On Brotherhood

I’m speaking from my limited point-of-view here: white, male, straight, working class, punk rock by heart, redneck by trade (my neck is literally red from working in the sun.) It has been my experience that when individuals get knocked around by life a little harder than usual—and they are lucky enough to form bonds—they tend to form strong bonds with others who maybe have had a rougher go at it than most. I am extremely grateful for the blessings and opportunities in my life, but it’s taken me well over forty years to even begin to find some peace that is more than fleeting.

One blessing in my life is my friends. I grew up afflicted with crippling shyness and wretched self-esteem, which left me feeling socially awkward and highly uncomfortable in almost any social situation. When I gave in and started drinking at 18, it was like I found the cure for that affliction—but that’s another story. What I have always had is a solid group of friends. Where our society sees heathens, junkies, bums, drug dealers, psychos, and white trash, I see intelligent (in different ways—book smart ain’t the only one), determined, compassionate, protective, and up-standing human beings who’ve been down through thick and thin for decades. Maybe we go a year or two without talking, but when we do, it’s usually like we never missed a beat. When your life goes off the rails, when you behave like a junkie or a violent ass, when you’re fucking up so bad your blood relatives turn their collective back, and you look around and see those rugged fools who love you anyway and have empathy for you because they’ve been there and know how easy it is for a man to fall (pardon the sexist viewpoint), those are your friends.

I’m not saying they’ll condone your addiction-fueled destruction, or that you’re always going to see eye-to-eye. In fact, one has to have heart to keep rising up after every fall, and stubbornness often comes hand-in-hand with tenacity, and all this will lead to arguments, possibly fist fights, but you can’t be a pussy about this sort of thing. A good friend might tell you how it is, call you on your bullshit so to speak, or not loan you money because he or she doesn’t want to be the one who facilitates your final overdose. I value my friends for many reasons—they do their best not to judge me, they’ll show up if I need to protect my family with guns, they put up with my moody, bipolar ass and still love me, and many other reasons. I try to take care of myself and flourish so that I don’t have to stress them out by needing their help overmuch, and so I can be there the best I can for them when the time comes. One thing I’ve learned only within the last five years is the importance of taking care of one’s self in order to be of better service to others. That being said, we all need a hand up from time to time: I know I’ve had my share, and I’m grateful to have had the help.

Most of my friends have known more than their fair share of suffering (as if life were fair and suffering were doled out equally like pudding cups in a school lunch room). These tribulations, though difficult, have refined the spirits of my brothers (and a sister or two), making them the beings I cherish and respect today.

To all my brothers, you know who you are, thank you for the good times, the support, the camaraderie, and even just taking the time to sit and listen to me at my lowest—when I felt I didn’t deserve to keep breathing valuable air that an actual human might need—and hear me, actually hear me without judging me. Thanks for having my back in street fights, even when my drunken ass probably had it coming. Thank you for caring about my boys and sharing an understanding with me that has oft made me feel like an alien when I’m not kickin’ it with y’all. I hope I can be as good a brother to you as y’all have been to me.

I dedicate this song to my homies:


The General’s Head

“What is it now?” damn he’s annoying. All I want to do is finish my nap.

“I’m having a problem with him again. He won’t eat his gruel. Says it tastes like monkey poop.”

I want to fly out of bed and lock my hands around Jason’s skinny neck and squeeze until my fingers snap. Instead I take a deep breath and whip the covers out of my way. My pajamas are thin as rice paper, and I feel the cold air shriveling my nuts. Why did I get chosen to work in a stupid cave? What the hell did I ever do to anybody? I mean damn it anyway, I’ve sucked more ass than a gay mosquito, and still I get stuck babysitting a freaking head.

“I’m gonna drown that moron in his gruel.” I take long strides, setting Jason’s stumpy legs scurrying to keep up.

“You shouldn’t talk about the General like that. He’s a great man. Without him, the slugs would’ve got us for sure.”

Jason’s sniveling slithers into my ears, threatening to drive me to rash acts. I stop and pivot sharply. The little rat bounces off my chest and stumbles back. As he tries to catch his balance I crack him a good one on the mouth with the back of my hand. He clutches his already-swelling lips and cowers as I make to smite him again.

“Don’t tell me how to talk about anyone, understand? Everyone thinks it’s so goddamn funny that I’m the Head Nurse, don’t they? Even you, you whinny little turd. I’ve caught you snickering behind my back! You can’t even feed the freakish thing, and you’re gonna tell me all about how great the General is? I’d rather the slugs have pulled me down into their stinking hell with the rest of the Southsiders. It would have been better than playing caterer to an ungrateful, gangrenous head. Now get yourself together, shut up, and let’s get this over with so I can get back to sleep.”

The twerp quivers like a wet chihuahua as he stands up and smooths out his muddy smock. I really don’t like Jason. I never have. We proceed the rest of the way to LAB 7a in cold silence. I slide my level one ID card through the slot and the laser instantly decodes the information. The reinforced steel door before me swooshes open, and like always, I feel like I’m in a goddamn episode of Star Trek.

LAB 7a greets us with the usual potent stink of formaldehyde and rotting flesh. I just never get used to that smell. My stomach jerks and tries to liberate my lunch. My mouth waters and fills with pre-vomit bile, but I force the whole delicious mouthful back from whence it came. I spot what’s left of the General.

General Justin Cornhower Jr., decorated war veteran, began his career as a draftee in the Conflict in the Middle East and soon discovered he had a penchant for military service. He rose through the ranks in the subsequent and frequent wars at an uncanny pace, finally landing himself inside the upper echelon of the Pentagon. About a year or two later the slugs came. It seemed a much-anticipated meteor was going to strike the Earth after all, but don’t panic they said, it’s much smaller than originally thought. What they didn’t say however, was that it was infested with colonies of semi-solid parasites that bore an innate hankering for human blood. Within a week, half the population of the southern hemisphere had been turned to gelatin and sucked into the ground. They drank us like soda pops on a hot day. General Cornhower, while de-escalating a nuclear pissing contest between India and Pakistan, fell victim to a slug and remains the only survivor of a slug attack to date.

He was subjected to considerably less of the body-dissolving goo than most victims, and some folks account his miraculous and gruesome recovery to this fact. And there are those still clinging to a tattered faith in a benevolent omnipotence that feel he was chosen by the Grand Wazoo to lead the human race to victory. Some even whisper that he’s the second incarnation of Christ, come to crack a few sinful skulls. Whatever he is, all he’s got left is his own head, pumped full of brain-stimulating chemicals and shocked to life every ten minutes. Since his attack four years ago, he’s learned to tune into the primal hive-mind shared by the slugs. All the science geeks figure it has something to do with the residual parasites still feeding on his flesh. He’s a living detection system and the sole early warning system for enemy attacks. All that aside, he’s a stinky, hateful prick.

He’s thrashing around on his serving platter, wallowing in overturned NutraGruel and howling as a surge of life-sustaining electricity rips through him. What’s left of his thinning hair stands straight out from his scalp, like gray needles stabbed into a pin cushion. I suppress my laughter with some difficulty.

“General, sir,” I choke out the words, trying not to sound like I want to play basketball with his moldy melon. “Jason tells me you’re giving him problems with the gruel again. We’re not going to have another incident, are we?”

“NutraGruel tastes like monkey poop and you know it! Christ in Heaven! Don’t we have any chicken noodle soup around here?” His words issue from speakers wired into his vocal cords in a disturbing, mechanical voice—kind of like a trash can trying to talk through an amplifier. Watching his head rock back and forth with the motion of his jaw makes me queasy, so I avert my eyes.

“Sir, as I’ve stated countless times, NutraGruel is the only sustenance you can intake when you’re lacking things like a lower body and a stomach. What the hell are you going to do with chicken soup? Slurp it up and piss it out your neck?” As I speak, I feel my tenuous control over my anger dissolving further. “You need this paste, and you need to let it absorb under your tongue. Like it or not. And if you’re not going to eat it on your own, I’m going to stuff you like a Thanksgiving turkey full of the nasty stuff.” That voice I try to ignore in the back of my head hisses at me that I’ve gone too far, that after all, he is a General. Too late now, I guess.

Gen. Cornhower shoots me a look born both of hatred and shock. I feel him willing me to die, trying to kill me through an act of sheer mentation.

I snort and force a grin.

“So how ‘bout it? Are you going to eat your dinner or choke on it?”

Silence. We stare at each other for what seems like an hour, locked in a kind of old west showdown. High Noon, just me and the head. Finally, I break and scoop up a double portion of monkey poop in my right hand and advance on the General in a semi-crouch. I see the strategic fires leap up behind his eyes, plotting, conniving. Damn, this isn’t going to be easy.

“Touch me and I’ll bite your heathen fingers off, so help me Jesus,” he barks, snapping his teeth together to emphasize his threat. That’s when I bolt forward and try to snatch him off his tray with my other hand. Why is he grinning?

Ah, no, the shocks! How could I forget about that? Just as I grab a handful of gruel-greased hair, electricity rips through the both of us. I swear I hear him laughing.

I can’t scream. All my muscles contract at once in a burning symphony of galvanism. My teeth feel ready to crack in the vice of my jaw. I want dearly to let go of the General and punt him like a football, but my hands only clench tighter. The electricity ceases, and I collapse, hair smoking and nerves aflame. My last thought before I fade out is this: It’s not quite as funny from this end.

I open my eyes to behold Jason’s weasel-like mug grinning down at me. My body is blessedly numb from a morphine drip.

“I guess I’ll be spending time in the brig, eh?” I grunt more than speak.

“No, the General said you were helping him eat when the LifePulse fired out of sequence,” he says and his thin grin wriggles back into place.

Well I’ll be dipped. I thought the old stump would’ve ratted me out and asked that I be drawn and quartered.

It’s then I realize the General is a great man. Now the two of us get along fairly well. We have an unspoken understanding and mutual respect. I keep all that to myself, though, at least around Jason.


Fiction

I’m going to post some short stories here. I’m not sure about them, so any feed back would be appreciated. The first one is pretty new, and I forced it out of my brain in an attempt to overcome a prolonged inability to write. I hope you enjoy it.

Hatch-Head

It was one of those days—a dark and stagnant day, devoid of joy or reason—black and cold and empty as distant space. Jeffrey marshaled his feeble resources and forced himself to take a shower. He wondered how a task could one day be mundane and common, yet the next take a feat of will power to accomplish. It was one more joyless thought in a stream of hopelessness. He had so much that needed doing—cleaning, writing a resume, finding work, finishing side jobs, making payment arrangements for his unpaid bills—and by late afternoon he had barely managed a shower.

Coupled with his emotional malfunction, Jeffrey was developing a monster headache. What started out as an uncomfortable pressure behind his eyes and tension at the base of his skull crescendoed to a brilliant star of a pain blazing in place of his brain. The slightest stimuli, be it sound, light, or motion sent lightning agony tearing through his head. The pain was enough to bring nausea.

The headache was an odd comfort, however, because it replaced the haunting apathy with something palpably wrong, which alleviated some of his spiritual angst despite the immense pain. By midnight, he longed to replace the headache with depression. Whatever comfort it had been at first had long dissipated. He lay perfectly still, not wanting to risk a chain reaction of misery by turning his head or adjusting his body. The tick of the clock and his ragged breathing were the only sounds inside his cold, dark apartment, and the clock crashed like thunder to him with each passing second.

Sleep came to him like an angel of mercy. His dreams were pained, relentless episodes of being overcome by quicksand, by vines, by bills, by death. He had a vague memory of birth and light upon awakening at three AM, but it faded like candle smoke in a gust.

The pain in his head had subsided to a dull ache, which was blissful by comparison. He thought it odd how the absence of pain could transmute into pleasure—but he was immensely grateful to feel any measure of joy: it was like a single breath of air to a drowning man—ephemeral as it was invaluable. For the first time in hours he was able to rise from the couch. He turned up the thermostat and listened to the heater kick on. He was surprised to find himself hungry. He’d been so devoid of desire the past thirty hours, the presence of it felt momentarily alien. But humans are nothing if not birthers of desire.

Eventually his hunger outgrew his apathy and motivated him enough to dress, find his keys and wallet, and venture out into the winter night. Unable to afford the registration and insurance on his Ford Fiesta, he opted to walk to the Latino corner store.

It was warm inside and clinically bright. Primary colors assailed his vision—rows of shampoo bottles, stacked next to beans, arranged next to a rainbow of hard candies. One shelf, six rows high, consisted of nothing but various hot sauces. Despite the low volume of the radio, a laughing shout accompanied by frantic, polka-like music was clearly audible. Cheap shampoo and bleach merged into one cloying scent.

Jeffrey paid for a frozen pot pie and a bottle of cream soda. There was no one in the store except for him and the cashier, and neither tried to bridge the language barrier, though Jeffrey did notice a widening of the cashiers eyes when the man looked up at him.

He left the store, followed by the electronic ding of the door and noticed the pain returning to the very center of his head. He caught his reflection in his front window as he unlocked his door and understood the cashier’s expression: his head was starting to swell. It was as if a grapefruit were pushing up beneath his scalp, right out of the top of his skull.

He hurried to the bathroom mirror to examine it more closely. It was red, hot, hard, and sore to the touch. The pain was steadily increasing. He wrapped some ice in a towel, leaving his pot pie, forgotten, to thaw on his cluttered kitchen table. He sat down on the couch, holding the ice to his head and worried. As his mind conjured fantasies of cancer, his free hand subconsciously touched the needle scars in the crook of his arm.

Though it did little for the swelling, the ice numbed the pain some, and his mind wandered from worry to day dreaming. A spark of inspiration glowed within him, and he discarded the ice pack to retrieve a notebook from atop his tv. A pen was clipped to the metal rings of its spine. He wrote slowly, neatly.

When? When I’m haunted

When the clock ticks thunder

When hope dies

When I long for escape

When I pray to Oblivion and observe the needle rites

When I lose reason and forsake joy

Then I wonder: When?

Just as he finished writing, a flash of blinding pain seared the inside of his head—enough to elicit an involuntary yelp from him. He clutched his head in both hands and writhed on the couch, squirming like a spitted worm.

He heard a sickening wet rip as his scalp split and glistening skull emerged like an egg. He had the surreal experience of hearing a scratching both inside and outside of his skull simultaneously, but the feeling was quickly forgotten in unbearable pain.

He screeched and convulsed as a sharp claw broke apart the skull from inside like a beak pecking apart an egg. First two, then four jointed, spider-like legs squeezed out of the hole, then trembled as they pulled a fist-sized, bright red, spherical body from his skull with a soggy pop. It was free now, perched on top his opened head on eight legs supporting a perfectly round sphere of flesh, in which an unblinking human eye was set dead-center. The eye looked frantically around before the creature scurried down his back and under the couch.

As quickly as it had appeared, the pain subsided. Jeffrey, still in heavy shock, reached up to feel the certainly fatal wound he’d just received, but felt only a deep gash where he expected to feel his brain. When the shock subsided some, he convinced himself he’d fallen and cut his head. He was already feeling better. Even his depression had subsided.

It watched from beneath the couch, waiting for the cover of darkness, to make its way into the world.


Goodbye Mom

October 2020 was the last time I would have a conversation with my mom. After nearly dying in 2016, she made a miraculous recovery from lung cancer, and enjoyed four relatively healthy years before the cancer returned. It happened quickly–in the space of a month she went from doing chores around the house to calling me to come over and lift her up the single step in her foyer. I was at work when she called, building a deck in the midst of a pandemic.

“I’m dying,” she said, her voice husky but free of fear. “I want to die.”

“I understand,” I said. I did. She’d fought like a savage to come back from the edge of death and debilitation the first time. She felt my disabled son still needed her. I didn’t want her to suffer any more. It was her choice to make.

“I love you very, very much.”

“I love you too, mom.”

“Stay in treatment. Your boys need their father.”

“I will.”

“I love you very much,” she said again. The air compressor kicked on behind me, making any further conversation impossible. I didn’t try to call back. What was there left to say?

For me, it was the natural order of things, painfully tragic, but natural. I felt a keen sadness for my grandmother, who had already lost a twin sister. Now she would bury her child. I can only imagine the horror of having to do that, and I have great admiration for anyone who comes back from losing a child.

My mom was the best parent I could hope for. She was compassionate, intelligent, driven, creative, and she loved me far more than I deserved to be. She taught by example. Even cancer and death were hers to overcome. She was utterly non-violent, yet when it came to determination and sticking it out, she was the goddamn baddest motherfucker I’ve ever met.

I love you mom. I wish I’d shown you that more when you were alive. We all miss you. Thank you for everything I am that is life affirming and good. I’m not sure too many people would’ve been up to the task of raising me as well as you did with what you had. And if you can read this, mom, Sammy is doing great, though he really misses his grandma.


Heroin Is that Lover

Heroin’s that lover

whose beauty one regrets

that fantastical, maniacal

fuck

that has you rivaling Zeus in orgasm—

body driving deep with one sublime focus

of nerves and brain and skin and chi

shuddering, then spent

awash in flowing life energy

Or is it?

Closer maybe to that

picking, pecking, poking, pest?

accusing you with sharp tattoo?

Taboo! Hidden!

We crave that which is forbidden

And sweet oblivion!

O, Illusion!

Soothing me with her nepenthe kiss

in embrace eternal

I sink into the Styx

and learn to breathe those poison waters

as only the dead know how


When?

When I’m haunted

When the clock ticks thunder

When hope dies

When I long for escape

When I pray to Oblivion and observe the needle rites

When I lose reason and forsake joy

Then I wonder: When?


What Do You Want to Be If You Grow Up?

I’m sure I had a weird answer in second grade when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grow up (if I grow up?), but my first firm answer was a rock star. Thanks to my wildly liberal upbringing and severe disconnect with reality, I held on to that dream until about 16. I remember meeting my girlfriend’s mother for the first time and she outright laughed at me when I told her I was planning to attend the Guitar Institute of Technology. I laugh (internally, of course) when I think about how wounded my tender self was when she didn’t take me seriously. Maybe if I played the guitar, at all, ever, I should’ve considered such a vocation, but that turned out to be a serious flaw in my plan. Plan B: writer.

I say that like I’ve ever had a plan B (I think when plan A fails and one goes back to planning, one ends up with a second plan A.) Punctuation nerds: do I have the period in that last sentence on the correct side of the parenthesis? I’d look it up but I have to get up and go to work at, sigh, my construction job in three hours. Fucking stupid planning anyway….

So yeah, there was some majoring in Art in college, and some consideration to becoming a physical therapist, who hates touching people, before dropping out completely, feeling utterly defeated by Howard Rosenburg’s design course, and resigning myself to a strictly blue collar future. It wasn’t until years later that I correlated my dad going to prison with my first college drop-out. I’m not saying it was his fault, but it sure didn’t make that fucking hellish class easier. Like dads are here to make shit easier. Ha! Ask my kids.

Here I am, 150 years older, and still “transitioning” into full-time writing. It’s not for lack of trying this time either. Then one day your junkie girlfriend nags at you to get off heroin (because she doing the superior drug), and you finally do, and realize you’ve been driving the car that is your life while mostly asleep. I crashed a literal truck that way–I do not recommend it literally or metaphorically. Now, the vague point. Why am I telling you this?

I was recently offered a union construction job (I worked in the union for over a decade), which pays a lot more and has benefits, and the people who I tell look at me like I’m a little simple because I don’t run back to the union. “That’s a no-brainer,” they say, or “that’s why it’s called ‘work,'” they say, forgetting that they quit the only construction job they ever had , if they ever had one, after one or two summers. I loved the union when I was planning on staying a carpenter. When all the union work dried up and I went back to college to fill the time and my belly (by borrowing lots and lots of money from the government and banks–fuck ’em, they fuck you all the time) I thought I was never gong back to construction. Well, plan B2: I want to publish a book before I die and survive any way I can, and I’m fairly certain I’m done with the union. I will probably keep doing side jobs because I do enjoy building stuff, but since the government and the banks are gong to do what they do best–hound and threaten me for the money they foolishly loaned me–I’d like to turn some profit out of this degree. But even if I don’t, and the banks take two-thirds of my money and the government takes the rest and kicks me twice in the balls, they won’t be able to take back my education.


Mattie

A friend of mine killed himself recently, after he started hearing voices that would not go away, voices that urged him to hurt people, voices that kept him awake for five days at a time. I have trouble imagining how horrible that would be, and I have a fairly good imagination.

I didn’t cry when I heard about it, though I knew this man probably twenty years. I told a councilor we weren’t that close, but the fuck we weren’t. We may not have spoken constantly or hung out as much as we once did, but we were close. I started to worry there was something wrong with me–not only did I seem to have no reaction to his death, but now I’m minimizing it to some one concerned about me?

Well, it caught up with me tonight. That little talk about him triggered some tears. I had been subconsciously fleeing from the reality of the situation. While free writing, I found myself making a list of the people I knew who killed themselves, OD’d, were blown up fighting overseas, and this list was a lot longer than I’d thought it was. The recent suicide finally hit me, and I couldn’t stop crying for some time.

Life can be fucking ruthless man, matched only by it’s sublime wonder. I may be a lot of things– a junkie in recovery, undisciplined, bi-polar– but as of me writing this I am alive. I have this moment to not suffer. I have time perhaps to fulfill a dream, or just plain know gratitude for one more breath. But how much time? Clearly that shit runs out at any moment, so I shouldn’t put off anything. And I should use my time wisely, cherish it.

But will I?


Free

I want to disappear in a whirlwind of words

forgetting everything at once

and dissolving into void

I want to rise like smoke

and dissipate in a gust

merging into nothing

unbound and free at last

I want to glide like rain into the sea

splashing, then I’ll go

wash away my skin and flow with all that is

I want to take a breath

and know infinity before exhaling

divinely still

and calm as stone

and vast as blackest space


Exhausted, Manic Ramblings When I Should Be Asleep

Life is good. I’ve too many blessings to count, and though I often lose sight of that, at this moment I recognize them and am grateful for them. I’ve struggled—really struggled—with drug and alcohol addiction for decades. I lost custody of my children, for which I doubt I can forgive myself; I’ve lost jobs, girlfriends, and blacked-out periods of lunatic time when something else was piloting from the cockpit of my skull. First time I tried cocaine, I thought 6 pm was actually 6 am and time for me to go to work. Once I figured out what time it was, clever boy that I was, I took my Rottweiler in a cab from the back of Lemmon Valley to the bar. I bet you can’t do that in Reno anymore. Anyway, when I got home, I smashed up the house I rented with my crazy girlfriend (I know it’s redundant). I have only the vaguest wisp of memory of doing that, but I do remember what she told me later: “You looked like you were possessed.”

I didn’t know then how often I would later rent out my brain like an Uber for demons (or hire them to drive? forgive the poor simile). I used to black out so frequently at the Jazz Club (ah, Fourth Street), I started running into people only my drunken beast-self knew. It was like having a multiple personality disorder. Crack a bottle and let the chaos in. Meth cured my alcoholism. Opiates cured my meth addiction. Shooting heroin not only almost killed me physically, but it numbed me into an emotional un-death. Once I started medication-assisted recovery, I started feeling again, and I was in awe of all the sensations I had ghosted in flight from myself.

I drink some still, but I don’t emotionally shape-shift anymore. I’ve seen demons and been in the presence of the divine—I didn’t need faith either: divinity was there and even as an atheist I could do naught but be humble before it. Laugh if you want to, if it makes you feel better. I have eaten more acid than most people have probably seen, but I’ll wager in blood when the time comes.

What I’m trying to scratch together out of this rambling is that I feel really fucking good. I’m far from cured, and I’m still bi-polar as ever, but the wounds, self-inflicted and otherwise, are healing. For the first time since early childhood, I don’t feel the constant, pressing need to escape my skull. I enjoy that which I have and value those people close to me (formally related or not, I call them “family”) more than some of them probably know. My kids still love me, and my life doesn’t feel like a waking nightmare or a series of car crashes anymore. I’ve been lucky enough to have the mentors I needed, and they were stubborn enough to put up with my lunacy. Joker resonated with me in a way that should make me uncomfortable, but damn it if I don’t spend most of the day laughing because I’m happy-ish, not because of a head injury.

What I’m really trying to say is thank you. Thank you God for having a sense of humor as sick as my own, thank you all my lovers for teaching me lessons I can’t forget (and not for lack of trying), thank you brothers for being down for life, and thank you teachers for giving me gifts I didn’t fully grasp the value of. Thank you mom for doing the best you could with your insane offspring and setting an example I can strive for, and thank you dad for teaching me the importance of a father, even if it was by showing me all the things a father should never do. Fuck you, dad, actually, but you really did make me a better father. And if you read this stumbling mess of words, thank you too, whoever you are.