Be Still, My Bleating Heart

My heart screams, unheard.

I felt this silent scream while talking about a Halloween event  I went to as a kid.  An event hosted by a penitentiary.  There was a haunted house,  a corn field maze, and a haunted hayride all operated by the prison inmates and guards.

I told this story as if it were normal.

I tell a lot of “normal” stories.  This time I realized I needed to unpack this particular story because it’s just one brick making up the foundation I stand on.  I realized my childhood was unlike any other because I was completely transformed by fright.

Horror is my first love.

Scary wasn’t fun at first.  I was scared of everything.

So, when did fright get fun?  Friends of mine.  We liked to scare each other.  We still do.

I remember the first time I went to his house.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Names have not been edited to protect the guilty.

Keil’s house ended up being my first haunted house.  It was a mad scientist lab of makeshift toys, art projects, and a massive backyard that dipped into a creek on the edge of a forest.  He invited me to a Halloween party.  I was a nervous a wreck going to any social event.  I have no idea how my mother got me out of the car and left me there with him and friends from school.  I was too old to believe people were different in the dark, but that didn’t change the fact that I believed the kids I went to school with were different in the light of the moon, in handmade costumes, vanishing into the shadow of his house.

He doesn’t know it, but it’s here that I learned to laugh at myself.  It’s in his home that I learned to adore the macabre, to appreciate gore.  His house was the exact opposite of my own.  We crushed blood pellets in the backs of our mouths and drooled blood, we traded and compared monster masks, we ate homemade cookies and bobbed for apples.  He invited us one by one into a dark room where we felt the eyes, brains, and intestines of a dead witch.  I knew the eyes were grapes, the brains spaghetti, and the intestines were sausage links, but I realized it was more fun to give in to the fantasy.  A shrinking part of me did not enjoy this at all, but I laughed at it and said goodbye, digging my hands into cold pasta as if I were really killing a witch.

From then on we took random turns at each other, testing limits, and discussing afterwards.  I was skinny, so I could squeeze between bookshelves or under beds, reach out and grab my friend, his little brother, or anyone else to happen by.

Sometimes no one came.

One time we were at his aunt’s house and there was a scythe hanging on a wall in the basement.  I took it down, felt the heft; a good kind of heavy only old farm tools earn after decades of use and deserved retirement.  Sweat-stained wood soft as silk and a rusty curved blade like the sliver of a harvest moon.  I waited for anyone to come through the door, ready to feign a swipe and split a cheshire smile.  No one came for a good thirty minutes.  I found them eating dinner.

“I waited forever down there!”  I said and we laughed as we dissected a prank that would have sent most squares to the hospital for emotional distress.  That’s what we did, scares that succeeded or failed were pulled apart to see how they worked.  We looked at horror as both art and machinery.  Sudden screams were always good; driving in a car, reading together, walking through the woods all held the delicious tension of someone suddenly shrieking with a lunge at your face.

Keil developed a photography project based on this premise.  To get his best shot he burst from the weeds lining a creek as his brother and friend were canoeing, snapping the photo right when they were flailing in panic, oars flying into the air.  Time frozen where the zenith of terror and comedy converge.

Horror becomes comedy when you are given permission to ignore empathy.

One night my friend told me we were going to a haunted house.  His aunt worked at a penitentiary.  I either didn’t know this at the time or I didn’t think it was relevant.  I do remember that he said “she’s really fun to scare!”  He never mentioned the prison, I do remember that.  He never said anything about being scared by real criminals.

The grounds around the prison used to be farmland.  The barn was the haunted house, there was a cornfield maze of dead stalks and rope, an old tractor tugged along a creaking trailer over dirt paths for a haunted hayride.

We took turns scaring my friend’s aunt from the parking the lot to the line at the entrance.  It was overcast, foggy.  Horror perfection.  I had become a consumer of the macabre, no longer the kid scared of everything.  I wore this like a badge of honor.  The moment I felt scared I refused to run.  Returning to that cry-baby-scaredy-cat boy was far more terrifying than being shredded by Grendel, taken to hell by a demon, or slaughtered by serial killer.

His aunt screamed every time we scared her, but she laughed afterwards.  This was fun and safe.  Her coworkers, the guards who worked along side her, also scared her.  It only occurs to me now that if she did feel threatened she could’ve taken us all out thanks to prison sanctioned no-holds-barred martial arts training.

There was spiced cider warmed over fire pits.  Entry cost a quarter.  The moment we crossed the line my friends and I saw what you could do with real planning, what could be done when you really loved horror.

The first shock was during the hayride.  Execution by hanging.  A man didn’t plead for his life, he went to the noose with his head up, telling the prison officials that he would return… then the trapdoor dropped and he snapped midair, swaying there with the setting sun backlighting the show.  I knew it was fake, but it was so real.  Now’s the place where you want me to tell you these were low-level security inmates, but I have no idea to this day.  Maybe some of them were violent criminals.  Maybe some of them were even scheduled for death row.  Maybe… just maybe that inmate who played the hanged man was awaiting his own capital punishment.  Maybe he got it that night…

But, no!  Of course these were minimum security prisoners!  No one in their right mind would have a charity haunted house hosted by maximum security convicts… right?  Well, I don’t know.  I never cared to ask.  We were having too much fun.

The hayride proceeded with convicts chasing the trailer, spooky sounds echoed from the surrounding farmland and woods.  The ride circled back to the field where we entered.  Warm cider kindled our need for more fright.  We went into the maze, we were chased by demons in jailhouse chains, and survived.  Our only injuries were our smiles, which by then were painful to hold yet we could not stop.

Halfway through the haunted house the lights came on, the actors struck an “at ease” pose, and guards came through with flashlights.  They conducted a headcount of the state’s ghouls and goblins.  The guards left, the actors resumed their positions and when the lights flickered out it was back to business.

Prisoners enacted electric chair deaths, real cow parts served for a mutilated corpse, which were  poked and prodded by an inmate who shook a cow’s tongue at us, telling us not to run… no matter what happened.

After that we planned our own scares.  The random jolts were there, but we needed more.  We needed to go beyond random, individual pranks that were concocted in the lull of a dull moment.  These guerrilla style attacks always started with “let’s scare [insert victim’s name here]!”  Brainstorming commenced as we dissected our victim’s persona, what they were afraid of, what their routine was, and how best to show how much we loved this person by scaring him or her to death.  We really did this out of love.  The balance must be right; the end of horror should be timed so that the instant fear is felt it is also the same moment it ends.

We kept pushing that line.

I wasn’t there when it broke.

Keil was the mastermind for the scare that ended all scares.  He enlisted my friends and his father.  The victim was one of us, of course.  We never stepped outside our small ring of compadres.  I’d like to think I would have stopped this last scare before it got out of hand.  I thought my friends would have and as the story was related to me I saw they had every chance to end it before it went too far.

Sometimes the people working behind the stage believe they’re part of the play.

I believe what happened was that everyone involved got so familiar with the props and the stage management that they were too close to remember just how terrifying it would be to someone experiencing the scare for the first time.  Maybe they didn’t believe it would work.  For years we told jokes about elaborate scares we would pull off.  “Hey, when you fall asleep, we’re going to put you on a boat full of spiders and float you down the creek!”  Terrifying, for sure, but hilarious due to the impracticalities of execution.  But as we got older and more aware of our resources and freedom… well, in retrospect, things clicked.  At some point growing up means you pay for how you played.

As I look back I see this was inevitable.  We kept adding layers to our pranks to one-up each other.  No one had even thought of picking up a real weapon before me, when I hefted that scythe and skulked in the shadows.  Keil developed a two-fold prank where one person leapt from around a corner or from a dark room, scaring their quarry, cutting the tension just so and then – ROAR! – a second prankster scared the victim, again.

Before that night in the cemetery no one had thought of creating a narrative to steer a victim.  No one had ever thought of doing a scary activity to disarm someone before actually putting on the real scare.

Like technology, we got increasing returns of paranoia from haunting each other.  We stopped trusting each other.  Following a friend into a room could trigger a scare, leaving a room alone was dangerous, walking through the woods was tense unless all your friends were in sight.  Hide-and-seek took on a whole new meaning.  Swimming in the dark pond close to Keil’s home was a nightmare.  It was always there.  Card games, building camp fires, talking about school and girls, but always wondering two things as if we were implanted with a passive sub-routine: Are they planning a scare?  How can I scare them before they get me?  Even to this day I go to work and wonder if the crazy bum trying to talk to me is part of some sleight to distract me from their real scare.  I wasn’t with them when the fun ended, so I can’t quite believe the scares are over for me.

Part of me hopes they still scare each other now that they know the absolute limit.  I see Youtubers devoted to playing this sort of game on strangers.  I feel sorry for the strangers roped into a selfish social world without consent.  My friends and I had perfected the “Art of the Scare” since the days before the Internet.  My friends and I consented to being scared.  We never scared strangers.  People on the outside had to prove their worth before they were gifted with a good scare.  There had always been an understanding that this behavior within our group was okay, mandatory, even.  It’s why we gravitated to each other.  We traded scares like some kids traded cards.

I guess I can’t pontificate anymore until you know what happened.  No one died, no weapons were involved.  It started with wonderful intentions (by our macabre standards) and ended with the killing stab of reality.  I asked Keil to write his first-person account and I’ve copied it below.  My own thoughts will be in Italics for clarity, fact-checking, and humor.  Feel free to take breaks and hug something or someone.  This is intense.


In 2009, I was home visiting from LA. For the occasion, Aaron came home from college at Penn State, along with his [then] girlfriend Steph. Eric was working in NYC, and he planned to come visit while I was home. Thus, we decided to set up a prank before his arrival…

Because we were in rural PA, where we often talk about fearing the gun-toting, Deliverance and Texas Chainsaw-reminiscent locals, we hit upon this idea: make a human dummy, wrapped in plastic and slung from a tree, and stumble upon it in the woods to imply that we’ve discovered a murder… and then suggest that the murderer knows we’ve seen his handiwork! So, in about an hour, Aaron, Steph, and I made a life-size dummy and wrapped it in black plastic. (I recall making the key suggestion of wrapping the head in white plastic to set it apart, thinking a black-wrapped object might not be obviously a body unless it clearly has a head.)  [specifically recall they not only used white plastic for the head but they placed a prop skull inside so that the plastic conformed to the bone.  Maybe it was an elaboration told to me at the time years ago, but I do love that level of detail.]

Before I go on, two important contextual notes: we are a group of friends who relish pranking each other, and we believed that it would be difficult to convince our victim that this was real (having a history of practical jokes, and how this required some unorthodox setup). So we felt that our friend Eric was a consenting target.

Eric was set to arrive in the evening. Before the sun set, we enlisted the help of our dad, Nick, and drove about five miles from our house into the State Game Lands, a remote section of wilderness [allow me to stress this point even more – the “middle of nowhere” is only five miles away from their house, or in other words: his house is the only “somewhere” for miles around.  Cell phone reception at this time was non-existent, weak dial-up internet was the only sign of modern civilization, when driving around it wasn’t uncommon to glimpse an outhouse or Amish community, but most of the time you never saw another living soul and that’s all before getting into these game lands]. We cruised dirt roads until we found a sufficiently isolated stretch. We stopped and threw several lengths of rope over tree limbs so that they hung down across the road — this would serve as a marker for us to find the right spot that night, and as an ominous sign of something weird from the point of view of our victim. Then we hiked uphill from the road about 50 yards. We tied a rope around the “ankles” of the dummy, and hoisted it upside down into the tree so that its head was about as high as ours. By daylight, it looked sort of ridiculous.

Back home, we waited for night to fall and Eric to come. He ended up being later than expected, which stressed us out because we didn’t want someone else to happen upon the body and end up being collateral prankees. We also knew that the later it got, the harder it would be to convince Eric that we should go for a joyride. When he finally came, everyone was tired and low-energy, and it had started to drizzle. In our minds, it would be a clear red flag if it was crazy late, rainy, and we then proposed our plans for the night: “Hey, Eric, good to see you after many months of separation! Wanna go to the cemetery and freak ourselves out?” It was kind of a strange suggestion, since it wasn’t a common pastime — we could much more easily just stay home and play games or shoot each other with pellet guns [technically airsoft pistols… soft they are not] or watch a movie [most likely horror] or… really anything else [like scaring Eric in the house?]. Eric was instantly incredulous. He had just rode a subway to a train to a long car ride to get here. But Aaron was especially enthusiastic: we wanted to go to Katy’s Church, a nearby cemetery [technically graveyard for it’s size and church occupying the same property.  The church is an odd wooden structure I’ve only ever seen backlit by the moon.  The memory is eighteen years old, a battered mental polaroid dissolving in its own development.  A small, sharp-edged cottage that bisected the moon with its steeple.  The tombstones are old, sticking out of the ground at odd angles.  Classic romantic horror] that was rumored to be haunted, and even though none of us are supernaturalists, we knew we could freak ourselves out just by being there — and that would be fun. (Here it’s also important to note that Aaron, myself, and Steph divided ourselves up into different “roles” — Aaron was to be his usual over-enthusiastic self, Steph was a more grounded voice of reason, and I would be an aloof, unafraid, naive version of myself [they’re not acting, trust me]. We hoped this mix of energies would be useful in pushing Eric along in our plot. So, with that combined pressure from Aaron, Steph, and myself, Eric agreed to go for a late-night ride.

We got into our stick-shift Nissan according to plan: I was driving, Steph was in the passenger seat, and Aaron was in the back left behind the driver. That’s so Eric would have to take the back right seat, which would end up being front-row center for falling into our trap. Driving through the back roads, we worked ourselves up by telling made-up urban legends [this should’ve killed the prank right here, there are no urban legends about this area that I’m aware of, so maybe they made one up about Katy?]. We mostly just laughed — but it seemed to justify our “mission”. About halfway to Katy’s Church, I slowed down… pointing out ropes dangling over the road. We agreed it was strange, but kinda cool. I stopped the car, idling. “Cool! I’m gonna swing on ‘em,” Aaron said as he jumped out. Bathed in the headlights, he grabbed a rope and tried swinging from the bank out over the road. It looked genuinely fun. But Eric was already uncomfortable, uttering uncertainties and growing a little annoyed at Aaron’s exuberance [Aaron’s exuberance doesn’t require fear to be annoying]. Then I turned off the car, leaving the lights on, yanked the keys and jumped out to join Aaron. We swung a few times on the rope, then got back in the car. Eric was already unnerved. The ropes were pretty weird, not something we see all the time [any sign of human life out here is deeply unsettling]. I started the car, but before driving away, Aaron interjected — “Hey — what’s that light up there?”

We looked out the window up into the woods about 50 yards, where a lone light was shining. In the darkness of the woods it was hard to tell if it was really close or miles away. Eric was already creeped out, and said, “Who cares? Let’s go.” But Aaron, Keil [the author of this deposition for this one sentence turns third-person – why?], and Steph were intrigued by the strange light up in the woods. “What if it’s a hiker or somebody who needs help?” It was kind of a strange hypothesis, and it required a combined effort of realistic-acting to justify getting out to go investigate [Keil, Aaron, and Steph are not exactly out of character, either]. Eric was so (understandably) against the thought of leaving our car to go see about a mystery light in the woods. It was that sort of horror movie moment where everyone is shouting at the dumb kids to not make obvious mistakes. But we took about 15 minutes of impromptu discussion to compel Eric to follow us [this should have exposed the prank because fifteen minutes is a long time to be chilling out here, unless you’re hunting, fucking, lost, or killing]. He eventually came just because all three of us (at different times and different levels of enthusiasm) decided to leave the car and go check it out. But we did, and Eric followed — more because he didn’t want to be left alone.

We hiked up into the woods toward the beacon of light. We let Eric point out the two other ropes dangling from trees along the way. As we got closer, it became clear that the light wasn’t a faraway house foisting an optical illusion: it was very near, and it was a flashlight lying on the ground. That was unnerving in itself… who leaves a lit flashlight on the ground in the middle of nowhere? And it must have been recent enough for the battery to still be good. These questions ran through our brains as we arrived at the fallen flashlight. Its beam reflecting off our bodies was just enough to illuminate the hanging corpse — but Eric hadn’t seen it yet. So we stood, staring, waiting. Then, slowly, he looked up and his brain started to make sense of what it was seeing: just at the edge of the light illuminating this patch of woods was a human corpse duct-taped in plastic and hanging upside down from a tree! [and if we can believe the omitted detail that there’s a life-sized replica skull under the white plastic head wrap then THERE’S THE FACE OF DEATH STARING BACK AT YOU!]

Eric stared for an eternal moment, and said in a low, certain, horrified voice, “It’s a body.”

Then he turned and disappeared. All we heard were his panicked footfalls retreating toward the car. He moved really fast… we ran after him, giving chase, but his fight-or-flight level adrenaline gave him Herculean powers. He reached the car and jumped in the back [let’s take a breather here and remark on how polite Eric is – he goes right back to his assigned seat.  Also, let’s remember that he is at least five miles away from ANYTHING, especially decent human beings capable of empathy]. I remember as I was running feeling thrilled, and even laughing — it worked too perfectly!

We all jumped into the car. We were panting and faux-scared, and even laughing a little — but even that worked for the situation because it was so real and confusing, and laughter is bundled up with fear and strong emotion in the brain. Playing the dumb guy, and wanting to confirm that Eric really saw what we hoped he’d see, I asked, “What’s wrong? What did you see?”

Eric was [is] strong-willed, decisive. “I saw a body. Hanging. In a tree. Upside down.”

I laughed, incredulous. “Are you joking?”

Aaron asked, “Is this a prank? Are you serious?”

Eric confirmed for us: “I’m serious. I’m not joking. It’s not a prank. Let’s go!”

Steph and Aaron chimed in, urging us to get the hell out of there.

Still aloof and disbelieving, I sluggishly reached for the key in my pocket. But it wasn’t there. “Oh shit,” I said. “I don’t have the key.”

Aaron and Steph jumped in, growing panicked themselves. “Look for it!”

I checked all my pockets and the car around me. No key. I sheepishly realized the truth. “It must have fallen out when I was swinging on the rope!”

Everyone groaned. Except Eric — he was truly terrified, voice wavering but struggling to remain calm. The windows of the car were fogging up. The night outside felt really dark and deep. Steph and Aaron were whispering harshly about what to do. Eric was scared, but also calm, cool — in survival mode. He looked out the window, back up at the light in the woods…

Then, the flashlight MOVED. The light was picked up, and began moving toward us.

Oh shit. Now the killer knows we’ve seen his victim!

This is where Eric’s calm-and-collected survival instinct moved into morbid terror and deathly panic. But still he kept cool, urging me… “Keil, find the key. Just find the key. Find the fucking key. Is there a spare?” [for the city folk reading this harrowing account: in rural settings back in the day most people hid a spare key on the outside of their car.  There’s no phone service, no Lyft or Uber, no Net.  You go off hunting in the woods and realize you put buckshot where you normally stuff your keys, or you misplace your keys in your own home and need to get to work, or you drop them running from a killer in the State Game Lands, then you need a spare set because AAA and the cops won’t know, ever.  The spare key was (still is?) an element of survival in picturesque PA, usually attached via magnet in a wheel well or a bumper.]

Aaron, also incredibly scared now, nodded. “There’s a spare tied [tied?] to the front grill.”

Eric dropped into problem-solving mode. “Can you get to it?”

Aaron nodded. “Keep an eye out for me. And if you see anything, if that light gets too close, honk and I’ll run back.” He opened the door and slipped out of the safety of the car. He moved up to the hood, performing the fear so perfectly, too genuinely, keeping an eye on the approaching light in the woods. He crouched at the front of the car, reaching into the grill to find the spare. Eric and Steph kept an eye on the light in the woods — it was still being held aloft by someone up there, just wavering, shining down at us.

Sticks and twigs cracked on other sides of the car — making us wonder if there were more than one person out here?!

All our hopes were on Aaron. But he popped up in front of the hood, in the headlights, frustrated. He ran back and jumped into the car. “I can’t find it.” Everyone’s spirits slumped. The flashlight in the woods resumed its advance. We were all terrified, swept up in the charade. Steph was crying, though I suspected she was coughing back laughter behind the tears. I managed to keep laughing to release tension because I was playing a real doofus — every time Eric tried to solve the problem, I was incredulous, never taking the situation seriously, acting as though it was all in his imagination [I realize now that this is how Keil edits my writing.  Love you, bro!]. This gaslighting character made the ordeal not just terrifying but also incredibly frustrating. Thus incredibly funny.

But then, without hope, Eric’s fear turned a corner from pure terror into helplessness, he lost the strong, cool-and-collected problem-solver persona we had seen and became overwhelmed. That’s when we realized it was time to cut this short… I “miraculously” found the car key on the floor, and started the engine. That renewed Eric’s hope, which seems to be a key [ha!] ingredient in survival circumstances — he was back to problem-solving self-preservation. I managed to pull away, but was going slow. Eric wasn’t in the mood for my nonchalance. “Fucking drive!”

That’s when a pickup truck careened around the corner behind us. Everyone screamed. I sped up a little, but not enough to avoid getting rear-ended by an angry truck driver. (I forgot to mention the car we were in was a junker on its last legs that we already determined could do with some rear-fender scratches) [Keil forgot to mention this because sacrificing cars is a common theme within his family – filming an action scene?  Cool, ram car A into Van B – Dad always wanted to peel donuts and never got the chance as a kid?  Cool, let’s all climb in and take turns tearing up the yard – ever wonder if old buckshot can puncture metal or bust windows?  Cool, shoot the car and see what happens!] 

I [Keil] managed to shift the car into a higher gear and pull off, the truck faded away behind us along with our screams, and we rocketed down the dirt road. As we neared the stop sign leading to the main road ahead, Eric admonished me, “Don’t stop.” Still, I downshifted and slowed to a full stop even though we were alone with no other traffic for miles in every direction. Then I pulled out… and intentionally stalled. The car died. “Shit, shit, shit!” We looked out the back to see if the truck was still in pursuit. I managed to restart the engine.

Moving out onto the main road, we drove for a while. Eric was still in survival-badass mode. “What do we do? Should we go to the police? What the fuck do we do?” It was hard to imagine next steps — just go back to our respective houses? But what if the killer was tracking us, would we endanger everyone at home? All these uncertainties we aired in the car. Aaron, Steph, and I breathed deep. Now came the awkward moment… do we just keep this going and work through things, maybe extend it to the whole weekend? After all this escalation and effective pranking, which took almost an hour of in-character improvisation under intense circumstances, we hadn’t figured on an ending. We didn’t think it would get this far. We thought as soon as he saw the body he would know we were pranking him. From our point of view, it was obvious: we pulled him out here into the woods and now we happened upon some out-of-this-world shit. But we hadn’t counted on the effectiveness of a good setup, something that’s been confirmed by my experience with the Yes Men. If a “mark” swallows the hook — that is, if the reality of a situation is sufficiently established — you can push people incredibly far. Farther than you ever think possible. Once snared, it’s hard for anyone to pull out and think critically, especially if emotional or physical stakes are on the line. It’s probably a similar sort of effect as when people are snared by cults, or religions, or any ideology really.

So, not wanting this to keep going, we just started laughing. Slowly at first, then building. Pretty soon, with us laughing hard enough, Eric just looked at us, dumbfounded. He realized we’d pranked him, and the entire evening morphed in his mind to have a completely different meaning. We apologized, and told him we hadn’t thought it would work so well.

I turned the car around we started driving back to the scene of the crime, which to Eric’s shell-shocked mind felt deeply irrational; to drive back toward the threat. But he overcame that, and we arrived back at the spot where my dad, Nick, was waiting with the truck. We had hoped to show Eric the whole setup in a different light, but Nick had already taken down the body and ropes. Eric gazed into the truck bed at the body, lost in adrenalized confusion and amazement.

He may have said other things, but what I remember most was his stupefied expression as he turned to us and said, “Thank you.” Though traumatized, he was strangely grateful to know what it’s like to think you’re about to die.


That was by far so much better and worse than what I had heard years ago.  I think it was cruel in retrospect, but a cruelty without villains and without warning.  Every scare and prank to that point was welcome and asked for and there was no way to know for certain this was a bad idea beforehand.  It’s no good thing to be in a situation where you believe you will die, but it is incredible to discover how you will act in an emergency.  Not many find out.  Eric knows.  A part of me is envious.  A part of me knows I’m probably next.  Three reasons: I’m the only one they have not pranked, I’ve written this exposé, and the scares haven’t ended because Keil told me as much when he sent his deposition.  The thought of a true end to the pranks is too scary to fathom.  Eric agrees.

We did this out of love.  We scared each other to make apparent just how safe we are, that comfort is a touch away, that our victims would never be without love by virtue of the excellent human they had become.  Our friendship was kindled by giving each other a glimpse of life without that friendship.  Like the guards counting heads or gripping a familiar hand in the dark, the veil is lifted and returned.  The pranks are physical reassurances that you never left your peace behind.

You can touch this fire, marvel at it, and you will not burn.

But if you do burn, so do those close to you even if they were the ones offering fire.  We are each branded.  Even though I wasn’t there I know I bear the mark of that night.  Under some spectral blacklight we share a luminous design behind our eyes and every time we get together we see it.

Through my friendship with these imps of the veil over the decades I learned about fear.  I learned it is thinking that gets you out of trouble and through these scary exercises the necessary thoughts became instinctual action.  Until The Night in the Game Lands none of us realized our scare tactics were both training and proving grounds as well as ridiculous fun.  In a way we scare each other to see how we are progressing and growing as delightful humans.

Before these friends I was on a path of indoctrinated inaction.  Every problem could be overcome through prayer.  I was taught to trust in a great and boundless nothing to save me from anything, from bad grades to certain doom.  The scares were lessons on what it is to be in touch with yourself, your biology and being.  The scares refocused reality on what really mattered; good people and a nurtured self because when the veil drops this is all you have.  There is no Deus Ex Liber/Machina/Caelum, there isn’t a force field that will protect you.  There is only luck, yourself, and the hopefully dependable people around you.

What makes The Night in the Game Lands so profound is that this incident leveled all illusions about safety by creating a complete illusion of dire straights.  The event razed everything Eric could trust except for himself.  Every prank up to that point only took away one aspect of a safe life.  This last scare was overwhelming in its design – friends could not be trusted, unfamiliar territory, and a string of shit luck left Eric with only himself to get out of the situation.  Eric took control.  Eric felt panic, but he did not let panic dictate his actions.  We can only hope to be like him if we’re ever met with real danger.  For better he knows he won’t break, for worse Eric will be called upon for bravery from now on.  He’s proven himself and we know it, and now he will carry the burden of being the guy who didn’t break.

That’s the only apology he is owed.

From now on those close to him who get into trouble will have Eric’s number on speed dial because three maniacal geniuses pushed the “horror for humor” line too far and got a hero in return.

Eric was there when I was in trouble.  Years after The Night in the Game Lands, he visited Los Angeles on a business trip and spent the night at my place.  At the time I was in a shockingly awful relationship.  I was trying to hold the relationship together more out of fear of failure than love.  It was killing me and he knew it.  Eric listened and offered advice with incredible patience and tact, a quiet and calm bravery that helped me face the horror of the broken household I was trying to maintain.

I can’t remember exactly what was said.  I was in the grip of panic at first.  The gist of what he told me was it’s okay to feel panic or any negative emotion, what matters is how you act upon what you feel from the world around you, to analyze and act.  You have everything you need to get out of danger when you realize you can take initiative.  I imagined him in those woods, bolting at first and then coming to grips with the situation, delegating tasks, not giving up on getting back to normal even if that normality would be different from how things started.  He told me that’s what I had to fight for; a new normal that seemed unimaginable and unattainable, which made seeking it scary and daunting.

I’d like to thank Eric for teaching us all a valuable lesson.  Unfortunately, admitting that his crazy, terrible night was a gift will only spark more elaborate pranks for the rest of us.  So, let’s be honest and realize it doesn’t take a near death experience to bring the best out in people, or to know that you can be cool in the face of despair and terror by only getting close to death.  It doesn’t take years of scaring each other to navigate life successfully.

But we learned some valuable lessons over the years of scaring each other.  Such as, what manipulation looks like.  Such as, what it feels like when your body reacts to sinister stimuli before your eyes and brain register emergency.  These things and more are now part of our self-understanding.  It all comes at a price.

That’s why my heart cries out for more pranks with the gang.  That’s why I keep it muffled in my chest.  There’s a deeper reason why we don’t talk about our pranks with outsiders.  There is a flip side to our outlandish culture.  My friends and I simulate misfortune and emergency because we’ve had the good luck of never being in a dire situation.  At least I haven’t.  There have been close calls realized in retrospect, but nothing that compares to our planned scares.  Nothing that happened for real.  The Night in the Game Lands forced us to see a reflection of real danger, real bad luck.  Even after Eric saw that his terror was the result of an elaborate prank the fear was still there in him and in us because some people do experience this sort of thing for real.

Some people get into true horror and never come back.  Some do return.  Our pranks threaten to mock their real, terrible experience.  The pranks we pull on each other are an extension of love in our small group, but also a privilege to those uninitiated to our culture – especially to someone with firsthand experience of terror.  It seems that The Night in the Game Lands wasn’t just the most realistic simulation unleashed, but also the turning point we never saw coming.  It wasn’t until after, maybe years later, that we saw we were adults trying to reconnect with childhood fun.   We realized we had always been balanced on a razor’s edge between a fantasy we pretended we could not control and a reality that happens to people all of the time.  In retrospect, this sort of terror could have happened to anyone of us, and yet it visited someone else, leaving us free to explore horror without the consequence of trauma.

But that privilege is a consequence.  We cannot stop scaring each other because one day (or night) a real emergency will find us.  We need to keep honing edges that dull quickly in a safe life.  We need to keep having our fun in order to be primed when the fun ends…

Or if the fun doesn’t end.

Be still, my bleating heart.  If we must tempt fate then let us have fun so we remember where safety lies.

A Window

Yesterday I noticed someone had tried to draw a window on the floor of the subway station.  Either this mysterious artist had to catch a train or run from the police for the vandal act, so it was left unfinished in what could only be misinterpreted as a swastika.  Unfortunately, I had to catch a train, too.  After work I saw that it was still there.  Here it is:img_2753

I thought maybe by tomorrow it would be gone, but I was wrong.  I did not bring a marker to help finish his/her work, so I couldn’t help the artist in what was clearly a secret collaborative performance art piece.  After another day of work I forgot to bring a marker back home and I saw that the window was still there and still could be mistaken for a symbol of hate.  I thought maybe I should hit the red emergency button and notify a subway employee, but I felt that this would rob myself and the unknown artist of the conclusion to the performance.  I got a marker and went back to the scene of the crime.  I finished the window:


But I’m not a very good artist, and I have been inundated by corporate logos all my life so the window looked more like Windows.  I didn’t want to make an illegible ironic comment on our times from what was clearly a piece not meant to be politicized, so I took a breath and resolved to be arrested.  After taking another few seconds to improve the work here is the final image:


I decided on a landscape image to contrast with the subway interior.  The surrealism of looking out a window (through the floor!) on a yard under sunshine, a horizon, a seemingly cliche nuclear family-styled house, and a cat/dog/bug thing frolicking in said sunshine I hoped would pull people out of their dreary subway ride.  I decided to go against my own wishes for a night scene in a graveyard because that’s what would make me smile and I understand that horror isn’t everyone’s “happy place.”  I chose to draw an ambiguous animal for similar reasons.  Some people prefer cats, others dogs, and a very few prefer bugs (sorry reptile lovers!  I did not forget you, the medium just did not translate!).  I chose to do broad strokes in black marker to match the original artist’s medium and style so there is consistency and the illusion of one idea instead of two opposing values.  I also chose simple detail and line structure because I was on borrowed time before the police arrived and because the simplicity allows for the viewer to immediately capture the emotion of the image without being burdened by realism.

My only hope is that no one sees the hate anymore, or at least they see how easy it can be changed.

Cats in the Belfry

I was offered $250 bucks to watch two cats.  At least, at the time I thought the guy had two cats.  The last time I had been to his place there were only two cats, a young string bean gray tabby and an older white fluff ball.  The owner’s an aging Latino soap opera hunk and he’s still cut from a slab of South American tan marble.  Let’s get rid of those budding questions, dear reader, nothing sexually weird happened, but then again… how do I know he’s still ripped?  Because he lived next door to my ex and since this is SoCal and he’s an actor he’s shirtless most of the time, outside whispering sides to himself for his next audition.  The cat owner is a nice guy, but you’ll learn that the crazy starts where the eccentricity ends.

For instance, who needs a cat sitter for two nights and a day?   No one, that’s who.  Unless your cat is on disability and if that’s the case why are you going out?  You should be with your cat!  I didn’t point out this glaring plot hole because I knew he was a little off and the money was easy.

One more thing to clear up before we jump into the madness; she wasn’t my ex the first time I saw his place and those two cats.  She was when I took the cat-sitting job.  I couldn’t say no.  I love cats, cats and I are instant buddies, cats break up my cold poker game exterior.  Meow.  $250 bucks to watch two cats for two nights while Soap was out on a shoot was a great deal for a guy like me.  And I needed the money.  Yeah, we’ll call him Soap.  He still gets industry work and he makes one-of-a-kind leather jackets that sell for thousands.

He also lives in a studio apartment with seven cats.  Is that a fucking typo?   It’s not.  Soap got five more cats between the time I first saw his place to the last time when I took the job.  My ex told me about the five extra fur balls the day of the job when I arrived to get Soap’s keys.  She lived next to him.  Awkward?  In retrospect not at all compared to the cat sitting.

Don’t worry, we’ll get there soon.  I gotta say I’m about three beers into this anecdote and I’m writing off the cuff.  I have no idea how to end this, anticlimactic and bitter is what I’m thinking, but that could just be the beer talking.  I also don’t own a cat myself.  Shocking, right?


I get the keys, she goes to work, and I get inside as quickly as I can without opening the door too wide because the string bean gray tabby and two black kittens bum rush me.  I don’t remember any of their names.  My relationship with animals, cats in particular, is very informal and crass.  Cats seem to respond better to “hey, fatso” or “dickhead” rather than their owner-given names.  It must be how I call them not what I call them.  Dumb dicks.

The studio apartment is nice, open, with plenty of light from large windows facing east and west.  Hardwood floors, a large queen sized bed next to the door with an enormous mirror on the wall over it.  In the mirror I see two more cats, but when I look they’re gone.  Instead of a headboard there’s a poster of Soap on the wall, a movie one-sheet starring him as a boxer.  Shirt off, gloves on, heroic expression, greased Latino lightning.  Soap doesn’t look like a cat guy.  He looks like the kind of guy who’d eat cats alive and say “this is one way to skin a cat, bitch!”  Very intense gaze that makes you wonder who’s going to die and you look around hoping you’re not the only person in the room.  Ok, I can deal with this, I think, knowing I’ll be sleeping in that bed with the poster of Soap hanging above me.  I just feel like I’m being watched, and of course I am.  Seven pairs of eyes are studying me from close up and afar.  I look at the skinny gray tabby, “you’re the troublemaker, aren’t you?”  I ask it and it responds with a whine and a head bump.

Cats are easy.  They are loners like myself, so I settle down to read a graphic novel adaptation of James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia.  It’s an incredible book and I’ve been excited to read this graphic novel adaptation for months.  I get a few pages in and the cats get used to my presence, soon they’re back to pestering one another and loafing as if I wasn’t there.  The two black kittens cuddle on my shins and lap.  That’s when I get an email from my ex.  She forwarded this email from Soap detailing my duties for today, tonight, tomorrow and the next night before he returns the following morning.   He’s using her as a buffer because he knows he’s being difficult.  Using her as a buffer as if to say it’s her fault he’s being particular in the care of these cats.  He wants me to shoot the messenger.  He thinks I will because she and I are no longer together, as if that implies hatred.  I’m too nice, he should know that because I’m taking care of his seven cats when they don’t need anyone.

His neediness is advertised through his cats and the apartment.  I pity him.  Also, $250 bucks.

I said before cats are easy.  If you set out food they’ll only eat when hungry if you’re not around.  They sleep most of the time, too.  They use a litter box sparingly when there isn’t a human to annoy with poop smells.  Soap believes his cats are different, he thinks they’re some sort of clockwork felines.  He believes they must be fed on a tight schedule using four bowls, two cats per bowl and one bowl for the big white fluff.  The food is a mix of dry and wet food and should only fill a quarter of the bowl.  He details how I should go about this because the cats will “go crazy” once they hear the wet food cans and the dry food bag.  He makes it sound like I’ll have to throw them off me as I dish out quarter bowl servings.  This isn’t the case.  There’s a calico who gets curious and sneaks onto the counter, I toss it off.  The gray tabby gets in my face, curious and sweet, what’s the rumpus, bro?  I pick Gray Tabs up and plop it on the floor.  I’m not sure about any of their genders.  The two black kittens mew from the floor, the counter is too high for them.  Soap wants me to serve them at the same time, yet their bowls go in specific locations and in the email he says the cats know which bowls are theirs.  3×5 index cards with two names on each mark the bowl locations, except for the one reserved for big white fluff.  The cards are placed in four areas of the studio apartment.  One on the kitchen floor, two on a dividing wall nook type thing above the stove that looks into the living area, one on top of the fridge because Calico gets a solitary order, too.  So, there are actually five bowls.  I was just as mixed up then as I am now.  The lapse in memory has nothing to do with the beer.

*hic* *glug glug glug*

The cats move with me, feasting from the moment the first bowl is set down.  They move around, feasting at one and then another.  Their eating patterns are dictated by which bowls have more wet food and which bowls are unoccupied.  The name tags and locations mean nothing.  A fight breaks out between Gray Tabs and Calico, “knock it off, fuckers!”  I say in a bro voice as if we’re best buds in an after hours club.  They look at me as if they’ve never been yelled at and I think that’s true.  I go back to reading, the two black kittens snuggle with me.  Gray Tabs and Calico take a break on different levels of a cat tree that reaches the ceiling.

The white fluff doesn’t eat.  White Fluff eyes me with suspicion, so I say hello and carry on a one-sided conversation until it hisses at me.  Very well, Whitey, just please don’t pull a hunger strike.

I pause to read what Soap has written on his walls.  Ex calls them affirmations.  They’re more akin to a serial killer’s scrawl in heavy handed black paint.  The phrases revolve around the entire apartment in a two-foot width from the ceiling.  Things like  I am the alpha and the omega and I am God, which is redundant to me.  More positive quips like I am energy and more convoluted things he tells himself like  I am the never ending [blah blah blah].  You get the idea.  Soap has graduated from eccentric to creepy.  I imagine he unwinds every night reading these words and phrases and thinking of adding more.  He’s affirming his worth and importance in the world.  It’s not a bad thing to do.  I constantly measure my unworthiness.  I thank Soap for the life lesson, but this extreme raises my hackles.  What he’s doing is creating a world where he is still king.  Like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, or mother fucking Angelyne and her pink sarcophagus (it looks like a Corvette, but if you open up the trunk you’ll find canopic jars).  What Soap’s affirmations help him ignore is that relevance is a fickle pop-culture phenomenon and trying to keep up with it is like herding cats.

I want to take a shower, but the bathroom is sparse and uninviting.  The toilet paper sits on top of the mirror over the sink so the cats can’t get it.  No matter how I sweep with the dust pan there are always invisible bits of litter on the floor.  The litter box is inside the bathtub.  There’s only one litter box for the seven cats.  Soap says in his email via Ex that when the cats are done eating they one by one use the litter box in a nice orderly fashion.  Like how he believes they eat like clockwork, this detail is utter bullshit.  He says I need to clean the litter box between each use.  I don’t do that because only two cats use the box half an hour apart.  I read.  I text Ex and wonder if I’ll ever find love again while understanding that I never will if I keep talking to Ex exclusively and continue to be this nice.  I look around the room.  I get why Soap is the way he is – this place is safe.  It’s a refuge from the chaos out there.  It is the fantasy of control and it feels good.  I sympathize and worry that sympathy can lead to assimilation.  This safety is not sustainable.

My skin crawls.  I decide not to shower.  I shut the windows and turn on the A/C.  It’s dark out, the cats are settling down.  Except for Gray Tabs who bullies the other cats.  “Hey, string bean piece of shit, you wanna fight?”  I say laughing and we chase each other around for a bit.  I roll a paper ball and flick it around, watching Gray Tabs get mauled by the kittens as they all go for it.  They get tired and I go to the fridge to see if there’s anything to eat.  The fridge is empty except for a filtered water pitcher and a large jar of raw bee pollen, as in pollen collected by bees.  Little yellow pellets the size of large ants.  I stare at it, wondering what the hell this stuff can do, and then I spy the medical vials and a syringe laid out all the way in the back corner.  I shut the fridge, blushing.  I feel like I’ve invaded his privacy.  I think steroids.  I look in the cabinets.  No food.  I need to see what the vials are, so I duck back into the fridge.  No, not steroids, antibiotics for cats.  Soap plays doctor with his cats.  Soap has no affirmation in black paint referring to a medical degree.

I prowl the apartment, trying to piece together Soap’s psyche.

There’re news clippings of his acting career legacy from Variety and other Los Angeles sources.  The dates are conveniently cut out of the clippings, but Soap looks the same and the only tell is that the articles have yellowed with age.

I won’t allude to the obvious Dorian Gray reference, but I just did *hic*

I grab Soap’s keys and head out for some food from the nearby grocery store.  I return, careful not to let any of the beasts slip out as I enter.  I eat, talking to myself and the cats.  I’m taking in more protein and carbs, more of everything really.  My metabolism is so high that I burn through everything.  I’m trying to build muscle on my tiny, skinny 5’5″ frame.  I strip down to my underwear and stretch my body out, a before bed ritual I have to help me unwind.  I admire my physique in the mirror, my diet and weight lifting is working, but a wave of depression hits me and leaves my lungs feeling like dried husks.  What’s the point, buddy?  Ex should’ve been home by now.  She must be on a date.  I’m hurt that she isn’t hurt, that she got back in the game so fast (later I’d find out her dating life was misery just as solitude was mine).  Our relationship was hot, affectionate, and fun, long conversations and searing romance, but our futures have diverged.  It was a mutual break-up and I made the mistake of placing my self worth on our future together.  Without her there is nothing and I am stricken with dread of freedom.  I used to think my social anxiety was pretentious, a symptom of being a writer, but it has gotten worse.  It’s full blown damaged nerves and depression and the break-up did not help.  Like being unpublished, these are symptoms of being a writer.  These are also symptoms of a mental condition that deserves respect and socializing with strong friends.

And I chose to be alone in a crazy man’s apartment taking care of his cats.

But at this point I don’t think he’s crazy, yet.  It’s a close call.  No food, the affirmations, the way he believes his cats are almost mechanical all points to a guy who lacks control out there in the real world, he lost something or someone and he’s just picking up the pieces.  His news clippings show a respect and pride for his acting career and the need to believe it hasn’t changed.

As I eat and think too much the black kittens join me on the couch.  One sprawls on my book.  The other one talks to me in loud mews that stutter.  “Hey, what’s up, little man?”  I pet it and it curls up at my side.  The one on my book is asleep.  I choose this moment to try out his weight and exercise equipment.  I bench press the barbell without weights, it’s heavy enough as is and I stop to see if the cats are judging me.  Calico and Gray Tabs cast heavy shade, who’s the string bean piece of shit, now?  There are a set of adjustable dumbells on either side of the bench and I can’t even lift them as they are set to the heaviest weight.  I won’t tell you just how heavy.  I know, I know, the man card was revoked a long time ago.  I laugh at myself and I hear my phone vibrate from the couch.  I lunge for it.

It’s her, I think.  My neediness is disgusting and it takes me a moment to realize it’s not her.  It’s him.  Soap is on the other end of the phone call.

“Hey, can you open the window?”  He says and my body reacts before my mind does, my stomach lurches, my muscles go numb.  I look out the window as if he’s there and he’s not.

“The window?”  I say.

“Yeah.  I just noticed it was closed when I checked my phone.  They like the fresh air.”

Yeah.  Plot twist.  You called it way back, didn’t you?  I look at myself in the mirror, the big floor to ceiling mirror half hidden behind the bed.  I look at myself and I see it in the reflection over my shoulder.  Not a nanny cam, a true security camera.  It’s got infrared bulbs ringing the lens for night vision.  It’s serious and aimed at the mirror so it can see every corner of the apartment except the bathroom.

“I can only view two minutes of pre-recorded video, it’s not live or anything.”  He says, sensing my hesitation and anger.  Mother fucking baloney.  I know how movie sets run and how cheap bandwidth is these days.  Actors sit around all day while the lighting department gets their shit together, and I can play a game on my phone with someone across the globe without a stutter in the action.  Soap has had nothing better to do than watch me watch his cats in real time.

This goes beyond caring and loving these animals.  He’s using the situation to control me in his controlled utopia.  He says the camera is there to stop people from breaking in, but if that were the case why isn’t the goddamn thing outside the apartment?

Soap then has the gall to ask if Ex will be spending the night here with me.

I don’t bother to dignify his perverse paranoia with an answer.  I open the window and leave the A/C running.  I pretend to believe him, smiling with casual dismissal, no harm done, buddy-o! but in the back of my head I wonder if he enjoys watching me in my underwear.  I could leave, I should leave.  The cats will be fine, but the money is still in limbo.  Also, Ex lives next door.  If I leave she’ll never hear the end of this betrayal, let alone never be safe from his next turn down his hairball spiral.

“Also, buddy, if you could not leave so much?  I get a text every time the door opens, makes me think my place is getting robbed, ya know?”  I wonder if he can see the murder in my eyes from the mirror’s reflection.  All my depression evaporates in a blaze of rage.  In this moment I’d kill him and it feels good to feel something so pure even when it’s so negative.

“And how are they?  Did you see how they know where to go when it’s time to eat?”

“Oh, yeah, it’s crazy!”  I say with every ounce of acting I’ve got.  He knows they did no such thing, watching me the whole time.  He’s fishing for validation and I don’t want to burst his fragile bubble.

“And the litter box?  Isn’t it something that they do that?”

“Yup.”  I take comfort in the fact that cats will eat their master without hesitation.  I look at Gray Tabs and nod, you got this, tough guy, man does not survive on bee pollen.

“You haven’t had any problems?”

“Well… the white one…”

He says White Fluff’s name here to correct me.

“Yeah, [name redacted to protect the innocent] doesn’t really like me.”

“Oh?  That’s odd… [redacted] loves everyone.  Although, my girlfriend of ten years never got along with [ok ok, I just don’t remember the cat’s name because it’s weird.  REDACTED.]

Ten years?  You don’t say.  I think to myself and add it to the evidence against Soap’s sanity.  I don’t dare mention that White Fluff didn’t eat.  Anything to not have to do something extreme, like pay a vet bill.   Or give it a shot of antibiotics myself.  Do not fuck this up for me, White Fluff!

“Well, I gotta get back to set.  Have a good night!  Glad everything’s ok…”  He says and I never noticed before, but now that I’m on DEFCON Five alert I can hear the ellipsis in his voice, like he wants to be nasty but can’t because doing so will snip the thin line that separates his lies from reality.  If he calls me out on my bullshit then it instantly spotlights his own.  I do my best not to laugh as I hang up.  Still, now I’m on guard and try not to look at the camera.  I try to pretend nothing’s changed.

I put on my pants.

I text her about the camera and the climbing creep-o-meter.  Holy shit, I didn’t think it was for real!  She texts back, relaying a time months ago when Soap had taped a passive aggressive note to the outside of his apartment saying CAUTION: Camera on premises, I will be notified of any intrusion.  The sign was taken down a few days later.  She didn’t see a camera so she thought he was bluffing to salve his paranoia.

The camera is on the inside!  I explain via text.  If your security is on the inside then there’s no deterrent to stop them from coming in, which is how he explained it all; burglar prevention.  Actually, this is how you design a trap.

The story teller in me extrapolates the next twist.  Soap isn’t on a shoot far away in the middle of nowhere, he’s close by, studying his prey before he closes in.   I take stock of any weapons on hand, there’re steak knives, the weights, and there are these cats.  I can throw them at him or at least they will get in the way, giving me a chance to pounce.  The problem is I’m exhausted.  The problem is I must maintain a civil manner in order to secure the money owed me and to prevent Ex from taking any collateral damage.  This part of L.A. contains a certain craziness I have never experienced anywhere else, that includes Philadelphia and East L.A., where both urban landscapes have their own brand of crazy, but it’s borne from the struggle to survive a flood of inequality and maintain a decent quality of life.  The West half of L.A. is crazy because entitlement reigns supreme here, and it is the patron saint of those terrified of obscurity.

I go to bed in my clothes.  The comforter is scratchy and stiff.  The pillows are too soft.  There is no scent of Soap and I think of Suskind’s Perfume where the main character has no scent of his own and goes on a killing spree as he tries to find acceptance in an indifferent world.  I’m falling asleep.  I feel the gentle weight of the black kittens sneaking on me, finding spots to sleep.  Gray Tabs leaps on my back and sits between my shoulders.  I calm down.

And I wake up to dishes falling on the floor.  I scramble from the bed, “you mother fuckers!”  I shout, because even with all the creepiness I know it’s the cats just being cats.  Sure enough, two food dishes on the floor, kibbles still rolling everywhere, and White Fluff is sitting on the stove with a look of shock and awe that’s either “Holy shit, I don’t know what happened!” or “Goodness, I didn’t think it’d be that loud!”

White Fluff licks his chops.  “You sneaky bastard.”  I mutter.

I pick up the unbroken dishes and look for something to sweep up the kibbles.  I don’t want to use the dust pan that seems reserved for the bathroom and kitty litter, but I do find a Swiffer-type broom.  It’s the only thing in a skinny closet in the kitchen.  It doesn’t even look like a closet.  But I pull at this panel in the wall during my search, and there’s the broom… AND a duplicate poster of Soap in his boxing outfit, but it’s not the full-sized poster, he cut this poster to fit inside the closet.  Cut it so it’s just the center strip of the poster, Soap looking muscular and regal.  It’s just his image and the broom in this closet.

And if he’s watching me in this moment then he’s seeing me staring into his kitchen closet at this minimalist shrine to himself.  I know it’s not just the door that triggers his phone notification, it can only be sound and/or light.  The door has no wired connection to the camera, I checked, so between the crashing dishes and me yelling and now playing with the cats, there’s a lot of volume and changes in the lighting as I turn on the lights and then turn them off.  I go back to bed and this time sleep peacefully surrounded by purring. I’m so blissed out that when I hear Ex get into her apartment next door I couldn’t care less.  My only hope is that this bullshit doesn’t enter her life.  No one deserves this level of entitled crazy control.  I pity the cats.

The next day I spend as motionless as I possibly can.  It’s easy for me to do.  I read.  I do play with the cats, I can’t help it, but they get bored with me.  Even  gray Tabs yawns after fetching paper balls and batting a feather toy around with me.  The kittens pass out in the middle of the floor.  I leave the apartment for lunch and dinner.  He texts me within seconds, everything ok?  I respond, yup.  Knowing that he knows that everything’s ok.  He’s only texting to make sure I know he’s watching and trying to guilt me into staying inside all day.  Fuck you, Soap, I won’t eat bee pollen and cat food.   Did he assume I’d be just like him?  That I would know to bring my meals packed, or order expensive delivery?

I get a text from Ex, he says I shouldn’t worry about the camera, he won’t watch us if I come over.  This guy… this fucking guy.  I tell her to stay away even though I want more than anything to talk to her face to face, to pretend things are the way they were.  She tells me not to give up on the $250, which at this point I’m thinking is a small price to pay to flip off the camera and waltz on outta here.  She reminds me I’m halfway through today and I can leave as planned in the morning tomorrow.  I do need the money.  I need to keep this powder keg contained.  I need to not indulge in fantasy the way Soap has been consumed by his own.

I read and get absorbed in Ellroy’s L.A., where men torture themselves over women and become haunted by their unattainable salvation thanks to bad decisions made for the right reasons.  The cliche is there’s always a woman.  Cherche la femme, it’s the driving force in The Black Dahlia.  Find love, find peace.  The woman is power, the woman will save you, your flaws or chivalry ruin everything.  Ten years.  I find myself thinking about Soap.  I’m staring at the graphic novel, the point where [redacted] shoots [redacted]  in the heart.  The frame that would be lovers looking into each other’s eyes if not for the gun smoke between them.

You should read The Black Dahlia.  Anyway, back to Soap right meow.

Ten years.  That’s a long time to only be boyfriend and girlfriend.  I wonder who she was, the woman who broke Soap.  I may be projecting my own affairs onto him, but it seems to me when you’re in a long term relationship you risk becoming the relationship, your self changes into the bond between you.  There is no more you.  There is only us.  And that’s bad news.  Judging by how he’s gotten worse he never saw the break-up coming.  The break-up broke him.  She got out because she was aware of her own needs, of herself, and saw that the us wasn’t cutting it anymore.  Or maybe it was the hoarding of seven cats in a studio apartment?  Occam’s Razor.  She noticed his eccentricities were no longer endearing and got out.

Out the window where the cats get their fresh air I can see the steps that lead down to [redacted] ave.  There’s a tree and the branches hush in a gentle breeze.  I hear footsteps and watch a gorgeous raven-haired model dressed in all black take the steps to the front door, which was propped open by a tenant on his way out.  In the one to two seconds I watch her rise up the steps I have her body, her clean face etched in my brain.  She’s looking down, her jaw is set.  She does not want to be here.  The cats watch her in sync.    Before I can even fantasize about her the cats tense up, and all seven of them appear and skid to a halt in front of the door.  White Fluff’s tail blows up.  Her boots stop walking just outside Soap’s door.  I see and hear the doorknob turn.

The door is locked.  It’s a habit of living in a city and of being anti-social.  I always lock up. I consider opening the door, but it strikes me that this is the woman who used to be with Soap for ten years.  I think this because who else would try to enter his apartment without knocking?  Soap would have told me she was coming over and for what reason if he knew.  There’s one photo of her tucked into the frame of a smaller mirror by the kitchen.  It’s an old 3×5 film print, but it’s her.  It’s the only pic that isn’t Soap in the whole apartment.  I saw her for mere seconds, I can’t imagine the pain of losing her after ten years.  Still, it doesn’t excuse Soap’s current behavior, merely helps explain it.  My own break-up hurt like hell, what’s my worth without her?  How do I start over?  My worth is my business and how I pick up the pieces won’t be like this.  Everything he’s done since that break-up has been a cry for help; his Cadillac with the Hemi under the hood, his custom Harley, his now shrunken but steady acting career, the leather jackets he designs all help veil a man scrambling and scrabbling for an anchor to reality when actually everything is fine.  The only thing wrong is that he can’t accept it.  Peace is worthless to those who wish to be great.  Peace is the horror of life because it seems banal.  We’re told stories in order to learn how to overcome problems, but what we’ve learned on accident is that there must be conflict in order to feel alive.  Anything less than chaos is a life not worth living is what we absorb and when there’s not enough drama we create it.  He’s found an unending source of conflict and validation in his cat collection.

I am in the eye of a mental hurricane.

I think he’s learned to play nice and Zen in order to magnify his problems and make the drama of his life seductive.  I stop playing my role in his story.  I don’t text or call him about the mysterious woman.  With any luck he wasn’t watching the camera feed.  With any luck she can live without whatever it was that brought her to his door.

I finish the graphic novel that night.  I feed the cats and clean the dishes.  I clean the litter box.  I shut the stupid window.  I hear Ex come home after work and it doesn’t hurt to know she’s living her life without me.  The problem was never her, or the break up, the problem has been my understanding that nothing is wrong, only that changes are taking place.  Stasis is the elephant in this apartment.  I need to move, be dynamic, adapt.  Soap has declared war on change and seeing how he lives was like being visited by my ghost of Christmas Future.

The next morning I say goodbye to the cats.  Gray Tabs bumps my fist with a soft forehead, the black kittens ring around my ankles and mew, Calico judges me from the top of the fridge.  White Fluff hisses at me and I feel sorry for all of them.  They have no choice but to remain here, captive to his wish for things to stay the same.

I leave that morning and wait for the eastbound bus on the corner outside the apartment building.  I hope Soap learned something about his life by watching it removed through technology.  I hope he gets his shit together.

He calls me.

“Hey, you left.”

“Yeah, I gotta go.”

“There’s no way you can stay until I get there?  It’ll be a little after noon, I think.”

“No.”  I say with no room for argument, a tone I use rarely.  A tone that is nothing but confidence and energy.  It feels good.

“Ok, that’s cool.  How about next weekend?  I’m going to be away–”

“I can’t do it.”

“You can’t call off or trade shifts?  I’m sure this pays more.”

“Look, it worked out this time.  I have my own life.”  I hang up on him.  I do have my own life.  It may not be glamorous or have enough conflict to grasp attention or fame, but it’s mine and I am happy.  The struggle was stopping a momentary lapse of sorrow and despair from becoming more than a moment.  It took seeing someone consumed by  self-medicated pity and doubt to end it.  It took seeing his Ex leave to know that he’s on his own.  So am I.  So are you.  And there’s nothing wrong with that unless you want it to be.

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.

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.


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 Foundation

After you get so many rejection notices you decide you don’t need anyone’s permission to have your work read.  Worse than rejection is getting no feedback in return, the worst part about submitting is you more often than not are left with the echoes of your own doubts.  You begin to believe not sending out your material is the same as sending it.

I didn’t quit my day job.  I just needed a space of my own in the void.  For years I sent synopsis of screenplays and short stories.  Most of my query letters never got a response from the bottomless pit where they dropped.  Serious writers hate asking gatekeepers for permission, just as nature abhors a vacuum because what you send out there rarely returns.  Sometimes months, or even years later, you get a response.  These responses are often vague rejections, terse and disconnected, like garbled radio messages from deep space probes.  You can blame the millions of other writers trying to talk to the same probes.

An adequate analogy for reclusive artists is found in the end of Kafka’s The Trial, where K is told the allegory of a man sitting beside an open door guarded by a knight.  The man waits all his life for permission to enter, but it was his choice to go through the door on his own.

I’m going through my door, into a house I’ve built on a foundation of influence and obsessions.  It’s a dark place and I’m not alone.  It’s only half hollow here.  The first thing I do is turn on a light to mark my place and shout into the foyer, “Don’t leave, yet, I just got home!”