That’s (a Clown’s) Life

Flipboard: Joker is no joke — Joaquin Phoenix is superb ...

In case anyone has not heard, there is this film that has recently been released and is based upon a relatively infamous comic book villain. The film has garnered some media attention; perhaps the tireless reader may be able to find an article online after a fair amount of searching, only after, of course, having had to wade through the media sludge of Trump impeachment news.

After having seen Joker four times (I had a mini-vacation–that was how I chose to spend it), I want discuss a few of my observations. Spoilers to follow, for those who still think that a movie can be discussed (and condemned) before it has been viewed (e.g., The Guardian). That being said, a few admissions:

  • I am not a comic book fanboy. In fact, I stopped reading comics back in the early 80s, though I still have a few issues of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, my two favorite childhood heroes, stashed away in my closet. (I suppose that even as a young boy I had a sense of the human body’s frailty and fantasized about being able to augment its powers.)
  • I am not a fan of comic book movies. However, I did immensely enjoy Christopher Nolan’s take on the Batman franchise, and I have seen a few of the earlier Marvel films (the first two Spiderman films and the first Iron Man), but, overall, I find such films lacking most elements that compel me to watch a film in the first place.
  • I do not intend to draw parallels to Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, or The King of Comedy, whether in content, style, or press-release sensationalism.
  • I am going to assume anyone who reads this has either seen the film or does not really care one way or the other, thus relieving me of having to summarize the plot or give background to characters or to scenes.
  • I intend to refer to just one review of Joker, largely because I think that it is unbelievably vapid and awash in hyper-critical self-righteousness that can come only from someone who could never make it as a screenwriter and, thus, must write for The New Yorker.  (As an aside: When is that smug, self-canonizing mag going to stop hyphenating “teenager”?)
  • I typed too early the above point. I will make use of a few reviews of Joker–but I still stand by what I typed regarding The New Yorker.
  • I refuse to essay any attempt at reconciliation with the larger comic-book mythology.

To begin, I was skeptical when I first read that the bro-humorist Todd Phillips was going to direct the film. However, when I saw a few teaser clips late last year and this year’s April’s stunning teaser trailer, all doubts evaporated. Even before I saw the film, reading the following two items about him only increased my faith in him: 1). he directed a documentary about the notorious punk rocker GG Allin (I remember seeing that documentary for sale in record store I used to haunt while in grad school. A graduate chum at the time dared to purchase a copy, but could not stomach finishing it.) and 2). he has publically confessed to the (near) impossibility of thriving in the humor genre in today’s woke/incessantly outraged/cancel culture. Of course, when I first read that Joaquin Phoenix (an actor whom I have been pimping out for a while) was slated to play the Joker, I was already planning to buy tickets for the first day’s first showing. He is, in my ‘umble opinion, the best actor of my generation (X!). Though I realize that he plays a vastly different type of Joker than that of Ledger’s, still, I think that Phoenix’s performance surpasses Ledger’s in that he is able to showcase a greater range of emotional intensity through one highly nuanced executed scene after another. However, in all fairness, Ledger’s role does not call for the emotional range that Phoenix’s does, for Ledger’s role demands a villain fully formed, one already committed to his nihilism, not one emering from the slough of despondency as we witness with Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck.

According to Robert Frost, “If we couldn’t laugh[,] we would all go insane.” Reportedly, Phillips played for Phoenix clips of people who suffered from the medical condition known as pseudobulbar affect (PBA): uncontrollable bouts of laughter. Anyone who has consumed even only a trailer has seen–and heard–the chilling but soulless laugh (more than one, actually) that Phoenix flawlessly captures for his character. Most of the time when Arthur laughs, it bears no relation to how he feels; rather, it is the result of a neurological condition that stems, we discover, from severe childhood trauma and functions as a release whenever he feels stressed or upset. He does, however, laugh genuinely a few times: after watching an interview with Bruce Wayne on television, upon first seeing his Pogo Comedy Club performance clip introduced on The Murray Franklin Show, and while being interviewed by a worker at Arkham State Hospital at the end of the film. One of the most poignant laughs comes while he is at the Pogo Comedy Club taking notes on a comedian. Arthur laughs wildly at the mention of the word “prestigious,” as if he were trying to predict when everyone else would laugh, but jumps the gun by laughing at a throw-away adjective, not the punchline. Also, when the comedian, who reveals that he is Jewish in his performance (Do Jewish comedians even do that in real life?), makes a joke about having to lie his Jewish name, Arthur looks around uncomfortably while everyone else laughs–and then rushes to include his laugh before everyone has finished laughing. (This may be one of my favorite scenes in the film, given Phoenix’s impeccable timing.)  Returning to the Frost quotation, I cannot help but think what becomes of those people who are not able truly to laugh–does such repressed laughter accumulate until it festers and boils in madness? Though Arthur is presented as one who struggles to see the signs of his own agency, could it also be that, suffering from a reverse form of pride, he expects the narrative of his life to produce a grand, architectonic design that most of us, regardless of class, race, or ability, will never have revealed to us? A lingering corollary question: What about those people who are told, in no uncertain terms, *not* to laugh at whatever has been enshrined as beyond comedic reevaluation by the then-functioning magisterium of mirth? A minor reflection of this: In my multiple viewings, I was surprised how many people did not laugh at what were truly funny scenes such as his dropping the gun while dancing in the children’s hospital.

Much has already been written about the possibility that the descent-cum-rebirth of Arthur Fleck may transform disenfranchised and disaffected white males into killers through maleficent cinematic alchemy. Unfortunately, in the current cultural climate, any film that features a disgruntled white male will find only one reading on the outrage thermometer: incel-baiting propaganda. Richard Lawson’s review in Vanity Fair captures this:

For so many tragic reasons, the American imagination has of late been preoccupied with the motivations of disaffected white men who’ve turned violent—a nation (or part of one) trying to diagnose and explain them, one mass killing after another. Whether that violence is born of mental illness, isolation, the culminated rage of masculine identity, or all those bound together in some hideous knot, we seem certain that there is some salvable cause.

Lawson continues:

That’s a complexity of causality that many Americans don’t extend to non-white men who commit heinous crimes; there, the thinking seems to be, the evil is far more easily identifiable. But those angry loners—the ones who shoot up schools and concerts and churches, who gun down the women and men they covet and envy, who let loose some spirit of anarchic animus upon the world—there’s almost a woebegone mythos placed on them in the search for answers.

While he may be correct in saying that many Americans do not extend this courtesy of causality to non-white men, many do. Hell, many people do not like cats; many do. His point? If Mr. Lawson wants to promote this way of empathetic thinking, then he should promote Joker as a paradigm from which we can learn and then apply to disaffected men (and women, I presume) of all races, and if this strategic evaluation must come into the greater discourse through a movie starring a white man, then so be it.

Responding to Lawson’s Vanity Fair piece, Samuel Forster writing for Quillette.com  offers the following:

At the risk of sounding like the sort of critical theorist who would spout such sentiments, “there’s a lot to unpack here.” Most importantly, it is unclear why any of us should not endeavour to understand the motivations of disaffected white men (or any kind of men—for it’s not clear why Fleck’s character could not, with some small plot changes, be of any ethnic background imaginable) who end up committing acts of violence. The key to reducing violence amongst any demographic is in ascertaining the specific attributes of violent individuals. Skin colour is a crude and categorically ineffective indicator in this respect. Indeed, generations of progressives have properly argued this truth, typically in the face of racists who have alleged some particularly malign criminogenic trait at play in the minds of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, “Orientals,” Muslims or Jews.

In other words, if we are truly concerned with not only responding to violence but with preventing it, then we must better understand the warning signs of individuals who may be at risk. To dismiss this approach based upon a person’s race (or gender), as the Left now all but demands we do if it involves white males, betrays this ostensible desire to understand the roots of crime as, ultimately, one still dictated by political correctness.

Forster continues:

Lawson has no interest in understanding mental illness, isolation or “the culminated rage of masculine identity” (whatever that is), and that he would prefer to imagine all of these as simply being ingredients in some disgusting stew of human malignancy that is more properly called “evil.” His real complaint about the film is that, by prompting curiosity in regard to why people do bad things, it might distract audience members from the simple, morally urgent task of denouncing men such as Arthur Fleck in a purely normative manner, as a priest denounces sin.

This is a very perceptive reading of Lawson by Forster. Arthur Fleck, as an angry white male, must be immediately castigated and denounced. Yes, there is no denying the hideous nature of his crimes–and they are hideous. However, Forster contends that woke critics of this film want us to categorize (profile!) Arthur before we watch the film and then immediately to cast him away upon leaving the theater as an inherently and obviously wicked individual who deserves no further consideration and one whose crimes warrant no further investigation.

Not to make this too one-sided, there are complaints (or at least one) to be found on the opposite end of the racially aggrieved spectrum.  Joker, perhaps, was doomed politically from inception. The eponymous character was either going to be too white or, ahem, not white-acting enough. Trevor Lynch writing for Unz.com implies (or maybe I merely have inferred) that one sign of Fleck’s degeneracy is that his (imaginary, as we find out) romantic interest is….a black woman. Never fear, though, for at least the thugs who beat him at the beginning of the film are a collection of mystery meats, and he does find himself, quite naturally as an unassuming white male, on the receiving end of an uppity black woman. Given that race is presently the currency for all our transactions of meaning, it may now be impossible to experience any artistic production with taking into consideration questions of race and structures of power. All this being said, I cannot help but appreciate that this film is ruffling the feathers of folks both on the far left and on the far right. (Lynch, for whatever else he may say, does make a very interesting allusion, interpreting the scene in which Joker’s followers lay his body on the hood of a police car and wait for him to rise in light of Andrea Mantegna’s The Dead Christ and Three Mourners.) 

Speaking of experiencing art, writing for Vanity Fair, Richard Brody comments that Joker is “a viewing experience of rare, numbing emptiness.” Why? He argues that the film is “a drama awash in racial iconography that is so prevalent in the film, so provocative, and so unexamined as to be bewildering.” In other words, racial themes pervade the film, yet no significant interrogation regarding racial concerns ever occurs. Historical allusions, insists Brody, are made to the Central Park Five rape/murder and the Bernhard Goetz subway shooting, two racially volatile events, yet Joker persists in focusing on the mental illness of Arthur whose thought processes are “utterly devoid of any racial or social specificity.” If I understand the phrase “racial and social specificity” correctly, then Brody must be justifying why he finds it disappointing that Arthur, in the midst of his suffering, does not stop to consider whether his afflictions have arisen because of his race and how, one must presume, his white privilege has shielded him from deeper degrees of suffering that may be lacking in his life but not in the daily experiences of his black neighbors. What Brody does not suggest is how Fleck, without breaking character or leading viewers into an exasperating classroom-like experience, could do such? Would he have worked it into his comedy routine? Should he have scribbled something about race and priviledge in his journal? For example, when speaking with his black social worker, should he have concluded each response with something along the lines of “As a black woman working a shit job in a white man’s world, you probably have felt something similar…”? A more important question, however, from an artistic standpoint anyway, is why focusing on the illness of an individual and society’s “cancelling” of that individual proves to be an empty or a less satisfying experience than unearthing any underlying racial or political elements. This prompts me further to ask: Have we really come to terms with the privileged position that racial and political interpretations maintain when it comes to viewing movies? (We have not.)

Several reviews have stated how Arthur, as a (here we go again…) disaffected white male, assumes a much more chilling poignancy in the Trump administration. Such analysis bores me. Rather, one observation that I have not seen anywhere else–and I do not make much of it, but I do find it interesting–is that the Wall Street subway bro who starts singing and is the first to be shot bears no small resemblance to Eric Trump.

Another aspect of this film, and perhaps the central one, that has not been heavily explored (or, more likely, has been intentionally avoided) is the undeniable fact that Arthur Fleck is a product of a single-mom home. Only two male figures loom in Arthur’s life, and both are untouchable but through violence: Murray Franklin and Thomas Wayne. We discover that Arthur has repressed the memories of his own childhood abuse–abuse that has led to the development of his self-placating nervous laughter, his “condition.” In order to offset his own unhappiness (despite the sobriquet given to him by his mother: “Happy”), Arthur lives in a world of fantasy, one in which he is highlighted on The Murray Franklin Show not to be famous, but to connect with a man who he feels could function as a proxy father. His drive to confront Thomas Wayne, which, by the way, is when we see Arthur beginning to move from a reactive sponge to a proactive agent, is not to lay claim to wealth or political power; rather, he wants only a hug and a little human warmth. (In an alternate universe, one can easily imagine Arthur happily passing the day with Bruce, eagerly showing him his newest magic trick or dance routine, fully content with that life.) Yet, for all the shit that has been flung at him throughout his life, we see him resolve to trod his path of darkness only after he discovers that his mother has betrayed him and that Thomas Wayne has rejected him.

I am not convinced that Arthur intends to kill Murray until the very last moment; I believe that he may have still been holding out for a father who would check his murderous and suicidal impulses. Having dyed his hair green and embraced the make-up, Arthur assumes a campier, more androgynous persona prior to his late night show appearance, complete with the drag queen-esque affected Southern accent (e.g., “My life is nothing but a comedy.”) This particular take on the well-known Joker look deserves consideration in its own right. According to Mary Eberstadt,

Androgyny appears to offer competitive advantages in a world redesigned by the massive, radical, and largely unacknowledged communal dislocations incurred by Homo sapiens since the 1960s. Androgyny, including its instantiations of gender fluidity and gender ambiguity, has emerged in this new world as an adaptive way of augmenting one’s substitute clan. It operates, in effect, as a mechanism for reconstructing the extended family/community in prosthetic form in a time when the actual Western extended family/community is in decline.     

As one who lacks both family and community, Arthur must adapt in a way that augments his “substitute clan,” which is what occurs when the already rambunctious masked mob rallies around his body, waiting for the resurrection of its androgynous avatar. They provide him with the support that has lacked his entire life.

To return to my theory: when Arthur is listening to the news in the dressing room before going on stage, we can see that his eyes begin to water as he hears about the two officers who were nearly killed in the subway station. This leads me to believe that he still bears regret concerning what has happened to them–as well as to the clown protester who was killed on the subway. After Murray and his assistant leave the dressing room, Arthur rehearses pointing the gun toward his chin. (I cannot forget this gun-related detail, but I do not know where else to fit it in this review. What may have been dismissed as a throw-away gesture, but one that only affirms how detail-oriented Phoenix is to every role he assumes, is when he briefly points the gun to his own head after having shot the Wall Street subway bros. That gesture reveals a man who is not yet a committed murderer but one who acts in a frantic panic and who realizes that his life will never again be the same and who is not sure if he wants to continue living.) The turning point, I think, is when Arthur realizes that there is no redeeming Murray; he cannot be a father–he does not want to be a father. In fact, earlier in the film, the only time Murray mentions one of his children is to make fun of him (the garbage-strike joke). When Arthur tells Murray that he is bad (I have forgotten what term he used–“evil”?), he then makes the seething, pouty face of a child who is not afraid to let hatred and disappointment completely contort his expression. That is when Arthur realizes that Arthur, man-child that he is, must kill the man whose crime is that of not fulfilling the expectations that come with fatherhood.

Even as Gotham burns, we still do not see a fully formed Joker. In a scene that will haunt me for a while, after Joker arises from the hood of the police car and dances for mob, we see a man surveying the chaos that he has helped usher in. Once again his eyes water; we cannot tell if he is about to cry from joy or from fear and sadness of what has been unleashed. Given that he has to force himself to smile with his own blood, mimicking a movement that at the beginning of the film produces a tear, I wager on the latter. The film closes with Arthur laughing a genuine laugh as he assures his soon-to-be victim counselor that he is thinking of a joke that she would not get.

Given the unreliable narrator, much has been made regarding how much of the film actually occurs and how much of it may be only the feverish fantasies of a mentally ill man. While I have not come to a firm conclusion, I will point out that the careful viewer may have noticed that clock reads the same time during his first meeting with the social worker as it does during his flashback to Arkham as he bangs his head against the door window; perhaps what we experience as viewers is the unexplained joke that Arthur laughs at toward the end of the film. After all, the murder of Randall does possess a Kabuki-like theatrical feel, considering Arthur’s pasty-white face, the murder involving a sharp instrument, and the splash of blood that explodes upon his face and the wall. Perhaps the entire film was the performance of a psychodrama that Arthur allows us to view in order to relieve himself of the boredom of an asylum. Let us take our cue from the one of the film’s driving songs “That’s Life”: “I said that’s life, and as funny as it may seem / Some people get their kicks stompin’ on a dream.” The dream that we may have–and the one that Arthur stomps on at the end–is that if we investigate deeply and thoroughly enough, we will find the explanation of evil and, thus, through a knowledge of its origin be able to avoid it manifestation and consequences. Unfortunately, this is a facile behaviorist approach that does not take into consideration that every person is essentially an inscrutable being in whom resides the mystery of–and the battle between–good and evil.

 

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Disunited States of Americas

Years ago, the concept of secession (I prefer the term “self-determination”) interested me greatly. My first re-introduction to a concept that I thought had been politically decided and, thus, historically banished was through meeting a few prominent members of The League of the South, including the then-president (he may still be president) Dr. Michael Hill, at tiny Presbyterian church in Alabama in the late 90s. Though I was never really comfortable with their yearning to restore the Confederacy, I must declare that they never showed any traces of disrespect or suspicion toward my racially mixed (white/Asian) family. In fact, the then-pastor of the church saw some promise in me as a potential Reformed–as in Calvinistic, not as in recently released from prison–seminarian and wanted me to join his home-spun seminary with his seminarian-in-residence, a young Hispanic with much good faith and nervous energy, once–with gravitas–telling my mom in very own our home that a commitment to the Faith often requires great sacrifice. (Yeah, growing up in our circles, we met some pretty interesting people–all without the help of the Internet. Remind me sometime to tell you of when I used to pal around with a radical anti-abortionist Catholic sidewalk counselor who also supported secession–and advocated shooting abortionists…. Part of me misses all the non-Internet-subsidized zanies.) According to my mom, Dr. Hill even invited my Japanese father to join, though I do not believe that occurred.  (Not that I am accusing her of lying–merely of remembering incorrectly….) Relieved to find out that there were pro-secessionist thinkers outside of the pro-Confederacy camp, I looked into the writings of thinkers like Kirkpatrick Sale; however, my favorite work on secession, though the author–while sympathetic–does not advocate it, is the always amusing and rhetorically ennobling Bill Kauffman and his raucous Bye Bye, Miss American Empire. In case you are wondering, I was never invited to join The League (though I probably could have charmed my way in), did not become a Presbyterian seminarian–or remain Protestant for that matter, nor did I go on to agitate politically for the implicit conclusions of the Constitution.

I still think of secession from time to time, though not as an endgame goal to be pursued through cultural and political resistance, but rather as what now seems to be a cultural and political inevitability. Two recent articles from the Unz Review brought this to my mental foreground. In Boyd Cathey’s “Is It Time for American to Break Apart,”  he asks:

The question comes down to this: Is the fragile American experiment in republicanism begun in Philadelphia in 1787, which required a commonly-shared understanding of basic principles, now over, or at the very least is it entering its agonizing death throes?

Of course, many would say that was answered in the affirmative after the War Between the States…. He continues:

Increasingly, we live in a country that has become de facto little more than a mere geographical entity. True, it is still formally a nation, but a nation where there are in fact at least two very distinct Americas, with radically differing visions of what is real and what is not real, radically differing conceptions of what is moral and what is not, radically differing views about truth and error, and radically differing ideas about using whatever means are available to reach a desired and posited end. For all the talk of equality and racism, the revolutionary side in actuality seeks to replace one oligarchy—which it calls “white supremacist”—with another oligarchy of its own making, in fact, a brutal, vicious and soulless “utopia’’ that would make Joseph Stalin’s Communist state seem like a Sandals Retreat in the Bahamas.

Though I would go further to say that we are more than two very distinct Americas, his basic point remains: we (in the loosest possible sense) are a nation deeply, deeply divided. His prognosis will please very few–or please some for the wrong reasons:

(1) Either there must be some large mass conversion of one side or the other (a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion?), probably occasioned by some immense and earth-shaking event, war, depression, disaster; or (2) there must be a separation into independent jurisdictions of large portions of what is presently geographically the United States, including possible massive population exchanges—this separation/secession could be peaceable, although increasingly I think it would not be; or lastly, and worst, (3) the devolution of this country would continue into open and vicious civil and guerrilla war, followed by a harsh dictatorship. Disorder always abhors a vacuum, and that vacuum will be filled one way or another.

The essential taste of his doom-laced drink is that we have allowed ideology divide us to the point that we no longer see each other as fellow citizens. (Allowing any and all from other regions does not assist with stability, either.) In fact, the cohabitating (not even well) in a region seems to be the only sine qua non for citizenship–and the bedrock upon which the American identity is now built.

Closely related to Cathey’s concerns, decline-seen-through-vignettes author Linh Dinh weighs in: (I have written before about Dinh–here and here.  If you have not, treat yourself to his travelogue-of-decay Postcards from the End of America.)

The first step is to stop thinking of yourself as an American, for there’s no America left to save, much less “make great again,” and there are no Americans left either, for if anybody can be a defacto American just by showing up, then the concept is meaningless. That’s like me landing in Tel Aviv tomorrow and declaring I’m a Jew.

Your average American hardly has a hometown, just a homepage, and his neighbors are the anonymous, pseudonymous, hasbarists and trolls he compulsively chats with. If you don’t even belong to your neighborhood, how are you the citizen of any nation?

Coming full circle, Dinh advocates what Kauffman has been advocating for his entire writing career: localism. The American experiment may have been too grand to begin with; however, at least when it began, it was united, more or less, by people of a common stock and ideology. Though a nation founded upon a legal document, there was an organic cohesiveness at its inception. Such cannot be now said about the US. Not only do we not share a common vision of the common good based upon a common vision of ourselves, we glorify the mixture of incompatible visions. Granted, I know that I have grossly simplified US history, but anyone who wants to point to various grievances in the past in order to normalize the current chaos needs to wipe the obtuseness from his/her eyes.

With a son on the way, all these concerns have assumed a new profundity. Do I think that he will experience a united array of states in which to grow? I greatly doubt it. If anything, like the dying father from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I hope to teach my son what it means to be a virtuous man in both a country and civilization in decline–and to find a handful of people whom he can trust.

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Buy My Book

Not to be blunt or forceful or pushy…

My first collection of short stories is now available for delicious public consumption through Amazon. I have worked, on and off, on these stories for a few years; I am ready for the baby literary birds to leave the nest, especially so that I can begin working on my next set of stories before my actual baby boy bird arrives. I am proud of the intentional final version (I could edit until Kingdom Come) and the cover art–really sleek. For the time being, it will be available only in paperback. To entice: I will post the beginning of each of the five short stories, which grow increasingly darker:

Print

Story One: “Little Goes a Long Way”

Little confessed, for he was the type that found feeling regret easier than practicing prudence, that the act had proceeded from a summer-fevered mind.

“The iced tea wasn’t bringing me any relief,” Little offered.

“You’re blaming the iced tea for why you just up and threw your potato salad at her? You didn’t even know that girl.” Little’s mom denied the offer.

“The girl wouldn’t shut up. Every time I looked over at her, her mouth was wide open.”

“Just because you find somebody annoying, that doesn’t give you the right to throw food—or anything else—at them.”

“But she was so loud, and she was wearing soccer shorts—even though she’s too fat to be a soccer player—and Chacos. You know I hate Chacos.” Little placed great trust in details.

“I don’t care what she was wearing.” Little’s mom tended to gloss over the details. “It’s just a good thing that her friends didn’t hurt you. I’ve had enough of your antics, Little.” Most people called “Little” were not. Little, however, was. He stood five foot two, but his freckles and strawberry blond hair made him look four foot eleven tops.

“Yes, ma’am. It won’t ever happen again.”

“You’re right about that—and you’re going to stay with your uncle for the rest of the summer.”

“But he’s busy getting his circus going.”

“Then you’ll fit right in with those freaks.”

*****

“Little, did my sister make you practice on that trampoline I sent you for Christmas some years back?” Colonel Checkers got his title the same way Colonel Sanders or Colonel Tom (Parker) got his—through self-acquisition.

 “No, sir, mom used it as a storage table.”

“That’s what I was afraid of. Good thing I got it on clearance at Treasure Hunt. Okay, my boy, trapeze artistry is out. Can you juggle?”

“Just two tennis balls.”

“That won’t excite most, I’m afraid. Would you, in due time, be willing to marry a woman so hideous so as to defy all carnal inclinations?” Colonel Checkers’s protruding eyes narrowed.

“Don’t think I have the fortitude, sir.” Little’s eyes closed, then opened, then narrowed.

“I guess I shouldn’t even begin to inquire into sword swallowing or fire breathing.” Colonel Checkers examined his cigar like he suspected that he might have lit the wrong end.

Little shook his head, disappointed first and foremost in himself.

“Shit, nephew, do schools nowadays teach any coping skills?”

“Mom says I’m severely lacking in two areas: height and coping skills.”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself, son—at least about the height part. Say, what about working with my knife-throwing act?” Colonel Checkers forgot that he was actually enjoying his cigar and instead threw it. He then cussed.

“Uncle, I don’t think that I should throw any more things for the time being, especially at people.”

“No, Little, I mean as the target.”

Story Two: “Then Comes Tomorrow”

Tim Pippin had been listening for his phone to chime all morning. By not keeping it on his person, but in another room, he had convinced himself that he had cultivated a heroic level of stoic disinterest. In reality, this meant that he had uneasily taken up residence in the emotional halfway house between anticipation and dread. He anticipated what she was going to text; he dreaded what she was going to text. To heighten the spectacle of this single-observer situation, he thumbed through La Rochefoucauld’s Collected Maxims. Maxim V: 131: “Weakness is the only fault that we are incapable of correcting.” So true, he chuckled to himself. The French are the best. Why couldn’t I have been born in seventeenth-century France when a professional indiscretion such as sleeping with a student would have been humanely and gently seen as an understandable weakness on the part of an instructor, not a career-ending social crime? Imagining that he was being watched by an understanding, if not mildly approving, audience, he, in his best world-weary manner, lit another cigarette and poured himself another poor man’s mimosa: Miller High Life and orange juice. Ting. That was the alert he had been expecting. However, instead of rushing into his bedroom where he had left his phone on his unmade bed, maintaining the illusion of his recent victory over the weakness of the will, he continued thumbing through Maxims. Maxim V: 70: “No disguise can long hide love where it exists, or stimulate it where it does not exist.” The fools—to think our love could have remained hidden even had we tried. Like death or farting in front of your partner, it had to come eventually.

Laying down Maxims in a spine-extending, print-side-down manner—for he was going to return, naturally, to his morning meditations, he walked into his bedroom, lay on his bed, picked up his phone, and typed his passcode.

“Ur through, I emailed photos to ur chair & ur dean. There going to laugh at ur mediocre penis.”

I’m through. No—she’s through! No, I’m through. Fuck you, Niki! Fuck. You. Whore.

Tim dropped the cigarette on his chest, which had been insouciantly dangling from his lips—as the French must do with their cigarettes, prompting him to jump up and frantically swipe the ashes off his chest, spilling his drink all over his bed. As he brushed away the ashes, he pictured his chair, the dean of academic affairs, and the dean of student services all studying printed copies of the pictorial evidence, evidence of a love that could not remain hidden and, unfortunately, dare speak its name on more than one occasion. He imagined his chair making that mildly amused-but-still-disappointed face that she made whenever she had to walk to his office to remind him about grades that had been due three hours prior. He also knew the only reason that Niki had spelled “mediocre” correctly was because of the spell check feature on her phone.

Story Three: “A Failed Suicide Wins at Life (The Nobility of Failure)”

James woke up Saturday morning suffering from two distinct forms of vagueness: the first vagueness was a stupor that had been induced by the previous night’s consumption. The second vagueness led him to look at his wrists.

Goddammit!

James had hoped that the throbbing in his wrists throughout the night might have had an explanation that did not involve permanence. Like the doubled images that one experiences after a knock to the head that slowly settle back into one, the two distinct forms of vagueness—dread, really—settled back into the one event of which they were only different facets: he had been dumped by his girlfriend at a Mexican restaurant, setting off a chain of inadvisable actions that had resulted in his waking up hung-over with tattoos on the underside of both wrists.

Goddammit.

*****

“I really don’t want to have this conversation here.” James sat back in the booth, crossing his arms and poking out his lips. Carlie leaned across the table to dip a chip in the bowl of salsa that James had angrily drawn close to him.

“If not now, when? We might as well have it—we’ve been darting around it for weeks.”

“Why do we always need to talk about our relationship? Why can’t we talk about normal things, like a normal couple?”

“Always? We never talk about us. It’s always about your family or your friends or whatever the hell you’ve just watched on YouTube.” James noticed that the salsa bowl balance was slowly being restored to the table, and to him this signaled an imminent shifting of power in their relationship.

“That’s not true—we talk about your family and your friends and all your shitty coworkers.”

“You’re only proving my point—we don’t talk about us.”

“Fine—what about us?”

“Are you happy?”

“Oh, fuck me. Really? Is anybody truly happy… I mean….”

“Don’t give me your philosophy bullshit. Do I make you happy?”

“Yeah, I guess—no, yes, yes, you do. Okay, I’m happy with you.” At this point James had lost his appetite and pushed the salsa bowl so that it nestled against Carlie’s elbow. He knew that she would make the next move that would determine not just the placement of the salsa, but the very future of their relationship. The waiter brought their orders to the table and smiled in a way that showed either he knew what was taking place or that he was oblivious. Either way, it was unbearable for James.

“Oh, you sound confident. I don’t believe you, but you know what? I’ll accept that. Why don’t you ask me if I’m happy?

“Carlie—really, I don’t want to do this here and now.”

“Why? Are you afraid of what you’ll hear? You’re afraid, aren’t you?” James forced fed himself a forkful of rice. Carlie’s eating increased in vigor as she glared across the table at James. He shoved in another forkful of rice. He ate to fortify himself against the coming attack. She ate to find the necessary nourishment both to break with the past and to mangle the present.

“Are you happy, Carlie?”

“No.”

Story Four: “The Pick-up Artist Alchemist”

Ronnie had accepted, as if by natural law, the wave of disgust that inevitably washed over him after the smaller surface wave of a self-manipulated orgasm had returned to its twin disturbances of anxiety and frustration. Having discovered this solitary comfort later in life than most, Ronnie had originally brought a drama and a stringency that most men would see as unnecessary self-foreplay. Initially, he insisted upon visiting himself only while lying on clean silk sheets in his darkened bedroom, imagining only women he knew in real life. As his red-blooded imaginative faculties began to wane, he had to resort to pornographic stimulation. To convince himself that he could view porn with dignity, he allowed himself to watch only sensual, female-friendly porn in which nary a female face was assaulted by toxically masculine fluids. However, the luster of well-behaved actors soon began to fade, and he was compelled to delve into darker arenas of lust. Currently, he found himself leaning out of his shower—a shower that was only partially sealed off with a curtain so that he could view his laptop—to close the browser that was still playing the video, even as his penis had already begun to return to flaccidity. As he closed the “German Tranny Threesome Surprise on Public Transport” video and then watched his spittle of sperm dislodge from the floor of the shower and inseminate the drain, he started to cry.

At twenty-six, Ronnie was only three sexual encounters and two years and one girlfriend removed from virginity. All three had been with his ex-girlfriend, and she had told him after their third encounter that he had gotten worse, if that were possible, and knew even less than a virgin about bedroom performance and broke up with him through text messaging after she had left his apartment. At the time, they were both working at Target, and he had to face the daily humiliation of seeing her pantomime for coworkers his lack of bedroom finesse. At 5’7” and one hundred thirty-five pounds, Ronnie knew that he was not the most impressive physical specimen. Though he did not think that he was bad looking given his thick brown hair, blue eyes, and sharp nose, he did think that his face may have been a little too round, and he had feet that were smaller than guys who were shorter than he. Thus, he never went barefoot in public. Still, all things considered, as a business-degree college graduate who was the assistant store manager at Sears and who wore shoes slightly larger than needed, he could not understand why he seemed all but invisible to women. He had often heard that women would look past traditional standards of male beauty if such men could compensate with wit. He had always prided himself on his wit, but presciently timed quips that would render other men to giggling fits seemed to bore, or even annoy, any woman in audible range. He often wondered if women could infer his pornographic tastes by some tell-tale sign and then judge him accordingly.

After getting dressed, Ronnie turned to the consolation that had been with him much longer than masturbation or pornography: drinking. He put a few drops of Visine in his eyes and left for his favorite bar, The City Lights.

Story Five: “Thorns of Virtue”

Abigail replayed the events that had happened only five minutes ago with the intensity with which one might replay the loss of one’s virginity or the death of one’s child. Whether the result of misjudgment or a momentary fit of distraction, she knew that what was to follow would irrevocably further her on the dismal trajectory that her life had assumed. However, despite the threatening ghost pressure of the cool steel across her throat and the fleshy weight of the warm hand roughly pulling open her blouse, she, by fingering the beads of emotional associations on her Rosary of suffering, found herself thinking about the day that she had come home early from her shift as the assistant manager at a cell phone store to find her fiancé in her bed with her neighbor who had moved into her apartment complex only three weeks prior. The emotional helplessness paralleled, albeit on a different track of misery, the physical helplessness she now was experiencing.

“Brad, why the hell is this, this whore in my bed? And why the hell are you in my bed with her?”

“Abby, what are you doing home?”

“What it does it fucking matter? What’s going on here?”

Brad, always unnerved whenever Abigail found the fortitude for invective, started to cover himself and his paramour. Abigail, not wanting to allow them to adorn their shame with her duvet, ripped it off the bed and examined their naked bodies, which then clung to each other more for security than for intimacy.

“Abby, we didn’t mean to hurt you,” her neighbor offered as it were a gesture of goodwill.”

“Phoebe, I don’t even have the words right now….You met Brad one time—how did this happen?

“We started chatting through Facebook, and then things just…happened.”

Turning away from Phoebe as if she were a child who had just interrupted her bickering parents, Abigail turned to Brad: “We promised our priest that we’d remain chaste until marriage. That’s why you moved back home. You know how fucking hard that’s been, but I thought that we were in this together. Have you been cheating on me this entire time with other people, too?”

In waiting for Brad to answer, Phoebe began to slide away from Brad, watching him suspiciously the entire time as she leaned off the bed to retrieve her bra and panties.

“Abby, I don’t know….You know that I love you—it’s just that….” Brad stopped as he cupped his hands over his penis, hoping to redirect the accusative gaze of not one but two sets of censuring eyes.

“Brad, answer me—have there been others?”

“Abby, look, they didn’t mean anything—yeah, there have been others.”

“How many?”

“Four.”

“Did you bring them back to my bed? No—don’t answer that. No, tell me—why here?”

“Only a few times. I just, just feel comfortable in your bed—and my parents are always home.”

“Comfortable! At least you could’ve had the decency…. That’s it! The wedding—it’s off. Stay away from me. Don’t ever try to contact me or my family or my friends ever again.”

Though Abigail blamed Phoebe as much as anyone in this conflagration of libidinal and sacramental interests, looking for affirmation wherever she might find it, she turned to Phoebe who gave her a hearty, though carefully measured, nod of sanction.

When Abigail opened her eyes, the man who she thought needed only a ride, the man whom she was not going to prejudge, had unbuttoned her shirt and had unsnapped her bra. Making a sawing motion as he brought the blade closer to her throat, he hoarsely whispered that if she did not take off her pants and underwear he would gouge out her eyes and cut off her ears before he sliced her throat. With a clarity that would shock her upon recollection more so than the event itself, Abigail was able to carry out a pleasure-pain calculation concerning her options. Provided her assailant kept true to his word, and she saw no reason why he would not, the mutilation that she would experience—in addition to the rape that she knew would have to endure regardless, would prove maddening, but she would die. She would not be left to live with the consequences of her intentional naivety, the bitter fruits of her attempt to show a world that was not watching that she would not give into the easy cynicism that allowed people to continue their lives, unwilling to attempt to discern between the wheat and the chaff out of suspicion that all are chaff. However, what if he did not kill her? What if he mutilated her only to leave her to bleed to death? She would still die—unless someone came upon her writhing body and called emergency services in time to save her. What good would she be to her loved ones as an eyeless, earless monstrosity who would also have to carry within her butchered body the wounds of violation? Her loved ones—they needed her. She could not leave them. She must endure this wanton purgatory—a suffering that would not cleanse her as, theologically speaking, purgatorial fires do—to behold once again the vision of her family.

Abigail pretended to fumble with her pants as if she were told not to use most of her fingers to accomplish a timed task of dexterity. Finally getting frustrated with her pretense of compliance, the ravager began to pull her pants. Once the pants bunched up around her ankles, as if he forgot to turn on the coffee pot after he had poured water into it, he hit his own forehead and then tugged at her shoes. He then tore her underwear. Watching him unzip his pants and extricate his engorged member, Abigail retreated into a rhythmic prayer designed to remove her from all temporal and spatial concerns. Provided she could disassociate herself from her own body, perhaps she could flee the pain and hide in the nebulous region of prayer: Hail Mary, Full of Grace, The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen. It can’t last too long. He will finish soon and then leave me alone. He won’t poke out my eyes or cut off my ears. Mom. Dad. Peter. Jonathan. Lucy. Mother Mary and your Son, Jesus. Help me. Hail Mary….

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As Individuals, Let’s All Be Unhappy Together

In the summer edition of American Affairs, Dutch politician (trigger warning, soft ones) Thierry Baudet condenses the message of French writer Michel Houellebecq’s oeuvre: our contemporary moral and political freedoms have given many choices, but they have not given us happiness–nor will they. The thrust of the piece may have been to push people toward considering why Houellebecq, with his latest work, Serotonine, comes across as more of a defeatist than as a champion of cultural renewal, especially since he has been plucking these disquieting strings for the past twenty or so years; however, such a consideration is not what I found most engaging.

Though usually aligned with the far right, given his more-than-likely views on feminism  and Islam and nationalism, Houellebecq stands inconveniently outside the left-right divide. Emphasizing this a-directional stance is what I found most interesting with Baudet’s analysis. Both the left and the right, as routinely conceived, base their respective ideologies and praxeologies on that which is, usually, not questioned by either: individual autonomy/liberation of the individual. Enter the scurrilous Monsieur Houellebecq.

Baudet writes:

“So yes, the modern world brought liberation. But this liberation has not made us happy. Instead, it has left our lives empty, without purpose, and, above all, extremely lonely. Existential connections have  become almost impossible since few are genuinely prepared to sacrifice short-term pleasure for the commitment required to establish a deep mutual connection. Television, internet, and pornography have replaced organic social intercourse and physical intimacy. As more options open up each day, our hearts close to the possibility of real human warmth, having been betrayed too many times–and having witnessed ourselves betraying others–for the brief moments of seductive thrills that we, as ‘liberated individuals,’ can no longer resist.”
                                                                                                                                                                    An unwillingness to sacrifice short-term pleasures for deep mutual connections is a thread that I have seen woven into every one of Houellebecq’s novels that I have read: Whatever, The Elementary Particles, PlatformThe Possibility of an Island, and Submission. While he does sneak in the autobiographical abandonment of children by parents who are more concerned with self-exploration than with parenting, his focus is liberated sexuality.

From a passage from Whatever that Baudet quotes extensively:                                                                                                                                                                                                                    From the amorous point of view, Veronique belonged, as we all do, to a sacrificed generation. She had certainly been capable of love; she would have wished to still be capable of it, I’ll say that for her; but it was no longer possible. A scarce, artificial and belated phenomenon, love can only blossom under certain mental conditions, rarely conjoined, and totally opposed to the freedom of morals that characterizes the modern era. Veronique had known too many discotheques, too many lovers; such a way of life impoverishes a human being, inflicting sometimes serious and always irreversible damage. Love as a kind of innocence and as a capacity for illusion, as an aptitude for epitomizing the whole of the other sex in a single loved being rarely resists a year of sexual immorality, and never two. In reality, the successive sexual experiences accumulated during adolescence undermine and rapidly destroy all possibility of projection of an emotional and romantic sort.   

One could have plucked this passage from a run-of-the-mill Red Pill screed; however, Houellebecq was discussing hypergamy and sexual marketplace value back in the 90s. I was surprised that anyone was expressing these sentiments that “long” (pop culture standards) ago when I first came across that same passage nearly a year ago.

Commenting, Baudet continues:

“How encouraging to finally read a modern writer who takes the problem of sex seriously! Of course, the cult of virginity lost its credibility in the Western world some time ago, today’s philosophy being that we have to experiment to find the right partner. Houellebecq, however, draws upon older intuitions which maintain that the bond which forms through sexual intimacy may reemerge once or twice, but not much more, and that we should therefore be extremely cautious in acquiring amorous experience. Sex, in short, can be a threat–and not simply an aide–to intimacy and love.”

The theme of “older intuitions” regarding sexual depletion occurs again and again in Houellebecq’s characters. Liberal or conservative, we tend to treat sexual encounters as financial transactions–ideally, both parties profit from the exchange. If one is not pleased with the product or finds it defective, one can take it back for a refund–or opt to buy a newer model. No one is committed to keep anything–or anyone–in one’s life. If one finds the product too burdensome, dismissing it is as simple as dropping a “I-don’t-really-see-this-going-anywhere” and then throwing away the instructions. It is, indeed, our right–if not our imperative–to test as many different products as we can before we prudently choose which one we plan on sticking with for the immediate future.

Houellebecq, after he takes a lugubrious puff on his cigarette, waves away such non-sense. His stories reaffirm the older intuitions: we cannot give ourselves away sexually and expect not to be affected, if not worsened. Every person to whom we give ourselves who does not become our spouse or life-long partner becomes, necessarily, another person to whom we have given a part of ourselves that we will then never be able to give to another. In other words, intimacy is not, as the sexual free market theorists would have us believe, a renewable resource. Much like with fingers or toes, intimacy, once gone, always gone. I write this to myself as much as I write this to another.

I do not care to play the numbers game: at what point has one had too many partners to be able to love another? However, my wager–and my fear–is that it is much lower than most of us would be comfortable discovering.

Yet, as entitled consumers, we continue to patronize online pornography, casual dating-site hook-ups, and sterile sex–it may be kinky, but it will not ever lead to children or a future. Are we not lucky to be living in such times as we do? How did our older generations ever find the emotional wherewithal to smile?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Desert and the Beatific Vision

(This is another piece that I wrote over a decade ago. I submitted this in a creative writing class–and actually got away with it. I doubt such would fly today. I have cleaned it up a bit. Anyway, it is a cross between Cormac McCarthy and Walker Percy.)

The sand sizzled. The white ball overhead followed him. Everywhere the man looked, desert. There were creosote bushes: pubic hair of the desert.  Even the damn rodents and snakes have better sense than to come out during noonYou can’t hide from God, and you sure as hell can’t hide from the damn sun. He fell down a few times. Every time he fell down, he arose with more sand and silt clinging to his sweaty hands. He felt the sweltering intensity penetrate the soles of his boots. I must keep walking.

Earlier this morning, he had made love to his wife and then had gotten out of bed to rock the baby back to her sleep. He and his wife had made too much noise in their small trailer.  Making love to the wife and loving the child: I guess this is all there is to life—I need some cigarettes. He told his wife that he was going to get a pack of cigarettes, but did not stop at the convenience store. An hour and a half past Gila Bend, going southwest on I-8, he pulled over onto the shoulder. Dust covered his white Mazda B1800 truck like a hair shirt. He got out and looked at the baby window visor on the passenger side window. I’m doing this all for you; damn it, Pookie.

He drove off-road in order to follow a Harris hawk. No wonder there’s no road—a road got better sense than to be out here. He stopped his truck and started to walk. He walked longer than he planned. Pulsating mirages lied to him. Fine, I’m not looking for no water, anyhow. He came across a dead black-tailed rattler. He rubbed the toe of his right boot into its head. Bubbly grayish mush squirted out on all sides and immediately began to fry on the oven-top sand. Poor bastard. You’re a scourge to mankind, but I guess even scourges have their place in the scheme of things, don’t they?

There’s no way a man could do forty days and nights in a place like this. A saguaro cactus broke out with small white bell-shaped flowers. He rubbed one of his fingers over the bristles to make sure they were real. He licked a few dots of blood off his pointer. Even in desolation, you ain’t gonna hide, are you? Fine, I’m here, now what?

The noon sky opened its mouth and gasped its hot, dry breath on him. He took off his baseball cap and scraped his scalp. I knew I should of got that damn haircut Tuesday. He kept pulling at the hair that fell between his shirt collar and neck. He could smell his armpits, so he took off his shirt and stuffed it into a back pocket. Beads of sweat attached themselves to scattered chest hairs. He looked at his chest: Melinda.  He had promised her that he would tattoo her name to his chest once they got married. Three years ago last month—I’ll be damned.

He fell down again. The sand stung his back and trickled its way into his pants. He intended to scratch his ass but instead covered his eyes from the sun’s indifferent glare. He felt his throat crack and peal. Only two bottles of water—damn genius. He pulled out his pack of Marlboro Lights but then threw them on the ground. He kept the lighter. You never know.

Even though he covered his eyes with his hands, he felt the heat pierce through his hands and scorch his eyeballs. Solar crucifixion, huh? Right now, more than anything, he wished to be with his family, but he did not think of turning back. This ain’t no great revelation; I could of stayed home. This godforsaken, fucking desert. Pookie, your dad ain’t a coward—he just had to know. He sure as hell does now, don’t he ever. A gila monster peaked out from behind a rock. It looked left and then right. A lizard—you know what to do, don’t you?

*****

The day before, the man and his wife had argued. They had started with the milk.

“Buddy, I told you we needed some more milk. Why didn’t cha’ get any? Good thing Pookie’s not old enough to eat cereal or you’d have two grumpy girls mad at you.”

“Sorry, forgot.”

“You’re always forgetting.”

“Cuz I always got stuff on my mind.”

“Right, the only thing you usually got on your mind is sex.”

“Naw, that ain’t right. Got food, too. Just not milk, I suppose.”

“Oh, kiss my ass.”

“Be nice to see a little ass these days.”

“Maybe you will when you starting acting the papa.  Maybe when you starting acting like something—anything. You never want to do anything. You just sit around all the time like you got the whole damn world on your shoulders.”

“Better than having nothing going on in your head, ain’t it?”

“What are you saying? You saying I ain’t smart or something?”

“Ah, baby, no, I ain’t saying that…. Just that I can’t help all the time being distracted.”  He wrapped his arms around her from behind.

“You better try sometime soon. I mean, Pookie can’t have a papa that’s all the time somewhere else in the head, and I can’t have no husband like that neither.” She started to pull away, but then stopped.

“Listen, baby, I’m sorry.  It’s just that…naw, nothing. Never mind. I’m gonna change.  Just you wait.”

“Buddy, you know I love ya, right?

“Right.” He squeezed her and threw her on the couch. “I’m gonna go call in sick for work, and when I get back, you better be butt-naked.”

“You can’t do that. You gotta go to work.” She had already started to unbutton his shirt that she was wearing.

“Babe, it’s not like the shop’s been getting much action anyhow. Neither have I.”

*****

The man decided to put his shirt back on. Damn back’s gonna peel for days. Nothing smart about this. If I don’t die out here, Melinda’s gonna kill me. A roadrunner lifted its tail, dropped it, cooed, and ran away.  Hell, what’s next—El Chupacabra?  He continued to trek, following the cacti that showed him the prettiest flowers. The flutter of hummingbirds darting in and out of blossoms started to make him drowsy. Damn shame to die out here, but, I guess, it’s a damn shame to die anywhere really. Can’t go back to the truck. Probably hotter than hell inside now. Perspiration stung his eyes. The Harris hawk returned and circled over his head.  I knew you’d come back to me. Where to now? The hawk lighted on a chimney cap of an adobe house located on the bottom of a slope he had just now noticed. As he approached the edge of the slope and surveyed the metal roof of the house, the gravel under his feet gave way, and he rolled the entire way down, slamming against the back door. Damn you! Damn you to hell forever! He lobbed handfuls of gravel toward the slope, but laughed after he realized what he had just cursed and what he had just done. He raked the sand off his arms as he waited for the owner of the house to open the door to investigate the ruckus, but he wound up just waiting. Well, I may be breaking and entering, but it’s better than sitting and dying. He kicked at the deadbolt; the door swung open. Well, shoot me or don’t; I need your water. He ran toward the kitchen sink and turned it on. The facet sputtered but nothing came out. Ah, holy hell! Come on! He swung open the refrigerator only to find stale warm air. He began to open every cabinet in the kitchen.  Keystone Light? Hell, it’s better than nothing. Don’t Indians drink water like everybody else? Who am I kidding? He gulped down three tepid beers and immediately began to feel sick and sleepy. He plopped down on a couch and awoke a few hours later.         

Sun’s lowered, but it ain’t setting time yet. I got to get back to the truck—sure don’t want to piss off any Indian. After he crawled his way back up the slope, he tried to remember which way he had come. At least the sun feels about fifteen degrees nicer. He remembered the trail of cacti he had followed. About five hundred yards from the slope, he spotted an unmarked Dodge A100 van. As he approached the van, the smell of hot cottage cheese, pork, and milk hit him.  Good God! Don’t tell me…. He pulled his shirt over his nose and pulled open the right backdoor of the van. An arm that looked liked sculpted raw liver fell out toward him. He jumped back and projected a stream of vomit inside the van. His puke showered five decomposing bodies huddled together. Oh, Christ, some poor spics trying to sneak into Arizona. Oh, Christ! He started to vomit again, but his dehydration allowed only for violent dry heaves. He sunk to his knees and grabbed his stomach as it wormed up and down. His eyes watered as the odor of raw human flesh filtered into his nostrils. Shit, shit, shit! As he pressed his forehead into the sand and rocked back and forth on his knees, a baby cried.  For God’s sake, no baby! Getting up from his knees, he wiped off the drips of vomit that clung to his stubble and walked around to the passenger side doors. The doors nearly folded opened of their own accord. A ten-month old or so baby lay on the ground in front of the first booth seat. Shit! How the holy hell you still alive, baby? Either it’s a miracle or whoever left this godawful mess came back and dropped you off here not too long ago.

The baby lifted his arms and wailed toward the man. He leaned in, picked up the baby, and held him close to his chest. The baby buried his face into his shoulder. Thank God, the smell of dead man’s flesh ain’t seeped into you yet. Whoever put you here, put you here a little while ago. Probably watching my dumb ass now, I bet. You need some shade and water. He held the baby with one arm and took off his shirt with the other. He loosely wrapped the shirt over the baby. I’m giving my back for you, spic baby. But, hell, you just a baby‘bout as old as my little Pookie. Hell, babies are babies. The man looked at the baby again and put his cap on him.

As they walked back to the adobe house, a dust storm with shooting rocks billowed toward them. A maroon Cadillac Eldorado sped toward them. A piece of lavender chiffon flew like a flag from the antenna. The Eldorado stopped a few feet from them. The driver wearing lipstick, eyeliner, and a blond wig leaned out the window.

“Well, Georgianna, look at what we have here. Isn’t he a piece? And he’s got a little something with him. Must be a breeder—well, we can’t all be perfect, can we?” The driver drug his tongue across his upper teeth.

“Yeah, just walking my baby. I’ll be on my way.” Shit, Indian desert queens. Horny cocksuckers.

“Wait, me and Georgianna will give you a ride. We’ll even let you sit up in front with us.” Georgianna crawled over the driver and stuck his head out the window.

“Come on, fierce little man in the desert, me and Lily need a little amusement—or are you just a desert mirage.” Lily playfully pushed Georgianna off him and drug his tongue across his upper teeth again.

“Thanks, I guess, but I never liked Cadillacs.” He strengthened his grip on the baby and started to walk away with no intention of acknowledging them anymore.

“Oh, you are impossible!  We’ll see you again, sweety-sweaty.” Georgianna laughed as they rumbled away, leaving small swirls of dust.

He approached the beginning of the slope. Oh, not again, you sonofabitch. He sat down and slowly slid until he reached the bottom. Baby, that wasn’t so bad, was it? The back door was still open from earlier in the day. Maybe you and me will have the place to ourselves tonight, but you still need some water. Come to mention it, that wouldn’t be so bad for me either. He placed the baby on the living room floor as he entered a bedroom and then a bathroom. He came back with a bed liner and a towel. Bringing you back water, baby.

Clusters of cholla cacti punctuated the grounds around the house.  He kicked off the smaller cylindrical stem segments and, with the towel wrapped around his hand, dropped the segments onto the bed liner.  After collecting several pounds of segments, he tied together the four corners of the sheet and drug the liner back into the house.  The baby traced patterns in the dirt on the floor. A giggle bubbled forth. Glad you’re easily amused, but, I guess we all have our amusements, huh? By the way, these belong to me. The man put his shirt and baseball cap back on.

He dropped a number of segments into a cooking pan that he had found hanging on the wall and started smashing them with a can of tomato soup that he had first seen while looking for beer earlier in the day. After he smashed a while, he tore off a piece of the bed liner, stretched it tightly across the pan, and used it as a sieve. He poured what he could into a mug that had been left on the counter; he wrung the rest of the water out from the bed liner. He walked over to the baby and sat down. I’m glad you know how to stay in one place and ain’t walkin’ all over. He gently grabbed the baby’s face, squeezed open his mouth, and poured water down his throat. The baby began to pull at the man’s hand, but, upon tasting the water, let him have his way. The man drank what was left.  He repeated this process until he had gone through most of the segments.  He put the remaining segments by the couch, picked up the baby, and began to rock him to sleep.  The sun began to set, and without electricity, the house grew dark. Well, baby, there ain’t much more for us to do; let’s get us to sleep. We’ll make it an early morning tomorrow. He placed the baby between himself and the back of the couch, so the baby would not roll off. Is this what I came out here for? He threw his cap off. They both closed their eyes.

*****

The man woke with Lily’s knee brutally digging into his back.Georgianna held the baby with one arm and shined his Mag-lite into his face with the other.Lily was naked from the waist down. He was also wearing the man’s cap over his blond wig.

“Listen, my little sweaty bitch, you try to move and I—I swear to God—I’ll fucking crack your little spine.” Lily whispered into the man’s ear and then proceeded to drag his tongue along the curvature of the man’s outer ear. “Also, you try to escape, and we’ll fucking wring that little baby’s neck.”

Georgianna started to dance with the baby as he twirled the flashlight around the otherwise dark room lightened by moonlight. The baby screamed, so Georgianna violently shook the baby and pressed the Mag-lite against the baby’s chest.

“Would you shut that little shithead up! He’s going ruin the mood for me.” Lily’s claws dug into the fleshly ends of the jaw of the man underneath him. Georgianna took both the baby and the flashlight with him into the adjoining bedroom.

“Do what you want to me, you fucking faggot, but don’t touch the baby!” Moonlight streaming through a window illuminated the remaining cacti segments by the couch.

“Oh, you know, you’d be a lot more attractive if you were nice.” Lily slid his hands down the man’s waist and started to unfasten his pants. “As for the baby, we’ll see if we’re still hungry afterwards.” Lily began to tug on the man’s pants. In the other room, Georgianna slapped the baby.

The man rocked his hips from one side to another and then finally, with one forceful sway, lurched off the couch. As they landed on the floor, the man scooped up and squeezed a couple segments. Blood immediately started to drip down onto his wrist. He slammed the fistful of segments into Lily’s face, bursting one of his eyes and knocking both his wig and the man’s cap off Lily’s head. As Lily howled, the man quickly thrust his pointer and middle fingers inside Lily’s mouth and tore open his cheek. As Lily crawled on the floor, watching the blood pour from his flapping bifurcated cheek, the man stomped on the back of his neck and crushed the life out of him. Wretched man…    

The man fastened his pants that Lily had undone and walked into the bedroom where Georgianna had taken the baby. The room was dark because the Mag-lite had been turned off, but the man heard the baby crying on the bed. He also heard the frantic breathing of Georgianna in the corner to his right. All at once, Georgianna squealed as he rushed toward the man.  The man instinctively put up his arms to brace himself from a blow with the Mag-lite, but  Georgianna tripped and fell at the man’s feet. The flashlight rolled until it hit against his feet; he bent over and picked it up. The man clicked on the Mag-lite. Light flashed through the room; he noticed that both Georgianna and the baby were naked. Your life will be required of you this day…. Georgianna got up on his knees and began to beg for his life as the man flashed the light in his face.

“I was gonna, gonna let you be.  As sick as you are, I was gonna let you be, but then I saw this….” He tightened his grip on the Mag-lite.

“Please, please, please!  I didn’t touch your baby!  I was only going to have a little fun, but I wasn’t going to hurt your baby! For God’s sake, please!” Naked, Georgianna shivered as he slowly writhed his way closer to the man.

“In God’s name, I was going to let you go. You weren’t the one on top of me, but then I saw this….” The man swung the Mag-lite down onto Georgianna’s head; his skull loudly cracked as he fell to floor and began to flop. You wasn’t good for anything else but flopping on the ground, but who am I to decide like this…. God forgive me. He picked up the baby with the arm that was not covered both in his blood and Lily’s blood and carried the baby outside the room. The baby stopped crying as soon as the man grabbed him. He laid the baby on the kitchen table and poured the leftover three cans of Keystone Light over his arms to wash away most of the blood. He wiped the rest of the blood away with the bed liner. He went into bathroom and retrieved a large bath towel. He wrapped the baby in the towel. The desert’s gonna be cold, but we gotta get back to the truck. He carried the baby, the Mag-lite, and the bed liner out to the Eldorado. He opened the gas tank and dipped as much of the bed liner as he could into it. Before he walked back into the house, he pulled off the lavender chiffon scarf and used it to open the door. Ain’t like my fingerprints aren’t already all over this damn place. He placed the baby in the front seat. I hate to leave you here—even if it’s only for a minute, but you’re safer here than on the ground with all them night critters. He spread the bed liner over the couch, pulled out his cigarette lighter, and lit the couch on fire.

Returning to the car, he pulled the baby out of it and began to trek back to his truck.  There’s no greater motivation to keep walking than you, baby. A rattle hissed from a near-by creosote bush. They kept walking, guided by the Mag-lite and the moonlight. Something ran across them. You look like a coyote, but you ain’t.  El Chupa…. Ah, hell, this must be a night mirage.

*****

Sunrise broke out as he arrived back home. Before he had even gotten out of the truck he heard his wife scream.

“Buddy Lanier MacLemore! I swear to God, if I don’t kill you now, then may God….”  She dropped the rolling pin from her hand as she saw Buddy with the baby in his arms.

“Listen, Melinda, I know that I’m in a world of trouble. I’ve a feeling bad times are gonna come soon. You won’t understand; I don’t ask you to—none-at-all. All the time I have thoughts in my head, like what I’m supposed to do. I know now. I’m your man. I’m Pookie’s papa. I’m here to stay. And our family just got a little bigger. Let’s call him Desert.” Buddy offered Desert to Melinda. She took him and began to ask a question, but then stopped. She would ask Buddy questions later. She took Desert into the trailer and reappeared with both Pookie and Desert. She still had a question on her lips, but, at this moment—this very moment—they watched the sun rise.

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He and the She Substitutions

(Something I wrote over a decade ago. I was tickled rereading it, so I want you to be tickled for the first time.)

After kissing Ms. Freckles, he had to gurgle with bourbon.  He climbed out her window and fell in an expectant azalea bush.  While lying in the dirt, he came across Ms. Thighs.  Her thighs could strangle water; thus, he pondered Original Sin, baptism, and his own mortality.  Because both he and night had fallen, he left and searched.  Finding Ms. Eyes, he informed her that her father was a thief.  She knew where it was going, so she invited him home, made him dinner, and told him to go to hell.  Thoughts of the Final Judgment and eternity sent him running—right into Ms. Hair.  Through strands of mammalian pride, they discussed the theology of the body.  He remarked that dangling protein can only account for so much, and then he split.  After noticing Ms. Breasts sitting across the bar from him, he brought her a drink and himself an excuse.  Wondering if a correlation exists between buoyancy and the dignity of the individual, he poured his beer on her tits.  Upon being bounced out the door, he realized that a disordered appetite usually craves a place to sit down and the infinite.  In the gutter, he discovered a dying cat and Ms. I’ve Had Everybody Before You.  She reminded him that it is who one is sleeping with who matters.  He asked her if remembering is an act of love and then told her to forget it, babe.  Stumbling back to his apartment, he encountered Mrs. He.  He confessed to her that pronouns and abstractions cannot develop much further without a prior commitment to particulars.

 

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