Archive for January, 2020

The Critical Point

Jan 22 2020 Published by under Uncategorized

          “Sally…” he’d called after me as I walked out the door. I didn’t hear the rest. I don’t think he even knew what he was saying. I hit him pretty hard. He looked hurt.

         I was on my own, now. He was, too.

         I left him in his pit. What the fuck was I supposed to do? That’s how he wanted it.  He liked it there. I didn’t. So I cut him loose. Dead weight.

          Don’t think for a second that I wanted it that way. I wanted to scoop him up like a wounded animal. That’s what he was, but that’s what he’d always be.

          I take it back: He was far too capable for that. He could pull himself up by that knotty mess of hair and fix his life at any point, and that’s exactly what he figured he was gonna do. Too late. He’d be just a moment too late, because that was him. That was the entirety of his master-fucking-plan.  Forget other people, forget what he said he believed in, and forget what he really wanted to do. Forget me. Fucking forget me, Kid.

          It started with the drugs. No, I’m wrong. It started before I even knew him.  He was always damaged goods. He always thought he was damaged goods. He’d come to me with his problems. I felt like I could fix them. I remember, he’d complain to me about his teachers. He’d complain about his other friends. He’d complain about the one-and-a-half short-term girlfriends he’d had all throughout high school. I remember how bad I wanted to tell him I felt the same way. But I didn’t wanna give him any ammunition. Some of us don’t know what we want at thirteen years old. That wasn’t fair to them.

          Then, he seemed to get better for a while. He stopped complaining. He passed the classes I knew he didn’t wanna take. Then we got to college together, and we both had a friend, and he joined a frat. Eventually, I realized that all happened when he started smoking pot. Then he started to drink, and I knew he hated it.

          He gave up. He’d given up, and I’d watched him. He was wrong about everything, except one thing. One thing, he knew. One thing, he got right, and I watched him give it up. “No, Kid, they don’t love you.” Not the way he wanted, at least. Nobody could.

          Enough.  I knew he was right about that. I wasn’t gonna give up. I had $10,000 and a car, and I was gone. I earned that. What the fuck did he ever earn?

          I took stock of my situation: I was halfway down Center Street. I’d been picking up speed as I went, and I was almost running now. I had no destination. I’d told my roommate she could have the place to herself tonight. She’d invited a guy. She could have it forever. I had money in the bank, but none on me. My car was about half a mile away, in the east lot. All my crap was in it. Not a pushpin of mine was left in the room.

          I tripped on the curb. I hopped forward, overcompensated, and swayed backwards. Slow down, Sally—you’re still drunk. So much for driving out of town tonight… I felt sick. The main drag in town was a couple of minutes away on foot. I didn’t wanna be on the street any longer.

          Bars were still open, but fuck bars. What time was it? I looked at my cell phone. It was 2:50. They were closing, anyway. Who could I call?

          I flipped through my contacts. Half of them were from my hometown. This one was gone for the weekend. This one was probably asleep.  I didn’t have many other options. How could I have so many numbers and so few people to call? I came to Mel and hesitated. I didn’t know if I was feeling up for that whole scene right now, but they’d likely take me in.

          I hit the call button and held the Ghostbusters faceplate to my ear.

          Riiiiiiiiiiing. C’mon. Riiiiiiiiiiing. Pick up.

          I heard laughter in the background on Mel’s end. “Well, hullo, Sally D.!”

          I could already tell she was on something. “What are you on?” I asked.

          “Nothing!  I’m high on collegiate cheer, dear.” She only rhymed when she was really high.

          “Hey, I know it’s late, but I need a favor. I don’t have a place to stay for the night. Could I come over, please?”

          “Of course! Come to the house by bus and get soused with us.”

          “Wait, why are you talking like that?” I was swaying as I spoke.

          “I don’t know, just get here quick,” she said.

          “Will do. Thank you, Mel.”

          I swayed too far and tripped again. This time, I was on the ground. I could hear her voice, tinny and sharp through the phone that had landed about a foot from my ear. “You’re so polite, Miss Divine. Toodles.” She was a trip and a half.

          I wasn’t hurt. I was a little shaky getting up, though. The next “drunk bus” came at 3:00. It let me off on the corner of Mel’s street. I started toward their house.

         Most of the homes in town were old. Each had its own unique character, but they all complemented each other. The neighborhood formed a cohesive whole. I walked slowly, so I could examine the houses. The one on the corner had a portico with a hand-carved inset, with golden animals like on the pulpit of my old church. The next one down had a rose garden, with blue trellises against the front of the house that the flowers climbed. Mel’s house was the third from the corner. It had a balcony attached to the master bedroom where we liked to hang out when it was warm. The houses were mostly Victorian in this part of town. They reminded me of Penheist’s, a little, but that place had always looked completely out of place in our community. His house was a holdover, a holdout. Here, together in Geneseo, they looked natural. It was such a beautiful place. The sunset over the big hill was supposed to be one of the best in all the country. At night, the stars were spectacular. They dotted the sky like the campfires of a distant celestial army. In the middle of it all was a fountain with a small bear cub statue that sat atop a pole, at the intersection that led down into the college green. It was like something you’d see traveling on the Rein. Geneseo had Underground Railroad history, I’d heard from Kid. He’d shown me a passage leading from the basement of the frat house to the second floor closet. I had tried to imagine what it would be like to be a runaway slave hiding out in one of these houses. I don’t think I would have cared how pretty they were.

          I put my hand on the gate post and pivoted as I started up Mel’s walk. I stopped to look at the garden. The season was almost over, but there were different colored ‘mums not far off the path, still in their nursery pots. My breathing was irregular. I tried to center myself.

          Mel was sitting on the porch swing and blowing smoke rings. Her outfit was over-the-top, as is so typical of Mel. She’d bleached her hair since I’d last seen her. Her dress was low-cut, sequined, and white. Her shoes were sequined, too, and heeled. She wore gaudy costume rings on both hands, genuine gumball machine diamonds.  Her make-up was a little more modest. Her face and eyes looked natural, and at least her lipstick didn’t scream any louder than her dress. I liked the pendant she was wearing.  It was a tear-shaped crystal with a mother of pearl setting. It actually wasn’t too bad for her, overall.

          Mel got off on wearing things most women wouldn’t be caught dead in, because she thought she wore them well. I hated to admit it, but she wore them better than anyone else I knew. She had natural looks. She was statuesque with a strong, pretty face. Her loud fashion statements never seemed to scare off the guys. I don’t think she dressed that way for guys, though. Her style scared other women away. I’d watched her clear rooms with nothing but her look, and only the people she’d wanted to talk to would be left.  Anything she put on became a costume. She wore fancy little pieces that could have been theater couture. I’d seen pictures of her from years ago. She used to dress goth.  I guess some people can pull that off.

          Her outfit begged interrogation. “What’s the occasion?”

          “Oh, this?” Mel looked herself over. “I went dancing earlier. I saw the dress on sale. I knew Belle would puke when she saw me in it.”

          I noticed a large bag of pot off to the side, barely out of view of the street.

          Mel raised her head and exhaled a big, piney wisp of smoke. “Glad you made it in one piece, dear.

          Everything alright?”

          I stopped at the base of the porch. “I’m okay.”

          She sat up straight. “Something’s wrong.”

          My face felt hot. “I’m fine.”

          She grabbed the bag of pot and stood up. “Come inside, first. We’ll talk about it later.”

          She turned to the door and I followed her in.

          The overhead lights were off. Floor lamps with red, blue, and green bulbs painted the living room like a rock concert. Splotches of colored light were everywhere, combining in spots to make graded secondary shades. Three lamps were triangulated on the table in the center of the room to make white, primarily, with colors around the edges.

          Mel’s dress was a horse of a different color under a red bulb. “A white room is so boring. We’re not allowed to paint it, so we found some lamps and Cassie and Belle bought different colored bulbs for them.”

          “It took us hours to get it the way we wanted,” said Cassie, the younger of Mel’s two roommates. Green light shined up at her from a lamp on the floor. “We were trying to map the energy flow in the room.” She was watching cartoons.

          Belle, the older, was sitting in a splotch of magenta on the floor, between a red bulb and a blue one. “Half of the time was spent exchanging bulbs at the store. I told Cassie to get green bulbs, but she insisted on buying yellow ones.”

          Cassie threw a pillow at her. “Yellow’s a primary color!”

          “It’s a primary color of pigment, not light, Frida Kahlo.”

          Cassie stuck out her tongue. “Then how do you make yellow?”

          Mel aimed a red light at Cassie. Her roommate’s sour expression metamorphosed from a lime into a lemon.

          Cassie laughed. “I’m a banana!”

          I looked at a green lamp that was about level with my head, and put my hand over it.

          Belle aimed one of her lamps on me, turning her corner blue and my face red. “Don’t touch any of the lamps,” She barked.

          I clenched.  “Jeez, I won’t.”

          Mel switched on another green lamp and aimed it at the elder of her roommates. “Lighten up.”

          Belle pretended to swim in the bright cerulean pool. Mel turned to me and said, “Sally, don’t mind her. She’s having buyer’s regret.”

          “I think he’s full of shit,” said Belle. “He better be right about this stuff.”

          “What stuff?” I asked.

          “We’re not going to talk about this, now, B’. Sally’s made it clear before that she doesn’t want to hear about that sort of thing. Just be nice.” Mel looked more annoyed than I was.

          I didn’t care. “Hey, live your lives.”

          Belle turned off her blue lamp and crossed her arms.

          I didn’t like to talk about it, but I knew Mel, Cassie, and Belle comprised one of the larger student drug connections in town. They were self described “freezer bag” dealers. They weren’t “trash bag” dealers, per se, but they “kept a stocked freezer.”

          Cassie giggled. “Belle looks the Jolly Green Giant. And Mel looks a seashell! And Sally looks like…”

          The rest of us had turned to look at her.

          “Sally looks like she wants some milk. Oh my God—Sally’s a kitty cat! Meow, little kitty. Your fur is so silky smoooooooth.”

          I squinted at her. “What are you talking about?”

          Cassie was laughing so hard she couldn’t breathe. “I’m on mushrooms!” She reached for the nearest lamp switch, and said “Click!”

          The light cut the dimly colored, irregular shadows in Mel’s corner of the room. That dress was actually prettier in blue.

          Belle smirked. “So am I. So’s Mel, actually.”

          Mel gesticulated in frustrastion. “Girls, Sally doesn’t want to hear about it!”

          I raised an eyebrow at them, and laughed. I admit, they could be funny when they were like this.

        “Ladies, I appreciate you letting me stay tonight. Like I said, live your lives.”

        Cassie had gone back to watching television already. There was an advertisement for some kinda fancy antenna.

        “Wait! Everybody watch!” Cassie’s eyes never deviated from the television. I turned to look.

        The Awesome Antenna came with four UHF/VHF hookup wires, three splitters, a signal amplifier, and an Awesome Antenna keychain, all for the low, low price of $19.99. I was advised to order now. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for.

          “Get ready! Watch closely!” Cassie giggled.

          The commercial ended.

          For an instant, just before the screen went black, a picture of a plasma screen television in a well-furnished room appeared, with a phone number at the bottom of the screen.

          It was gone before I knew what I had seen. It actually took me another moment to recognize it. The next commercial had already started by then.

          “Did you see it?” Cassie was looking at me.

          I’d seen something. “What was that?”

          “You saw a television and a phone number, right?”

          “Yeah,” I said.

          Cassie was hysterical. “They happen all the freaking time! I just started noticing them the other day! Pictures of products, phone numbers, websites, logos—fucking fnord, man! They’re in our heads!”

        I raised an eyebrow. “Fnord?”

        “It’s something she read,” said Mel. “But she’s right, though—she’s been pointing them out to us all night.”

        “Every channel,” Belle added.

        I was starting to understand what I had just seen. “Could it be an editing mistake? I’d figure all the editing is digital, now, though. How did you notice them, Cassie?”

        She made a quick scan of the room with her eyes before she spoke. Was she looking for spies? “I was in here smoking a joint with the TV on in the background. It was like I told these two the other night. I was walking in the woods, and I got scared of running into bears, and I decided to come back and smoke. I had the TV on in the background. I saw one, and then I started flipping through channels looking for more. I thought I was crazy when I thought about it the next morning, but then I went back to look for them and they were still there! Weird, huh?”

          I shuddered. “It’s kinda creepy, actually.”

          Belle scratched her chin. “I want a big screen plasma television. Maybe I should call the number. What do you think would happen?”

          Mel’s dress glinted iridescently as she shimmered over to the couch and sat down. “I think you’d get what you deserve.”

          I saw Belle eyeball the bag of pot Mel had brought in. It was sitting on the table, gleaming like a stoplight under a red bulb. “I deserve a plasma screen television.”

          Mel looked over at me. “Come sit, darling. Tell us what brings you here tonight.”

          I sat on the edge of the couch, my arm up against its arm. “I’m leaving Geneseo.”

          “Oh? Leaving when?” Belle asked.

          “As soon as I can.”

          “For how long?” asked Cassie.

          “For good.”

          We were quiet for a second.

          Mel cleared her throat. “Um… Why?”

          The three of them giggled. I didn’t want to have this conversation.

          I looked Mel in the eyes. “Why did you come to college in the first place?”

          “Well, I guess, to further my education, and to prepare for a career.”

          “Were you thinking about that when you graduated high school?” I asked.

          I turned to Mel. Her face was colored green under the lights. She winced as if I struck her. “Sally, what does it matter? Why did you come to school?”

          “I don’t know. I do know, actually. I think I know. I started going to school because I come from a rich family, and that’s what rich kids do. I wasn’t thinking about it, Mel. Maybe I was, but I took it for granted that I’d go to college. It had occurred to me to that I needed a degree to get a job that pays well. That wasn’t the primary reason I came, though. I’d known for years that my parents wanted me to go to college after high school. They expected it. I did, too. If you had asked me what that next 10 years of my life were going to be like at age 13, I would have told you that I’d finish high school, go to college, fall in love, and start a family. That’s probably what my parents would have guessed I would do.”

          Cassie smiled. “I think that sounds nice,” she said.

          “Parents expect their children to perpetuate their most important values and institutions,” I said. “I didn’t question it at the time, and I ended up here.”

          Mel shook her head and shrugged.

          “I thought it was gonna be a party,” I said. “Then, I got to college. It was a party. I made new friends. It’s been a lot of fun.”

          Belle reached for the bag of pot and took out a pack of rolling papers. “So, what’s the problem?”

          I looked at the three of them. They stared back blankly.

          My eyes beat a retreat to my hands. “I started to notice that people always played the same music at all the parties—lousy music. It was about sex, and money, and drugs, and violence. That wasn’t what made it lousy, but those themes were recurring a lot. The songs were glorifying some really negative attitudes. It was the same stuff on television, too. It was dance music, but it wasn’t even good dance music. It was crappy ass-shaking music. I had been shaking my ass to that music.”

          Cassie looked hurt. “Sally, we don’t play that stuff at our parties.”

          “I know you don’t! I love the music you play! It wasn’t that I couldn’t find better music. It’s just that the most publicly visible segment of the student body listens to crap. It’s not about music, anyway. That was just the first thing that started to bother me. Then, I noticed, a lot of the girls seem to get off on getting guys to chase them. Guys liked to fight with each other over girls. And they’d pair off at the end of parties and have casual sex like it was their jobs. They talk about it like it was nothing important, but they act like the cute little social fuck game is all they really ultimately care about. We bring out the worst in each other in the process. I realized I was doing it, too. It was a contest.”

          Belle chortled. “And you’re losing.”

          I felt the color red. I asked her, “What’s your score, Belle?”

          She rolled the joint back and forth. “I only play ‘Belle wins,’” she said.

          Mel shifted in her seat before she spoke. “Sally, most people aren’t like that, excluding the Belle of the ball,” she said. She shot Mel a look. “Most of our classmates aren’t going to keggers and getting wasted every weekend.”

          “The ones who don’t seem happier to me, sometimes,” added Cassie.

          “But why am I doing this?” I responded. “Why did I come to school? I don’t want to be here, anymore.”

          “So you changed your mind,” Mel offered. “You had a Holden Caulfield moment and now it’s not all neatly mapped out anymore.”

          I nodded.

          Belle guffawed. “You’re realizing for the first time that money gets you into school, and that kids like to fuck? What’s this really about?”

          I cringed. “Belle, I’m starting to consider the implications of coming from a rich suburb. Don’t you ever consider your place in the world? I watch others struggle to have not even half as much, and realize that the same institutions that are designed to elevate me are meant to take advantage of them! I’m going to be one of the 30% of people that get a college degree in this country, but I’m certainly not one of the top 30% of the smartest or most motivated individuals in the world.”

          Mel was piqued, now. “Sally, a lot of us work very hard to go to school. Most of us don’t have it handed to us. We are motivated.Yeah, I deal drugs, but I also work at the grocery store, and I have student loans to pay. Are you angry because there’s inequality in the world? People like you and me are the ones trying to fix that!”

          I looked away. “I’m just noticing for the first time that the institution might be more of a barrier against a better life than a stepping stone to it for most people. You have to pony up around $28,000 in tuition, plus living expenses, and have four years to devote to an overrated course of study in order to enter our society’s top paying jobs. I may be naïve, but my honest assessment is that, even if our system wasn’t intentionally constructed to keep people down, I think there’s a certain tax bracket where even if you did great in high school, you’ll never have the same level of financial support for higher education that we do. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s a huge roadblock, and I think a lot of people like having that roadblock there. It helps discredit the poor and prevent social change. I think schools teach us how to navigate social norms, and this institution is designed to perpetuate them, complete with all the social problems of our culture.  I’m in my last year, and I’ve taken a few higher level courses. They’re nothing challenging. I think the skills I learned here could have been learned in a much shorter time for a lesser cost.”

          Belle finished twisting up the joint and put it behind her ear. “Let’s circle up.”

          Cassie switched a lamp off near me. I turned yellow.

          “Sally, I might even agree with some of what you’re saying, but what are you doing about it?”

          “I’m leaving. I don’t want to participate in it. I’m not sure what I’m going to do, yet, but I’m done here for now. I know leaving school will limit my opportunities. I probably can’t even join the Peace Corps without a college degree. I wanna change the world, though. I can’t live my life the same way as my parents and expect to accomplish something different.”

          “I think you’ve read The Catcher in the Rye one too many times,” said Belle, as she rose and started turning off lamps.

          I switched off the light nearest to me. “I’m reading Marcuse.”

          Belle looked at me like I’d just done something incorrigibly stupid. “And what does Marcuse think? Does Marcuse say we should all drop out of school?”

          “Marcuse talks about the rejection of the prevailing fiction that we live in an enlightened era,” I said. “He also argues that the domain of popular art has been reduced to Kitsch, and that love is being directed at the body alone instead of the whole of our experiences.”

          Mel shook her head. “Sally, he was arguing for Communism.”

          I shut off another lamp. “He criticized Communism, too. He was arguing that society is needlessly repressive for the benefit of a ruling minority.”

          Belle groaned. “Oh, God, now you’re a freaking Communist! You’re going to run away to try and find yourself for a year or two like half the world does after high school, and then you’re going to end up right back in school like every rich kid on an ego trip. Spare me.”

          I tried to look her in the eye, but she hadn’t even been looking at me. “’Half the world’ doesn’t have that opportunity, Belle—not even close to half. I wanna help people.”

          Cassie was turning off lamps as well. She looked over at me while she flipped switches and asked, “Sally, what are you actually gonna do, though? I’d like to see the world change, too. A lot of universities are really progressive. Our college is progressive. It may not be perfect, but come up with an alternative before you trash it.”

        Mel sighed. “What’s your plan, Sally? How are you going to live?”

        I looked up, and there was this great, big circle of cyan on the ceiling.  “I’ve got my passport, so I’m going to Canada. I know some French. I’m starting there.”

        Mel followed my gaze to the ceiling. “What are you going to do up there?”

        My eyes fell to the floor. A lamp under the table colored the carpet green. “I’m going to try to get my visa and live there for about a year. I wanna stay in as many different countries as possible, and see how the rest of the world lives before I decide on a place to settle and a way to get along.”

        Cassie switched off the last of the lamps. We were sitting in darkness.

        I heard a lighter flint. I turned to see Belle igniting the fat end of the joint. The flame illuminated her face like a candle for a second. Then, it was black. All I could see was a small orange ball of embers dancing in the pitch.

        Belle inhaled audibly through the joint. “Sally, you’re over-thinking the whole thing. It’s not the moral dilemma you talk like it is,” she said. The tip of the joint burned brighter. I could smell it so strongly. It was piney, but it also kinda smelled like skunk, and BO. “School is how you get to that place where you can do something about the world.”

        The tip of the joint floated over to Belle’s left like a lone firefly on a moonless night. I could hear it crackle and see the tip of the ember turn to ash. God, that smell was powerful. Cassie cleared her throat. “You can do something about it right now. Volunteer. There are plenty of non-profit organizations operating around here. Find a good cause and raise awareness. What good does it do anyone to leave school?”

        I sat back in my seat. “I do volunteer. I tutor. Girls, it sounds juvenile even to me, but I don’t wanna follow the migratory pattern of the rich white teenager, anymore. I feel like I’m being manipulated. It’s like my life was mapped out years before I was born. I’m destined to play a small role in a big institution that does a lotta things as a collective that few of its members agree with and even fewer try to take responsibility for. Even the ones that try to take responsibility are directed into pre-established channels and traditions of protest that fit neatly into our society. I think something really bad is gonna happen because we’re only half-aware of the world around us.”

        The orange wisp bounced and bobbed its way to Mel. She removed the ash from the tip and puffed on it like a cigar. The smell was driving me nuts. “You were never a doom-sayer, Sally,” she said. “What problems are there that we can’t fix?”

        “I know we have the ability to fix them. I just think that too few people care too little at the moment. We live in the shadow of nuclear war. Climate change is happening as we speak, and we’re still dependent on fuel sources that are the biggest human contribution to the problem. The richest 1% of adults own 40% of the wealth in the world, and the poorest 50% own about 1%. People use religious teachings about peace, love, and understanding as excuses to hate and kill each other.

        More than two thirds of my high school graduating class went to college. I lived in an affluent suburb. That doesn’t happen in the inner city, or even in the area around our school. It’s all farm land, here, and I don’t think a single one of the local kids goes to our college. Some go to Livingston County, but none go here. I don’t think the primary reason some people go to school and others don’t is their intelligence or drive. People with less money aren’t any less smart or motivated.

        People manipulate each other. I might work at a fast food restaurant and break my butt to keep a roof over my head, while one of my bosses a few tiers up pushes paper so he can add an in-ground pool at his house. I don’t know when it became unfashionable again to believe that the person at the bottom of the food chain works at least every bit as hard, and is just as essential as the person at the top, but that’s not most people’s perceived reality. Reality is the staged, melodramatic life and times of a bunch of artificial, over-privileged white kids from California and New Jersey on MTV.”

        The orange pinpoint in the dark passed back to Belle. She took a long, slow drag, “Sally, I watch the shows you’re referring to, but that’s hardly the extent of my world. I care, too.”

        Mel snorted. “Oh, yeah? What do you care about, Belle?”

        Belle choked. “I care about everything Sally was talking about before. I think we’re ruining the world, too.”

        Cassie giggled. “So, what are you doing about it?”

        Belle passed the joint. “I’m going to make a ton of money working for a Fortune 500 company and donate to charitable causes.”

        Mel chuckled. “Sure.”

        I could hear Belle fiddling with her pack of cigarettes. “Well, it’ll do more good than Sally’s plan.”

        The smell was inescapable. I was practically crawling out of my skin, it was so bad. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, I was so distracted by the smoke.

        Belle lit the cigarette she’d been fumbling with in the dark, and I had another smell to contend with. I just wanted to get out of there. I didn’t wanna have this conversation. I knew there was no way to explain myself to my friends. I wasn’t completely sure why I felt like I had to leave, honestly.

         “Sally, let me ask you a straightforward question,” said Belle. “What is your complaint about school, specifically, and what do you hope to achieve by dropping out?”

         I bit my lip. I wanted to just come out and say it. I fucking hate you, Belle. “My complaint is that I was sold a bill of goods. My tuition dollars bought me information that was free, title to a job that has nothing to do with what I really want to accomplish with my life, the esteem and approval of the authority figures I always disagreed with, and the opportunity to get fucked in every sense of the word as often as I want before I have to enter a so-called ‘real world’ where people have no clue what’s going on around them. I feel like I’m expected to move on from here, to apply what I learned to getting overpaid for what I do compared to most people, who’ll probably have to work harder than I ever will, at jobs that are at least as important as what I do, for a fraction of what I’m paid.”

          “Sally–” Belle started, but I cut her off.

          “What I hope to accomplish, is to not take the opportunity to live like a fucking robber baron that I was given simply because I was born in a rich American suburb. I don’t wanna squander the opportunity my parents gave me, but I’m benefitting from other people’s misery without giving something of value back, unless I take personal responsibility for the way society functions.”

          Belle pretended to laugh. “Sally, your grandiosity is never going to get you anywhere. You can’t ‘fix’ the world. It’s not a toaster that’s on the fritz. It’s not yours to ‘fix,’ anyway.”

         “That’s exactly my fucking point! That’s the attitude I don’t wanna develop! That’s the way of thinking that’s ruining the world!”

        Belle groaned again. “Excuse me for not thinking the world is quite as black and white as you do. I meant that it’s neither as simple nor as broken as you seem to think it is.  You sound just like him.”

         Cassie offered the joint to the others, with no takers. She extinguished the roach.

        Mel scratched her forehead. “Yeah, him…” she said.

        “Who?” I asked. “Kid?”

        “No, the other messianic Prima Donna we know,” said Belle as she reached for a lamp switch. The smoking circled turned green. “What are we doing for the Messiah’s birthday, by the way? It’s a week away. What’s everyone getting him?”

        Mel held up a bag. “I’m giving him pot.”

        Cassie grinned. “I’m giving him mushrooms!”

        “And I’ve got the coke covered,” said Belle. “We all know how he loves to hit the slopes on his birthday. What about you, Sally?”

        “I don’t wanna think about it. I’m a little angry at him, right now.”

        Mel looked concerned. “What happened?”

        “We were at his frat, and when I told him I was leaving school, he called me a bitch.”

        Belle rolled her eyes. “Did you give him the same earful we just got? Because then I would understand his reaction completely.”

        “I didn’t say anything about why I’m leaving. That’s not the reason I’m angry. After he called me a bitch, I asked him about this guy we met years ago, named Penheist.”

        “Who’s he?” asked Mel.

        I gave them the long short. “He lived all alone in this ancient house on the end of Kid’s street, and he never had any visitors. He kept birds—a ton of them. The kids at school made fun of him. They said he was a Satanist, and a pedophile, and a schizophrenic. He was actually a painter, and one of the saddest people I’ve ever met. Kid idolized him. He kept trying to talk to him, and the guy actually threatened him with a gun. Kid said he wanted to know the hidden meaning behind the guy’s paintings, but I knew that he was trying to reach Penheist because Kid saw himself in that horrid old man.”

         Belle chortled. “Sounds like a winner.”

         “One night, I managed to get Penheist to open the door for Kid and me, and I said I wanted to play with his birds while they talked. So he took me to roof where he kept them when it was warm, and he told me to be gentle with his friends. At first, I thought it was cool that he called them ‘friends,’ but then I thought about it, and I realized why he kept them. They were meant to replace friends. He was trying to keep friends away. Penheist hated people. Kid really wanted to be his friend, and if I hadn’t found a way to force the old man to open the door, he never would have talked to him. He wanted to be miserable.”

         Cassie wrinkled her nose. “So what did Kid even see in him?”

         “It’s complicated. Kid’s my best friend. He’s one of the smartest, most sincere people I know.  I asked him what he learned from talking to Penheist. He compared himself to that miserable old man. I think he was trying to defend him, in his way.  Kid’s modelled his own cop-out after Penheist’s ‘success.’ I can tell that Kid’s already decided that he can’t live the way he wants to, just like Penheist. He’s given up on people, just like Penheist. He wouldn’t have taken all those drugs, or gone to all those crappy parties, or joined a frat, because I know he hates it worse than I do.”

       Mel’s expression furrowed. “Sally…”

        My face got hot again. “I don’t know if I wanna see him anymore. I don’t wanna see him turn into a misanthrope like his fucking hero. I’ve been thinking about leaving school for awhile, now, but I keep worrying about what’s gonna happen to him. I see him making concessions daily. I don’t want him to end up like Penheist. I thought, maybe I could take him with me. Maybe I could find a place where we’ll both be happy.”

        Belle threw up her hands. “She can save the world, but she can’t get the biggest malcontent in the world to stop going to bourgeois parties. Honey, you’re light years off base. The guy is the same as any of us, including you—he just likes to get fucked up on the weekends.”

        Mel looked at her roommate squarely. “…To forget his problems, like any of us.”

        Belle gave Mel an incredulous look. Mel shrugged her shoulders and crossed her arms.

        Belle got up and walked over to the television stand. She opened a drawer and took a bag of something out. She held it up for us all to see. “Yeah? Is that why he smokes this stuff?”

        Mel’s eyes popped out of their sockets. “Belle, I can’t fucking believe you!”

        It didn’t look like pot to me. It was dark, crumbled bits of leaves. “What is that?” I asked.

        Cassie tried to diffuse the situation. “It’s Diviner’s Mint,” she said to me. “It’s good stuff. They’re researching compounds like it for alleviating addiction, and it’s supposed to be related to drugs that encourage the brain to learn. And it’s perfectly legal—right, Belle?”

        Belle walked over to me as she spoke. “Yeah, I’m sure that’s what he likes to tell himself while he cooks the stuff up in the frat’s garage. It’s also one of the most potent hallucinogens known to man! Your friend makes and sells the stuff, wholesale.”

        “Gimme that!” I snatched the bag out of her hand.

        “You can have it. I tried it, and it was by far the worst experience I have ever had. I wanted to sell the stuff for him, but I changed my mind after I smoked it. He’s making ounces of extract for us from raw leaf. The only reason I’m still going through with the deal, is because Cassie and Mel convinced me to. They like the stuff, somehow. I don’t see why. It may be potent enough to turn you into a raving lunatic for half an hour, but it sure as hell isn’t fun. Long and short of it, the ‘most sincere person you know’ peddles hard drugs for beer money, honey.”

        I looked at the bag, then back at her. I was about to erupt. “Shut up, Belle,” I growled.

        “He’s not some paragon of idealism, and neither are you. The two of you are just the biggest whiners on campus. You both talk big and do absolutely nothing to follow through with what you say. You pretend that you want to save the world, but all either of you do is run from your problems. If you had real conviction, you’d buckle down and come up with a real plan. How’s that for pseudo-Communist philosophy?”

        I grit my teeth. Mel was boring a hole through Belle with her eyes. Cassie hid her head under a pillow.

        I stood up and shook the bag at her. “At least I give a shit! You’re right, Belle, I don’t have a plan! You’re wrong when you say I can’t fix the world, but it is gonna be difficult. So I don’t know what to do about it at age twenty-one. One thing I know is that I can’t fight someone while they’re holding my fucking purse strings! Cherish your $30,000 piece of paper; it’s your first-class ticket to the middle, bitch.”

        I didn’t give her an opportunity to respond. I shoved the bag of drugs into my pocket, smoldered through the foyer, and exploded out the front door.

        Mel came running up behind me, heels clicking. “Sally, come back! Belle is full of shit! I know that you’re angry at me about the deal, but where are you going to sleep tonight?”

        I kept walking. I didn’t look back at her. “I don’t care.”

        “Sally, please come back.”

        I picked up my pace. “Go back to the house!”

        She tried to speed up with me and tripped on a heel. She fell hard on the sidewalk. Her face turned red, and she started to cry. The fall knocked the wind out of her. I grabbed her arm and pulled her up. She was still gasping spasmodically as I turned and headed down the road. Fuck them.

        I walked straight to the highway. Mel didn’t follow me. I passed Kid’s frat and considered going in to find him, but then I decided I didn’t wanna spend the night with a drug dealer. I made it to the highway and started walking out of the village. I didn’t know where I was going, but I wasn’t spending the night in town. I was too drunk to drive, or I would have gotten my car. I didn’t wanna see anyone I knew. I just wanted to walk for a while. I wanted to see how far I could make it in a night. Perry? Castile? If I followed the highway long enough, it’d take me to Erie. Then what? I could cross the state line and end up dead in an alley in Cleveland. Or head north to alien climes. I was carrying my passport. I didn’t wanna go back for my stuff. The posters, the clothing, all of it so typical of a person my age, from my hometown, from my tax bracket, just reminded me of who I didn’t wanna be.

        I walked out onto the brightly lit business strip of the highway. I kept thinking about how ugly it was compared the rest of the town. Wander in any particular direction from the school, and you’d generally find a picture-perfect pastoral landscape, but follow the highway, and you’d see trash on the side of the road, and lots of big chain stores. People need a marketplace, but walking on the strip was like stepping into a different world, one with lots of noise and clutter.

        Geneseo was a small village, and independent business was concentrated on a stretch of Main Street that probably wasn’t even a third of a mile long. Among the businesses on that street were a bank, 3 pizza places, 2 liquor stores, 2 bars, a tattoo parlor, the college book store, a new age shop, and a gas station that sold cigarettes and 30-packs of beer. I didn’t really go to the family restaurant or the Big Tree Inn. There were also a couple of bed and breakfasts a little further down.

        Then, there was a stretch of Route 63 just outside the village that I called the strip. My favorite store on it was a depot that sold goods for farms and homes. I went inside once to see what they had: They sold a lotta plant food, bird seed, and tractors, but I don’t think I ever had a reason to buy something there. I’d imagine most of the students didn’t either.  There was a Wegman’s where the students shop, and an Aldi Market where it seemed only an unlucky few of the townspeople shopped. If I had to contrast Wegman’s and Aldi for someone who wasn’t from the area, I’d tell them Wegman’s sells artisan bread and cheese and organic, cage-free eggs, and Aldi Market distributes meat by-product hot dogs and imitation grape drink. Of course, there was the obligatory Walmart, too. My friends went to the highway mostly for the fast food. I’d met people who worked at the Wendy’s. A couple of them had told me about how their families used to mine salt, or work on farms, but now they flipped burgers. The school had a good reputation. I’m sure its success helped fuel the local economy, but the vehicle wasn’t exactly clean-running.

       I walked past the strip and out into the breadbasket. The fields were fallow. They were always fallow when I drove by, even in September.  It was like nothing grew here, anymore. When was harvest? In October there should have apples, squash, maybe some Brussels sprouts—something natural and vital. The only things that I could see growing were the strip and the school.

        I knew I was being ridiculous as I thought about it, but I wondered how much of the land around there was being used to grow pot. I’d been to this bar called The Statesman a few times before and met locals who tried to sell weed to me. I thought of the bags upon bags of the stuff that my friends, the three drug czarinas, kept in their freezer. Kid had told me that you could see from the color and the lack of manicuring that it’d been grown outdoors, and from the fluff of the buds that they were probably grown locally. He said that when they trafficked in low quality stuff like that from elsewhere, the buds were flat and hard from vacuum packing. The bastard liked to think he was a pot connoisseur.

        A lot of people in town made their livings thanks largely to the college. Most people didn’t shop at Aldi, that was true—but it was largely the student’s vices that were profitable, and their expensive tastes. It drove me nuts. It was all I could think about as I walked. I was wallowing through a wasteland of my own making. If I hadn’t made it, it was made for me. I had my own little Pleasure Island in a dead sea.

        I was falling asleep on my feet. I was a few miles down the road, and I hadn’t seen any cars since the strip.

        I started to wish I had a friend. At least I wasn’t worried for my safety. The highway was open, and there wasn’t a dark alley in sight. Anyway, I might as well be dead in a ditch.

        People had taken a gentle hand to the landscape, past the strip. The trees wore the season like a Halloween costume. The land was flat around me, but I could see hills rolling on into the distance. The air was crisp. It was perfect hoodie weather, if only I had one. I checked my phone for the time. It was dead.

I heard a car on the road behind me and turned around. It was still at a distance, but it looked like a pickup from there. I thought about it for a second. Then, I put my thumb out and started walking backwards. It was a scary thing to do. I’d never done this before. I figured if anyone in the car wanted to hurt me, they’d stop even if I didn’t ask them for a ride.

        The car came closer and started to slow its roll. My heart sped up. I didn’t know what I was doing. Was this person gonna hurt me? If they weren’t, how was I supposed to pay them back?

        It stopped next to me. The truck was an old Ford, painted a rusty color, with hunting and fishing gear in the bed. The guy in the car looked older, a spry 65, clean shaven with white hair and overalls. He leaned over and opened the door.

        “Need a ride, Miss?”

        I couldn’t see turning back now. “Thanks a lot!” I hopped in and shut the door.

        It was nice inside. The seats were worn, but comfortable. He had a rosary looped loosely around the rearview. The driver stepped on the clutch and put the truck in gear.

        “Pardon me, Miss, but it’s dangerous to go walking alone on the 63. You never know what you’ll run into in the dark. Where are you going?”

        I said the first location that came to mind. “I’m headed for Letchworth Park. I like to hike in the canyon.”

        “Where are you coming from, if you don’t mind me asking? Geneseo?” he asked.

        “Yeah. You?”

        “Avon. Headed for Silver Lake. Name’s Bill,” he said.

        His accent made me smile. He had some Rahchester up his nose, but there was something else in his voice that I couldn’t quite place, sweet and syrupy to my ear, a bit like a drawl. It reminded me of one of the women I knew who worked in the Wendy’s back in town.

        “I’m Sally. Nice to meet you, and thanks for the ride.”

        “It’s no trouble, Miss Sally,” he said. “Do you go to the school?”

        “Yeah, I’m a senior,” I told him.

        “What are you doing out so early?” he asked.

        I didn’t want to lie to him. “I needed to get out of town.”

        He glanced over at me. “Are you in some kind of trouble?”

        I twiddled my thumbs. “No, just sick of certain people.”

        He didn’t say anything.

        I tried to change the subject. “Hey, you’re from around here. I see all these fields on the road, but nothing’s growing in them. Why are there so many empty fields?”

        “They’ve probably been harvested already. If you saw cornfields, the season for them is long over.”

        “But why are they sitting fallow, now?”

         “You can’t plant every field all the time, Miss,” he answered.

        “Where are the fall crops?” I asked. “It can’t all be corn.”

        “Crops like corn grow and sell well. If I had to choose between squash in the summer and beets in the fall, or just corn in the summer, I might plant corn. Different areas are better for different crops. Geneseo is a bit further from the Lakes, so the frost comes sooner. There’s not as much time around here to plant again after the summer harvests are over, compared to a little farther west. You can’t over-plant a field, either. If you get a bad fungus, it might take years before you plant it again. Then, you’re up a creek. There’s a cycle of growth and rest that every field goes through.”

        I stopped twiddling and looked out at the road. “That makes sense. Hey, can I ask you what you think of the economy around here?”

        He raised an eyebrow. “I guess it could be better. Generally, farming communities aren’t very wealthy, but we live well enough, most of us. There’s industry and commerce in Rahchester. Bigger stores are starting to open by us, and I guess that’s a mixed blessing. I’ve seen them put out a lot of the local businesses, but my grandkids want a mall. The big stores provide some jobs, too. I consider myself blessed, but a lot of us aren’t happy with the economy at the moment, to be honest.”

        He reached under his seat for something

        He pulled out a can and offered it to me. “Pop?”

        I had to smile. I took it. “Thank you.”

        “Don’t forget, Geneseo has the salt mine. We need a lot of that stuff around here. I’m sure you know how the winters are. The roads would freeze over without the salt. Then, there’s the school. We’ve got to educate our youth as well—like yourself, Miss Sally.”

        “Some eduction it is,” I said. “I’ve been learning how to pretend like nothing’s wrong.”

        I pulled the tab on the can and took a sip. We drove along without saying a word for a few minutes. I just sipped on the soda. After a while he looked over at me, and he smiled. We were coming up to the park.

        “Here you go,” he said as he stopped the truck. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather I drove you back to town? It’s no trouble.”

        I shook my head. “No, thanks. I’ll be fine.”

        I could see that he wasn’t convinced. “You look tired. Are you camping? Do you have anything to start a fire with?”

        I shook my head again.

        He took a lighter from his pocket and handed it to me. “There’s an old pup tent in the bed that you can have. I don’t need it anymore. I bought a bigger one a few days ago. The old one has a few holes in it, but it’s better than nothing.”

        He got out and fished the tent out of the back of the Ford for me. Then, he got back in the truck and rolled down the window.

        There was an awkward moment while I considered what to say. “I’m not sure how I can repay you.”

        He gave me a stern look. Then he smiled, again. “Just make up with your friends for me, and then pass the favor onto someone else.”

        “Thanks for the ride, and the soda, and the lighter, and the tent.”

        When I said the word “soda,” he started mumbling something that I couldn’t quite hear over the engine.

        “What was that?” I asked him.

        He laughed. “You’re a good kid, Sally. Take care of yourself, young lady!”

        I waved. “Thanks! You, too, Bill!”

        I kept waving as he turned the rust-colored truck around and headed back up the road. I was sorry that I’d made him go out of his way, but I was happy that I met him. I took another sip from the can. It tickled my nose.

       The darkest part of night had passed, but I figured that there was probably an hour or so before sunrise. I needed to sleep.

        I hiked into the park. I couldn’t go very far in because didn’t wanna pass the park police headquarters. Being in view of the road wouldn’t be good, either. I walked through a line of trees and set up the tent a little ways back from the canyon.

        When I was finished, I walked to the edge. I had heard people call Letchworth the “Grand Canyon of the East.” Something big had been here, and left a permanent mark. The view had gravity. It made me feel small. At the edge of the park was the Mount Morris Dam. The weather had been wetter than usual, lately, and the river was backed up a bit behind it, flowing ponderously and deep. On the other side, the water ran fast and shallow off toward the Great Lake. I’d read that the area flooded regularly before the dam was built, and the damage could be severe.  I thought the dam was an eyesore. I supposed Bill would have told me that unchecked waters are worse than an eyesore. Bill probably could have told me a lot of things, seemed like. I would have bet that he knew the view better than I did. He might have known the reasons why it looked the way it did, and why I was out here. He might have had a better reason for being angry then I did. He wasn’t angry, though. He seemed to understand the world better than I did. I wish I had talked to him more. Most likely, I’d never see him again. I got a ride out of our encounter, and all he got was the company of suspicion and misdirected anger.

        I walked back to the tent and sat down. It was cold out. I didn’t have a warm piece of clothing or a blanket. Maybe I could make a fire. I didn’t know the first thing about building a fire, though. I reached into my pocket for the lighter and felt something I didn’t recognize. I pulled out the bag of Diviner’s Mint.

        I held it up to the early twilight and examined it for a minute. What the hell was it? Why didn’t Kid tell me about it? I guess if I were him, I wouldn’t have told me either. I couldn’t imagine what the hell he was thinking when he decided to sell drugs. Then again, maybe it wasn’t such a mystery. Belle might be right. That didn’t seem like Kid to me, though. He wouldn’t distribute something he thought to be a cheap high. I didn’t like it anyway, but I knew that he considered himself to be like “champagne and LSD,” not box wine and air duster. He acted like drug consumption was a spiritual act. He saw something in this stuff, or he wouldn’t have tried to sell it. I was embarrassed by how much I’d learned about getting high from him. All that second hand information, and never once had I ‘tripped’ with him.

        I took a sip from the can, and its contents were gone. All I had left was a tent in the woods, an empty can of soda, a lighter, and a bag of Kid’s drugs.

        I looked at the bag again. What does he see in this stuff? It wasn’t illegal? The three Queens had said that, right? Had they been putting me on? I didn’t think so. It just never really seemed like Kid to me—the drugs, I mean. He wasn’t cool enough to follow anyone over a cliff. It was some sort of backwards spiritual exercise, to him. He wasn’t stupid about taking risks. He had it in for the law, but he’d never knowingly jeopardize his health or his mind. And he’d told me he’d never deal pot, and I don’t think he’d deal mushrooms or acid either. So how did he end up knee-deep in the stuff I was holding? Maybe he was making it just because it was legal and he could get away with it. Did that actually sound like him?

        I should have thrown the shit into the canyon. I dented the can and cut a couple of holes in it with my keys—I’d seen him do it a hundred times before. I felt like an asshole, but then again, I was an asshole, so I had no reason not to smoke the stuff. Fuck the world, then. Nobody would stop me. No one would care.

        I pulled a pinch out of the bag and rubbed it between my fingers. It stained them green. I smelled it. The scent was neither strong nor familiar. It might have smelled like dirt, or wet leaves. I put another pinch in the dent of the can and pressed the can to my mouth.

        I wasn’t sure what to do. I fumbled with the lighter a bit, and soon I had a flame. So that’s how they worked. Child-proof, my ass. The lighter was plain white, with a BIC logo. I flicked it again, and held it to the shards of leaf.

        I started to inhale, holding the lighter to the leaf as I inhaled. The stuff might not have smelled bad, but smoking it tasted like the inside of a chicken’s rectum. I wanted to cough, but I kept inhaling for as long as I could. I took it as deep into my lungs as I could tolerate. Then I held it, just like he did.

        Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. I was intensely aware of the weight and texture of my clothing on my body. I was freezing. My arms and legs started to tingle. I was tense all over. What was I doing? I tried to relax and ended up exhaling involuntarily. Then I coughed, and coughed. I had made a mistake. I couldn’t correct it. Could I fix it? I didn’t think so. I was tired. I didn’t want to deal with this. I didn’t think I had a choice. Maybe I did. I was just gonna lie down.

        My head hit the ground. Ow. What was that? Would it happen again? I didn’t think so. I closed my eyes. My body drifted away. I was floating. Then I didn’t feel myself.

        No more words. No. Stop. Rumble in the distance. Far away. Where? Look. No. Feel. Go away!

        Who? You. It hurts. Where? Not here. Anywhere. Here.

        Here? Why?

        Looking back on what was happening to me, I can recall seeing the fields outside of town as I’d seen them every fall: brown and dead. They were full of dry husks and stalks. I was scared.

        No. Go away.


        Then, the fields were in the height of the growing season. They were green and full of corn, stalks undulating softly in the breeze. The hills rimmed the dome of the blue of sky.


        Tall grasses and wildflowers replaced the crops. I was in the field, or maybe I was just seeing it from a distance.

          Look. No.

          Without seeing it, I knew that a seed had sprouted in the middle of the field. Somehow, I could feel it grow, like in a time lapse film. It started green, and then developed into soft wood and bark.

          Look. Don’t wanna. Go away.

          Before long, the tree had outgrown the tops of the grasses. I could see leaves over the top.

          Stop. Not here.


          I was in Jerusalem, or a place like how I imagined Jerusalem to be. I could see temples, and mosques, and churches. I was afraid. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t feel safe.

          Where? Not here.

          I was a high tension wire. I spread out into the streets. I was in the Holy City, but I wasn’t there. I was at home in bed. I was in my dorm room. I was in my 8:30 class. I was thousands of miles away. I wasn’t here. I was anywhere but here.

          I saw a flash of light. I felt burning heat, and crushing force. This isn’t happening. Ridiculous. This would never happen. I didn’t know this was happening.

          Hours went by. I was by the Moskva River. I was in Beijing. I was in the pentagon. There was a flash of light. Burning heat. Crushing force.

          Where? Not here.

          Where? No. Stop.


          I was in New Zealand, looking out over the ocean. People were singing. I was dancing frenetically. The music was fast and insistent. I couldn’t stop. I had to go on. I had to keep dancing. I acted like I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know what was happening. Nobody knew. I didn’t care.


        I was in the field outside of town again. An old, gnarled tree dwarfed the hills. There were big, black birds in its boughs. I was still dancing. They cawed and cackled at me. They were spread from the lowest branches to the heights of the arbor. I danced, and they crowed at me.

        Fuck this. Fuck them.

        A few flapped, and then they flew. They circled the tree. Others tore at the branches with sharp beaks and talons. They shat all over the ground. It got hot. The grasses withered. The flowers died. I kept dancing.

        Here. Now.

        I ran full tilt at the tree. I put up a shoulder and closed my eyes. I was gonna do it. I knew it had to be here and now. I could hear them laughing. I hated them so fucking much. I’d shake every last one of them from the tree. I didn’t care anymore.

        I closed my eyes. I felt something hook around me.

        No! Let me go!

        I fought. I screamed. I panted and cried. I didn’t know what I was doing. I felt my world explode. I didn’t care anymore.

        I opened my eyes. Everything I saw was alien, and scary, and new. I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know who I was. I looked down into emptiness. It was all geometry and color, without meaning or recognition. From far off, I heard a familiar voice speaking to me:

                “To experience without abstraction is to sense the world;

                To experience with abstraction is to know the world.” [1]

        I relaxed. I tried to breathe deep, but I wasn’t quite sure how to work my lungs. I gave up trying and the problem seemed to fix itself. I started to return my normal mode of thought. Trying to recall what it was like, I don’t think my perception was distorted, as much as I was cut off from everything I knew for a minute. Thinking about it later, I figured out that every other time I could remember looking at the world, I ‘knew’ what things were without realizing that I was thinking about it. I took it for granted that the stuff on the ground was grass, and it was green and soft, that rocks were hard, and that that big blue dome overhead was the sky. For a minute, I looked at the world around me and saw it without having any idea what it was or how it functioned.

        Slowly, I started to piece myself back together. The first things I could recognize were the trees. They were blazing in the early light of morning. They stretched scraggly and strange, growing like villi from the ground. They were living extensions of the Earth. They were alive. I had always known that, in some kind of distant way, but it was different to consider it here and now. They breathed, and drank, and took sustenance from the Earth. They were like me. I was alive, too, I remembered.

        I looked out and saw the canyon before me. The river turned and churned over its own muddy footprint. It was a long way down.

        “Sally?” The voice was back.

        I felt something around my waist and looked down at it. It was an arm. I recognized it.

        Suddenly, I was back. I was scared, but I was even more embarrassed. “I’m still considering jumping off the cliff, you know,” I said, still facing the canyon, afraid to move.

        “You weren’t considering it before,” said a voice that I realized I could recognize in any state. “You would have jumped on accident.”

        I leaned back into him and away from the cliff. “Thanks,” was all I could think to say.

        “It’s no problem. Are you okay?”

        “I think you saved me from the worst of it.” My knees started to tremble.

        “Never take that stuff alone. And since when do you smoke anything?”

        “Please get me away from the cliff.”

        We both took a couple of steps back with his arm still around my waist. He let go and I turned to face him.  There were deep lines in his brow. I was happy he was there. I don’t know if I was surprised. I still couldn’t quite figure out everything I was feeling. I looked over his shoulder and saw my three favorite drug dealers.

        “Why did you come after me?” I asked him.

        He raised an eyebrow. “What kind of a stupid question is that?” he asked. Then, he rubbed the black eye I’d given him. “Well, I was kinda just lying around on the floor of the frat house for a few hours, thinking about why you punched you me and waxing poetic about how I’d probably never see you again. Then, Mel called and told me you’d ran off from their place and they were going to look for you.”

        “Please come talk with us, Sally,” Cassie asked me.

        I didn’t say anything. We walked over to the tent and sat down. I was still a bit shaky.

        “How did you folks know I was here?” I asked.

        “It was the first place we thought of,” Kid said. “We watch you run off to the park pretty much every time you’re frustrated. We come with you, when you ask us. It wasn’t hard to figure out the places you were most likely to be, but we were expecting to see your car in the lot by the entrance. You’re lucky we thought you might be stupid enough to walk, or hitch.”

        “How did you get here, anyway?” asked Mel.

        “I walked, and I caught a ride part way down the road with a guy from Avon named Bill,” I said.

        Belle looked at me with all the disdain she could muster. “You’re lucky you aren’t dead twice over.”

        “Well, I’m not, am I?” I asked.

        She put her hands on her hips. “But you took a lot of stupid risks tonight. You blew up at me before, which is totally unlike you, and I’m still waiting for an apology.”

        I couldn’t believe her. “You tried to make me eat shit first, just for having an opinion you didn’t like! Did you plan on apologizing to me for that? I didn’t have to say one word about why I was leaving, but when I tried to explain myself, you took it as a personal attack, and tried to make me feel like an idiot!”

        She wouldn’t look at me. “I have nothing to apologize for. This whole little stunt you pulled was to try to get us to feel sorry for disagreeing with your half-baked reasoning.”

        My temper flared. Then, it blew out like a candle. There was no point in fighting with her, I realized.

         Whether it was because I reminded her of something she didn’t want to think about, or because she was actually right, and I had been out of line for criticizing her, I knew Belle well enough to understand that her sense of justification was unassailable. I’d blown up at her. I felt bad about it. My little prodigal child act didn’t excuse that. She was right.

        “Your and my opinions and life choices affect other people,” I said.

        “I know that, too!” she snapped. “But maybe I have a different social sphere of concern! Why don’t you try putting friends and family before people you only even think of as some far-off cause to champion?”

        “Nobody should be outside your sphere of concern! And by the way, that ‘far-off cause’ flips your burgers and cleans your dirty toilets! When they go on strike, you’ll criticize them for not having the drive to get where you are, Miss Fortune 500, but that stuff needs to be done, too! You do that shit, or at least pay them the wage they deserve, you spoiled snob!”

        Belle looked genuinely hurt. I think I got through to her, finally, but I hadn’t wanted to hurt her. She’d come to find me when she knew I was probably in danger. Now, I felt like an ungrateful bitch.

        I looked down at the leaves on the ground. “Belle, forget that I said anything. You’re right, I’m being selfish just so that I can feel like a hero.”

        Cassie looked at me like she was about to cry. “Sally, let’s talk about what you were saying before.” I could see that they were all upset, including Belle.

        I said, “I don’t want to put you folks through another conversation like that just to make me feel better.”

        “We were talking about it the whole time we were looking for you,” said Mel. “We think that you’re at least partially right, even if you went off like a half-cocked pistol. We all admit that we probably decided to go to school largely because it’s what we thought we were supposed to do, and that school probably is part of the socio-economic greed machine that we all hate. Except Belle.”

        “I hate it, too!” Belle snapped at her roommate. “I just don’t think it’s a ‘machine’ like a goddamn kitchen appliance! It’s the combined behavior of billions of people simultaneously trying to do right by themselves and their loved ones! We’re not out to hurt each other.”

        “At least most of us aren’t most of the time,” said Cassie. Belle crossed her arms.

        “Kid, why did you come to college?” asked Mel.

        He fiddled with a twig. “I came to learn, and I was hoping I was gonna meet some people who were a little more mature then the ones I knew, and myself,” he said.

        “I take classes, but the classes I do well in, I’m interested in,” he added. “I study those subjects, anyway. I’m thinking, maybe taking classes and getting a degree isn’t the most important part of college. Degrees might be what we think we’re after, but I think that schools are more than degree-granting institutions. They’re indoctrinations. I don’t love the whole of the system I’m being indoctrinated into. I think certain major aspects of its design include institutionalized greed, hatred, and apathy, dressed up nicely to relieve our consciences. On the other hand, I believe that most of the people working and studying here with us have good intentions. Many people don’t notice a problem, but that’s not even something to fault them for, because problems aren’t fixed by determining whose fault they are. We could argue all night about whose responsibility it is to take Earth’s big social problems on, but I don’t care. It’s not a matter of fault or responsibility; it’s a matter of whether they get fixed or not. Doing right is a matter of actual objective consequences, not rights, or responsibilities, or personal ethics.”

        “I think intentions are just as important as consequences,” said Cassie. We’d had similar conversations before. I usually agreed with Cassie.

        “Intentions indicate what you meant to do given the limited information you have, but they don’t change consequences. If you dismantle a bomb that was about to be dropped on a city and kill thousands of people, you save thousands of people. If you try and you’re unsuccessful, your intentions don’t change that fact that those people died. Intentions and consequences are both real, but the way things happen is the way things happen.”

        “So you believe the ends justify the means,” said Mel.

        He shook his head. “No. I don’t want to get caught up in the classical lines of the argument. Ends are ends, but use of any particular means sets an example and invites criticism, and those can be ends, as well. The idea of ‘the right thing to do’ has little or nothing to do with an objective measure of reality. If I accomplish what I want to do, it gets done, and if I fail to accomplish it, it doesn’t. That’s reality. If I try to save the world from climate change, and I live a life that everyone around agrees is ethical, and I seem to make strides in environmental policy, or green technology, or whatever, and then, a couple hundred years after I die, the ice caps have melted and the coasts are under water, I haven’t accomplished my goal. Then, what does it matter if I lead a life that everyone agrees was ethical? Setting an example might lead others to helping with my intended end of preventing global warming, but we still actually have to accomplish our aims, or else we just have alotta empty words. If I want to keep the world safe, my goal should be to keep the world safe, not to ‘be a good person,’ and my goal is only accomplished if the world actually is safe. The rest is talk.”

        “Sounds Eastern,” observed Mel.

        “Sounds messianic,” said Belle.

        Cassie looked my way. “Kinda sounds like Sally D., to me.”

        Belle picked up a rock and threw it over the cliff. “You’re not wrong, but the two of you are completely unrealistic,” she said. “We’re barely specks of dirt in the scope of the world. We don’t have the power to change history, or least, most of us never will. Accept your limitations and do the best you can. You may still accomplish something worthwhile.”

        Mel looked at her roommate like she had two heads.

        Belle must have seen Mel out of the corner of her eye. She picked up another rock and threw it into the canyon. Then, she shrugged. “I may not be quite the air-headed bitch you all seem to think I am,” she said.

        Kid put his arms behind him and leaned back. “You might be right, Belle.” he said. “I don’t know what I can accomplish, but I know that I’m a small part of a big system. The sad part, though—the thing that bothers me—is that, when I try to assess my level of control over the world, sometimes I worry that’s it’s easier to hurt people than it is to help them. Maybe no single person could fix all the world’s problems, but any idiot could build an atom bomb, if he or she was so motivated.”

        My ears pricked up at that enlightened little comment. “Kid, you’re a physics major. You of all people should know that’s it’s not exactly a piece of cake to build a nuclear bomb,” I said.

        He seemed totally at ease. “It’s not that hard.”

        I folded my arms. “Yeah? Could you build one?”

        “Well, it’s not like I’ve tried to design one, but the physical concepts behind it, you might teach yourself.”

        I rolled my eyes. “You’re full of shit.”

        He thought for a moment. Then he scratched his goatee. “Once you have the right materials, building a working bomb probably isn’t the hard part. You could shape it like a gun barrel, put high explosives in one end, and use them to fire a uranium pellet into another piece of uranium. The hard part would be enriching the stuff.”

        That was the wrong thing to say, Kid. “Do you know how to enrich it?”

        He rubbed his cheek and looked up. “I don’t know exactly how they usually do it, but anybody could figure something out. You need a way to separate the isotopes. They have different masses, so you could use a mass spectrometer. I think uranium forms an oxide, so you’d have to heat it till it throws its oxygen and then vaporize it. You could put the stuff in a vacuum chamber, bake it with a tungsten heater that’s under pressure, pass a current through the gas, and then send it through a magnetic field. The lighter ions would travel farther than the heavier ones, and you could separate them that way, I guess. You’d have to isolate the heater with something transparent and strong that had a high melting point, like diamond, or a glass with zirconia, or maybe even plain, old borosili—”

        I lunged at him, tackled him to the ground, put my knees on his chest, and punched him in the face.

        He put his hand over his eye. Now, he had two shiners from me. “What the fuck was that for?!” he screamed.

        I pounded his chest. “Negative conditioning! Now that you’ve demonstrated that you’re smart enough kill millions of people, I never want you to even consider planning to pretend to think about it again, ever! How did you learn that shit?”

        He groaned. “It’s a fucking Physics II problem!”

        He looked like he could use a broken nose. I pulled my fist back and prepared to complete the trifecta.

        “And first year chemistry!” he blurted. “That’s as deep as I ever took it! Not understanding how to build the bomb isn’t what stops people from constructing it!”

        I was screaming in his face. “I don’t wanna hear that any second year physics student knows how to build a fucking atom bomb! That’s bullshit! If anybody in the world should know how to build one of those things, it should be Einstein—only Einstein—and he should keep it to himself!” I punched his chest again. He coughed.

        Then he shook his head. “It’s not like they teach us how to build bombs! Do you think people are fucking depraved? You’d use the same technique to make fuel rods, or to analyze blood and urine! The specifics would be different, but I’m saying that motivation is what enables people to figure it out, not intelligence!”

        I lowered my fist.

        He went on. “Chemical and physical properties are indexed. Pretty much any person could research and teach themselves every necessary step. It’s not like I’d ever build one! I’m just telling you that the concepts aren’t out of anybody’s reach. That’s just as far as I got practically off the top of my head. For a split second, I wondered how you would enrich uranium, and the first thing I thought of was mass spectrometry. I googled ‘atom bomb,’ and the third thing I read was that apparently Oppenheimer had thought of MS, too, and used it, among other methods. I’ve barely spent an hour in total researching this. Jesus, Sally, the info is on fucking Wikipedia! Any Joe Schmoe with a library card could figure out how to do it, if he wanted, and probably kill himself and a lot of people in the process, and that’s exactly the point I was trying to make! A lack of information doesn’t protect anybody! People are not dumb!”

        I raised and then dropped a knee on him. I lowered my voice and hushed him in whispers. “Then don’t ever let anyone tell you that one person can’t save the world, in all their resigned, lilting, conventional wisdom! Apparently, alotta people think it’s a fucking impossible task to save humanity, but you’re telling me that any raving idiot with a grudge against the Muslims, or the Jews, or the Christians, or anybody, could end it! One person can’t make countries get along and end class distinctions, but anybody who really wants it has the goddamn big red button at their fingertips that most people seem to think that only the President’s supposed to have! A lot of us don’t even trust the President with the fucking button, let alone you—let alone me! Don’t listen when people tell you that you can’t save the world, because I know you! You’re telling me that you could start World War III, but I know you’re infinitely more capable of doing good. You’re acting like you put some kind of ultimate objective reality before morality, but I’ve seen you do the right thing whenever it really matters, so you must be the one of the ones to stop the bomb, not build it, you fucking idiot! Start acting like it!” It took a learned restraint to keep from punching him again.

        The other three were gaping at us, of course. I looked back at our friends to yell at them some more. “Don’t act like you don’t know what we’re talking about! And don’t ever tell either of us that one person can’t change the world! You don’t believe that, either!”

        The three of them looked at each other like they had just seen a couple of lunatics. To be fair, they had.

        “It’s your fault, Belle.” Mel pointed at her friend and curled a Cheshire smile.

        Belle opened her mouth. Then she closed it. She balled her hand into a fist. “Fuck you all,” she said, putting the other hand to her temple.

        I started to get up. Then, I thought of something else I wanted to say. I grabbed his shirt and pulled his face up to mine. “And if you ever even think about working for the military, I’m gonna rip your balls off and feed them to the crows!” I got off of him.

        He sat up and dusted himself off. “As if you’d think I’d work for the military. By the way, even if acquiring the knowledge to construct a bomb isn’t a barrier against making one, governmental and economic controls on the materials are. That’s the reason just any idiot with a grudge can’t build one, not intelligence or level of education. Joe Schmoe would still need at least a pretty sizable quantity of uranium and a wad of cash for lab equipment before he could make the bomb.”

        I turned away from him. “Yeah, I bet you could think of a way to get those, too, Einstein. Wasn’t that your point? Maybe the reason World War III hasn’t started yet, is that people actually aren’t willing to devote their lives to ending this courageous little experiment called Earth. Maybe that was your point. I get what you mean, but you’re still an asshole!”

        He sighed like he meant it. What he’d said was unforgivable.

        I glanced back at him askew. “Tell me how you’d disarm one,” I demanded.

        Kid rubbed his swollen face. “There would probably have to be a hole in the barrel to release the pressure from the high explosive. You could go in through there and stuff the cavity between the pieces of uranium with something hard that would absorb shock, like a chain.”

        “I don’t buy it!” I snapped at him. “What if there wasn’t a hole?”

        “That’d probably be a different bomb. I don’t know if you could stop one like that from reaching the critical point, but your best bet might be to try to break the symmetry of the explosion.  A high explosive will detonate on impact, so a big shock on one side could do it. If you could get the bomb to blow the fissionable material outwards instead of packing it into the center of the blast, you might significantly reduce the damage it would do.”

        Meet my best friend, ladies and gentlemen!

        “Yeah, I could just picture you beating a nuclear bomb with a baseball bat,” I chided him. I could feel my expression soften a little. To be fair, knowing him, I figured he’d have a better idea than that, if the situation ever arose. Like firing a machine gun at it, or exploding a tank of jet fuel, or…oh, God. I was sorry I hit him, but I didn’t wanna tell him that. He was the biggest idiot in the world.

        “If you ever built that dirty little gun bomb and then changed your mind, you could use your head to disarm it,” I said. “You have a bag full of rocks for a brain.”


[1] Attributed to Lao Tzu, translated by Wu, John C. H., from the Tao Te Ching. Boston: Shambala. 1989.

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Jan 22 2020 Published by under Uncategorized

          It got to me every time I passed someone on the street.  Seeing as I had neither a car nor the discipline to remember and plan around the local bus schedules, I’d been walking at least 4 or 5 miles a day ever since classes started, but I certainly wasn’t complaining.  People don’t take enough time to just amble, anymore, and it makes me worry we’ve forgotten what it’s like to set out on our way on only our own two feet.  There is no ritual more meaningful, no sacrifice greater than dropping whatever you think you should be doing and shoving out of the social scene you’re tangled in to try and find something beautiful pacing down that lonely, frozen roadside.  There’s nothing more meditative than losing your sense of time and place in the soft and steady rhythm of hoof to earth.  Sometimes, your head gets so distant, so far ahead of itself, you’d swear you saw it pass you on the street, tripping and skipping its way back home.

          Nobody could even be bothered to say “Hello” around there, and it killed me.  It was a knife in the chest every time I saw their eyes drop to the pavement as I was going by.  In all the time I spent out on those streets some days, I wouldn’t meet another soul who’d even look me straight in the face.  I didn’t quite know what to make of it, whether it was just shyness, or convention, or something wrong with me.  What got to me even worse was the way it all got to me so bad.

          Sometimes, five or six strangers down my way, I’d get to feeling desperate about it.  I’d try to think of anything I could do or say to get a person’s attention without scaring them off.  Whenever I saw someone walking down my way from a distance, I’d play out these over-elaborate scenarios in my head where I got a friendly conversation going with them, somehow, just kinda lingering together out on the street.  Then, a few kind words later, maybe I’d be feeling generous and offer to take them out to get a couple beers or chief up a bowl, and we’d commiserate about where the world’s headed these days, and how nobody ever even says “Hello,” to you on the street anymore.

          And when it came, I’d look ahead and work up a smile, trying to keep myself open to it, inviting it in.  Sometimes, I had to muster every last ounce of will just to keep from offering a hand to shake as they sped past almost every time, eyes to the ground.  I remember once, when I was walking home from Center Street, turning over some piece of minutiae in my head and barely even paying attention to where I was going, this old dude who was doing yard work for the church caught me by surprise with a “Good morning,” and shared a few neighborly seconds with me.  He was doing great, that day.  The weather was indeed beautiful, for a change.  I really truly hoped he had a good day, too.  About a minute after I left him, I started crying—I mean all-out bawling—without ever missing a step, chin up and out, my eyes beet red and wide open all the way back to the dorm.

          Sally was really gone.  I have to admit, I hadn’t believed her when she told me she was taking off.  Everybody talks like that when they’re angry and drunk, but it’s just talk.  You’re breaking the rules when you really go and do something so friggin’ idealistic like that.  It forces the rest of us to take a look at ourselves, to try to remember why we’re in no position to act on what we claim are our beliefs.  My parents know this is best for me; my friends are proud of me; everybody would think I was dumb, or crazy.  Even worse, that gets you wondering what must have been going through her head as she dragged all her crap out of that cramped, cold dorm room—my family is afraid of who I choose to be; I can’t let anyone follow me over this cliff; people will condemn and fear anything outside a narrow, asphyxiating range of behaviors they consider “normal.”  Worst of all, turning the situation over in my head, trying to damn her for all the pain she’s put herself and the people around her through, an ache of my own wells up from the dark, silent caves of my mind, a faint echo of what made her do it that kept bouncing around my head until it finally chanced to touch on something that vibrates in empathy.  And when that connection finally came, there was no rationalizing, no way to judge her, no space between me and her, just that echo beating up against the walls of my skull, getting louder and louder—“I am, I am, I am…” and in an instant of infinite love and pain, I realized that echo is of my own voice, not hers, and anything anyone could say or do to stir that soulful discontent to motion must be beautiful and true, even if it isn’t reasoned out perfectly or isn’t pretty to watch.  I had come a ways, and maybe I’m finally beginning to see what she was trying to show me.

          I can never figure quite where to start a story like this, and that’s probably why I never get more than a few thoughts into one before it’s meticulously filed away so I can always find it and never have to see it again.  It’s too big. Everything comes out sideways, and before I know it, I’ve said all there is to say without even having made it to the story, yet.  I used to think there’s no place to start telling something like this.  Now I’m thinking, maybe I should just start where I am.

          Like I kinda already said, we were both pretty polluted that night, but I shoulda known it didn’t make any difference.  We might have been giggling and swaying like retards, but we’re two of the most rational, romantic drunks you’ve ever had stumble into you at 2 a.m. on a Monday; I swear we always mean almost everything that comes out of our mouths.

         The party seemed to be waning at Nu Mu Eta, and there were just enough drunks racing the sunrise to feel alone in the crowd but still hear yourself drink.  It was now she’d picked of all times to break the news to me.  Later on, I realized I probably wouldn’t have chosen any differently in her position. This was the last chance she had to tell me while I was maybe numb enough not to feel it crash down on me all at once, or, at least, to put some kind of a buffer between the two of us.  The assumption I wouldn’t sign on with her, thinking back on it, was either the most motherly decision the girl had ever made or the stoniest personal criticism I’d ever received in my entire life, and I don’t know that I’ll ever know for certain one way or the other.  I didn’t care about any of those deeper social implications in the moment, though.  I just know that, whatever her intent was, what she did stung like a bitch.

          I let the words sink into my brain through the alcohol blanket for a minute, silently sipping on my beer and dragging on my Bugler for lack of a more appropriate reaction.  It started to penetrate. I pounded what was left in my cup.  It was going flat, anyway, probably, maybe.  I turned to say something to Sally, but my mouth snapped shut in belated recoil to the taste of that bitter, grainy piss all the frats tried to pass off as beer.

         I just kinda stood there staring, trying to take it—her—all in, dizzied by the bomb she’d dropped on me, leaving me fishtailing and scrambling for anything at all to say.  The best I could do was to signal to one of my brothers behind the bar for another beer.

         I had a fresh, full cup in under 15 seconds.  I had an empty, crushed one in just over another 5.  One of the pledges had it off the floor and into a trashcan less than a minute after the process had initiated.  We were all about efficiency like that, back in the day.

         It got loud in there, all of a sudden—really loud. Shouts from the beer pong table… Girls were shaking their rears to the crap music we always played when we wanted the party to get wild. Guys were hooting and cat-calling—loudest of all, my brothers. Some girl with a voice like a banshee called for her friend across the basement—


          The beer pong table fell over—it was that damn busted leg again. No, wait, it was my brothers fighting with some jerk-off who got too close to the girls.  The room started to move. I steadied myself on the bar. I felt ready to puke.  In my moment of greatest weakness and desperate need, my muse swooped in to save me.

          “You… bitch!”

          I said it low and slow, letting the slurred rhetoric seep thickly over the whole scene laid out in front of me.  I could feel a vague, far-off, stilted truth being touched on somewhere in the room.  I swear I saw those words echoing around the pit, reverberating off walls, and people, and bottles until they latched onto every bleach-blonde sorority ditz, every duck-bill haircut, every pair of pre-faded designer jeans and over-exposed tits in the house, blinking on and off like huge, ugly neon signs.  Sally seemed to stare through the wall as she leaned there sipping her beer, contemplative and quiet, as if she hadn’t even noticed I was talking to her. It could have been the end of the world. Neither of us would have noticed.

          I was lost in my head for a moment, there.

          She still hadn’t said anything.

          As ballsy and hurt as I’d felt not half a minute earlier, I’d lost my steam along the way, somehow.  All I really wanted to do right then was roll myself a fresh cigarette in some dark corner, be on my way back home, and forget those words, and being mad at Sally, and how I felt about this whole God-forsaken travesty.  I talk big, and I’ll throw my weight around from time to time, but gimme 30 seconds with no one to fight and I’m down for the count.  I’m probably the biggest pushover you’ve ever met, and that girl looking real morose leaning over the bar could kick my angst-ridden ass whenever she damn-well pleased.

          Just when I felt awkward enough to break out that sky-blue pouch of smoke again, it came.  She didn’t even look over to say it.

          “You remember Mr. Penheist?”

          I absently rolled the conical lump of tobacco back and forth along the sides of the paper for a second.  Penheist?  Yeah, I remember him.  Wait, Penheist? You’re damn skippy, I remember Penheist.  He’d lived in this brick three-story monster of a house with ten-foot high fences down the street from our family back when I was living with them.  My mom told me he was an artist, and valued his privacy deeply.  My dad told me to stay the fuck away from that nutjob and his house unless I felt like getting my balls shot off.  I certainly didn’t have a problem with that. I could empathize with the dude, for chrissake.

          He kept birds on his roof—pigeons, and robins, and doves, on up to some of the funniest looking birds you’ve never seen from countries whose names you could never even hope to pronounce.  Nobody really knew why he had them—although there were, of course, at least a dozen rumors involving satanic cults and ritual sacrifice that the other kids loved spewing at anyone they could get to sit still for the telling, always with these sick, stupid grins on their faces.  Nobody cared much about why he did, either, except for the stories they could concoct about old Penheist.  And except for Sally.

          We used to lie in the street in front of my house at night, just feeling the day’s sunshine heat rise up from the blacktop and letting the stars go by around us.  Only, Sally never watched the stars, no matter how much I’d moan.

          “Why da ya think he keeps them up there?” she’d ask, propping herself up on an elbow or sitting up Indian-legged to look to over at that sand colored, sun baked monolith three houses down.

          Why’d she always ask me about those goddamn birds?  I was a space geek. I dug up star charts and almanacs for this girl, books on nebulae, the planets and the moon, anything at all to try to aim her attention skyward.  Not once could she look out into the sky without thinking about those poor, pitiful birds.

          “Well, it’s just, it don’t make any sense to me.  It’s bad enough he keeps the poor things in those tiny little cages all on top of each other, but why couldn’t it have been in the basement or somethin’?  I mean, there they are, already 3 stories up in the air, just raring to soar, and he drives them nuts with those friggin’ metal bars always in their face.  Giving ’em just a little tasta the only thing they want and what they aren’t ever gonna have is just criminal–there’s gotta be a law against it.”

          I refused to take my eyes off that sky, no matter how compelling the appeal, tracing out the constellations to chill my frustration and bring my mind back to things bigger than me, and you, and those fucking birds.  I’d keep staring straight up and address the heavens:

          “Kid, I know life sucks for those birds, and maybe we could all do our souls a favor by taking notice of them, but it doesn’t do anyone any good at all to just dwell in that.  They’ve probably even come to like those cages and the regular food and water that come with them, some of them things.  They can’t know anything beyond those bars.  Meanwhile, there’s a whole cosmos of crap out there to put those things into perspective with; they’re just the tiniest specks of dust blowing ‘round this boundless blue.”

          She’d agree, of course, kind of.  Mostly, I think she just knew it was easier to ignore me than shove me off my soapbox. She always kept right on staring at those cages with this look like a worried mother plastered on her face.  For all the times I made it, I don’t know that a word of that speech ever hit home.

          “It’s just, I dunno that the birds understand all that, and it’s not like we can really explain it to ‘em.  But I know they’d get it if they could spread their wings, for once—take off like a shot for the horizon and see how big it all is, just once.”

          In retrospect, I guess I’ll admit I was a little too callous about those stupid birds.  I owed something of my heaven-centered perspective to them.  I remember, back in the seventh grade we took a trip to the Morristown museum, and there one of them was waiting for me, larger than life, just hanging out in one of the galleries.  That’s how Sally and I met, actually; my class had made it off the busses 5 minutes before hers, and everyone went rushing to see some painting on loan from the Louvre or something, but I never made it past the first gallery.

          I had spotted this dark, jarring, towering mosaic from the lobby and couldn’t figure for the life of me what it was supposed to be.  At first, I thought there was no form to the thing, nothing it was trying to be—all just warped and twisted shapes and colors that seemed to flux in and out as I looked closely, almost hurting my eyes.  Trying to watch it move for a minute, I started to feel drawn into the thing. It’s rolling, blurry lines and curves gave the sensation that every other person and piece of art in the room were in orbit around it, slowly falling in towards this chthonic looming chaos.  It’s form or message didn’t come any great deal clearer as I got close, but there was something so compelling about the way that entropic arrangement of tile and glass debris played on my mind.  It held me anchored right there in front of it, jaw hanging a bit, barely aware of anything outside its black slate border.  Up a little closer, I had even less of an idea what to make of the thing, but it mystified me all the same as I stood there staring, trying to take it all in at once.

          I read the tag at the lower left corner:

          “Flight.  Arthur Penheist, 1985.”

          So this was one of Penheist’s, huh?  Like I mentioned, I’d heard the guy called an artist, but I never would have associated that unseen, semi-mythical figure of urban legend with anything at all like this.  In all the years we’d lived on that street, I’d never seen another solid evidence of the man’s existence.  It expressed something to me in at least that one respect. A man can play irresistibly on the deepest hardwiring of people’s heads without ever much bothering with other people.

          I was still frozen in place, just trying to make heads or tails of the thing when Sally came through the turn-styles and spotted me 15 minutes later.

          “It’s pretty,” she offered, before I had even realized she was standing next to me.  “I really like it.”

          I remember mumbling something vaguely sarcastic that seemed to go right over her head.  Dear Lord, there I was, standing next to probably the cutest girl in my grade, little Sally Divine—all olive skin and long, flowing, fiery hair tied back from her face, with those powder blue eyes—and I couldn’t even shake my attention for long enough to look over and acknowledge her.  I mean, how fucking hard is it to ask a person their name?  I couldn’t even pay her enough attention to insult her properly.  I didn’t care much about women at the time—at least, not nearly as much as most of my sexually fixated classmates.  I guess my priorities have always been a bit fucked up, especially back then, although you could probably say the same of any kid in grade school.

          After a minute of looking thoughtful, she took off without another word to go, I dunno, somewhere, I suppose.  God knows I wasn’t paying attention to anything but that mosaic.

          I indexed mental lists of every religious icon, every historical figure, every literary archetype I’d ever interpreted (I was a precocious kid). I compared it to every abstract work I’d ever tried to understand.  I realigned apparent shapes, replaced the colors, turned sections of the thing upside down and around in my head, permuting it out to infinity, trying to eke out a revelation.  I could nearly feel the work trying to scream something at me, to turn me around to see some basic bit of truth that was staring me dead in the face, but I couldn’t have even begun to guess what that hidden moral was supposed to be.

          Apparently, I stood there riveted to that goddamn wall straight through lunch. I was told I’d barely moved a muscle the entire day by a number of concerned classmates, although my memory of that afternoon has always been kinda hazy.  Of course, it was Sally who finally came to check on me and make sure I didn’t miss our ride.

          I saw her walking over real slow and tight-lipped out of the corner of my eye, trying to seem worried about me, looking back and forth between me and the wall I was boring into like I was part of the exhibit.

          She looked back at the mosaic one last time. Nobody moved for a minute.

          Then she rested her chin on her hand.  I resisted the urge to put my entire fist in my mouth.


         Oh God. Here it comes. I could have exploded. C’mon, girl. Say it. Say it, already. Please, go ahead.

          “Ya know, I don’t think I’ve ever met another kid quite as interested in birds as you must be.”

          I ignored her.

          She twiddled her thumbs. “Yup…”

          My head whipped around as I formed the question. “What do ya mean, bi—?”

          I stopped short, taken aback by the dizzying, glowing smile she shot me, and the crick in my neck from all that standing and staring.  I was dazed for a moment. By the time I’d recomposed myself my head had swung back around to its trained position, once again facing the mosaic.

          As I tried to readjust, everything aligned for me.

          On every chunk of tile or glass comprising the piece, there was a tiny little painting of a different bird readying to take off. I got as close as I possibly could. There they were, on city streets, branches, bell towers, rooftops, beaches—virtually everywhere you could picture a perched bird.  I’d been so obsessed with deciphering the bigger picture, I’d completely missed the only thing that made any kind of sense of in the work.

          I’m convinced I was in shock for a short period. I could feel the room go cold and my lungs heave as Sally’s voice came to me from miles off, yelling something about the bus as she dragged me out to the lobby by both arms.  I had no idea where I was going, starting nervously, looking in every direction with animal incomprehension, until I happened to look back at the mosaic.

          Tripping my way out those glass revolving doors, I saw it clear as day:  it was the outline of a baby bird—couldn’t be more than ten minutes out of the shell it’d scattered all over—pathetically trying to raise its half-formed wings while laying there exhausted on the cusp of its nest, all rendered with the definition and ability of a 3-year-old’s art homework. 

          Having finally come to the realization I was looking for, I still didn’t get it.

          Sally snuck me onto her bus without anyone realizing, including me.  I sat there looking out the window she’d sat me down next to, pretending I could see through the world behind it, just letting the picture linger in my mind’s eye.  I nearly had a heart attack when she tapped on my shoulder and finally managed to make me exchange introductions.

          “You’re white as a ghost, Kid!”  She hadn’t stopped smiling like that since we’d left the museum.  To this day, I can’t decide whether the girl is just always that happy or always that oblivious to the world around her.

          She lowered her voice for a second.  “I mean, I guess that’s some folks and art for ya, but people are gonna start thinking you’re a little nuts if you keep on doing stuff like that.”

          Thing is, I was a little crazy. Batshit, actually.

          Sometimes, I look back on all the ridiculous rites of passage and quests for meaning I subjected myself to over the course of what was supposed to be my childhood and wonder where the hell I ever even got all those fucked-up ideas, anyway.  I felt as though everything I did of my own accord had to be something lasting and different, like I owed it to somebody to route-out and shake-up every senseless norm, every ignorant ideology, every desensitized and disillusioned belief in my reach.  I’d turned Taoist by age 12.  I’d been devastated to read a solid argument against determinism, which I’d been toying with for about half a year, and Lao Tzu kinda filled in all the holes in my head for me. John C. H. Wu was always my favorite translation of the Tao Te Ching:

                    “To experience without abstraction is to sense the world.

                     To experience with abstraction is to know the world.

                     These two experiences are indistinguishable;

                     Their construction differs but their effect is the same.” [1]

          I meditated and I mused.  I walked in silence and ran laughing and screaming through the twilight suburban labyrinth with my friends, trying to piece together an identity for myself.  I took book after book I could never hope to understand from the local library—religious catechisms, philosophical manifestos, collections of visual artistry and their critical interpretations—and buried myself in them for hours or days without coming up for air.  I’m fairly sure my heart was in the right place; God knows my primary goal in life at the time was to piss off as few persons as possible (people, on the other hand, could bite my ass).  It just never occurred to me I didn’t need to live that way.

          Whenever she saw me piling it on like that, Sally’d crack that smile and shake her head at me like I was a toddler playing in the mud.

          “You’re trying too damn hard, Kid.  Lighten up, for the gooda your soul.”

          She was one to talk.  Maybe she didn’t share my passion for pontification, but our consciences were attached at the hip.  For every book I ever cried over, there was a grave injustice that plucked slow and low on that girl’s heartstrings.  For every kind word I’d ever offered, she’d given a long, warm hug or a pat on the back.

          “Alright, you gotta put that fucking book down, already—how can you even see straight anymore? Kid?”

          I’ll admit I was being a little ridiculous. My zeal was half theatrics, half having absolutely nothing better to do.  There wasn’t anything worth staying motivated about back in grade school, besides developing my character.  At least I could feel truly passionate about the principles behind that. It felt so much more natural than complaining about homework, or getting way too excited over sports, or arguing over who gets to ask Missy Turner to the prom, or whatever the fuck it is kids my age were supposed to be doing.  Ever since I’d seen Penheist’s mosaic, something had been fucking with me, deeply, superlatively.  I couldn’t have told you anything specific about that “something” to save my soul, and yet, there it was every time I looked up, black and storming, growing geometrically, ominously suspended inches over my muddled head for every moment of the day between waking and exhaustion and probably while I slept.

          I’d been possessed since that day in the museum.  The book Sally was now literally trying to wrench from my hands was one in a series of massive, leather-bound, full-color art books I’d been flipping through virtually nonstop for the past week. It was coffee table-sized. I shouldn’t have brought it to school, but I didn’t care.  You shoulda seen the looks on some of my teachers’ faces when I opened my backpack, the canvas all stretched-out to fit the book’s corners, and tried to oh-so-discreetly heave that thing out on my desk in the middle of a lecture.

            Considering the continual tug-of-war I’d been in with those bastards at the school over this book all day, I didn’t think Sally stood a chance of taking it from me—especially not after what I’d just read.

          Given our town’s ethnocentric fascination with its own boring history, I’d felt certain I’d find some meaningful reference to Penheist hidden somewhere in the shelves of the local library.  Even if it wasn’t more than some frustrating bit of nothing worth knowing—what day he was born, where he grew up, how many works he sold in his career—at least it’d be something to go on, some tidbit of the man’s brain to turn over and dissect.

         It didn’t occur to me check out any art books, especially The New Jersey Highlands Avian Collection, until I’d damn near entirely exhausted all the relevant regional history books and my throbbing head.

          Deadlocked, she stood and I sat there by my desk, jerking a few inches back and forth at intervals, as I tried to wear her down.  Then, she tickled me.

          People assume that arguments ending in tickling can’t leave the loser with any hard feelings; after all, they’d walked away laughing.  She didn’t seem to notice the guttural snarl I emitted as she flipped the book around to see the section I’d clung so dearly to.

          On the right page was an entry entitled “Arthur Penheist”, complete with about 15 photographs of his various works.  There wasn’t anything in that paragraph of five sentences that wasn’t made blatantly obvious by those pictures. He used starkly contrasting lights and darks extensively.  His detail work was anal, but powerful.

          Never once had the lunatic painted anything besides a goddamn bird set to take flight.

          Sally looked worried over the pictures for a minute while I swung back around to my desk and started scribbling out plans.

          “Jesus, you and your birds…” she said, as if she got any less worked-up over the ones on the dude’s roof.

          Penheist would never talk to me about himself or his work.  I’d gone on a reconnaissance mission the other day, and that was about the only useful thing I had learned.  He kept a giant Masterlock on his fence that he only took off before the mail came in the afternoon. I snuck in before the delivery and rang the doorbell.


          I heard shuffling in the side room. Then a shout:

          “Go away!”

          Fat chance. “Mr. Penheist, I’m the kid from down the street,” I shouted back.

          “I don’t give a rat’s ass,” he said. “Get the fuck off my porch.”

          “But I’m a big fan of your work!”

          “I’m getting my gun!” he yelled.

          There’s no way he’s serious, I thought.

          A window opened. Out slid a double-barrel, and he pointed it at my face.

          I admit I was unnerved.  Worst part, I tripped on the curb and cracked my chin open running out of there, and I had to get it stitched. I also pissed my pants, which was significantly harder to explain to my mom. Missy Turner happened to be across the street and saw the whole thing, so of course the whole school heard about it. The other kids started calling me “Captain Trippy McPee-Pants,” until it was affectionately shortened to “M.C. Pee-Pee,” because people suck. None of that was gonna put me off my perpetual identity crisis, though.

          There was no way a man could paint one subject all his life. I was convinced that Penheist had some kinda personal collection that could give me some insight into why he acted like he did. I had to get into that house, somehow.

          I picked up a crude diagram off my desk to give it a quick once-over.  No matter how I rearranged the thing, I couldn’t make it hold water.  The logistics were all wrong. I didn’t think there was any way I’d be able to pull it off alone.

          “I think I’m gonna need your help with this, Sally.”

          “You gotta promise me something, though, Kid.”

          We went back to the house that night. We passed our gear through the fence one piece at a time and climbed over. I was dressed in all black. Sally would have been also, except she refused to wear the ski mask I had given her, and had instead opted to wear a red baseball cap, backwards. I wasn’t happy.

          “You’re gonna get us caught,” I snapped.

          Sally fixed her cap. “It’s a thousand degrees outside and that mask smells like shit.”

          “It’s better than getting caught, isn’t it?” I asked.

          Her expression was defecalating. “I’ll leave right now.”

          I groaned. “Look, I’m sorry.” The only way I could get Sally to agree to help was to tell her she could play with the birds on his roof, but after she got the idea in her head, she simply made up her mind that it was gonna happen and that I had absolutely nothing to do with it. After that, I actually had to bug her for an hour to get her to agree to let me come, somehow. The girl had elephant balls.  I didn’t know if she had a brain cell in her head, but balls she had.

          “Now, here’s the rope,” I said. “Penheist has two deadbolts on the door, so I’m gonna need to climb up to the cupola via that gutter pipe, then I’ll take the rope and…”

          Sally dropped the rope and walked up to the front door.


          She rang the doorbell.

          I nearly pissed myself again. “What are you trying to do?!”

          Sally didn’t even look back. “Get you in.”

          “You’re gonna get us killed!” I tried to yell in a whisper.

          I could already hear him screaming as he slammed his way down the stairs. “…fucking kill ya! What idiot comes and rings my bell in the middle of night, like they’re making a goddamn social call?! It’s that fucking kid again!”

          I could hear the bolts turn, top first, then bottom. Penheist’s screaming was getting louder.

           “I’m gonna twist your fucking balls until they pop off, ya fucking stalker lunatic, and then I’m gonna shove ‘em down your gullet and shoot ya in your pimple-puckered face!”

          I didn’t breathe. The door opened. I didn’t blink.

          Penheist blinked hard. So did his gun.

          “Who the fuck are you?!” he demanded.

          Sally didn’t flinch. “We’re big fans. Let us in or I’ll tell people you touched me inappropriately.”

          The old man recoiled. He thought for a moment.

          “Yeah, well, I guess you’re coming in,” he said.

          “Damn skippy,” Sally retorted.

          I opened my mouth. Sally turned back with a look that said “Are you actually gonna make me wait any longer to play with the birds, you loquacious jerk?”

          I closed my mouth. It was better than going in through the roof. I felt as though I had been walking through the desert for 40 years. Having gotten what I wanted, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how I somehow felt beaten as I followed her up the stairs and through the door.

          I was surprised by the state of the house. It was immaculate. It was filled with what appeared to be antiques, but not like my grandmother’s house, and not like that pottery barn crap. These were curios. There was a full-length mirror with a wrought-iron gothic border directly opposite the door, and a chair of similar style to the left, facing a grandfather clock with the phases of the moon and a star map of the northern hemisphere. The dark, venerable hardwood of the floor creaked as we entered. Wall lamps tinged with soot were constellated about the room, but they were unlit. Nothing cast a light but the moon, shining in through the windows.  I couldn’t see into the side rooms. The doors were closed, and Penheist hadn’t turned on a light. We were just standing there in the dark.

          Penheist came around slowly and faced Sally.

          “So, what exactly is it that you two want?” he asked.

         “I’m here for the birds,” she said. “He wants to see your paintings.”

         Penheist grunted. “I’ll bring you upstairs. We’re making this quick.”

         He got a candle from a box in the foyer and lit it. His hair was short and kempt, smooth, colored like salt with dashes of pepper. His beard was a little rough, but I could trace out a definition in it. I guess it was a goatee.  His eyes were green and clear, glinting a little in the light of the candle. His clothes looked well-worn, but soft and warm. I didn’t even think about it then, but I guess that was the first time I saw Arthur Penheist.

        We followed him up two flights of stairs. He showed me into his studio and lit a lamp for me, and then he left to take Sally to the roof. I could tell she was excited, and I guess I was, too. Already, I felt like I had a better handle on the man. There were plenty of paintings of birds in the room, but there were also faces and places I knew from around town: the school, the gazebo in the park, the lakeside, and our street as I’d guess it was seen from his cupola, all filled with people. Persons, I mean. Every person was painted in excruciating detail, like the birds in his mosaic. Every one of them was personal and identifiable.  Their expressions were living and kinetic. Penheist could capture a moment of action like no one I’d ever met.

          One of the pieces looked like it had been painted from live models in the foyer downstairs. In it was an attractive woman with a young smile, holding a baby. I asked him about it when he got back.

          “That’s my wife. Was my wife,” he told me. “I don’t like to talk about her.”

          “Did she divorce you?”

          “That’s incredibly rude,” he said.

          “Did she die?”

          Penheist seemed lost in the painting. I wasn’t sure that he’d heard me.

          Then he spoke: “She died. They both died.”

          I realized this was already getting touchy. I usually wouldn’t ask someone I’d just met a question like that, but Penheist didn’t feel like a stranger to me.

          “I’m sorry.  What happened?” I asked.

          Penheist was still looking at the painting. I thought I knew what he was feeling.

          He shook himself off. “I don’t talk about it,” he said.

          “Why do you paint so many birds, anyway?”

          Penheist scratched himself absently. “I don’t know.”

          “Well, when did you start keeping them?”

          “When I was a kid,” he said. “I had one bird, at least. I had him for years. He seemed to get lonely, so I got him a friend. I suppose that’s how it started. Do you want to see my paintings or not?”

          He showed me some of his favorites and told me the stories behind them. This one was from when the town’s library first opened. This one was at his favorite bar, which had closed a few years back. This one was from when he was overseas in the military. All of them full of peop—persons. Happy persons. He could name every person in all the paintings he showed me.

          I was a little confused. “Why don’t you sell any of them besides the ones of birds? Some of these are better than the stuff of yours that’s in museums.”

          He shook his head. “They’re too personal. Nobody would appreciate them like I do, and I’d miss having my friends around. Besides these paintings, it’s just me and the birds.”

          That struck even me as kinda tragic and unnecessary. “Why don’t you make other friends?”

          He stopped again. “I don’t know.”

          I was beginning to understand that Penheist’s mind worked in a funny way. I wonder if he had any idea what I was thinking, or if he even cared.

          I squirmed. “Well, I guess if you don’t wanna talk about that either—”

          He looked away. “It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it. I just don’t know. Nor do I care. Kid, I realized a long time ago that there’s just no point in some things, but they happen anyway. Like when you hurt yourself running out to the street the other day. What was the reason for that?”

          “Are you nuts?” I asked. “You pointed a gun at me!”

          He folded his arms. “And why did I point a gun at you?”

          I had to think about it for a second.

          “Because you value your privacy, and you felt that I intruded upon it.”

          “And that’s a good reason for me to point a gun at you?” he asked. “Do you go through life assuming that everything that happens to you is your own fault?”

          That was manipulative. I’d been trying to be nice. “Well, why did you point it at me, then?”

          He looked at me with his cold blue eyes. “I wanted you to go away.”

          “Well, that was the point, then, wasn’t it?”

          “Do you know why I wanted you to go away?”


          Penheist laughed, and sighed. “I don’t know either.”

          I think I raised my left eyebrow past my hairline. What was this man trying to say, or do? What was his problem?

          We sat in silence for a minute. Then, it occurred to me.

          “I think you were hoping I’d piss my pants, old man.”

          Penheist finally looked straight at me.

          “I think you wanted to piss your pants, boy.”

          I should have cringed. “Fuck you, old man.”

          “Fuck you too, Kid,” he replied.        

          I heard cooing coming from the roof. For a minute, I’d almost forgotten Sally was still up there.

          Penheist chuckled. It started to come clear for me. I measured my words as carefully as I could.

          “I don’t think you’re an intrinsically nasty person. I think you feel as though something or someone was taken from you, and so you try to deprive others of the better things you have to offer. You even make a game of it, but there’s no way to win. If you refuse to participate in the world, things will never get better, but if you accept the world as it is, it’s saying that it’s okay that God, or fate, or a coldly unaware universe took away what was most important to you.”

          The old man put his hand to his temple and groaned. “Kid, you stalk me, wake me up in the middle of the night, blackmail me with a false pedophilia charge, and then break down my character aloud to my face—as if my damage wasn’t perfectly obvious in the first place?”

          “It wasn’t obvious to me until about 30 seconds ago,” I said. “It took 4 weeks out of my life to figure that out. That’s my damage. The kids at school and our parents still figure you’re likely a pedophile anyway. Was this all obvious to you?”

          Penheist closed his eyes. “Big words, little man. Where did you learn to talk like that? I don’t believe you’re as young as you look.”

          “Yeah, well, I’m actually gonna take classes at the county college this summer. They just accepted me this week.” I hadn’t even told Sally that, yet.

          “It was my parents’ idea. Actually, the school is kind of to blame. There was a round of standardized tests, and anyone who passed got to take another standardized test. Yippee. And that other test happened to be the SAT. I passed both rounds, and my parents found out about this program at the county college, where you could be accepted without a high school degree if you had a certain SAT score.”

          “I’ll bet they thought it was a good opportunity for you,” he said.

          “I suppose. You’d probably figure that would make life easier for me in the long run, but I’m not sure. My priorities are a little different from the other kids’ already. Sometimes, I feel like an alien. I hate being put on a pedestal for being ‘smart.’ Truth is, I think these tests are utter bullshit, anyway. Every person has something they could teach me. The tests don’t value artistic ability, or crafts, or empathy. The problem is that none of the other kids really seem to get that, though. They get traumatized by stuff like this, unfairly. I’ve seen it happening since I started school. They learn to doubt their own ability and turn the insecurity around on people like you.”

          I looked down at my feet. “Sometimes I feel like I’m treated differently. Don’t get me wrong, though; people are generally nice to me. They just think I’m weird.”

          He uncrossed his arms. “How do your parents feel about you taking college classes?”

          “Honestly, they kind of act like it’s simply to be expected from me.”

          He looked me in the face. “And how does that make you feel?”

          Now, he sounded like the therapist they’d gotten for me. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

          Penheist chuckled. “I see. I’m sorry.”

          “Yeah, well, it beats summer camp,” I said.

          The old man’s face turned gentle. “I think you’d rather go to summer camp. Only, you don’t want to go with the kids you know from school. They’re in a different place right now. You’re on different wavelengths. You want to go with people who think and feel like you. You may think college students are those people, but they’re generally not—not any more so than your classmates, at least.”

        “How do you know?” I asked.

        “Most people want to be with others who are like them,” he said. “That’s probably why you came with that girl tonight.”

        “Her? She’s nothing like me,” I said.

        I could hear her laughing on the roof. Penheist and I both looked up at the ceiling. She was making a racket. She was always making a racket.

        He cleared his throat. “I don’t know either of you very well, but you’re easy to read. She’s a little harder. All I know, is you came together tonight, and most kids wouldn’t have tried something like that at your age.”

        He looked me straight in the face again. “So, why did you come here?”

        I folded my hands in my lap. “I don’t exactly know why. I saw your mosaic in the museum, and I felt like you could see things in a way that I can’t.”

        “So you wanted me to teach you how to see?”

        He smiled, slowly hoisting himself off his seat. “Look at me, Kid. I’m not special.” He stood up straight and offered himself for inspection with a wave of his hand. “If you’re looking for answers, you won’t get them from me. I’m sorry. But maybe I can show you something, so that the trip wasn’t wasted.”

        I got excited, but I didn’t wanna show it. I had a feeling that this was what I had come for.

        He took me to the end of the room, where there were some paints and brushes laid out with a few easels and canvasses covered with tarps.

        “I painted this when I was about your age.”

        He pulled the covering off one easel in a single fluid motion.

        It was the park by our school, on a cloudy, washed-out day. Depicted there was a flock of pigeons, some coming and going aimlessly, but most of them were fighting over pieces of bread being thrown by an older man in a trench coat and fedora. I looked closer. There was a nest in one of the trees, and in it, a mother feeding her babies.

        The old man in the picture wore a thin-lipped smile on his stubbly face. I couldn’t see his eyes under the rim of his hat. To his right was a brown paper bag, and in his open, outstretched left hand were little pieces of crusty bread.

        “This one is my most recent.”

        He lifted the tarp over gently from the left side.

        In the background of the painting was our neighborhood at sunrise as seen from his roof. I could see my house in the corner, and my favorite magnolia tree. In the foreground was a scarlet macaw, in colors that outshone the sun. The bird was standing on one foot on a wooden dowel for a perch, and in his other foot, he held a peanut, which he was cracking with his beak. 

        “That’s the Red Baron. He’s my favorite. He loves peanuts. I eat them with him on the roof, sometimes. Raw peanuts are a little nasty to my tastes, but he shouldn’t have the roasted ones, and I got used to his after a while.”

        The bird looked happy. So did Penheist. I felt strange, but kind of happy, too. I was glad I’d met the man.

         “Most of my bird paintings get sold, but these were just for me–or you, if you’d like either of them. You can have anything you see.”

        I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t quite gotten what I’d come looking for, but this might be better.  I didn’t understand the man. He was irascible. I couldn’t make sense of the front he put up. He didn’t seem genuinely bitter. Why, old man?

        Suddenly, there was a commotion on the roof. It sounded like someone was jumping up down, and the birds were loud enough to hear from down in the studio.

        Penheist and I both looked up, then back at each other.

        “How crazy is she, kid?”

        I winced. Without another word, we headed out of the studio and up to the cupola.

        Out on the roof, the cages were open, and birds were walking all over. Some bobbed their heads, others hopped around aimlessly, and a few flapped and preened. They had colors like the fruit section in the Asian market in the center of town. I could almost taste how colorful they were.  I remember being struck by the variation in plumage and manner. Each one was a little different; each one probably had its own story. It was a seething, cooing, squawking, pecking rainbow.

        Sally had her back turned to us, as she waved her arms and jumped, pleading with them in whispers.

        “C’mon—go. They’re gonna be back any second. Get moving. Now’s your chance,” she pleaded. “What’re ya waiting for? Pleeeasseee.”

        Slowly, she came around, motioning to the birds as she went. Then she noticed us.

        She froze. Her mouth spread gradually into the guiltiest of innocent smiles.

        “…Hi, guys.”

        I slapped my forehead. “What are you doing?”  She didn’t answer.

        Penheist looked grim. Gently, he pushed back the glass-paned door.

        All at once, the birds stopped.

        Nobody breathed. We stood in silence for a moment.  Penheist raised his left foot a millimeter at a time.

        There was an almost imperceptible wave of wings—a coo here, a peck there.

        He lowered it just outside the door.

        The flapping was so forceful that the roof shook. They lifted off like a churning, swirling, polychromatic puff of smoke from a fire. The rush of air over my face was the freshest thing I’d ever felt.  They shot out into the open sky like fireworks in a screeching chorus of avian song and beating wings, glittering like prismatic shards of glass shot through with the first light of sunrise, exploding upward into the indigo-blue of a cool morning. Our eyes turned up, following them as they rose.

        They cried frantically over one another, as Penheist and I stepped out of the cupola. A hierarchy began to coalesce, biggest and brightest in front, smaller birds trailing.  They started to circle us, first moving as a single cell, then spreading into an undulating, tie-dyed sheet of feathers and beaks that caught the light like a stained-glass window.

        They circled us once, and then they took off for… somewhere, I suppose. Where does a bird fly when it’s lived its life in a cage? Canada? Mexico? How far would they venture? I’d fly to the biggest library I could find. Penheist would probably wing it to the nearest bar. I wasn’t quite sure what Sally would do.

        “Keep flying ‘til your wings fall off!” she crowed. Penheist jumped.

        A minute later, they were specks in an endless expanse.

        I looked at the roof and surveyed the aftermath. There was bird shit everywhere, a few loose feathers, and those lonely cages, open and waiting for an avian.  On the end of the row of cages, there was one cage with a lingering occupant, despite the open door.

        Sally and I watched as Penheist shambled over to the cage at the end. He offered a hand, and the Red Baron alighted his wrist.

        The bird was even bigger and brighter in person, with titanium white cheeks, a red carpet across his back that would have made Hollywood jealous, and broad, spectral wings. Arthur took him to the edge of the roof, in the direction the others had went, and looked over.

        The bird ruffled. “Caw.”

        “Alright, buddy, I know what you’re thinking,” he said.

        The Baron looked at him straight in the eyes. “Caw.”

        “Just go.” He shook his arm.

        The bird bounced with it, gripping fast. “Caw!”

        “I’m not your friend,” he told him. “You shouldn’t be here. Go!”

        “Ca-cacaw!” replied the bird.

        “I don’t want you, anymore! Leave!”


        Without another word, Penheist grabbed him by the legs with his free hand and yanked. By the look of those feet, the parrot had let go gently. He threw the bird off the roof, launching him like a paper airplane.

        The Baron flapped hard and rose into the morning. He flew higher than any of the others, spiraling as he rose.

        He circled the roof once as we watched. As he came around, back to the sunrise, we saw him in silhouette, wings wider than my eyes could hold. I saw a glint in Arthur’s eyes as he looked down.

        The Baron flapped for a moment, suspended. Then, he landed on Penheist’s head.

        He ruffled his feathers. “I love you. Caw!”

        I looked at Sally. She covered her mouth to keep from laughing.

        Penheist folded his arms and shook his bird-ridden head.

        The Baron preened out his wings. “I love you. CA-CAW!”

        Arthur looked away from us. “I love you, too, you overgrown bag of pillow stuffing.”


        None of us could take it. We burst into flamboyant laughter. Penheist started to curse. Sally made funny faces. I cried for what felt like a year. I swear the bird laughed, too, squawking as he scratched at the old man’s hair.  It was full morning, though I couldn’t remember it ever having been that early, or late.

Nobody said anything for a while. Eventually, Penheist let the bird come down onto his arm. He smiled at us.

        “You can come again whenever you’d like to, but I may not be around for much longer, so come back soon.” He scratched himself.

        “CAW!” said the bird.

        “C’mon, it’s getting late. Let me show you out.”

        We walked back into the cupola and he got another candle from a box.

        Sally shook her head. “Why do you use candles, anyway?”

        Penheist scratched again. “Guy at the electric company ran off with my wife.”

        We looked at each other and fidgeted.

        Sally smirked. “When’d she leave ya?”

        The bird nuzzled him.

        “…When I stopped paying the electric bill,” he said.

        She rolled her eyes.

        The bird looked at me like he was expecting something. He waved his wing. I think he wanted me to speak, but I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to say.

        “When did you stop paying the electric bill?” I asked.

        Arthur Penheist scratched the bird softly on his white cheeks. “…When our son died.”

        Sally winced. “Sorry.”

        Penheist didn’t seem upset. “Don’t be.”

        He didn’t say another word until we got to the door.

        “Thanks for coming.”

        I asked him why he said he wouldn’t be around. He told us he was moving to South America—somewhere where the bird would be comfortable. We said our goodbyes and snuck back to my house. Sally and I agreed that it was the best sleep-over ever. Our parents’ hadn’t been too cool with the idea of her staying the night, but Sally had gotten them to change their minds. Tiger balls, that girl.

        There was a stir in the basement.  The party went back to its steamroll through the night. I coughed. I’d zoned off again. I’d been zoning off a lot, lately.

        I looked over at Sally. She seemed totally loose and even, still waiting for me to answer.

        “Yeah, I remember Arthur. Why do you bring him up?”

        “What did you two talk about that night?”

        I pulled on my cigarette for punctuation. “I’m not sure why you’re asking now.”

        “You were fixated on learning everything you could about the man. And then you talked to him for a good long time while I played with his birds. What did you learn about him?”

        “We talked a little about his life, and mine. He showed me some paintings, and he offered me one of them.”

        “But what did you learn?”

        I filled the ellipsis with a puff of Bugler. “…I learned that Arthur Penheist was a man, just like me.” I looked over at her, waiting for a reaction.

        Sally didn’t move. Her breathing was regular. Her body was relaxed. Her eyes closed slowly.

        I looked back to my cigarette.

        My right eye felt like it exploded. I steadied myself on the bar again. The room spun. I dropped my cigarette.

        Her words were cool and even: “You’re nothing like him.”

        I felt my head hit concrete. The room danced. I couldn’t right myself in my head.

        I saw her walking in metered step towards the stairs. As I closed my eyes, I saw a flash of the painting I had gotten from Penheist. He’d given it to me when I came back with Sally a week or so later. It was hanging in my room back home, next to the window. As she walked through the door, Sally looked like his wife did–quiescent, awake.

        In the corner of the frame was a photo that had been sent with warm greetings from Venezuela. It was a snapshot of two birds caught in flight.

        I remembered, when the house went up for sale, the kids started circulating all sorts of rumors. Penheist was dead, of course, by auto-erotic asphyxiation.

        I fucking hate people.


[1] Attributed to Lao Tzu, translated by Wu, John C. H., from the Tao Te Ching. Boston: Shambala. 1989.

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Candlelight (2003)

Jan 22 2020 Published by under Uncategorized

            Once, there was a young boy who lived in an old house in an older city in an ancient world.  He lived with his mother and father, who loved him very much, and even though they and the old land had little to offer a lonely, young, shy child, he was happy.  There weren’t many friends to play with, or song to dance to, or games to play, as the aged have little use for such decadence, but there was a river the boy loved to swim in and lay by when the air was warm, with wildflowers on its banks that waved back and forth in the whispering breeze, and they were enough for the boy.  And in his timid ignorance, the boy found comfort.

            One day, though, the boy became tired of being timid, and wanted to see if there was something beyond the old people and old buildings and lonely river he had kept to all his life.  He traveled to the farthest edges of the city, where the buildings were not quite so regal and the people were not quite so respectable, and he entered into the dimly-lit basement shop of a dirty, crippled mystic with a thin smile and tired eyes.  The mystic brought the boy slowly down rows of ancient tomes, past shelves of archaic instruments, and over piles of arcane oddities, but nothing caught the boy’s attention except a stubby, lopsided, brightly colored lump of wax that sat half-melted over the front counter of the shop.  With a weak, quiet laugh and a slow shake of his head, the mystic drew the shades, closed the lamps, and lit his strange little candle with as great a flourish as he could muster.

            The boy watched the candle and was amazed; never before had he seen such a flame!  It writhed and morphed and danced atop the wick, becoming every strange shape, every exotic color the boy had never dreamed of in his musty bed back home or napping on the lonely riverside, and he was moved.

            The boy turned to face the mystic, to ask the candle’s price, but stopped silent when he saw the man in the light of the candle.  His soiled robes shone brightly, his eyes smiled twice as widely as his mouth, and he appeared lost in dreamy, pensive thought.  Though the candle was not bright, the whole shop seemed illumed and polished in its radiance, and the small boy saw value in the heaping trinkets and understanding in the spines of the yellowed, rotting books.

            After what seemed an eternity, the candle’s soundless, flickering dance slowed and the flame died; its eerie, beautiful light reflected in a warm, blue afterglow on the walls of the shop and in its keeper’s still smiling eyes.  He gave the boy the candle for his pocket change and a promise never to lose it.

            The boy was overjoyed with his new toy.  He burned it by the riverside to watch the flowers grow large, and bright, and fragrant, and to see every friend and lover a lonely boy could never have reflected in the water’s surface.  He burned it in the quiet, dark hours in his room to watch his ambitions and hopes dance in the pristine warmth of the tiny flame.  But, most of all, the boy burned it alone, too conscious of his dreams burning in the candle to ever want to share it with anyone in that ancient world of old hearts and interred passions.  And with each burning, the candle grew taller and more elaborate, until even unlit it was a sight to behold, and just having it with him cast a foxfire innocence on the world.

            Before long, keeping such a beautiful candle hidden proved too much for the boy to bear, as he spent more and more time burning it by the river and feeling more alone than ever.  He tried showing it to passers-by and visitors in the city, but they turned their backs to him and walked in their own shadows, determined not to see the light.  He tried showing it to those he knew in the city, but they simply laughed and smiled at a small child’s silly plaything.  He even tried to show it to his parents, but their age was made young in its light, and their passions revived, and they were sore-afraid of what the child’s light could do to them.  They demanded the candle, and when he would not give it, they sent him out of their home and into the dingy streets alone.

            So the boy ran.  He charged through the streets with hot tears streaming back along his face and the candle held out as a torch before him, and in its light the manorly buildings were made to crumble, and the people’s fine clothing turned tattered and threadbare, and the townspeople chased him out screaming, wailing like frightened young children who had lost their favorite toy.

            With no place left to go, the boy soon came back to the lonely riverside, still puffy-eyed and sniffling, still clutching his pretty little candle out in front of him.  And in the reflection of its sincere light on the water, he saw people just like him in far cities in young worlds, and never before had he wanted to be with someone else so much.  And so he ran with the river.  He ran through fields, into valleys, over hills, and always with the lonely river, for miles and miles, for years and years.

            But too soon came a day when the boys legs were too tired to run, and his ears were dead to the ripple of the water, and his eyes dulled the colors of the flowers that lined the river’s banks.  Too weak to run, he walked, and then too weak to walk, he sat, and in his beaten loneliness brought forth a brightly colored stump of a candle from his pocket and lit it.  But the flame did not dance, and the flowers did not grow, and his heart was not moved.  The only things the candlelight stirred to motion were faint, familiar voices in the ancient ruins of an old city not far from the edge of the river.  And the boy cried and trembled, for the city that had run him out had drawn him in, and the river that had led him far had brought him nowhere.

            He turned his back on the crumbling, empty ruins and looked once more to the water, where he saw himself reflected young and unfulfilled, sitting in the wildflowers on the riverbank in the warm summer sun.  With a weak toss, he sent the lit candle into the river, for it belonged to the bright, impassioned boy on the surface of the weed-choked stream, and not the tattered man with a tattered heart sitting there dying on its banks.

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