Friday, August 31, 2012

Penny for your thoughts

I was speeding a lot on the drive back to the hotel from the studio in Los Angeles. We had come to California for our honeymoon. We had just made fools of ourselves on national TV. I was obviously mad at him.
"Why are you mad?"
"You got my name wrong on 'The Newlywed Game.'"
"I was nervous! I'm sorry!"
"What's my name?"
"...! No!"
"I mean, Suzy."
"Oh my god!"
"I'm sorry. Wait, I know this. Give me a clue."
My name is Penelope. I mean, I know it's not "Jane," but give me a break!
I sighed. We had done this before, and would do it again. I said, "One cent."
"Oh, that's right! Penny!"
Actually, I prefer to be called by my full name, but it was close enough, so I gave him a break.


He lay on his back on the hotel bed, wide awake and staring up at the ceiling. Or at where the ceiling would be if he could see it. Which he could not, because the heavy curtains kept the fluid lights of downtown Los Angeles from entering the room.
She snored softly beside him. It wasn't a bad snore, like a gruff snore, like a funny old-man snore. He thought it was cute.
He loved her very much.
But he was losing his mind. He knew it, she knew it.

"What are you doing out here?" She was wearing her nightshirt, a baggy T-shirt she had started sleeping in one week after they had been married. It was faded and had ALF on it. She thought it was funny. The first week they had been married, she had slept naked beside him after they had made love.
It was dark and cold. He was standing in the side yard, holding the garden hose, the lid of the trash can open, watering the garbage.
"What are you doing?" She had been sleeping and suddenly noticed his absence; she was irritated, he could hear it.
He looked at his hands holding the hose. He reported what he saw.
"I'm watering the garbage."
"Why?" Her inquiry sounded genuine. She wanted to understand. She was a kind and patient person. That was why he loved her so much.
He didn't know what to do. Make up an answer and fake it? Tell her the truth, that her husband was crazy? Which would she have preferred?
"It was dirty," he said, opting for the lie, and he stayed there, holding the hose, for a while after she had turned and gone inside. Water flooded the garbage can and some of the trash drifted out. Water ran in rivulets down the slanted concrete driveway. It looked as if their house was crying.


"This is your roommate, Jim."
He held in his arms a pile of center-issued bedding. It was two to a room in these tight financial times. There was a man in a bed, reading a comic book. There was an empty bed on the other side of the room that had just been sanitized; lemon-scented disinfectant hung in the air.
There was a TV mounted high on the wall, like in a hospital.
There was a "rec center;" there were scheduled group walks.
He wouldn't be alone here.
Just before lights-out he changed into center-issued pajamas. In the dark he lay on his side, hearing Jim snore.
He saw lights on the ceiling, coming in through the cracks around the curtains. He couldn't sleep.
He flipped from one side to the other, and back again. Finally he rang the silent buzzer and a nurse came to the door.
"I need to make a phone call."
"Is it to a family member or a friend?"
The nurse paused and thought it over, then led him down the hall. She dialed the number from his file. She closed the door, which had a long glass panel in it so she could still supervise him.
It was the middle of the night. She would be wearing her nightshirt. He heard no irritation in her voice. She just sounded sad.
"I miss you, Suzy."
"I miss you, too."

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Just hug them and wave

My usual job at Disneyland is in the background. I carry around a bucket of grease, and I oil up the rides when they get creaky.

"We've got a real squeaker over in Never-Never Land," my boss will radio to me from the underground command center, the secret beating heart of the park. So I get in my golf cart and putter over to the Peter Pan ride, where the attendant who complained, or who reported the complaint, will point out for me exactly where that particular ride is wearing thin.

With heavy gloves on, I rub the lube over the ride's sore spot. Yes, the obvious thing to think of here is something perverted, and yes, sometimes I think that, but when you do a thing every day it's just your life and it's not that funny.

"Oh!" people exclaim when I tell them where I work. They ask what I do, and they inevitably look crestfallen when I say I'm a mechanic. They want me to tell them I design roller coasters, they want me to say I'm Mickey Mouse.

Here's the strange thing, though. I was Mickey Mouse, but just for one day. Not because I'm good with kids, but because I fit the suit.

It's normally a coveted role, but that summer we had record highs, and the guy who'd been wearing the suit started making all these diva demands. He wanted someone to accompany him with a battery-powered fan. He wanted someone to carry around some Vitamin Water for him at all times. "Grapefruit kind, damn it!" When his bosses groaned, he reminded them that he could have gone to Juilliard.

He got too big for his britches. No, he literally did. It wasn't just the demands; he got too fat. The hot weather made him stress-eat too much. His assistants brought him funnel cakes, two at a time.

The day his Mickey-pants no longer fit was the Fourth of July, a big celebration with Aladdin and Jasmine flying in over the fireworks on a "magic" carpet that was actually a small plane. There would be lots of families, and they needed another Mickey quick.

"We don't have time to put out a job ad! The families are in the park NOW!"

I happened to be eating my lunch in the break room at the command center. I forgot to bring my Travis McGee book so I was just reading some dumb employee pamphlet. I think it was about 401k plans.

One of the bosses pointed at me. "You! How tall are you, and how much do you weigh?"

I told them -- I'm not going to tell you, because what next, you'll want to know my Social Security Number? -- and they said I was almost perfect.

"You're maybe one pound over -- don't eat that donut!"

I froze with the donut in mid-air. My mouth had been open wide to take a big bite. It was a chocolate-covered donut, that kind that comes in a pack out of the vending machine. It's my favorite. I felt conflicted, but when the boss says freeze, you freeze.

"Put... that donut... down," the boss repeated, and I obeyed, but grudgingly. And with exaggerated slowness.

They made me run a quick lap in the employee gym, then they put me in the suit. They let me take a shower first, of course. It fit like a glove, and for a second I thought maybe I had discovered my life's true calling. 

"OK, do you have any acting experience? Are you good with kids?"

I tried to say "No" and "No," but my voice was muffled through the giant plush mouse head. So I shook my head "No" instead.

"That's good -- you're communicating without words! That's just what you need to do out there. Don't try to talk because it will creep the kids out. Just hug them and wave."

This I thought I could manage.

The erstwhile Mickey who had gotten too fat was still there, weirdly enough. He sat in the corner and sulked.

I waved at him -- not in a taunting manner, just because he looked lonely over there. But he took it the wrong way. "Hey, fuck you, man. I could have gone to Juilliard."

I just stared at him through the eyeholes of my mask.

One of the bosses said, "C'mon, let's go! The kids are waiting for Mickey at the castle!"

I took a step in one of the big clown shoes. It was harder than it looked, and I bet the fat old Mickey was gloating. Then I took another step.

"You're a real natural," one of the bosses said, and I couldn't tell if he was being sarcastic.

* * *

We took the elevator up out of the underground command center, then stepped through a door into daylight.

I had taken maybe three awkward steps in the jumbo shoes, as if I were walking in molasses on the moon, when I spotted some kids.

I hesitated. I was an only child, and I never had many friends. After high school I was mostly around machines. I have never had a girlfriend. I have a cat, though. I spend all my vacation days at home because I don't like to leave my cat. He's the only thing that would miss me if I were gone.

"C'mon, what're you waiting for?" one of the bosses hissed, his teeth clenched in a tense fake smile.

I stumbled forward, galumphing toward a cluster of children. I extended my arms wide, clubby white glove hands at the end of each one. A toddler screamed.

I tried to look at my bosses to get a clue what to do, but this unfortunately required me to rotate the whole giant mouse head, a big-eared planet spinning on its axis, all the way around. I had no peripheral vision, and wasn't used to having to turn that much to see behind me. I got a little too much momentum going, and the head kept turning when I wished for it to stop. So I fell. I crashed, mouse-head first, into the sidewalk. The toddler screamed some more and a baby started to cry. I felt my bosses at either side of me, pulling me up by the arms.

One of them said, "See, kids? Mickey's OK!" I mustered up an enthusiastic wave to show them I was fine, but the mouse-head was tilted at an eerie angle, and the eyeholes no longer lined up with my eyes. Still I remembered my mantra: "Just hug them and wave... just hug them and wave..." and I nervously lurched at the sounds of the screaming and crying children. I waved frantically at the noises.

My boss pulled me back and said, "Enough, ENOUGH!"

* * *

They gave me one more chance.

"OK, we've got a two o'clock in Tomorrowland. We'll get you there early; you don't have to walk. Just stand there. Just hug them and wave. And don't be creepy this time."

I wondered how I could not be creepy this time. I mean, I could not have gone to Juilliard. I am not that good. The old fat Mickey won kids over with no words at all, with his movements, with his body. With his soul. I found myself sitting there in the break room with a newfound respect for mimes.

I remembered something I heard once about how kids are like snakes and can sense fear. I thought about all the times I've seen a baby being held in line at a grocery store, the parent facing forward and the baby facing me. I always try to make the baby smile, to make a silly face when no adults are looking. But it never works. The baby just peers at me in an obscurely pitying fashion. It's as if they can see into my soul, and they know -- I am worthless.

But I tried again at Tomorrowland.

I stood there, with my bosses on either side in case I decided to take another face-plant into the asphalt. I saw kids approaching. From far away, they looked excited. Some of them held balloons. A few of them skipped. They were going to see Mickey, deus of the Disneyland fauna. I thought about the phrase "deus ex machina" and wished for one to appear here and solve all my problems. But there was no kind of deus here. And the kids sensed it.

Once they got maybe a few yards away and I spread my arms wide, they stopped dead in their tracks. I looked at them through the eyeholes, and I could see blackness at the edges. I could hear my heart beating in the costume. Their parents nudged them forward and fiddled with cameras. But the kids stayed where they were, and their eyes said, "Impostor."

New blues song

Masahiro Sumori, Wikimedia Commons
The blind bluesman was Daniel's favorite musician. Daniel had been a fan since before the bluesman was famous, back in the days of Bourbon Street gigs that Daniel and his son would listen to from the street, not having enough money for admission.

The bluesman's name was Billy Leeds. He was white and heavyset. He had white hair that peeked out from the Panama Jack hat he always wore, a pink unlined face, the dark glasses. He remained seated when he performed, probably because of his weight.

Daniel had introduced Natalie to him once. This was when Natalie had flown down to New Orleans for the extended Labor Day weekend. Daniel's wife had been away, visiting her mother in a nursing home in Kansas.
"I wouldn't have the guts to meet him alone, but I hear he likes the ladies," Daniel had said in the riverside tavern, where Billy Leeds had been doing a hometown show. Daniel had steered Natalie to the eminent bluesman, using Natalie as a sort of shield or badge.
Natalie had smiled kindly at Billy Leeds, with admiration but not with desire. Billy Leeds had asked her where she was from.
"Virginia," Natalie had chirped.
"Virginia..." Billy Leeds had said, not letting go of her small hand, holding it firmly in his meaty one. "I've played there. It's very lush."
Later, Natalie had said she wondered how Billy Leeds knew that Virginia was "lush" if he couldn't see. Then she'd said that he'd probably used the word "lush" as a double-entendre, because he'd been fondling her hand as he'd said it.

That was last year. Now here they all were again--Daniel, Natalie, and Billy Leeds--at that same tavern, another show. Only everything was different.
Daniel had a crisis of conscience and ended the affair. Natalie spent the next five months sending him sad poetry through e-mail, drunk-dialing him late at night, and boasting to Daniel about all the reckless casual sex she was having. "What? You're 'over' me, right? So I can tell you about this stuff. I can talk to you about it, as a 'friend.'"
Of course Daniel saw right through it.

For a while she'd seemed better. She'd gotten a new, high-paying job. She'd started doing yoga, got a stylish new haircut and dyed it auburn. She was volunteering at an elementary school.
He'd agreed to see her at the Billy Leeds show. Because she'd seemed so much better.

Now she was drunk and sitting on Billy Leeds's lap. They'd been invited to the after-party, thanks to Natalie's flirting.
She was loving this, his watching her.
Daniel was aware that she was putting on a show for him. Facing Daniel, her legs draped across Billy's expansive lap, Natalie coiled around the bluesman. Billy was touching her skin, his fingertips grazing her thighs, her bare arms. He was doing all this while talking to a group of fawning admirers.
Daniel saw Billy start to trace Natalie's face with the fingers of his left hand. When his finger rested on the plump pillow of her lower lip, Natalie promptly sucked on it, and Daniel took a deep swig of beer.

Sitting with his back against the wall of the dressing room, Daniel sipped his beer and thought of something. It was from last year. Natalie drunk and putting on a little show for him. In their hotel room--her hotel room; he'd returned each night to the house he shared with his wife; his wife was out of town but this was his way of staying loyal to her. Natalie had fumbled with the clock radio until she'd found a station playing classic rock. She'd done a striptease for him, twirling her T-shirt above her head before flinging it to the floor with a flourish. Normally shy Natalie, drunk.
He'd taken her to a strip club earlier that evening last year, and he'd known she hadn't liked it when his eyes were on the other girls instead of her.
In the hotel room, she'd had his attention all to herself. She'd revelled in it. It was the happiest he ever saw her. 

She cackled and threw her arms around Billy's thick neck. Billy's fingers slithered underneath her shirt.
So what, was she planning to try to fuck him, or what? Was that the plan?
She knew Billy Leeds was his favorite. Was she trying to corrupt that, to take it away?
Natalie could be creatively evil. Maybe she'd thought beyond hooking up--maybe she'd even hoped Billy Leeds would write a song about her. That way, Daniel would have to hear it--Daniel bought all of Billy Leeds's albums--and think about what he'd lost.
Daniel would have to listen to the new Billy Leeds song about Natalie, the girl who slept with a blind man in order to be seen.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Adult movie

What are they thinking when the light goes out in their eyes?

A compromise is made.

I recognize it. I've made it, too.

There's a set of the jaw, a squaring of the shoulders, a toss of the hair meant to convey indifference. "This is life, and life is hard. I do what I have to do."

There's always a power struggle. They want to believe that they have some control.

They pretend they're aloof. They pretend they're being worshipped somehow -- by the guy, by the camera, by the viewer.

But worship doesn't look like this.

They want to believe they can handle it, that they're a buoyant boat bobbing up on the sea of life.

It's always up, never down. They can't think of down. Down brings tears, and those are out of place here.

There's only room in the frame for enthusiastic moans, for "o" faces, for licking of lips, for closing eyes in something that looks like bliss.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

So help me God

"I have to live my life right. So help me God. Starting today I live my life right."

He looked up. The blue autumn sky above the prison yard was bright and vast, as if it had no end.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The right notes

What do you wear when you’re going to go die with a group of strangers? This is the question today.

Details matter. I can’t live well, but maybe I can die well.
There becomes a glow about my trivial things. The last pair of earrings I’ll ever wear. The shoes I’ll be found dead in. They’ll describe these items in a police report, maybe even in a news article. A reader will imbue the items with symbolic significance that’s accurate or not accurate, and which ultimately doesn’t matter.
“Don’t be a statistic,” an infiltrator typed in a message posted on the group-suicide forum, interrupting our thread in which we were making plans. His words were rote, as if he were a volunteer for a suicide-prevention group and typing a sentence he had been given on a laminated card.
“Really?” I posted back. “Is that the best you’ve got?” I’m not this acerbic in my real life.
I was going to be a music teacher. I’ve taken piano lessons since I was four years old, but I was only accepted at a mediocre university, where I earned mediocre grades to match. Afterward I was unable to find a job. I lacked the presence and authority of a natural-born teacher, and didn’t have any remarkable talent to make up for it. I could hit the notes in the correct rhythm and that was all.
After today none of this will matter. I don’t want to hurt them – my family, my few friends and acquaintances – I only want to be worthy of their love.
There was a day at the beach. It was cold and windy and I was alone, and I felt sad but also alive, and happy to be alive. I was going to figure out a new direction, a new career, make myself loveable so someone would fall in love with me. I was going to fix my life, and it was going to be OK. I was in love with the world, with its lonely undercurrents even in nature, chilly despair on the wind. I felt a kinship with it, and I didn’t want to leave it. 
My parents had only one child. I could have turned out worse but I could have been so much better. My mother bought me an expensive interview suit in coral wool bouclĂ©, a bright color to make me seem like a positive person. I see it hanging in my closet and think of how many failures it has accompanied me to. Sometimes I can see myself the way my mother wishes I were – successful at my job, with a nice house and family, a baby for her to bounce on her lap – and it hurts so much. The armpits of the bouclĂ© jacket bear permanent stains from all the times I’ve sweated in it, in air-conditioned offices, ineptly negotiating my fate.  
I bought myself an abalone-shell ring at a souvenir shop at the beach. I want to die in that. No one will know what it means to me. I won’t leave a note.
I enter the address into my GPS. My parents bought me the car, and the GPS. We pretended I was going to pay them back after I got a job.
My mother tells me pointedly about my cousins who have had babies, who are pregnant again. My father asks brightly whether I have job interviews lined up for this week.
The town is close to mine. Most of the suicide groups are geography-based. I will die with these three young men only because they live within a certain mile radius of my parents’ house. I still sleep in the same room that held my crib.
It’s a sunny day and I drive on the parkway where it’s leafy and green. I drive on the parkway because it’s the shortest route, so that’s what the GPS tells me to do. It isn’t sentimental.
The others are already there. One guy has what we need: a small grill like one you’d find in a bachelor’s apartment, and charcoal briquettes, both easy to obtain. Another guy has sleeping pills, harder to get but not impossible. Someone, I’m not sure who, brought sleeping masks. They get passed around. They’re plain black satin.
We get into the car. The guys offer me the passenger seat in some last act of gallantry. The organizer gets behind the wheel – it’s his car, also given to him by his parents – and the other three sit in the back. The organizer sticks the key in and starts the car that’s going nowhere. We slip on our masks. One guy begins to cry in the back seat. We can all hear him but we politely ignore him – this is about dignity.
I reach over with my right hand to feel the abalone-shell ring on my left hand. I wear it on that hand as a private joke, as if I’m married to myself, as if the only ring that will ever be on that finger is one that I bought for myself. I stroke the familiar iridescent panels, shards of shell laid in metal.
And then I want to see it one last time, the rainbows that shift colors when I turn my hand. I want it to be the last thing I see.
 I slip my mask up above my eyes. The car is fast filling with smoke. The doors aren’t locked in case anyone changes his or her mind. The procedure is always like this, loose and polite, no one forced to do anything. I can still see the others. They look like passengers on a doomed plane, going to sleep in a thickening cloud.
I was in love with the world, with its lonely undercurrents. I didn’t want to leave it.
I open the door. I get out of the car. I slam the door shut. I run through the woods, coughing smoke out of my lungs. I stop running and try to breathe. I look up toward the leafy branches and see a clearing. I swear to you, right there, there was a clearing and there was the sky.

Monday, August 6, 2012


I don't remember the Adriatic Sea being that beautiful and blue. I don't remember feeling anything at all when you took the picture of me sitting on the windowsill with the sea behind me. I remember sleeping in separate beds, but that was nothing new. You later told me how much you had wished I would just hold your hand -- after a decade together, there you were hoping I'd hold your hand, like some junior-high kid with a crush. "I really wanted us to hold hands in Croatia," you said shyly, after the fact.
But there was of course someone else, and I had promised him that the trip would not be romantic. That you and I would not get caught up in the adventure of being expatriate twins in a foreign country and come back together. I was planning to end it, after we came home. We'd been planning the trip for months, and it was going to be one last gift to you.
A gift of walking along gleaming limestone streets in the Old City of Dubrovnik, beneath a velvet sky I can't recall, eating gelato across the table at an outdoor cafe and not touching, a gift of my body far from yours, dreaming separate things.

Friday, August 3, 2012


The waitress in my mind is looking out a window at her part of Utah. Blue sky, red rock. She wears a frilly apron. Soon she'll go home to a motel by the highway, or soon she'll go home to a Winnebago in a park. The point is impermanence, and to be close to motion.

After two and a half months the adventure still excites her. The pancakes and the regulars, the way they huddle by the off-ramp -- the gas station, the motel pools, this diner open around the clock. Time does not disturb the trance here. The solitude and the starlight, the sky and the rock. It's like living in a postcard. There are brochures by the doorway.

This isn't where she started. It could be another phase -- the dreamy time in San Diego, where the streets were lined with homeless, nice and harmless to her as Disney characters.

This is "hippie," this is "bohemian." She should have lived during the Sixties, her parents said before she left.

Maybe no one knew how liberating it had been to delete her LinkedIn profile.

Hot plate from the kitchen, side of bacon for the sheriff, sleeper couch in the apartment and a notebook from the gift shop. Six-pack of beers from 7-Eleven, and tequila from a neighbor. Mostly static on the airwaves but the song that somehow finds her, you can run but you can't hide

* * *

A certain grace eludes her. On days off she brings a book into the rocks and hunts for shade. But there is always something. Her bladder is too full, or her stomach is too empty. The heat is too high, or she's troubled by three pounds gained, bloated bulge against her waistband. There is enough money for rent but not for gas, and he was bored when last they spoke, a not-quite-stifled yawn into the receiver.

Could she grow old here, in a place where time doesn't count?

She could not, which was why she had come.

* * *

A Mexican man at the apartments invites her out and into nothing to shoot beer bottles with a gun. He lines them up along a fence and they pass it back and forth. They break the glass bang bang bang. It's the only sound around them. Mostly static on the airwaves but the song comes through in snatches.

* * *

Soon the hot plates start to burn her, and the bacon makes her fat. The cramped couch will make her back hurt, and the notebook will stay empty. The brochures become scratch paper, and the sun will age her fast.

It will seem better for it to lodge in memory, a mental escape hatch for dull moments at a desk job in the city. Her car wheels must never stop.

She will come home just like I did. She will dream up other waitresses. Maybe one of them will stay.