The Gnat that Ate the World

One could not imagine until we lived it, how it felt to enter a town whose entire occupants lay prostrate before an invisible power.

When Annabell Trainer and Miguel Vega arrived at the port of Manaus exactly three weeks after Fernando Lollo was expedited to the United States for crimes against humanity, that same city was a ghost town. Except the ghosts were not invisible. The docks were littered with the bodies of men and women, rats, rotting fish and produce, crocodiles, mangy cats, dogs and a zillion flies and other winged marauders taking advantage of the suspension of human defenses against their greedy onslaught. There were cars and trucks occupied by slumped figures stranded at the conclusion of their last doddering destination crisscrossing the roads, ditched in the landscape, penetrating the plastered walls of buildings, and flopped upside down beneath overpasses. Cattle and horses lay strewn about underneath typhoons of insects, giving the impression that they were susceptible to the gnats’ disease as humans. It was a landscape nodding off in mid-sentence, a narcoleptic city fallen asleep in the peak of hustle and bustle.

The Amazon River, however, was running clear. There wasn’t the slightest twinge of the charcoal smoke that normally chokes the air in the buzzing third world, and it was quiet except for the sound of birds.

“If we have not been infected by now, we surely will be soon,” declared Miguel after helping Annabell heave her gear from the floating craft. They had hesitated to land the canoe at first, but decided it was their duty to witness all they could in the wake of Lollo’s scheme.

Waving off the stench, they made landfall and observed through blurring eyes, the evident demise of the human race. They instinctively avoided close encounters with any of the stricken bodies, and moved to a deserted promenade over which only flocks of doves were circling, touching down, dispersing, gathering up again and taking off repeatedly, as they do, like agents of the wind. The bad smell was cut in half by distance.

“This isn’t happening,” Annabell said. She searched her gear for a satellite phone that she hadn’t touched since she left Bogota. She pulled it out of her shoulder bag and paused for a moment.

“Miguel. I need privacy,” she said.

“You need what? This isn’t private enough for you around here already? You’re going to see how much privacy we have when you try and get service on that thing,” he said, flinging a wild jab at a mosquito who’d just browsed his way over. He fled backwards thirty yards in an instant, more to evade the suspect insect than to honor Annabell’s preposterous request.

Annabell punched in a series of numbers on the device and felt her hand tremble as she held it to her ear. The line picked up after the customary dozen rings, but she noted her shakes achieving an interval increase in the next instant. The calm, confident voice that she expected to greet her on the other end was replaced with a recording. Something definitely was happening.

“If you have managed to hear this message you are to cease all ordered activities. Repeat. Do not carry out orders given to you previous to the epidemic. Immediately destroy all tech devices, ordinance, or paper that might incriminate you if you become incapacitated with the epidemic. Remain where you are or return to the nearest station if possible. Repeat. Stay put or return to station. Remain on high alert and await further orders. Regularly attempt contact at this same number. If new orders have not been issued in one hundred days’ time, make every effort to return to central headquarters and file a report on all activities to date if security at headquarters appears uncompromised. Proceed with maximum caution. Regret extenuating circumstances which force this message to be recorded. Confirmation code: Boys of Summer. Good Luck. Regards, Bluebird. End of message.”

Annabell stashed the phone in her bag. Miguel, between dummy punches at the angel of death, noticed Annabell sitting down on the pavement minus the phone and returned to her side and resumed shooing insects, real and imagined, away from both of them.

“Any luck?”

“This baby is luck,” she said massaging her stomach.

“I wish I could share your hope Annabell, but we languish here at the end of time.”

“Yeah, well, maybe we don’t know how lucky we are,” Anabell said colliding with what, from her sense of right and wrong, would have to be purged before this could be absolutely true.

“Maybe so, maybe no, but it is so much good fruit in a rotten basket now,” said Miguel clapping his hands threateningly at the air.

It was a moment that would not wait—a potent shift in her destiny that roiled beneath the edge off which she was about to jump. What if she told him everything? Would it give the baby the best chance? She thought it would. Those lies could back up so far, they’d smother the unspoiled, fresh life sewn inside her. As this dawned on her, an essence of dread distilled itself into a metallic taste on the sides of her tongue. Her tongue, the organ of her regular—but not her most infamous—deceits was feeling its shame. There were no such symptoms of guilt bubbling up from that other region yet. Annabell didn’t know if this was because she expected to exonerate her entire self with a frank confession to her intended victim now, or because her vagina felt rightful and would be satisfied to never have the story of its betrayals told to anyone.

Whereas her tongue had been outright counterfeit, her pussy had only been cunning, a skill developed long before the tongue’s vice and one perfected, not originally for personal advancement, but out of sheer obligation to Annabell’s own survival from a very early age. In the end, Annabell reasoned, it was no use stalling with such ponderances.

“Miguel, I have, until this minute, been working for the CIA. I have been planted in the middle of Frank Matel’s milieu to assure that he does not discredit the Agency with the truth about Lollo or any other story.”

Miguel’s arms finally stopped flailing for a minute.

“Ay Dios! I knew it. I didn’t know why, but I don’t like you. You framed Frank Matel, you puta.” He took a threatening step in her direction. “I should strangle you right here and now.”

Annabell stood firm. “You might offer me the same courtesy I have extended you; I was authorized to derail your mission at any cost.”

“See, you are a killer. No wonder I don’t trust you.” He allowed his falsely intimidating manor to dissolve into a shamingly intimidated one.

“I never killed, but I am qualified. I would not have killed you or Frank either, just waylaid you until Santisteven and Lollo were apprehended.”

“And if you couldn’t succeed in waylaying either of us?”

“It was never a question in my mind.”

“Did you know that we were coming to this?” he said gesturing toward the bodies littering the landscape.

“Absolutely not. Obviously you knew before anyone did.”

“If you had not interfered, Frank and I might have prevented it.”

“Get the facts straight, Miguel, you’re a journalist. Lollo spun you out of orbit, I didn’t have to.”

“But the Octopus, first of all, is he not in jail, and second, did you not put him there?”

“I don’t know what happened to land Frank in jail. I was supposed to stay in the middle of the action and try and convince him to postpone the article for the sake of national morale. They’re truly afraid of him, my bosses in Virginia. Carson Barnes himself appeared out of nowhere. They put double duty on him, which I don’t understand because I was in complete control…but maybe not, as I look back. This is Frank’s child I am carrying. At the time, I only knew that with Frank in jail, my stewardship shifted to you.”

“Everyone conveniently does your work for you, so you are innocent. Do you expect me to believe it? After all, Ms. Trainer, as you bluntly reminded me, I am a journalist.”

“Put it together for yourself Miguel, but step out of the frame for a second. Hasn’t the Octopus taught you a goddamned thing? I was under no pressure from you to tell you any of this. What would be the motive to show you my web if I were still trying to ensnare you?”

“What difference does it make why you’re telling me, puta? Do you think I’m going to live to tell it to someone who gives a shit? We aren’t getting out of here. We’re going to die, right here on top of the ground, the liar and the truth teller in the same disgrace, if not today, then tomorrow or the next. Who cares if the puta bird sings?”

“All I want is to be a good mother even if I have been a bad person. Even if I don’t carry to term, I don’t want this child poisoned in the womb by my past. I’ve changed. It’s not too late to change.” Annabell’s head drooped below her shoulders. Her voice quavered and her eyes turned watery. She began coughing out deep, bitter sobs. Miguel stood there and gave her the courtesy of his silence until her tears subsided. When she was finished he answered her.

“Yes, it’s too late to change,” Miguel said, turning away from her. “It’s finally too late to change for any of us.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked off down the Amazon.

Annabell’s gaze imitated his and they momentarily enmeshed with the extraordinary stillness of the busiest river port of the upper Amazon held in thrall by an abstract administrator. There was something undeniably hopeful about the cessation of activity that she was witnessing. It would not allow her to succumb to Miguel’s morbid conclusion. Could this possibly be the scene in every corner of the inhabited earth? Then again, if she felt herself lying down against her wishes any time soon, the balm on her nerves could turn helter skelter in a wink.

But for now, somehow, she was immune to despair, she and her unborn good luck charm.

“Maybe you’re right,” she said, “and we are doomed. Either way I am sorry for what I have done to you. I believe I would say this even if we had not found this end. I think I can honestly say it is not the epidemic that has changed me, but my pending motherhood, and perhaps Xiento’s medicine, and the trip down the river was significant as well.” Miguel made a one-eighty and they looked each other in the face. Her’s was undeniably sincere, his gave no indication.

“Why does everyone confess to me?” he said and turned away again, but not in time to conceal the softening of his position against her. “Santisteven drove me up a wall. I should have been a priest.”

“Don’t wish it away,” said Annabell. “It’s more useful to be a journalist.”

“Nothing is useful anymore,” he said, “unless you can raise the dead.” Annabell rose to her feet.

“I’ve had enough of your somber defeat. I’m going to investigate even if there’s a snowflake’s chance in a bonfire that I might learn something that you haven’t considered. You don’t even have solid proof that this is Lollo’s doing, nor that it is worldwide in scale. You may lay down and let death overtake you without a fight if you wish. I’m going to see what there is to see.” She turned toward the center of town and began walking. Miguel watched her a moment and then caught up.

“Out of respect for the Octopus’s unborn child, I will accompany you and watch over you as long as I am able.”

“That’s very loyal of you,” she said without stopping or looking at him. “I’m scared shitless, are you?”

“Yes,” he said, “and grief-stricken.”

Annabell and Miguel soon learned that many of the bodies were still occupied by the living. They lay prone in every quarter, gone limp in the middle of whatever action in which they were last engaged. Imagine daily life, anywhere on the planet that humans concentrate themselves for convenience, compelled in some karmic siesta, with no regard for their comfort or proximity to home. They just lay there, urine- and shit-soiled, sun-burned, rain-drenched, insect infested, rat pestered, unable to move. Some were conscious, or perhaps semi-conscious is the better description, but very much aware on some level. It turned out to be a level where they could not be reached, at least not significantly, or for very long, like a person absorbed in delirium. Annabell spent an hour trying to make a young woman wake up or to tell her what happened. The woman remained aware of them, of her surroundings, but uninterested. Annabell finally accepted the obvious. Their focus was monopolized by something invisible, and there were many, many like her. Some could string together audible words, but made no sense to Annabell nor Miguel. Whatever these people were conscious of was deeply engrossing and deeply personal. Many also had a pulse, but were unable to respond or be aroused to coherence. Others were undeniably dead. Miguel rationally assumed that they were encountering individuals in varying stages of the progress of the disease. Annabell was not inclined to draw any limiting conclusions.

At the end of an afternoon of wandering to and fro through the streets of Manaus they were tired, succumbing to the mass misery to which they bore witness. By nightfall they had gravitated toward an affluent neighborhood, taken showers under a handpump in a park, then found, by good fortune, an empty house in which no one lay dead or afflicted; it was up for sale. They raided the neighbor’s pantry and made a meal. Both of them were too upset to eat much, but Anabell forced herself for the sake of the baby. They made for sleep on cushions taken from the neighbor’s sofas in the awkward austerity of an electricityless modern home. Annabell lay on her partitioned mattress, recalled her experience in Xiento’s camp. There, amid the most primitive comforts, electricity would have not only seemed out of place, but would have been unwelcome. She never missed it nor thought of it. But in the four square eminence of a civilized dwelling, the lack of power exposed it as the deprived, dysfunctional box it is, whose inhabitants are trapped inside, at night, rather than sheltered, and whose willingness to accept the compromise in the sanctity of home, spills into every other area of their lives unimpeded and unchallenged. Annabell thought that there was something worthwhile in this recognition in spite of the fact that Miguel was probably right and they were destined to collapse and expire in obscurity with the rest of the world. The thought—though it had disturbed her that morning, because she wanted more than anything she ever had, to meet the person growing inside her belly—was still frightful to her now, even after having examined the inhabitants of Manaus. They did not seem to be suffering even though many of them chaffed with rash and sunburn. Lack of food and water did not seem to distract them. In fact, if Annabell could reconcile it with the conundrum that a significant percentage of them were deceased, she would dare to say they didn’t seem to be dying at all, but simply dwelling elsewhere, in the normally unused regions of the brain, in some ethereal sub-terrain. Maybe they were sojourning in a similar place that bears and bees hibernate in winter. If this malaise did lead to ultimate dissolution, it seemed to leave time for putting things in order at least on some level. Still, Annabell was not comfortable with the idea that she might be going to sleep to life as she knew it, and might awaken the next day with her volition over all things physical revoked. It would be emotional torture to experience the person she was nurturing inside her, slowly shriveling in dehydrated starvation because Annabell was unable to get up and nourish herself.

She decided to eat as much as possible. No matter how absurd it sounded, she decided to store up enough food and water in her body to get her unborn child to the other side of whatever this was. Amid these unsettling thoughts, exhaustion finally overcame her. She had nothing left with which to oppose sleep and it finally ravaged her vigilance.

 

Miguel had been acutely aware of the sound of buzzing insect wings ever since he found out about Lollo’s micro monster. He considered it one of his front line defenses to help him prevent—and if not prevent at least delay—the consequences of their deadly bite. Since he’d arrived in Manaus it had been an overwhelming task.

Miguel had also resisted sleep, not knowing what might bring on his ultimate surrender. He felt compelled to write everything that had happened that day, as he had been doing for weeks, and when he was finished he began writing everything he had never had time to write but had always wanted to. There were letters to his wife Sylvia and children Vincente and Paula, one to an uncle, his mother’s brother, Savero, who had been like a second father to him, who sold the best blankets in Colombia. Savero would go from town to town and employ a local peon to soak one of his blankets in the river then bring it to the plaza and roll himself up in it. Then Uncle Savero would fire a pistol at the man in the blanket and the blanket was so strong it would repel the bullet. This sensational presentation made Miguel’s uncle very popular and fairly well-to-do, since he bought the blankets for next to nothing from the Indios. Miguel wrote Savero to tell him how proud he had been as a child of the uncle with the bulletproof blankets and how he was still proud of him and missed him very much. He missed his whole family desperately. He wrote to his wife and children apologizing for his decision to become a journalist which ultimately caused this separation at a time when they should be together. He wept, imagining all those he loved falling down, deceased, or weak and addled into lunacy by Lollo’s menace. Feeling nearly insane with the weight of what he was left behind to witness, he wrote his brother Jesus and sisters Josephina, Carolina, and Marta. Then he began writing letters to people who had passed on before this catastrophe, some of them long ago. His grandmother Prudencia who had spoiled him with story books and delicacies from her kitchen. His grandfather Aurrelio who was four feet six inches tall and so insecure about it that he took offense at nearly everything his wife said to him. They fought bitterly all their married life. Aurrelio used to climb on the counters to get face to face with her. He even jumped off the roof onto Prudencia’s back one time to try and get the upper hand.

He wrote his great grandfather Moises, whom he knew only from early childhood, but felt a new found affinity with. He was writing them as though he would soon be calling on them for a visit: his great uncle Tomasio, who taught him billiards and gave him his first taste of cigars and brandy; his father’s sister, Aunt Gertruda, whom he had never met, because she ran off with a Gaucho to Argentina and was never heard from again; his favorite professor at university, Senor Alberto Coseleon, who had taken a personal interest in Miguel and pointed him towards his profession with the twin beacons of personal integrity and scholarship.

Miguel was determined to outrun his fatigue and sail over the dark seas of sleep in his raft of paper using his pen for a mast and words as his sail. He was planning to write Frank Matel a letter of personal thanks for being a great example to journalists all over the world. Because he was terrified of sleep, he wanted to write the Presidents of Colombia, the United States, Nicaragua, Panama, Fidel Castro, and the Pope. He thought he was holding his own pretty well when had begun an essay on the North’s corruption of the economics, religion, and culture of South America, but shortly after finishing the part about the exploitation and unfair distribution of natural resources, the sail grew slack and the little boat was becalmed an hour before morning dawned in the western hemisphere.

 

Annabell awoke and made quick inventory of her faculties. Grateful for every second of freedom, she was soon on her feet and stripped naked, scrutinizing herself in a mirror. She knew the chance for success of her scheme was trifling, but the only alternative was to give up, which her instinct to protect and nurture would not permit. She looked at her body like a lifeboat. As a craft or vessel, in which her unborn child might journey beyond pandemonium. A giggle escaped her lips as she looked at the obverse of her expertly crafted self-image in the mirror. A currency exchange was taking place. A 20 dollar gold piece happily traded for a plug nickel.

For a seductive vixen, her body was perfect, save the bulge at her navel. Her long legs, soft shoulders, pert breasts, formerly flat tummy and hemispheric bottom were about to undergo a paradigm shift. The form had been both an asset and a liability all her life. It had bought her admiration, protection and, above all, privilege. But it had made her self-conscious, guarded and finally coldly calculating in response to the ravaging eyes and genitalia of every man from among the power elite in Washington, to the most derelict creatures of the street. She felt a sense of relief that this part of being beautiful would plague her no longer. She was cashing all this in to become a food warehouse for the future of a tiny time traveler. She used the mirror as a crystal ball to try and capture a glimpse of that future. What would the little elf need for its journey? Potential time constraints made such strategizing important. She saw that as a human pantry, she had room to expand in all regions. It was urgent to begin stocking her body, immediately, like a bunker against pending shortages. If Miguel was right, there was no time to waste.

Before setting out in search of provisions, Annabell looked in on Miguel. She saw him sprawled on the floor with a palette of hand written white papers beneath him. She allowed herself a moment to free associate. The buddha of lassitude collapsed on a many petaled lotus, she mused, a frog on a lily pad, or a man adrift on a tiny raft. It was necessary for the preservation of her own sanity to subjectify the event. She did not even bother to wake him, to see if he was still all of himself. There wasn’t time. If he was afflicted, she could do nothing about it. At least he was out of the sun and elements. She could be next, so she went out and began pilfering her way up and down the streets of the well-to-do of Manaus.

She ate as she went, and also collected sacks and filled them with provisions for what may come later in case there was a later, giving priority to fats, proteins and carbohydrates, in that order and soaking up as many fluids as she could manage as well.

Palm oil was to be found in every kitchen, she slathered everything with it. She did not take time to cook, as she was not eating for pleasure. She opened cans and devoured their entire contents as methodically as a trash compacter. There were olives and condensed milk, oxtail soup and smoked fish, guava puree and head cheese, consume and pork knuckles, pickled hens’ eggs, fish eggs, and turtle meat, tapir meat, plantains in coconut milk, and a little treat she had to stop herself from going overboard with called Dulce de Leche. She bravely ate them all, marveling at the things that came canned in this foreign land. She only stopped to massage her stomach and allowed herself a little breather here and there to let things settle before going on to the next house. She never sat down, except on the toilet.

She did not mind when she grew nauseous. Nor that she had to vomit periodically when her digestion could not keep up.

“Occupational hazard,” she said as she rinsed her mouth and began again. It was not as disgusting as it would have been in nearly any other social setting. She was not being compulsive but strategic. She was not intentionally practicing gluttony, obsession, bulimia, insatiability or any other self-destructive tendency. She did not see herself numbing out, densing-up, avoiding problems, manufacturing self-protective layers of fat, extending false boundaries, attempting to satisfy an unfulfilled intimate necessity, covering over emotional scars, trying to fill a bottomless pit of need, swallowing secrets, expressing sideways rage at her lover, hiding her beauty, hiding behind a neurosis, punishing herself, abusing herself, cleaning her plate, placating an over nurturing mother, thinking of the starving children in Africa, reacting to past deprivation during the Depression, POW camp, being lost in the wilderness, or Appalachian malnourishment. Nor was Annabell getting high on endorphins. She was just doing what she could to provide a future to a child she may never know.

After condensing as much nourishment into her body as she thought humanly possible in one day, Annabell slung two large duffels of parlayed food over her shoulders and made her way back toward the handpump in the park for a shower. The specter of the paralyzed inhabitants of Manaus strewn about like confetti after a parade was nearly overpowering.        With effort she was able to concentrate on small, consoling pleasures, like how quiet it was for a city, and how the birds were so lively, and she saw monkeys and a dog frisking with each other, and big lizards out on the shady sides of the houses. With the dominant species out of commission, the rest of the natural world had relaxed for the time being. With this psychological equivalent of elbow grease, Annabell was able to zigzag between, or step over the bodies of the few dead, and majority apoplectic, without shattering to pieces. She let a cascade of water temporarily wash it all away. Her strong right arm in perpetual motion while she lingered under its pulsing surge until she felt some relief from the profound heat that had radiated through to her bones by the time the tropic sun was setting. She drip dried all the way back to the house where she’d slept the night before, her curiosity about the condition of Miguel intensifying as each step drew her nearer.

When she arrived Miguel had not moved an inch and she knew it could mean only one thing. As she approached him she saw the letters and the essays that formed his lily pad and the thought passed through her mind that she should gather them up and post them for him. Just one example of how hard it is to allow changes of such dramatic proportions to affect adjustments in the minds of us who are reliant on our routines.

“Miguel?” He did not respond, but he, like most of the others, was not dead. She put both hands behind his neck and lifted his head. “Miguel, it’s Annabell.”

Miguel’s eyes opened and seemed to recognize her for an instant. Then, it was as if a curtain was drawn over them. They remained open but they were watching something she could not see.

“Miguel, I want to help you if there’s anything I can do. Can you hear me?” He just lay there with his eyes fixed on something, something very absorbing, finally they closed completely and Annabell could keep hers open no longer either. And she was fast asleep at once, unable to hear Miguel when he said,

“Then, what?” But what difference would it have made? None.

 

Annabell awoke several hours later. It was dark. When she remembered where she was, she whimpered. The odd contents of her stomach refused to blend and be digested. Sleep had been a welcome relief from the stark ordeal on this side. If only it were the other way and this was the dream. Thus she tampered with her emotions till they were unable to obstruct her from figuring out what to do. She bent her mind into research mode. She wanted to know more so she could prepare herself, hoping with little grounds to dodge the plague, or even outfox it for a while.

“Miguel, what is it like?” He looked right at her again. He seemed to recognize her, but then clouded over again. She asked again, “Miguel tell me something.” Again his consciousness came forward for a split second to meet hers, then receded. It was like he was underwater and with effort he could resurface, but only for a moment.

“Miguel Vega!” she shouted. Annabell watched intently this time. There he was acknowledging her presence, there he went back down like a drowned man. She could almost perceive the brocade of visions closing in from the margins of his normal sight.

“Miguel, are you hallucinating?” she asked.

“Are you hallucinating?” she repeated. There was no immediate reply. Annabell sat back and reached into her duffel. She pulled out a can of sardines, peeled back the lid and began eating with her fingers. She had learned little more from this encounter with Miguel, than what she already knew about the mysterious illness from the people on the street. She sat and munched the bony fish slowly and carefully, contemplating her next course of action. With uncertain intent, she dangled a sardine in front of Miguel’s nose. He showed no particular shift in awareness. As she pulled the morsel back to place it in her own mouth, a drop of oil in which the fish had been preserved, dripped and landed on Miguel’s lip. To Annabell’s surprise Miguel’s tongue went directly to it, conveyed it to his palette and he swallowed. She didn’t really care whether he was hallucinating anyway. Why hadn’t she thought before to ask what she really wanted to know.

“Can you eat, Miguel?” No answer.

Annabell placed a small flake of sardine in Miguel’s mouth. He swallowed but he did not chew and he seemed to lack the motor skills to get it to the back of his throat. Then came the unpleasant task of retrieving the tidbit so it wouldn’t find its way down Miguel’s breathing passage. All the time she did this Miguel flagged, as in a coma. He neither helped nor hindered her. She went back to giving him drops of fish oil and he swallowed each time. She was excited by this discovery. She couldn’t tell whether Miguel was doing it voluntarily or as a reflex. It didn’t matter. Deliberate or otherwise, it still got sustenance down the throat. Annabell was formulating a plan out of what shards of hope she could salvage from the hopeless conditions in which she found herself. She wasn’t performing this experiment because she was concerned with keeping Miguel alive. He was her Guinea pig. She couldn’t know either way, but if those on the streets of Manaus were dead from dehydration or starvation because they couldn’t take care of themselves, she might do something to avoid it herself, so her baby might be born. Her next thought brought her to a decisive course of action. There was apparently no one able bodied in Manaus to feed and water Annabell if she fell ill with the disease. So she must leave Manaus. She had no evidence yet to suggest that this epidemic was widespread. Unless you count the cryptic message in her attempt to reach Bluebird. That was inconclusive anyway. The phone message from Bluebird, foreboding though it was, left some room for hope. In all its peripatetic bureaucracy, the words “file report” meant that at least someone else felt that it was not impossible to survive this “epidemic.” Annabell felt compelled to walk this wire of chance, one step at a time, no matter how thin it was, until it either delivered her baby into safety or disappeared completely beneath them.

She knew where to find healthy people, unless something drastic had happened overnight. There were many villages on their way down river where people were carrying on normally. All she had to do was to return in the direction from which she came. She thought of Xiento. She’d trust him to take care of her. He’d been her salvation once already. The solution was so feasible, at once, she felt the mandibles of danger cease snapping at her heals. All she had to do was go back. It wouldn’t be difficult to appropriate a boat down at the docks. It might be unpleasant if she had to pitch a dead person overboard or drag a zombie on land, so she could be alone on her mission, but that was not going to stop her.

Then there was the fact that she’d never driven a motor boat, wasn’t sure how to get back to Xiento’s tributary, and would be travelling upriver instead of down, which meant she might need to find fuel and who knows what. Where there were boats, there was fuel, etc. There was no shortage of them anywhere on the Negro above Manaus. She had seen that with her own eyes. She could always keep trading boats if the epidemic was in a full stampede. She didn’t overwhelm herself with the thought that she was the only one left standing in an entire city who’d fallen to the gnat’s poison. The only reason she allowed for the fright that was progressing through her gut was its firm reminder to stay on purpose.

“Miguel. I have to go now,” Annabell said leaning her face over his. “I’m leaving Manaus. I have to.” She waited several minutes for any sign of cognition from Miguel while she sorted through conflicting feelings about setting off without him. Of course taking him with her and nursing him until she got someone to take care of both of them, was out of the question. It would slow her down and it may do no good anyway. That was the snare of her predicament. If she believed that she could stay alive with the help of someone willing to nurse her, then it followed that she was abandoning Miguel to certain death by leaving without him. If she dismissed that with the excuse that it was a long shot whether it would help either of them to be nursed anyway, that would mean it was futile for her to leave. She had to get out of there. Such thoughts took precious time.

“So long, Miguel,” she said but with a twang of loneliness in her breast. She slung a food duffle over each shoulder and walked out into the rising sun.

“Then, what?” said Miguel, but Annabell never heard. Every other hour or so for a good while, the same words echoed into the null and void of that barren place.

 

Homesick Blues

On the morning of the feast of St. Nicholas, the edges of Manhattan architecture first glimmered for me in the hard frost of early December. I was about to go ashore after seven miserable days at sea. These last seven days falling at the end of a hundred traveled from the time of our departure at Denver when we were merely just flipping the bird at our past through the eye of an airplane. We had no idea what was coming. Enough said about that for now.

 New York, as many have said, introduces America splendidly from its harbor. The Empire State Building stands shoulders above the crowd like a rocket ready to rumble. The Statue of Liberty poses out front in her cloak of million dollar bills. 

This was my father’s home port. He knew the harbor as well as he knew my face and though I had not proved a competent seaman, I felt a renewed bond with him as a circle closed that began to be drawn 16,000 miles behind me. When I left I wouldn’t have imagined this possible but I was actually looking forward to seeing my old man. Coming in to the country the way he had so many times before put me in a sympathetic mood.

The noise of the city reached my ears before we even docked, mostly aircraft, then automobiles, a church bell tolled somewhere not far off. It’s sacred toning, homely, droning calm and sincere beneath the urban rumpus. I blinked my eyes and snagged a flashback. It reminded me of the Cathedral bell on the day we buried Mother, its massive clapper pounding out eternity like a boxer hammering at my navel. 

In the measure and order of harbor traffic, my attention shot outward like this. After days of tedious swaying to the curving edge of earth my attention went bouncing into that yawning chasm of Wall Street like a pin ball. Eagerly my fellow crew mates and I prepared to debark, but it turned out that the ship, its cargo and crew, including me, were impounded for the night while the captain cleared up some fine that he was in arrears with. The captain said it was a problem between Hungary and the United States, but my shipmates said the captain had a stubborn preference for his own rules and blasé attitude toward everyone else’s. The shipping officials and their guard came aboard. It made me nervous. I stashed the LSD inside a fire hose freckled with black mildew. By the time all this port of call red tape had peeled off we found out the ship’s crew could have gone ashore anytime we wanted. The captain lied to us and caused our delay because they were threatening to send him back, cargo and all, and he didn’t want to have to round up a new crew. I could hardly hold the guy in contempt. It was that very disregard of regulations that had got me on his ship, but everyone was antsy and hungry for action. We were tired of our cold, damp, cage and being bounced incessantly on the nervous knee of the tides. Your legs feel like a pair of worn-out hinges. I thought of the first settlers, the immigrants, and all the singing sailors that had sung them over. 

The grease and gears of the American dream machine curve through the docks of New York every day. The city that seems to have something everyone wants. Blinking radio spires atop twin Trade Towers point skyward, like needles full of dope square-rigged and ready to shoot up the world. I was standing up to my eyeballs in it all–those same eyeballs that had recoiled from stiletto raindrops in an Asian typhoon, adjusted to the dark surrounded with stone Himalayan domes and halls and discovered Michelangelo’s deep fried delights on frescoed Sistine walls. Yup, these eyes are different than the ones that had left the country. Umpteen more fleeting suns, they’ve chased over the tips and hips of this world, back to where I wake up this morning and see my country staring back at me through eyes of rosy dawn. 

“I’ve met the sunrise. I’ve come from sunrise. Out of the sun I come. The sun has promptly coughed me up today and spit me out.” While I rehearsed those words, anticipating the first that I would speak to Jocelyn, my eyes were confronted with black, graffiti subway camouflage raging through the space travel system of New York’s dim lit transportation entrails. Some long-winded spray cat was writing Honkyniggerspic all over everything. 

Honkyniggerspic was a catchy tag. Firstly it was way longer than I had seen. Most tags are initials that also make a word like DIG, or sometimes a tag like AVID is a guy, David, that dropped his “D.” A lot of taggers incorporate a number like 4SEPS or MU6. A long one might have combinations like MO2V8R, but longer tags often also mean, so compressed you and I could hardly read it. Good marks are laid down clear and whisperquick. That’s what made this guy look good. This tagger with the big name wasn’t crowding it at all, just a long chain of cursive—most smokey-trailed and spider webby, but its chief artfulness was in its choice to unify negative racial slang in such catchy, trashy counterpoint. Another thing, it suggests quickness. He had to be fast to spit that thing out so often without getting caught. It was bragging—like, nah-nah cops can’t catch me. Anyone who paid the least attention caught sight of that splendid spew of alphabet stew every which, up, down and mid-town Manhattan. I imagined HONKEYNIGGERSPIC was a brown kid with white and black parents.

Rocking in that grungy subway aimed uptown, it was sinking in that I was home. I had survived my odyssey, and yet my troubles were still considerable. Since I had not kidnapped Lainie, as her father accused, they were going to figure it out sooner or later, so I figured I’d stay out of the way until they did. That would steer me clear of a huge hassle. Could be she was already home, or on her way, for Christmas. She could be dead too—for all I knew. It worried me no end—I’d make a discreet phone call or two and find out so I could stop wondering. I rubbed my temples. She might even be in New York that minute. Would that be great, or terrible? I had ridden a continuous circuit of planes, trains, trucks, cars, tuk-tuks, bikes and buses, had swum oceans and walked beaches and boulevards to escape these same riddles that await me on my doorstep, but that first morning in New York, after the debacle in Amsterdam and then the confinement of the ship, I was feeling grateful, even expansive—relieved to be home safe. 

By any measure it was good to be home and exciting to be finally crawling into the mythical Big Apple for my very first time. I had a huge stash in my pocket and was planning to peddle all of it to Ghost McCloud when he got back to the states in another week, if I could wait that long. Other than that, my only plan was to charm Jocelyn into giving me another chance. Otherwise I’d head back to Colorado with a fresh chunk of cash and move into my own place.

The dozens of that subway car’s other occupants minded their business, looking out the window, not having many conversations. Some of them were reading. I had the homestretch jitters and felt like talking. 

My attention fell to the fellow across the aisle that looked like he was in transition from an all-night shift. I remembered that condition well from guys who worked graveyard at the steel mill in Pueblo. The look on the face said it all. Your soul squirmed to the surface after hours submerged. I couldn’t say to him what I was thinking so I just smiled. He smiled back, downed his coffee, screwed the cap back on his thermos. I took him for a family guy, midway in age between myself and Dad with the obligations that come from a steady love life. The train slowed. Its brakes started to screech. We set our heels against it.

He nodded at my filthy pack. “Which way you coming from?” 

“East from LA last summer.” There was a little feather of down floating around my face, escaped from a small hole in my vest. I blew at it.

He sat back and raised his eyebrows. “All the way by yourself?” 

The subway was noisy. We braced bodies. You had to raise your voice above the crescendo of the brakes. “I started off with a pal, but we didn’t get along.” 

He nodded. “What happened to him?”

I appreciated my first human contact in New York. He was making the miles shorter for both of us. I had thought about his question a lot at sea and had reduced it to this, “He paid my way and then, like a sap, I punched the son of a bitch out,” I shouted. It echoed. As we were coming to a stop, likewise did the brakes cease their screeching, so that I was left announcing to everyone within 20 feet that I was, or had been, some kind of mad-puncher-outer. 

In the sudden quiet, the eyes of the occupants of that car all looked at me. Even though I regretted smacking Kirk, I had felt kind of macho admitting it to this stranger, but then suddenly I was blushing. The doors opened, occupants circulated. The guy collected his lunch pail and got up.

“Welcome home,” he chuckled with a weary smile and walked away.

The doors slid shut, everyone crowded together, we settled in, each in our orbit. Our serpent groped forward through the dark, slanting our bodies at one same, precise angle. 

In a bleak, wet morning we tunneled under the skin of New York, beneath apartment blocks with cornices dripping, soggy, bushy eye-browed window boxes full of dead flowers. In all directions spread multiple grids of concrete, glass, and scads of pavement doused with rain, annealed by auto tires and shoe leather. There were blinking, colored strings and lights of holiday commerce everywhere up there, around this and that and back. I didn’t know what to think about Christmas. 

In that modern, lurching conveyance, primitive rhythms lulled us into bubbles of drowsy muddlings. Lots of problems waited to be solved as we wormed our way in but I looked past my own. In the darkness of my dreary, neon dream, an A-train sliding sideways in a rain. My eyes slept in details and likenesses. I discovered there was no difference between New Yorkers and the citizens of Liverpool, Bombay, Hong Kong, or anywhere. There was more difference between the subway cars we rode. People were diverse everywhere but diverse in the same way from country to country. You had aggressive people, mellow people, ignorant, creative, and selfish ones all on every train in the world. Having spent a little time with a chimpanzee recently, I was hip to the fact that none of us were very far from our origins. The biggest difference is we get caught up in our dreams. I had heard that from Sydney’s guru in India, too, and just realized its meaning in a new way. Our car bumped along rhythmically, like the chain on a shackle; steel wheels etching themselves into black-bruised rails. 

Thoughts were firing in all directions from me that first day back on home soil. Some rogue circuit ran up the back of my brain on high. To slow it down I tried deciphering more of the graffiti. I don’t care who makes it, art is like peaking inside of someone, reading their thoughts, examining their organs. MAD4IT, FIX8, and many other combinations closed around us in crazy caps and colors, and then there was the ever long Honkyniggerspic. I wondered if it was a chick. If so, I’d like to meet her. There was more graffiti on the sides of trains, seen flying out our window, and I saw one guy making it, out in the open that morning, with his nozzle dripping on a platform in a station.

No subway I had ridden, from Tokyo to Paris, belonged so unquestionably to the underground. We screamed through the substrate like the sound of a thousand electric guitar strings. It looked like we were taking over. In New York, we’d made the full circle from natives who depicted, on caves and canyons, the struggles and ecstasies of their times, to the self-appointed scribes of our civilization, whispering now through a vortex of a million colors onto the walls and tunnels of the subterranean urban maelstrom. If these catacombs survive our future ancients will research the spiral of evolution through these enigmatic twists. Paintings of quarry and prey give way to names, in exotic script, of the few who still run free. No more scenes of war or hunt but, like cave art, ultra-personal, encrypted and cult-like; all of them declarations of independence of some kind, whispers of existence to future’s unknown descendants. 

I remembered a quote from a character that Clive had translated for me out of one of Oliver’s books back in Paris. This was from the ancient ruler that gave away his kingdom in order to discover the secret of flight. It was a superstitious prophecy about what would happen when men learned to fly. “Verily they spread their golden wings over the populous at noontime,” warned the blind seer. “We admire their magnificent feathers and excuse the shadow creeping beneath us like a reptile.” I liked the Biblical flavor of it, yet I was experiencing my country, like I’d never seen it before and doubted if anyone could adequately describe it, not Oliver, not the Bible, not the graffiti poet, and certainly not me. 

An involuntary force in my legs squeezed my knees together and I began trembling. Why? I was experiencing culture shock in my own country.

“Can you help make sense of this?” I prayed to my deceased mother. 

Yes, Andrew, what is it my beloved son?

“The insane idea of taking some acid is teasing its way into my thoughts again.”

No. No. Not yet. 

I put my hand on the vial in my pocket and wished there was someplace I could just go relax. The 9999 hits of acid that had accompanied me over the ocean, tempted me regularly with its powers, but it wasn’t time yet. Enormous potentials revved in place floating askance like specks of anti-matter in an expanding universe. 

I got off the subway at Penn Station with my legs still adjusting to land. It was a rainy day. People were going to work or heading back home from shifts. Umbrellas, boots and slickers of all colors were beaded over with rain. I replayed in my head the take-off from Denver months past. The sight of the American landscape by air had been spectacular, returning now, by subway felt sinister. 

I called Jocelyn’s apartment from a free phone in the lobby of the Hotel Pennsylvania across from Mad Square. It rang and rang. 

She had no idea I was in town. I had no idea if she was. There had to have been a couple postcards from me in her mailbox—one I sent clear back in Japan. I hung up, revolved through some brass and glass and plunged into the rapids of humanity.

I made my way uptown under a battered umbrella to Central Park, in the vicinity of her address, and then found a joint to smoke with a friendly Puerto Rican who kindly offered to share when he noticed me watching. He had waved at me from inside the park. 

“Venga, venga,” he said. I liked his army jacket with the silk-screened Che Guevara on the back. The hood of it was soaked through from rain to his jet-black curls. He looked older than me—times ten—but full of life and good nature.

“Have a hit,” he said, coughing and offering a cupped hand to keep the rain off. The back of the hand was adorned with a tattoo of the head of Christ in agony under thorny crown with eyes heavenbound.

As I accepted the burning number, I pointed at the artwork on his fist and flagged him my upturned thumb.

“Nice.” I inhaled the word and looked him over, thinking maybe he could help me sell some acid. I needed money to get around, but I had to figure out how to cut some single doses out first, so I kept it quiet. 

He was checking out my pack pretty closely. “You on the street come night?”

I told him I’d been around the world on the street. It didn’t seem to compute. Maybe he didn’t have the English. Maybe he didn’t believe me. He understood when I finally pulled out some coins in my pocket from places of all kinds. He thought it was funny. He laughed at me standing there in the rain with my fist full of coin from every country and all pretty much equally worthless there in New York. His name was Alphonse. I told him my name and we clapped hands.

He crouched under my umbrella passing his squiggy on a rock of boulder in the middle of an island of sopped yellow turf in New York’s Central Park. Some cops cruised by at one point and Alphonse waved the jay defiantly.

“Hola Cochino.” He mouthed this slowly, so they could read his lips and see the joint then turned to me and laughed, but I didn’t laugh, thinking of the vial in my pocket and my eyes sharpshooting for a rabbit’s retreat. 

I was growing weary of outlaws and drug dealers, wanted to stash that vial somewhere, unplug from it for a while, see if I could get back a normal state of mind. I didn’t need to be tripping any more. Life was intense enough. Something told me I should quit drugs, but it was a task that loomed larger and more ominous before me than walking backwards over every bit of ground I’d just traveled; all the way through the first turnstile at LAX. Quitting was something I just could not deal with right then. I wished I had done it already, because now it would take some life changing event or accident to trigger it. 

As it was I had consistently coached myself to stay away from the hard stuff since we left India, and for the time being that meant grass was still on the menu because I needed something to take the edge off heroin cravings and I couldn’t imagine being without it from moment to moment because the world looked so brilliant again every time I took it. Of course the minute I got stoned, I thought of how grand it would feel to get high on the precious horse again, get out of the body entirely, wander the misty mountains. It might be the only way you could get alone in a city like this. Sure, I thought about hitting up Alphonse for some smack, but, as sweet Mary Ann had once told me, thinking about it is way different than doing it. 

Freshly stoned, I stood there in the rain with a stranger, our senses jacked to the world flowing by like a flood. Dream limousines cruised the park with smiles on their grills. Buildings wore bowties for the holidays. Aircraft beacons on roofs revolved like party favors under a shroud of goofy cloud. Excess electricity radiated off the sky like a halo. 

A chill caught up with me, not from cold, but from seeing, in the wink of an eye, everything in its everythingness. It was way too beautiful. I almost couldn’t look at it. I needed all of that holy weed I could get. I took out my last ten dollars and, pointed to the roach, indicating to my Puerto Rican pal I would like to buy some of what we were smoking.

 “No pro’lem” he said, and pulled out a Ziplock bag of joints. I pulled out two fat ones and put the ten spot in their place. He fished a fin and a single out of his coat and extended them. In December of 1980 two bucks was the price for a squig of comersh, in the streets of New York City. 

“You keep the change,” I said being stupidly generous under the influence of my first smoke since Paris. 

“No. You,” he insisted, pushing them back. He liked me. I liked him. He stuffed the bills in my hand. There were words written on one of them, in blue ink, more graffiti. I tucked them into my Levi’s.

 “Gracias.” I said. We clasped hands again and he gave me the roach.

“You need marijuana, come see Alphonse any day. ” 

I was reminded of the hash dealer who told me that over by India Gate in Bombay. His name was Pradeep if I remember correctly.

Like Pradeep, Alphonse was willing to be my friend as long we had good business relations. He and I were strangers. For all I knew he beat his girlfriend, but I wanted to give him something to remember me, in case I needed him to help me move some acid, or the other thing I mentioned, in case I got too weak to walk by myself and needed a horse to ride. I set my umbrella on edge in the grass. When he saw me reach in my pocket, he started to pull out his baggie again, like I might want to buy some more joints. I pulled out a coin from India, the one with the hole in the middle and the fluted edges, and handed it to him.

He accepted it and examined the Sanskrit. “From where?” he asked.

“India” I answered. He nodded his head, studying it, then put it in his top pocket and placed his hand over his pocket, then solemnly thanked me, breaking eye contact only after the rest of him had turned away. 

“Adios, Alphonse.” God bless the guy. Thanks to his grass I felt a lot less alien. 

The rain let up then fell hard again. Thanks to the umbrella I’d found in a Liverpool trash bin, my clothes were only damp. I located Jocelyn’s apartment off Central Park West on 73rd. There it stood at a dozen stories even, in blond brick, a block back from the main drag. The place was respectable­­—not fancy—there was no doorman, but a security lock barred the entrance. I found her name and rang the buzzer. My heart drummed in my ears, but there was no reply. Searching the face of the building, I looked for signs of her inside its fuel-oil exhaust-streaked window frames. She was probably in rehearsal or hearing some lecture on counterpoint. 

I had to admit, she’d moved up a bit in the world by moving away. It was a higher-class place than I’d helped her move in and out of since she went on her own after high school. I imagined her cello and music stand snoozing in a corner up there near the sunniest window. Her chessboard was always set up on a coffee table near the sofa. She had that miniature Tiffany lamp on a bed stand that cast rainbows on the wall where she sipped tea, propped in bed and composed music after hours in a silk kimono. Her long hair fell in vines over soft shoulders and lotioned breasts, and all types of candles were arranged in the bathroom around her tub. I wanted to see the wicks burning.

By then it was maybe two or three in the afternoon. Daylight congealed in-between cloud smothered buildings. I prayed she wasn’t out of town, but was sort of glad I hadn’t found her home. I was really too high, too tired, filthy, and jumpy to see her. It was good to have some time to clear my head but I hoped to hell she wouldn’t be out past midnight on a gig in some orchestra. 

I sloshed around a bit more on the movie set that is Manhattan, with bent umbrella and nothing more guiding my feet. Traffic swooshed by. The sights went by swiftly on both sides. I glided through this scene in a stoned trajectory, while everyone whizzed past in their straight ones. I ran my fingers through my hair. I’d been skating on thin ice for months.

The December rain would surely turn to snow by night and with no other connections in that city, I’d be taking refuge in The Bowery if my plan with Jocelyn failed. I didn’t even know the Bowery, had only heard of it from my father who talked of it as the last place on earth that anyone would want to be. I watched the busy people go by and famous landmarks, while I was thinking all these things and trying to make the most of the last leg of my world tour. 

Occasionally I’d make eye contact with someone, usually a beggar, only to snub. Lots of dead-end lives and Viet Nam vets cluttered up the corners and walkways with lettered cardboard beside alms cups of foam and paper. Some tramps were burned out druggies, definitively retired, by hard luck and full-time tripping, by then, due to some switch stuck-on in the brain. I couldn’t concern myself, but kept scanning the crowd for potential customers, scheming in my mind on how to turn liquid lightning into selfish dollars. Where were all my brethren in that city? Folks in the hive of mid-town were not of my persuasion–so far from it that I gave up looking for heads for a while, and switched to tails, since there were more of those to watch in that part of town. 

 New York’s princesses were beautiful. I spotted one, all dressed in chic boots and leather trench, floating above the splashy streets like a dove in a cloud. She paid no attention to the ground. A yellow taxi picked her up and transported her through the goddess sphere. In my wet shoes I dreamed of her undergarments all the way down into the subway tunnel at Columbus Circle. 

Got off at about 14th and began to feel the difference right away. People weren’t just going somewhere in the Village, they already were somewhere; moving about like they were at home, instead of parasites on the back of a great host beast. The sky was nearly dark by the time I got there. Heavy little pills of snow were starting to drop out of it bouncing off the sidewalk like candies. I ducked into a Chinese tea shop and found a cup of Puerh, an earthy tea from China that I had first sipped in Hong Kong. There were people in there talking and blowing smoke rings. Some of those heads would want my medicine, but I was not able just then. The sound system was burping out Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports.” 

I felt suddenly, exhaustedly, mute upon placing my order and dropping my ass. After so much input a person needed space to reflect, peace, quite time to fin around in one’s own depths. I picked up a newspaper while Music for Airports networked its bluish fugue into the delta wavelengths in my brain. It was the end of the year and some journalist was talking about all the famous people that had died. Alfred Hitchcock, Steve McQueen, Henry Miller, Mae West. They forgot John Bonham but not Tonto. My mother’s voice came over the top of all this.

It’s not time yet to catch up on the news. 

I discarded the Times on the empty table next to me. It lay there with a picture of our soon-to-be-sworn-in-President Ronald McDuck Regan on the front page looking out over his magic kingdom. When I left it, the country was run by a Southern gentleman, and now he was handing it over to a matinee cowboy. What was going on? I had no clue. I had to get up to speed on elections and such things someday. It was the adult thing to do. People my age in India and all over Europe had opinions about such things. When those cats from Calcutta asked me “What is the attitude of your country toward India?” I just laughed at them. I wanted to say, “maybe my dad could tell you.”

The thought of calling my Dad nagged at me constantly but I wasn’t ready for that either. I had the feeling often that we were thinking of each other at the same time. I could feel him there from his chair in front of the television, but I preferred to think of Jocelyn. I was about clear headed enough to call her, still afraid to though, because I didn’t know if she’d want to see me, but there was a payphone at the rear of the establishment. I inserted a coin, US again, a shiny profile of Jefferson winked at me once on his way through the slot. 

Jocelyn’s phone rang six times. I hung up on the seventh for good luck and tried to decide what to do next. It was night, but of course it wasn’t dark out. The sky had city light thrown across it, it was never night even though the clock behind the counter said so. 

“Mom, it’s seven-thirty. What do I do?”

Call again around ten. 

It had stopped snowing so I went outside and started walking to pass the time. The stars seemed to have all been wrenched out and shattered on the streets. The wind blew frozen buckshot off ledges and tree limbs and crunched under my feet. My shoes were wet with rain and soon would freeze. 

It was December by a full week. Santa Claus was coming to town. All the shop windows announced it with the same corny Hollywood fantasy we all grew up with, of a paradise trimmed in icicles and snowflakes. That notorious Christmas curse, Humbug, crept to my lips as the ghost of Christmas lost began to assume its grim posture in the alleyways of lower Manhattan. 

It is a devastating moment when a stratum of humanity that you’ve made nonexistent becomes your one true community in the world. Then you feel like all you really share with anyone is a stark vector of alienation decorated with bright lights and paper smiles. That’s what the hazards of sleeping on the street in New York at Christmastime can do to you. The cloth on my back consisted of a thin wool sweater, my baseball jersey, and a holey down vest snapped up to my Adam’s apple. I’d have to stay on my feet all night to keep from freezing to death if Jocelyn didn’t invite me up. On the one hand it fit with everything else that had happened on that trip but I had enough stories to tell already and was in no need of another. 

Just to be prepared, the Boy Scout in me went looking for a nook in which to ride out the night, someplace with an overhang, nothing too dark but out of the way and out of the wind. I sized up that neighborhood the way you would a wilderness when you knew you were forced into some emergency hunker down situation. If I hadn’t been forced into the situation several times on that trip already, like the night Peter and I spent in a fruit shed in Nagoya, I’d probably have freaked out and just called my daddy for help. I was tempted but managed to resist. Scout’s honor. The temperature drop was even more lethal in New York than it had been in Japan and while my resistance was growing rapidly softer to the frozen concrete, I thought first of finding a dive hotel that might not cost every last penny and for that, the first thing I must do was locate the Bowery.

Assuming the worst, I was headed nowhere that night and the worst thing about that is there is no such place as nowhere. I went searching for it anyway. Those that were out, had somewhere to go and were swiftly headed there. Many a pedestrian passed me on their way.

I thought back over homeless faces I had encountered all around the world especially one I had encountered that day. There was a man in an army coat, a black mass of matted hair for a hat, sitting on his coat tail against a caged-up storefront. Near Lincoln Center, over a subway grate, I passed a woman squatting beside a shopping cart full of junk mumbling to herself inside clouds of rising steam. There had been a refrigerator carton on its side in an alley as I came out of that coffee shop back there, with a shivering mutt tied to it and growling as I walk by. I envied all of those people. They were all better suited for sleeping out that night than me. I had no war terrors, dementia or mongrel dog to insulate me from the dangers of the fringe. My moorings had not yet been sheered clean by misfortune. Not even close. My biggest liability was not actually, truly being homeless. I could be snug on a jet plane bound for home that very evening. One call to Dad could arrange a credit card payment for a ticket home or a cozy hotel, whatever I asked with a high cost attached to it, of course. I hoped I’d talk someone into giving me a bed for the night, before that, in exchange for work preferably, and I would do it too because I was fixated on reuniting with Jocelyn and even if I found somewhere to rest for the night, I was nowhere until I saw her.

In desperation I looked into the window of a diner that I came across while neighborhood hopping, hoping to find Jocelyn sawing duets alongside a dowdy copiest. However, there was no music in that diner. It was a diner after all. I decided that I had always been headed there, to New York, to rendezvous with Jocelyn and I rehearsed different ways of telling her as I walked along. 

“I went the long way around, because I needed time. Now I can’t do a thing until we settle our little misfire.” She might say it was already settled. Then I’d say our friendship deserved more than one chance. Maybe it was the cold but I was gaining confidence with each passing hour. Maybe I’d go back uptown and howl outside her apartment until she showed up at the window. I decided to do just that, but was disoriented by then, and couldn’t find the Empire State, Pan Am nor Chrysler, any northward landmark to be my compass point. I must have walked a mile the wrong direction.

“What part of town is this please?” I had stepped in to a Korean grocery and asked the clerk.  

“Bowery.” he answered.

That changed things. Maybe I’d stay put till it was time for the phone call. Central Park West felt a world away. There were supposed to be cheap beds in the Bowery. How bad could it be? Worse than India? How much worse? I was curious. Before I found out, I called Jocelyn’s number one more time since there was a payphone in that market. She picked up after one ring.

“Jocelyn, guess who.”

“Andrew? Where are you?”

“Here. Listen, I want you to imagine three dozen roses in front of your face, crimson and fragrant.” 

“You crazy. Are you in town?”

“Can you smell them?”

“Where are you?”

“Nearby.” It was as casual a suggestion as I could manage. “In fact, I was by your place earlier. Can you smell those roses Jocelyn? I’d love to know.”

“When did you get here?”

“Just today, of course, you think I’d waste time getting in touch? I’ve been all over this town thinking about you. D’you get my cards?”

“Yes. It was good to hear you finally got out of town.”

“Boy, did I.”

 “Did you get to Paris?”

“It’s been a whirlwind, but I had almost a week in Paris. Oh my god,” I peered into the gizmo of time, “that was less than ten days ago.”

“Good for you, Andrew. I’m happy for you.”

“I’ll tell you all about it. What are you doing right this minute?”

“In bed,” she sighed, “I’ve had a long day.”

“You got that little Tiffany lamp on and a cup of tea next to you on the night stand?”

“You crazy. Where are you? Sounds like you’re in a phone booth?”

“Uh, I’m in the rose garden with you, I’ve just clipped and de-thorned three dozen and laid them in your lap.”

“You shouldn’t,” she said.

“I shouldn’t?”

“No.”

“Damn!” Are you’re saying I shouldn’t? Well Goddamn, I apologize, can’t you forgive me?” I was being more direct than usual because I was cold and wanted in. She just let it hang in the air. “Jocelyn, …”

“Are you in town for long?”

“I’m in town right now,” I said, perhaps a little too forcefully.

“I mean tomorrow, or the next day?” 

“Yeah, I’m here. I’ve got to take in the sights. I just came from the top of the Empire State Building where I was fondling the Statue of Liberty.” That was one of the lines I’d rehearsed. It got a laugh out of her. I always knew how to make her laugh. 

“You crazy. You sound different.” 

“Hey, Jocelyn it’s me, Andrew, I am different. I’ve just been around the world. I can’t wait to see you. You want to play some chess or something?” 

She yawned into the mouthpiece. That made me yawn. “Can you call tomorrow?” she asked, breathing into the phone until it fuzzed in my ears. 

“When?”

“Early in the morning or, or in the evening around now.”

“It’ll be great to see you.”

“I want to hear about your trip.”

“You’ll be the first to hear.”

She yawned, “Andrew, sorry I’m so tired. I got to go to sleep.”

“I understand, I’m zoned out myself.”

“Where are you staying?”

“Uh, I haven’t checked in yet.”

“Are you sure you have a place? This town books up early.”

Was she dangling an opportunity? I grasped at it.

“It’s not the best.” I dangled it back.

“But you have some place?”

“Yea.” I said after a short pause. I didn’t want to sound like a refugee.

“Where? Where are you staying?”

I didn’t know what she was doing but it sure was fucking with my head. 

“I don’t know this town well enough to tell you, downtown somewhere.”

“What’s the name of the place I mean?” 

“Holiday Inn,” I said, tired of the game.

“Oh, well you’ll be fine there. Good. Call me tomorrow for sure, Andrew.”

“You can count on it.” I said. I stood there and deliberately waited five seconds. Five seconds of dead air lapsed before I said, “So, I guess, sweet dreams for now, Jocelyn.”

“You too, Andrew.”

“Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.” 

In spite of her reluctance, I heard plenty of promise for tomorrow in the tone of her voice. At worst, I sensed the friendship rehabilitating. So began the task of reopening the lover option, but not before that long night was over, not before the thermometer dropped to ten and started climbing back up, not before my next purification, the baptism of frost, impersonally submerged me, by degrees, with all the other lost creatures in the night. Oh God and St. Jack watch over me, preserve me ‘til dawn.

The Shark Council

I’ll tell you exactly what happened.

It was a lovely fall day, no fog, clear as glass. The Farallon Islands are twenty-seven miles out. You’d have thought you could swim to them. The Marin headlands, the lighthouse, the defunct windmills, they were all in view that morning because a storm had passed through the night before and blown everything away but the clear blue sky. All it left was sand in big drifts across the traffic lanes. That’s when the road crews pull the gate closed across the Great Highway from Sloat Street to the Golden Gate Park entrance and bring in their front end loaders to scoop the drifts off the road. On those mornings, commuters are forced to trade the glories of the Great Highway for the comparative drab of navigating the neighborhoods. I always take the first street, running parallel. Most of the diverted traffic sets out this way. It might as well be the highway except you can’t see the ocean. On your right you see the front line of real estate abutting the Pacific—brightly painted houses and apartments which are impossibly unattractive but most certainly very expensive, and on your left, the aloe festooned parkway rises in a protective berm between the road and the residences. You can’t see that much of this neighborhood from the Great Highway, but on days that the road department is relocating drifted sand, you’ll notice many indicators of a subculture thriving in its grid work.

It is the subculture of surfing, indicated by the shops posted on the side streets, their windows crammed with decals of status branded equipment. A preponderance of shabby motor vehicles are parked out front, with surf board-accommodating cargo compartments, such as the light pick-up truck with camper shell, custom conversion van, and the ubiquitous VW bus. Often there are racks, outside the door, of wetsuits, trunks, or t-shirts, bearing the “50% Off” flag of commerce. The identity of the enterprise is established by a hand-painted sign, using language and insignia that evoke the radical liberation of adrenalin in the nirvana of extreme peril. Nearby are coffee bars with names like “Buzz Shack” or “Morning Thunder” and in the vicinity of these are taco grills and delis where the fraternity meet to refuel their sinuous bodies and offer commentary after the sea has gone flat, or choppy. If you’ve been there you know what I mean. In a few words, it is a sanctuary of the tribe of free, fun loving, nature enthusiasts canonized in movie and song. I call it Surf Haven.

Surf Haven was not the subject of my mystical unveiling, no, I had not failed to notice it. It would have been difficult to ignore all the fun that was going on outside my window, even from the driver’s seat of my, late model European luxury sports coupe. What I had been missing all along was not to my right, where all the details I have just given you were taking place, but out my left window which framed mostly aloes climbing up the embankment toward the Great Highway.

I had been watching the scene and missing the action. I rarely paid any attention to what went on out my left window, because everyone stationed on that berm, between Surf Haven and the sea, was either on their way to, or returning from, the beach. There was nothing to look at but succulent ground cover and a trio of public toilets about a mile and a half apart. One of them, up at the north end, near where I usually rejoined the Great Highway, has a crescent of concrete benches just outside the men’s room door. It is the headquarters of a congregation of societal misfits, wild eyed and weary, skanky and squalid, flung together by unspeakable misfortune. They haunt that vicinity, night and day, these comrades in misery, clinging together for protection from the threat of everything from treacherous thugs, to nuisancey college fraternity initiation rites. 

I don’t know what made me finally look, and, I mean really look, and notice, and see that there was something going on over there and realize that it was something that I should find out about. Before then, it was all about the surfers. What an idle pastime they indulged while the rest of us toiled and moiled, such braggadocio, such audacious truancy. Where does one find permission to do this? How do they get away with it? Were some of them rich like me? Would I like to throw it all over and become a surf bum? Didn’t it get boring dangling off the edge of the world? But, you know what? Why the hell did I get out of my car that day in the first place? That’s the real question.

Maybe it’s because it was a Friday and I was goofing off. Friday’s a great day to trade, but it’s also hectic. The big boys on the floor at the Chicago Board of Trade love to whipsaw you any day of the week. I don’t fall for it that often, but on some Fridays they have us right where they want us. After a boring week in a sideways market, the biggest move can happen within a few minutes of the opening on a Friday morning. Big moves are where the money is and most amateurs miss them and then lose big jumping in too late. Friday is an easy day to get up to your ears in shit and go home fucked for the whole weekend wishing it would hurry up and be Monday so you could go kick the beast until it bleeds money at your feet again; to wash the taint of losing out of your hair and get that feeling of power back as quickly as possible. It’s a bizarre way to make a living and I had come to despise it, even though I was good at it, and even though I was sure I loved it more than life itself. 

That Friday I was just looking for an excuse not to go in, or at least be delayed until it was either too late to jump in on the trade, or until several very clear indicators could develop and converge on my three, thirty, and sixty minute charts, at which point I would feel quite confident angling with the big boys on the “Friday fish fry.” I could have also gone in to the office and procrastinated, but, as I said, I know now that I was scared of Fridays and couldn’t admit it. It was not a macho thing, it was just a case of not knowing myself. Actually, maybe those two things are the same.

Anyway, I knew I was scared of sharks, for instance, and I would admit that to anyone. That was my excuse for not learning how to surf, but where business was concerned, I never flinched, not even to myself, not even in private. It would have wrecked me. Of course, I did end up flinching, and it did wreck me, GLORY BE! Frankly, Friday was the least of my fears once my fears got loose.

It’s like you’re going down the road, the same road you travel every day and nothing goes wrong and everything stays the same day after day, week after week, until you just assume it’s always going to go that way. Then one day, boom, up in the road is a big chunk of something. You swerve to miss it, or your neighbor swerves to miss it and he hits you, or any number of other things, happen and all of a sudden you’re wrecked on the side of the road waiting for the flashing lights, ambulance, wrecker, cop, OR you’re not wrecked, it was a near miss, a close one, BUT SOMETHING CHANGED and you don’t even know it yet. Well I’m driving along that Friday and I see these guys, these assorted bums sitting in the half circle around a disposable soda cup, tossing little pebbles into it. Big deal, huh, why was I attracted to this flat bush enterprise? I thought it was because I felt so lucky in my life that I wanted to reach out to those less fortunate and do something kind, something human for them. They looked utterly steamrolled. I thought I’d probably give them some wine money, or something. I didn’t know then that I was in an unavoidable accident on my way to nowhere. I got out of my car and walked over to them and said hello and they ignored me and I stood there and watched as they threw pebbles in the cup.

“Hey there,” I said, or something like that, and waited in silence.

There was no response. They were totally concentrated on their little pebble in the cup tournament. They each took a turn and tossed a pebble, when they got to one end of the half circle the guy on the other end would have his next turn and then they’d go down the row again, and so on. They were good. The cup was probably ten feet away and they were using marble sized pebbles and sinking them, one after the other, bing, bang, bing.

“Hey guys. I’d like to get you some coffee, maybe some rolls or something?”

“Get the hell out here, can’t you see we’re busy.” said the tallest guy, also the oldest. He’s Chief, but I didn’t know that, of course, until later. For some reason his rejection made my heart beat fast. I wondered why. He was not dangerous looking. Maybe a tiny bit, but I wouldn’t hesitate to buy peanuts from him if he was one of those guys at the ballpark, which is what he looked like, or a carny, like the one who took my ticket for the Rocko-plane at the State Fair when I was 12. You don’t forget those people. Your fingers touch for a split-second, and a germ from a lifetime of corruption passes through you like an electrical current. I had not made physical contact with this bum yet, but maybe it was that memory, or one like it, that got me on guard. He really wasn’t scary, just another hard-luck case on the street, and nothing more.

His face is all creases and crosshatch, a limp, white, fringe of hair sticks out from underneath his red ball cap. He has one bump high up on his cheek that looks like a pencil eraser and two more on his sagging neck. His beard is cobwebs and shabby at that. He wears old-fashioned horn-rimmed glasses, which are Scotch-taped together in the middle. His belly pushes down, no doubt, on the soles of his ratty tennis shoes, and out, quite obviously, at the middle of his overalls. He looked more comic than scary, and I was completely shocked by his attitude. I was offering charity. I never saw a homeless person refuse anything they could eat, drink or sleep under.

I should have respected their wishes and left them alone, but I didn’t like being shooed away, so I stood there, thinking they would soon finish their little derby and give me some orders for breakfast. I finally gave up after about fifteen minutes. I’m not patient. I walked away, pissed and confused. I wanted to kick some ass.

I went to work and made fourteen hundred bucks, BOOM, like that, in twenty minutes. Sat there the rest of the day when I should have called it quits. Kept thinking about those guys. In the last hour of trading I lost twelve tics on ten contracts and went home ten thousand nine hundred bucks upside down for the day including commissions. Not a huge deal, but not one that you can laugh off either. I could spend the whole next week fixing it. The funny thing about it was that I knew I was going to tank and I didn’t care. I sat through the whole miserable trade thinking about those hobos. I couldn’t figure out why they bothered me so much. The entire time I stood in front of them, no one even looked up from what they were doing. They just kept tossing pebbles in the cup, plink, plank, plunk. They were highly skilled. They’d obviously had a lot of practice. I must have watched all four men take a half a dozen turns each and not one of them missed. Not even once. I was thinking someone could probably give those guys jobs if you cleaned them up.

 

By Sunday morning I was obsessed. I couldn’t relax. My internal dialogue was repeating like an infomercial. What’s amazing is the vile trade I’d made on Friday wasn’t bothering me. See, I was already changing but I didn’t know it. I hadn’t thought of money since I walked out of the office at quitting time. It was the bums I needed to figure out. What did they want from life? Could I help them get it? I decided to drive back to the beach and try to make contact again.

It was a hazy morning, a little cool, but no fog, and though I knew nothing about surfing, it was obvious that the conditions were good by the sheer numbers of surfers out in the waves. Everybody who ever owned a board must have waxed theirs up that day. I counted a hundred and eight. I’m always devising data to analyze. I do it all day every day. Most of it is complete nonsense, but I have to, because I’m anal. I remember thinking, if you took all the surfers out there on a section of top side in a given stretch between say, Sloat and Judah Street, and multiplied that by the number of foolish thoughts in their heads, you’d have the number of days of hard practice it would require to be the most excellent wave rider of them all.

When I got there the bums were assembled and enjoying coffee and bagels with a tall muscular guy in a wetsuit. None of them noticed me, so I sat in my car and watched for a while from the curb. They must have been friends with this dude, carrying on the way they were. This proved that these bums talked to people other than themselves. I waited until the surfer picked up his board and lit out for the neighborhood before approaching them again.

I was slowly beginning to see, not with any understanding yet, but sensing something behind appearances, I think, or else why would I have set out on such an errand? Why should I give a damn what was going on over there? Fate had appointed those dudes, not me, to panhandle on street corners; to loiter on the median strip between roadways with cardboard signs reading, “Help…God Bless…etc;” to curl against filthy buildings with Styrofoam cups to catch our coins. Fate had appointed me to give to them from my surplus. I had no comprehension that a homeless person would refuse it, especially when I felt generous. I mean, would this upset you? See, I didn’t quite get it yet. My instinct is always to provoke. I don’t know I’m doing it until it’s too late. So there I flew, Fat Lummox to the rescue!

Look here! Gather round boys! Boys! Now listen here! Fat Lummox went down into the abode of the untouchables. He offered handouts, and lo, they weren’t having any. They clammed up; stonewalled him, same as before. A bunch of chumps! Fat Lummox would not be turned away. He had to put something right. Did he not look every bit their deliverer, vaulting over the gulf between worlds, with that goofy grin?

“Haven’t you guys got a minute for a little chat?” I asked. “I’m not a cop or a social worker or anything, not even a pervert. Tell you what. I’ll give you each five bucks to talk to me if you’ve got a minute.” I pulled out my money clip and held it up.

“Got a minute?” said Chief derisively, his eyes throwing infernos of menace at me. He had his shirt pulled over his coffee cup; the hobo version of central heating. I disregarded him, and searched the other faces for an opening. They snorted and cackled.

“Got a minute, says he,” chuckled another to his comrades. Fish guts were all I saw when I looked at this man’s face. A purple bladder for a nose, broken entrails in his cheeks, liver lips, on this hurly, burley, black-haired ruffian with an Irish accent and bulging, streaked eyes. I can’t tell you even now what made me stick around after appraising this blunderbuss of a man. A curdled effluvium that I would have thought reserved for the arm pits of exotic goats, arose like heat waves off this person in the ratty pea coat and stocking cap. Unruly whiskers framed a missing quartet of front teeth. An old sailor perhaps, a stevedore, maybe, who knows? He has a murderous look. I’ll call him Fishgut for now. Appraising him for the first time I thought, this guy could kill with no trouble, probably has killed and got away with it. Turns out I was right.

“Do YOU have a minute!” says Chief, not asking really; exploding, more like a preacher or somebody’s abusive father. I did not know yet I was outclassed, I stood my ground feeling ready for anything, but what I really thought I wanted was to help. I averted my eyes from Chief and Fishguts and appealed to the remaining two. 

 “Come on, we got work to do,” said Chief, resolute, reproachful of me for the interruption. Everybody started walking up the hill toward the beach. They left me behind with their empty coffee cups, waxed paper and bakery bags, for the wind to blow away. See, you don’t have to shout to get my attention. If you want to make a sound impression, don’t make a sound. That was my dad’s whole bag of tricks, not that I give a shit anymore, but this just to say that I can take a hint. I knew how stories of this nature ended, in silence, stifling, cacophonous, silence; the worst punishment in the world.

Yes, that might have been the end of it, but for the last man in the cue, Stan, (wait till I tell you some things about Stan). Stan, good man that he is, had the courtesy to say to me at that critical moment, 

“Come along if you want. Nobody’ll stop you.”

So I followed them up the embankment, over the Great Highway, through the dunes and down the other side to the beach. All of a sudden we were greeted by an exodus of surfers leaving handsome, fat, rolling waves, unoccupied all up and down that stretch of coast.

“What’s up?” I asked a couple of them as they strode briskly the opposite direction.

“You planning on getting in the water?” asked one of them. 

 “No,” I said.

 “Then you’re fine,” he replied.

 “What do you mean?” I asked, turning around, because they weren’t stopping.

“It means you’re fine,” he said, and by then he was shouting he was so far away.

One thing that always turned me off about surfers; they’re so snooty to the uninitiated.

Hell with them, I thought. It was shaping up to be a beautiful, late winter day, the kind of Sunday that brings everyone out of their houses. By afternoon Ocean Beach would be packed with couples strolling along the tide line in rolled up pants. Families with ice chests would picnic on blankets, parents trying to keep hats and sunscreen on kids. Lines of dressed-to-kill teenaged girls, those parading pageants of forbidden fruit, would pause, nonchalantly, in the vicinity of clustered, horsing around, young dudes. Alabaster-skinned, Goth punks share cigarettes in black covens, standing back at the parking lot, passing judgment and looking bored. Old-timers would be leaning back on benches, past-absorbed and groggy, the sea reflecting off their cataracts (ruptured internal panoramas of memory) while they yawn and spit in the sand. All throughout, every manner of ball, Frisbee, and kite, would be accenting the flock, but this is premature. Though the seaside was dotted with early risers that morning, surfers still dominated the scene, paddling in, hauling their boards to shore, peeling wetsuits off in the parking lot. I walked onto the beach, in tow, behind the ragamuffin contingent still ignoring me. Like anyone would, I hung nearest the friendly one.

“Why’s everybody going home?”

Stan smiled. His expression said that he knew but could not answer. I kept a respectful distance and continued on like some tramp in training. I can offer no sensible explanation why I followed these indigents, except that, from time to time, Stan would caste a glance my way and flash his weary smile. They fanned out in no particular fashion. Chief, with difficulty, lowered his ass to the sand and gazed toward the sea. Fishguts stood, monolithic, at the water’s edge, hands stuffed in his pea coat pockets, occasionally his head turned this way and that, up and down the strand. He did not budge, but stood defiant, when a larger than average swell flooded his boots with salt water. He was deposited there, like some hefty peace of shipwreck the tide washed up, and would not step out of the way for Mother Nature, nor nobody.

The young guy, the one guy I haven’t mentioned yet was lying, face to the sky, singing out loud—I was too far away to hear what exactly he was singing, something in the key of gloom. His name is Dave and he is the closest to my age, but quite a bit younger. He can’t be more than 25. His expression is the anti-expression of hip-ness. Of knowing without needing to know, without trying, needing to try, or needing to show anybody what you know. So, coming through on twin wavelengths on this young man’s face, is a look of complete shrewdness and of complete vacancy that creeps me out. His head is slick, his pants are baggy, there’s an earring in his nose, and a tattoo creeping up his back through the neck of his t-shirt—some Polynesian motif—and a band around his right bicep to match. He looks like he ran away from home not too long ago.

The other guy, Stan, the friendly one, is very different looking. Stan is a cross between Buddha and the TV repairman. He is Enlightened, I’m convinced. He smiles a bit and when he does you can see Stan is possessed of a perfect set of straight teeth. They are brown, and the mouth is tired, and the smile they make is all the more reassuring, having broken through those clouds of exhaustion. Stan is tall, tired-out and always cheerful. He is a skinny guy, with a short pony tail curling high off the back of his head. He has a perky ski-jump nose and vivid, dark-circled eyes. His ears stick out like a kid’s. At profile, Stan’s noggin becomes a cheerful, sort-of cartoon teapot. What a great guy, he is. He seems the most normal of them all. He’s not, of course. He’s the most eccentric. Stan looks like somebody who speaks Advanced Vacuum Tube and Hi-fi Amplification, but he comprehends a great deal more. Wait till I tell you some things about Stan, but later.

Stan combed the vicinity, picking up trash and making a pile of debris. I could only figure he was cleaning up after humanity. It was a completely aimless field trip. I asked myself, why follow a bunch of bums around on my weekend? I felt lethargic and wanted to go home, watch TV, maybe later call up a girlfriend. Not that any woman had found my increasing corpulence attractive for some time, but I liked to fool myself into believing that there was at least one out there, Simone, for instance, from the old days at Micredia, that would still love to get a call from me. Admittedly, I sort of owed her an apology, for some insignificant offence that I was ever on the verge of digging up her phone number to deliver, but I always stopped short of actually doing it—just too damn busy.

There were dozens of important things to do. I could catch up on Investor’s Business Daily, search the web, GO WORK OUT godforbid! That Sunday I was too tired for any of it. All I wanted was to get horizontal, so I did. I plopped down in the sand and fell off to sleep almost instantly. After about twenty minutes, I sat up refreshed. The company with whom I had walked to the beach was still there. They stood together now, just a dozen yards in front of me, huddled around a bedraggled looking canine. Fishguts was bent over, petting it tenderly. Everyone was agreeing with Fishguts what a nice doggy. Doggy was beholden for their attention. His tail wagged and his ears went back like the flowing tresses of an angel. It was a blond retriever mutt of the sort you see everywhere, nothing special. I looked around. There appeared to be no one on the beach attached to that pooch. 

“Bring us a stick for the little Jesus,” said Fishguts, not looking up but reaching his arm out to anyone. He kept up his tender praise, stroking the humble beast and—I could hardly believe—gently weeping. As I stood up a melancholy mood, palpable as the ocean breeze itself, settled down upon me. I had no business with this tramp Nativity. 

Stan strode over to the rubbish mound he had created and fished a length of tree branch out of it, broke it over his knee, and returned, painstakingly stripping off bark and twigs as he marched. Fishguts took it and wiggled it over the head of the mutt who leapt after it. It was raised out of reach and the dog bent down on his for legs, the tail wagging the entire ass the way retrievers do before a fetch. The stick was flung into the ocean and the dog charged in. The men cheered as he negotiated the surf doing the thing he was born to do. The stick was hauled back to land. The bums applauded and praised. The dog was beside itself with joy. I hated them all.

I started walking back to my car wondering what the hell I’d been thinking. This was not my scene at all. Oh well, a little experiment, no harm done. I opted for a drive up the coast, to get a bite to eat at Stinson Beach.

I ended up in Sonoma—traffic had decided it for me—I had a steak and a good bottle of wine. I stayed and watched the ball game on the overhead TV in the bar. Great game, Giants beat the Diamonds, everything was back to normal. Traffic on the way home was horrendous. Everybody in the Bay Area with a driver’s license was out for a ride in their jalopies. I jetted in, out and around, cleared my head and blew the crud out of my carburetors. Turbo is the greatest invention in the history of automobiles. I was glad I went. I stopped off at Tower Records in Marin, bought some oldies compilations from the ’80s. When I got back in the car, 101 had thinned out.

The road was all mine by the time I came around the curve at the Cliff House and descended on Ocean Beach. The sun had set. I was singing along to the music, looking out where I had loitered with the hobos that morning, laughing at myself for being such a dufus, and then I spotted them out there still throwing the stick for that dog. What a bunch of jack-offs. What a dork I was for thinking I could help them. 

 

For about a week I went about my business, filed the incident in deep storage, changed nothing, did what I felt like, whenever I felt like it. Everything was as usual, except I had a nasty run of bad luck in the markets. Instead of fixing the mess I’d made on funky Friday (what I had named the day and, with it, the entire episode with the bums), I proceeded to rack up even more losses the next five days in a row.

This is not uncommon among my ilk. Traders have their streaks. You always loose in my business. You always, always loose, but you gain too. You don’t worry about the ups and downs, you never, never let yourself worry. Just the same, you fiddle around and you tweak your system, you adjust your indicators, and then you go to the fundamentals. You stay up late at night un-coding manufacturing data forecasts, government bond auction results, foreign currency reports, Allen Greenspan’s latest pronouncements, and try to get a handle on things. That’s after you have pulled up historic data on your markets: yearly, monthly, weekly, daily, hourly, minute by minute, tic by tic graphs of market action.

It’s a bunch of vertical bars going across a graph. The bars are lined up, single file, like a bunch of uneven bits of straw. You string a bunch of graphs together and start superimposing trend lines on them and look for patterns. You search for clues to where the market is heading, or where it’s not heading, and you can filter and refine these, ad infinitum, until you think you know what’s likely to happen on a given day. This data can be formulated into indicators which trigger your trades for you. That way you don’t have to get emotional. When your indicators come up, you have a trade. You evaluate the trade by putting cross indicators up to it. If it checks out, you jump in. It’s as simple as that. You put hard-earned money down on your theory, knowing full well that markets aren’t very predictable. Knowing the traders on the floors of the exchanges make their fortunes by getting the little guys to think we know what’s going to happen so we’ll jump into the market, and then they can use their superior funds to make it do the opposite and bite off a piece of our assets before we realize it.

These extracurricular activities you engage in, to try and outsmart the big boys, can take up every hour in your day, and unless you just get lucky and find something obvious staring you in the face, you’re still operating from 50 to 100 percent chance when you pull the trigger. On this you can rely.

That is why so many of us, after doing the above due diligence, play crazy games with ourselves to, as I said before, pull the luck our way. We grind ourselves into talcum playing with technical and fundamentals to their limit, but they have no limit. So you draw the line somewhere in the talcum and you say “Enough!” You have to. We do our legitimate homework, and then we dabble in magic, because we are obsessive personalities and we always have to be doing something and because it numbs some of the sting of powerlessness. Powerlessness is a bottle cap under which pressurized survival chemistry is constantly being agitated. A good trader is not supposed to be emotional at all. Emotion is supposed to jinx traders, but, truth be told, the entire institution is an orgy of terror and rage.

It is said that the market is ruled by only two forces, greed and fear, but that is a very limiting statement to lay on our illustrious institution. I think the whole world is ruled by greed and fear and we, of the markets, are the ones who have come to terms with this and stepped up to the plate. Play ball! I say.

Two weeks after funky Friday I had only had one profitable day out of eight. Two of those days I stood aside, (out of fear) and watched while textbook trade after trade went through in which I could have made every penny back and more (out of greed) if only I had been my usual implacable self.

As I said before, I changed nothing about my life after funky Friday. That is to say I was taking it all in stride, but that is not to say nothing was changing. I went upside down—that means ON THE WRONG SIDE OF MARKET ACTION almost every single time I got in on a trade. That is unheard of for me. Consequently I was worrying a lot, analyzing too many graphs, reading too much commentary, listening to rumor and hearsay, which I never do, living on Captain Crunch, so not shitting, drinking too much coffee, and getting more and more timid and superstitious by the day. Everything was changing, but I was changing none of it. In other words, I lost control. I had never done that before. That certainly made it harder. 

After arduous review, I decided to go back to where I was before freaky Friday (I was now calling it freaky Friday), to reconstruct myself before I fell off the planet. I reasoned that it had something to do with my pilgrimage to the fountain of human misery a.k.a. the day I tried to help the homeless. I should have listened. They didn’t want me there. I didn’t really want to be there. There. Right there, was where I fucked up.

I was riding high just before that. Things were just swell, and everything went bye-bye, after that, gone man, downhill racer. It wasn’t hard to figure out how I’d fallen. What went wrong was, I tried to fix what was not broken. I reasoned further that, to unfix what was now broken was simple…

I must now… go break what I tried to fix. 

 I jumped in my car and floor-boarded it to Ocean Beach.

It was exhilarating. I felt my lost form returning as I negotiated the traffic. I even slowed down in time to avoid being radar-ed by a cop. After that it was a stock car rally down 280 to the turn off. I left rubber all the way down Skyline. I made stop four, at the Great Highway, look like a slalom gate. I hung a right by the zoo, hooked a u-y and hard right down the avenue in a beeline for bum central.

“Those guys better be there,” I growled, through gritting teeth.

They weren’t. I screeched into a parking place, ignoring looks from the residents, whose neighborhood I had just made unsafe for pedestrians, and waddled over the embankment to the beach. The knot heads are probably throwing the stick for some dog, I thought. They weren’t. They were standing in line together on the dunes facing the sea. Surfers were out there doing tricks. The bums weren’t watching them. Their heads were bobbing, in unison, above it all. They were watching a kite. A big red kite. A bunch of flunkies—not even flying a kite, which is lame enough—just watching it. One of those kites, you know, with a long tail that dances, like you see at the beach? They were watching one of those, like an infant with a mobile over its crib—sad really, when you think about it. But I wasn’t sad.

“Hey,” I said, hoping to startle them as I came up behind, but, to no avail. I went around and faced them. “Listen here you idiots. Clear out of here. You get what I’m telling you? Clear out now! I’m calling the cops,” Nobody’s paying a lick of attention to me, not even Stan. I pulled out my cell phone and dialed 911, “neighborhood’s a disgrace.” I am so not getting their attention that I am forced to check out the kite to make sure I’m not missing something. Of course I am missing everything, but it looks just like a dumb kite to me. This gets me even more worked up. I get right up in their faces. “Get out of here you bastards, you hear me. I’m calling the…” WHAM! somebody knocked the wind out of me. It was Fishguts. Didn’t say a word, just WHAM! Right in the solar plexus. I dropped to the ground. Stan never looked down. As I lay there out of breath, Dave bent over, rifled through my pockets, spit in my face, then Chief kicked sand in my eyes. Stan never lost concentration. He kept his head in the clouds, mouth closed tight, a tea offering for the deities. Finally he said,

“Doug Godwin.”

“Me too,” said Fishguts.

“Me too,” said Chief.

“Positively, Doug Godwin,” said Dave.

“That’s it then,” said Chief and they turned around and left. 

 I didn’t feel too good, so I rested there, on my back, for a while and tried to clean the sand out of my eyes. I needed water. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to run into anyone I knew and it amplified my humiliation to admit that I probably wouldn’t. I knew next to no one anymore. I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t drive until I washed the grit out of my eyes. To get to the restroom, I’d pass by the crescent of benches where my tormentors, no doubt, would have reconvened. Yet, even this was a lesser fork of my dilemma. Could I even go home, yet? Had I done what I came to do? The issue was not could I get my sorry ass home, but had I fixed the trouble? The indicators were as uncompromising as before. 

I was on shaky ground as I came down the embankment and made for the wash basin. The bums were seated at the crescent, passing a bottle in a sack, looking glum. As I walked up Stan and Chief stood up, Dave and Bulldog who’d had their backs to me, stood up and turned around. I stopped, swaying a little, blinking at the fine grit lacerating my eyeballs. I didn’t know whether to say sorry and go home, or get my car, run them over and make it look like an accident. I couldn’t think what to do. I could only sense how much further there was to fall. If I took one false step it was going to be a long way down. About then Stan offered me the bottle. I took a swig and handed it back. Bum wine, with the character of cough syrup, lumbered down my throat. The rag picker’s cocktail did serve to warm my blood and de-constrict my punched stomach muscles, but ludicrous swill it was; wine for dogs.

“You got anything more to say, then?” asked Chief. I stood silently swaying in the balance, half there, on Judah Street with four winos and a bottle, and half in some harlequin courtroom of the mind awaiting my sentence. Chief sat down followed by the rest of them. “If you don’t, then move on, why don’t you, we got serious business here.”

“Hah!” I shouted, feeling heartened by the wine and the sound of scorn in my own voice, “Serious business? Hah! Have another snort, pal.”

“Move along then,” Fishguts ordered.

“I’ll move when I’m ready,” I said.

Stan reached a gentling arm toward me. “Don’t get riled, my friend.” I swatted him away. I felt bad for this, but he shouldn’t have ignored me on the beach.

“Relax. You’ve got bigger problems than me, pal. Look at yourself, you beg, steal, you carouse in public, huh…serious business alright…stink up the neighborhood, ruin this pretty street…,” I went on, pathetically trying to recover my self-esteem by poisoning theirs. In the middle of my tirade Fishguts rose up again thrusting his hands in his pea coat pockets.

“Yes, we live in the open, but not by default, as you accuse. It is our choice, just as it is your choice to live in a house, which to me, sir, is a fancy prison.”

“You hit me, didn’t you? Listen, you thick-headed ruffian,” I took a step towards him. “You have zero influence with me. You’re social sewage as far as I’m concerned.”

“Name calling. Pathetic! Is that the whole of your arsenal? Then you’re a flaming toilet, how do you like that one, and I’m bored already.” He folded his arms turned away and feigned a yawn. He was rewarded with laughter from Chief and Dave. He sat down and took the bottle which was offered, proud of himself as ever. Chief stood up.

“To your charge, that we romanticize our life a little bit, maybe. I say maybe, but what about you? You’re calling your dung heap a castle too aren’t you fella?”

“Me? I work, I pay taxes, I buy, sell, live in a house, sleep in a bed. You beg, belch, fart, shit and sleep in view of the rest of us.” 

“Out in the open air, which is free to every man, and very cleansing and mollifying to the soul,” said Bulldog punctuating his remark with a deep belch.

Chief added, “We spoil the surroundings, you say? Look at your house, look at all these houses,” he made a sweep over Surf Haven with his arm, “don’t they spoil the view? And what about all the roads and highways, not to mention the oil slicks and air pollution we put up with, to accommodate your cars. You’re the one who wrecks the neighborhood. We’d just as soon take the jackhammer to this,” he said, stomping the pavement with a greasy tennis shoe.

“But don’t come up to any of us shouting in your face,” added Bulldog.

“Listen to me you motherfuckers,” I said, “If all this was gone, you’d be gone, because you’re living off the hard working folks around here. You owe us your very survival. Kill the host, vanish the parasite.”

“Name calling again. I’m finished. Now, Your Blessed Assholiness, if you’ll be so kind as to relocate your learned scholarship back where it came from, we’ll continue our vagrant merrymaking just fine, thank you very much.” The other three chuckled and applauded. He swiveled his wreaking girth around the edge of the bench, stuck his hands under his thighs, started rocking back and forth and humming evidently trying to make me disappear.

“OK, we’ve talked, now I’m calling the cops and you’re all going to jail.” I still had the cell phone in my hand. I punched in 911. Stan spoke up and I cancelled the call.

“Pardon me, sir, what do you do for a living, if you don’t mind.”

“Yeah! What are your qualifications?”

“Easy Chief,” said Stan, “Let the man answer a simple question.”

    Stan was being decent, so I answered him decently. “I’m a futures trader.” 

“That’s interesting, uh, very enlightening too, thank you. Thanks, very much.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Say, do you golf?”

“A little bit,” was my answer but no one heard it because Dave instantly diverted everyone’s attention.

“Doug Godwin,” he said, gazing down the street and everybody, including me, did likewise. Half a block away was a powerfully built young guy, dark hair, late twenties/ early thirties, with a surfboard under his arm. He was headed for a pad, somewhere nearby.

Stan addressed me with Tin Man gentility. “You’ll excuse us please won’t you? We are in the middle of something.”

“Yeah, clear off.” said Chief out the side of his mouth. “You’ve distracted us long enough.” Now, Stan is such a decent, sincere guy, you want to cooperate with anything he says, but Chief is so bossy, you want to do exactly the opposite. So I didn’t budge. It had just started getting interesting.

“Run along now,” said Chief fluttering the fingers of his overturned hand at me, “It’s time for you to go home now. The sun’s gone down. Your momma’s calling you to supper. Roast beef and spring peas.”

“Mashed potatoes and gravy,” said Dave.

“Piping hot oyster stew,” said Bulldog with his back still turned.

“Corn on the cob, drowned in butter,” added Stan. Dave sighed. Stan’s smile looked like an ear of corn. I was hungry and fatigued. I wished I could go, but not before I rid myself of the scourge. My pride was wounded, my eyes were still burning with sand, but I had to score first.

“I just got here,” I said. “I’m not leaving.”

Chief sighed and gave me a sidelong glance. He was one wilted looking bastard, and sallow as a gourd but for the vexation-fanned embers in his cheeks. He must have contracted hepatitis at some point. “Alright, then, does everyone agree to proceed with this interloper in our presence?” Webs of flesh jiggled at his throat as he spoke.

“We’ve got to,” said Stan.

“Timing is everything,” echoed Dave.

Fishguts muttered something under his breath and Chief addressed him. “You got anything to say before we get on?” Bulldog turned his head to Chief.

“Tell Mr. Interloper, with my dearest devotion, that I curse his testicles.”

“You hear that?” said Chief looking sidelong at me again, gravely. I nodded, feeling a trifle less than fifty-fifty about having my nuts chastened, even by a bozo. “Very well,” he said, closing his eyes and assuming the air of formal decorum. “The Great White Shark of Farallon Island and parts unknown demands a propitiatory offering. A human male quarry in his prime, is to be sacrificed.”

If the performance was meant for me, it worked. Not that I bought what they were saying, but anyone could see that they did. You never saw a more morose bunch, to the point that I grappled with feelings of pity. I cursed the combination of exposure and boredom that had sucked them down this vortex of wicked hysteria.

“The Guides have graciously indicated the victim of the pending shark attack will be Doug Godwin of Ocean Beach who has had a kickin’ career as a pro rider, and most recently added the Pipeline Masters to his list of championships. Doug is a way cool dude who has applied himself beautifully to his art by way of adopting a personal code of conduct at a very early age and sticking to it. This display of character and the fact that the board he rides, the prettiest custom double rudder ever to be turned out by “Wamy of Maui,” will be his sacrificial altar and therefore, likely will be destroyed with him, is ample reason for the monumental grief we feel in carrying out our obligation.”

“His sponsors will be devastated,” said Dave. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. 

“Doug will be sadly missed by friends and commercial vultures alike, but for those of us who love his aerial prowess, it is devastating.” Chief had wiped his eyes several times during his oratory. The mood was somber through and through. I was never so out of place in all my life. What, in the name of Carl Jung, had detonated this group psychodrama? I was out of there.

Did I beat it out of there fast? More swiftly, even, than how I arrived! Not quite fast enough, though, to evade a vague, rude, tension settling four-square upon my shoulders and neck. I shook my head to counteract it, and this sent my thoughts on a disturbing raid into the past. It’s amazing, when memory ensnares us, with what tactical efficiency those nets prove to be laid; how filaments of twilight from nightmares of decades gone by can snag and haul you in for review when you most need, and least wish to be bothered by them.

When I was a boy of eleven I developed a nervous disorder. Eleven; a vulnerable age for boys without fathers, but it passes or, shall I say, we learn to adjust. Over the course of a life we develop tolerance for all kinds of anxieties, but in the beginning there is only pressure. At eleven years old, this manifest in threads of tension amassing into cords around my neck which condensed into a boa constrictor at the top-most bone of my spine, triggering irregular spasms at that terminus of my skull. It’s not excruciating. Picture a dog shaking rain off his coat only less violently, or imagine me, in my car at that moment, giving a silent, negative reply to someone in the seat next to me. Since there was no one in the car to be shaking my head at, this could signify only one thing; the return of that little pre-adolescent malady of mine. I fought it off for a while, negotiating the rush hour traffic, but, reruns kept playing in my brain of those lunatics and their fiendish delusions. The aberration was too much. My head wanted to, so I shook it. I wished to shake off the whole experience.

Why shouldn’t I twitch after all I’d been through those past several days? Not to do so seemed unnatural. It seemed like an inalienable human right and yet, spooky, how utterly familiar this affliction was to me. In the flick of a switch, a condition which I hadn’t even thought of in twenty-five years, reassembled itself in my nervous system. Or had it ever left? At any rate, it seemed glad to be back. I shook like I was catching up after decades of lapse. If I argued with it, it only got worse, and when I allowed it, I was fine again for anywhere from thirty to a hundred-and-eighty seconds or so. So I indulged it. Sure, I knew this little convulsive boogie was incompatible with normal life—I had gotten it under control before and I would again—but for now no one was watching, and it felt good.

Left to myself as a boy, I never cared about the head shaking, but it brought on much annoyance from others. My mother was horribly frightened. Dear Gloria, under her supervision, I developed my impressive powers of concentration. In the evening, she would sit, draped in her mangy afghan, rocking her chair, hands cradling a chipped tea cup and watch me do my homework. Every time I went off, she’d murmur “Oh my boy, my poor, sweet boy.” This would activate her crow’s feet, and a tear or two would trail off her glossy lashes. I’d turn my chair around and face the wall. There was no comfort in this for either of us. In those days I wished for a larger apartment. We’d had such a place before my father walked out on us. I did not shake my head when I had my own room, and if I got one again I imagined myself doing my homework in peace, trembles or not. The remedy came, however, with no upgrade in lifestyle. I was over it before year’s end. My teacher in fourth grade—Sister Phillippottumus we called her—shamed me out of it. I’m sure I was a perfect pest in her classroom, quaking above the neck thus, like a pullet.  

You’ve got to bless every tyrant in your life. They’re the ones who are responsible for your integrity if you survive. This does not however, protect us against also acquiring their weaknesses. It is evidently a law of physics that we become tyrants ourselves in exchange for whatever advantage the founders have provided us, thus insuring the survival of the order.

Yes, we’d be a characterless society without the spoilers. My father, for instance, ransacked the sanctuary of my childhood and set me on my path of success the day he kissed Gloria and me good-bye, then against our tearful protestations, waved to us through the vapor-stained glass of a Greyhound bus, vanishing ever after into the sunset. I was nine years old. Naturally this was the defining blow that would set my life on course, but for a long time we only died, essentially, like a doe and her fawn, slain at the roadside, with little more than the metaphorical flies, buzzards, and rigor mortis for company. I found some comfort in excelling at school. Mom struggled for decades but never recovered.

According to legend, Dad came out to the West coast and lost all self-respect. I learned this not long before I arrived here myself. When Gloria finally capitulated, a couple of aunts from my father’s side appeared from seemingly out of nowhere for the funeral. Dad’s elder sister, Mary, most resembled him in the looks department, with her widow’s peak, torpedo nose and towering build. The younger, Ruth’s arid comportment and dis-ease in conversation jived with my memories of Dad, even if her pushed-face and swollen joints bore less affinity. Treating me with wary intimacy, the two stood like a set of scales upon the gaudy carpet of the funeral parlor assessing whether the greater portion of me was their nephew, or my father’s son. I failed both. They had last seen me as a toddler, not long before Jake, that’s my dad, disassociated from them. I didn’t remember any of it, but instantly identified, what about his family my father had struggled to shuffle off. With this discovery came my complete approval of what he had done. Dutch spinsters they were, and so, Van Zants, like me. In them I recognized Dad’s doctrine of guilt driven perfectionism, but with evidently none of his impulsiveness and surprise humor camouflaged behind the dour curtains. Meeting these relatives furnished me with understanding for the essential contradictions of Jake, who would praise me one moment and slap me the next. Naturally, he was most severe with himself. His violence toward Mother and me was consequential and, of course, his alcoholism amplified it, so I forgave him everything. I learned in that brief encounter with his siblings, that his sunnier attributes were not genuine in my father, but only reactions to the oppression in which he’d been steeped. It explained the infuriating polarizations of his character and filled me with respect and gratitude for his renunciation of both his families, because it removed me that much further from the legacy that these two relatives so miserably bore.

Mom had quietly kept in touch with these two but never mentioned them or my father to me. I defend this instinct of hers toward secrecy where Dad was concerned. We both loved him, and we believed he had loved us. Reports of him, especially negative ones, would have oppressed and preoccupied me badly; perhaps even wrecked me completely as they did her. Instead I was left alone to construct a home movie in my head entitled “Papa and Me: Best Buds.” See here? There is Papa, swinging me in his arms. Notice the thrill on my face? Around we go in the circle of his protection. Look! There he is again, teaching me to swim, how persuasive are his urgings, how precise, his instructions. And there he is, playing with abandon at the piano. He is happy. Observe his shiny eyes, and glowing cheeks. What a wretched Sun in my universe was Papa!

Jake was self-taught on piano and he could play the boogie-woogie like he’d invented the form. We didn’t own a piano, so he would take Gloria and me down to the Pig n’ Whistle to hear him play sometimes after he’d worked all day putting axels together on an assembly line.

I learned from his sisters that once gone from us, he beat it out west and supplied the tunes in bars, up and down this coast, for drinks and lodging, until he completely dropped out of sight. No one knows what happened. Nothing says he has to be dead but, like most vanished fathers with fragile prospects and cancelled livers, after years of abuse, the whole struggle is invalidated by one stroke of The Reaper. In my mind I believe Jake is gone but, yes, in my heart I must have been looking for him when I approached those bums on that Friday.   

I got home and ate some soggy cereal that I had left on the kitchen counter in the big steel mixing bowl at breakfast. It had soured slightly, but the cupboards were bare and I was starving. I ate it like a savage, and chugged down a tall scotch. The alcohol was just starting to numb me when I went into the bathroom and threw it all up. I turned on the faucet to brush my teeth and looked in the mirror. I was exhausted. I hadn’t bathed or shaven in days. My face was crusted with sand and glazed with vomit. I looked like one of them. I looked like a bum. I hated them for invading my face. I hated myself for letting them lead me down a long, twisted tangent. I should have never ventured forth into that bizarre fringe. Whether I had un-reversed my fortune or not, I told myself I would have nothing more to do with those maniacs. The face in the mirror seemed unconvinced or completely unconnected to what I was pledging. I rummaged through it for some sign of cooperation but only found a dashboard Chihuahua, head bobbing on a spindle, with a not-long-for-this-world look in its eyes.

For the first time in my life I knew I had a soul. Before that moment, no one could convince me of its existence. The nuns in my early school days were forever teaching me about my soul and I just couldn’t buy it. I never had need for one, but suddenly I did. Yes I did have a soul, I knew it, because mine was writhing in agony.

I took two sleeping pills and faded out.