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Other Works by Dan Burke:

Words Driving into the Sun For Fame or Fable Sound The Bletchley Park Project: The Bletchley Park Project The Bletchley Park Project: Mirror Root


THE MIGRATION OF HAIR


THE MIGRATION OF HAIR A NOVEL BY

DAN BURKE

NOW PUBLISHING NOW SAN FRANCISCO


THE MIGRATION OF HAIR Copyright Š 2005 by Dan Burke. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations in critical articles and reviews. ISBN: 0-9771885-0-7 LCCN: 2005906920 For information, address Now Publishing Now, Inc., 4104 24th Street #533, San Francisco, CA 94114-3615, USA.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS Many thanks to my friends and family who gave me feedback on this book. A special thank you goes out to my cousin Scott Stokes for his edits, and for helping me refine Heat Stoned. DEDICATION This book is dedicated to the memories of Kevin Wleklinski and Herold Casillas.

Cover design by Jason Steed. Cover illustrations by Joe Forkan. Visit www.nowpublishingnow.com for more information on THE MIGRATION OF HAIR and other independent albums and books.


TABLE OF CONTENTS

Prologue Change This . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3 Heat Stoned California of My Youth . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9 Small Steps . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13 Tucson . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17 Silver Ghosts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21 Boxcar Blues . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25 It Just Doesn’t Let Up . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27 One Bottle Too Many . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31 The King Has Lost His Way . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35 Just Another Night in Tucson . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41 Get Amped . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49 The Lady of Phoenix . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 53 From the Desert to the Moon! Lost My Stomach Like on Roller Coaster Rides . . . . . . . . . . 67 The Fog of America . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71 Fire, Fire and Thunder! . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 73 Stumbling in the Rain . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81 Going Homeward on a Slip . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 85 A Series of Misses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91 vii


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Jerk Store . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 97 Crack Saves . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101 Soft Space . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105 Purgatory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 107 A Gnat, a Brit and an American . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 113 A Drawing Room of Stars . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 127 Florence with a View . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 139 The Last Piece of Me . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 147 Togetherness Above All Else . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 157 An Island Beyond the Mind . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 161 A Pilgrim on the March . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 167 Downhill All the Way . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 173 Heading Back Up’s the Hardest Part . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 179 About the Illustrator . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 189

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PROLOGUE


CHANGE THIS

I didn’t get my man-smell until I was twenty-five. I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I was by a hotel pool in rural Louisiana, there on a contract for Coca-Cola. I was pushing sugar and caffeine on school kids across the state, driving a truck, rubbing elbows with schoolteachers, principals, bottlers, and yard boys named Hi-Pockets and Clementine. The humidity squeezed me from all sides in that July moment. I raised my arms and was stretching to the clouded sky when I smelled a foreign odor. I found out that foreign odor was me, but oddly enough, only from my right armpit. The left one hadn’t matured enough yet, but the right one got it right for the both of them. A powerful and manly man-smell emanated from me and tears of joy—well, sweat actually—streamed down my cheeks when the moment finally came. I had my man-smell. A mansmell was mine. I think about that proud moment, sitting here with my belly flopping over my waist. Things are always changing. No matter how much life goes by me, one thing seems to stay the same: change. Take my man-smell, for example. It was months before my left pit was able to produce a pungent odor as manly as my right, but when it finally did, it came with a reckoning. Now I spend half my days on man-smell patrol. I have special systems and lotions to quell this dysfunction for important moments. I 3


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can suffocate gangs of small children if I’m not careful, and I don’t want the blood of innocent toddlers on my hands. No way. I won’t even get started on my hairline. It’s a good thing I was able to grow it long in my twenties. Thinning came quickly, and like my pits, came on with a vengeance. I complain now, but just think what I have to look forward to. Soon, my hairline will split down the middle of my head, creating two islands of combover heyday. Then, like a Play-Doh toy machine, hair will begin to sprout out of my ears, appear on my back, cover my chest and knuckles while my head loses the rest of its wooly protection and glows with a shine. That’s nature. I couldn’t stop it if I tried. It’s change in its cruelest hour, changing me from a man to a monkey as I grow wise. And life is really no different than this: the migration of hair. Things happen to us, for better or worse; we try to form opinions, we try to effect change in our favor, but change doesn’t care. Change will change whether we like it or not. Man-smell— Wham! Thinning hairline—Wham! Your woman leaves you— Wham! You get fired for being a pornographer—Wham! You get the point. If I’ve learned anything from these chapters of my life, it’s that I have very little control over the course my life takes. Some call that ignorance. Some call that wisdom. Me, I just call it experience. Change will change when change feels like changing, and I’m not going to change its mind. I have very little to say in the matter. In fact, when it comes to change, when was the last time you had the last word?

4


“It is hard to follow one great vision in the world of darkness and of many changing shadows. Among those shadows men get lost.” —Black Elk


HEAT STONED


CALIFORNIA OF MY YOUTH

California. Could any other place be so perfect? It’s easy to dream about California during the final stretch of a Tucson summer. A time when the air is thick as it’s burning with exhaustion and days long with endurance now gone. Some days it seems like the heat will never leave, like you awoke one morning dead and found yourself suffering in eternal hellfire. And hell may very well be a dreamier version of Arizona, with bandits and unkempt outlaws hiding from the pressures of life, waiting to die, all of us just waiting to die in the arms of the Earth once and for all. So there it waits for me, distant horizons of my youth—California, with its beaches and rolling golden hillsides, with its sprawling oaks etched into an endless, powdery-blue sky. There only seems to be two types of weather in California: perfect and perfect with rain. The wet sounds so inviting sitting here on the east side of town. They say it won’t be long before the heat is gone. I know it’s true, but never believe it. It just seems impossible to remember, hard to imagine that there’s ever a time when the air thins out and cools. We call Tucson a “dry heat.” Someone asked me what that meant once, and I told him to turn his oven up to four hundred and stick his face inside. That, my friend, is what we call a dry heat. And it really feels no different, passing from the razor chill of a strip mall, or shopping mall, or movie theater out 9


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into summer. No different at all, just bigger and more overwhelming. I remember sweet California like a fresh peach I can only taste through a sun-dried mouth. I dream of the ocean in faraway memories of swimming in the waves, lying on the beach as I ignore the sting of my chapped lips. I dream of touching the green fields that feed the nation, that feed the world, as I run my fingers across my dry and scaly skin. And, O delicious San Francisco, with its bay-wet night air. I miss seeing couples walking hand-in-hand in North Beach. I miss the drunken, pushed-up women being felt up in night hallways by end-of-bar hopefuls. I miss the blinking red lights of Broadway, and the seedy strip clubs open until the garbage trucks of morning swarm the streets. In San Francisco, you can eat the finest cuisine, soak in a rich history, and walk until your feet fall off without one second of boredom. Your eyes are wild on a playground of visceral delights, scanning the buildings, the landmarks, the people, the sights. I say far out to San Francisco, far out to my distant cousin of dot-com dreams. Peace to all those protesting Vietnam vets, too impatient with their give-peace-a-chance T-shirts, high on grass and the comfort of their Birkenstock sandals. Only in San Francisco, where the food will spoil your palette in one day, the educated will leave you spinning in their own way, the nights of Fall will leave your heart in satiated decay. Booze is an opiate in that town, unlike the way it affects you in the desert. The high isn’t cheap or desperate. The weight not so morbid or soulless. Each drink gives you life in the City, new inspiration. Objects become closer than they appear, and colors grow vibrant as an ageless energy fills your spine, tingles your cheeks in rosy winter. California. I lie on my bed-top of solitude as I long for you. I know I’ll be with you again some day. That brings me comfort 10


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as I listen to the tumble of my swamp cooler squirrel-cage rumbling. Just about now, the dump-pump should be spewing waste into thirsty gutters. Yep. There it goes. The water will rejoin the air before it hits the ground.

11


SMALL STEPS

I got a hand-job one night at the O’Farrell Theater in San Francisco. It was up in the back of a mini-movie hall where pornos were playing to an empty house. We sat up in an alcove with a see-through curtain so I could save twenty bucks. The woman who handled me was a sweet-hearted professional. She was older and freaky. She had fake tits, tattooed nipples, and a big Csection scar across her belly. When we sat down and drew the curtain she started to talk to me, asking me dirty question to turn me on. It was starting to work when she stood up unexpectedly, calling to dancers in neighboring rooms. She wanted to see if they had any lube. I sat there in my mid-thirties likeness of me, watching, selfconscious with my shirt off, wondering why I was there, doing this again. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my old age, it’s that alcohol helps you make bad decisions. So there I was, making a bad decision again. A few minutes later, she pierced the curtain with eight-inch heels and a handful of small packets. She complained that she couldn’t find any lotion, that we might have had to use spit if she didn’t, but all things were fine now as she put on a plastic glove. As she worked, she pulled the curtain open and told me to watch the movie playing. It was of two girls getting together. She said, “Look at that nice pussy. Isn’t that a nice pussy?” I agreed, not noticing, looking at her face, wondering why she felt so comfortable doing what she did for money. I was glad she did, 13


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though. It made the moment feel less seedy, almost awkwardly natural. As we spent time together I continued to watch her, and then she watched me as I closed my eyes. I held onto her like I was riding a childhood roller coaster, dreaming of nights when I should have been getting hand-jobs above the carnival, hiding from parents with my high-school sweetheart. That didn’t happen for me, so the dream made the story in my head less real, and more perfect, because sex, or anything, is less perfect when it involves two, and somehow less satisfying when there’s only one. Does the best sex happen in our daydreams? We conquer all those strangers and neighbors one by one, or sometimes all together with the power of a silent thought. Is that perfection? I asked myself. No. That’s just loneliness making excuses again, trying to cover up the dirt with smoke, trying to cure the boils with putty and clay. Truth is, we’re all a little sick, a little lonely, and a little bit reluctant to leave our dream worlds because life is scary. Somewhere along the way we must have forgotten to breathe life out. And by that I mean we’ve lost our perspective; we’ve lost our ability to recognize life for what it truly is—a learning experience, a process of learning and growing from one level of consciousness to the next as we succeed and fail miserably along the way. I keep running into people who are trying to suck life up, taking the hits while just trying to keep their hands on the wheel, because letting go is too scary. Letting go doesn’t make sense because they have fallen for the illusion, the falsified belief that we’re independent from the world and each other. They are looking out for number one, and the rest of the world has fucked them out of a perfect life, and damn it for the burden. “I’m a good person, why do these things keep happening to me?” they ask, stuffing their anger deep inside, letting it all pile up in dark 14


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corners that never get swept, that never get looked at because all of their focus is narrow and straight out in front. They’re just trying to get by with the least amount of disruption before they die. They are missing the point. Life must also be exhaled. Holding your breath all your days, watching the emotional river rise within yourself is missing the point, and will only drown your spirit one inch at a time. It’s only when life is exhaled that we ever learn anything valuable about ourselves and our connection to the world. Processing those pain points, enjoying those elated moments of pleasure are truly one of the greatest gifts we have, our feelings. But feelings are a pricey commodity these days, and seem only for the faith-rich. Maybe that’s what’s missing today—faith. Maybe if we had more faith in ourselves, in each other, we’d be brave enough to breath life out again, to feel free enough to express and communicate our experiences to each other in hopes that we could all learn from the lessons we set forth for ourselves to learn. Or, as my good friend Devin Vail once said, “Before we decided to come into this world, forgot about it, then did it anyway.” I think about what that image must have looked like, looking over the cliff of eternity, standing there with a few angels, wondering if that was really what I wanted to do. I can see me taking a few deep breaths, a smile from the angels cheering me on, feeling warm and strong in their presence, having faith as I dropped in on another human experience in search of lessons learned, on a quest of milestones I had set for myself in order to grow and evolve, waking up ignorant of all my planning and dreams, throwing the craps of faith that I will somehow be wise enough to meet each challenge consciously and willing to take on every one, hoping that I won’t hold my breath, blaming my failures on everything and everyone else, that I am strong enough to feel and breathe in and out, in and out. 15


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As I huffed and puffed in the moment, dreaming all this, I kicked my right leg out through mesh, answering intimate calls for me to breathe life out, to exhale and have faith enough to let go into experience, whatever it may be. And as I looked up into that woman’s face when challenge called, I let go into her softly with one big breath. And as I hobbled down the steps that outlined the walls of that late-night pornographic movie theater, I felt exhausted. I felt spent of anxiety, of fear, and somehow I felt satisfied that I had risen to meet another challenge I had set for myself, for better or worse. I smiled as I exited through red curtains with an empty wallet. I smiled because I did not judge myself for once; I did not toss my experience against someone else’s moral fear mirror. Because that experience was uniquely mine, there for me to learn more about myself. Maybe I am getting wiser in my old age, I thought, as I broke out into San Francisco fog. My educated heels took flight with every step.

16


TUCSON

Strip clubs, strip malls, booze and rock and roll. That just about sums up Tucson, Arizona, except for the heat, of course, and the heat will keep you stoned most of the time, which makes the rest of the above feel half right. It’s a strange thing. I’ve been living here for more than two years now—maybe two years too long. There’s an aridness in the desert that permeates. It penetrates the spirit and makes you feel all shriveled up inside. It’s taken me some time to figure that part out, but now that I have, it just seems to make sense. Stella had just lost our baby before we moved from California, and we fought like hell the entire drive. I remember how impossible it all was as we inched along Interstate 8 in a 1984 Toyota Dolphin. For those of you who aren’t hip to the not-solatest models of international recreational vehicles, an ’84 Dolphin was the turd of the RV world. Picture a single-story house on top of a tiny, two-wheel-drive Toyota pickup, and you’ll be pretty close to what we were trapped in for just about twenty hours. Our top speed was forty-five downhill, and we almost blew off the highway every ten minutes. Now if that doesn’t seem bad enough, imagine the back completely stuffed with our life belongings and Stella’s manic dog, Lydia. Since we left in a hurry, we didn’t do the packing justice, and every once in a while, when the Dolphin swerved halfway off the road, a computer monitor or dresser drawer would launch into the front seat 17


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as we argued over the insanely loud road noise. Lydia dove into the stick shift every time this happened and kicked us down or up a gear. That made things a little more interesting, but nothing was as strange as pulling into Tucson, Arizona, our new home, in 110-degree heat. I swear my brain partially melted that day, and I’m not too sure it’ll ever grow back. But even in that semiretarded state, something deep inside told me Stella wouldn’t be hanging around for long. But we all go through times like these. Sometimes we go through a bunch all together at once, sometimes we go through them all alone, and sometimes we’ve got nothing going on, and can see that it’s time to make a change. That’s where I sit now, stalling out on the crest of a wave, killing time in a town known for killing time. Killing time until it’s dead, or dead drunk, or dead broke, or maybe all of the above. But Target will still open on Broadway in the morning, and Best Buy will still fill its parking lot with leased American cars and trucks with tinted windows. These are the images I’ll take with me from Tucson when I finally get the courage to leave. I have a feeling they’ll stick with me like the fine brown dust that gets caught in your nose and ears, that fills your eyes with tears for all the years you’ve passed here without lust, because even lust feels weathered, and late, and a little lazy from the heat. I suppose I don’t need to tell you that Stella left me. Sorry to say, there’s not much of a story to tell. Things just faded away, day by day, until we finally had a reason to say goodbye. There were the standard amount of tears, the standard amount of lies, and we both parted a little less human from the experience. But time has a beautiful way of fixing things, or blowing them from one street to the next like creosote tumbling in from a wash. I can almost hear the rumbling of horses as I squint into the evening sun, thinking about the old Tucson days of the Wild West. I can almost hear gunshots at the OK Corral as an early 18


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’80s’ Buick backfires with Sonoran plates. Everyone behind the wheel now drunk on beer, driving to strip clubs, coming home from strip malls, or heading downtown, pulling up to the same old bars, meeting up with the same old friends, to get drunk, do a bump and go to bed. Yes, I’m living in Tucson, Arizona, one of the last tattooed havens of scorching desert retreat.

19


SILVER GHOSTS

There’s this little renegade town about thirteen miles from the border. I used to go there from time to time to get a taste of that life. It’s called Bisbee, and it used to be one of the largest cities in the West. Now just a handful of alcoholics and junkies are hanging around, watching the watchers with bottles in their hands and holes in their arms. On the weekends, people come streaming down the big gulch that divides the town. Long-hairs on Harleys, or military couples in SUVs come cruising down the main strip, looking up at the Victorian buildings that line the street. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear you were in San Francisco. That is, until you see the beat look on the locals’ faces. In San Francisco, even the bums have a sparkle in their eyes, but not in Bisbee. Hope has long since vanished in that wilting town. Stella and I used to go to Bisbee quite often when we first moved to Arizona. It was an easy trip, an easy escape from our cluttered relationship, another excuse to keep moving so we wouldn’t have to talk. We would pack our bags for the night, leaving our one-bedroom house, two cats and Lydia behind. On those drives it almost felt like things were going to work out between us. We shared a buzz as we drove south, but the more I think about it, we were probably just excited to escape our problems for a while. The only thing we forgot to leave behind was each other. 21


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The summer monsoons creep right through Brewery Gulch in Bisbee. Gray clouds appear out of nowhere and crash thunder like huge, clapping hands. Lightning explodes so bright it makes the darkness of midday rain seem silver as it floods the dusty streets. We used to sit at a café at the end of town and just dream. It was easy to do. Just up the hill, the old mine poured out onto a small trail that led down to the post office, the place where miners once telegrammed their wives and children about the copper they would find, enough to buy a new hat and something to eat. Life must have been simple back then, and hard compared to today’s standards. It was easy to contrast the two as I sat there sipping on my decaf Americano with a pretty girl, and the lazy grin of afternoon post-sex release. When night came, and the smell of the desert overran the town, candles lit up, and wine poured easy as couples and lovers sat close in small bistros. That’s when Bisbee really shines—in the spaces, behind red curtains, in the care of old hands. Out windows, summer rain painted asphalt like mirrors reflecting old-time lamplights burning dimly in the night. Rainwater would stream and overrun gutters as it dribbled down dozens of staircases popping out behind dark fences. Concrete steps would blind you if you could see them growing up the hillsides all at once, but that was the pleasure of the night. As lightning cracked and the sky split open, we would climb the old-world cases that took us through dozens of possibilities, in and out of garden pathways and neighborhood causeways that led up to some crooked, dead-end street. And from the hilltops, you could hear the drunks down at St. Elmo’s arguing and laughing, boisterous and free. They knew they were free, every one of them marooned on a comic timepiece melting slowly into the burning deserts of Mexico. 22


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And the Mexicans who stand listening behind cyclone fences, waiting patiently, they know it’s just a matter of time before the alcohol, the heroin, the weed or the heat strikes the dying streets of Bisbee once and for all. They listen and they are waiting, forever waiting to return home again. And when the white man has had his folly raping the land, whoring out his dreams, the land will be waiting, too. And at that moment, when dream becomes reality, the birds of winter will return again, and make homes in the saguaros as snow falls on the icy towns of northern America. Comfortable Detroit cars will heat the plain-faced pudgy as they have been designed to do, and the rattle snakes of Bisbee will dream of the golden age of yesteryear, when Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday rode through town across the valley into Tombstone and took justice on their own. They didn’t wait for drugs to extinguish, or towns to gradually dry up and blow away. Life was lived for the moment, gambled on green tables, shot down mercilessly in muddy streets. On Sundays, Stella and I would climb from a vintage Spartan Manor at the Shady Del and pack our good memories into my truck alone. Things were always different on Sundays, and the drive much quieter heading north. I would sigh each time I pulled away from that row of silver trailers. I’d look out into the Bisbee cemetery and think of all the dead souls who cursed me for being such a coward. And on those days, as I drove us out of town, I couldn’t help but feel like a ghost, a ghost of a man watching and waiting patiently for a relationship to die, to slowly dry up and blow away. Maybe then I can reclaim myself as a man, I thought. Maybe then I can begin living life as it’s meant to be lived.

24


BOXCAR BLUES

A few months after Stella left, I finally felt ready to rejoin humanity again. I drove myself down to a narrow bar named 7 Black Cats. The doorman was a woman and had her face pierced with steel in several locations. She checked my ID and smiled. She had the power to judge and did, openly, as she took my five-dollar bill. I entered the bar that looked like a movie set. Smoke rose to dim lights hung sadly down the hall in a line. A few haggard white girls played pool with lit cigarettes as I breached the darkness. Small groups of drinkers watched or stared off into walls. It was Miller time on Congress Street again, and smokes were chased with beer as empty cans and bottles clinked in the lull between bands. Skinheads with chains hanging from their belts rubbed their tattooed arms. Some turned as the next band evolved into a mechanized thrash. No one pushed to the front. Everybody just sat and watched those four boys chunking away, rocking their heads back and forth, trying to keep time with the beat. Standing there, I realized I was wading deep into the waters of humanity. I lit a cigarette in homage of the moment and moved closer to the stage. As I stole a spot between a few tables on the edge of the dance floor, I locked eyes with a round Indian girl. She was sitting off to the right in sweats, drinking from a bottle with a few missing teeth. She had such a sweet and hopeless look in her eyes. I wanted to run up to her and grab her by 25


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the shoulders. I wanted to scream in her face that everything was going to be all right. That all we needed to do was jump a train west, and by morning, the beaches of California would wash us clean of all our sins, but I didn’t. Instead, I just stood there and watched the watchers, smoking and drinking in silence like every one else. By the end of the night, the spirit of the room had lifted with the edge of the heat. People were lubricated enough to start moving. The Indian girl found an old woman with a dog in her purse to dance with. They stepped carefully over a kid passed out on the floor between us. His face twisted against the cement, inches from the swaying crowd. A thin layer of dirt blew away from his nose and mouth as the midnight train blew through town. Standing there, I knew I was just a passing traveler in Tucson. I knew I would be moving on soon, but until then I had access to the truth of beat Southwestern desert life. It’s easy to feel the weight of blue-collar living in Tucson. The town—void of hope, void of relief, void of upward possibilities—sits and waits for something. And until that something, whatever it is, arises, there will be strip malls, strip clubs, booze and this desert rock and roll to pacify. And as the midnight train competed with Marshall half-stacks in the distance, I closed my eyes and prayed silently for a boxcar to carry me away from my Tucson life, to carry me away from the pain of being alone again, in a place known for being alone.

26


IT JUST DOESN’T LET UP

This damned heat just doesn’t let up. I write to you on the last day of August and the temperature is 104 degrees. I can’t remember the last time it was below ninety-five; it’s been months. The heat makes you a prisoner, a slave to air-conditioned malls and offices that’ll chill you straight through as you hide from the baking Earth. Sun worshippers, here to worship, spend eight months of the year hiding from exactly that. While most are out tanning their skin and exercising in daylight, Tucsonans are slipping from car to building quickly, hoping to avoid a full-body sweat. So here lies more of the irony I’ve found in Tucson: We’ve moved here to escape from the pressures of life, for better weather, yet all we find is a tougher life, tougher weather. Living here is like a steady stream of dust blowing in your face; a subtle reminder that you’re still living, still breathing, even though coughing uncontrollably. The monsoons come in about five in the evening this time of the year. Big clouds skate in from the southeastern horizon to bring relief. Selectively, they pick and choose where they shower and when. Spotted sheets of waterfalls drip down on evaporating roads and built-up rooftops. Swamp coolers lubricate and swell with a taste of the desert so thick you need a fork and knife just to breathe. And as the temperature cools to ninety-nine, and the streets get cleaned by the warm August rain, I think about starting over. 27


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My intuition fails me as I wait for the old me to return. Nothing feels familiar, nothing feels mine anymore. Although I’ve managed to purge myself of all reminders of life with Stella, I still find no roadmaps or trails that lead back to me. How do I rewind those years when I was a part of two and start over? Pick back up at the place when I was on my own, unbroken, and at my peak? In the contrast I feel an appreciation for the me of then. I admire my discipline, my passion, my focus. Though the days of my prime may be gone, I still can’t help but feel my best work lies ahead of me. It sits there for me to take, on the windowsill, cooling like a fresh-baked pie, settling from the love and care of grandmother’s hands. The sweet cake of possibilities is there for all of us to taste. It just requires us to reach for utensils and plate, to take a slice, and do not wait. I’ve spent over three thousand dollars at strip clubs this summer. I don’t know how it all went, or even why. In a twisted way I was testing myself, I suppose, and giving in to the relentless escapism that’s so welcome here. Each visit to TD’s East was a little peek into the subversive secret we all pretend not to see. On the surface, it can be summed up quite simply. Man goes into a dark club, man drinks alcohol to forget his troubles and to make impaired judgments. Woman takes off clothes for money; woman tries to maximize her time-to-dollar return. Man goes home drunk—a little poorer, a lot hornier, and a little charged by doing something a little wrong. And on a deeper level there’s not much more to the story. I’ve met single mothers, college students, crack fiends, transplants and transvestites. I’ve met Russian, Czech, Jersey girls and a handful of locals who will still be here when I return some years from now on a nostalgic visit. My three-thousand-dollar education did teach me one thing: people all need a place to escape to every once in a while. To that end, there are dream-makers and dream-takers that make the whole system go ’round. Blame it on the heat; blame it on 28


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the arid Tucson climate; blame it on the miles and miles of strip malls lined with every chain in the country, there to conveniently suck you into dozens of simultaneous moments of instant gratification. If we have nothing but peaks, what will we do when the peaks become valleys? How will we finally out do ourselves in the end? Will we give into the overwhelming tide of distraction and dislocation that’s been sweeping our nation for years? Will we one day end up with no other choice than to push the launch button on the biggest firecracker we have out of boredom, out of a need for more, when more was just not enough? Or will the monsoons come in from the horizon at dinnertime one day, and shower a rain of calmness on the busy streets of humanity? And if they did, would the heat of credit cardspending and zero-percent financing cool long enough for us to see the great and mighty Oz for who he really is—just a man projecting images, creating false realties, pursuing a pleasure out of his own greed? And in that moment, will we all look around in horror at the insane traps we’ve invented for ourselves, by ourselves, so as not to think and feel? In my dreams, I see fingers pointing to new images of prosperity. And on that day, at the moment when consumerism finally fails in its ugliest hours, a new sun will rise in the east, and those old roads that were lost to us will return again to remind us who we really are. Intuition returns with the confidence of knowing our purpose, our dharma, and everything feels familiar again. Our discipline, our passion, our inspiration saddles-up at our sides as we wade into the flooded streets of promise, where the summer showers fall on everyone at once, and the sweet cake of possibility is passed around just enough for each of us to eat. I’ll be the first to admit I am not a pious man. I am just another man in America, and sometimes I, too, need an escape. An escape from the system drone, an escape from a bad relation29


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ship, an escape from this persistent feeling that I’m lost from myself and others, and sometimes, a break from my own mind. I run like the rest of us, but I’m fighting it with everything I’ve got, because it makes me mad as hell that this is what the exclamation of our entire culture has become. Yes, I escape; but I also remind myself, every chance I get, to stay conscious of the system heat, to stay aware, and to look for the greedy little man spinning the levers and dials on the illusion of the day.

30


ONE BOTTLE TOO MANY

I’m becoming famous for my blackouts. Maybe it’s because they’re happening more frequently, or that they’re more pronounced and violent. Whatever the reason, maybe I should start franchising them; that way, I just might be able to extract something positive from the experience. It’s not that I mind blacking out so much. I just feel cheated from the high I worked so hard for. And, of course, the hangover is hardly worth it if you can’t remember the night before. Things started speeding up when I switched to Grey Goose. Something different happens when I drink that stuff. It’s a different kind of high. One drink usually does the trick, but my trigger finger gets really greedy when I’m drinking Grey Goose. It’s not the taste that keeps me going, that’s obvious. It’s the little man that sits in the shadows of my mind, waiting for my first sip. It’s he who pushes me into the next drink, him wanting freedom to come out and fuck, to fight, to scream at the injustice of it all. It’s he who’s to blame for my behavior during these moments. At first I just swallowed my pride, hoping that a few wild nights would pacify this demon inside of me. So I pushed it for a few weeks straight, getting so drunk that I was thrown out of every bar and strip club I visited. I smoked a carton of cigarettes, drank all the booze I could drink, and spent more money than I ever imagined possible on a night of drinking. But things didn’t go according to plan. I didn’t mellow out. I got more aggressive, 31


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more violent, and things were swiftly heading in the wrong direction. For example, I went out to San Diego for my good friend Manny’s thirtieth birthday party one weekend. It was like walking onto a major league team after playing in the minors. Manny and all his associates were career alcoholics. Me, I was just a beginner, rising through the ranks as fast as I could. I was a natural—a prodigy making up for lost time. And when I got there, I was prepared to swing for the fences. Reno Fatsimatsi and I decided to get warmed up for the big party by stepping into Cheetahs for a beer. As we sat in the dim, neon black light of San Diego’s finest topless club, we raised our glasses to the night ahead of us. And when a dozen rounds had come, and we had cut well into our scheduled arrival time for Manny’s birthday, we reluctantly parted ways with Mindy and Cindy for the blurry drive back to Manny’s house. By the time we arrived, the party was well underway. Booze was flowing wildly as well-dressed visitors gathered, smiling from the folly. Adults and children all stood around, stiff in their own comfort of socialization before buzz. When I came down from the room where I was staying, I was ready. Dressed in a pinstripe suit and T-shirt, I headed straight to the bar filled with the industry’s finest. Blue Label was the all the rage that night; every man there drank it with pride, the manly whisky drawing an illusory bond between the most insecure. “Can I pour you some Blue Label, Tommy?” Manny’s friend Kenny grinned, holding a tumbler of his own filled to the rim. “Nope. I’m on a one-way mission with Grey Goose,” I told him. “Suit yourself,” he said resentfully. I was breaking the team spirit. 32


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I poured myself half of the bottle within the next hour, teetering on the edge of hazy consciousness. I chatted with stuffed shirts and pudgy ladies single, or beautiful women married as the booze went down. When my glass finally went empty, I made my way instinctively to the bar. There, hovering like a protective father, was an Englishman and his gorgeous wife. “You’ve finally made it back, I see,” he said, jabbing at me with his harsh British humor. “That’s right. Fill me up. Oh wait! Here…try this,” I told them, pouring Don Julio into little glasses. They raised the shots to their lips, then, just before they drank, the Englishman stopped the whole thing still. “Wait a minute, wait a minute. I know your kind. Where’s your shot there, Tommy? Here…” He handed me his and I froze from the showing of my belly. “I know your game, my little Irish friend. You pour drinks for everybody but yourself. Oh, I know your type well. Come on now, let’s have a drink, shall we?” Not wanting to look weak, I took the challenge. “No, you keep your glass there, my friend” I said. “I’ll drink from the bottle.” His eyes lit up as I chugged gulp after gulp from the clear tequila bottle. I passed it when I was through, and the whole night faded quickly into darkness. We stood arm-in-arm, discussing the plight of the English and the Irish, trying to solve centuries of problems between the two cultures right there and then. Then everything went black. A hollow space consumed me. I time-traveled, and all the jokes made on me between then and the morning I’ll never know. A small break in the darkness did come. Me, over by the BBQ, under an avocado tree, listening to some strange man’s take on the world … then blackness. Another space opened up and I was standing in front of a crowd of puzzled faces, me jumping up and down for some reason, then gone. Then, in the 33


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horror of times remembered, I became conscious as I flew midair through the warm summer evening as I tackled an innocent man to the ground without provocation. I remember the look in his eyes as he lay on the ground below me, him trapped and partially on fire from the candles that were burning his back and legs. In that moment, when the vodka and tequila joined forces to strike this gentle man like a panther, all went quiet as the crowd, my victim, and I took time to calculate the oddity. As the fire from the candles he fell on rose to burn his innocent flesh, he screamed and pushed me aside in reflex. Then the rest of the crowd joined in as darkness covered my view, leaving me permanently separated from the moment until light rejoined the room where I was put to rest. It took me a while before I could recall even the blurriest of moments, and the story Manny told me of how I attacked his shy and quiet friend while he sat in conversation with his mother, his wife and his newborn child seemed horrifying and mean. Hearing the story back seemed so impossible; it might as well have been fiction. But it wasn’t fiction, and the little man who hides in the shadows of my mind—waiting like a predator for me to get drunk, to open the door and let him out—celebrated in glee. I knew I had been beaten. I knew what had happened, and I cowered at the horror of his strength, quickly growing in the direction of him turning into me.

34


THE KING HAS LOST HIS WAY

The heat has finally broken, and the chill of winter has arrived like the last call of a limping death. All of us up against a rope, faces battered with the ugliness of months past, never ending. The beating is rough. Always more overwhelming than you remember. The cold has stepped in. The wind has shifted, and comes from the north as if it were the breath of an iceberg closing in. The rain makes its presence cool and comes not as relief, but as a reason to stay inside once again. Here I am at the bottom of summer and I can barely remember what it’s like to be burning alive during those summer months. It must be genetic amnesia that sets in for protection, so you don’t lose your mind when contemplating the stark reality that you live in a desert, barren and lifeless. In the spaces, in the time when summer shakes hands with the gray of winter, we have a few weeks of temperate perfection. It was during those weeks that I finally met the connector. It came out of the blue one Tuesday night. I hadn’t planned on going out, but my phone kept ringing off the hook with calls to go to Che’s Lounge for Molly’s birthday. Usually I blow off such second-tier events, especially on a Tuesday night, but I was encouraging myself to get out more and be social. So I showed up and joined the small party that huddled at the bar in the back-room darkness. 35


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“Oh shit! Where is it?” Molly screamed in a whisper. She grabbed my arms as I approached, and panicked with her oversized eyes. “What did you lose?” I asked, as the rest of the party looked toward the floor, underneath their feet. Then I saw her sitting at the bar, her beautiful Mexican face confident and beaming. She was the first woman I’d met in Tucson worth my time. She sold pharmaceuticals and was single. I pushed Molly away as she put a lighter to my knees, still searching. “Hey there. I remember you.” “Hey!” she said excitedly. “What’s your name again? “Tommy.” “Right,” she smiled. “I’m Anna.” “Anna, I remember. So what’s all this about?” I asked, as Terry put his cell phone to the floor and told us to lift our feet. “Molly lost the bullet.” I checked around the crowd and all signs showed positive. Terry, Molly, Noe, Johnny and the rest all twitched awkwardly. Everyone was all coked up. “Right,” I said, sitting down next to Anna. “So I remember how we know each other. It finally came to me after that night at the Cow Pony.” Anna smiled, waiting for me to continue. “I met you through my boss Gentry Peters. We had lunch at Philly’s Finest a couple of years back.” “You knew Gentry Peters!” she said, grabbing my face. “Oh my God! Wait a second. You’re right. I just got my sales bonus. I remember. You are such a great guy,” she told me, kissing my cheeks in an overfriendly, coked-out way. “So what’s going on here again?” I asked in my sober discomfort. “Well, we were sitting here catching up, then I stepped into the ladies’ room. When I came out, Molly took the bullet from 36


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me, but must have dropped it somewhere, because when she went to the stall, she couldn’t find it. We think it must have dropped around here somewhere.” I looked at my watch. It was going on eleven. “How long have you been here?” “Since five-thirty.” Anna rubbed her nose and put her hand on her hip, teasing me with the grin on her lips. “So you’re the one,” I told her playfully. A few seconds passed as we stared into each other’s eyes smiling. “The one for what?” she finally asked, aroused. “You’re the one who connects everybody I know in Tucson.” Anna put her arm in mine and looked up at me the way you want a woman to look up to you. Proud. Confident. With twinkling eyes. “I have these two groups of friends that seem to know everybody, but they don’t know each other. You’re the only one who knows someone in each group, making you the connector. I realized it just the other day.” She didn’t say a word about it. She just looked at me as if she was thinking a thousand good thoughts. “Come on, you two,” Molly interrupted. “We’re headed to Plush.” Out on the dead streets, we walked together. Molly tore out in front with Johnny, frantic and high as hell, screaming that it was her birthday to everyone, to no one. Anna and I carried Molly’s boyfriend, Noe, who stumbled unnaturally, stopping every now and then thinking he was going to puke. Then Anna began to tell me her history with Johnny, one of Tucson’s few famous musicians. He yelled back to Anna as she talked him up. He tried to pull away from Molly, but her iron arms wouldn’t let him go. He stumbled and tripped over the cracks in the pavement as we headed south down Fourth Avenue. 37


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A shot of Goldschläger arrived at our table in the back. The tray that brought it carried nothing else. It looked sad and wet as it disappeared, tilting sideways and insecure. Noe threw back the glass after showing me the gold flakes that swam at the bottom. I thought about that tinsel, goddamn bottom feeders. “Shit, man, I’ve seen that one already,” he yelled, laughing as Molly held her hair up above her head, sitting down in the middle of the only pool table in the room. The two guys playing looked to us, calling silently to pull our girl away from their game. But they were a little amused, too. And Molly turned up the heat when Noe started ignoring her, laughing dead drunk, telling Johnny, Anna, and me that he had seen this one a million times. I watched Molly as she panicked for a way to get his attention. She lifted her top and the two guys playing pool frowned; they looked both nervous and excited. Then Molly twisted up her hair and spread her legs, knocking balls out of play across the table. “Dude, your girlfriend is going nuts over there,” I told him. “Shit,” he said, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. “She does this shit all the time, man. She needs to come up with something new ’cause I’m getting tired of this one.” He turned around, raising his voice. “This one is played out, man. Time for a new one, baby,” he yelled, laughing to himself. Molly twisted back and forth, confused, trying to figure out where to focus her attention. She pushed her hips up high and spread her legs wide like a paraplegic stripper. She twisted half over onto her stomach, falling on pool balls, slipping on felt. “So Tommy says I’m his connector, the person who connects everybody he knows in Tucson,” Anna yelled at Johnny. “Isn’t that incredible?” Johnny looked at me, not giving a shit, just waiting for Anna to stop yelling in his ear. “This is a small town. 38


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Tucson will always be a small town. It feels like it’s getting smaller every day. Oh, hang on, I’ve got to pee.” Anna climbed over Johnny’s lap and darted to the ladies’ room. Molly was doing the caterpillar on the pool table when I turned around, eliciting giggles and slaps from all who watched. “Shit, man!” Noe laughed, actually shocked. “Not the caterpillar! That’s like, 1984 all over again, baby. Whatcha gonna do next? La Macarena?” Noe was dripping saliva all over the floor in front of him. A long string curved over his hands and table when he turned back and looked at me, well, almost proud. Then he rested his head on his arms, and giggled to himself in a stupor. In the silence, I looked to Johnny. He was calm, sitting with little expression. He always had little expression unless you knew him. I mean, really knew him, because smiles only came for a chosen few. “So Anna and you go way back, huh?” Johnny nodded slowly. “How long?” Bothered that I’d asked him a question he couldn’t nod away, he rolled his eyes and answered, facing the bathrooms. “I’ve known Anna since she was eighteen. She was a hot little number that I snuck into one of my gigs. We were cool to her and she never forgot it. After that she came up to me every time she saw me, no matter where I was. I finally fucked her, but it took like ten years. It was kind of weird, so we never fucked again. I couldn’t keep up with a coke-head, anyway. Too much energy.” “Coke-head? Anna’s a coke-head?” Johnny looked at me flatly for almost a minute. “Remember the ’80s?” he finally asked. “When coke was the big thing?” “Yeah,” I said confused. 39


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“Well, she never left that party.” He said this like someone owed him something. “Really?” I asked. Johnny kept nodding. “It’s easy to see,” he shrugged, lighting another cigarette low beneath his brow. “She makes a hundred grand a year and doesn’t have a house. She’s forty and has never had a kid, or a husband. The signs are all there.” Johnny blew smoke through his nose. “All there.” My heart sank when I bought the argument. He knew her well. I had only met her a few times. “She’s got an amazing presence, though. She seems connected, to something deep.” “She’s connected deeply to coke, buddy,” he laughed at me like I was an idiot. “She’s a special one, though,” he finally conceded. A crease of pain curled his eyelid for a brief second. He looked to the ground as Anna zipped back over his knees to reengage. “I just love the fact that I’m your connector. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been a connector before.” She turned to Johnny ecstatic with big doe eyes. He smiled and quickly and turned away.

40


JUST ANOTHER NIGHT IN TUCSON

The Nail, or so we called her, stepped out of the bathroom around 3:30 in the morning and walked right up to my side. She didn’t look at me, she just stood close and stared deep into the ten-by-ten room like it was a hundred yards wide. She surveyed, head up, eyes keen and in focus as she addressed me. “Now what’s that crazy asshole up to?” I looked over and saw my friend Michael sprawled out on the floor, talking incessantly to a guy on his left—something about fag this, fag that—while he massaged a stout woman’s breast on his right. “Looks like you didn’t quite finish powdering your nose in there,” I told her. “Oh shit,” she said, finally looking me in the face. She covered her nose where two perfect cocaine halos circled each nostril, and charged back into the hallway. “Looks like you’ve been dunking for powdered doughnuts, woman,” I shouted to an inattentive audience. I spotted Michael on the floor and flipped him the bird when I caught him talking about me. “Don’t flip me off. Why did you flip me off ? I was just telling them you were a professional musician and writer. Why would you flip me off ?” Michael yelled, offended, continuing to massage the half-sick Russian girl’s tit. “You were pointing at me. I didn’t know. I saw you pointing. What?” 41


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“No, Tommy is my friend. Have you met Tommy?” he said to the uncomfortable-looking gay kid sitting next to him. He shook his head coyly with his fists under his chin. “What’s up,” I nodded. “No, I’m totally into older ladies. Older ladies are where it’s at.” He noticed the blank look on the boy’s face. “Or older men. Same thing,” Michael continued. “Oh I know, I know!” the kid blurted out, excited now. “I’m totally into older men.” Michael looked up at me with a knowing glance and smile as he continued his bizarre conversation about his gay friends, and how everybody is secretly gay, as he snuck his hand around the back of the foreign exchange student, easing his way down her pants where a dirty purple G-string protruded, crooked, just above her belt-line. “Hey. Tommy. Hey.” I turned and saw Angie straddling the end of a couch. She waited for me to respond like she was about to catch a football. “Hey. Hey,” she said again. “What’s up?” I said, picking up a half-empty Tecate. “Come here, Tommy. Come over here and sit.” She pointed to the open space next to her. I saw the couch just big enough for her and me; I saw the look in her eyes. ‘TRAP’ was written all over the situation, so I eased up slowly to the radio and bent to my knees. “Let me get some shit happening on the radio here first. What’s up?” “Nothing.” She giggled. “Hey. You know what?” “No. What?” I said, browsing Michael’s Son Volt selection. “Did you see Barb’s face when you told her she had cokerims on her nostrils?” “Yeah,” I laughed. “She was totally flying. That was hilarious. Hey, did you do any coke tonight?” “No,” I said, rising to my feet. “I’m not into that stuff.” 42


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“Me neither,” she shrugged as she moved in close. “I never liked coke; I’m into meth,” she whispered. “Meth, huh,” I said pushing her two hundred-plus pounds off of me. “Oh yeah. I love the stuff. I mean, I was a major addict for like ten years.” “Ten years?” “Yep, but it all goes downhill really fast when you start smoking it.” “You can smoke meth?” “Oh yeah. That’s the best. No doubt about that. But it all goes south as soon as you do.” “I still don’t get it. How do you smoke meth? Do you make a rock out of it?” “No. It turns into a liquid when you smoke it. You can just smoke it in a glass pipe, or in tinfoil, you know.” The word know pushed a plum of her bad breath right into my face. I pulled back as I studied the pockmarks on her face. “So have you checked that out?” I pointed to Michael and the scene he was orchestrating on the floor in the corner. Now the Russian girl’s friend had gotten into the picture and was licking the foreigner’s fingers and hands as Michael whirled through conversation with a speedy tremor, groping the girl’s ass and asscrack without intention. In the kitchen, the band had regrouped over beers and were talking softly to each other. The Psychics were a collection of Tucson elite. All of them had been in bands over the years; some stood on the shores of success, but for some reason or another, things just didn’t work out for them. So they continue the dream and act out their rock and roll fantasies as they rot away in the desert, growing increasingly paranoid and fearful of outsiders. “Those fucking guys are all fags. I can’t wait for the day when they finally just come out with it. It’s so painful to watch 43


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night after night.” I laughed as Angie poked fun at her friends, people she had known and partied with for years. “I don’t know about any of that shit. They do seem to keep to themselves quite a bit. Why do you think they’re so guarded?” “Because they're fucking fags, like a little group of old ladies, is why.” Angie huffed and lifted up her waist-rolls with her hands to prove her point. “Are you a legs, tits or ass man, Tommy?” she asked, with a sweaty forehead. “Ahh, well … I like them all. It just depends on the girl. Good question, though. Hey, Abe. What are you? A leg, ass or tit man?” I asked, as old man Abe came in from the kitchen. “Leg man, definitely.” He soberly took a seat on the couch next to Angie; the seat that had been reserved for my sinking. “Really?” I said. “Oh yeah,” he assured us. He took a pull from his cigarette and looked to us both satisfied. “I suppose, all in all, I’m a tit man.” “That a boy, Tommy,” Angie encouraged me. “You know,” I told her, smiling, “guys have asses and legs. Why would I want that? Give me something I don’t have, you know? Give me something I can fuck with.” “That’s right, Tommy,” Angie testified. “Fucking meet my friends Delicious and Titty. Delicious, Titty,” she said as she scooped up one tit, then the other, and let them go, letting them fall back down to her waist where they landed with a thud. “Delicious, Titty. Delicious, Titty,” she seesawed. “Oh, how about Titty and Delicious?” she said, switching directions with a naughty look on her face. “That’s right, Tommy, fuck with those titties.” I looked at Abe, horrified, and he just smiled entertained by the late-night circus.

44


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Earlier in the evening, I rolled up on two Mexican nationals. They were there with a guy I had met before a few times. His name was Billy and he’d lost the use of his legs somehow, and was confined to a wheelchair. He was a real sweet guy and a charmer with the ladies, despite his condition. He seemed to cast a spell on girls that let them see beyond the fact that he was rolling around in a shopping cart. I sat down next to the thinner one and we made introductions. “Marisol, yes. You are Tommy. Nice to meet you, Tommy,” she said in broken English. “Do you speak any Spanish?” she asked. “Un poquito,” I told her, and she laughed. She turned to her friend and shouted, “Everybody here says ‘un poquito,’ I don’t know why!” I pulled in close, looking at her like a warm meal after a long race, or a war, or something. She looked so tasty with her jetblack eyes and hair. I looked through her glasses and her pupils sparkled with interest and seduction. We fought with words as she drank from her candy-apple martini. “I like your eyes. They are very nice,” I told her. She fondled her necklace, partially embarrassed, partially turned on, then thanked me for the compliment. “Where’s Billy?” she asked, turning to her friend who stood up to get sick. “Where are you going?” she slurred, hoping to keep the mood cool and moving forward. “Hold on, Tommy. I need to go here with my friend.” “Okay, I understand,” I said, as I watched her get up and walk away. As I sat in the lobby of the Hotel Congress, I couldn’t believe all the men who stood waiting for me to make a wrong move, a wrong move so that they could pounce and take their turn when 46


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I failed to bring this woman home. I was surrounded by sharks, hungry and waiting to bite. Billy rolled back through the crowd of men at bay and looked at me, puzzled. “Where did Marisol and Veronica go?” “I’m not sure, but I think they’re both getting sick in the ladies’ room.” Billy rolled his eyes and rocked his wheelchair back and forth. “They are totally trashed tonight. That was their third martini in the past hour.” “Jesus, man. They smell sweet, too.” “Yeah, I know. They’re pretty potent. Oh, here they come.” The two girls came back to the table and sat down as if nothing had happened. Marisol turned toward me quickly and there was a different look in her eyes. She seemed defeated and tired. “You guys want to go?” Billy asked. “Yes, let’s go.” she said. Her friend Veronica swayed back and forth, looking at me eagerly a few times. Then, before I knew it, they had risen and were gone through the crowd, parting the sea of hawks and buzzards like Moses himself as they went. After they were gone, I sat for a few more minutes as people around me hurried to find an after-hours party. “Michael’s having people over at his house,” Abe said, as he sat down calmly in the midst of late-night hook-up chaos. “That sounds like a mellow place to sober up for a while.”

47


GET AMPED

I’ve been eating every meal out of a tortilla these days, and putting hot sauce on everything; doesn’t matter what. The hot sauce helps the boredom. It’s a small kick I can have and get away with. It’s like masturbation. Safe. Quick. Mine. I still haven’t quite figured out what to do about the situation I’m in, though. It seems I’ve made a big mistake coming here, moving to Tucson. I had a guy at Plush ask me what the hell I was doing moving from San Francisco. I didn’t get a chance to think of a witty response before I spit out the words, “I don’t know. It seems like I’ve made a big mistake.” He just looked at me, expressionless, and told me I looked amped up. “Amped up?” I said. “Yeah, you’re moving really fast.” That’s when I walked away in favor of hitting on my lesbian bartender. I figured, hell, I could use some practice flirting anyway; it was like a dry run, I thought. If I was all amped up, I might as well spend some energy banging my head up against a wall. I mean, shit, I moved to Tucson, didn’t I? Hasn’t that been the equivalent? One thing worth the move has been the perspective, the time to think. I’ve known for many years that I was born lucky, that I have great friends and a good deal on my hand in life. But you never really can tell how good you have it when you’re sitting in the middle of all your riches. Riches—that’s what I’ll call them now. Now I know I was born into great wealth. And I’m not just 49


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talking about monetary wealth. I’m talking about the whole deal; like I said before, it’s in the contrast where we see most clearly. When I see a family counting food stamps in front of me at Safeway, and the humiliated faces of their children, the destitute spirits of the father and mother, I know. When I pass a handicapped person trying to get down the road in an electric wheelchair, seeing them half-hanging out of their chairs, swerving into traffic, and willing to risk all this for the freedom of making it to a Circle K for a soda on their own, I know. And when I’m lucky enough to catch one of my neighbors in a moment when they can’t turn their backs and pretend I’m not there, we have a conversation that tells me more about how they’ve crafted the artwork of their lives. Safe. Calculated. Spend-thrift. Then I see them wave with a half-broken smile as they walk back into their homes with paint rotting off the trim, curtains weeping off their rods. It’s in these moments I know, and I feel lucky. I find myself calling home more often these days, too. It seems that only distance has allowed me to grow closer to my family. From here, I feel like an adult. And when I call I talk to my parents for hours, about the little things we never discussed. And they are more curious about me, as well. There is a tangible love in those moments; one that was never felt in the swirl of years when I was there. I suppose for this, I should be grateful to Tucson. Grateful for the gift of being able to appreciate my friends, my family, the many blessings I’ve left behind, and ones I will forever take with me. All of these thoughts I’ve had during the quiet hours I’ve spent rolling up soft flour shells. I’ve been able to place them neatly on a plate before me, add hot sauce, and dine freely on these memories in my own time. I’ve been holding these warm thoughts in hand long enough to finally make sense of everything, to see my life in a whole new latitude. 50


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I suppose if I had the chance to go back and talk to the guy who told me I looked amped up, I would tell him a different story about my move to Tucson. I would tell him he would be amped up too if he was able to see how good life was once and for all. I would explain the thrill of finding a deeper place within oneself to resonate, because resonating is so much more important than flatling in comfort, blind to the miracles that surround us. Having said all this, I still don’t know what to do about the situation I’m in. It seems easy to think about picking up everything and moving back to San Francisco, or maybe another place totally new. Or maybe I should wander like they did in the days of the Wild West, traveling from town to town, each time with a fresh start. No one would know who I was, or where I came from, unless I told them. But that sounds too lonely. I’m not interested in being lonely anymore. I’m sure at some point this problem will solve itself; an opportunity or emotion will compel me to race out of Tucson on a gloomy midnight train. It’s just a matter of time before the wind settles, and I’m able to see my destiny as clear as the reflection of my own eyes in the tepid drool of late-winter rainwater.

51


THE LADY OF PHOENIX

It’s a charmed life I lead. I can see that now more than ever. Always more in places like these. Phoenix. It’s a trashy Thursday night. I can see it in the dusty horizon from my Motel 6 walkway. I wouldn’t call it a balcony, but it has a rail, and it’s on the second floor. The bars are warm from the heat. They must get tired of the sun. Tired of holding up my bare feet as I sit overlooking Waffle House, digesting Waffle House. Phoenix, I can understand you better now. I’ve been peering into your belly with X-ray eyes. I see your sweaty cheeks and brow. I can taste the tired lament that cools you in air conditioning. The taste is bitter, not sweet. The airport curves around me. Airplanes rise high above dust clouds heading off to better dreams, foreign lands, or so they seem. And what a charmed life I lead. I’m on a quick worktrip to California. My mission: to look seriously into the eyes of dedication and payroll with a trusting glare, at least for a few days. Nothing else could feel so cold, except maybe conditioned air that’ll freeze you clear through if you let it. A wilted family of blacks unwinds from a distant ride. Their car, a Suburban painted primer-gray, is loaded. It looks like they’ve been keeping mobile for quite some time. Now a man— disheveled with gray hair mess, not much older than his black Suburban friends—opens a Blazer next door. He wears life tired upon his face. Faces are billboards; I can read them like text. His 53


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says WOUNDED by lover, or mother, maybe even brother, and isn’t resentment always the same? The rumble of jet engines cheer me on. Me, now sweating in midnight heat. Trying to absorb all of this life, this curious life. What on earth could God want from me? Or my brothers downstairs? Or the troll two seats over in the empty Waffle House, drinking coffee with dried spills on his front for all to see. They read like language. They spoke as loud as the reverse of his cotton tee. It said, “I ZONED OUT IN PHOENIX,” in big, bold letters. He was nervous. Up and out and right back next to me he kept spinning. I don’t know what dismal rhythm sounded in his head as he passed by me, looking deep with fear at the white kid with educated glasses. He looked at the Dalmatian on my chest—shit was black, no stains. He looked away as if I were not a member, not a friend, him lonely. But don’t we all get a little lonely at times? I ate my sunny-side eggs with one hand, the other holding a cigarette lazy, burning slowly as I cut into threes. My yolk was all runny and smooth so I mixed with it grits and butter, Southern style. My cigarette smoked openly, and I didn’t care which way it spoiled steam from me. It just rambled like the Mexican woman one booth over. Her eyes danced with conviction as she spoke. I could see them only now and then behind the broadshouldered man who listened carefully as she whispered self-created dramas. A skinny girl crept in as I choked my cigarette in a pool of yolk. She cried softly to me with her eyes. She knew I saw her pain, and I did. It made her nervous, so she called my waiter with a wave. Another piercing of the sound barrier breaks as I remember those eyes, red and glazed with countless nights’ missed sleep. I saw right through her like an apparition; it must have cut her deep. 54


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I tossed a fiver down on a pink slip styled with the cursive of white-trash America baking in the desert heat. This damned heat. That skinny druggie woman followed my trail as I took my reprieve. Then I felt her razor eyes graze me. Sometimes the blades of fear are sharper than any display of bravery, or so it seems. This holy existence, wrapped in a shroud of dusty desert lies. I think of vision as I lay my seat back against my hotel window. I think of my purpose; I think of man’s purpose. I think of the volley of moments that often feel like dreams. I think of Black Elk and his wisdom in suffering. I think of his genius, his gifts, his dreams. He himself once said, “It is hard to follow one great vision in the world of darkness and of many changing shadows. Among those shadows men get lost.” But I don’t feel lost. Maybe because I cannot see, or don’t pretend I see where I’m going in this life. Now I sit on a second floor walkway with my feet on the rails, sweating like a man in a ghetto scene. Here I wait for a call girl. Here I wait on a narrow promise from a young beauty coming to save me, for at least one night. And isn’t the business of flesh always there to comfort? I sit quiet as I meditate on this tragic scene. A distant sign speaks to me in letters: “RELIANT,” it reads. Reliance, reliability, stability, lack of change, refusal to change, there, always the same. In big bright lights and bold letters it reassures me. Especially now, as I wait just ten minutes longer, “Just ten minutes longer, just ten minutes more. I’ll be right there … soon.” And Heather sounded reliable, and young, and still under the influence of an age-old promise of stability at sea. This ocean, this mix and toss of all that’s holy, maybe she’ll never learn that the idea of security is a disease. Age-old will, men pounding fists with sharp brows. All their lives living for the promise of stability, for something that seems to be just one inch out of reach. 55


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And as I wait here smiling at the charm of life, I watch a desert palm bend in the warm, hazy breeze. It sits there letting life blow through its hair simply. And as I watch I see it smiling, I understand nothing, and see the light of Heather’s coming beam. “Looks like you got over this time,” my cabby told me as we haggled for small change. I had three ones and a twenty. He had a five and two ones. The fair was six bucks. He took my three ones with a crooked smile and told me, “Looks like you got over this time.” I thought about the reality of his statement as I entered the Phoenix International Airport around 3:00 A.M. I’d have a couple hours to kill, but I didn’t mind. My heart was still racing inside my chest. Beating to the life-drum of surprise. Pulsing reliability, steady. I had a nice time with Heather. She was not twenty-one, petite and stacked with double Ds. No, instead she was thirty, had two kids, and was augmented with an under-muscle C-cup. The pits in her face looked faded, as if the curse of teen acne was taking its last breath. Her mouth, wise with procedure, caressed me with tender lips and nice words. We talked about astrology and pornographic Web sites. She was looking for a friend to help her get online. I told her about my boss, Gentry Peters, and his side business of managing such Web sites. He was always on the lookout for new talent. We exchanged e-mail addresses and phone numbers, and told each other our encounter was meant to be. As we sat on the edge of my bed in that Motel 6, she processed several slips of paper. Her pen was busy as she struggled to manage conversation. I moved unnaturally from bed to desk chair, then stood up, pacing. She pushed through it, though; I have to hand it to her. She was wise in the ways of the world, 56


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and wanted to go back to school to study water purification. I offered her a glass of water as I unwrapped a plastic cup. The water tasted fine by me, but Heather wouldn’t have it. Not after ten minutes of getting to know me. “Do you want me to take you to get some bottled water?” she asked. “Would you drink it? What time is your flight in the morning? Oh, let me buy you some water. Come on, I’ll drive.” I climbed from her 1996 Acura twenty minutes later, slipping on the sheen of her leather seats. The night was still hot and the neon lights at Chevron stung me like a bee. Inside the Snack Mart, she offered me something to drink and eat. I pointed to the ice cream box and she agreed. “I’ve done porn and all that shit,” Heather told me. “When I first started in the business, I used to be into some bad things. Those days were wild back then. I’m surprised I’m still alive. The stories, you wouldn’t believe. But the longer you hang around, the more those stories sound the same.” I felt a longing for simplicity. I told her I had been thinking of settling down, now more than ever. We spoke of values and the decay of the American family. “My son is only five years old and already he’s full of hate,” she said. “It’s really sad to see; he can’t rely on anything to be stable. There just seems to be so much coming at us these days. The world has never felt more overwhelming to me.” I shook my head in understanding as we pulled out onto the street. “It’s just such a shame that America is rotting from within,” I told her. “A friend of mine just split to Central America for that very reason. He couldn’t stand the thought of raising children in the state we’re in.” Heather cornered left through night construction and told me of her East Coast education at Wellesley College for girls in Massachusetts, of her privileged upbringing. “While there’s one side of me that’s pretty open, being in the business that I’m in, I 57


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mean, there’s another part of me that’s very conservative, together, and very traditional.” This she said as she turned the wrong way down a one-way street. “Oh shit, is this a … oh shit. I hope we don’t get killed. Hold on.” Back at the motel, we rolled by a Rolls Royce lying low with running lights on and blinking. “This place has very bad karma,” she mentioned casually. “Two girls I know well were assaulted by a guy with an automatic shotgun in the room over there. He gagged and tied them, then forced himself on them with the shotgun jammed in the back of their heads. It was on the news and everything. This was a few years back, and since then this place has become a famous crime scene, lots of drug dealers and prostitutes.” We rolled slowly by a Latin woman staring creepily in the heat. The sweat of doubt dribbled in tiny beads down her opportunistic sleeve. Heather locked her doors as we linked arms, passing a security guard as we trailed to room 223. We licked each other’s ice cream cones for new taste, for tease. “Umm,” Heather moaned. “That one is really gooooood,” she said to me in a dream. We stopped at my door and waited. I popped the lock and we almost went inside. Instead, we stalled for one more cigarette conversation. As we talked, I stared into her wonder and silently coaxed myself to let go, to let go of judgment and prejudice. As I did this, I felt blurry walls fall backward and her face, her wise face, sharpened in my view. “I was a hardcore punker in the ’80s,” she said. “I had a shaved head and hung out on Broadway there. Oh, I love San Francisco. It was such a nice place to be.” “Yes, the City does have its charm,” I sighed in longing. “I want to own a company like that.” She pointed out into the dusty skyline. I looked over and knew what she was referring to, and what she meant. “RELIANT,” the sign read, still there in 58


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big block letters. “Nothing is reliable anymore. I miss my old life, my husband, my life partner. It seems like the only person you can rely on these days is yourself. It’s kind of sad, isn’t it?” I nodded and tossed my cigarette flame overboard. It hit the pavement with a spark and rolled to its smoky end sideways—like it lay there in pain. “Why don’t we go inside and close the door? You ready for me?” Heather twisted my nipples and showed me her scars on my queen-sized bed. She had a Caesarean, a gall bladder removed, and a knife wound from her punk days. “The bitch stabbed me because I was kicking the shit out of her. I went to the hospital and they sewed it up; then we drove straight to San Francisco to party in an abandoned house. Those were the days.” And as I looked down on her naked body, I couldn’t help but think that these were the days right here. Two strangers naked and loving like long-lost companions. She swore to me as I serviced her, or she serviced me, and in the end, the deed was done and her period had started. “Oh good, there’s not too much blood,” she said. I followed her around by the light of a yellow lamp telling her stories of nights running wild in San Francisco. At that point, nothing seemed so far and serene. I gave Heather a copy of my first novel, and we parted with tongue kisses and a reminder to keep in touch; she was eager to build a Web site and get online. I told her it was easier than it seemed. I showered and climbed in bed late with tired eyes, knowing that soon I would be up again, and on the road. And as I waved goodnight to dusty days and nestled into the bosom of Lady Phoenix, I couldn’t help but feel alive from the adventure. I was living life in small doses, paying attention to every second, and this charmed life I lead.

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BANG! The sound was loud and only came once. I craned my neck in reaction and saw the split light of an open door waiting. “HEY,” I yelled, as loud and as tough as I could. The narrow strip of light that cracked between my door and doorframe stood still and didn’t move. Out of instinct, I dove to the floor and scrambled out of predictable strike zones. From the ground, I paused and listened. No more sounds. I shuffled to the door on my knees and slammed it closed, bolting the deadlock. Then back across the ground, I scattered to the phone. I hit zero. “Someone just tried to break into my room.” “What?” “Someone just tried to break into my room,” I said with soft panic. The woman who stood on the other side of connection sighed in frustration. “Okay, I’ll send the security guard over to that side of the building.” Then, in the silence, I remembered my last thought before bed. I checked the door once, and—after almost walking away— I closed the safety latch for good luck. I almost decided not to, and what type of brutal crime would have transpired if I hadn’t? There, in that moment, naked and blind without my educated glasses, I stalled and waited for fear to overwhelm me. I waited for the panic to come, the loss of knowing what to do. And as I waited for these feelings to arrive, I decided not to waste time on fear. Instead, I called a cab and packed by the dim glow of my liquor-store lighter. Within minutes, there was a knock on my door. I peeked out and saw a yellow taxi light behind a slim man. “Who’s that?” “Someone order a cab?” I paused and thought about doubt in that strange evening. I unlatched the deadbolt, and unhooked the safety latch that saved me earlier. 61


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“Yeah, what’s up, man? Here,” I handed him my suitcase and crept from my doorway. I shuffled next to him and peeked both ways. Walking down the catwalk of my second-story pathway, I spotted some Mexicans watching. They were cool and patient. No one made an expression, just waited. As we headed down the stairs to the parking lot, we passed the security guard choking on phlegm. He nodded. “All right,” I said in return. He swallowed deep and fisted his chest. When my back was turned I heard a loud, “Damn these summer colds.” I twisted in reflex and thought about cigarettes and Waffle House, about crack-house late-night occupation. “You take care of yourself, my friend.” He nodded again, gurgling in his throat, fisting his chest. As we pulled out into dusty construction, my cabby informed me of his flight plan. He’d have to circle around closed roads to get me there; it was the long way to the Phoenix International Airport. “That’s fine, man, just get me there alive.” He eyed me in his rearview mirror cautiously. “Someone just tried to break down my door back there, not but ten minutes ago. They got the lock open and the deadbolt, but the safety latch kept them back.” My cabby just stared, so I continued. “They just hit the door once, but hard. ‘BANG!’ it went, the door against the latch. And that was it. I lay in bed and waited as the evening light pierced through the narrow opening of my door—but nothing came. That’s when I called you.” My cabby took his eyes off me for a minute to manage lanes. “Most drivers won’t come down here,” he told me. “I don’t mind ’cause I know which gangsters will hassle you, and which ones will kill you.” “Really.” “Yep, this here is 165.” 62


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“One sixty-five?” “Yep, right over down this street is Van Buren, where all the night crawlers are walking. That’s a big old scene.” “Why do they call this place 165?” “That’s the zone on the map.” It took me a minute to piece it together. Then I got it. This place was so bastardized it didn’t even have a name. “Right up that way is 175 and 185. Shoot, I wouldn’t come down here myself if I didn’t already know half of these thugs. It ain’t so bad, though, you just got to know what you’re doing, that’s all.” You’ve got to know what you’re doing, I thought. I clearly didn’t. Did Heather know what she was doing when she came to visit me? Probably so. At the airport my cabby offered a broken-toothed grin as we reached for bills. “Looks like you got over this time.” He looked me in the eyes, in the heat. I gave him the three ones fanned out in my hand. “We’ll get you next time through,” I told him, swearing silently never to return to Phoenix. “The next time through.” Sometimes we can’t control life’s dealings, and sometimes we bring unwanted things to ourselves on our own. And as I sit and write in a poorly lit airport diner, while I wait three hours until my early morning flight to California, I can’t help but think about a life lived with no expectations. I think of my good friend who’s escaped to Costa Rica, and I smile and give thanks for being alive, and for this charmed life I lead.

63


FROM THE DESERT TO THE MOON!


LOST MY STOMACH LIKE ON ROLLER COASTER RIDES

Do you ever feel like you’ve fallen through the cracks? Like somewhere along the line someone forgot to tell you something that could have made a difference? Like there should have been someone else there to guide you—someone wiser, someone braver, someone more caring, someone more devoted to you? Now that I’m older I see so much confusion, so many points when simple guidance could have gone a long way. Believe it or not, I’m on a train to Slovenia. I never expected to be here, especially now. But fate has a strange way of drifting lines, carrying them like leaves in a stream. The sun shines down on these words as I write them. It’s been weeks since the sun has shone, but only now do I notice. Funny, that, after so many months of burning, ruthless sun, you’d figure I’d notice even the smallest reprieve. Back in Tucson, it’s over one hundred degrees. The long summer incline has been ramping up for months, and now, on the tail end of May, the heat is getting ready to make its harshest move. My first-class cabin has a windowpane that plays moving pictures of agrarian life. Green, green, green … so nice to see green again. The valleys are small, and in the distance, by way of a misty morning sunrise, I see small hilltop peaks skimming south all the way down the horizon. 67


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I’ve been caught in a whirlwind up to this point. I had to leave Tucson. Fate pulled me away, pushed me in a new direction when the tides of change paid me a visit. I lost my job. I sold my house. I loaded my car and drove back to California with a spinning head. Dismantling a life can be so exhausting. It’s amazing how much crap we amass over time. It happens slowly, in small spurts. Things make their way into our lives. Our money goes out and things come in and surround us as we silently sit and wait to die—alone—without the ability to take them with us. I was fingered in a pornography ring. I didn’t know it at the time, but in retrospect, all the pieces were there to see. A surprise visit from our CEO should have been enough to alert me; that is, if I’d been looking. He arrived in the afternoon and I ran into him in our courtyard. He looked skittish and nervous as I approached him. I invited him to my office to catch up, and he said no. He wanted to spend time with another director, he had some things to discuss, and would catch up with me later. I went back to my desk off-balance. I had a cold at the time and was frantically preparing for a seven-day tradeshow in San Francisco. As I did the work of three people, I couldn’t help but wonder what Adam was up to. Gentry Peters was out of town, and I was the clear second-in-command. Why would he be here? I wondered. And why wouldn’t he be spending his time with me? Jason told me it was nothing as we climbed from his car at the local sandwich shop, and I started to believe him. That was, until I saw crafty little Adam sitting at a table, devouring a sandwich with the other two directors of the company. Where was my invitation? Something was going on, but what? Adam waved me over with food hanging from his face, and I declined. It was easy to see I wasn’t welcome. The other two neophyte directors looked surprised and horrified by my presence. I looked to Jason and he shared my discomfort. 68


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Well, the end of the day neared and I had finished my work. I was prepared for my 5:00 A.M. flight, as well as the week I would spend working for the company in San Francisco. Just as I was collecting my things, Adam appeared in my guest seat. “I want you and Gentry to be in New York next Thursday at 10:00 A.M. for a two-hour meeting. Book Gentry’s flight tonight, and get yourself a connection from San Francisco.” I chased him out the door, searching for a return date, the purpose of the meeting, items that I needed to prepare, but all I received were shrugs and short answers. In New York, Adam and the president of the company, Dick, greeted us. We were escorted down a long hallway at Fifty-Sixth and Sixth and stopped at an oversized room. The center was filled with a boardroom table big enough for a hundred men. Little was said as we made our way to opposing ends. Gentry and I were privileged to be there. We weren’t sure why that was exactly, but we had been mislead just enough to believe we were there to participate in some important discussions regarding the future of our division, the future of the company. Both Adam and Dick were heavy as they sat and turned to us. “Listen,” Adam said, “this pornography thing has gotten out of control, so we’re going to let you both go.” Silence dominated the room as the thought of a bad joke came to mind. I was in total disbelief. “There are people in Tucson as we speak packing up your personal belongings. You are never to set foot on our company premises again.” The room zoomed in and out as I listened, and the only thought I had besides “What the fuck are you talking about?” was that I was FREE, ABSOLUTELY FREE. Part of me wanted to jump out the window, or run from one end of the two hundredfoot-long boardroom table to the other, sliding face first on the slick marble. 69


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When Adam was done with his spell-casting, Gentry jumped in with feeble attempts and demands that I be removed from this persecution, that I had nothing to do with the several porn sites he had been running for years. Gentry often worked on those sites while I tended to the company business. That’s what made our teaming so successful. He was smart enough to let me do my job, and I was smart enough to increase revenue exponentially over time. It was a perfect match. But all good things must come to an end, or so I was reminded when Adam stood before us. “You may not want to shake my hand. And if you don’t, I understand.” He walked around the table and Gentry continued to work his way verbally through comprehending the event. With my severance package in hand, I nudged him with a look of letting go. As we both rose awkwardly to shake hands with Adam and Dick, I looked deeply into their eyes to read their conscious and saw nothing. There was nothing there anymore. The greed machine had taken these two souls captive long ago, and nothing I could say or do was going to save them from here. I walked out of that long boardroom with a slim package under one arm and freedom under the other with a cockeyed smile. I had just been shit-canned in a New York minute by two of Wall Street’s not-so-finest. I didn’t know where to go, or what to do in that moment, but I sure as hell knew this meant I was leaving Tucson. A blanket of melancholy covered my afternoon as I mourned for a life that died right before my eyes.

70


THE FOG OF AMERICA

So now I sit over the rails of Eastern Europe, on my way to foreign destinations for no good reason; a present I won’t understand for years, I tell myself. Maybe in part. I needed the break, regardless. The stress of losing a job and packing up a life can be grueling at times, and often was for the eight weeks it took me to board a Boeing 767 to the Czech Republic. With my three-bedroom house packed into a giant box in the desert, my cat at my parents’, and my guitars spread all over the western states, I ended up in Prague exhausted. August was right all along; that’s why I told him to pick the destination. It was he who urged me to travel for a while. It sounded good—better than looking for another job—so when he dangled a free ticket to anywhere in the world in front of me, the only thing I could say was, “Surprise me.” After sleeping for the first few days in Prague, I began to sink my teeth into the city. That’s when I knew he was right. Prague is cheap, picturesque, has gorgeous women and great beer. What else does a man need? It wasn’t until I boarded a night train to Poland did the fog of America begin to lift. With my job, my old life, and the Tucson heat all behind me, blood began to flow back into my soul. I could feel different amnesiatic pieces of myself coming back to life slowly. And as I drank tall bottles of pilsner with a Jewish couple from Berkeley, California, I started to regain a zest for 71


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life. I saw them as true role models. They had traveled the world, were both professionals, had a family and a reasonable perspective on life. Best of all, they seemed to have spent their lives opening themselves up instead of shutting down. Opening themselves to letting go, and experiencing the majesty of living. It was instantly visible in their eyes and smiles. We drank and told stories until late in the evening, until the paradox of age caught up with us. First it was Michael, then Rosalyn, who caved in to sleep’s cruel curse. Then I fell, slanted, my mind spinning and banging with the boxcar’s tug and pull. I swallowed my stomach every hour on the hour until we reached our sunrise stop in Kraków. I shook hands with Michael and Rosalyn and a spark between us reminded me that I was alive. Alive and breathing as free as a man can be. With that spirit I took to the streets of Kraków. With wet eyes and eager feet I charged my way into the old part of town, impressed with what I saw, impressed with the feeling in the air, filled with a sensation that everything was all here for my enjoyment. And it was as I walked. I walked and walked, looking for my hotel. I walked and walked and walked, staring and looking everywhere. Lost. Dead lost. And no one could speak English. After two hours I finally found my hotel, famished and slipping in and out of consciousness. Life, baby. All here for me. Or at least, something like that.

72


FIRE, FIRE AND THUNDER!

I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to see them again, but as I stepped off the bus that brought me from Auschwitz Camp I, to Birkenau, I was excited to bump into them. “Did you get a chance to see Camp I?” “Yeah, we walked through the exhibit and grounds on our own.” “Powerful stuff, isn’t it?” Michael shrugged his shoulders, flustered as he searched for words to speak. “I’m on the English tour now, why don’t you two tag along and hear some of the history?” A light rain began to fall as we chased my soft-speaking, quick-walking guide. We caught up to her halfway through her last sentence, inside one of the wooden barracks that housed up to three hundred prisoners at a time. Men and women were separated. Everyone was shaved, given rags for clothes, fed sawdust-plugged bread and soup made from pigswill. We were there under the airy gables where hundreds of Jews spent their last days alive—starving, freezing from the snow and icy rain, picking lice out of their whiskers as they breathed the pungent stench of burning flesh and hair every night and day. We walked deeper into the room where death waited. A fireplace stood empty at either end. “And people would crowd around these fireplaces here, but maybe only six could actually feel the heat. A group of sixty or so would hang around all day, often times smothering the fire 73


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trying to get warm.” Our guide looked around at us plainly, then walked out of the room. Bunks lined the walls at either side where twelve people crammed into the space of a single bed. Prisoners, victims of the Third Reich, slept right on the wooden slats of those one-time horse stalls. Michael, Rosalyn and I walked outside and over to the next barrack. “What was this?” “We were just in there. It’s the washroom. See the holes in those boards—there, and there,” I said, pointing to the center of the room. “They had to clean their own facility. Most people suffered and eventually died from chronic diarrhea.” Michael winced and tightened his stomach, which pulled his head forward as he listened. “I heard people were lucky to get one drop of water a day.” “A drop?” “The guards pushed them through at such a volume and pace that it was more of a cruel joke than an attempt to bathe the prisoners.” After a few minutes of silence, Rosalyn walked out the door with her hands behind her back, heavy-hearted. Back out in the drizzle, we oriented ourselves with the rail gate to our left, and a long line of tracks that led down to two crematoriums on our right. Instinctively, we headed down the rail lines that once carried millions of innocent people to their deaths. “It’s hard to get a sense of the gravity,” I told Michael. “I expected a heaviness in the air, a sense of pain or confusion to be hanging around these grounds.” “It’s strange, isn’t it? I was thinking the same thing a few minutes earlier. If you didn’t know the history, with its green grass and peaceful scenery, this could almost be anywhere.” 74


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I knew what he was saying. If you closed your eyes, you could hear birds chirping, not crematorium doors closing. You could hear the rustle of the wind through the trees instead of screams as prisoners passed through the crematorium gates. We walked down the long stretch where men, women, and children were once given a thumb to the right, which meant survival, at least for the time being, or a thumb to the left, which meant instant death. We were confronted by an old Soviet memorial when we reached the end of the tracks. The piece was made with abstract blocks stacked up in an unintelligible order. Both nearby crematoriums were destroyed by SS troops when the Soviets neared during the final days of the war. The exact way they fell is the way they left them. Rosalyn and I intellectualized the event as we walked around the gas chambers. Michael split off and started to tinker with the edges of the grounds. As we strolled at a respectful pace, she opened up about her feelings. She was a Jew. She knew her religion and knew her roots. Painfully, a lot of them ended here. “What finally got me was the display of the prayer shawls. Oh,” she said, covering her heart. “My father and his brothers all wear their prayer shawls, even to this day, and to see them hanging there was disturbing.” “Nothing so sacred belongs hanging in a place like this.” As we finished our wander around the building, we developed a closeness from the event. We talked more about what matters in life, like family and living in the moment. It was nice to have similar views. It made me feel connected to something bigger than myself. When Michael rejoined us, we all stood in front of the Soviet shrine, centered between the two former superfactories of death. “I heard they once killed twenty thousand people, and burned them into a handful of ash in one day. That’s not much 75


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smaller than the town I grew up in. All twenty thousand of them gone from this earth, with no decent burial, humiliated as they were shoved naked from the changing room into that room.” I pointed to the half-buried ruin. “They all fought for air during the last few minutes of their lives. The elderly and children were trampled by the stronger men and women who scrambled for air.” The spotted showers that followed us through the day started to turn to rain as we let silence tell us more about the horrors. “I suppose this is the proverbial end of the line,” Michael said, making a dark joke. The train tracks ended in front of us, about three feet off the ground. The rails protruded from the wooden ties, accenting his observation. I still hadn’t been able to put my finger on the emotions I thought I should have felt. Even looking at the tracks didn’t jar me enough to comprehend the magnitude of what had happened there. Instead, I just felt a gray knot in my stomach. I wanted to feel more, I thought, as I contemplated jumping up on the protruding rail lines. I wanted to touch the rails that 1.5 million people rode to their deaths. Just as I began to shift my weight, to hop up onto the steel, the loudest sound I ever heard cracked. Lightning broke and came down fifty feet from us behind Crematorium III. “What the fuck!” I yelled, jumping back off-balance. Michael leaped several feet in the air with terror on his face. He came down on me as I was falling and we bounced off each other, fearing for our lives. At that same moment, enormous raindrops began to fall. Screaming and hopping around mad like two frantic chickens, Michael and I danced off the surprise. Rosalyn laughed as she explained this was a fairly normal event in the world. “You California boys…,” she said, as she shook her head. “You didn’t even flinch!” I shouted. 76


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“I’m from Pittsburgh. We grew up with thunder and lightning.” “That close?” I screamed. “Well, I don’t think that close.” She looked over to the tree that smoldered with wet fire. “Let’s get out of here!” Michael yelled, pushing up his umbrella as the sky opened up on us. Each drop felt like a water balloon as it hit. I looked in the distance and spotted the famous Birkenau gate at the entrance of the camp. It looked miles away in the hazy afternoon. “Come on, let’s get to the bus!” Not even a quarter of the way to the gate, I was drenched to the skin with icy water. The drops began to sting my head, my bald spot, as we power-walked down the execution line. Mud began to strangle our feet and splash up on our legs as we pushed further. We looked at each other, frazzled, as we fought our way down that barbed wire-lined road. I had visions of similar conditions as children were separated from their parents, while their parents watched them walk off toward their death, being stripped of all humanity and physical belongings as quarter-sized raindrops hazed the last sight of their kin. Raindrops turned to hail as we hit the halfway mark. They grew bigger and bigger as they pecked at our heads and backs. By this time we could see a small crowd had gathered below the entrance gate, watching us as we stumbled our way toward cover. We were the last of very few still at the camp during the afternoon tour, and they watched with intensity as we kept pushing further. Hail stones sprayed down on us like machine gun fire as more cracks from thunderheads seared the surrounding forest. Each break of sound sent an agonizing shiver of muscle-memory down my spine. I looked over to Michael and he quivered in confusion from all the stimulus. Huge hail balls were tagging me in the head as I slipped and slid in the mud. Rosalyn 77


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pushed out in front of us with her umbrella, leaving Michael behind in the fire. The sound of inch-round ice cubes smashing my head became overwhelmingly loud in my ears. The gate was getting closer but my vision was fading. A white halo surrounded me, blocking out the picture of barbed wire and makeshift human holding tanks for the first time that day, but somehow I felt closer to them. When we made it to the gate, the crowd wouldn’t let us in. A huge puddle had formed beneath the gable, absorbing two-thirds of the covered space. The group that had managed to stay dry held their ground and smiled awkwardly at our arrival. Everyone mock-shifted in their places to pretend, but no one let us in. “Will somebody let us through?” Rosalyn shouted in protest. Again the crowd shuffled on their heels. Another thunderbolt hit less than ten feet away. “Holy shit,” I screamed, jumping out of the open and into the deep pool of icy rainwater that had gathered below the evil gate. “It’s better than being out there,” I shouted at Michael, who watched me, concerned by my actions. “Come on, you two, over here. We’re already soaking wet,” I called to Rosalyn and Michael, ignoring the crowd who had clearly turned their backs on us. “Come on,” I said, holding out my hand toward Rosalyn. After a few seconds of debate, another thunder strike assisted them in their decision, and they jumped into the puddle with me. There, beneath the gate that so many associated with death, sure and immutable death, we found safety. With our knees knocking above water, we quietly witnessed nature’s force on that vast camp. In the distance, piles of brick barely showed through the haze at the end of a long, straight series of tracks. No one said a word. Nobody complained about a single thing. 78


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Her name is Marianna, and she’s the one who found me. I was belligerently bouncing my way through the old square in Kraków around noon, fussing with my travel guide and balancing my umbrella when she grabbed me. My contacts were sticking to my eyes as she asked me a question in slow English. I said yes for some reason, and the next thing I knew she was writing down my e-mail address. She pointed to my camera again and posed. I took a few shots of her, then finally noticed through my camera lens that she was gorgeous. She walked back looking down at my hands, but all I could do was stare into her big blue eyes. “I like that one,” she said, with a heavy Russian accent. She looked at my falling guidebook and asked if I was sightseeing. The next thing I knew, we were walking into churches, climbing up stairs into museums, telling jokes, and laughing in the pouring rain. Marianna was there for the day by way of Warsaw. She had made the long trip from Minsk to secure a visa to Canada—a visa she didn’t get. So instead of North America for a family wedding, it was Kraków for the day with me. I found out she was a schoolteacher when we sat down for lunch. “I am ashamed to say you this. I am a teacher of English back home. I also teach music classes, piano and guitar. Is that right?” 81


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She was a bright 23-years-old. She laughed a lot and made fun of me as I picked apart my food. By the time we exited the restaurant I felt like I had known her for years. And when we reached the edge of the old square, she wanted to take me up on my previous offer, to dance with her in the falling rain. The cafés were still packed despite the weather, and the musicians were there below Cloth Hall blowing horns and beating drums romantically when I took Marianna’s hand in mine. I pulled her in closely, and with a surprised look on her face, she stepped forward. We moved to the rhythm of raindrops and heartbeats as we danced. We stepped in a box pattern with the steeples of medieval bell towers rising high above us. The hourly bugler began his song and the blend of everything happening made my head spin. As we broke from the spell of the moment, we collected our hearts and handbills with light heads. Marianna put her arm in mine like they did in the old days, and looked up at me in wonder. From there we walked through an afternoon of magic as we explored the many wonders of that beautiful city. At the train station that night, she sang to me in Russian. Over and over she tweeted in my ears old sad Russian classics. She would only stop to translate important phrases as they came. “This one is saying two lovers have come together for only a brief moment, then gone. I think this one is very beautiful. I don’t know why this came to my mind.” Then she looked up at me coyly. She tried to hide in her shoulders as she smiled thinking only of love. On the platform, like you see in so many romantic movies, we shared a passionate kiss that lasted a lifetime. The train whistle blew, and the conductor smiled as he waved me aboard. Marianna blew me kisses with water welling in her big Russian

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blues, and I watched her grow infinitely narrow as the cold Polish rails at Krak贸w carried me away from a perfect moment forever.

83


GOING HOMEWARD ON A SLIP

A trail of blood and tears. A trail of ashes and buildings scattered with bombshell shrapnel and machine gun fire. This is where I came to decompress from corporate life, from the pain of desert aridness. Hungary, from which six hundred thousand Jews were sent to Hitler’s fireplace. Croatia, littered with remnants of a freedom war won ten years ago. And I chose this as my escape? Maybe this was a good choice for me. My desperate existence doesn’t feel so bad after witnessing all this. In fact, I feel like a spoiled child complaining because his overflowing plate of abundant food is too hot, or too cold, or a little old, or something forgot. I think of going for six months on nothing but pigswill soup and a bite of sawdust bread each day, or scraping crumbs from a bag that I had while my home was being bombed repeatedly. None of my complaints can match this. I ended up in a town on the Dalmatian coast called Split around midnight. I came in on a bus that wound me down from Zagreb, through small villages and towns. The entire ten-hour ride was the same. Age-old farmhouses riddled with bullets, empty. Roadside mansions, empty—roofs burned. Cars up on road berms, abandoned. Churches demolished by rockets. A trail of aggression led me to the coast, and each roadside monument told me a new story, and the same story over and over again. I couldn’t stop looking. The devastation, still after all these years, still work to be done, homes to be reconstructed. But 85


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many people have gone, have fled from the place where they raised a family, a place where they once felt safe. I was propositioned by an elderly lady near the baggage compartment. I was hungry and exhausted from the torture of witnessing all that I had seen. She led me with simple English to a man with no teeth. He knew none of my words, but insisted on speaking to me deliberately, pointing to a building, the bus, the ferry. All useful information, I’m sure, just not to me in that moment. They pulled me to a bus stop and we waited. I inspected the old man’s gum-line as he continued to ramble in Croatian. The bus came; the plot thickened. The old man waved me on while giving his wife a nod. She ran up to me and whispered, “Get on here with my husband. Shhhh.” We climbed aboard the bus. Cool, man. Very cool. The woman snuck in through the back doors, and her husband held the bar by the driver’s side while I pushed my forever-growing bags through the aisle. Seated, I tossed a glance at my toothless fairy and he turned away. It was clear that I was on my own. I looked back. The old lady was working the crowd, looking for more boarders. I know how to front, so I sat back like nothing was going on at all. Cool, man. Cool. When the bus hit the curb of a residential area ten stops later, the old man slapped me on the shinbone. This was it. I shuffled my belongings down the narrow pathway to the back, through all the stuck-out legs of teens riding the local on a Thursday night. We hit the street with a thud and again he spoke and pointed like a kind lunatic. I saw another bus stop across the road. That must be the place where I get picked up, I noted. He smiled when the gears clicked inside my head. We walked down a dark hill into a cluster of old Communistera apartment buildings. No, I thought. This can’t be happening. But it was getting on 1 A.M., and I had a ferry to catch at 6:30 in 86


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the morning. I can do it, I told myself. The next five hours are a fraction of my life, a small fraction. I thought about the bullet holes, the abandoned houses, Communist rule, rationed bread and Cuban oranges as I looked up at that dauntingly gray tower. We entered into that multistory cement rat cage through the back. At least, it looked like the back. It had to be the back because of the trash, and the narrow door, and the lack of light, and the gray walls sterile and haunted by depression. Actually fauxed with a Nuevo sponge-pattern of depression. The old man raised his knees like he had seen many wars. He marched up those stairs like he had lived lifetimes as a Communist servant. Up a series of wiry cases he stepped … up, hup. Up, hup. Up. I paused and juggled my backpack, filled with Polish vodka, elegant Swiss chocolate, elite Hungarian wine and sophisticated novels. I pushed it high on my back while I lifted my overnight suitcase. You know, the kind with wheels like strippers use on quick trips from Los Angeles or Phoenix to Vegas. I muscled my little rollie to my chest and took a step. As we pushed our way up and into the darkness, I looked down to the lobby where we entered. There was only one door. The man rose before me, and I willed my decaying muscles to toughen. Right after left, I shoved myself and my bounty forward. Each floor looked the same, everything looked the same. Industrial metals strapped the huge rat cage together, and we kept stepping. Second floor, third floor, fourth floor; then he stopped. He showed me his gums again as I touched the last case where he stood waiting. Sweat dripped down the sway in my back as he pointed up to a door on the next floor. “You’re fucking kidding me, right?” Somehow he knew what I was saying. Torture is an international experience, I suppose. One more flight to go. 87


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He was inside when my body gave out on me. I fell forward onto my matching midnight-blue designer bags. There on the cement, I felt my spine muscles snap like flung rubber bands. They hit me on the back of the head and knocked my brain forward between my temples. The old man laughed as I looked down the stairwell. The scene looked so much like an Alfred Hitchcock film that I waited. I waited for someone to yell cut, or to offer a line to keep the plot moving. And where was this guy’s wife, anyway? The next line didn’t come, and unfortunately, I couldn’t read the subtitles from where I was sitting. But I got up just the same, and dealt with the smell that assaulted me when I crossed the threshold just like any man would. I denied it. It didn’t exist. I took another breath and decided rotten fish, perhaps boiled rotten fish with dirty socks. Yes, must be. He pointed to a narrow hallway with a window and two beds set end-to-end and I cried, I smiled. I can’t remember which one. But I took the bed. I lay down near the window, the sag of Communism arching my spine southward as I counted the minutes, the worry-filled minutes I had until my boat sailed for brighter shores. I had no alarm. I had no firm schedule. Fuck it, I thought. I’ll let nature be my guide. I left the window open as the stench of adjoining rooms breathed heavy onto me. I’d let the sun negotiate this for me, I thought. And if I actually managed to sleep in this shoebox made for four, then so be it. I’ll catch a later ferry. But like clockwork, my eyelids rose with the coming sun at 5:15 A.M. That toothless old man was there with a pleasant grin as I shuffled out into that dismal stairwell around 5:30. He waved with a boyish smile and tried desperately to explain how to catch the bus back to the docks. He pointed and drew lines on his palm with great care. I nodded appreciating his kind efforts, and he patted me on the shoulder as I turned away from him for 88


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the last time. A spark of humanity brought me into the moment, and I reveled in the experience of meeting this man, of staying in his modest home, and it moved me. I huffed my bags to my chest and waved several times as I disappeared into the darkness. Seeing him standing there, knowing he got up just to see me off, feeling the warmth of his wrinkling grin, it made me feel warm inside. Despite my lack of sleep, despite the post-traumatic stress of the day before, I realized I had found genius in the most unexplainable of places. It’s always in the accidents, in the unexpected moments where we see that flash of godliness. Like the quick sight of green before the sun disappears below the ocean. Quick; then it’s gone. I didn’t even notice the dimly lit halls of that cold Communist high rise as I broke out into the rising sun.

89


A SERIES OF MISSES

I got to the ferry terminal around 6 A.M. My guidebook said to be there early; ferries leave around 6:30 and sometimes only once a day. I wasn’t about to fuck around, not with a beachresort waiting for me at the other end. No sir, I needed a vacation from my vacation, and I needed it immediately. It was a two-hour boat ride to the gorgeous island of Korcula from Split. I had read this was the perfect place for a rest. Peace. Quiet. Sleep. It all sounded too good to be true. At the ferry window, I was told lots of things. The first and most disturbing was that my hitch wouldn’t leave until 2:10 that afternoon. As the woman continued, my half-firing brain tried to count the hours I’d have to wait in that sad port where I had arrived just a few hours earlier. The second thing I caught was that there were no ferries on Sundays, only Saturdays and Tuesdays from Korcula to Dubrovnik, my next stop. Again I tried to make sense of this troubling data. As my brain went into overdrive, the woman looked at me like I was crazy, truly insane. I thanked her, feeling lost as I shoved out of the terminal building debating what to do for the next several hours. The ticket station where I needed to buy my fare was across the landing. As I made the walk, I processed the situation as best I could. Summary: I’d have about eighteen hours on the island of Korcula, an extra day in Dubrovnik, and about eight hours to wander the docks of Split, latent with scam artists, seamen, 91


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prom queens coming home from an all-night event, and thousands of scooters, which I would have to dodge on every stop while I went about my errands of wasting time. This sounded anything but relaxing. Out of reflex, I bought my ticket to Korcula, my connection from Korcula to Dubrovnik, and a night passage across the Adriatic to Bari, Italy, for the following Tuesday. I would have skipped the Dalmatian Coast and sailed straight to Italy if I could have. Italy had become a distant reward for me by that point. A complex and beautiful dream of exotic stimulation that waited with open arms. The images I’ve carried—all from movies and TV—gave me reason to continue on, to keep pushing through my Eastern European tour, because I knew, in the end, that after I had seen nine cities, five countries, and hundreds of villages and rail track miles in between, Italy would be there to contrast it all with warm breezes, romantic settings, sing-song accents and tranquil seas. But I’d have to wait for Italy, because the next ship didn’t leave until Tuesday. I’d have to wait for my connection to Korcula, and I’d have to wait to relax until I hit the town of Dubrovnik. I resigned myself to all this as I fell into my hands, nodding off several hundred times above a cup of black coffee and the rising sun. “Is that one of those Taylor travel guitars?” I asked a kid with long, surfer-blond hair dressed in black. He turned slowly with stiff shoulders to address me. “Yeah, it’s actually Martin’s version, but yeah.” “You’re stoked,” I told him, using surf lingo, surprised to find an English speaker in a Croatian Internet café. “Yeah,” he said, now hovering over me and my keyboard. “It’s been a real blessing.” 92


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Jeremy had been traveling the world for the past eight months and had a look on his face that I recognized. “It’s been your best friend, hasn’t it?” “Yeah,” he said, knowing what I was referring to. “It’s a challenge to travel alone, yeah? Sometimes I’ll go for weeks without saying a word, especially through India. I went two months before I met someone who spoke English. I had a hard time remembering how to speak at first. I talked his ear off, though,” he said, looking at me a little freaked out from his adventures. “I was just thinking about that this morning, the part about traveling alone. I’m coming to find out it kinda sucks.” Jeremy nodded, still trying to acclimate to the fact that I was talking to him. “It’s a little weird when you’re in those places meant for sharing, yeah? Like a beautiful sunset, or after some wild event.” I nodded and winced, feeling the agony of his words. We shifted off that topic quickly with no need for return. We both understood each other. Traveling alone sucks. Somehow it’s only a few steps above not going at all. It’s the dialog, the company, the companionship, the bond that develops when you travel with someone else that makes it all worth it. Alone, you build similar things within yourself, but sitting at a romantic restaurant night after night by yourself tears most of that back down. “I grew up in Hawaii. I moved to Boulder to go to school, and now I’m doing the world-tour thing. Only a couple of months to go,” he said, sounding both eager for the journey and dying to get it all over with. “You have time for a beer, yeah?” he asked in his Hawaiian slang. “Time, I’ve got nothing but time, man.” We grabbed a few beers and sat out on the patio of that Internet café. Jeremy told me he’d just come from Dubrovnik and 93


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Korcula, and was heading to Vienna as he unzipped his miniature guitar case. He handed me the little instrument and I began to salivate all over it. “I just needed to cast off everything to see what came back. That’s why I began this journey.” “That’s actually what I’m doing, man. Time to see what’s really important in life. For me, I’ve realized it’s my friends, my family, and one of these,” I said, strumming the strings of his mini-Martin. The sound of music filled the air and kissed my ears. The dismal seaport where we sat took on new tones of gold and blue, and everything looked gorgeous as the music rang out. Jeremy smiled as he gave me tips on where to go and what to see on the road ahead of me. “Go out the main gate, yeah. There’s a set of stairs over here, yeah.” Then his words muffled into the background as I continued to play. All I’d wanted to do for weeks was play guitar. I almost put it down when he first handed it to me—the thought of getting just a taste seemed too cruel—but I couldn’t resist. I picked a few chords, then strummed a song I had written earlier in the year, and just listened. “When is your voyage, brother?” “I’m not sure.” I plucked a note here and there as I dug for my ticket with one hand. “How about you?” “Eleven tonight. I have several hours to relax, yeah.” “Shit, dude, I’ve been sitting around since six this morning. I wish we could have met then.” Jeremy lifted his beer and looked me honestly in the eyes. “Blessings. Good to meet you, brother.” “Likewise. Cheers,” I said, as we toasted. “Nice to have a conversation with a fellow musician.” I handed him his guitar as I pulled my ferry ticket from my bag. 94


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“Oh shit. You’re kidding me!” Jeremy looked over with the comfort of family as he began to play a song of his own. “My ship leaves in ten minutes. That happened fast.” “Whoa,” Jeremy said, disappointed. “Oh man, what a drag.” I truly felt sad to leave. I needed a few hours with someone who understood what I was feeling. We traded e-mail addresses and loose itineraries to see if our paths would cross again in the few minutes we had left. I slammed the bottom half of my beer as I shook Jeremy’s hand, pushing my little rollie back out onto the curb. Jeremy put his hands together in prayer and nodded as I walked away toward my ship. “Blessings on your travels, yeah? Be safe.” “Same to you, man. Promise me you’ll write some great fucking songs on that little guitar of yours, all right?” He smiled and I threw him a sad nod as I walked away. The bottom of my eyelids felt heavy as I made my way up the ramp of a ship filled with strangers. Only four weeks to go, I thought.

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It felt right, everything just felt right lying there. It had been a long day, yes, but at that point, nothing mattered except that comfortable room and bed, the ease my soul felt lying there, feeling the peace of it all. Korcula was small and quiet. I immediately connected to the island as I crossed from end to end on a local transport. A cute English girl about my age, maybe younger, sat in front of me. During the ride, I told myself I could be having dinner with her that night if I just leaned forward and turned on some of that ohso-potent Aloysius charm. I pictured her laughing at whatever line I conjured. She would cross her feet and twist forward shyly as I did my thing. In my mind, I had it all worked out. She was to stay with me in my room. There we would have a secret and perfect affair, hidden from the world. We would call in food, extend our vacations until broke, and giggle naked until the wee hours every night. I thought about all this as our bus wound out and around the high bluffs of the island. She was cute, not beautiful. That’s why I felt so confident. She was in my league. I noticed her frail bone structure and forward hunch. She’s the fragile type. My confidence soared sitting there, sizing her up from heels to neck. Oh yeah, this one is in the can, I swore. I followed the hillside terraces that lined the valleys of rural Korcula. Everywhere, there were signs of life once flourishing, 97


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but now there was none. Just reminders and remnants of life now gone. The hills rolled up and out into the green sea with smaller islands floating on the horizon. Young school kids climbed on and off the bus, looking at me and the quiet girl who perched in front of me oddly, like we, or they, were out of place. Somewhere dreaming in the midday heat, I had convinced myself that I was already with the girl in front of me, that we had already made plans to have dinner and finish the bottle of Muscat that I had carried from Hungary. I leaned forward with a cocky grin and cleared my throat, preparing to hear the brilliant line that I would say next, mostly to myself. Then I stopped cold, snapping out of my dream state. The oddity of the moment startled me. I got nervous and sat back in panic. The girl turned quickly with a cautious glance then spun away, closed, almost protecting herself. Now what have I done? I thought. My confidence exploded like a balloon before me and the blinding blue sky out the windows of our bus. The bus now struggling to make it uphill along a narrow slope. The bus struggling, like me, to get things together and get on with it. I thought about my friends back home. I thought about what I’d tell them when I returned, that I had a chance to meet some really nice girls along the way but just couldn’t muster the courage. No way. Not this time. This trip was about breaking old patterns, about getting out of stuck places. As our bus pushed forward inch by inch, I decided so must I. Quick, a line. I needed a line in this awkward moment. A good one, quick enough to transition her turn to a hello smile. From a defense to a happy descent into a week of bliss with the one and only Tommy Aloysius. Then the words came as the bus grinded to a near halt: “Do you think we should get out and push?” I said leaning forward enough to give her space, but close enough 98


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so she would know I was speaking to her. And it was in English, after all. Who else would I be talking to? I let the line out cool, man. It was funny, friendly. I eased back satisfied as I waited for the rewards to come. Top notch, Tommy Aloysius. I congratulated myself several times as I repeated the line silently, smiling, reveling in my arsenal of witty weapons. I eased back and waited for it all to kick in. Soon she’ll be turning. Soon she’ll be turning with a smile. And here comes the smile. Any second now. Get out and push. Brilliant! I giggled. But she never turned. My heart began to drop. Did she not hear me? No, of course she did. Why hasn’t she turned? My confidence turned to arrogance quickly. She’s not smart enough to appreciate a line like that? To hell with her! Then she twitched her head, almost in hesitation. Come on, baby, I cheered for the home team. Give us a giggle. The bus made it to the top of the ridge as she turned away with a hair flip. The motor began to rumble smoothly again beneath us as she shifted her shoulders and back between her and me. At the bus stop, she was quick for the exit. I rose, tired and defeated. Out at the luggage rack, a sea of chaos ignited the sparkle of that warm Mediterranean day. A friendly local held up a sign that read ‘Mr. Aloysius’ in neat green letters. I collected my things and gave the girl one last look before I went on my way. To my surprise, she peeked up, struggling to get her bags from the ground. She saw the woman with the sign; she saw my designer pack and matching rollie. The look on her face is hard to describe. It either read, “I knew I should have laughed at that joke, because clearly this man is brilliant,” or maybe it was something more like, “Did I remember to unplug the toaster before I left on vacation?” Regardless of her reaction, I went on with my local guide to the most comfortable room in all of Korcula. And even though I 99


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was alone that night, I was truly happy. I had a perfect steak in the old town, a nice walk around the city walls, a single scoop of pistachio gelato, and six hours of the most restful sleep I can ever remember having.

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Before I knew it I was in Dubrovnik, pulling my suitcase uphill for two miles. That pretty much set the tone for the next three days. I cheaped out. There’s no other way to get around the point, so I’ll just come out with it now. I had reservations for three nights at a tourist-trap beach resort some distance from all the action. The room was 170 euros per night. I had rationalized that I could afford to splurge every here and there as a reward. Reward for what? I thought, as I pulled my little rollie and matching backpack filled with exotic alcohols in the burning afternoon heat. Traveling the planet without a care in the world? I needed a reward for that? As I reached the road that went down to the place where European tourists went to bathe naked, to push in front of each other in long lines, to cut in front of each other at the hotel buffet or poolside bar, I decided I wasn’t really into that reality. I was going to go a few layers deeper in Dubrovnik. Instead of honoring my reservation at Hotel Tourist, I pulled forward down toward the old town, keeping my eyes open for a good old-fashioned sobe. That’s what I needed—a nice bed and breakfast where I could get to know the locals’ way of life. A small bed in a family’s home teaches you something about the community, the culture. This is what my trip was all about, I convinced myself, pulling my sweat-soaked shirt from my heaving chest— getting down to the ground floor of life. 101


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Okay, so it was roughly twenty euros per night at a sobe. You do the math. Remember, at this point I had no job, so my conscience got the best of me, and for once, I did the right thing and listened. I convinced myself I did the right thing over and over as I lay there on two boards covered with a thin foam mattress that night. I shit you not, two boards. If I moved in between them, there was a nice space for my elbow and shoulder in the middle. If I rolled onto one of the boards, I could get really flat along my back and hang my legs off either side. I had hours to work the system as my body whispered millions of curses in my ears, there in the dark, above a medieval alley where local drunks stumbled down cobblestones sounding like an onslaught of rushing buffalo. Stone really reverberates in the dead of night. As I lay there, I was perplexed by the fact that there was room for not two boards, but three. The gaping hole in the center gave it away. Clearly there was room for three boards under that slim velum of cloth on which I tossed and twisted. I didn’t say anything about it the next morning, because that little space actually saved me that night. That narrow space was the only place where I could actually get comfortable and eventually fall asleep. Maybe therein lies the answer I‘ve been searching for. Maybe everyone who’s had the unlucky privilege of sleeping in that bed was saved by the crack? Saved by crack—now there’s a first. During the days, I worked out the kinks and stiff muscles by walking around the old town with my oversized guidebook. I visited the recommended sites in my book systematically, walking through a fairytale Walt Disney himself couldn’t have dreamed up. Dubrovnik is a world-class city, all right. Top of the charts as far as places to visit go. It’s exactly the romantic type of place you never want to be on your own. I became really self-conscious about sitting in cafés and restaurants alone. Every time I eyed a good one, there was always a 102


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ring of lovers holding hands, laughing loudly, sucking each other’s thumbs. I just didn’t want to deal with the sorrowful looks. People who are happiest often feel that way, you know. I think they want to share some of the action with the less fortunate, so much so that they stare at you all night with big doe eyes while you entertain yourself with your fork and napkin. Fuck that. Instead of hanging around perpetuating that vibe, I went the finger-food route and walked my ass off. Sightseeing by day, walking and eating by night, and bouncing between boards during sleep hours. That pretty much sums up my visit to Dubrovnik. All I wanted, the only thing I wanted to do was land on Italian soil and live the good life. Italy, three long days and a boat ride away. Soon. Soon!

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I managed to find a magical space in my Croatian-tip hideaway. It was in the long afternoon when the sun was tilting west above the water. I laid my body on an ancient wall in sacrifice to the sky. A winding valley of grape vines, geometrical gardens, tomato groves and olive trees sat over the ledge where I dangled. The whole picture fell below me into the green Adriatic Sea. And in the distance, Dubrovnik was far away enough to look like a tiny model. Bullet holes and bombed buildings faded from this view. I laid my head sideways, out toward Italy, as I let my skin fall heavy in release. I let the hours and heat iron my soul smooth again. Toxic thoughts of Tucson, corporate overlords, coke-filled nights and alcoholic mornings all faded away; the imprints of Eastern Europe, concentration camps and war-interrupted life danced into the dark corners of my mind in that open space. Time skipped. The gentle pulse of that needle bumped over and over again, and like a fire crackling, it lulled me into a golden slumber.

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May 25th arrived and I was ready! All I had to do was kill one day. My night boat to Bari, Italy, left the dock just before midnight, and I paced the morning away in excitement as I waited. I ran down to a café. I drank coffee. I drank a lot of coffee. I’m allergic to caffeine. I started to shake. My skin tightened. I broke a sweat. My teeth chattered. I couldn’t contain myself. I got up and sprinted around the city walls. I darted up seventy feet of stairs, around the water, up to the lookout point of the Minceta Tower, and back down again. My heart was beating twice as fast as my feet were moving, and that was fast. All the fucking French tourists picking their asses ate my dust as I split the crowds for a place to roam. I walked to the old dock, the older dock, around the perimeter road, and back to the entrance gate. Time utterly stood still as I pulsed my way in and out of a shrinking Dubrovnik. The town felt an inch big by three, so I rented a scooter and braved the streets. Driving in Croatia has its own insanity code—code chaos. I motored around the old town, around the tourist town, around the exclusive resorts, through the trashy campgrounds where I almost lost my life. If my heart wasn’t already in my mouth, it would have been at that moment. Quick and certain death faced me, and missed by inches as a Fiat with two scared and angry Croats croaked up the road beyond me. I stopped to catch my breath. My breath never came back. I searched for 107


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petrol. I got lost. I searched for quiet. Traffic got heavy. I dodged into an oncoming lane. A bus blew me off the side of the road. I motored back to the rental shop. Teeth still jittering. Bugs stuck in my gums still twittering. I walked back to my café. I had another coffee. Italy in six hours. Sitting over a seascape of tourists swimming in the medieval square that I had grown accustomed to seeing, I cheered secretly for some kids playing kickball against a church built in the twelfth century. A fountain burst from behind them and they paid no attention, for the red ball was in motion and was bouncing their way. Screams in Croatian filled the square as tourists slurped gelato, locals sat in the shade and watched, kids went about life in their innocent way. All of this was happening at a hundred times per second as my sample rate on life shrunk down to milliseconds. Italy, four hours away. I drank more coffee. I had grids and plays made out for the six-year-olds playing kickball. I had pathologies for everyone who passed filed neatly in my mental anagram cabinet. The sun fell at a trajectory of exactly thirty-six degrees, then fell sharply to thirty-five as the second half of the hour neared. Water didn’t help. Ice cream didn’t help. A headdunk in the Adriatic only made the situation more vivid. I hobbled around the reefs outside of the city walls. I counted each post in the façade of the old church devoted to St. Blaise. I revisited every tourist stop recommended in my guidebook. Nothing was making time go by any quicker. Then I found an Internet café and the whole day sunk into a fifteen-inch box. “Holy shit,” I yelled to the nice guy who ran the shop. “I’m almost late for check-in.” He looked relieved as I pulled my little rollie out the door, sweat dripping from my pits and forehead. He smiled and waved, tired of hearing me probe his IT set-up. His firewall is set up entirely wrong, by the way. 108


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I swirled out the door and into a cab pulling old faithful behind me. I checked for my ticket. It was there. I checked my watch. The tiny face looked impatient as it read me the time for the zillionth time in twenty seconds. The cabby shifted. The car moved. I read my watch. Croatian music and Madonna blew out my eardrums. I could see the dock. I could hear the ship. I could feel my skin burn as the sting of caffeinated sweat leaked out and cooled in the night air. On the pier I smoked a cigarette. I walked around the exit dock. I smoked another cigarette. Cigarettes became my best friends. I told them stories, new ones they hadn’t heard. They laughed; I burned them up. I felt like Hitler. I felt sad. I stopped smoking cigarettes. After a jaunt back and forth from check-in to the tourist office, I began to realize what was happening. I was pulling a rookie move. Yes. I call it the “first night syndrome.” Rookies always explode on the first night, leaving nothing left for the rest of the trip. If one night’s all you have, then by all means, go for it. But any longer, you’ve got problems. The pro eases his way slowly and peaks when the trip peaks. At this point, I was fifty miles above the peak, and still an entire night away from the land I was dying to see. Alcohol. Alcohol was the only thing that was going to save me. I had a bag full of it. No one was going to stop me from taking this whole rocket ride south when I got on board. This was a huge ship filled with foreign travelers just like me, I yelled to myself. EVERYONE WILL BE RAGING LIKE MAD ALL NIGHT! I crashed my way through customs looking obviously unobvious and pushed through the passenger line. At the base of the ship, the part that comes down like a huge drawbridge, I picked up my little rollie and stepped from Croatia quickly. I turned around as I realized what was happening. I was officially 109


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in transit to the land of beautiful women and never-ending gelato stands—heaven. Like little rats or hamsters in one of those tube villages, we all nibbled our way through the confusing ship. Tired mothers with whining children grew impatient for rest. Italian grandmothers quelled family dramas as I shoved my way toward a cabin reserved for only me. After trial and error, mostly error, I found my way to a dry mouth, and my cabin. I pushed the door in and smiled; the boat horn blew and I knew things were only going to get better. Inside, I rearranged all my arrangements and brushed my teeth three times. I tested all four bunks and kissed the mirror. I stowed my Best of Eastern Europe book and polished up my Best of Italy volume. I creased the seal and smelled the pages. New. Clean. Crisp. With a long night ahead, I knew I should pace myself. It took chains and a gag but I finally managed to convince myself to lie down for a while before I spent the entire night drinking. Turns out that was a pretty bad idea. I started to walk down memory lane, starting with day zero and meticulously recounted every moment since I’ve been alive. It was a good visit, but I went just about mad by the time I reached the summer of third grade. Up, dressed, and out, I flew up the stairs to the galley. I read every sign posted in each of the six languages offered. I breached the lounge, I raced into the bar, and smiled with an award-winning pose as I landed in a raging scene of college grads playing strip twister. No. Not really. Actually, the room I entered was dismally devoid of party life. The only one standing was a disgruntled bartender, tired and eager to belittle anyone he could. I went straight to him and he tapped his ring finger, waiting for my order. 110


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“Shit, nothing but shit,” I told him. He looked at me, puzzled. “Look at your bar, man. Shit,” I said again. He looked impatiently into the room where three old men played a card game, exhausted, with cigarettes billowing cityscapes and highrises above them. “Smirnoff, Jose Cuervo and Jack Daniels, man? This looks like a high school party. Is this all you have?” He looked at me serious, seriously mad. “What you want,” he said—really flat, like a saucer. “Jim Beam on the rocks with a splash of water.” I knew I had to cut the cheap with something. Dilute the callous sting of poor-man’s bitters. “No water. We don’t drink whisky with water here.” “Yeah, well until you get some twenty-five-year-old Scotch or some Black Label, you’re gonna have to cut my dose with something, old timer. My soft, white-collared American ass can’t take the sting of poverty anymore. But if it works for you, I won’t stop you,” I said, looking him deep in the face. He didn’t break eye contact as he poured ship-tank tap water into my shot glass. I paid him the dollar-fifty I owed him and huffed off to the nearest corner. Out the window, I could see the lights of Dubrovnik fading away slowly. I stirred the fouled water and ice with my finger as I contemplated my reality. Bari, Italy, in eight hours. I wondered if I could get there any faster if I lowered a lifeboat and went out on my own. I scratched at my face as I calculated the probability. It seemed feasible, I thought. I used to have a p-r-e-t-t-y s-t-ro-o-o-o-o-n-g back.

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I exhaled, and a small gnat flew out of my left nostril. It shot out like a clown at a carnival, spinning, flapping his wings madly, trying to regain control. I must have breathed him in partially without noticing just before, or maybe he’d been living in there for weeks. Who’s to say? Either way, he was probably caught in all those sticky nose hairs I had. My allergies had been going crazy since I’d arrived in Italy, so I knew he couldn’t have gone too deep. I wonder what kind of story he told his friends when he got back to the nest. “Dude, I was sucked into this big dark cave by a giant wind. The sound was unbelievably loud and whistled through giant hairs all swishing in perfect harmony. Next thing I know, I’m stuck deep, deep inside of this wet cavern and couldn’t get out. I flapped all four of my wings as hard as I could, but nothing. It had me. This weird slime had me good! It was even stickier than that dog shit we like to play on. “I kicked in the emergency buzzers when the situation got hopeless, and man, I thought that was it for me. I didn’t even twinge. That’s how strong this enveloping goop was. That’s when I started to say my prayers to the great one. Fizzy, oh great flapping father, accept me back into your egg sac as your loyal servant. I’ve annoyed thousands of humans like a good gnat should; what else can I do to redeem myself in your hundred eyes? 113


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“The lights were growing dimmer as I let go into mortality. I thought about mama and the special attention she had always given me. I was the favorite of my two hundred brothers that litter, and probably one of her top sixty of all time. So just as that white light started to open before me, the one they always talk about—well it’s true, by the way—just as that light started to spread before me, I saw the great Fizzy. On his sides, hundreds of buzzing angels flapping gracefully beckoned me into the light. Just release into the light, I finally told myself. “Then, Wham! Kablaaaam! Before I knew it I was screeching through the air. It felt just like the first day of flight school again. I wasn’t too afraid of surviving the blast after I got over the surprise. I was desperately trying to get untangled from the goop I still had stuck in my rudders and legs. I finally broke free and cut hard under a giant protective shelf. There I found a nice quiet place to lick myself back into good order. Man, I tell you, I’ve never been so close to the end. I know a gnat’s life is a short one, but I’m not ready to hang up my wings just yet.” I watched that little bugger spiral out into where my vision gets fuzzy as a sun-baked Florentine alley rose three stories high and tight all around me. Broken plaster walls painted gold showed me its broken teeth as the scorching heat of midday showered my feet. An old woman dressed in black held onto an oversized doorpost across the alley. She stepped from a back-street grocery with little bags and items wrapped neatly in paper. Rows of colorful fruit relaxed in produce boxes as they watched her ease her way back home, like she did every day, and maybe a little bit slower in these years, at least in this heat. Motor scooters buzzed by my table like gnats. Locals were all out going somewhere, crisscrossing the piazza, looking cool and stylish like only the Italians could during these months. Somehow it all worked. Somehow it ticked like a giant, compli114


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cated clock designed to confuse any foreign onlooker. I was sitting back with a cappuccino digesting all this when a big black man cast a shadow over my view. I couldn’t understand what he was shouting at me. I couldn’t identify the language, or see his face as he blocked the beating sun with his enormous head. I held my hands out in reflex and suddenly found a stack of pirated CDs in them, everything from Evanescence to Miles Davis. The words kept coming and the sun stung me in the face as he moved closer to take a seat. I said no about a hundred different ways. “DVD? DVD? Where you from? CD? CD?” I started to understand a few words as my eyes dilated and focused on his soft and plain face. “No, man. No thank you. I’m not interested. No g-r-a-a-a-az-i-a,” I told him with my crude American accent. He took the stack of CDs rather willingly, much to my surprise. Now all I had to do was get him out of that seat. He reached into his big leather bag mumbling something, following by “sexa” and “DVD.” He pulled out a new stack, this one loaded with pirated DVDs. Smarter than most, he fanned the copies out on the table for me to read. “Okay, nice, I see you have Lord of the Rings. All pirated. I should turn your ass in. Just kidding. Hey, you have Troy already, I see. Oh, and a few romantic comedies. You must really know your stuff,” I said, picking up the pile. “The only problem, my friend,” I said, flipping from front to back, “is that I live on a different continent, and the region code is—Hello!” The collection went from movies staring Hugh Grant to Huge Grand without warning. Tiny pictures on the color-printer cover showed rank sex acts being performed by dozens of headless bodies. My waking disposition wasn’t ready to deal with this. I looked over at the man sweating next to me and he nodded slowly, licking his lips. Caught in the crossfire of horrifying 115


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realities, I tossed the DVDs onto the table and they spread arrhythmically into a line of flesh and fluids. I looked back to the porn-pusher and he leaned toward me, opening his mouth. Then, on the verge of an assault, a forceful voice from afar came to my rescue. A machine gun-fire of Italian words deflated my guest-seat taker. He slowly gathered his wares with a pouting deliverance as the words kept coming. Soon he was gone. Soon it was quiet again. From the other side of the plants that split me from the table to my left came a face. Yes, a face, but maybe the word visage is more appropriate, or perhaps a vision. A woman with features more refined than a Botticelli smiled as I thanked her, now double-dazed by the oddness of the morning. “Hey, thanks for the help there.” “No problem. Where are you from?” the woman asked in perfect English. “San Francisco.” “I’ve been to San Francisco,” a new voice proclaimed, this time in a bouncy British accent. I leaned forward and saw another woman tucked behind the flowers, this one equally as gorgeous. “I was only seven years old,” she said (“years” sounding more like “yaws”), “so I don’t remember much. But I do, however, remember those delightful trolleys you have there. They are quite wonderful.” “Why yes,” I said, straightening up, putting on my best face. “I used to ride a trolley home from work, actually. It sure was a nice way to end the day. It never ceased to put a smile on my face.” “Oh, that sounds lovely,” she said, crossing her arms. “Are you traveling alone?” my morning savior inquired. “Why yes, actually.” The conversation paused and the two looked at me like my answer needed an explanation. “The trip 116


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came about quite suddenly. A friend of mine offered me a ticket anywhere in the world, and I couldn’t turn him down.” “And you chose Italy?” she asked, excited by my response. “No, actually, I’ve been to quite a few places on this trip.” “Really?” she said, sitting back, pleased, lighting a cigarette. “And where have you been?” Wildly aware that I was soaking in sweat, tucked under my greasy baseball hat, feeling like a crude American, I answered like any man with my background would have answered. I started with, “Ahhh…,” then went from there. “I spent about a week in the Czech Republic, then trained to Poland to see Kraków and Auschwitz. I went to Hungary. I visited Budapest and a city called Eger. I went to Slovenia for a few days, to Ljubljana. That was beautiful. From there I trained to Croatia where I visited Zagreb, Split, Korcula and Dubrovnik. That took me about three weeks.” “Then you came to Florence?” she asked, following along, pleased. “I landed in Italy about three weeks ago, actually.” “Really?” she said, taking a long pull from her cigarette, leaving me to fill in the space remaining. “Yes, I took a night boat from Dubrovnik and landed in Bari. I spent the day wandering the streets of Bari until a train carried me to Sorrento. From there I visited Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast—that was gorgeous. Then I took a train to Rome, where I spent a week.” “Rome,” the English girl said with a moan. “I miss Rome.” Her forlorn proclamation halted the conversation. We all looked at each other, waiting for more. “I used to live there when I was younger,” she told me as a side note. “I went to school there for four years. I miss Rome.” Again she labored these words in a playful way that only the British could get away with. 118


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“I thought it would be bigger for some reason.” “Well, it is quite large, you know,” she said quickly. “Yes, but compared to London or New York … I suppose I was expecting bigger.” “Didn’t you just love all those old sights?” the first woman said. I looked at her, transfixed by her beauty. She appeared to be of Asian decent, but mixed with something more voluptuous that accented her soft features. “I found it hard to comprehend. All those buildings and monuments sent my head spinning. It was that or my allergies. I was fairly sick most of my time there. On the third day of my lungs filling up with fluid, I decided to call an overpriced doctor to my hotel. That wasn’t too helpful, unfortunately.” I stopped for a moment after I realized I was rambling a bit. “I’m sorry, I haven’t had a proper conversation in five weeks,” I said. We all laughed. “My internal dialog is getting mixed into my words. Sorry about that.” I felt my face turn red as the two girls looked at each other with heartfelt pity. “You’re doing fine. Pull up a chair and have a chat with us, if you wish.” The invitation in their eyes was honest. “Come on over,” the other said. “Here we are.” She pushed out an empty chair. “Well, all right.” I slowly crept out of my shell as I collected my things. I had to remind myself, coach myself, to stay calm and not dive across the floral divider into their laps. I could feel my fangs and claws fighting their way out into the open as the hunger of my loneliness began to show itself to me. Calmly, calmly, I repeated. “So where were we?” “You were telling us of your trip through Italy.” “Oh yes, but first, what are your names?” A mess of words came jumbled, all at once. Then, more slowly from left to right. 119


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“Well then, I’m Julia,” the English one said. “And I’m Natalie,” the other followed, proud and confident. “I really think it’s good that you’re traveling alone.” She nodded and smiled, thinking deeply about something. “It is good. It has its challenges, of course, but it does something important to a person, I think.” She continued to look at me, nodding. “So what’s your name?” She asked, staring, waiting. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m Tommy. Tommy Aloysius. Nice to meet the both of you.” “Well then. Now that we’re all cherry, let’s get back to this trip of yours, shall we?” “Right, let’s see. Rome. Yes, Rome.” I felt the hair on my arms stand up as images of the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum, Victor Emanuel’s monument, the Pantheon and Roman Forum all formed in front of me. “Rome was amazing. From Rome I rented a car and drove to Florence via Orvieto, Civita de Bagnoregio, Pienza, Montepulciano, Deruta, Assisi and Siena.” “That sounds lovely,” Julia cheered. “Sounds like you had a good show of your trip so far. Now Florence.” She looked over to Natalie and stuck her tongue out, blowing. Natalie giggled and the two shared a quick moment. “So I haven’t heard your stories yet. Do you live here in Florence?” “Yes.” “Yes we do, for a few more days, at least.” Julia giggled, then made a sad face. Natalie smiled and took her hand, rubbing it against her cheek lovingly. “Amoré,” was all Natalie said. Julia turned my way when she was ready. “You see, we’ve been here studying at university for nine months and our tour ends shortly, I’m afraid.” “Really? How soon?” 120


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“Well, I leave in just over one week, and Nat here leaves on Monday.” They repeated their deep stare, hand-in-hand, comforting each other as a scooter zipped by us within inches, hollering into the Tuscan sun. “And will you be sad to leave Florence, or just each other?” They looked at one another and giggled. “I don’t give a fuck-all about Florence, but I will miss my lover, my wife here. Dear Nat.” “Amoré,” Natalie repeated, with longing. “Well, outside of Nat here, I have my boyfriend to miss, but I don’t think I’ll miss much of Florence. Bit of a small town, this one.” “You know, I’ve noticed that myself. This town has shrunk drastically in the past few days.” “Um,” she nodded, then she went on to describe the cold winters and lack of proper heating. She spoke of the backward school system and the politics of being in college in Italy. She commented on the hit-or-miss phone systems, the plumbing, the neurotic and messy Italian women and more. “Well, after all, this is a third-world country. I’m convinced of that now. Not so sure before I came here,” she laughed, jabbing Italy for fun. For the next five hours, we bounced from one conversation to the next as comfortable as siblings. “I like to tell people I was fingered in a pornography ring. That’s how I lost my job.” “You’re bloody kidding me?” Julia looked at me, concerned. “It just sounds so much more interesting that way. As it turns out, my boss was running a series of pornographic Web sites during work hours. When our big bosses found out, they fired the lot of us to send a message.” “My word!” “You’re totally joking with us?” 121


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“I wish I was. I wouldn’t be here otherwise. I got my severance package, a free ticket from my good friend, August, and here I am. I sold my house and put everything I own in a storage container. It’s out in the desert halfway around the world while I sit here and chat with you two. I’m completely in limbo with zero plans for the future. Now how does that sound to you?” “Well, I’m not so sure. Were you actually involved in this pornography ring?” “Noooo. Nope.” Oddly enough, I thought. “For a second there you had me thinking the DVD salesman earlier was an acquaintance of yours.” We all laughed and sipped our waters as something resembling a breeze pushed by our table. A sun-wrinkled Italian man in a full suit stood on the corner staring at us, smoking a cigarette. His look was plain and didn’t fade as we sat in a comfortable silence for a few moments. “My favorite is probably the Far East,” Julia noted. “I spent quite a few years there as well. I particularly liked Korea and Cambodia. I taught English in Cambodia when I was eighteen and had a gas of a time. I can speak just a few words in Cambodian: sit down, shut up and stop looking at my tits. They are quite short, you know, just about eye level with my chest. It was quite annoying after a while.” “Rome? The Far East? How old are you, woman?” “Oh, I’m twenty-one now. My father is a diplomat. We moved around just about every third year for most of my life.” “You could be forty-five with all your stories of traveling the world.” “Well, it does have some advantages, doesn’t it?” “How many languages do you speak?” “Well, four for certain: English, Italian, French and Japanese. I know parts of other languages but I wouldn’t count them.” 122


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“Amoré,” Natalie called to her with love-filled pride. She blew a kiss and slipped her a wink. “And you, Natalie? How many languages do you know?” “English, French, Italian, German, Spanish and pieces of Hungarian.” “Jesus Christ,” I said, feeling absolutely incompetent. “I know almost one, but usually use the short version, which centers around the word fuck.” We opened the fourth bottle of mineral water, frizzante, when the shadow of the café walls crossed the street. Still, in the shade, the heat was exhausting. In both directions down the tight alley where trash piles served as a slalom course for passing scooters, long, mustard-stained buildings divided the turquoise sky. “I’m from Switzerland. My father is Dutch and my mother is Hawaiian. The only time I’ve ever been to San Francisco was on my way to visit relatives in Hawaii. That was the only time I ever flew UM. I got totally mad at the people at the gate because—” “Excuse me, but what the hell is flying UN?” Julia shouted. “I was going to ask the same thing,” I said. “I thought Julia was the diplomat’s daughter.” “No, no. I said ‘UM.’ Unaccompanied minor. You know, I had to wear one of those humiliating badges around my neck, and board before everyone else. So, I totally chewed out the people behind the counter because our flight was overbooked and they wanted us to take the next connection. That’s my only memory of San Francisco.” “So did they kick you out of the airport, or give you the ticket?” I asked, knowing what SFO can be like. “They gave me a ticket, of course. I met a guy named Tommy that day, actually. He was a really cool guy. We kept in touch for years after that.” 123


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We continued to talk until the film on our skin and the grease in our hair begged for release. “I can’t take it anymore. I feel absolutely wretched,” Julia moaned. “Well, I told you not to order that ham and cheese plate.” “The sperm cheese and ham? I feel absolutely grotesque,” she said as she rubbed her belly. “Nat, your hair is absolutely glowing with grease. I bet it would stay back if you removed your ponytail.” Natalie slowly ran her hands back on her head, stroking her jet-black hair. She smiled with a playful tease, then pulled the band around her hair off and the whole pile sagged forward slowly. “Oh, that is absolutely wretched,” Julia shouted. Natalie laughed and leaned forward. She ran her fingers through her long straight hair, breaking up clumps and petrified strands. “That is disgusting, my love. You might have to pour boiling water on that mess a few times to get it straight.” Natalie leaned into Julia and put her arms around her neck. Julia embraced her against her delicate chest and stroked her forehead. “Nat here is my wife. We’re a couple, you see. Lovers forever. We’re to be married someday in the Swiss Alps, isn’t that right, dear?” “Yes, my lover.” “But soon you’ll be leaving me. It’s not fair,” Julia moaned. “Amoré!” Nat cried. “I’ll miss you, lover. Now let’s get out of here and get a proper shower.” We all rose with stiff legs at about four in the afternoon. As we collected our things, Nat and Julia made plans for the evening. “Yes, then let’s go to Santo Spirito for drinks around seven,” Julia confirmed. “That should be enough time.” 124


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“Shall I run home and grab a shower first?” “Come to my place. You can shower there.” “But I have nothing to wear.” “You can borrow a top from me.” “Yes, but I need to fetch some clean trousers. These are just dreadfully worn.” “Okay, then,” Natalie summarized. “You go home and phone me when you get there. I’ll run back and call around to see who else will be joining.” Then, looking to me, she smiled and extended an invitation. “You must come tonight for drinks at Piazza del Santo Spirito. We will meet at seven at Café Cabiria. We insist you be there.” “Well,” I said, picking up my empty journal and smokes, “let me check my calendar real quick.” I made like I was flipping through lists and lists of prior engagements. “Looks like we have an opening this evening at seven, actually. I’d be happy to join. Are you sure I wouldn’t be a bother?” “Not at all,” Natalie assured me. “We’d love to continue our chat then.” “Then I look forward to it.” “Very well. Pleasure to meet you. We’ll see you again soon.” “Sounds excellent. Pleasure to meet you both, too. Ciao.” “Ciao.” “Ciao for now.”

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A DRAWING ROOM OF STARS

At eight I began to think about visiting my new friends at a plaza across the bridge. It was still hot, and the sagging bed where I lay felt like a magnet pulling me closer to the fifteenthcentury floor. My room was a famous one. The herringbone parquet where my feet hit around 8:30 once belonged to the great Cosmo de Medici. It was one of his studios, built in the mid-fifteen hundreds. I could feel neither the history nor the productivity as I labored to make it out the door. On the streets, I could breathe again. The cooling air felt less constrictive under the falling sun. Almost nine and the sun still had not set. I crossed Ponte Trinita checking both ways, admiring the long line of palaces and buildings that lined the Arno from bridge to bridge. Ponte Vecchio drooped from my view with tourists and tourist-chasers all engaged in their games. I took a mental snapshot one more time, just so I could remember this small piece of my trip through Italy. Curling the dim corner that sat on the shoulder of Santo Spirito church, I rolled up my sleeves in anticipation of my second meeting with Natalie and Julia. Turning left toward Café Cabiria, I was surprised to hit a spotty crowd loitering with beers and cigarettes. I wove through the clusters like a productive American and drove my way deep into the café’s interior. 127


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“Tommy, Tommy.” I turned to find Julia tailing me, panting, with a concerned look on her face. “I thought I saw you streak by.” When she stopped before me she pushed out her left cheek and I kissed it politely, then her right, and we continued with our pleasantries. “Great to see you again.” “Well, we were getting a little concerned if you were going to make it or not. Nat and I would have been quite offended if you hadn’t shown.” “Just fashionably late is all. Where’s Natalie?” My excuse did little in the way of penance, but Julia accepted my diversion just the same. “She’s over there chatting with the dog walker. He’s a local here on the square. He’s really quite strange, but hurray for him. He’s made quite a career for himself just by walking other people’s dogs.” “Someone has to do it,” I said politely, thirsting for a drink. “Can I buy you two a drink? Please let me buy you all a drink.” “Nat, our friend Tommy here would like to buy us some drinks.” She winked, overexaggerating the excuse. She waved her over with her head. Nat took the cue with patience. She finished up her conversation with the dog walker and gave him a proper goodbye before she joined us at the bar. “Ciao, Tommy.” Nat put her soft cheek up to my lips and I kissed it gently. She turned, looking away, offering the other side for me to greet with my lips. “Ciao, Natalie. Lovely to see you again.” “So glad you made it. We were beginning to think that you might not show.” “No, no. Here I am, and I’m ready for a drink. What will you two be having?” “Spumonte Dolce.” 128


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“Yes, Spumonte Dolce, please.” “Spumonte Dolce? What’s that?” “It’s a sweet wine with bubbles.” “Like champagne?” “Not really. More like a sweet wine with gas. It’s really quite good.” “Okay, two Spumonte Dolces, and … what shall I have here?” I looked at the mediocre bottles lined up behind the barista. All the low-end American alcohol you could imagine stood in a row, laughing at me. Those two are drinking wine; maybe I should go the beer route, I thought. Keep it cool with the beer and wine vibe, but a shot of tequila or two sure sounds nice. I pushed up to the bar where the barista probed me in Italian, pushing my indecisive bar manner to a typical halt. And again, I prophetically offered, “Ahh…” “Tommy, Tommy.” I turned to find Julia shoving a man in my face. “Tommy, this is my boyfriend, Genio. Genio, this is Tommy.” The bald-headed man looked at me flatly, but a very neutral flat. Then Julia rattled off a few lines in Italian. When she was done, the fit Italian man was nodding. “Nice to meet you,” he said, at his own pace. He put his hand out a few seconds later. “Genio? Nice to meet you, too.” I looked at Julia. She seemed nervous. I looked at Natalie. She smiled. “Well, all right then, let’s get some drinks. What are you having, Genio?” “Beer. I only drink beer, or wine. I do not like spirits. Spirits are not good for me.” This came from his caveman-like bravado with kindness and security. I was a bit taken by his demeanor. I couldn’t tell if he was cocky or retarded. But he looked me in the 129


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eyes when he spoke, and that made me feel like trusting him for some reason. “What do you think I should have here, Genio?” I deferred to his hometown expertise. He rolled his upper lip and turned from side to side. “That depends if you like spirits, or soft drinks.” “Spirits. Yeah, I like the spirits tonight,” I said, drooling to get drunk. The little man inside my head was ringing his bell again, sending strong signals down to my trigger finger to fire at will, and often. “Mojito then. It will refresh you,” he said, fanning his face. “Mojito,” I repeated, disappointed. “Last time I had a Mojito I was in Miami. That was a rough fucking week, man. Okay, Mojito it is.” The barista had come and gone twelve times while we went through this routine. When I got her back over, I needed a little help to get the full order off correctly. Natalie picked up the slack in Italian and smiled at me like I’d done the whole thing on my own. Natalie was dressed in a little summer dress covered by a delicate white sweater exposing her chest. I could see her thin collarbones pushing up an elegant necklace; her skin glowed like brown honey. “So, how’s the dog walker?” I nodded with a smile. “He’s so sweet,” she said, almost moaning for him. “You make friends with all the weirdoes, don’t you, Natalie? The dog walkers, the novelists.” “All the freaks, I should say,” Julia confirmed. “Genio, Tommy here writes … how did you put it earlier, Tommy? Trashy novels? Isn’t that correct?” “He writes about traveling, sex, drugs and rock and roll,” Natalie said plainly. 130


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“Why, I don’t remember him mentioning anything about rock and roll. Did you?” she asked me. “No, but I like that. I think I’ll add it to my routine.” Genio waved his arms slowly like a marionette, putting all these pieces together. “You are a writer,” he shouted at me. “Yes, Genio. I write novels.” “What kind? What kind of stories do you write? Fiction?” “Yes, just fiction.” “This is good,” he shouted. On that note, we all collected our drinks and made our way back out to the square. I was feeling a bit insecure stepping out into the crowd of Florentine locals. The cup in my hand looked more like a salad; the little straw that hung over the side was neon green and had a corrugated crook in the middle. I wasn’t feeling too confident, to say the least. I looked over at Genio, who was leading the way. He held his pint of beer out in front of him like a man. He had two beautiful girls tucked in close behind, and I was bringing up the rear again. At least I’m with some other people, I thought. And with that excuse, I eased into the moment and tossed my sippingstraw onto the ground behind us. The night sky looked like a fresco above the church of Santo Spirito. The curved roofline of that beautiful building swooped up over the square. The surrounding buildings all gathered in her moon-shadow, and the small crowds that huddled on her steps sat quiet in intimate conversation. Julia and Genio crouched on a few stairs below Natalie and me. They whispered into each other’s ears softly. In a few days, they would be moving away from one another. It was easy to see they were taking extra care in these last precious moments. To counterbalance the romance at our feet, Natalie and I got on with some good old-fashioned shit-talking. 131


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“Italian women are slobs,” she said, leaning back, looking distinguished. “I have never seen such a terrible way to live. These women have no idea how to keep a home. They don’t know how to cook or clean. They’re lazy.” “You know, you put that beautifully. Forget all the women’s liberation business for a moment; when you say keep a home, that’s exactly right. The business of running a household is hard work. The cooking, cleaning, bill-paying, gardening, all those things need to get done at some point. I’m not saying the woman has to do everything. Trust me, I don’t believe that at all, but she does have to kick in, especially when there are kids involved.” “Exactly,” she said, pulling some hand-wipes from her purse. “Did you want one?” she asked, while I smiled at the show. “No thanks, but I love the fact you carry hand-wipes with you.” “Stop it. I have a hand thing is all.” “I love it; I’m a total neat freak.” “I’m sorry to say I am too. I’m Swiss; it’s in my blood.” She raised her hands and shoulders like she was giving up for good. “So Italian women are dirty, huh?” Natalie nodded with a smile. “That totally blows my illusion. Because I don’t know the language, I’ve been projecting my own fantasy onto them. It’s been magical. They’re all so hot.” “Well, their eating habits are another story.” “No! Don’t tell me that! I’m not listening. I’m not listening!” I shouted, covering my ears. “Using the word disorder would be a compliment.” “Really? But they’re always eating gelato and pasta. All of them are rail thin!” 132


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“They’re rail thin because they never eat. You won’t find an Italian woman eating gelato. Never. Ha!” she said, with one big laugh. “No! Ruined! My fantasies are all ruined!” “Now what kind of trouble are you two up to here?” Julia stood before us with Genio nowhere to be found. “Where’s Genio?” I asked. “He had to run home for a minute. Oh, I’m nervous. He took my bike and it’s a total piece of shit.” “He’ll be all right. What are you worried about?” “No. You don’t understand. My bike has no brakes and Genio lives at the top of a huge hill.” “Relax, Julia. Genio’s a big boy. He’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.” Julia collapsed against Natalie’s legs and crossed her arms with a sigh. “Why are men so impossible?” Natalie just shook her head and looked off into the square. “All I want is for him to feel something. Before we know it we’ll be apart, and all he has to say is that everything will work out.” Natalie laughed. “They always know the wrong thing to say, don’t they?” “Hey, wait a minute. Don’t forget you’re in the presence of a man here. Did you ever think that maybe he does feel something, and actually believes that everything will be all right?” “That’s not what we want to hear, though,” Julia sighed again. “No,” Natalie agreed. “Oh, Amoré.” She pulled back Julia’s long brown hair and stroked her forehead gently. “What do you want him to say then? I don’t get it.” “I want him to say I know how you feel, I feel that way too.” “Really? That’s it?” “And if there is anything he can do to help,” Natalie added. “What does that mean?” “Nothing really, it just shows he cares.” 133


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“Right,” I said, nodding. I wasn’t about to solve this age-old rift between men and women there, in one night, on Santo Spirito square. But there was one thing I could add. “Okay, girls, since you’ve been so kind to me, I’m going to let you in on a little man secret. I am your senior, you know.” “Yes, and how old are you, by the way?” Julia interrupted. “You know my age, and you know Nat here is twenty-three.” “Guess.” “Don’t know really. I’d say twenty-five.” I laughed, feeling sneaky and nervous as to what they might think when they found out my real age. “Nope. Guess again.” “Higher or lower?” “Guess.” “Okay. Thirty.” “Hey, that’s a pretty big jump.” “Well, you weren’t helping any.” “You jumped from twenty-five to thirty pretty quick there, sweetheart,” I said, acting hurt. “Nope. Guess again.” “Oh, you’re no fun. I give up.” “I’m thirty-two.” They both turned and looked at my eyes, closely, the wrinkles on my forehead and my forever-thinning hairline. They both nodded silently. “Well?” “That’s what I was guessing,” Natalie said. “Well, you look pretty good for thirty-two, I must say,” Julia agreed. “Good, well, thank you. Glad we got that out of the way. Now back to my point.” “Ah yes, some senior male wisdom. Please proceed.” “Right. Now you must remember one thing here, girls. For the past, say, two hundred thousand years or so, man has been the provider and protector of his family. Like it or not, that’s the way it’s been. Men went out to kill the food and to fight the 134


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wars. Women stayed at home, had the babies and cooked the meat, or some version of that. Now, flash forward to, say, the last forty years, since these roles have changed. Now the lines are all fucked up and families are wrecked because of it, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make here. One thing hasn’t changed, though. When a man’s mate is in trouble, he feels the need to protect and fix. It’s instinct. It’s thousands and thousands of years of instinct working against him. That’s why you get the same answer from every man on the planet when you’re having an emotional crisis, dig? You say, ‘I’m sad, I feel horrible that we have to say goodbye in a week.’ The guy’s response is something like this: First he listens; then he identifies the problem. It’s not life threatening or a real emergency; it’s only you having some feelings about an event seven days away. He decides he doesn’t have to run to the woods, or off to war. Then come the dreaded words, ‘It’s okay, baby, everything will be all right.’ But he truly means it, and he’ll worry about the sadness of your departure when the time comes. Now does that help any?” “No.” “No, not really.” “Hum,” I said, slamming the last bit of my drink, falling back onto the stairs. “Women, totally insane.” Julia and Natalie continued to talk while I laid back and looked up at the stars. Italy, I’m in fucking Italy was all that was going through my mind. I laughed and rolled around on my back. I looked over at Nat and Julia and they were snuggling close, sharing something intimate between close friends. They were so different from my friends back home. We hadn’t talked about drugs or prostitution once since we’d met. We hadn’t talked about getting so drunk that we had some weird bodily malfunction, or spending thousands of dollars at a strip club. We hadn’t talked about lost babies or the distress of never-ending 135


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summers of 108-degree heat. There was no desperation in their eyes. There was no shadow that followed them, that talked them into bad decisions over and over again. They were good girls, good solid girls from good families with good morals. They were beautiful in many ways; they spoke multiple languages, had been all over the world, and were barely in their twenties. I felt fortunate to have met them, lying there in the warm night air. I felt fortunate because they gave me hope that I might find a woman as well-rounded and undamaged as they were. I would have put a ring on either one of their fingers right there if I could have. I wouldn’t have hesitated for a second. I pushed myself upright as Julia rose before us. “Okay then, I must be off. Nat, will you be staying?” “I think I’ll stay for a bit; that is, if you’ll be staying, Tommy.” “Sure, I could use another drink.” “Me, too.” “Another Spumonte Dolce?” “Yes, please.” “And you, Julia, will you be at the café again tomorrow?” “I’m afraid not. Nat and I were just discussing it. Would you like to join us in the rose garden tomorrow afternoon? We’ll be studying, but we thought you might like to do some writing there. Only if you wish, though; you are not obligated.” I kissed Julia softly on each cheek as she made her exit. “I’d love to meet you there.” “Right-o, Nat will give you instructions. Ciao for now.” “Ciao.” “Ciao, Amoré!” “Natalie, I’ll be right back with a few drinks. Do you mind waiting alone?” “Not at all,” she said, with a playful smile. 136


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On my way to the bar, I realized that Natalie and Julia had brought out the gentleman in me. “So you do exist,” I said, clicking my hard soles against the evening cobbled street.

137


FLORENCE WITH A VIEW

I sat on a Tuscan hillside popping cherries into my mouth, looking down at a sweeping view of Florence. The royal rose garden was dotted with manicured varieties from all over the world. I spit cherry pits into the shade, mesmerized by the view. “Incredible,” was all I could repeat. “No. Don’t get in my sun.” “Look out, Nat. I’m going to give you a tattoo.” Julia squatted on Natalie’s back with a Sharpie in her hand and began to write on her shoulder with a devious grin. “No. What are you doing?” Natalie moaned, waking slowly from a sun-induced trance. “There we are. I’d say that’s just about perfect.” “What are you doing to me?” Natalie repeated, starting to realize what was going on. She spun and tried to knock Julia off her back. “Hey. Nice try, Nat, but I’m afraid you’ll have to give it a better show than that,” she said, dodging Natalie’s failed attempt at dragging her to the ground. Julia took advantage of her exposed belly and shamelessly dove on top of her. She rubbed her sweaty stomach all over Natalie’s mostly bare chest. “Sweet. Girl-on-girl action,” I mumbled a little too loud. Julia looked over with a disapproving grin as Natalie wrapped 139


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her legs around her back. She began to gyrate clumsily with her tongue half out. “See what you’ve started,” she told me. Julia collapsed on top of Nat again and the two went from an innocent sex act to a long snuggle. I reached for another handful of cherries as they continued with their fun. It was all so innocent I didn’t give it a second thought. “These postcards sure are ugly, aren’t they?” I said, flipping through the small deck I was working on intermittently. “This was my only assignment for myself today. Fill out and send, let’s see, four, five, six, seven postcards. With this view keeping me mesmerized, I’m not sure if I’ll get through it.” “Let us see, Tommy. Hold them up.” “Check this out. Don’t you just love the squiggly neon border on this one?” “Rank.” “That’s bad.” “Or this one. If you look a little closer you’ll see this blurry night view of Florence is really cockeyed to the right. And this one, four fuzzy pictures of a town that could be anywhere. Shit, this could be San Francisco, actually.” “Let’s see.” “What are those there?” Julia pointed to the bottom of my pile. “Oh, these,” I laughed. “You’re going to love these ones.” I handed the three black-and-white cards over to Natalie and Julia pulled in close. They looked at them, confused. They turned them over and over; they read the fine print. “I don’t get it. These look like they came out of someone’s printer.” “Yeah, I think they probably did. My hotel gave them to me, or should I say pushed them on me. It was a bit weird, but 140


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they’re just starting out. They wanted me to send these to my friends so they would come and visit.” “No!” “Yep.” “But they’re absolutely dreadful. They look cheap, and what the hell is this picture, anyway?” “It’s the alley out back where all the pigeons hang out. It’s right next to my bed. They coo all night long. It’s getting to be a problem. I’ve been thinking about buying a BB-gun, or some Alka-Seltzer.” “You wouldn’t,” Julia protested. “So you know about Alka-Seltzer and pigeons in England, too, I see.” “And in Switzerland.” We all laughed as I swiped the cards from their hands. “This studying bit isn’t going too well for you, is it Julia?” “I know,” she held the line long and frustrated. She jumped from Nat’s side to her own towel grabbing her book. “I’m going to fail this exam. There is no way around it, I’m afraid.” “Hey look, that crowd of girls are now moving on to Yoga.” “What? No more picture poses in the garden?” “I wonder where they are from,” Nat chimed in. “They look Austrian; they’re definitely not Swiss.” “They look fine to me,” I said, with a dog voice. “You know, I think I need one of you two to pinch me. I’m sitting in this beautiful garden, the sun is out with a few puffy cumulus clouds skating along the horizon for effect, surrounded by all these nymphs dancing and skipping all around me. It’s heaven. I think I’m really in heaven.” “It is perfect, really. I don’t quite think I’d put it like you did there, Tommy, but we get your point.” “I’m getting hungry,” Natalie whined. 142


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“Well, look at the time. We’ve been here half the day already. It’s getting on seventeen now. Shall we get an apitito, dear lover?” Nat nodded her head yes and smiled. “Maybe we should go out tonight for dinner.” “No, that’s too expensive. Let’s go to Standa on the way home and cook a big meal at your place. Tommy, are you okay with eating in tonight?” “Do I have an option?” “No.” “Well then, there you have it.” “What shall we have?” “How about seafood curry with rice?” Natalie asked. Julia and I looked at each other, doubtful. “Or teriyaki shrimp sushi. I still have some seaweed at home from last time, remember?” Julia shook her head from side to side. “How about McDonald’s?” Julia shouted. “Come on, Tommy, you’re a fast-food-eating American. What do you say to that idea?” “Naw. I don’t think so.” “No. Let’s just cook some vegetables and pasta to keep it easy. I don’t want to cook the night away.” “No, neither do I.” “Call Genio and see if he’ll cook for us. Yeah!” “Poor Genio. He should be out of his exam by now. Let’s give him a ring.” Julia picked up her cell phone and rolled toward the roses. “I’ve got an idea,” I said. “Here, write a secret message to Julia on this postcard. I’ll do the same and mail it to her before she can read it.” “That’s a great idea!” “Oh, and let’s send her this ugly printout one I got from my hotel!” 143


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“Great! This is just great! Here, let me write first.” “Okay,” I said, handing her a blank card. “Now, Natalie.” “Yes. What?” “What’s your address?” “My address? I thought we were sending this to Julia. Oh, you sneaky man. This is a great idea!” “All right,” Julia said hanging up the phone. “It’s all set. Genio will cook for us.” “Mmmmm.” Natalie rubbed her belly with wide eyes. “Genio is from Naples. He’s probably the best cook I know. He’ll deliver something worth eating. That’s for sure.” “I have a bottle of white wine I’ve been carrying since Eger, Hungary. How about I bring it over and we start with that.” “That sounds lovely,” Julia said, lying down at Natalie’s feet. “Don’t look.” “At what?” “Tommy and I are sending you a postcard to remember this day in the garden.” “Well, that’s quite nice.” “Yeah, but guess which postcard you’re getting?” I laughed, holding up the abstract black-and-white hotel advert. “Brilliant, just no penises on this one, okay? My father will have an absolute fit.” “Here, Julia, let’s fill this one out for Natalie.” She grabbed the card excited and began to write. “It’s okay to draw penises on mine. My father would love it,” she laughed. “I’ll take this last one here, thank you, Tommy. Of course, Nat and I will have to send you one, too.” “Certainly,” I said, flattered. And on that note we finished our postcards, pinched and pushed each other around for 144


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another hour or two, then made our way back down that grassy blanket of rose petal perfection like the Three Musketeers.

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I stood in the mirror holding a stomach-roll in one hand, and pulling up my pants with the other. I had shrunk three belt sizes during my trip, but somehow this weird flap of fat remained that flopped over my pant line. I was two hours late for dinner already and deep, deep in the center of a fashion crisis. All my clothes were filthy. My shirts were too big, my pants too loose, my little paunch stuck out awkwardly, making everything look off. I pulled out the only dress-shirt I had off the floor, from under my suitcase, and sniffed it. I gagged. I looked in the mirror. I looked at my watch. “That’s it!” I shouted. “I’m going to bail on dinner and never see Julia and Natalie again!” I looked very serious staring at myself. “Fuck it! This is too humiliating.” As if being in Italy wasn’t enough to make you feel miserable about who you are, add a couple of gorgeous girls half your age and weight and see how that goes. “I can’t do it,” I shouted with my hands in the air. Then my less dramatic side kicked in and I ran for an iron. On the bed, spitting steam from all sides, I attacked my rancid button-up with conviction. “I’m going to make that dinner even if it kills me, god dammit. I’m a man of my word, alleged pornographer or not.” 147


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Another half-hour went by and I found myself in front of the mirror again. I was trying to perfect the bell curve of my tuckedin shirt. You know, the part that hangs over your pants above your belt. For some reason it just didn’t want to lie down. I cinched my baggy jeans tight around my still disheveled dressshirt one more time as tears fell down my face. I started to hyperventilate. “FUCK IT. Fuck it, Fuck It, FUCK IT! There it is, like it or not.” I was serious this time, and gave myself a stern last look in the mirror. “This is you. This is who you are right now. Be proud. Now go!” I shouted. I took the orders well. I pushed up my sleeves, spit-shined my hard-soles, and hit the door with a bottle of white wine under my arm. “There he is!” Natalie shouted from a second-story window as I turned the corner. “Come on up,” she yelled, exhaling smoke into the night air. “You’re never going to believe this,” I said, standing in a tight kitchen. Genio was cooking, and Nat and Julia were smoking at the table by the window. They all watched me while I wiped the panic from my face. “Forget all the bullshit little self-inflicted incidences that made me two-and-a-half hours late; they’re nothing compared to what just happened.” “What, what happened?” Natalie coaxed. “Well,” I laughed, taking a seat at the table, shocked, “I was running across Ponte Vecchio here, dressed as you see, with my sleeves rolled up and a bottle of white wine under my arm when a guy tried to stop me. That bridge can be kind of scary at night, so obviously I didn’t stop.” “Of course not,” Julia added. 148


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“So I kept jogging and noticed this guy was running after me. I kind of freaked out a bit, and ran a little faster until he finally said ‘Wait,’ or something like that. So I stopped and he came right up to me. He said ‘Hi’ and that was it. ‘Yes, can I help you?’ I asked, waiting for some scam or another. He just smiled and looked away. ‘Hello,’ I said, ‘I’m late. Can I help you with something?’ I tried to be tough as I could, but come on.” I laughed, smiling like a teddy bear. “So he finally asked me if I was going to a party. I said yes, and that I was already late. He just stood there, acting weird. I stepped back and he said, ‘Wait. Um. Are you gay?’ Then it all made sense, but it totally caught me off guard.” “Ha!” Julia shouted. “You got picked up on Ponte Vecchio!” Natalie shouted, laughing hysterically. Julia slapped her palms against the table, winking at Nat. I just sat there in disbelief. “This is Italy,” Genio spoke his first words of the night. “Italians hit on everything,” he nodded. Nat and Julia continued laughing as Genio kept nodding matter-of-factly. “Man, I’m from San Francisco. You’d think I’d be ready for something like that. I guess those three years in Tucson made me soft.” “It was totally a compliment, Tommy.” “Yes, you made the grade,” Julia applauded. I looked to Genio and he chuckled to himself. After I computed the event, I dropped my insecurity and felt better about my earlier fashion crisis. Natalie handed me a glass of wine. “Shit, I was skipping across the bridge with a bottle of white wine under my arm. I was an open target.” We all busted up this time, and Genio brought a big pot over to the table. “This is my very first homemade Italian dinner,” I told Genio. “This is a big moment, then,” he said. 149


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“A toast, to the chef.” I raised my glass toward the fifteenthcentury chandelier. “Here, here.” “Cheers.” “Cheers.” “Thank you for having me, all. It is an honor to be here,” I said taking my seat. “Cheers.” “Cheers.” “This isn’t just any ordinary meal either, Tommy. Genio is an amazing cook. This is a Naples specialty.” Genio shook his head no, then it turned to kind of a yes. “In Italy, food is everything,” he said seriously. “Everything.” The food was AMAZING. After two bowls of pasta and a cigarette, the girls split off into a high-pitched ramble while Genio and I were left alone for guy talk. “This summer, I will work in Spain at a big club. I work as a bouncer there. It’s not nice, but…,” he shrugged his shoulders. “I get paid, sometimes, to do things I do not like.” He raised his shoulders again, staring at me. Then he leaned forward, shaking his head. He extinguished his cigarette in the pile of butts between us. He found my eyes again and finished his sentence. “What can I do? It is my job.” “Why Spain?” “There is demand for people from Naples there. There is a connection.” He put his index fingers together slowly, only touching them after he nodded about ten times. “I see,” I said. I was clearly in the Sopranos zone, so I didn’t push it. Instead of getting involved, I just changed the subject a bit. “How long have you been studying in Florence?” 150


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“This is my fourth year here.” He eased back in his chair, rubbing his belly with one hand, and wiping his forehead with the other. “I do not like it,” he nodded. “Really? What’s not to like?” “This, Florence, is just a town, a small town. Naples is a city. You understand?” “Sure. Cities have a lot more to offer. Anything you want, night or day.” “Exactly. This is what I miss. But it has been good for me to get away from my family.” He began to shake his head again. He pulled in closer. “I was getting into too much trouble in Naples. Stupid,” he tapped his temple. “Stupid things are easy to do there.” “I see,” I let hang as I tried to avoid the “family business” subject for the second time. “So what are you studying here?” He waited a few seconds before he felt like answering. “I am an artist, like you. I am in love with life, I do not want to harm anyone or anything.” “A hippie, I see.” I said jokingly. “No,” he said calmly. “I am just one man. One man who listens and understands people, life around me.” “Cool, man. That’s good. The world needs more people like you.” Genio lifted his arms and swooped Julia into his side with a smile. He shook his head again slowly with love in his heart, and kissed her on the top of her head. “Oh, you,” Julia moaned. “Why do you have to leave me, you big brute?” Genio used me as a go-between. “She asks me these things.” He paused, staring at me in thought, then kissed her again without saying another word. For a moment there, I thought he was going to cry. It was almost 151


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poetic how this rough-and-tough bad guy had a soft underbelly like the rest of us, perhaps even more. “Tommy. You haven’t seen my place yet. Come on, I’ll give you the tour.” Natalie rose, dressed casually in black. Her outfit clung to her young body and fit well. Her hair was down and parted from the side, giving her the appearance of a runway model on her day off. “Let’s start with my room,” she said. Did you all catch that? She invited me into her bedroom. Now, ordinarily I would have had all bells ringing from an invitation like that. Sirens would have been sounding, crowds would have been cheering, the symphony inside my head would have been at full attention and ready to play a sweet victory melody for my impending sexual success. But things weren’t like that between us. I’m not sure why or even how that could have been possible, but our relationship was respectfully platonic. “It’s half packed now, but here’s my room. Here’s my bed, my closet and my desk.” “Are these your pictures here?” I said moving closer to her bulletin board. “Yes. Those are all my friends back home. There’s my best friend and my boyfriend. Here’s my sister; she’s so crazy. Look at these pictures. She’s a nut, like me.” “So what will you do when you get back home?” “I work for Marlboro during the summer selling cigarettes and merchandise in the bars. During the days we swim in the lake, barbeque at the lake, sit on someone’s porch by the lake. I can’t wait to go home. Florence has been an amazing experience, but there’s no place like home.” Home, I thought. Where was that? Tucson was something of my past, this I knew. Only California lay ahead of me. Then it dawned on me. I was finally going home to San Francisco, after 152


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all these years and miles traveled. I giggled with excitement as Natalie tugged me down the hall. “Now here is where the messy Italians sleep. Look,” she pointed to two single beds pushed together. “These two sleep side by side. Don’t you think that’s a little strange?” I began to tune Natalie out as I started to piece something amazing together. Despite all the hookers, strippers and bar-hags I had been hanging around for the last several years, I still did have respect for women. I was able to appreciate a lady when I saw one, and treat her with the respect she deserved. I could be a gentleman. This realization shocked me, but it felt good. It was like the last piece of the old me had returned, ready for life again. Ready for love again. Ready for a move back to San Francisco. “Well, kids, we’re going to run. Genio is falling asleep, the poor thing.” “Yes,” he said, putting his head back against the wall, pulling Julia in close. “I had exams today. I woke up early.” He tilted his head sideways in a sleep position. “Well, I guess this is goodbye, Tommy.” Julia made her way toward me with little emotion. “Actually, Julia, I invited Tommy to my goodbye dinner on Sunday night.” Julia turned from me toward Nat with an uncomfortable and almost upset grin. I gave them some distance in the discomfort. “I will be more awake tomorrow night, I promise,” Genio added, while Julia and Natalie negotiated the uncomfortable moment with secret looks and few words. I smiled and ran my hand along the counter next to me. “Okay, Tommy. We’re going to meet on the steps of St. Croche tomorrow at nineteen hundred for some drinks and apititos if you’d like to join.” 153


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“You’re not obligated to, Tommy. It’s like we’re dictating his entire social schedule, Nat. He is a big boy, you know.” Julia turned sharply, upset by something. “Sure,” I said, trying to smooth out the late night wrinkle. “I’ll call you tomorrow afternoon to see where we’re all at, Natalie. How does that sound?” “Great, Tommy. You have my number, right?” She gave me a warm smile, making up for any confusion. “Goodnight.” Genio bowed out quietly after Julia. “Thanks for the fun, folks. Sleep well and be good little kiddies.” Natalie and I watched them spin down the staircase before we said anything else. “You are still planning on joining us Sunday for my farewell dinner?” “If you want me there, I’d be honored.” “Because I’ve already included you in the reservation.” “That’s very sweet of you. You two have been very kind to me. I feel like your little adopted friend.” “Stop that now, Tommy. It is a pleasure to have you around. Now go home and get some rest.” She put a cheek out for me to kiss. “So we can meet again tomorrow to continue our chat.” She turned, and I kissed the other. “Very well. Good night, and I apologize once again for my tardiness.” “That’s all right. Good luck on your way home across Ponte Vecchio. No more skipping, you.” “See you tomorrow,” I laughed. “Ciao!” I passed through her threshold out onto cobblestones with mixed emotions. I felt like I was wearing my welcome thin, or at least my timing was off. Here I was, a newcomer, adding complications to the last days of parting friends and lovers. 154


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I didn’t meet the gang for drinks the next night. I even debated going to Natalie’s goodbye dinner that Sunday. It just didn’t feel right. After some careful thought and a tentative phone call, I told her I would skip dinner, and drop by at the end of the evening to say farewell.

155


TOGETHERNESS ABOVE ALL ELSE

I sat in a quiet tratoria and wrote dozens of pages. The food kept coming, course after course. The words kept flowing, verse after verse. I wrote about the situation I had fallen into in Florence. I had been there myself several times. It’s hard leaving close friends for different lands, new frontiers, more experience. Those are intimate moments, special moments. I waffled between a quick visit and not showing up at all to Natalie’s goodbye dinner. It just sounded uncomfortable, and hard. I thought about just letting the whole thing pass me by so they could have their moment to themselves, and I could skip the stress. But there was a piece that just didn’t feel right. I didn’t give them a proper thank you for taking me into their lives in Florence. They had added something special to my trip, and I wanted to put closure to our connection. I’m a man now, I thought. Real men respect things like proper good-byes, and their word. If I didn’t tell Natalie I’d stop by after dinner, then maybe I could have let the whole thing slide. But I told her that I would come, and I knew what had to be done. I had my hard-soles on again. This time my clothes were clean and pressed. I put on my favorite shirt, and felt comfortable in my skin as I took the back alleys to a restaurant across the bridge. With a bottle of wine in my hand—this time a Tuscan red—I listened to the rich echo of my heels scuffing against hundreds of years of passing life. Florence has seen dozens of friends and lovers part over the centuries. Tonight would be just 157


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another night to her, but to a table full of twenty-somethings, this was more than a milestone. It was evidence that there’s something more in life than places and things; it was proof that we’re not alone, that we’re not tragically flawed or unlovable, that we can belong somewhere and fit in well. Tracing the pale backline of houses where families raised each other on love, I thought about my departure from Tucson. I thought about all my friends that came to honor me the night before I left. We all drank and told stories like any other night, but every once in a while, there were little peaks of emotion that shone through. The good-byes came too early, as they usually do, and in those moments a connection validated my existence, and my value to others. I jumped up a set of marble steps to run my fingers through a neighborhood fountain. An angel spit water in a perfect stream into a pool below. I laughed nervously as I wet my lips and forehead. The summer heat was still persistent, even in the dark hours. I turned toward the restaurant where Natalie and her closest friends sat and felt sad. Sad for all of the people and towns I’ve said goodbye to over the years—the special ones, the ones that mattered at the end of the day, or the end of a life. I set my sights on California again as I walked through the restaurant toward the back. I thought about my friends and family waiting for me to return. The thought quelled my nervous stomach as I approached an impressive feast. I caught Julia’s attention first. She looked confused and surprised by my presence, and overwhelmed by the emotion of the night. Genio looked up and smiled, pointing to a nearby seat. Natalie stood at the head of the table, entertaining as many as she could. I watched her as she radiated. The crowd that looked up at her was weeping, but she smiled that proud smile of hers, 158


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turning toward me slowly. And when our eyes finally made contact in the midnight, she gave me a wink, and that’s all I needed.

159


AN ISLAND BEYOND THE MIND

I got back from St. Mark’s Square worn and tired from the day. I beat my way through the crowds at the Corner Museum, Doge’s Palace, and the glorious sinking church that symbolizes Venice’s once-great fame, now one-way path of decay. I had managed to get a connection to Prague, though. That alone put an enormous smile on my face as I hit the pillow in my fourthstory bed. I got a great deal on the flight. The only catch was that it didn’t leave until 8:25 P.M. the next day. I laughed when I realized my worst troubles were that I had to spend an extra day in Venice. Satisfied with where things were at, I let myself fall into a broken, dream-filled siesta. Tons of swaying images mixed in the blender of my mind while I waited for passage into REM. It was a thin sleep. Childhood memories dominated the scenes. Visions of my life past swirled and mixed, some good, some terrible, some ridiculous. Then I saw a narrow tunnel of loved ones standing before me, talking and carrying on like I was really there in their presence. There was no drama, there was no internal dialog, just a peaceful feeling that everything would be okay. A door slammed and my head bounced up off the pillow. The heaviness of my nap was still hovering as I looked around the room. I peeked at the window and the sun seemed to be about as bright as where I’d left it. I took a deep breath as I examined my watch from afar. Did I have it in me to fall back 161


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asleep? I thought. Probably not. I grabbed my watch with spite and pulled it into my forever-narrowing focus. I did the troubled math. It took a few seconds to calculate, but apparently I had been down for about an hour. I stared at the ceiling for a while and contemplated my itinerary for the following day. Should I visit the rest of the “to do’s” listed in my enslaving guidebook? Or should I do something different for a change? I reached for the thick and worn travel guide from my thin sheets. I crinkled up my pillow into a reading position and began to thumb through the Venice chapter, again. I started at the beginning, and with the comfortable laziness of coming back to the present moment, I kept reading. I re-read each destination description, the tips, the restaurants, the lodging recommendations, the history, the politics. It all looked the same. Every place I had been to on this trip had similar experiences. I was tired of checking off visited locations. It felt like work. I didn’t realize how much so until I lay there soaking it all in. The entire eightweek stretch seemed like a chain of marching orders set by me, mandated by the cult leader, Rick Steves. I felt like an idiot there in that rock-hard bed. I felt like I had given something away, let a great opportunity slip from me somehow. I stared down at that Venice chapter and felt done. I let the pages flip between my fingers as they went from Venice, to Florence, to Orvieto, to Siena, to Rome, to Sorrento, to Amalfi and Pompeii. I scanned all the notes and checkmarks I had made in the margins. God damn, I had covered some ground. When I got to the back I hit the calendar printed in the appendix. I counted the days since I’d left Tucson, since I was fired as an alleged pornographer. I was surprised to see all the time gone by, and that my severance was coming to an end. I reached over to the end table where a glass of water sat to snatch 162


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a drink. It all hit me there in that moment, sipping on Venice tap water. I had reached the end of my “to do’s” for this trip. I had reached the end of corporate dick-sucking. I was free of oppressive desert heat. I was miles away from strip clubs, strip malls and long alcoholic nights lined with white powder. I was free as a man can be, and in Venice, Italy, no less. Finally, I felt completely alive. I raised my glass to the corporate ghosts in Darien, Connecticut, with a smile as wide as the Golden Gate Bridge. I laughed and kicked my feet between the sheets, reveling in the beauty of the moment. I flipped through my guidebook one more time and saw the mass of graffiti and checks. I let out a big sigh, noticing it only after it had fallen. I was done with that old book. I was done with its wisdom, and now had the last few days of my trip all to myself, loose as I wanted it to be. I was off the grid and the charge of it lifted me from my mattress. The sun was falling sepia across the runny palaces along the Grand Canal. I was perched up against the front of the boat so I could soak it all in. My wet eyes glistened with a new approach to my time abroad. I was dressed in a new shirt, I had my hardsoles on, and for once I probably looked my age. I felt older, too; maybe “more like a man” is a better way to phrase it. No more baseball hat, T-shirt or tennis shoes. I felt like I was walking taller as I stepped onto the Vapparetto landing in front of the famous Harry’s Bar. I peeked in to see if I could catch the ghost of Hemingway, but he had long departed. The cash machine had taken over the joint, and the maitre d’ chased me out with a scornful eye. I hit St. Mark’s for the second time that day in the sweet spot. The marbled sky illuminated the golden mosaics that crowned the four doorways of St. Mark’s Basilica. The Doge’s Palace looked prouder by night. The sea of tourists somehow 163


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cheapened her by day, but now she stood tall, remembering all the years when she was at her best. I spun around the square; the pigeons were gone and all that was left pecking were young lovers nestled tight within each other’s arms. I lit a Monte Cristo number four as I listened to the dueling orchestras battle for the most kisses. The scene was textbook perfect. The bell tower chimed as my feet jumped with elation. I still felt high from the release of a long travel road behind me. Smoking that old stogie, I reflected on my fantastic trip. Only a few bonus days to go, I thought. So I decided to let it all hang out a bit. I wandered over to the Eden Bar on the Square; I saw the liquor bottles lined up from the pavers. My cigar needed a friend. He found a friend in a glass of Black Label. Swishing and smoking the night away under newly piercing stars, my engine kept winding up. My last night in Italy, I thought. I looked out into the square, to my cigar and whiskey. I couldn’t contain myself anymore; I had to hit the streets. I fled into the back roads of Venice like it was pathology. In and out I wove, puffing and studying every crease, every broken plaster wall that belly-folded over in the warm summer night. I have a completely open day tomorrow, I thought. Why don’t I run out to Ferrara, the only place I really wanted to visit in Italy? It was the home of my favorite film director, Michelangelo Antonioni. A pilgrimage! I decided. It had fallen off the itinerary at some point, but that evening Ferrara was making a sweeping comeback victory after a few sips of spirits. Yes! I will make a pilgrimage tomorrow. It will be perfect. I’ll check out, lock my bags at the station, take a train out to Ferrara, and get back in time for my flight to Prague. I kept walking faster. I got lost. I got more lost. I thought through all the details on a buzzing 164


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mind. I had a slice of pizza. I had a scoop of gelato, and walked home convinced that I would spend my last twenty-four hours in Italy the way I wanted to, enjoying every perfect last bit.

165


A PILGRIM ON THE MARCH

I woke up to the sound of a maid pounding on my door, feeling like death. “Housekeeping. Housekeeping!” “Go away,” I shouted. I felt like I was in some dirty Mexican motel; then I remembered I was in Venice. Somehow that made me feel a little bit cleaner. “Housekeeping! Check-out is at 10:00 A.M.” “All right! Give me some time, okay?” My head pounded and my tongue felt carpeted with deep Havana shag. My watch told me I was long since late for checkout, and nearing my departure time to Ferrara. Remembering the pilgrimage, I sprang from my bed. I flew into the desk and chairs where my stuff was all scattered, heaving most of it and myself onto the floor. I got back on my feet and straightened my underwear. “Ten o’clock is check-out. We have a very full hotel tonight. You have to leave!” “All right! Goddammit!” I scratched my head wondering why, now, after the past four weeks in Italy, does the first person I meet who speaks English have to be the maid who’s trying to kick me out? “I need ten minutes! Ten minutes and I’ll be out of here, all right?” The knocking went away. The maid went away. I took a shower and crammed all my little papers and pens and bottles 167


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into my bags. I shoved my way down the staircase, flight by flight. I checked out, sweating already with a fake, don’t-overcharge-me smile and broke free from shelter into light. The day was hot and humid already, and the smell of my upper lip made me want to vomit. I rattled down the stone streets that led to the train station, wiping sleep from my eyes. I stopped at a pharmacy to get some more allergy medication, I bought a few bracelets for my surrogate nieces, and huffed it out down the flooding tourist drag that led to the train terminal. I checked my bags, and the guys who would be responsible for my most important belongings, with a skeptical glare. Three sweaty Italians all loitered, trying to avoid work of any kind. We all sized each other up, then decided we didn’t care. I took my ticket check sternly, and thankfully, so they wouldn’t riffle through my belongings. I left with a deep “ciao,” as manly as I had heard from Genio, my mobster friend from Naples. As I blew out the doors free of my bags, but not of my hangover, I heard the whistle blow for Ferrara. I sprinted—well, walked—to first class where my twentyeuro seat waited comfortably. My mind was spinning like a plate in a circus act when I collapsed into the security of first-down complete. Then the madness began. The train was divided in half by an aisle way. On my side was a line of single, facing seats. On the other side, a series of booth-like compartments went down the row. In the space to my back, a man (American) was reading pages out of a Christian handbook to his wife and kids at full volume. He sounded like he was auditioning to be the announcer on The Price Is Right. His inflection, practiced; his emotion, too precise to have any feeling at all. His voice, deep and rich. He talked about Jesus and his platonic relationship with Mary Magdalene. And why all this celibacy in Catholicism? His mother Mary was a virgin who 168


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miraculously got knocked up by … God? And Jesus, a cool, good-looking cat who hung out with hookers never had sex? Come on now. The man’s two children played a game like … good little Christians? While their father punished us all with a relentless, breathless barrage of Jesus-speak as the train began to roll down the tracks. The booth kitty-corner to my front had four seats filled with the finest imported Midwest American fat. A family lunching on oversized hot dogs and potato chips, slurped sodas and played little portable game machines while they whined about the food, the heat, their seats. The father felt the need to lift his three hundred-pound body every five minutes to scold his kids, each time grabbing at his seat-back to push himself into a weeble-wobble upright. He would bend over, spreading a dark moon over my light as he yelled into those poor kids’ faces. “Because I told you to!” He would dance in superiority, as if he needed the reminder that he was better than his pre-teen kids. And in the booth directly across from me … well, that was something to behold. A mother, a father, an eldest son, perhaps twelve, and a bright little eight-year-old girl (all American) fought it out for the brattiest child award. The mother took the lead early by sheer volume. The father rattled his newspaper, bothered as he held it up for protection and emphasis, engaging sharply then dislocating every now and then. The kids—well, they were just being kids, and I could see it on their faces as they watched their parents act like little children before them. They were baffled by the role confusion. Who were the parents if all of them were acting like children? “You have to mark down the date and time or the conductor will give us a ticket. The book said we have to do it immediately after we get on board, before the conductor comes to check us 169


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in. Hello! Are you listening to me?!” The kid with the beard dropped his paper and snapped back. “I wrote the time in, dear, just like I was supposed to.” He raised his pulp protection before the woman’s eyes cut him to shreds. The woman reacted immediately, crushing his paper into his lap. “You know, sometimes you really blow me off!” The son shuffled a deck of cards, trying to mitigate. “Dad, what wins, a three-of-a-kind or a full house? Dad?” The volley continued. “Yesterday you didn’t want to know what I did with the log. You didn’t give a shit what I did as long as I took care of it. I wrote the time and date in it this morning at the hotel. Now you want to know about the log. What the hell’s wrong with you?” “Dad? Does a full house beat a three-of-a-kind?” And from the other booths, a kaleidoscope of American decay swirled. “Mary Magdalene was most probably a charity case for Jesus. The mighty message of Jesus extended into many areas of the populace. There is no reason why he wouldn’t take pity on Mary Magdalene as he would a leper, or thief.” “Mom, I want another Coke.” “Billy keeps taking my chips. Mom! Bill took my chips.” Then the great moon would rise, pulling down half the train as he struggled to his feet. “I thought I told you this once already today,” the big moon shouted with his sausage finger in the loud kid’s face. “Goddammit, you be good or else….” Or else what, I wondered? “Well, if you just did something for this family every once in a while it sure would be nice, instead of hiding behind that paper all the time. Show some emotion for your kids! Look at them! You don’t even know them.” 170


“Mom? Do you know? Does a three-of-a-kind beat a full house?” “The greatness of Jesus’ celibacy is the ultimate message of his teaching. Sacrifice, above all else, is the greatest gift anyone could give to the Lord.” “I work my fucking ass off for you and this family. Do you know what I went through to be able to afford this trip?” “I’m hungry, Mom.” “You just had a hot dog.” “I’m still hungry.” “Does a full house…” “Soon Jesus will come and decide who is righteous enough to enter into the kingdom of heaven. It will be those who follow the message of the Lord, who live by his example.” I looked down at my watch and sagged into the righteousness of my American kin. I felt like blowing a whistle and sending the whole cabin to their rooms without supper. Then I thought about my over-the-shoulder sermon as the tracks lay on. Live by his example, I thought. What would Jesus think if he were in this boxcar now? Would he show kindness in this bizarre free-for-all? Or would he just turn the adults into toads, and let the kids ride with the conductor? In the clutter of confusion, I retreated into a narrow space of peace to focus on my own journey.


DOWNHILL ALL THE WAY

“Now this is fucking cool,” I said, accenting “cool” like a pimp from the ’70s. I looked up at a blue train sign—Ferrara. I was there. The town rose before me at the end of the line. Tall, projectstyle apartment buildings stood between me and the old city. Immediately, I took to the pavement with a return ticket in hand. I had exactly three hours to walk the birth-land of possibly the greatest film director ever to exist. Scattering out into the city, I bounced between streets toward the tall medieval spires that rose in the distance. I chewed up the long roads that aged right before my eyes. Little by little, the blocks harbored more and more brick churches and houses from an earlier age. The humidity and heat were in full swing for dramatic effect. The lights were bright but moody, and the long shot that dollied down toward the city center panned up and wide as I reached the old cathedral one hour later. The Renaissance had little effect on that working town. The façades of most buildings were still brick. Craftsmanship was reserved for the hundreds of functional arches that shimmied off through small alleys, where old doors greeted new supplies with wrinkled hands. I was standing before one of the few Gothic masterpieces of Ferrara when I realized it was time to eat. I took a seat at a café in the city center to absorb the whole experience. Ferrara had a tangibility I hadn’t found in the rest of Italy. There were no tour173


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ist traps ready for my wallet. Instead, there were locals on bikes heading home for siesta. My tortellini with prosciutto arrived in a lacy cream sauce. The waitress knew no English, and I smiled feeling the heart of Italy, and Michelangelo, there with me in the midday sun. I checked my watch as I opened the tourist guide I received at the train station. I have exactly an hour to finish my tour, I noted, as I glanced across the English subtitles of my map. I resigned myself to not seeing any famous buildings or the home of the young Antonioni. No, I knew my flash visit would yield no such reward. I was just happy to be in Ferrara, soaking up the experience. With that wisdom, I relaxed and enjoyed my lunch. I perused the map between spying on the cathedral, the castle, and all the locals who eased by with little care. It seemed they all knew my waitress, as they called her name when they peddled by. Scanning the map again, between taking notes of a simpler life, I saw a string of numbers that caught my attention. “Twenty, twenty-one and twenty-two look interesting,” I mumbled. “This twenty,” I said looking at an awkward-shaped building with the number twenty marked in the middle. I flipped over to the legend. My heart stopped. My fork dropped. I fought my feet from pushing me upright. “No fucking way!” I shouted in a foreign tongue. The words spun dizzy as I comprehended their meaning. I looked at my watch—forty-three minutes to go. I waved to my waitress frantically. She hurried over, confused by the problem. “Il conto. Il conto per favore!” I screamed, wrangling the pocket items I had laid to rest on my lunch table. The woman ran off, flustered. I stood there jumping up and down as she got it all together. This was Italy, of course, so I did calisthenics for ten minutes before I saw her again. I slammed twenty euros down 174


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on the table, thanking her several times as I aimed my way down toward the castle. There was no time to waste. I had to sprint there. I had to stop at the first gelato stand I saw to get a pistachio cone. I had to make up for lost time by triple-timing it past the castle moat, then left across the street, veering right, then going far, far down a brick-lined road in the distance. I found ten, ten-A, eleven, then an immense brick fence that soaked up half the street. “Where is seventeen!” I screamed, checking my watch again. I only had twenty minutes to see the complete painted works of Michelangelo Antonioni. They’ll most likely be closed, Tommy, it’s almost four on a Thursday, don’t get your hopes up, I told myself repeatedly. Don’t get your hopes up. By this point my body odor was so bad that it actually preceded me. I ran into the cloud that surrounded me until I found street number seventeen—OPEN. I jumped inside the door laughing like a foreign maniac, and the woman behind the front desk watched me, motionless. “Don’t worry, I don’t have a gun, I’m just here to see the exhibit.” I said as I forced an overcharged laugh. I walked toward the table that protected her from me. “Uno.” “Uno, si. Are you a student?” She asked. I laughed, adjusting my baseball hat. “Ah, no. One adult, please.” I tried to make sense of the room, the table before me. I checked for any books, or DVDs, or prints—anything I could take with me. Original movie posters including L' Avventura and Deserto Rosso coated the walls where I stood. Images of Monica Vitti littered all white space. I felt like a pilgrim finally reaching the Holy Land. “Due euro,” the beautiful woman softly said to me. “Si.” 175


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With a handful of change and a smile, I won the ticket I needed. The flirtatious hostess flipped a pile of dark curls behind her shoulder, then pointed toward a door. “This way, qui.” “This way?” I pointed off into a hall without breaking eye contact. “Si. Si,” she smiled back at me. “Great,” I held as long as I could before Michelangelo’s work cut me from the scene. My heart was pounding as I entered the exhibit. I stood back and surveyed his Enchanted Mountains. Some were blown up to reveal detail that ordinarily would be missed by the naked eye. That’s what I loved about Antonioni. He was always adding some strange philosophy to his art, almost as a filter to peer through, giving the ordinary an extraordinary life. With two floors’ worth of art to absorb in twenty minutes, I paced myself methodically. I sucked in with my mind at every stop. I wasn’t surprised to see the talent this man had for imagery. From abstract to real, he drew emotion out of each piece, just like in his films. “No! Alarmé!” The fat woman trailing me shouted as I leaned forward trying to decrypt a smaller work. “What? Alarmé? No alarmé. No alarmé,” I laughed, stepping backward. The last thing I wanted to do was get kicked out of the joint. That was the only place in the world I wanted to be right then. I knew this was the reward I’d been given for diving into experience blindly, so I took a step back and circled the rest of the exhibit at a distance. On my way out, I bought two posters and two postcards without hesitation. If they were selling steaming turds, I probably would have bought a few of those, too. I was late, of course, and so drunk from the moment I didn’t care about my train ride to Venice, my stuff at the terminal stor176


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age, my ride to the airport, or my flight back to Prague where I would have to take a bus and a train to get to my impoverished, third-world hotel. I didn’t think about any of that for at least, let’s say, three minutes of walking back to town. Then reality kicked in. I had a long day ahead of me still. I didn’t want to fuck it up there. I needed a taxi! As I jogged down the brick streets of Ferrara with the sound of my pattering feet, a taxi showed up like a ghost. “To the train station, Senoré.” I debated even saying those words. I just wanted to climb in as the camera panned back, up and out over the road while the taxi grew small in the distance. The repetitive patterns of the old-world rooftops would echo my adventure in the town of Michelangelo, of Ferrara, of Italy.

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HEADING BACK UP’S THE HARDEST PART

I stood at binario 4 and 4:27 P.M. came and went. Not knowing the local language can be a real problem. Especially when the word next to your connection means “cancelled.” I checked with the rude information host and he informed me that my ride was cancelled. No shit. He wrote down a number on my ticket. After some arguing in our own languages, I came to understand that the next train to Venice wouldn’t be until 9:47 P.M. In short, this wouldn’t do. I had a plane to catch, I had a trip to end gracefully and I wasn’t going to blow it now. I checked with the bus station—not possible. I checked with the train station again—no side connections possible. No bus/ train connections possible. No airport near Ferrara. No ferries. At that point, I knew there was only one move left to make. So I went to the Bankomat, withdrew my daily maximum and walked, determined, over to the swishing shark tank labeled “Taxi Stand.” I charged right up to the biggest guy standing in the circle of time takers, of mile makers, and shoved my ticket right in his face. The text read “Venezia.” He calmly discussed the situation with his friends in Italian. They all agreed. “What?” I said, losing faith. “You speak English,” the skinny guy to my left prodded. “Yeah. How much did he say it was?” “One hundred and fifty euros.” 179


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“One fifty, huh? That’s too much. Would you take one hundred?” The skinny guy looked to the big guy. He presented my offer flatly. After a short response I got an answer. “This is the rate to Venezia.” “So you won’t take less?” He raised his shoulders like only an Italian could. “I understand. Thank you.” He lifted his shoulders again as I turned away. I marched directly to the train station bar for supplies. I was ready for the exorbitant price, I just needed to give the guys one good crack before I caved in. I stocked up on water and Nutella sticks. When I got back outside, the skinny man was gone, and a shorter fellow with buckteeth stood in his place. “Would you take one hundred twenty euros?” I gave it one last jab, but nothing. I climbed into a white station wagon with a dim taxi light, pissed off and tired. “Step on it, man. Arrivederci!” The driver looked at me in the mirror, surprised. He pulled out into traffic quickly, preparing for the 128-kilometer voyage. “Where are you from?” he asked in broken English. “California.” “California!” He shouted almost jumping out of the front seat. “Where, ah, where part are you from? You home?” he said, accenting the “e” on “home.” “San Francisco.” “San Francisco!” Again with the shouting. “San Francisco, bellisimo!” He kissed his fingers as we managed our way out of town on bumpy streets. “I, ah, come se dice? I have been San Francisco. Lovely. Lovely city. Very beautiful. Very beautiful.” “It is beautiful,” I said, knowing it was the place I would call home in a few days. 180


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“Lovely, San Francisco. My wife”—again, accenting the “e”—“my wife is an interpreter for English. We went to San Francisco for four days, to the Alcatraz, to the Lombard Street, the, ah, Union Square.” “Yep, that’s San Francisco.” I started easing up as the enthusiasm of my driver reminded me how lucky I was to be from such a beautiful place. “Lovely, San Francisco.” He told me of his time in the U.S.A. and his wife. He told me that his English was rough, but that he likes America, and Americans. I thought of my train ride down to Ferrara and thanked the stars that he hadn’t seen that display. “Americans are very nice people. They, ah, friendly to me. Frances, Ingles, no.” He shook his head, pointing his nose up in the air. “No. I do not like.” He pushed his finger to his nose to prove the point. “They’re a little stuck up, aren’t they?” “Si, si,” he said wildly. We continued our conversation in his tiny rear-view mirror. He looked exactly like an Italian version of Dustin Hoffman. That made me feel better, for some reason. He had me laughing by the time we hit Padua. I kept checking my watch, but I felt better knowing I had done the right thing; at least my driver was cool. I answered in Italian as often as I could to his questions. Surprised, he looked in the mirror deeply. “You speak like an Italian. You accent. You sound like you are from Firenze.” “Really?” I said, flattered. “Si, si. You speak very good Italian.” “I do not know the language, only small pieces. I listen to other people and copy them. Next time I will know more Italian. Especially the word cancelled.” He didn’t get my inside joke, 181


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but nodded just the same. “It’s a beautiful language,” I added. “Bellisima Italiana.” “Si, si,” he shook his head again in agreement. “I know a little bit of Spanish, so it makes it easier to understand.” “Si, si. Espagna, si. They are both, come si dice, ah…” “Romance languages.” “Bravo, bravo. Si. Romantico, si.” From that point forward we began a stripped down Italian tutorial that lasted all the way to Piazzale Romano, in Venice. He labored diligently to teach me the important parts of the language, starting with the phrasing similarities and differences between English, Italian and Spanish. Like a linguistic genius he skipped from one language to the next, drawing logical analogies and quick tips to help me understand. When we finally parted, we shook hands like best friends, saying farewell fluently in Italian. Running from Piazzale Romano with my posters in hand, I rationalized the cab expense as a necessary ride, and a much-needed Italian lesson. These are the last few moments I have in Italy, I told myself, cutting in and out of tourists and tourist traps. I took dozens of mental snapshots along the path to the train station. I commented on the sights in Italian to myself, now confident in my ability to get by with the basics. It felt good to be in Italy. I started to feel sad as I climbed the Ponte degli Scalzi in front of the station. I could see at least a dozen beautiful girls within reach in every direction. Yes, I’ll miss Italy a lot. But I’ll come back, I promised myself, and next time I’ll know the language better. Next time I’ll skip the tourist spots and sit quietly in a small town somewhere off the beaten path, perhaps Ferrara. Those images made the sadness disappear for the most part. Knowing I was still under the gun, I shifted my attention. Prague was my next conquest, and by no means was I out of the woods on my long journey there. My plane took off in one hour 182


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and I was at least forty minutes away from the airport. It was going to be close, perhaps impossible, but I was going to give it my best swing. I was ready to give up. I stood with my bags at the water taxi stand shaking my head. Eighty euros was too much, and my alternative was some combination of public transportation. I was never going to make it. My heart sank as I walked to the Vaporetto stop just to complete the exercise. My skin and face felt greasy and coated with dirt. My hat stank and stuck to my head. My bags felt like sacks of brick. All I wanted to do was jump in the Grand Canal and drown. I got in line at the number five and herded in with all the tourists. It was especially crowded for some reason, probably just to exacerbate the point. I let go into the pushing and shoving; I felt defeated and tired. The boat docked and unloaded at the bus stop and I was the last to exit. I watched the herd filter from the dock to the bus terminal, fighting their way in line. I was still confused about getting to the airport. I was under the impression you could only ferry to the terminal, but that didn’t make sense. These people were all getting on a bus to Marco Polo, so there must be a road there. I wondered if it was only for buses. Perhaps they let taxis through as well? My mind was doing a dance. The logic was twisted and fatigued, but out of that mass of blah, a tingle sent me searching for alternatives. “A taxi, there!” I yanked my rollie over to the cab and pounced on his open window. “Can you take me to Marco Polo?” “Si,” he said, offended by my aggressiveness. “How much? Come on. How much?” “Twenty-five euros.” 183


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Twenty-five euros?” I looked over to the water taxi stand not one hundred yards away and wondered what they hell they were thinking. Another sad tourist trap. “Perfect. Let’s go.” I jammed my little rollie and all my incidentals into the back. “Arrivederci!” I shouted with hope again. I could still make it. I could really still make it! I bounced in my seat as I verbally whipped the driver into high gears. Thirty minutes later, I jumped and shouted at check-in desk forty-two when I saw the sign for Prague with the words “plane delayed” next to it. I looked at my watch. It was only ten minutes from our scheduled take-off. I would have never made it through security, immigration and to the gate on time. I kicked my heels for the first time, ecstatic about the fucked-up Italian infrastructure. Everything is late in Italy; I should have known that all along. When I got to the teller I was all smiles, and she spoke English! “Hello.” “Well, hello there.” “Passport please.” “Sure thing. You know,” I said, handing her my passport. “I have three bags here—well, one of them is a guitar I just bought in Rome—and these posters here, and … ah, I don’t know.” She nodded, producing a few tickets. “Let me see your guitar.” “Do you have a special place for it or something?” She nodded, looking away as I handed her my guitar. She tagged the handle and gave it back to me. “We have a very full flight. Carry it on. I won’t charge you,” she said softly. “Oh. Oh, thanks.” 184


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“Please put your other bags here.” I looked at the scale where her finger pointed. “Okay. Here’s my bag.” She tagged it and sent it back through the baggage curtain. “Your other bag, please.” “My backpack. You want my matching designer backpack up there, too,” I said, nervous. I had all my prized possessions in that bag. “Si.” Maybe she was going to tag it and give it back like my guitar, I thought. I lifted it up with the bottles inside clinking. She tagged it and sent it back. “Wait! No! I can’t let that bag out of my sight.” “I’m sorry. We can only allow one carry-on.” The bag slipped away from me, and the whole scene warped my foreverslipping handle on reality. My stomach wrenched as I stood outside, smoking feverishly. I thought about all my precious valuables: my ticket home, my iPod, my souvenirs, my camera and all the pictures I had taken over the past eight weeks. “Oh God!” I shouted, squeezing my head at the temples. “All my journals! My book!” If I had any food in my belly, I would have thrown it up there and then. Four full journals with these words written in them were in the hands of Volare Airlines. There it was. The ultimate act of fate, I thought. If that bag makes it back to me, somehow getting through the Italian ground crew to the Prague baggage claim, then it was meant to be. If not, then that’s the way the gods wanted it. All those words, I agonized over my last slice of Italian pizza and beer. My precious journals. With the impending horror of losing my stories looming, I realized that my real reward, perhaps the ultimate reminder of my trip, was not the pictures I’d 185


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taken, or the souvenirs I’d bring home; it was the experiences I had along the way. It was the people and the challenges I encountered that really counted. It was the connections I had made, and the growing I had done, from Tucson to Tuscany, that really mattered. I smiled, sitting there sick with worry. Only time would tell the fate of my words, I resigned, but I felt comforted knowing that my memories could never be taken away. Time kept stretching as my flight was delayed again and again. I sat shivering in my chair, watching the clock on my wrist. I bit my nails, scratched my head. I was too weak to keep a positive attitude. All my journals were in the hands of Volare Airlines and time was standing still. Two, three, then four hours went by before we were shuttled to an airplane in the rain. Soaking wet, I stared out the window the entire flight trying to calm myself, trying to let go of the potential loss. Nothing worked. I felt like crying, like kicking and screaming. I had to disco with the bureaucracy of time-wasters in Prague after we landed. “Just stamp the damn passport,” I demanded at immigration. The stern Czech officer stared at my picture with doubt. He looked at me, he looked at my passport. He did it all over again. “Come on, man! I’ve got a serious problem on my hands here. It’s me, I promise.” He held me there for a few more eternal minutes before he made the stamp go “clink.” Running out through naturalization, I cornered into baggage claim where only one lone rollie twirled around the lap. I stopped and surveyed the carousel; everybody else had retrieved their bags and were gone. My rollie came closer, and just as I was about to panic, my matching backpack—styled in today’s most sophisticated cuts and leathers—came shooting out from around the track with the sound of angels singing. I did the Chariots of Fire run, holding my arms outstretched in glory. The bag 186


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spun slowly around the corner at its own pace. We moved toward each other like long-lost lovers. Then into my arms I took my bag. I lifted it up and spun, spun, spun around in glee. There was no tomorrow, there was no yesterday, there was only that divine moment. I held my bags close against my body the entire cab ride to Hotel Prokopka. When I opened the door to room 401A, it felt like home again. Home with all my precious journals on the other side of an enormous victory. Knowing I was going back to California in a few days made the moment even sweeter. I didn’t mind the dirty walls, the torn curtains, or the shrinking towels where stains were ripped out piece by piece. All of that was simply temporary, and I flopped onto my third-world bed with my journals on my chest as I fell into a perfect, unbroken sleep.

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ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR

Joe

Forkan was born in New York, and raised in Tucson, Arizona, where he received his BFA in Studio Art in 1989 from the University of Arizona. He received his MFA in Painting from the University of Delaware in 2002. A comic strip artist, illustrator, and painter, he currently resides in Southern California, where he is an Assistant Professor of Drawing at California State University, Fullerton. More information and collections of work can be found at joeforkan.com

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The Migration of Hair