Friday, December 30, 2016




                                                    In Another Life: Cherries

            Last night my brother slept with a girl.  Her moaning woke me.

At first I thought Travis was strangling a goat.  An unusual amount of heat radiated from his side of the mattress, commotion, too, and a bit of a struggle.  I pinched my eyes shut even harder.  My teacher, Ms. Nelson, told us that nightmares are dreams that may have happened to us before, in another life, so I waited for the wash of blood and when it didn’t come I held my breath and counted to one million.

            A million is not as much as you think.

Travis says you could have a million dollars and it might not last until Christmas.  He told me about the guy who won the Powerball, how he blew every cent and then some he didn’t win, and how he’d hung himself with a rope dangling from a crystal chandelier.  I’m not sure who found him, if it was a disgruntled servant or relative, but it seemed to matter to me.  I must have imagined that scene dozens of times, the poor man swaying over a polished mahogany table where past feasts had once been served up, laughter and drink, the epitome of merriment and good cheer.  When I’d asked Travis how big the chandelier was, he slugged my chest and said the same thing he always said: “Idiot.”

            I counted to two thousand and twelve but started losing my place, my brain stuttering as it’s known to do.  I couldn’t sleep or dream or think or anything.  The ruckus around me picked up volume and speed.  It felt like bats were flying around my cavernous skull, knocking into walls.  I wrapped the pillow over my head as if it was a tourniquet and I was that fraudulent hero in “The Red Badge of Courage.”  The reality was I just didn’t want any bat getting their clutches caught in my hair.  I found a motion and rocked along with it.  I felt foolish and abandoned, but the sensation was so familiar that after a moment I did doze.

When I woke up mom was shaking me and telling me the car was warming up, we were late, get dressed quick, you’ll have to skip breakfast again.

            Mornings or nights--I could never tell the difference at this hour.  Both were black and frigid.  By noon the summer sun would be up and we’d be sweating and the stink under my arms would start to ripen till I’d have to breathe from my mouth, but now it was nothing other than just damn cold out.  The station wagon heater took a week to work, and by then we were already at the fields, jumping on a truck bed along with the winos the orchard owner bused in from skid row.

            We weren’t to call them winos to their faces.  We weren’t to say anything at all, or even make eye contact.

            “Are we some kind of minority?” I asked my brother once.

            It was an honest question, but honesty doesn’t always pay, nor does curiosity.  Besides I had an inkling what his answer would be, yet even so it was a bucket of ice water thrown in the face when he said, as calmly as asking that the salt and pepper be passed, “We’re freaks.”

            For a long time after that I’d sneak to the school library and look up books with the word freak in the title.  What I saw was bearded women, three breasted women, enormous women the size of small cars, men with twenty-two inch long fingernails and two headed kittens, every manner of mutation.  Eventually I learned the noun euphemism, and like a good student, I practiced using the word in every day speech whenever the moment seemed appropriate, which was never.

            Now as the truck bounced and jostled down the path toward the rows of trees I did what I always did: I counted my chickens before they were hatched.  I pictured myself having a banner day.  If the rate was $1.25 per and I picked nine lugs I’d be rich.  Some of those earnings would go to Mother for gas money and car maintenance, but otherwise it was my cash to spend how I wanted.

            One of the winos lifted his head when he saw me counting with my fingers.  His name was Virgil, a fellow sweet on Mother.  As he grinned, a black tooth bobbed over his licorice-colored tongue.  

            Travis and I were the only juveniles.  Mother had an in with Mr. Lemley.  The other pickers were dark skinned men, Mexican or Indian, I never knew.  It could have been their race, or it could have been all that time working in the sun, or the rivers of booze percolating in their system, or the sheen of sweaty grime that made them look homogenous: dark, lonely and untrustworthy.

My mother was Checker.  When a lug was filled you yelled, “Checker!” as loud as you could and my mother would amble over, bowlegged and ornery, inspecting the rectangular wooden box.  Smart guys liked to try filling the bottom portion with rocks or leaves, but Mother had a keen eye, and those jackasses were typically thrown out.

            The cherries weren’t good eating.  They were called pie cherries that tasted bitter from so much chemical spray.  After they were picked, pitted and pruned, washed and smashed and stuffed into canisters with mountains of sugar, a person could stomach their flavor, but not until then. 

Travis and I picked together, two to a tree.  The winos were slower, arthritic and confused, babbling to themselves, still drunk or hung-over, and they usually attacked a tree four-to-one.  We started before sun up and quit at noon because by then the fruit would split open in the preposterous eastern Washington heat. 

            I never earned more than five dollars at a time, but the fact of it in my pocket felt liberating and powerful, like a dangerous secret or uncast wish.  On the drive home I liked to imagine my father in present tense, alive, a person I might know or observe from a short distance.  I pictured him a lottery winner, or even a small time victor who hits triple cherries on slots at Vegas or Reno.  In my mind he was always youthful, handsome and carefree.  He never tossed his hands up when he won, just clasped them behind his back, executive-style, sort of saying, “I told you so,” without speaking.  I heard bells clang in alarm, a siren whooping, strobe lights bouncing around the carpeting.  I heard the tiny fake coins clatter into the metallic trough, spilling out around his ankles.  Once in a while this man, my father, he just rose off his stool and walked away, letting the gawkers take what they could gather, him knowing there was more where that came from, easy pickings, indeed.


            That summer a fight broke out between two drunks.  Virgil was one.  He wore his black hair braided and as I watched him stumble and swing I noticed that his eyes looked like strawberry milk.  The match began sloppy and harmless until Virgil’s opponent muttered my mother’s name, saying he’d done something sexual with her for as little as the price of a frozen TV dinner.  He said he wasn’t the only one.  Virgil became electrified, his movements now sudden and sure.  He unsheathed a Bowie and plunged it into the other guy’s gut, gave it yank.  The sound was moist and soupy, both the ripping of flesh and the disemboweling of that man’s steaming innards.  I puked into a shallow ditch, watched the ground spin and splinter, then fainted.

            The next day mother woke me up as usual and when we got to the orchard we hopped on the truck bed, picked up our supplies--a ladder, bucket with a harness, a few lugs--and that was that.

            The following day, though, it rained, rained so hard I wondered if God had just received reports about Virgil killing that poor loud mouth.  When I looked west or east the skies were clear and Easter blue.  Overhead, however, they were black as soot.

            Picking got called off after an hour.  Travis and I waited for Mother to show and when she didn’t, we slogged back into the field.  I heard her first.  It was a sound similar to the ones Jackie Schell made when Travis snuck her into our bed.

But I didn’t think it could really be her, mother.  That seemed impossible. 

            Travis took a few steps in the direction of the moaning, turned and round-housed me so hard I still get an occasional migraine to this day.

            One night weeks later I couldn’t take the ignorance anymore.  Travis and I were awake on the bed, me staring into the ceiling.  “Is our mother a whore?” I asked him.

            I waited for it, and when he didn’t shoot out, “Idiot” I sensed we were maybe stepping up onto new ground.  Perhaps he now thought of me as—not his equal—but at least his half.

            I let the silence swing in the grainy darkness of our room.  I held my breath.  I started counting.  I saw cherries, real ones and cartoons.

            Travis stirred, turned on his side in a short, tender way, studying at me.  There was a liquid shimmer in his eyes.

            “Well,” I asked, “is she or isn’t she?”

            I don’t know if he shook his head or nodded because he rolled away from me just then, drew the majority of the quilt around his bony shoulders.  Travis mumbled something.  Most of the time when I decode the message in my memory, he’s saying, “She’s a survivor.”


            The picking season came to a final conclusion around the end of August.  The next year they brought in modern machinery to do our jobs, these long hydraulic units with conveyor belts and tarps, a metal arm to grab a branch and shake the leaves bare.  They looked like parade floats.  In two weeks they cleaned over four thousand trees, doing the work it took a hundred half-good men a month to do.

            Mother never left us for Virgil or Mr. Lemley or any other suitor.  She did her business out of a hitch-up trailer in back.  I know I shouldn’t hate her, but there’s what you know and there’s what you feel, and the thing I’ve learned is it’s usually what’s inside of you that wins.

            The World’s Fair came to town the year after the cherry picking machines arrived.  The city made quick work of it, bulldozing the river bank near the falls, abolishing skid row forever.  I don’t know where all those people went, those fruit pickers and drunks, but every day that I get older, I look in the mirror and gasp, pretty sure I see one of them.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016


…For whatever reason, the geese really like my lawn.  Every day, often several times a day, hordes of them take over the lawn, destroying it in the process.  You can pound on a window or shout but the only way to get them to leave is to throw rocks and even then they’ll be back within twenty minutes.  Geese and moles are my least favorite animals.  (For the record, giraffes are my favorite.)

…I went to see LA LA LAND yesterday.  I quite loved it.  Though it began a little slow, it quickly sucks you in.  Emma Stone is as adorable as she’s ever been and Ryan Gosling is remarkable—both his dancing and piano playing.  I’ve often thought that Leonardo DiCaprio is the most talented actor working today, but Ryan Gosling is right there with him.

…The other night I watched an indie film from 2011:  HAPPY, MORE, THANK YOU, PLEASE.  It’s a gem.  I found myself smiling through nearly the entire movie.  I wish they made more films like that instead of all of these awful super hero flicks.

…I had a lot of time on my hands before writer’s group started last night, so I got three books and read Roxane Gay’s DIFFICULT WOMEN.  It’s really terrific.  The writing throws straight punches, sometimes while wearing brass knuckles.  Each story is utterly unique and features a lot of women I know.  Read it.  You won’t be sorry.

…Carrie Fisher’s passing was a surprise.  Equally surprising, to me anyway, is how much people loved her.  I had no idea.  I’m not a Star Wars fan at all (it’s the only movie, the first one, I ever fell asleep at in the theater, and I fell asleep the second time I attempted to watch it as well.)  But she was only sixty.  That’s just four years older than I am.  Makes you ponder your life and mortality.  Seems like I’ll live past sixty, but one never knows.  I’m of the “life is a gift” ilk rather that “life is a bitch”.

…Can you tell I’m being a little introspective?

…When I think of all the mistakes I’ve made, and then couple them with a lot of the really bad stuff I was witness to as a child, I sometimes tend to lean toward self-pity.  But not for long.  I made the mistakes I made and that other stuff has just made me a better writer.  I’m a lucky sonofabitch.
I hope you feel like you are as well.

…Enough rambling.
Hope you have a great Wednesday.  See you in a couple of days.

Monday, December 26, 2016


                                                     Something Underfoot

             Mother has other children she keeps in a cave beneath our house.  They make sandy, shuffling sounds from time to time.  When I tell Mother I’d like to play in the dungeon, she says it’s too dark.  She says there are rats.  “What about the kids then?” I ask.  “Won’t they be bitten, eaten?”  She looks at me with her maladjusted face, her wall-eyed gape and says, “...”

            My brother suggests we try a game.  “Take a breath,” he tells me.  “Don’t you smell it?  There is something stinking rancid putrid hideous gaseous grotesquely wrong with our family.”  When I ask what it is, what he means, my brother beats his chest and yodels.  My brother is afraid of living things, especially those locked in a zoo, and by feigning gorilla antics it’s his way of facing his fears, but I am patient and when he finally wears himself out I ask again, “What is wrong with us?”

            “…,” he says.

            My sister slips into my bedroom at midnight and tugs my earlobe to awaken me.  I rise from the bed and tiptoe down the hall down the steps down the other stairs and open the lid to the hatch to the cave.  The air sizzles with sparks of formaldehyde.   Sister has a light that she shines down into the hole, the earthen cage.  The radiance is butter yellow but grainy and gritty.  It cuts cones of light from the glut of darkness.

First I see a dirty foot and the foot’s toe nails curled long like Fritos.  Then there are ankles attached to that foot, and then legs and torso and a full body but there is no head, just a stump, as if it’s been uprooted recently around the neck where beet-purple tendons hang limp and lanky.

The body draws knees to chest and rocks itself.  Next to the headless body is another and next to that several more.

They stand together, animated now.  They hold hands and step clockwise in a circle, Ring-Around-the-Rosie.  Their movements are rhythmic, audibly hypnotic.

“Psst,” my sister calls.  “I’ll toss down a rope so you can escape.”

The headless captives carry on, making the same continuous loop, their footfalls raising bearded tufts of dust.  They do not hesitate or stop.

“Didn’t you hear me?” my sister calls.

“Stupid,” I say, louder than I should.  “They don’t have heads.  That means they don’t have ears either.”

            My sister falls first.  I reach out, catch a clump of hair and hear it ripped savagely from her scalp mid-tumble.  Then I am kicked from behind and I drop.  I land in the middle of the ring of the headless children, land on top of my sister.  “I think my neck is broken,” she says.

            It doesn’t matter.  Mother peers down at us.  The headless children move closer.  Their fingernails are jagged and sharp.  They start to work on our throats, prying the skin apart like a rusted can opener, drawing gushers.  In a moment we will be headless, too.  We will be one with them, part of a bigger plan, part of a real family after all.


Friday, December 23, 2016


…As I write this there’s a thick snowfall coming down outside my window, falling on treetops and being swallowed up by the lake.  It looks like coconut shavings and it’s quite beautiful.

…It’s just two days before Christmas.  I hope yours is the most wonderful Christmas ever.  And in keeping with that thought, here’s an old one, but still very much a favorite:

“Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus”

Eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York’s Sun, and the quick response was printed as an unsigned editorial Sept. 21, 1897. The work of veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church has since become history’s most reprinted newspaper editorial, appearing in part or whole in dozens of languages in books, movies, and other editorials, and on posters and stamps.

DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?


VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.



Wednesday, December 21, 2016



                                                            Sex in the Time of Now

            There was too much sex.

            As a young man just coming into his own, this wouldn’t have mattered, not at all, but now he knew better.

            All this sex hanging off everything like bar smoke, burning the eyes, filling up the nostrils and contaminating the chest.

            He could no longer tell the difference between lust and love, sex or sweetness.

            His wife was seven months pregnant and she’d become savagely insatiable.  “I thought the baby thing would make you less interested,” he said, after one bout that had left him swimming in sweat.

            “I know, right?  But isn’t this fantastic?”

On the way to their friends for dinner, he had to keep changing the radio stations because the lurid lyrics wound her up.  “Ooo, but I liked that one,” his wife said, tugging his elbow and trying to lift his hand off the steering wheel and inside her blouse.

            At their friend’s house, Carrie hugged him too long and too firmly.  Her breasts mashed up against his clavicle so much so that her nipples stabbed his chest through the fabric, and then he felt her fingers rifling the hair on the back of his head, scratching the scalp on his neck.  He pulled away just as Mark, Carrie’s husband, stuck out his hand, but Carrie turned to the pregnant wife and Mark’s hand had roving fingers, too, each unnaturally soft, drying from some lilac lotion.  Mark’s eyes moved over his guest’s torso, lingering long on the waist, the crotch, the thighs, the … and so he turned away from Mark but then there was the daughter, Angie, grown up now, developed, her t-shirt far too tight and reading HARD CANDY.  WANNA BITE?

            She took his hand, his fingers, holding them by the tips, too familiar, leading him into another room, saying, “Remember the last time you were here and you said I should try writing my own songs?”

            He vaguely remembered her attempting a Billy Joel song, “Piano Man” or “Just the Way You Are.”

            “Well, I started one.  Let me play it for you.”

            Her song was soft-noted, sweet, with lyrics about yearning.  It was not too bad and when he told her so, Angie sprang off the bench and hugged him much the same as her mother had, cupped his buttocks and squeezed, until he pulled away, saying, “Fresh!” trying to make light of it, to give her an out, though she just bit her lip and squinted.

            During dinner it was difficult to eat.  Their dog, Ichabod, kept mounting his leg beneath the table, frantically humping, until he finally launched it so hard that the beast banged its head on the underside of the table and dropped to the floor with a canine concussion.

            At the door, leaving, he kept a careful distance, almost tipping over backward off the steps.

            “Someone’s had too much to drink,” Carrie said, salaciously nibbling a strand of fresh water pearls.

            “It makes him cuter,” Angie said.

            “Well, he is a looker,” Mark said, winking.

            “Look, Honey,” he said to Carrie, “I’m fine.”  He turned, took a few awkward steps backward and held up his hands—“See?”

            Driving was now a necessity.  He desperately needed a distraction.

            On the way home, however, his wife put her head in his lap and worked his pants open, tugging and pulling no different than a clumsy pickpocket.

            He could hear her struggling for success.  It sounded like slaughter.

            Then the baby kicked against his thighs, or maybe it was something more—a fondle or caress. 

            He swallowed, squirmed.

            He looked out the window.

            He drove past homes with drawn curtains.  He was careful not to speed.



Monday, December 19, 2016


                                                         Boardwalk Lives

             Lester has faster hands.  His fingers be thin, too, long as turnips, and he can lift a wallet outta the back pocket of any man, no matter how fat they be, no matter how tight their trousers be.  That’s why Momma like Lester best.  Daddy stopped providing after Trina took the city under, and last we heard he’s shacking up with some rich lady who lives east of here in a pretty-sounding town called Violet. 

            Lester and me, we know the Quarter better than anybody, even the old codgers.  Sometimes it feel like we was born in the middle of the Square, pushed through a crack in the white-washed cement without consent, like those wicked weeds that look plain until you touch them and invisible needles sink into your skin

            At night, if Momma’s smoking the rock, I’ll come down to the boardwalk by myself.  There’s a man who play banjo and harmonica, both at once, while he tap a cymbal with his foot.  There’s a lady inside a cloth booth who’ll read your palm for a certain amount, dependin on what you want to know.  When she read Lester’s, I watched her eyes get jittery in the lamplight, devil-spooked.  She wouldn’t share what she learned, just made up something we all knew was a lie.

            Lester and me don’t think we’ll make it to twenty years old.  We only talked about it once.  “Lives while you can,” he said, jutting his jaw all cocky like.  “Lives.”

            Tonight I see the lady whose purse I stole earlier in the day.  She’s wearing the same floral-print dress and floppy hat, but she’s with a different man than she was before.  This one’s got quite a gut on him.  His outfit is a boxy t-shirt, cutoffs and white socks inside of sandals.  Man do he look stupid.

            They stop at a restaurant, taking seats outside on the patio.  I already gave most of the lady’s money and credit cards to Momma, but I memorized her driver’s license.  She’s Amy Jo Holmes from Seattle.

            Amy don’t touch this man at all, don’t snuggle him or place kisses on his neck like the other guy.  She eat without talking and I can tell she’s thinking about the handsome man from this morning.

            I have a trick I play where I make myself someone else, so I do that right now.

            I sit across from Amy Jo.  I tell her she’s the most beautiful thing on the planet, not just people, but more beautiful than anything the Lord cooked up—the moon or sun or what have you.  I watch her eat ice cream and smile.  I hold her hand, nod toward the stars.  I say, “Aren’t they something?” and she smiles back and agrees.



Friday, December 16, 2016


 …It’s Friday, the weekend upon us.  Even at noon the houses across the lake still have frosted roofs.  If you didn’t know better, you’d think it had snowed.  And yet there’s a swollen sun hanging over my upper right shoulder, making it hard to see. 

…Anyway, here are a few very random things I learned this week:

-58% of Americans drink more during the holidays, citing their visiting relatives as the top reason why

-There have been over 200 school shooting incidents since the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre that left 20 dead only four years ago

-George Washington is the only President to have been elected unanimously

-Mosquitoes kill over a million people a year

-The average English speaking adult knows over 20,000 words

-In 2014, 425 young people 10 to 14 years of age died by suicide, a one hundred percent increase in the decade prior

-A third of all people in Greece live near the poverty line

…And here are some things I like on a chilly Friday:

 “Whether you are a writer or a journalist or an editor or neither one, when you look in the mirror you should think ‘tireless’ or ‘dogged’ or maybe even a stronger word to describe what you need to be to become successful, and what you should be as you go after the truth—which is your job.” --Terry McDonnell

"Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”― Audre Lorde

“This is about all the bad days in the world. I used to have some little bad days, and I kept them in a little box. And one day, I threw them out into the yard. "Oh, it's just a couple little innocent bad days." Well, we had a big rain. I don't know what it was growing in but I think we used to put eggshells out there and coffee grounds, too. Don't plant your bad days. They grow into weeks. The weeks grow into months. Before you know it you got yourself a bad year. Take it from me. Choke those little bad days. Choke 'em down to nothin'. They're your days. Choke 'em!” ― Tom Waits

"Being a father is the only thing that lives up to the hype. When I'm with my daughter - when we're doing homework together or hanging out watching a movie or kicking a soccer ball around or doing any of the things we do - that's the only time I feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing."- Aaron Sorkin, TV writer

"I like a man who attempts the impossible."- J.P. Morgan

"A man is not much if he can't depend on himself, and nothing if others can't depend on him."- Benjamin Black

"There is great power in a resolution that has no reservations in it -- a strong, persistent, tenacious purpose -- which burns all bridges behind it and which clears all obstacles from its path and arrives at its goal, no matter how long it may take, no matter what the sacrifice or the cost."-- Orison Sweet Marden

"The real winner is whoever has the most interesting, fulfilling work."--John F. Groom

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


…An old one that I’ve posted before, but still my favorite poem I’ve written:

Where I Am

I am not as ferocious
or unknowable as you might think.
Look at me.
No, I mean look at me.
See me.
Take my face in your hands and hold it there.
Search for the center of me,
that soft landing
pillowed place
hollowed-out space
which is neither a mustang or
a viper
but rather a little girl’s room
painted pink and soft yellow
like kind sunshine.
You are having difficulties,
I can tell.
You men make it so complicated.
I am a princess.
I am your best friend
Secret keeper
Soft shoulder
And open eyes.

Okay, then,
now take my hand
here, open it,
see the fingers uncurl
like petals.
Find the creases in the bend of my palm.
Find my life line and see if you’re not there.
You are.
You have always been there
even if you never knew it.
You’re not a fool.
Neither of us is.
And that’s why,
right now,
you need to slip your hand inside my shirt.
Go ahead,
it’s okay, I want you to.
Yes, I’m sure.
Start at the hem, go under and up
over my belly.
I want to feel skin against skin there
where it’s warm and soft
and receptive and sacred.
Reach up under my shirt and don’t stop
until you’ve reached my breast,
the left one,
but go past,
not skimming or stopping.
This has nothing to do with my bosom,
it never has.
Okay, now press your palm there.
Yes, right on that exact spot.
Do you feel it?
That’s me.
That’s where I am.
Blood pouring from a spigot,
needing a receptacle.
still, alive, yes.
waiting for love,
endlessly waiting for you.