Am I still alive? Did I expire in some horrific blaze of fate and cruel irony, left wandering the ethereal realms without a soul, without a voice, without an angry thought in my buzzing head? Some colossal tide has broken. This much is certain beneath the early morning spring sunshine. Even the liquid permeating the soles of my old tennis shoes seems to have manifested from some strange, unknown void. Something has happened in the past two weeks, something so slight and imperceivable that it is impossible to be glimpsed by the naked eye. I have embraced a glistening transformation, and nothing–not this wretched political spectrum convulsing on my television, not the idea that perhaps the recent winners of an astounding lottery purse will succumb to fortune and happiness as brief as a first sexual experience–seems as terrible as it once did. I stare outside and greet the sun and the birth of plants and flowers. A small but confident smile is scribbled across my unshaven face. My coffee tastes divine, probably because my beautiful wife–who is an angelic soul–ground and brewed the beans. The blathering fools on morning television–once the very staples by which I could tell time–are wasting someone else’s time this morning. I have heard of this balance before, much the way sailors in the old world surely swore they had beheld the mermaid’s song. It is something I have sought lo these thirty-six and a third years, something just out of my grasp the way my fingertips always fell short of grabbing the moon in my youth. Over a year spent unemployed and getting to know every re-run of COPS intimately and rarely having human contact beyond social media or telephone conversation truly did a number on my psyche. I was depressed. Distressed. Hungry, but unable to locate anything worth eating. Angry at everything and nothing simultaneously, usually a half-step away from dousing the world in gasoline and lighting one of my own farts as a means to the conflagration my rage required. The small, happy moments even managed to feel hollow, as if I didn’t really deserve to be feeling anything akin to joy. But now I find purpose in the most menial events; shaving never used to elicit feelings of pride and self-worth. I am driven. Buying gold has become the new high. Getting up and going to work six days a week is the new routine. Like the narrator in Fight Club mused: “…it became the reason to cut your hair short and trim your fingernails.” It all adds up to purpose, balance, and the beautiful ability to suddenly provide for family again. Every miserable flyer I hand out at that festering purgatorial shopping mall is for the greater good. I stand in front of my job like a thousand street vendors on the glittering streets of your city and repeat the same words and shove the same flyer in your face as you pass on your way to Orange Julius or that new riding lawnmower at Sears. I crunch numbers and puzzle and sweat over myriad paperwork because math is not my strong suit and this job requires constant copulation with mathematics and those filthy little bastard numbers. I may only buy one piece in the course of a full day. People mock me because people are cruel. Or maybe because society has placed my job somewhere between manning the fry station in a fast food restaurant and humping a push broom at the mall. This does not matter. Thousands of years of evolution has thickened my skin like armor plating. I’m like a goddamn armadillo playing opossum for the hyenas. Confused teenagers stalk the open space like wild silver-back gorillas, incapable of locating either belt or acne scrub, shouting and bouncing and awkwardly conversing with the opposite sex. I used to be just like them. So did you. Elderly regulars glare in my direction. These people fought in World War Two, and most will never know how much I respect and look up to them because they will not waste their time chatting with the Devil in His shiny black shoes about the price of gold or the desperate and frightening state in which the country currently teeters. These people travelled the globe in combat boots and in the sunset of their lives, they see youth as Jersey Shore and sagging skinny jeans. The mall walkers–a splinter faction of the meandering power walkers who saturate these cracked streets like zombies unaware that no one is left to eat–are not to be fucked with. These militant stride-jockeys scoff aloud each time they pass me on their way to completing a new lap. They are in a hurry to keep a specific pace and even greeting me with less than a scowl might throw them off within a tenth of a second of finishing with their best time. Their hip jogging suits–meant to be jogged in–make these irritating swishing sounds. Their tennis shoes squeak like a litter of newborn mice being sat upon by some mental midget in a John Steinbeck novel. They are militant, but driven. I can respect that wholesale. Citizens ask me how much I will pay them for their Sacagawea coins, clearly unaware that the currency literally has a face value, and my hourly pay still goes to the greater good. I love my family. I love my wife. Any man who does not feel likewise should check the oil on his life because it clearly is overdue for a change. My purpose is to go there everyday and embrace the routine because the routine puts food on the table and sheets on the bed and beer in the icebox and a balanced and genuine smile on my mug.
It is 1987. I am an eleven year-old, troubled child residing in San Bernadino, California (home of the drive-by shooting). While I have already courted trouble—I am eighty-sixed from a local Circle K after being caught stealing baseball cards and candy; while wrestling with a neighbor girl-friend, I flip her over my shoulder and break her collarbone, leading to my public banishment in our neighborhood; I have been busted several times skipping school—I am also very content here. My mother married into the Air Force and we have been moving nearly every six months all over Southern California. Britt—my step-father—announces that we have been re-stationed to Weisbaden, West Germany. We drive from California to South Carolina, staying at air bases in between. Sticky, intolerable night temperatures in Texas. Torrential downpours in Arkansas. Eighteen hours on a plane across the Atlantic. Porn shops line the Frankfurt Airport. We are assigned a room at the less-than-luxurious Amelia Earhart Hotel until the Air Force can secure us housing. I do not know a single word in German. I am warned that the Germans really don’t want us Americans in their country. I attend Weisbaden American Middle School (Go Wildcats!), a central hub where the Department of Defense sends its dependents. It is the biggest school I have ever seen. I am short and scrawny, even for my age. Most people think I am younger. My mom still parts my hair in the morning. My clothes are unfashionable. I still wet my bed and sleep with stuffed animals. I am often tardy because I cannot locate my classes. Other kids make fun of me, knock my books out of my hand, push me down, and call me names. A girl hits me in the ear with an open palm so hard that I am given a concussion; I do not tell my mother anything is wrong until I can no longer stand the pain. Doctors drain my ear-drum. I hate this place already. Why can’t I go back to the sunny shores of California, where everyone seemed to like me and we visited Disneyland all the time because we lived nearby and I had my own bedroom instead of sharing hotel living quarters with my parents? I eat lunch by myself as far from other students as possible. I hide inside the pages of books. Beverly Cleary, H.G. Wells, and the Hardy Boys transport me to lands and worlds where none of this matters. One day, I am blamed for damaging a seat on the bus ride home. The guilty kids accuse me. I am thrown off the bus. Britt doesn’t believe me. I have a bad track record. He tells me people only remember the bad things, and that is all he can remember about my behavior. I watch television in the hotel room. I play video games in the downstairs arcade. I eat bratwurst and curry fries from the corner vendors. I am all alone in a foreign country. We are assigned to an American Housing Area. I am told never to venture onto German soil unsupervised. Chain link fences separate ours from native land. I make a few friends here and we spend our afternoons playing Army and Hot Wheels and football in the park. Every morning, Britt has to examine his vehicle for suspicious items. Terrorism is a constant concern here, and Americans are the primary targets. He looks beneath his Corvette with mirrors and checks the wheel-wells and turns the ignition with what I can only imagine is absolute fear. Around this time, I discover a particular talent with the fairer sex. They go crazy for my hazel eyes and innocent demeanor. I kiss my first girl. For some reason, older girls are drawn to me. I am a sixth grader dancing with eighth and ninth grade girls at school functions. I bring girlfriends with me whenever my parents take me on weekend tourist trips. We visit other countries. Bavarian villages, Austrian salt mines, cathedrals and Roman ruins. I have played in the Roman Coliseums. I have swayed to the Oompah bands at Oktoberfest. I have ridden in sports car doing one hundred miles per hour on the Autobahn. Around this time, I also discover that if I can reach the bar, I can legally drink in this country. With years of retrospect, I now wonder what damage drinking at such an early age did. But at the time, that was all she wrote. I hung around other military brats and we skipped school together. We broke into their parents’ liquor cabinets or stole enough money to purchase our own booze. We hung around bored Army housewives who would teach us all about sex, furnish us with cigarettes and alcohol. At night, I would listen to Doctor Demento on the AFN (Armed Forces Radio) or sit on the stairs listening to my parents fight about me. My grades were atrocious. My unexcused absences led to detentions. While spending the night with a buddy, we got drunk and snuck out. We kicked all the glass out of a phone booth and were detained by the Military Police. Britt—now a lieutenant colonel—wanted to beat me. He threatened to kick my ass, wishing aloud that I was eighteen so he could get away with doing so. I drank and smoked and hung out with delinquents. There is a place just beyond the American Housing Area—the kids have cut a hole in the cyclone fencing—where we can hang out by ourselves. Our parents are unaware of this locale. We escape through that rabbit hole daily, crossing a gravel road which carries vehicles to German homes from the main highway, and nestling in a wooded area. Here, we claim the decaying frame of what was once a house. Its roof remains mostly intact, although rain drips through punctured portions. There is a floor, long, rotten wooden planks. A bathtub sits among abandoned dross. Fast food wrappers and empty beer bottles. A corrugated barrel serves as our fire-pit. Germany is a cold country. We take turns buying beer and cigarettes and pornographic magazines. Each time, we snuff out our fire with old, wet horse blankets. A gas station is just up the road a few kilometers. When we return this time—our arms loaded with booze—flames are tickling the sky. The entire wooded area is engulfed. Firefighters and Polizei (German police) are everywhere. We are arrested for arson. My friends break almost immediately. I insist we are patsies, and that the soot on our clothing is from us wrestling in the mud. Polizei detectives show me their jail and remind me that I am old enough to serve an adult sentence in their country. Eventually, I fold. Britt finally gets to beat me and I deserve it. His superiors offer him the choice between resigning his rank and sending me home. I will never be allowed to return. At a farewell dinner, my mom tries to lighten the mood by playing the Name Game. Nothing very funny rhymes with Brandon, but I laugh as she rhymes: “Britt, Britt, fo-fan shit!” I am placed on a plane bound for Portland, Oregon. I will be moving in with my father, who I barely know.
Benton County Corrections Facility. BCCF, a place where time can only be measured by when you are fed. Coffee cake and a carton of milk like they used to give you in elementary school means it is breakfast. Bologna or beans or a hot dog tells you it is roughly noon. Yin-yang turkey or a heap of mashed potatoes or some processed meat-like substance assures you that it five o’clock. For the first seventy-two hours (at least), you are in a lone cell in the hallway. You eat all of your meals in there. You read torn and tattered novels or the Bible. You draw and write letters with a golf pencil. You shadow-box, do push-ups, masturbate, talk to other prisoners through the vents, stand at the door where that cool rush of air reminds you that you will not have to smell your own farts forever, sleep, masturbate, read, pace. If you are lucky, your cell has a window which allows you to view a pathetic garden. All I ever stared at was the cattleskull sitting in the mud. Across the hallway, the cells only have angled skylights, which are only good enough to tell you when the sun has disappeared for the day. You listen to the C.O.’s jingling their keys up and down the narrow, pristine corridors. You listen to game shows and television theme songs echoing from the cellblocks and the screams and foaming threats from the booking room. At night, you wake each time a C.O. shines their flashlight on your face during hourly inmate counts. It is always cold. Your blankets are never warm enough. Sometimes they don’t give you a sweatshirt or a pillow. You are let out into the dayroom one hour per day, usually right after breakfast, and you peruse the terribly understocked library and watch morning television or walk laps in the incredibly tiny yard. Then you find out the only other inmate you have for company likes to molest children and you return to your cell. It is better to be locked down than to associate with cho-mos. Finally, a cell is freed up in one of the cell-blocks and you are moved into general population. Pod 1-4 is minimum security, and they are given the least restrictions and the most yard time. Block 5-7 and 8-10 are medium security, but still not a bad deal. Maximum security means you remain in the hallway. The pod door opens and it is like some bizarre family reunion. You recognize almost everyone instantly. There is a shower at your disposal, as well as a pay phone and a television with basic cable. If you get the bottom bunk, you try to sleep with your head at the cell bars (which you never do in prison, but that is another story) so that your celly isn’t pissing right next to your head in the middle of the night. You play casino and spades and rummy and tonk and poker and checkers and chess and dominos. You watch sitcoms and football games and cartoons and videos on MTV (I think I just dated this piece). You do pull-ups on the shower bar. You call girlfriends and friends collect. There is a thirty minute limit on all phone calls. You write letters and mail them in pre-stamped envelopes. Every Tuesday is canteen day, and the money on your books yields candy bars and envelopes and decks of playing cards and coffee packets. You gamble most of your candy away, but keep the Corn Nuts for late night snacks. At night, you listen to snoring and farting and whispering and sometimes weeping men. You dream of a better tomorrow. You begin to plan what you will do from the very moment you are released. First, you will smoke a cigarette. Then you will get a double cheeseburger and then a beer and then maybe a little baggie of dope after you visit your probation officer. Deep in your heart you know you will return, but you vow it will not happen. You trace words on the cold, white bricks of your cell. Guards bring a cleaning cart once a day. You scrub your house. You keep your babies off the walls when you shower; it is the only real privacy you have left. You play cards. Holidays come and go with little notice. You know it is Christmas because you have made your own calendar. Guards toss your cell, throwing your meager possessions on the floor, taking away contraband like paper clips, pens, personal photographs, and fruit smuggled from the chow lines. You strip naked and bend over for eager guards as they search the blocks, get dressed, and wait to return to your cell so you can re-make your bunk and collect your belongings. You pace, read, write letters, call people collect. You play handball on the yard or lay shirtless against the wall and tan on rare sunny afternoons. You walk or jog around the yard, and the whole time all you can smell is Burger King from across the street. Fights break out in the dayroom. Someone gets beaten. Giant brown pitchers filled with sugarless Kool-Aid rest on banquet tables. Inmates spit in them so no one really wants to drink from them anyway. You attend AA and NA meetings and chapel just to get out of the cellblock. You sing along to the hymns and listen to obese white men talk of overcoming sin and liquor, and look at them today! Queers try to take you under their wings, but you tell them they’ll have an extra hole in their neck if they don’t step off. Guards laugh at you. Someone smuggles in some dope and you spend two days wired, grinding your teeth and playing a never-ending hand of casino. People visit. Your pastor prays with you. Your lawyer tells you the D.A. is considering time served or reduced sentencing or an upward departure. You mouth off to a guard and are locked down in the hallway. As this happens, your anger boils over and you tell the C.O. that he is a cocksucker. You find yourself in the hall, with paper covering the door’s window. You can no longer see what is happening in the hallway. Your dayroom time is revoked. You do push-ups, masturbate, read, write letters, trace the cold brick with your fingers, shadow-box, pray, masturbate, sleep. Sixty days passes. Four months passes. No time passes because clocks don’t exist in your house and without clocks is there truly time? You wake to a glaring flashlight in your face at night. You listen to shouts and drunken dialogue from the booking room. Inmates in holding cells scream all night long because they are coming off heroin or have the delirium tremens. Then you are instructed to roll it up and be at Gate Three over the intercom. You gather your things, rolling up blankets and mattress. Your door pops open magically and you proceed to Gate Three. A deputy meets you and you are taken to the booking room. You are given back the clothes you wore when they processed you a hundred years ago. You sign paperwork. A guard tells you he will see you again next week and even though he is probably right, you shake your head defiantly. You are outside, breathing in fresh air and smelling Burger King and hearing the sounds of traffic and you squint in the early morning sunlight. You light a cigarette. It is stale, but you smoke it regardless. It tastes like heaven’s heroin. You take a step away from the jail, but decide your probation officer can wait. A quick hit is what you need right now. A drink, an injection, a bowl to smoke. You have taken your first step back towards the place you just left.
You have been gone since September 2010, but it still stings like it happened yesterday. You died in our home–in our bedroom, in fact–and sometimes I still feel your spirit here. Sometimes I will be writing and the perfect song will queue up and the sunshine will brighten the room and I know that you are watching over us. One of the most difficult things I have ever done was cleaning the garage because I had to dig through your belongings, touch your possessions, see pieces of you in the items you coveted, and you were so tangible in those moments that I often broke down into tears. I remembered stories behind items–like the barrel your father filled with whiskey before going off to fight in World War II, and how they opened it to celebrate upon his return, only to discover a plump and dead rat floating in the alcohol–and in turn remembered you. You were the greatest man I have ever known in this lifetime. I realize what a tremendous statement that is, but it is true. You were like some insanely manufactured prototype unwilling to abide conventional wisdom or allow anything to interfere with your love for others. I can only imagine the happiness and pride you must have felt the day you brought me home from the adoption agency, and shrink shamefully when I ponder the hurt and sorrow and pain you endured at my hands so many years later. We barely had a genuine relationship as I grew up, through no fault of yours. Ma had custody of me and we ran from one terrible situation to the next, staying with drug dealers and bikers and surgeons and assholes, scurrying between Oregon and California and eventually out of the country. When I became a force beyond her control, she asked for your help. And of course you welcomed your twelve-year-old son into your home with loving arms. But I was damaged. I was broken already. You were unprepared for the tempest. I stole your credit cards, ran away, broke curfew. I told you I hated you. I stole from the church in which you were a deacon. I dealt and consumed drugs out of your house. I damaged and destroyed your belongings, threw things at you, and lied about everything. I skipped school. You would have to leave work early to get me out of holding cells. Police routinely visited your work to question you about my involvement in a hundred shenanigans. Police routinely visited our house looking for me. You would drive to Salem to pick me up from Juvenile Hall after I spent the weekend incarcerated and drive me to school, and the entire time I would promise it would never again happen. We never had much money and I was angry about that. My clothes were old and out of style. We couldn’t afford to buy me new tennis shoes. But we never starved. The lights never went out. We were never without a roof. You sent me to private school and worked two and three jobs to make the bills. I rewarded you by stealing your cash and coming home drunk and laughing in your face when you confronted me. You believed in me nonetheless, encouraging me and reminding me that your love was unconditional. You placed me in rehab and I bullshitted my way through, but you were there almost everyday. Supporting me. Loving me. Hugging me. Asking me why I was so angry.
Remember when I was shacked up in that hotel room, hiding from the cops? You visited and ordered me a pizza. I stood on the balcony, smoking a cigarette, and watched you get pulled over by the CPD. The cops had their guns drawn. I knew then that you would tell them where I was. I sat down inside my room and waited. Five minutes later, I was in custody. I never told you that I don’t blame you for that. I was actually never mad about that incident. It had to happen. You were just an honest man who wanted the best for me, even if it meant another stretch in jail. You used to tell me that at least when I was locked up, you knew I was safe and being fed. I cannot shake the image of you visiting me in county, how dark your eyes were from lack of sleep and how pale and sad you looked as we talked through glass.
I moved away and we didn’t speak for a long time. I’m not sure I even remember why. You visited once and I remember not wanting you there. I had my own life. You were intruding. We eventually reconciled. I told you many times how sorry I was for so many things. You bragged to others how well I was doing, even though you didn’t know how deeply addicted to drugs and crime I had become. Maybe you did. It works like that sometimes.
In summer 2010, your doctor told me you had three months left to live. You didn’t know where you were going to go or what you were going to do. Your hair had fallen out from radiation treatments. You had lost so much weight. You were so brave even then because your faith was so secure that you didn’t worry about dying. My wife and I made arrangements for you to stay in our home. You went to the beach one last time with the VanTassels. You watched the sun set over the ocean. And then it all happened so very quickly. People came and went, and you all said your goodbyes. I had planned for us to do a few things together, but you were just too weak and sick. And you never complained. Even suffering as greatly as I imagine you did, you didn’t complain. I changed your diapers the way you had once changed mine. I fed you the way you had once fed me. I cried at your bedside and begged your forgiveness and felt like the miserable and petty little selfish man who I am. I told you I’d get it right in the next life, and you nodded and told me you had forgiven me long ago. You died quietly and with dignity.
Your absence has left a vast hole in my heart, Pops. I know you forgave me, but I still struggle to forgive myself. You are gone, but I hold you close to me daily. I know that you are watching from Heaven, and that you are laughing and smiling with me and your grandchildren. Until we meet again, know that I love you and miss you.
It is the first Friday the thirteenth of 2012 and I am hunkered down at my writing station. I am rather superstitious. Friday the thirteenth is the high holiday of all things superstitious and I pay it the respect it deserves. I used to request each Friday the thirteenth off from work. Seriously. I would do everything in my limited power not to leave the house. Apparently I believed that bad luck could only find me if I actually emerged from my domicile. As long as I stayed beneath the covers I would remain safe.
Responsibilities have already mandated my leaving the house this morning twice. Even more frightening, I made plans to drive to a neighboring town and view a movie with friends tonight. I am willfully leaving the sanctuary of my safe little living room on the scariest day possible. That’s growth, isn’t it?
In the spirit of attempting to lighten my personal mood today, I present to you a handful of my own superstitions. Some of them may seem silly, but I bet everyone has at least one that they practice.
1) BLACK CATS. These mangy beasts pose no personal threat to me unless they cross my path. I have encountered black felines before and spent untold moments engaged in an awkward dance; they would move so I would counter their movement by stepping out of their direct path. They then would freeze because of my motion and we would size up one another as if dueling over a chess board. I would skitter sideways to avoid crossing their route, taking special pains to also not step on their shadow. You see, stepping on a black cat’s shadow may result in their stealing your soul. Plus, black cats just sort of look shady to begin with, as if at any moment they are going to hold open their trenchcoat and try to sell you a stolen gold watch.
2) HATS ON BEDS. It is bad luck to toss a hat onto a bed. This one is more difficult for me because of my inherent laziness. Many times I have entered my bedroom, removed my cap, and casually tossed it onto my bed. This is easier than taking the time to actually properly stow a hat where it belongs. Then my OCD, paranoia, and superstition conspire against me. I frantically rush back into the room, remove the cap from the bed, back out of the room, re-enter the room, and gingerly place the hat anywhere but on the mattress. I think I may actually need professional help.
3) HEARSES. Whenever I see a hearse–even if it is being driven as a citizen vehicle by some hipster down the boulevard–I stop and make the sign of the cross. Even if I am driving. This stems from a combination of personal superstitious belief and respect for the dead. Somewhere deep inside, I believe that failure to cross myself may curse me to be stricken dead next. Also, I cross myself so that if that hearse is carrying a payload, that person’s spirit may be received by a heavenly entity.
4) THREE ON A LIGHT. Three on a light is extremely bad luck. If there are three cigarettes, they must not all be lit by the same flame. Two of them may be lit, but the third must be lit by a different flame. This means shaking out a match and striking a new one for the third cigarette. The same is true of lighters. I have personally lit two cigarettes with my Zippo, closed its hood, and relit it for a third smoker. I have been called names for this act. An old boss of mine who served in Vietnam told me once that this was a wartime superstition; soldiers believed that lighting three on a match could give enemy snipers just enough luminescence for an accurate kill-shot.
5) SPILLED SALT. When I spill salt–which is often–I fly into a cold panic. I scoop up a small pile and toss it immediately over my shoulder. The trouble is, I can never remember over which shoulder it is supposed to be tossed. So I flick a bit over each shoulder. Does this mean I am actually cancelling out the very act itself? I should probably research.
These beliefs arise from a steady diet of comic books, horror movies, urban legends, second-hand stories, and book research. Most superstitions are considered to be archaic, laughable practices in our modern scientific world. The silly customs and spookhouse ideals of the old world–where they burned alleged witches and the Jersey Devil fathered satanic children–have no sway in our tech-savvy and fact-based minds. The spectral fingers we feel caressing our spines as we lie in bed long after the lights have been dimmed, listening to floorboards creak in the hallway are just our nerves. No one ever experienced a spell of bad luck after walking beneath a ladder. No one’s mother ever suddenly had their back broken because their child stepped on a sidewalk crack. The sound of something pushing against the front door on a moonless fall evening is just the wind. Right?