Banana Peels and Toothpaste

Josh also told me that he thought he was gonna die the day that I sent him off with a joint of dried banana peels soaked in toothpaste. I told him that it was too harsh to hold in like weed, so he should smoke it as if it were a cigarette. This anecdote is only funny in retrospect, however, because it wasn’t meant as a trick. Money was always in short supply and I had always heard (wrongly) that dried banana peels would get you high.

 

The night before, I ate as many of my mom’s bananas as I could and dried the peels overnight in the oven. The dried peels were so hard that I had to use a knife to cut them into small strips before I could roll them in Joint papers. The peels were hard to get to keep lit and when they were lit they would curl out in a black and red end ripping the end of the paper as sad strands of smoke rose from the diffuse cherry (if you could call it that) making it look like a cigarette load had just blown off the end of your joint. The smoke you sucked out the end tasted bad and burned your throat badly. And to make matters worse, it would not get you high in the slightest. But I had made up a bunch of these bad boys and Josh and his buddy Javier had come over asking me if I had any weed.

 

I told them that all I had were these shitty banana peel joints, but I did know of a trick that actually had worked for me. One night recently when I had been hanging out with my other buddy Josh, we had stopped by Danny’s house and asked him if we could use some toothpaste. This was a gamble because we weren’t sure if Danny or any of the meth smoking adults he lived with even had toothpaste. Lord knows they never used it. But the toothpaste was a sure bet, because this Josh was a little older and he learned about smoking toothpaste when he spent a short stint in rehab. Danny came back out of his house with an unused tube of no name toothpaste. Josh squeezed it out across one side of a Marlboro cigarette making it look like making it look like a long white toothbrush ready for your nightly hygiene rituals. We sent Danny back in with the toothpaste and walked across the street to the dark of the schoolyard hoping that Danny wouldn’t see where we had gone and wouldn’t follow.

 

That toothpaste on that Marlboro had gotten me high as fuck even if I felt like I was going to puke my guts out. So for young Josh and Javier I went to my medicine cabinet and pulled out the Crest Gel and squeezed it across the banana peel joint. It wasn’t the same type of toothpaste but I figured it would work for them.

The Erector Set

My buddy, Josh tells me that I am an asshole. He is wrong. I just like to make jokes. At others’ expense. But he is still wrong.

 

He reminded me of the time that I had gone with him to Jimbo’s house with him. Jimbo had gotten permission from his parents to stay the night at Josh’s house, and we were stopping by to get his things. Jimbo wanted to take his Erector Set with him to Josh’s house, but his parents were strict with his toys (At least the ones they spent money on). So Jimbo scratched out a note on a piece of paper and stuck it onto the fridge with a cheap magnet (Probably a picture of a cat dangling from a rope with a caption saying hang in there).

 

He had written: Mom, I have my Erector set at Josh’s house. His handwriting looked a lot like mine, and Jimbo and Josh had gone into his bedroom to pack his clothes. So I decided to change what he had written, just a little bit. I flipped the paper over to the other side and wrote, trying my best to copy his hand: Mom, I have my erection set in Josh’s mouth.

 

I figured his mom would read it, be somewhat confused, flip the paper over, and read what he had really written. She would understand that it was a joke and that would be that. I know that Jimbo and Josh were such goody buddies that they already seemed goy, but I did not expect she would take this note as an official coming out letter. I was just saying that they were sucking each other’s dicks. There is a difference.

 

This joke would have been funny enough if this were the last I had ever heard of it, but I almost died laughing when Josh told me about Jimbo’s mom showing up at his front door with the note flapping in her hand. Josh learned what an erection was by Jimbo’s angry mother holding her hands apart saying: A big dick. An erection is a big dick.

2012 Short Fiction: You’re the Boss

A man was pushed through the doorway; he was hunched and whimpering like a beaten dog. His left eye was swollen shut, and his mangled and protruding lower lip was reddened by a mix of blood and saliva. The smell of stale beer and dried urine followed him into the small office in the back room of the pool hall. He was guided in by a large man who had two big handfuls of the back of his blood-spattered jacket.

The dimly lit room was yellowed from years of cigarette smoke, and the desk was adorned with a large overfull ashtray. The grizzled old man behind the desk stubbed out his last butt and lit another. He still held the match to the end of the cigarette when he spoke.  “Tony, did you do this to him?” His words were a soft growl.

With a puzzled look on his face the large man began sheepishly, “Boss, you…”

“Shut up!” The force of the old man’s words sent a cloud of smoke across the room, and the obscenities that followed shook the room like artillery fire. Yet, the cigarette never moved from the corner of his mouth.

The old man regained his composure and faced the bloodied man. “Johnny, you are family, and I assure you that this was a terrible mix-up.” The blood drained from Tony’s face, and his skin matched the pale yellowed color of the wall like a chameleon trying to hide from a predator.

Johnny was emboldened by the mention of his name and his face became a grotesque caricature as he bared his cracked and bloody teeth in an attempted smile. His shoulders straightened as his lungs filled with air, and his mind swirled as he tried to come up with the perfect words to strike fear into the heart of the man who just beat him senseless.

The old man’s years loansharking had imparted a certain amount of understanding of the impulses of desperate people and he intervened. “Don’t say anything that you are going to regret, Johnny. Tony, here, was just doing what he does to all the deadbeats that refuse to repay their debts. He is a little thick in the head. Had he realized that you were married to my niece, I’m sure he would have treated you with much better care.” The old man flicked the growing ashes off the end of his cigarette into the ashtray and shot a withering glance at Tony. Tony knew that now is a great time to stay quiet and listen. “In fact,” the old man returned the cigarette to the right corner of his mouth and continued. ”I can’t help but feel responsible for this, so I’ll tell you what. I am going to forgive your debt. And to tell you just how sorry he is for what he’s done, Tony is going to give you a little something too.”

“Pull out your cash,” the old man commanded. Tony reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a wad of twenties. “What is that four, five hundred bucks? Johnny, that money is yours.” The old man’s breath caused the long ash to fall from the cigarette in his mouth. The ash crumbled upon impact. The old man slowly wiped at the ash and left a long grey smudge on his sweat-stained shirt. “If you need more money to get your teeth fixed, don’t hesitate to ask. Now, go wash up and go home. And if anybody asks, you tell them you fell down the stairs. I don’t need my niece being upset at me. Understand?”

Johnny nodded as he pocketed the money. “I understand, Mr. Contadino,” he said, and he shuffled out the door toward the restroom at the end of the hall.

“Lock the door and sit down,” the old man said to Tony. The old man’s cigarette now threatened to singe his lips.

“Did I screw up, Boss?”

The old man smashed out the butt and retrieved two more from the pack in his shirt pocket. He handed one to Tony, lit it for him, and then lit the one for himself. “Relax. You did just what I wanted.” He produced a bottle of Scotch and two glasses from the desk drawer. “Remember when I said I was going to teach you how to run this business yourself?”

“Yea, Boss.”

“Well,” the old man drawled, “consider this lesson one…”

2012 Short Fiction: The Maharaja

 

She smelled of tone wood and instrument polish, but to me the smell was seraphim. She was beautiful, slick, and clean. She sang out uncertain at first; gradually, she came up to pitch. She repeated this warm-up exercise moving from low to high. First, she sang an E, then an A, and a D; next, she sang a G, then a B, and another E. Now that her throat was clear, she was ready to perform. To me, her song was ancient and sacred. It was the sound of an Angle’s harp ringing up to heaven. I played accompaniment with a purpose that was not my own. I felt otherworldly and possessed with the righteousness of god. I was swimming in the sound, and I knew I was in love. This was not the first time I had fallen so deeply and quickly in love, nor do I expect it to be my last. I go through this same experience every time I buy a new guitar. I fall deeply and madly in love; I take every chance I can to stroke and caress my new lover until the new guitar smell is gone. Then I will change her strings and rub her down with instrument polish. However, she will eventually take her place within my harem of guitars, and my roving eye will be on the lookout for my next love.

2012 Personal Narrative Essay: Road Rage

I anticipated an excruciating day of nausea and indigestion; I thought aloud, “That was a terrible breakfast.” My halfhearted words spoken straight at the windshield could have easily been ignored, but the bulbous man in the driver’s seat had a general need to contradict everything I said.

“I thought those hotdogs were delicious,” he replied. It was mid-morning, the second day of an interminably long trip down a Nevada back-road.  We were stopped at the lone gas station of a miniscule town wedged between an improbable lake and a mountain that shot straight up from the rock-strewn white line that signaled the westward shoulder of a meandering two lane highway.

The man to my left claimed to be Mexican, but his German name, his corpse-flesh whiteness, and his lilywhite accent did not agree. His receding hairline, swooping eyebrows, beak nose, and imperceptible neck made him look like an owl; his eyes bulged as he stared at me with mounting disgust. I despised this man nearly as much as he despised me, and I tried to remember why I was there.

I was waiting for my ride in a parking lot behind the Wal-Mart. I was excited to see the big blue truck lurching in my direction; it wheezed to a stop. Robert Gore had given me his name over the phone, and now he was pushing open the passenger door.  Stooped in the doorway, he inhaled deeply and nearly doubled his considerable girth. He grabbed my bags. “Get on board;” he said in a jovial manor, “We’ve got to make time.” His frame deflated as the gale-force words caused his lips to flap violently.

The gradual curve of the truck started at the front bumper ending in a senseless peak where the dusty white trailer began. The aerodynamic styling was obviously not functional. The interior was perfumed with the bittersweet mix of diesel fumes and human armpits. The seats were a mottled blue with large rings of amber from sweat that leached off countless rear ends. The armrests were streaked with a gloss of black grime where the oils from hundreds of bare forearms were laid to rest, but I barely noticed. My mind enthusiastically recounted the tales my cousin had woven; they were tales of excitement and adventure concerning his wanderings about our nation’s highways. My mind was brimming with possibility for adventure of my own.

Hours later, the sun drooped near the horizon, and we pulled over for the night. The truck stop was sparsely filled, and we easily backed into a spot away from the other trucks. As night turned black, the lot filled up, and I watched a lone truck weave tiredly through the lanes; it hoped to find an open spot that was not there on the three previous times around. As I watched, I wondered why Robert had been in such a hurry to leave only to sit around pointlessly at a truck stop. Later, I climbed up to the top bunk, a toddler bed but half as wide. I laid in the fetal position my head smashed against one wall and my feet imbedded into the other. The husky dwarf, Robert was lost in the expanse of a larger bed below. It was going to be tough, but I only had to sleep in this bed for one month; then, I would be out on my own.

My arm hung off one side of the bed and my leg dangled from the other when I jolted awake in the middle of the night.  My head was buzzing with confusion and alarm. I had heard a loud noise. Dismissively, I assumed it must have been the refrigerated trailer next to us; it must have started up automatically and forced my heart out through my throat. When the hum of the reefer started to sing its lullaby, I became aware of my mistake. My eyes began to water, and my nose stung; my taste buds withered from essence of decomposing walrus, and my lungs strangled. I needed air. As I opened the tiny vent, two more rounds burst forth from the rump-cannon on the lower bunk. I pressed my face against the vent and created a hermetical seal around my mouth and nose. The rancid barnyard smell, from the bull hauler two trucks away, was sweet ambrosia compared to the nerve agent released in the trapped air. Eventually, my nostrils died and sleep resumed.

Sunlight Streaked in through the vent hole as I awoke. Robert inhaled from one end and exhaled from the other, and I knew without having to look that he would not regain consciousness soon. Therefore, I trekked across the long expanse of urine-stained blacktop to the showers where I completed my morning routine. As I was walking back to the truck, I passed Robert with sleep in his eyes. He just woke up and was headed for the showers. Upon his return, I informed him of my dreadful night of flatulent terror. He was indignant. “I do not fart in my sleep,” he exclaimed; “I have never farted in my sleep.”

Before leaving the truck stop, Robert bought three of the largest bags of sunflower seeds I had ever seen. By midmorning, He had consumed half of his first bag and showed no signs of stopping. He tilted his head back and poured the seeds directly from the bag into his mouth. His cheeks bulged and his jaw ground the seeds from side to side like a cow. He chewed shell and all. The speed and efficiently with which he did this made my household garbage disposal hang its head in shame. He sucked out the juices; then, he expelled the fibrous paste into an oversized soda cup to ferment.

Three days and ten pounds of sunflower seeds later, I asked intentionally trying to anger him, “Aren’t you worried that all that salt is going to give you a heart attack?”

“How dare you,” black and brown spittle paste exploded from his mouth. “My health is my own problem.” A mixture of new and chewed sunflower seeds fell against the floorboards.

The morning dawned; we were headed down a lonely Nevada back road toward a lakeside town, and we wanted breakfast. A few hours later, we pulled into a dirt lot next to a quaint old gas station. The food inside was limited to pickled pigs feet in a filthy communal tub and shriveled, jalapeno-spiced hotdogs that rolled back and forth on a grease stained griddle.

I had no idea that I would recount these stories with great fondness. I found out the hard way: adventure is the bad, the strange, and the silly parts of life that can only be appreciated in hind sight. Great stories are ten parts misery and one part revisionist history. I no longer go in search of adventure; I can’t handle the aggravation.

Blood Sacrifice

mushrooms

Tommy lit a match and dabbed the end of the joint into the flames while he turned the joint between his fingers. He said, “Don’t want the flame to run. Paper burns faster than weed.” He took a couple of sharp puffs. The cherry burned bright. He inhaled deep this time. He passed the joint to his right. “Here take it.” A tiny ring of smoke escaped his mouth. It was lit up like a ghost in the porch light and rose up the center of his face. The ring was twined with strands of white. It disappeared when it left the cone of light.

Melvin took the joint, put it to his mouth, and inhaled. He held his breath and passed the joint to Stan. His lungs ached or worse they itched. He coughed. A huge cloud of smoke lit up the night.

“Don’t waste it.” Three puffs of smoke escaped Stan’s mouth.

Tommy said, “It’s cool man. Coughing helps you get high faster.”

The high rose up in him like a wave hitting him at the beach. Melvin was sure the weed hadn’t hit him this quick before. It was his turn again. He took a deeper hit and held it longer, but he didn’t cough this time. The wave hit him again. He, I… I was losing track of the conversation. But it was my turn again. The joint was very small this time. The heat burned my lips as I inhaled. It singed my fingers. I tried to pass the joint.

“It’s out, dog.” I think Tommy said that, but I’m not sure.

I looked straight at the brick wall that separated this world from the next. No, the wall separated Stan’s back yard from his neighbor’s or so I thought. I couldn’t be sure about the things that I knew anymore. Not when the apricot tree was reaching down its arms to embrace me.

The joint had not caused this. Couldn’t have. But memory was so faulty. Stan had called me. Me or Melvin? Stan had called Melvin. A pizza party. No I think he called Melvin about mushrooms. That was so long ago. The memory has faded so much. It was this a few hours ago. A lifetime ago. Another reality.

“Take off your shoes. The grass feels great on your feet.”

I turned in the direction of the sound. How could I have forgotten that there were other people in the yard with me? There was a figure in the dark. It took so long for my eyes to focus. That was Stan, but he looked Strange. “Stan, you look like a Muppet. The old man from the balcony.”

Stan touched his chin then his nose. He shrugged.

The night pushed me down. I had to struggle to stand. Or was it my balance? I had eaten that stuff. It tasted bad. I had? Melvin picked up the largest mushroom. It had a mottled color of tan and cream. The gills just under the cap were darker not quite brown. There was a hint of blue powder coating the stem just under the cap. Melvin said, “I always imagined that they would be fresh. These things are like wood.” Melvin picked off one of the black flecks. I think Tommy said the flecks were cow shit. But Melvin’s hands. The hairy arthritic knuckles and the wrinkles. They look like candle wax with blue veins submerged. When I see my hands I can’t help but see his.

“You’re right. This is awesome. I love it. This is the best high in the world.” Tommy spoke so loud. I wanted to wonder if the neighbors could hear what he what he had said, but I was not sure that anything existed beyond the brick wall.

Tommy wandered his way over to the fig tree in the corner. He looked like an evil little elf as he hunched under the tree. He squatted then plopped down on to his rump. Tommy was surrounded by vegetation. The low branches made a cave over his head.

Stan said, “Now you, Mel, take off your shoes and come over here. The trees make you happy. You have to try this out.”

I did not want to leave the protective grip of the apricot tree. It gave me a confidence that could not be had in the far reaches of the world where Stan was dwelling. The thirty feet between us was an insurmountable distance. “I’m not taking off my shoes. There are probably spiders in the grass.”

Tommy said, “Don’t talk about spiders, man. You are going to freak me out.”

I kept thinking about the spiders. The tree must have been full of them. They were probably riding their webs down from the branches above me. And what was I doing standing in the grass? The grass had to be full of them. I went as fast as I could to get on the patio. I kept envisioning them, red or orange stripes on black bodies.

Stan said, “Are you coming over here, Mel? Take off your shoes.”

I said, “Alright. I’m coming.” I stood under the porch light. I leaned against the wall. I felt the stucco against my back like biting animals. I felt my skin crawl and pop all over my body. I meant to put my shoes together and against the wall. But I had forgotten about my shoes as soon as I took them off. I walked off the sturdy base of the porch. The grass tickled between my toes. The grass was communicating something that I could not quite understand, but I did not like the feeling.

“Hurry up, Mel.”

Tommy said, “No, you gotta come over here. I can feel the trees growing.”

“Really. I want to see that.” Stan went over and crouched next to Tommy in the fig cave. “My body is going down through my feet. I feel roots. I know the trees.”

I was lost in the expanse of open yard and could not move. I was rooted down in spirit. I was connected. I too could feel the trees. How could I have never felt this connection? An over-soul.

 

My teeth were chattering. I don’t know how long I had been sitting under the fig tree. But Stan was now staring at the back entrance to the garage, and Tommy was nowhere to be seen. As soon as I realized that my body was reacting to the cold, I thought I could feel it. But I could not be sure.

Tommy destroyed the quiet. He should have been yelling with how bad his voice hurt my ears, but it might have been the constant loop that his words had around my head. An echo, but not. His words repeated in my thoughts.

Tommy said, “You have to go inside. Each room of the house has its own mood.”

Inside. Stan’s home. Homes are full of love and warmth. Warm. Wasn’t I cold? How long ago was that? There might be a bed inside. I want to lie down. But I’m not tired.

The flowers were there. Roses. The roses shouldn’t be here. My mother’s. No, not hers. They belonged to Stan’s wife. Out of town for her birthday. Their son doesn’t keep in touch. This was the table in Stan’s dining room. The cream colored walls, the tile floors, and the gaudy chandelier. They wanted to raise the property value. A waste of time. Who wants to move at their age? Wouldn’t they want to die in the same house they raised their kids in? Stan knew better. The idea was hers.

His wife. The roses were hers. A mother’s. My mother’s. The roots grew out of the vase and planted themselves deep in the fresh topsoil of the table. She had loved those roses. For her, the roses were the children that she had never had. The water, the fertilizer, and the constant maintenance created the umbilical cord that breathed life into her lungs. I was an extra, a piece of luggage that she had forgotten in her closet. My brothers and I were kept out in the yard as ornaments, living decorations that brought life and joy to the neighborhood. On the hot days of summer, we were planted in the grass and watered with the sprinkler. When we were in need of a trimming, we were lined up along the edge of the driveway. Rooted safely in our chairs, she came at us with the garden sheers. Our branches were clipped and shaped. She said it kept us healthy and clean, but she must have wanted us to look good. We were an extension of herself. Beautiful flowers grafted to a hardier root.

The rose petals withered and fell to the table. The desiccated crumbs of lustrous red speckled the deep brown wood grain of the tabletop. I swept the crumbs away with my left hand. The bloody spray spattered the floor and the wall. The blood bounced and slid until it came to a rest. But it would not puddle. The roses continued to wither, crumble, and rain crispy crumbs of blood onto the table top. And I ground them in with my right hand and elbow. I only wished that I could cry out: Et tu, Brute? But when I opened my mouth words could not escape, or if they did I could not tell you what they meant.

Stan said, “You’re funny. Do that again.”

What? Where did he come from? I said, “This is magic.” I pulled a rose from the vase. “Watch this.” I shifted my attention. Stan vanished from my mind. I grabbed the rose by the bloom and squeezed. Devoid of petals and stem the rose had become a little green ball. Magic. I rolled the ball across the top of the table. With a wave of the hand, the ball would disappear. And reappear and disappear again. In fact, the ball had this power all on its own. I watched this ball with the enjoyment of child relearning the laws of physics as it blinked in and out of existence. I laid my head on the table an inch away from the ball. I wanted to catch this mechanism of disappearance with my own eyes.

Stan said, “You are boring. I am going somewhere else.”

I grabbed a handful of the crispy crumbles of petal blood as well as an empty bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos and threw them at him. The bag floated and buffeted its way slowly as the arterial spray skittered across the floor. Had I been eating these? No, Melvin had eaten these. Tommy had brought them over. Leave it to a kid to eat something that causes heartburn. Well he was in his 20s, but that is still a kid. Isn’t it? The Cheetos covered up the taste of the mushrooms. Cheetos and plenty of water. They were hard like eating a piece of wood but not as tasty. They still tasted like something he pulled from the couch cushions but the chips did improve the flavor, and the water was necessary to work the mushrooms into a reasonable consistency. Cheetos, Is that what I threw at Stan? Well he was halfway down the hall by now.

I saw myself from across the room. I was shorter than I remember and younger. I can’t believe it. I was wearing some inane t-shirt and faded dungarees. But somehow this childish attire did not bother me as bad as what I was doing. I was sitting with my knees up to my chest leaning my back against the wall. I had my cellphone in my hand and I was flipping it open and shut. I had just gotten the hang of caller I.D. What use did I have for a cellphone? As I looked down upon myself from my astral vantage point, I saw that I was staring at the phone that I would not stop fiddling with. I kept chanting the same five words: “Fuck. I’m late for work.” I hadn’t worked in years. I wish I could just reach down and slap the shit out of myself.

The ceramic floor tiles of the living room floor were not exactly the bed I was looking for, but they were cold against my face. The light from the dining room created a halo as it slowly filtered into the unlighted room. My essence was escaping into the floor. It was being pulled out along with my body heat. And I had become one with the floor. I had faded away except for the sucking of my breath in the puddle of drool on the floor. The brightness that had driven me out of the dining room was a warm and loving presence. I was standing just outside the gates of heaven and staring in on the opaque clarity of eternal bliss, but I was frozen in place and unable to enter. Of course I couldn’t go in. My wife was there. I did not deserve her. The things I had done after she passed on did not make me proud. Who could be expected to keep her grave up year after year? Here children wouldn’t show up after the first year or two. And I have even driven them away. The only one that even comes around anymore is the youngest and she is more interested in child care.

No wait. I can change. It’s too late two beings had me by the arms. I was lifted and dragged away. These demons were dragging me down the long hall to hell. The one on my right stoped to rest. The demon looked a lot like Stan. They leaned me face first against the wall. The texture was not all that different from the floor.

He said, “What are you doing with your lips, Mel. You must think you are Elvis.” The other demon looked like Tommy.

He said, “Let’s hurry up and get him into a bed.”

I was dragged a little further and tossed into my chamber of hell. The demons placed me on the rack where I would be tortured for eternity. It was soft and covered with pillows. As the demons shut and latched the door behind me, I overheard them talking about the sleeping arrangements. It turns out that my cell was the master bedroom and they were debating who would get the guest room and who would get the floor. But as innocuous as their conversation had sounded, I had been laid down face first with my arm pinned beneath me. I am not sure how but I was bound to the bed and could not move. That is my body could not move. My mind was free to visit all the punishments of hell.

The dark of the cell faded away. The walls and the ceiling were gone replaced by a bright blue sky with wispy clouds over an expanse of green. In the center of the field was a mass grave. I was lying in the middle of the decomposing bodies. I was dead, but I began to move. The other bodies began to move as well. I was one among hundreds of zombies scratching at the edges of the pit. I had no control, and I knew that at some point I would make it out of this pit. I knew that I would tear into the flesh of innocents. I could not bear the guilt of what I was going to do.

There was a jolt in my chest then another. Was this my heart? I was in a twilight world between the room and the pit of the dead. Again my chest heaved. Is this a heart attack? Was I dying? My hand pinned under my chest twitched in rhythm with the convulsions of my chest. God what Have I done to myself.

I am being pulled upwards. I see the plain recede into the forest. Each of the trees gathers into one mass. As I am pulled further, I see green mountains and rivers flowing through the valleys. They too recede. I watch the Earth recede before my eyes until it is a speck and then gone. I fly through the void of space faster and faster until I reach a place of utter void and darkness. I exist only as potential energy, consciousness only. This void is everything and nothing. This is the center of reality, the helm of creation. But I am not alone.

A voice speaks. “This world has come to its end. You will act as an instrument in my hand to recreate the world. Nothing will be left unchanged.”

I say, “Not me. Just let me die. I do not want this responsibility.” But it is of no use. The gears of destruction and creation have already gone into motion. The universe spins in a vortex around me. I am the center of a universal spiral. All matter begins to coalesce at the distant edges of the void. It is spinning in reds oranges and whites. Everything moves faster and faster as it converges on my center point. I know that I have a body once again because I can feel the tears streaming down my face. There is a tension in my chest again only this is the tightness of sorrow. I have lost everyone I know and love. Dead and remade. If I can even recognize them, they will never recognize me. The universe comes together all at once, and I open my eyes. I am lying face down in the bed with all the pillows and the sun is beginning to peek through the lace curtains.

I sit at the edge of the bed trying to make sense of what has just happened. Could those things be true? Has the world been remade? No. I remember I am the same old Melvin. I have the same old arthritic knuckles and wrinkled hands. I lift my hands to reaffirm my identity. I am shocked by what I see. My hands are covered in red all the way to my elbows. Is that blood? Are my friends dead? Was I unable to stop myself? There is a phone on the dresser. I am going to turn myself in. No. Wait. I think it’s Cheetos.

A Fish’s Tale

beer boat

Robs keys jingled as he fumbled his fingers over the keychain of his trusty bottle opener in the predawn chill. He was given the bottle opener in his mid-twenties. He was drinking a Rusty Nail at the Irish Pub (He thought Scotch and Drambuie on the rocks was the height of sophistication). While waiting his turn for karaoke, a girl in a two piece Miller Light bikini walked into the bar. She wasn’t the hottest girl he had seen there, but she was half naked. She stopped at his table and talked a little and handed out keychains to each of the guys before moving to the next table. The Miller Light lettering has long since worn off of the bottle opener, but when he heard the hiss of that morning’s first beer popping open he could smell the slight hint of perspiration over her cheap floral body spray. And for a second he forgot about the cold and the light spray of the mist blowing in off the lapping waves of lake water.

Since he had grown up and got a job and a family of his own, Rob had made a point of drinking a beer in the shower at least once a month. The ice cold beer contrasted against the near scalding heat of the shower was a mini vacation in the midst of settling into a new life, new wife, new kids, new job, and the new mortgage that precluded the ability to take a real extended vacation away from responsibilities. But he barely remembered his college days and the debauchery that everyone thought was adult life. But this cold beer in the cold morning out in the cold lake side of wild Southern California while he fished for his own dinner, this was it. No more remembering. He was fully reliving his glory days.

As the sun peeked over the sparsely wooded mountain tops that protect Lake Silverwood from the harsh landscapes of the high desert, the shadows retreated across the surface of the lake and a kaleidoscope of blinding light reflected off the choppy waters. A boat sat in a small cove. It was beached and leaning slightly to the left from the sand against the front of the hull. The shore was about five feet of sand before disappearing into brown brush that covered the hills that bordered the cove. The hills met at the center point of the cove in an ascending crevice that somehow avoided ruts from the rains that came few and far between. Rob and Graham, poker buddies, were drinking beer and fishing from the shore, and Graham’s dog sniffed through the bushes.

Rob yanked up hard on his pole and began to reel in fast.

Graham said, “Calm down. Don’t yank so hard. All you’ll have on the hook is a pair of lips.” Graham set down his pole and walked over. “You know, you spilled your beer.” Graham tilted the bottle up and pressed it into the sand.

Rob continued to pull and reel.

“Hey, how high do you have your drag set? You are going to snap your line.”

Rob turned the dial on the front of his open faced reel. The fish began to run pulling the line out with a long zip.

“Don’t make it too loose. He’ll pull out all your line. Let him run but make him work for it.” Graham took a pull from his beer then lit a cigarette.

“I’ve been fishing before, I swear.”

“Ok.” Graham walked toward his pole. “I’m gonna pull in my line. I don’t want them to get tangled.” Graham came back with a net and his needle nosed plyers that he had stored in his boat.

“Check out this fish.” Rob’s pole was bent and the line pulled tight, but he had worked the fish within five feet of the shore. The fish circled back and forth avoiding the shore, and Rob followed it with his pole.

“Pretty good size.” Graham scooped it up into the net.

“Too big for my skillet. I love me some fried catfish.”

“No, you’ll probably put this one on the grill.” Graham grabbed the fish placing his thumb in the side of its mouth. He let the net drop onto the shore and pulled out the hook with the plyers. “Would you look at that the poor sucker didn’t even get to eat the worm.”

“Today is my lucky day. I don’t have to impale another one of those worms. I hate the way they squirm away from the hook and ooze all that mucus when we didn’t bring anything to wash our hands.” Robed took the brand new lime green stringer out of his sweater pocket and ripped open the plastic. He threaded the looped end through the gill and out the mouth then ran the metal rod tip through the loop and pulled it tight. He threw the fish back in the water and pushed the metal rod into the sand so he couldn’t swim away.

Graham walked back to the boat and grabbed a beer for both of them. “First fish of the day. Seems you deserve another beer even if you spilled the last one.” Rob downed what was left in his previous and took the new one from Graham.

Graham said, “This seems to be your lucky spot I am going to try out the other side of the cove.” This was the extent of their conversations when they weren’t drunk enough or there wasn’t anything exciting going on. It reminded Rob of his trips with his father only with Graham Rob was the older by eight or ten years, but somehow he still was the one to receive all of the “helpful” advice.

Rob’s pole was the one his father had given him on his sixteenth birthday. They had gone fishing from time to time. His father had taught him how to gut his first fish. He had an extensive tackle box and seemed to know more about fishing than he ever let on. But fishing seemed a remnant of his past. Rob and his father fished from time to time because that is what father and son were supposed to do. Rob just enjoyed the time he got to spend with his dad. Even when he grew too old for those trips, he kept his pole, and the stringer was the first fishing implement Rob had bought in years.

Graham, on the other hand, had the boat and several poles. His garage was packed with dirt bikes and he just had a larger driveway poured so he could park the RV that he was planning to buy. They lived in the same neighborhood and worked roughly the same jobs, but somehow Graham had all these nice things and all the free time to make use them. Rob spent Saturdays drinking beer at Graham’s poker parties, and he thought that they were pretty good friends. But it wasn’t until Graham’s most recent back yard barbeque that they had made a point of going out to the lake together. Well, it was more of Suzy’s idea. She had overheard Graham talking about his next trip and all but forced Rob to ask if he could tag along.

Graham liked to beach the boat in a secluded cove where he could watch the other boaters zoom past the point pulling skiers. They sat on the pebbly sand and fished without being crowded out by the impatient kids and the disapproving looks of their parents.  Best of all, they drank without fear of being harassed by the lake police like they would if they were in the boat.

Rob and Graham were spread out along the short strip of beach, and the dog, Buck rummaged in the bushes. He found a dried up catfish tail with remnants of what looked like a spine still intact. Rob watched and laughed. Graham and his clownish figure ran after the dog and tried to get the piece of rot away from him. Eventually, Graham caught the dog and threw the rotten fish bones into the lake. Buck walked up to the edge of the water and drew back when the water lapped onto his front paws. He stared out at the bobbing fish carcass and whined until he lost interest.

The day was warming as the afternoon approached. Rob took off his sweater and lay it next to a piece of driftwood on the shore. He cast his line out toward the inlet of the cove and leaned the pole against the piece of driftwood. Rob decided to give Graham’s system a try. He attached a hook to a bobber and hung it from the line between the first two loops at the top of the pole. If the line just jiggled from the movement of the water the weight of the bobber would pull the line down keeping it taut. But the bobber would be pulled up parallel to the pole if a fish pulled on the line. Rob sat in the sand and sipped his beer waiting for the next bite. It wasn’t long before Graham was pulling in a small one across the water of the cove.

As the day got hotter, Graham pulled in another fish, a catfish that rivalled the size of Rob’s. But that was the last of their luck for a while so Graham found a sturdy little limb that branched on one end so he could leave his pole unattended. Graham rummaged around in the boat until he pulled out a pair of swim trunks. He changed behind the boat and waded out into the water.

Rob called out. “I didn’t know you could swim in this lake.”

“Why the hell not?”

“I don’t know. Some of these lakes are reservoirs for drinking water.”

“They add chlorine. I know you’re hot over there. You should take a swim.”

“I didn’t bring any shorts.”

“You are wearing underwear aren’t you?  Just wear them. There isn’t anyone out here to see you.”

“You’re probably right.” Rob took off his shirt and pants and laid them in a pile atop his sweater. He waded out into the cove until he was deep enough to swim. He wasn’t a great swimmer, but he stayed near the land and swan out toward the rest of the lake. When he got out near the inlet, Graham called out.

“Don’t go out there. You’ll get hit by a boat. And I can’t save your ass if you drown.”

Rob took this as a challenge and swam toward the opposite side of the cove. It didn’t seem that far until he got about half way across. Tired and breathing heavy, Rob began to tread water. He knew from his days in high school swimming class that it didn’t take much energy to keep his head above water, and he could take some time to catch his breath. The water was warm enough around his arms and chest but his legs seemed to be drifting through a cold spot. He felt something touch one of his feet. He straightened up and pointed his toes. He wanted to sink a little so he could tell how deep the water was. He couldn’t find the reassuring warmth of the sun soaked gravel bottom or even the toe sinking slime of mossy silt. California doesn’t have any poisonous water snakes, no alligators, no snapping turtles. At least there aren’t any native to the state. But there is a thriving exotic animal trade and there was no telling what might have been dumped in the lake when it got too big for its owner. Rob hadn’t completely caught his breath, he began to beat his arms and legs wildly to swim toward the shore. But he held his head above the water and took a deep breath and forced himself to regain composure. He had to be brave with someone else watching. He remembered one of the few things his dad had taken the time to teach him. Take deep slow breaths, stop moving, put your arms out to the sides, tilt your head back, let your feet float up, and arch your back so that your belly button comes out of the water. Rob heard his father’s voice while he floated on his back with his ears bobbing in and out of the water. He made leisurely strokes until he reached the shallows of the other side. He was worn out so he walked along the shore until he made it back to his pole. He lay there next to the pile of his clothes to take in the sun, and catch his breath while he pretended to be drying off. The water lapped the shore from a boat zooming past.

Rob reached over to the bottle of beer that was smashed down into the sand. The sunlight shined through the warm brown glass, and Rob took the last swallow before throwing it into the pile of empties they had sitting near the boat. It bounced off the sand and rolled into another bottle with a loud clink.

Graham yelled out. “Hey asshole, don’t break those we’re taking them back with us. I don’t want to get cut.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Rob had stood up and wiped the sand off the back of his shorts. He grabbed his pants and stepped into them. He started to walk toward the boat, but he saw the bobber slowly rising up. He ran over to the pole, slowed way down and bent over gingerly. He lifted up the rod careful not to spook the fish and have it to spit out the hook. Then he yanked back to set the hook. The bobber went flying off into the bushes behind him, but it didn’t feel much like he had a fish on the line.

Graham came running over followed closely by buck. “Did you catch something?”

Rob was reeling easy. “Nah, not this time. I hooked a loose weed or something. It’s not fighting.”

Graham kept watching the line in the water. “No, not a weed. You can see it in the water, now. It’s a fish but I think it’s fucked up.”

Rob began to reel faster. “You know you’re right. It is a fish.” It was a catfish small, bent nearly in half, tail flapping slowly causing it to turn circles around the hook. “It must have gotten hit with a boat or something and broke its spine. I can’t believe it survived.”

“I believe it. Nothing kills a catfish.”

Rob pulled it up out of the water. It was half the size of the other catfish they had caught but it didn’t look very young. It was shaking as best it could and it had its gill fins sticking straight out at the sides. “He’s still got some fight left in him.”

“You gonna eat it?”

“No, he survived this long. I’m not going to be the one to kill him. Besides, Suzy has a thing for small helpless animals. If I kill it, she will give me grief. If I throw it back, I may just be able to get some by buttering her up with a cute little anecdote about the amazing life of Corky the retarded catfish.”

“Corky had Down’s Syndrome.”

“Don’t over think it. It’s just a joke.” Rob walked his catch over to the boat to remove the hook. Just as they made it to the boat, Graham took off sprinting.

“Shit, I got a bite.” Graham’s pole had come off the stick it had had been propped up with and was inching towards the water.

“Hurry, don’t lose your pole! Lucky fucker, got another big one.”

Rob took the needle nose out of the top level of Graham’s tackle box and grabbed the hook in the fish’s mouth and shook a few times before the fish fell free into the water. The fish swam serpentine into the shimmering shadows of the lake while Graham fought his fish back and forth trying not to let it break his six pound test. Rob pulled another beer from the cooler and took a swig before baiting another worm on his hook.

They fished another hour without any more luck. Graham reeled in his line and whipped his pole several times. The hook and weight slammed into the water splashing with each strike. He was trying to remove the bait without touching it. Rob took this as his cue and started reeling in his line too. He shouted across the water, “Ready to leave?”

“I gotta get home and get a shower before Linda gets home.” Graham broke down his pole and pulled his stringer out of the water. It had two good sized catfish that shook against the day glow yellow twine that went through one gill and out the mouth, and one small stiff trout that only moved because of the thrashing of the other two. Buck ran in circles around Graham, and nipped at the fish. He was forced to hold the fish high so the dog wouldn’t ruin the meat. “Buck, you asshole. Get in the fucking boat.” The dog dashed off and leapt into the boat without breaking stride.

Rob broke down his pole and finished his beer before he pulled in his stringer with the one keeper that he had caught earlier that day. Graham rolled up his pant legs and waded into the water to clean his catch on the step at the back of the boat. Graham filleted the trout and tossed the carcass into the water. Then he slid his knife into the underside of the first catfish and slit it from groin to gill. He ripped all of the organs out of the cavity and tossed them into the lake. Dipping the whole fish into the water, he rinsed the rest of the goo out of the cavity and off his fingers. The fish was sluggish and stunned but it still tried to swim away.

Rob said, “Those things really don’t die, do they?  Trout die from the shock of being caught, but catfish don’t even need their hearts.”

Graham threw the fish into the cooler. It swayed gently, jostling the few remaining beers floating in among the melting ice. “They’re usually dead before I get home with them.” Graham cleaned his other catfish.

“You seem to be pretty good at this. Why don’t you clean mine for me?”

“I’ll take it home and eat it too.” Graham handed over the fishing knife. He had not yet rinsed his hands, and he pressed the handle of the knife into Rob’s palm with one hand and closed his other hand around the back of Rob’s making sure to smear in as much fish smut as possible. Graham affected a fatherly tone. “You are not a man if you can’t clean your own fish.”

“Thanks.” Rob held his hand out just a little too far from his clean pants. He rolled his pant legs one handed and waded out to the step to clean his fish.

Rob slid the knife up through the under flesh of the fish. Then, he turned the knife across the fish and followed the gills up until he hit the spine. He pushed down on the knife until the fish jerked and went limp. He didn’t want to put the fish through agonizing death that Graham’s catch would experience. The head of the fish sat atop the step as Rob removed the guts and rinsed the fish. The fish’s mouth continued to open and close trying to push water across the gills so it could breathe. The red inside of the gills stood open and the gill fins were thrust outward in a defensive posture. After Rob tossed the decapitated fish in the cooler, he lifted the head of the fish in both hands, palms extended to the sky. He was astonished and anguished that the fish was still clinging on to life, but he could not let those feelings show. “You’ll be OK buddy. It’s just a flesh wound. Swim it off.” He lowered his hands into the water and let the head float out.

“Ha! Swim it off.”

They pulled the boat from the bank and climbed in. Rob took another beer from the cooler and reached over the edge of the boat to rinse the bottle in the water. Graham started the boat and drove out toward open water. “Don’t let anyone see you drinking that.”

Back in the protected cove, the head drifted serpentine into the shadows of the lake.