe the voice came from the heating duct at his feet and not in his mind.  The voice told Ben to end the call because he would telegraph that he was backsliding.  He bit his tongue until the metallic tang of blood soaked around his teeth.

“Ben.  I found a stash of antibiotics in her room.”

“What do you mean a stash?”

“She’s been hiding them under her mattress.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“I thought I’d call you before I called the police.”  Ben’s gut smoldered.  Dana would be taken to a padded cell, a gauntlet of paperwork and social workers.  All judges of normalcy.

“Do I have to be the responsible parent?”  She said.

“She took the dose she had.  She’ll be fine until morning.”

“Is she awake?”

“It’s her birthday, I won’t ruin that.”

“Put her on.”

“Do you know what they call the paper shoes they give to patients?  Piss catchers.”

“That’s right, how is your alma mater?”  Ben clenched his teeth against the hateful words he wanted to spew into the mouthpiece.  He fought the words, but they were coming to life inside his mouth.  He felt his teeth break and the words slithered from his broken maw and into the phone.  Ben felt his mouth, it was still intact.  It was just a hallucination, but the dead air over the line told him that he had said something to his ex-wife, something he had seen and felt instead of heard.  If whatever slithered from his mouth took on the form of words it would be just as ugly.

“Did I just say something?  I didn’t mean it.”

“Ben… how are you?”  He hung up on Dana’s mother so he couldn’t hear her crying.  She knew he was off the meds.  He didn’t have much time.

If Dana wanted to get rid of the antibiotics then she’d have flushed them, not hid them.  Hiding the antibiotics meant she needed them for later.  Ben didn’t know why she’d want to live with the infection.

“Dad?”  Dana said from her open doorway.  Ben shut his eyes and held himself.  Her face was weird, like thousands of worms in congress forming the likeness of his daughter.  Ben got himself together.  Dana was still Dana, no matter what he sensed.

“We need to talk.”  Ben said, organizing what his ex-wife told him and combating the rage that threatened to scatter his thoughts.  “Why are you hiding your antibiotics?”

“Because…”  Dana began, but she waved her bad arm because she didn’t know how to put it into words.

“Listen, honey, let me tell you about me and you stop me when things sound familiar.”  He told her about his illness.  About the animals he hurt as a kid and the asylum he lived in for years until the doctors found a drug and behavioral therapy that halted his schizophrenic progression.  He told Dana that his drugs weren’t working like they used to, and if they had been working at the time of her fall he might have saved her.

“You wouldn’t have stopped me.”  Dana said.  He felt his heart plunge and he leaned against the wall.  The Serpazine stopped all emotion and now that he was feeling again the emotions were overwhelming.  Most of all was the feeling of love for his daughter and the dread of what revelations were coming.

“You remember when I broke my arm in that fight?  That wasn’t an accident.  Neither was this.”  Dana said, running a finger down her injured arm from elbow to the tip of her hand.

“What does that mean?”  Ben said with a skip in his heart.

“When I was eleven I paid that girl my lunch money to twist my arm off.  On our hike I pretended to fall.  You weren’t looking when it happened.  I leaned into that sharp stone on purpose.”

“But why?”

“I replaced your pills with sugar.”  Dana said.  Ben staggered back because he thought she said snakes instead of sugar.  He processed her words, fighting the anger and misfiring electrons that made him perceive a different reality.  She had done this to him, but maybe that was the schizophrenia talking.  The sickness made him unreasonably paranoid and angry, working its way up to a panic rage so he could combat the impossible visions that were already starting.

“I thought I could control you.”

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard!  You and those snakes are crazy!”  Ben shouted, kicking at slithering shadows that used to be the grout between the kitchen tiles.

“Dad, I’m sorry.  You’ve been taking sugar for almost a month.  I thought… I thought you’d cut off my arm for me.”

“I’ll never see you, again.”  Ben said, shutting his eyes so he’d see a memory of Dana and not the shapeshifting, mangled form in front of his eyes.  The snakes had taken her away and you are seeing her imposter.

“Why did you do it?”  Ben snapped at the snakes, not realizing the question was relevant to the real world, too.

“I want to cut off my arm.”  Dana said, slapping her arm and gasping.  Ben opened his eyes hearing his daughter in pain. She was crazy like he was and she was having an episode right now.  Another part of Ben told him she was sane and only speaking from her heart.  Ben’s head pounded with the contradictory thoughts.  He made his way to the kitchen and he ate one of Dana’s painkillers, chewing it and savoring the intense bitterness that numbed his tongue and gums.  He swallowed the medicinal dust dry, the flavor reminiscent of his time in the asylum where he’d gone to get better long before he had ever met Dana’s mother.  Thanks to the asylum stay Ben became an automaton retrofitted for normal life.  As long as he took his antipsychotic.

“I’ve been trying to get the infection strong enough so they’d have to amputate, but you don’t have me long enough and Mom makes sure I get better when I’m with her.”  Ben threw an arm around her shoulder and Dana flinched.

“I may be crazy but I love you.”  Ben said, but removed his arm when he felt a sinister twinge in his muscles, like he wanted to strangle his daughter.  He imagined taking her injured arm and doing exactly what she wanted.  She had triggered a psychotic break to make him cut off her arm.  It would be just.

“I don’t understand.”  Ben said.

“I can’t make you, but it is everything to me.”

“You can try!”

“You don’t want me to go to a crazy house, like you, do you?”  If anyone found out about Dana’s secret they would lock Dana in a padded cell.  Ben would be held responsible because this was all possible under his supervision.  Ben would never see his daughter again and Dana would rot, never knowing herself, never living. 

She’s using you.  The voice said and Ben nodded to himself.  He was proud of her for such skillful manipulation and scared by her will to play with something as unpredictable as a mental breakdown.  Unpredictable except for the violence.

“I tried with the table saw, but it’s broken.  I can’t do it alone.”  She said and he felt that even if he were sane he would still humor his daughter’s wish for self-actualization.  It had been obvious for years in retrospect.  Family photos featured Dana with that arm stretched out of frame or hidden behind her back.  She only hugged with one arm.  The only photos she smiled in were those with her broken arm as a kid and on the day of the hike, which were the last photos he had taken of her.  She stood against the backdrop of the Angeles National Forest and the glacial slab she cut her arm on was a few feet to her left.

Dana’s only boyfriend had been the young man condemned to a wheel-chair after a car accident.  He had lost his legs.  Maybe that’s why they had broken up; she told him her desire.

She had taken action by creating diversions and accidents correctly assuming she would be punished for her desire to lose her arm.  Then she remembered how far Ben’s schizophrenia went that fateful day his illness sabotaged their lives.  It was a history he did not wish on his daughter.  He didn’t want to turn Dana into him, an empty shell thanks to the Serpazine that drained him of all emotion.

Normal is the new psychopathy, the voice said.  The only good that came out of his time in the asylum was an understanding that it was easier to act normal than demand tolerance.

“Do you still have my pills?”  Ben said.  Dana nodded and he followed her to her room where she pulled from under the mattress a Ziploc of white powder.

“I kept it just in case.”

“I need exact dosages.  It can kill me.”  He said, squeezing his eyes shut as he felt his reality shift and flicker.  The closest he could explain the feeling was being so drunk you were sober, watching your body and senses breakdown while at the same time you were logical and conscious.  Stress accelerated the change.

“Dad?  You ok?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry.  You need help.”

“Your mother will think I changed my pills.  I’ll never see you, again.”  Ben said and touched the white powder inside the plastic bag.  This fine sand was all that kept him safe in a life he was never able to engage fully with his whole being.

“I’ll tell them the truth.”  Dana said.

“You’re an adult now, you’ll be punished.  And even if they don’t they’ll still lock you up.”

“I’ll find a way even if it means I end up like you.”  She said and even under the spell of his sickness Ben could tell she was serious.

“That’s why I have to do this.”  Ben said and he heard Dana follow him to the bathroom.  He upended the bag over the wide open mouth of the toilet.  If he had choked down antipsychotic powder to regain full sanity he would have died from an overdose unable to feel anything.  Serpazine took two months to reach adequate levels in his system and, thanks to Dana, a little less than one month to go away.  Ben also dumped the pills she had filled with sugar.  He was going to lose Dana and he wanted to feel something before the police took him.  His heart skipped beats as it heard new music in his blood.  There was only one snake, now.  Her injured arm was slick with slimy scales and her fingers flicked out in forked tongues.  No wonder she wanted to cut it off.

“Dad?”

“I’m good at killing snakes.”  Ben calmed down a great deal, so much so that he realized he was only calm when he was himself.  His medicine made him tired and put his mind on one droning track.  Dana had been sabotaging his medication since before the hike, otherwise he wouldn’t have had the energy to go in the first place.

“Come on.  Your mother knows I’m off my meds.”

“Dad?”  Dana said, the hint of a smile began in the corner of her mouth.

“Tell me you’ll visit me.  Tell me you’ll remember me, that you love me.”

Her glittering eyes told him she would and did love him.  Ben had never been closer to another person and the love stabbed right through his weakening sanity and gave him meaning.

“We need to hurry.”  Ben handed her the bottle of painkillers Dana slapped two into her mouth and chewed them.  Ben followed her to the garage where he kept his tools.  Ben used to be a handyman.  He had let dust settle on his tools since the Serpazine robbed him of ambition.

Ben took off his belt and cinched it around her snake-arm.  It hissed at him.  Dana smiled like she was about to get on a rollercoaster, all adrenaline and sweet anticipation.

“I tried this last week, but it didn’t work.”  Dana said, placing her serpentine arm on the table saw and it flicked tongues over the polished surface.  Ben turned on the table saw and the blade swung up from a slit in the metal top.  Ben grazed his finger on the blade and it retracted instantly.  Ben wasn’t cut.  The machine shut down when static electricity shocked the blade.  It was designed for wood, not flesh.

Ben took Dana to a vice on a heavy counter and locked her arm in its cool jaws.

“I’ll never see you, again.”

“You ok with that?”

“You can’t live with this snake.  Trust me, I’ve tried.

Ben got a hacksaw hanging from a nail on the wall.  The vice’s jaws turned the snake feeding on his daughter an angry purple.  Ben looked into Dana’s eyes as he put his weight into the hacksaw.

“Happy birthday.”

Our Mad Tea Party

I cope with the social world by reminding myself that billions of different perspectives of reality clash and combine in order to make our present, collective reality.  Action and reaction, change and stasis.  I’m not talking about nature, the world absent of human interaction.  I have no trouble being alone and absorbing nature and natural process.  I have immense trouble with manufactured social constraints and people’s coping mechanisms, their selfish reality bubbles.  It’s hard to explain.  Bear with me.  The following is my own selfish reality bubble and my own coping mechanism.

People’s political views, religions, stances on social interaction, routine, tradition – these things that make up “culture” are lies that certain groups of people agree upon in order to make sense of a world that has no trouble existing without such views.  The world continues despite people’s apocalyptic prophesy, or laws designed to better our society.

On the flip side, some views change nature dramatically because these views  are forced and change human behavior, which in turn affects nature because there are no other options of action without punishment.

This brings me to Alice from Alice in Wonderland.  She spends the entire book attempting to force her views on a world that has its own mechanics.  She enters a world with a natural order and tries to change it so she can be comfortable.  The more she tries to make a “mad” world “sane,” the more unhappy she gets.  It’s not understanding the world that gets her down, it’s the rejection of her morals and significance that makes her miserable and angry.  Alice attempts to control what she perceives as madness through her (our) world’s reason.  The Red Queen claims control by force.  It seems to me that The Red Queen even has domain over time.  Do you think the citizens of Wonderland would adhere to something so banal as standardized time if it weren’t for the Queen lopping off heads?

Despite The Queen’s violence and Alice’s administering real world reason both Alice and the Queen fail in administering their brand of sanity on others.  The things you believe may not be real even if a whole population believes in the same things by way of conformity or force.  It’s obvious why the Queen’s values are wrong, but Alice’s logic is sound only in the waking world, our world, and it has no application in Wonderland.  Both Alice and the Queen are manifestations of the real Alice, who has been dreaming of herself and the Red Queen for the whole book.  Alice can’t even tame her own mind and while she is in Wonderland she is exasperated, frustrated, and furious.  Once she wakes up, Alice is cool, calm, and collected.  On a side note, isn’t it a trip that Alice is giving herself life lessons subconsciously?

Sometimes you have to wake up from your personal delusions in order to be happy.  Unfortunately, it’s easier to keep dreaming and recruit others into your selfish reality bubble by way of convincing those more ignorant than you or by forcing those weaker than you.  The kind of happiness created through lies uses people as fuel, and there are two types.  Friends and enemies.  Friends support your lie.  Enemies destroy it.  It’s important to have enemies.  Enemies give you and your friends someone or thing to fight against, an entity that makes your lie take on solid proportions and gives your people a sense of power.  As long as you are fighting an enemy you feel happy and real.

Here’s a litmus test for happiness: pretend you won your war.  Look around.  Do you still have friends and loved ones?  Or are you alone and empty?

Wonderland is anarchy.  Wonderland is your brain attempting to make sense of nature and people’s lies at the same time.  This is why I have two prints of John Tenniel’s illustrations from Alice in Wonderland in my bathroom.  As I prepare for my day I see these two prints.  One is of the White Rabbit checking his pocket watch.  This print helps me adjust my sense of time so it is in line with “everyone else” so I can meet friends and get to work, despite knowing full well that time is a lie we agree upon in order to coordinate actions.

(BTW:  the philosophy and phrasing “a lie agreed upon” I stole from David Milch, creator of Deadwood and modern day mind-fucker.  These lies are cultural phenomena or locally shared values that help humans live together.  Time, religion, politics, base ten counting, the Metric system, words, etc.  When you get opposing lies in close proximity you get violence, but on rare occasions compromise can also be found.)

The second print is of Alice sitting at the head of the table with the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Door Mouse.  Alice looks miserable.  She’s slouched down in her arm chair, sulking.  The Hatter and Hare are happy and active, shooting down all of Alice’s responses to their riddles.  They even make a disgrace of time by buttering their watches.  The more she tries to control The Mad Tea Party, the more happiness slips through her fingers.  Alice cannot enjoy the moment because she cannot accept the values of others.  She sits at the head of the table, but she has no power.  It’s not that the others don’t grant her power or they are fighting back, it’s that her views of the world make her insignificant in Wonderland.  Suddenly, Alice is the fool.

Imagine if Alice brought friends into Wonderland.  It would have been a far different story.  It would have been a bloodbath.  In fact, The Red Queen is Alice if she were to wage war on Wonderland.  Remember, Alice and The Red Queen are the same person because Alice is dreaming them both.

Alice would have been so much happier if she did what was best for her without trying to force her world on others.  In Wonderland she is capable of making friends, finding food and drink, and locating shelter.  She has all the tools for survival and socializing.  She is capable of happiness in this strange world, but her other world values get in the way.

The illustration of The Mad Tea Party stops me from forcing my reality on others by reminding me how ignorant and helpless I become when I do so.  It helps me keep an open mind.  It helps me ask questions and understand.  Most importantly, The Mad Tea Party reminds me that if I’m angry it means that I am holding on to something that probably isn’t real.

Beyond a Reasonable Shout

John came to the conclusion that every person he got to know was not worth killing.  The corollary being that strangers were expendable.  The paradox was that John had to get to know someone in order to know if they were worth killing.  He hadn’t met anyone deserving the hollow points in his illegal thirty-eight, but like any decent skeptic John kept his hopes up.

The thirty-eight caliber revolver rested on his hip in a tactical holster made for concealed carrying.   John bought the revolver at a gun shop with a shooting gallery where he tried out ten guns.  He liked the thirty-eight best for its compact size and reliability.  It was also the only gun he hit the target with and fortunately the law said nothing about accuracy requirements for purchasing firearms.  John only had to demonstrate safety and respect for the weapon and pass a background check that seemed less intrusive than the one conducted for his minimum wage job.  He also had to show proof of California residency, which he did using an old utility bill he grabbed from his recycling bin.  John was able to take home his brand new revolver registered in his name after ten days.

John had to erase his identity from the gun.  John would have to get rid of the gun without any way to trace it back to him.  A Google search told him exactly where to look on his gun’s make and model.

The serial number on the barrel he wore away with muriatic acid from the hardware store he worked at, one of those big box stores that are either blue or orange.  The store sold the acid to clean cement stains and smooth out metal.  John was given a raise for discovering a leak in one of the acid barrels.  He neglected to inform the store manager that he had made the leak with a defective screwdriver and hammer. He used eye protection, industrial rubber gloves, and a returned respirator to protect himself while he filled a glass tube made for testing pool water with the acid.  At home, John used the tube’s rubber cap to spread the acid in a thin film over the serial number.  He repeated the acid stripping on the inside of the handle after removing the grips where a second serial number was etched into the metal curve of the handle.  The last thing John did was shred his firearm license and buy his concealing holster off Amazon.

For a week, John clipped the holster to his belt and left the gun at home.  He got used to the feel of wearing the holster and moving with it.  No one was the wiser on the subway or at work.  John was too scared to carry the gun right away.  He practiced with the gun in the holster while in his apartment.  The first day he wore the gun concealed in public he didn’t even know it.  It had become a part of his body.

During that first week and into the second John watched people.  He eavesdropped.  He talked to his friends about the troubles they were having and overheard their complaints.  He formed a mental list of possible victims ranging from the homeless to celebrities.  People complained about other people all of the time, even wished total strangers to die for stupid reasons.  Towards the end of the last week, John thought he had found a person who needed to be killed.  She had cheated on a coworker of his and he found this out by overhearing the boyfriend’s enraged tirade against his now ex-girlfriend.

For three days John stalked the young woman.  She was pretty in a bouncy, spritely way.  Her new beau was equally attractive.  Seeing them together was like watching unicorns romp around east L.A.  They brunched Downtown at Eggslut.  They fell asleep to Netflix in her apartment.  She embraced him outside his place getting on her tippy toes to wrap her skinny arms around his thick neck.  John was weak at the knees watching them in love.  John could not kill this woman or her new boyfriend.  Their existence was not harming anyone.  Even if their love was ruining the world, John was hit with the sudden agony of having to decide what his rules were for murder.  The responsibility gave the gun at his side an ice cold aura.  John didn’t realize that the natural world would not provide him with a clear agenda.  John decided to focus on harm and actions that deprived people of their own rights and freedoms.

For the next three days John stalked the coworker who had wished his ex-girlfriend was dead.

The young man was a mess.  When he wasn’t partying with his friends he was failing at picking up women.  When he was alone he screamed at his Xbox and drank alone.  He cried himself to sleep most nights.  He came into work sloppy and stinking of Simpler Times.  When the coworker was fired, John girded his loins and loaded his revolver.  He’d put the sad boy out of his misery.  John waited outside the coworker’s apartment and as he waited he realized the coworker was pathetic, but did not deserve to die.  His existence, while less thrilling and more selfish than his ex-girlfriend’s, still was not a burden on anyone.

John spotted a homeless man trucking a shopping cart full of recyclables.  John followed at a distance.  He got closer.  The other two would-be victims he had gotten to know from a distance.  Maybe he had to get personal to really know if someone needed to be murdered.  John jogged to the homeless man, who eyed him with intense suspicion.

“What’s up?”  John blurted with what he hoped was a friendly smile.

“Qué?”  The man responded and stopped beside an overflowing trashcan.  He placed the trashcan between himself and John while he spilled the contents looking for glass and plastic.  John looked at the trash toppling over the sidewalk.  The noise of bottles clinking and clacking and plastic popping made John angry.  Not only was this man littering, but the noise was sure to wake people up.  John cooled his gun hand and his flaring temper because these misdemeanors were not worthy of capital punishment.  John asked himself why a person would hunt for recycling.  Pushing the heavy cart loaded with garbage was not an easy life.  The man was trying to make ends meet in a city that ended people daily.  The man’s existence was annoying, but no threat to anyone.  Even if the man was buying drugs and sleeping in cardboard he didn’t deserve to be shot like a rapist or murderer.

John helped the man load garbage bags with glass bottles and plastic containers for the rest of the night.  They didn’t speak.  John wanted to see more of this man’s life just to be sure he could not kill him.  John wondered if some non-violent offenders deserved to die, but he had no basis to go on.  He was making up the rules as he researched.

At daybreak, both of them were filthy from pilfering California Redemption Values.  The homeless man was like a dung beetle or other scavenging insects who dispose of the waste of larger animals.  They took the grocery cart to the Ralph’s on La Brea where a recycling center was located out back.  There, John saw men and women in a line with loads of recycling just like theirs.  The stench of whatever was left to curdle and vaporize in the recycled containers combined with the sour sweat and grime of a crowd of people digging for glass and plastic under the sun exercised John’s gag reflex.  No one else noticed the smell.  After helping sort plastic, paper, and glass the homeless man was paid seventy-five bucks for the trash.

“Now what?”  John asked the man.  The man looked at the cash in his hand with a sheepish smile.  John held up his hands in refusal.

“Gracias, amigo.”  The man folded the money and placed it into a worn bi-fold.  John caught a glimpse of family photos.  Two school portraits of girls and one wedding photo.  The girls, the man’s kids, were new photos, the wedding photo was no older than 1999.  This was how the man supported his family.  The thirty-eight felt heavy on John’s side.  He waved goodbye and scanned the crowd for someone who could lighten his pay load of hollow points.  Even if these people weren’t supporting a meager income and family they were doing no harm.  John walked away.

There were people who needed to die.  To say that everyone had worth was a lie just like saying everyone had to go was a lie.  The scales of nature were not prejudiced.  John wished the scales of social justice were as neutral.  John looked at the few pedestrians on the sidewalks, he scanned drivers stopped at intersections stiff with impatience in their cars.  The odds of him stumbling on a person committing a violent crime were slim.  He knew he wouldn’t stumble on such an event any time soon.  John also hoped he wouldn’t because he didn’t know that even witnessing violence was enough to pass judgement on someone he did not know.

John also did not have access to any warlords or dictators.  No way to plug a member of such-and-such terrorist cell.  He had to find a normal, everyday person who’s existence was more burden than boon.  This was an enormous undertaking.  The media made him believe that anyone he met would meet the criteria he was searching for in murder.  But that was why he started in the first place.  Proving his theory one way or the other would allow John to see the real world as it was, not as it was veiled by pop-culture and labels.  Speaking of which, there was no way John could stick his gun in the face of the latest sycophantic socialite and scatter his or her brains over some red carpet somewhere.  Celebrity was just as poisonous as terrorism because it pacified people into living their dreams vicariously.

And on that note, John didn’t even want to think about religion.

John had to settle for normal, everyday people for a few reasons.  One, he didn’t have the networking skills to get close to celebrities/politicians/clergy.  Two, even if he had the social clout to climb the classist ladders he wouldn’t because John wanted to get away with murder.  Three, proving even just one average person was worth killing or saving would speak more for humanity as a whole than chasing down someone who wasn’t anonymous.  While he hadn’t found anyone worth killing he also hadn’t found anyone worth saving.

The next day, John called out of work.  He took apart the thirty-eight by watching instructive Youtube videos.  He cleaned it, then put it all back together.  He even wiped the shells down so his fingerprints could not be taken from the spent casings.  He wrapped friction tape around the handle, hammer, and hair trigger for two reasons.  One, he wanted a sure grip, and two, he didn’t want to leave his prints on the gun or waste time rubbing them off when he needed to drop it and run.

John realized he was taking all of these precautions for when he killed someone, but he suspected he wouldn’t find that special someone.  He wouldn’t find that someone because no one deserved to die once you knew them beyond social labels and personal judgements.  John strapped the thirty-eight to his side out of habit.

At work the next day, John readjusted the pool chemical shelves.  Between hammering shelves out and back into place with a rubber mallet he watched customers and coworkers.  John felt ashamed that he believed he was justified in dealing out capital punishment.  Experiencing a few moments in another person’s shoes was enough to stay his hand.  What was most frustrating was he still believed there were people who did not deserve to live.  Then the obvious hit him as he watched a high school kid lift a bottle of soda from a refrigerator and stuff it down his pants.  John had to reverse his theory.  He had to get to know someone after the stranger committed a crime.

John followed the teen through Home & Garden into Hardware.  Here, the kid swiped a utility knife, slipping it from the shelf and into his sock.  John snuck up behind him and pretended to face a shelf of drywall screws.  He cleared his throat and the kid tensed up with a slow look over his shoulder.  John made eye contact.

“Can I help you?”  The teen shook his head and walked on towards the exit.  John followed.  The teenager was getting nervous and the soda sloshed inside his pants, the knife bounced inside his sock.  John picked up the pace and stomped behind the teen.  The kid broke into a sprint and went exactly where John needed him to go, out the emergency exit.

The exit lead to the back lot where no one was this time of day.  Even with the fire alarm going off from the teen rushing through the door, John knew they would have some time alone.  Enough time for murder.  John drew the thirty-eight.

“Stop!”  The teen looked over his shoulder with confidence until he saw John catching up to him with the gun leading his line of sight.  The teen whirled around, hands up.  John slapped a hand over the teen’s mouth before he could scream.

“Here!”  The teen said and kicked loose the utility knife from his sock.  He stuffed his hands down his pants to get the soda, but he got his hands trapped down there.  The teen shook from raw nerves that were used to video games, weed, and porn.  John thought the kid was going to have a heart attack.

“Why?”  John said and cracked the hammer back.  It was a satisfying sound and the hair trigger jolting behind his trigger finger was charged with sexual tension.

“I don’t know!  Just let me go!”  The teen shook so bad that his teeth chattered.  John had to make his decision now.  The teen wasn’t going to say anything intelligent and security would be on the way any second.  It was a school day.  The teen had skipped to spend his day shoplifting items he could either buy without a second thought or  never use in his shallow life.  John’s theory was based on harm to others.  He didn’t care what people did to themselves, or to corporations for that matter.  And he also wondered about Law itself.  Some things were legal and others not.  Odds of this teenager doing something good for humanity were slim, but John was conflicted because he didn’t know if he had the authority to judge an unknown future.

The soda in the kid’s pants burst from his nervous quaking.   Bright orange carbonation exploded between his hands and doused both his shirt and skinny pants.

John relaxed the hammer and holstered his thirty-eight.

John let the teen scamper away, too fast for two security guards and the store manager when they crashed through the emergency exit.  John leaned against the cold cement wall and pretended to be out of breath.  John pointed at the utility knife that was still in its packaging on the ground.

“Fucking kids.”  The store manager said, scooping up the knife.  “His parents should consider a post-natal abortion.”  They all went back inside.  One hour later John finished reorganizing the pool chemicals and clocked out for lunch.  The store manager called him to his office over the public address system.  John was followed by a cop and, upon entering the manager’s office, a second officer grabbed John by the neck and flung him over the manager’s desk.  The cop frisked him and found the thirty-eight.

“Jesus.  That kid saved us all!”  The cop exclaimed and turned to his partner in disbelief.  He held the thirty-eight between thumb and forefinger.  He took the store manager’s paper lunch bag, dumped the lunch inside, and dropped the gun into he bag.  He held it at arm’s length to his partner.  They both regarded the bag like it was a stool sample.  You take it!  No, you keep it!  The second cop set it on the desk.

“I’m gonna give his parents some store credit, their kid’s a hero!”  The manager said and tried to get out of his office.  The first cop stopped him.  He needed an official statement and John’s employee records.  The manager gulped and got to work with the first cop, the second officer grabbed his cuffs and tightened them around John wrists.  He lifted John up and pressed him into the wall.  John heard his Miranda Rights from far away.  If only I told the kid what was going on!  John thought, If he knew me this wouldn’t be happening!

“Listen.”  John said.

“Shut the fuck up.”  The cop told John.

“It’s not how it looks.”  John tried to turn around and look the cop in the eyes.  The cop smacked the back of John’s head and his face bounced off the wall.

“Shut the fuck up and stay still.”  The cop growled in John’s ear.  When the first officer got John’s employee folder they took him in handcuffs on to the sales floor.  The store manager lead the way like he was a four-star general with Hitler in-tow.  The cashiers stalled on customer transactions.  Customers gawked.  John looked around for someone who knew him, but of course no one did.  He opened his mouth to speak but the cop prodded John’s spine with his baton.

“Keep moving.”

Outside in the parking lot stood the teenager with his mother and father.  A third cop consoled the kid and asked him a question.

“Yes!  That’s him!  He stuck a gun in my face and dumped the soda on me when I wouldn’t take it!”  The kid said and tried to get tears to well up and roll down his bony face.  None came and none were needed to get sympathy freely from his parents.  The officer who made a show of standing in front of the teenager while John was ushered to a waiting police cruiser.  I should’ve shot him, John thought.

The police station was buzzing with rumors that had sprung from the teenager’s testimony.  John was charged with attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, conspiracy, planning a terrorist act, molestation of a minor, possession of an illegal firearm, and John blanked out from there.  No one gave him a chance to speak.  It was as if his fate had been decided once the cuffs wrapped around his wrists.  John was willing to pay the price for what he had done now that he was caught, but no one was interested in truth.  No one wanted to know his side of the story.  What they learned of John they got from his credit score, his employee records, and his laptop computer.  They interviewed ex-girlfriends, friends, and his parents.  No one was able to say anything to help him out because no one really knew him.  The detectives interviewed him once before his arraignment.  His court-appointed lawyer talked to him about plea bargains.  No one official or unofficial bothered to listen to his own pleas.  Life was easier when dealing with the anonymous and John sympathized.  His own life had been a breeze when he kept to himself and didn’t try getting to know anyone.

John’s speedy trial shipped him to San Quentin on a twenty-five to life sentence.  His possessions were placed in a box and he was given a prison jumpsuit and nondescript shoes to wear.  He looked like everyone else.  John’s tether to humanity had always been slack, but now he had been cut free.

The other convicts acted like they already knew him, just as the cops, lawyers, and judge had before them.  John looked into eyes that no longer contained identity except for what was provided by the Department of Corrections.  John’s only hope was to make himself known beyond the label given to him in the pursuit of justice.

The Devil of Hype City

I know I’m late to the party that has been going on between the covers of The Devil in the White City.  The hype is deserved and will no doubt grow once the movie adaptation makes waves on social media.  I’m just glad I got to the book before the cover became a marketing tool for the movie.  Yeah, I’m the sort of reader who hates reading a book in public that has a movie poster for a cover because I’m concerned you might think I’m reading the book because the movie’s coming out soon-ish.  Well, you’re right, but the cover helps hide the fact that I am a tool of social media hype.

Even without the gruesome and shocking details about H.H. Holmes and his castle of death the book captures the excitement of seeing the future from an end of the century perspective and proves that the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago sparked the world into the technological age where tunnel-vision product is all that matters.  You see, serial killer and proto-pickup artist Holmes was just as much a product of the fair as the Ferris Wheel or Pabst Blue Ribbon.  The only difference is no one commissioned his work.  Otherwise, and if you allow Holmes the loosely guesstimated 200+ murders, then you might say that Holmes was just as good at killing people for his own selfish needs as the construction of the fair killed workers while they built rich men’s dreams.  No matter what improvements to life and liberty that came of the fair’s construction, like unions and the eight hour work day, the old white men in their finery were always concerned with one thing; showing off their genius.  Once the fair was over none of the big wigs cared about the little people in the middle of economic crisis because it was time to move on to the next project using credentials from the fair to inflate their commission.  Holmes’ actions were reminiscent of this attitude: seduce, use, kill, repeat.  The only difference is that Holmes cleaned up his messes as best he could, while the savvy architects and politicians let Chicago go back to its filthy ways once they were done harvesting the fair’s proceeds.

But to say nothing good came of the fair is a gross error.  The modern work week and hours were enforced, laborers unionized, health codes developed, and the rules broken in aesthetics and architecture paved new roads to a brighter future.  Unfortunately, with such rapid development of dreams in society the 1893 World’s Fair seems to have solidified the trope of the anonymous man allowed to cultivate his darkest desires.  Not only was Holmes killing women in a cycle, but another man by the name of Prendergast was left alone with his delusions of grandeur and the shocking end to his short story in The Devil in the White City shows that individuals who feel pushed to the anonymous margins of a society they wish to be a part of will react violently either in secret or openly.  We know there were secret killers and openly violent men like Holmes and Prendergast before 1893 in the likes of Jack the Ripper and John Wilkes Booth, but it seems the World’s Fair and industrialization in general became the primordial ooze of sociopathic nurturing.  More recent iterations of Holmes and Prendergast are found in “The Grim Sleeper” who stalked prostitutes in south L.A. earlier this decade and your pick of this week’s raging gunman.  The painstaking amount of work to make both Holmes and Prendergast human to the reader in The Devil in the White City  gets you to see their motives and understand, while the talking heads of today close their reports with “we’ll never know why, so let’s move on to arguing instead of doing.”

My take away from The Devil in the White City is that no matter how far we push civilization, and no matter how pretty it looks as a whole, if the people are forgotten and wasted in the process then we will reap a diseased and poisonous future despite its many glittering entertainments.

K-Town

Korea Town, Los Angeles.  From Western to Vermont and Beverly to Olympic, the border lines containing one of L.A.’s most sacred lies.  You can live here alone and not end up eating Ramen and slurping tap water to make ends meet.  You can be alone and still afford a night out in more affluent areas you know you will live in one day.  You can afford this area and still believe it’s just temporary because your headshots will find their way to THE casting agent, or your script will be read by THAT producer.  You can live here and still afford to believe in your dreams.  Korea Town is in the middle of it all, the clearance shelving unit in the middle of the gauche department store.  You’re surrounded by wealth and every once in a while the wealth touches you.  After a time you realize this wasn’t the area you thought it would be.  Korea Town promised a “young and new night life” and “affordable luxury” for the influx of young film grads who don’t know any better.  Year after year they come for the cheap housing, arriving from places too far away to actually see this deteriorating landing strip for Hollywood Hopefuls.  K-Town looks good from afar, but it is far from good.

You look up this cube of zoning that the L.A. elite attempt to gentrify every so often and you discover through the L.A. Times Crime Map that there’s a lot of crime here.  And you never see it happen.  Even when crime hits your block of ancient hotels-turned-apartment buildings you never see anything.  You hear the sirens, but you never see justice.  You sit writing that script or planning your web series in an old, former hotel room that is sweltering in summer and the landlord reminds you there are no A/C units allowed because they’ll scratch the peeling paint on the window sill.  Your room is colder than the air outside during the crisp L.A. “winter,” which is really just a brisk spring for the freshly transferred East Coasters who still have their thick blood.  The room transforms into a dry sauna without any breeze through the open window when summer rages late August.  You live in L.A. long enough and you hear snippets of conversations between twenty-somethings at Starbucks “If I had known I would never have moved to K-Town” or “It’s affordable, but no one wants to come to my place.  I’m not gonna get laid for a year!”  Eight hundred bucks with utilities included didn’t look bad when you were planning your big move from your parents’ basement after saving for your coming career in showbiz.

But when you get here you see the Latinos selling street food on the corners, the homeless staggering around, the trash filling the gutters, and the discarded mattresses and furniture from those who got the fuck out.  The only clean things you notice are the new restaurants that will go out of business in six months and the blocky Korean storefront signs that are neon beacons in a zone of brown, gray, and pale red.

You move in anyway.  You move in knowing you gotta start somewhere and you’ve got high hopes.  Really, you just fucked up and there’s no backing out.  You left home, you crossed thousands of miles, you signed that lease.  You’re gonna do one year.  One year is all you need to make something of yourself within the four streets that may as well be the nicknames given to the invisible walls that make your prison.  They will be your compass from now on, clockwise: Beverly, Vermont, Olympic, Western.

In three months you’ll get used to falling asleep to Mariachi music, babies crying, and emergency sirens, in six months you’ll have tough skin for tuning haters out when you say where you’re living and the haters make passive aggressive comments, and when you’re drunk you’ll hear yourself defending your living situation.  In nine months you’ll be furious with how Korea Town is advertised (gentrified buildings, clean streets, night life) versus what you really get for shelling out for this bait and switch deal (squalor, filth, crime – the affordable K-Town).  In a year you’re more focused on getting out than on your still-budding showbiz career and your degree is collecting dust.  You have the days counted down to when you can get out, you call friends for tips on where to live and who you can room with, and those calls are not returned.  You realize you are in the middle of it all, the glitz, glam, but no one sees you anymore.  A year is almost up, your lease is about to switch to month-to-month, you can leave anytime after that date you have X’d in red.  You will leave.  You will get the hell out and make up for lost time and sleep.  You’re gonna be a star.

Forget it, Jack, this is K-Town.

I love K-Town, baby.  Most people give it a bad story and blame it for their stunted lives.  Let me tell you one true thing, these young white college boys and girls were stunted long before they got here.  The other ethnicities here have actually moved up in life when they get to K-Town.  They know what bad living situations are.  Regardless, any part of L.A. can get shitty real quick.  Just go into the Trader Joe’s on Hollywood and Vine, 1600 Vine for those of you getting a ride there, and odds are you can catch security using pepper spray on someone for shoplifting or just being a wasted piece of shit in public.  Security tries to pepper the perps outside the store, but most of the time things get out of hand too fast and they do it right there in the frozen foods aisle.  The way the wind rushes into the store due to the ventilation system the pepper spray disperses and for half an hour everyone is coughing and red-eyed right in the middle of family friendly Hollywood where the star walk gathers the most gawkers.  Any place in L.A. is ripe for chaos.  Don’t let the advertising fool you.

K-Town has the best bars and that’s good enough for me.  It’s a town you want to visit briefly – get drunk, eat good food, and then bail at high speed on a full stomach spiked with soju.  You don’t want to live here unless you’ve had worse, like MacArthur Park, but that’s another blog post lurking in my memory.

I came to L.A. full of wonder, innocence, and Hollywood dreams.  The only thing that remains now is the wonder.  I saw a body last week here in K-Town.  No news vans, no chaos, no crowds.  Slow Korea Town nights, just part of the natural cycle of a city caught in its own whirlpool of hype.

Coroners waved flashlights around the bloated body that sagged over the sidewalk and into the parking lot.  The homeless man’s possessions lay about.  A filthy sleeping bag lumped over strips of cardboard.  A pink hair brush.  Two garbage bags and a shopping cart.  I felt bad for him.  He probably wanted the same things I took for granted and he did the best he could on a sidewalk outside a place where people cleaned their clothes.  

I was the only one watching, everyone else close by was either getting paid to deal with the body or walking home to recharge for another day of what the world forgets happens in L.A.; normal life.  I love K-Town because it makes no apologies or distractions.  Stay ugly, K-Town, L.A. needs your aches and disorder to stay in touch with reality.

The Bride Wore Black

Cornell Woolrich nails the Femme Fatale trope with a fresh twist in The Bride Wore Black.  From beginning to end, you’re routing for the mysterious woman who is killing off men with clever wit and shocking determination.  It isn’t until the final pages that you discover the why? of it all, but from the start Woolrich weaves a rich cast of characters, but what makes you burn through the pages is that by getting familiar with the victims you get to know the murderess, who remains nameless for the majority of the novel and a mystery shrouded behind the designs of the killings.

Many stories have trouble keeping things secret and still remain interesting.  The Bride Wore Black serves up five distinct murders without divulging its core until the very end, which makes me wonder if I’d be just as thrilled with the story had Woolrich never revealed the big why?, which actually turns out to be very simple.  Are we so enamored by violent death that it is enough to show it without moral bearings or reason in the end?  I wonder about this because for most of the novel the reader is not given anything to go on.  A woman is killing men, planning in fine detail each murder, each more grisly than the last and more desperate as she gets closer to her unknown goal.  Woolrich offers nothing and it occurred to me that I was assuming she was in the right from the get go.  I had assumed the men she was killing off had wronged her in someway, that the murders were justified homicides even if the law both as portrayed in the book and in real life were and would be opposed to vigilante justice.  I assumed killing people was sound and I overlooked the fact that my justifications for her actions didn’t have any sort of logical foundation.  The novel doesn’t force itself on you, the reader willingly hopes for the woman to succeed and you discard logic and morality believing this mystery femme has done the brain work for you – and for the right(eous) reasons.

At the very end, a quick plot twist pulls the proverbial rug out from under the murderess, and the reader.  I’m too late for the Spoiler Alert, maybe, but Woolrich’s prose is like strong magic tricks, even when you’ve seen how they work, the trick still hooks you every time.  The Bride Wore Black will hex you just like black magic and the curse is condoning murder, something none of us would ever do, right?

Cold Moon

Blue Moon.  The second full moon in a month.  Won’t happen again for eighteen years, won’t have a blue moon on New Year’s Eve for… I don’t know how long.  Not long enough?  Too soon?  Maggie said a Blue Moon in December is a “Cold Moon.”  Every Blue Moon has a name according to its month.  It’s not actually cold in L.A.  More like “Lukewarm Moon.”  Cold, maybe, in emotion, in action.

One o’clock New Year’s morning and everyone is dying.  Two hours before most of L.A. was screaming “Happy New Year!” already drunk and then drinking one more in complete bliss and humanitarian spirit.  Maybe another for the road.

Two hours later, after the witching hour in this brave new world, people are screaming for help.  I hear nothing but sirens.  Police.  Paramedics.  Fire trucks.  I heard nothing but sirens at 2 am, when the celebrating citizens realized they had three too many and were drowning in their own filth, or crashed on a freeway, or victim to some other horror that happens when unarmed and intoxicated people walk the streets believing the world is a better place than it is.  So, there were many cries for help this morning of the New Year and those sirens were the first thing I heard, like the trumpets of Revelation.  The end.  Was it seven angels and their seven trumpets bringing down cities?  The analogy amuses me but I don’t believe in it.  The end is the beginning for those who survive.

I heard the world end this morning, but maybe those were the cries of a newborn. Wailing sirens sped past the hospital room window hoping to be there in time, hoping this wasn’t a year like all the others where people got hurt or died by ignorant and embarrassing means.  I was unable to rest and after the siren’s were gone I listened to Rachel sleep.  I wondered what she would think of it all when she woke up because I knew what I thought now and I couldn’t sleep because nothing had changed in world.  I couldn’t do anything, just like last year and the year before.  I wished I had drank as much as she did so I’d be unconscious during these first clumsy steps into the new year.

I sat awake knowing that those sirens were rescuing people who had made resolutions.  Millions of people thinking over and over “I am going to _____” or “I am not going to ____” and now those resolutions were forgotten in a panic of just trying to survive to see the sunrise, or drowned by intoxication to be forgotten in a fog of headaches and de ja vu.  Those resolutions were off to a good start.  I hadn’t made any resolution, I don’t think most of my friends did, either.  After so many years of wishing I noticed there was always more alcohol and drugs and larger screens than the year before.  Far less wishing and even less promises.  I was just waiting around like so many other young adults in L.A.  Waiting, wanting, waning.

I thought about the dinner.  Around nine last night we, that is, Rachel and I walked with Maggie to a swank restaurant close by, dressed to kill and die for, Rachel even wore heels which she never does.  It’s nice to play dress up and go out on the town, to down champagne in a fine place where everyone is smiling.  We huddled at the corner of the bar, waiting for our table, wondering what to drink.  It’s important to start the night off with the right drink, especially tonight.  I shamefully picked an amber ale, not even on tap, while Rachel and Maggie got the sales pitch for a champagne cocktail, something with top shelf bubbly and raspberries.  Rachel allowed me a sip, just one, and it was everything the waitress said it would be, a rare moment where advertising meets expectations.  Our table was ready and we took our drinks to a booth in the back, close to the restrooms and quiet.  We ordered fondue served with apple slices and bread, Rachel got a salad, I ordered something with meat and potatoes, and Maggie… I forget.  The night gets foggy from here.  I remember the food was excellent and then I had another bourbon with bitters and a slice of blood orange while Rachel and Maggie were going into their third raspberry champagne elixir.  I sipped bourbon the rest of the night and even with the heavy meal I was feeling buzzed.

Each of the drinks came with a little plastic animal hanging from the rim of the glass.  By the time I noticed just how drunk we were we had a zoo, two monkeys were mine, the other ten animals (four neon green gazelles, a lone blue elephant with half a trunk, two pink wolves, and three yellow monkeys) were split evenly between the women and they were trying their best to conceal just how drunk they were.  I was feeling pretty good myself and I sipped the last bit of bourbon and chewed on the slice of blood orange.  I gathered up the animals and Rachel slapped her credit card on the check that appeared out of thin air.  Rachel got up to use the restroom and I watched, hoping she wouldn’t fall flat on her face.  She made it to a short line of other tipsy young ladies waiting their turn, no longer smiling, just waiting and leaning hard against the wall, watching the ladies’ room door.  We had decided not to stay for the countdown and I was glad the plan was still sticking because the night was losing its original handsome luster.  The check vanished and returned, just in time for Rachel’s return.  She signed and complained to me that her phone wasn’t working.  I picked it up.  Her phone was vibrating and wouldn’t stop.  The screen was dark.  I knew she had dropped the cell into the toilet and she was too guarded to admit she was that drunk.

Outside, Rachel made me stop so she could gauge if her heels would be too painful for the trek home.  She decided to go barefoot and balanced against a divider separating the outside seating section from the sidewalk so she could take off her heels.  She lifted one heel off and I heard Maggie yell a warning.  Rachel fell into me and I was thrown back.  Our fall echoed all around Wilshire Boulevard.  The partition Rachel had held onto was now lying on top of her legs.  She removed one leg and whimpered.  The partition was not bolted to the sidewalk and I don’t know why I assumed that the part wall, part garden partition for the restaurant’s outdoor seating area would be secured to the sidewalk, but as I looked into Rachel’s watering eyes I couldn’t believe it.

I picked up the partition with Maggie’s help.  Rachel screamed, the leg she hadn’t moved didn’t look right.  Underneath the gardening soil from the partition and the increasing flow of blood I could see bone, a tiny sliver of white jutting out of her knee.  The people inside were pointing, laughing, and trying not to stare at the drunk people and their antics.  They couldn’t see what had happened now that the partition was back in place.  Maggie called 911 and I held Rachel’s hand.  I never thought I could see pain, but I saw it where I usually saw love in Rachel’s eyes.  Watery, intense, and blind.  I don’t think she could see me.  Her broken leg held her hostage.  I thought it was an awful thing for a body to do.  Pain was a message and Rachel had received it loud and clear and it was time for it to go away, but it wasn’t.  I helped her sit up and held her hair back as she puked next to me.  She gasped and said something to me, but her words were drowned out by the siren, the first of many to come.  Two paramedics climbed out of the back and pushed me aside.

“I was hoping it wouldn’t be like last year.”  Said one of the medics, the younger one, and his hard-boiled partner looked at him like it was already a long night.  The younger medic asked Rachel basic health related questions, allergies, that sort of thing.
“Make any New Year’s resolutions?”  He asked with a forced smile.  I appreciated him trying to cheer her up, but it wasn’t making anything better.  The older medic grunted, a sign for the rookie to shut up.

I sit in a chair next to Rachel’s hospital bed.  My mind comes full circle as I look up at the setting full moon, the cold light dying out and the sun only hours away from making its first appearance this year.  Rachel sleeps soundly, she’s going to miss the sunrise, but that’s fine.  Her leg is hoisted up and in a cast.  It wasn’t as bad as it had looked and from the hustle in the hospital I can tell hundreds of people are discovering they are getting much worse from the coming year.  I stroke Rachel’s hair and she murmurs in her sleep.  I wonder if she did have a resolution.  What would I resolve to do this year?  I thought about it while watching the revolving red lights from the ambulances.  The spinning lights cast Film Noir shadows across the hospital room in red waves.  I wouldn’t want to start over, to repeat anything, I had no regrets.  I made my resolution with no witnesses in the pale lunar glow and the swirling lights of emergency vehicles.  I resolved to do what I could, to keep trying, and to make the best of what I couldn’t control.  I would tell Rachel in the morning what I thought.  She would like it.  You couldn’t promise yourself so many specific things, only promise yourself you’d try to roll with the chaos, try to make some warmth in the light of a cold moon.

Daughters, Lock Up Your Mothers

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn makes you question all the things your mother did while you were growing up.  Were her deeds in the name of love? Did she nurture your best character, or was her love designed to feed her selfish needs using you as social currency?  Sharp Objects takes a look at a kind of love that turns life into a currency used for one’s own superficial survival.

Camille, a journalist, uses people to get to the story that her readers feed on, since she reports on crime, her stories feed her audience’s vicarious need to see a world no one wants to be a part of, but still desire a glimpse.  Through reporting she carves vicious images into her readers through her words just as she literally cuts words into her own skin.  Right as she is ready to heal from her troubled past, a crime develops  in her Missouri hometown.  Flynn tells the story from Camille’s point of view, and Camille is constantly fighting between her desire to leave people alone and her job where she must invade the personal space of families, witnesses, and suspects in order to tell the story.  Camille chooses to disconnect people from their humanity and dissolve them into an element of her story.  Even as she means well, her devotion to the story ends up victimizing people already in a state of grief and fear over a very real murder.

Camille’s mother, aptly named Adora, is hard to pin down from the start, but her motives become clear through well-timed discoveries on Camille’s part that unveil the crime she’s reporting on and also her own past.  Is her mother trying to hide knowledge of the crime?  Or is she merely cold towards Camille because she is the black sheep of the family.  Adora’s love is closely guarded and is paid out with a miser’s view of what she’s getting in return.  Through Adora you begin to understand where Camille got her manipulative skills for journalism and her fight to hold herself to a higher degree of moral behavior begins to take its toll in alcohol, flesh that begs to be cut, and a past that has more and more to do with the present as Camille digs deeper.

Flynn’s pacing and timing for character reveals is just as thrilling as in Gone Girl.  The mechanics of Sharp Objects run smoothly.  From Camille’s festering word-scars interjecting into her thoughts, to twists in the plot that I never saw coming but in retrospect were hidden within character actions, Sharp Objects tells a solid thriller in a familiar detective story frame work.  What makes Flynn’s story fresh is her calculated deconstruction of love and the social bonds we hold so dear in our everyday lives.  After reading Sharp Objects you might feel better being alone because we are only condemned for our good deeds and our victims remain mute witnesses, unconscious or dead.

Grab some bandages and rubbing alcohol.  You will get paper cuts on this fast, disturbing read.