I was in Texas one summer and found myself sneaking into a famous designer’s backyard with a bisexual engineer and a carpenter who used to model for Abecrombie & Fitch. We all took our clothes off so we wouldn’t get tan lines and played Navy Seal in the pool, this game where we tie up our arms and legs with twine and jump into the deep end to see who lasts the longest without drowning. It's fun, but left marks around my wrists, so I sat out, watching the other two float around. Texas was supposed to be a stop-through on the way to somewhere else.
Kent asks, “Pearl, is it?”
He sweeps my bangs aside, undressing my face because every bloated and balding forty-year-old at the Chateau Marmont thinks he deserves a teenager whose breasts haven’t even started to sag.
Ever since my oldest sister, Goldie Lively, starred in this summer's Die, Die, Die—which grossed a billion dollars worldwide, no big deal—so many ass kissers are spilling from her crack that I get some residual smooches here and there.
“I just love your shoe-less hobo look,” Kent says, his voice whistling through his nose job. I look down at my bare feet, frozen on tile. “You really have the arches for it.”
Everywhere I went, people did things for the right reasons. They helped others. They made friends. They avoided conflict. The world was full of horrible people, but I couldn’t find any of them. Where were all the people who attended charity events to start fights? Where were all the people who betrayed their family to get closer to winning a large cash prize? Where were all the people who appeared on romance-competition reality-TV shows to find fame? All I wanted was someone to tell me I was garbage, to spread lies about me—to hate me unconditionally. I was looking for hate in all the wrong places. The situation was like this: there wasn’t even a bus nearby, let alone somebody to throw me under it.
Welcome to the first story in our Pacific Northwest series, guest edited by Kim Fu. We'll be accepting submissions from Pacific Northwest authors throughout the summer.
Kathryn filled her backpack with the essentials: a few t-shirts and pairs of underwear, climbing shorts that didn’t get in the way, her shoes and harness, coils of thick rope. Her partner, Jake, was still asleep. In their seven years together, she had learned he could sleep through anything. The month before had been her birthday--thirty-two--and there were still cards lining the mantel. She left their little blue house in a Boston suburb the way she wanted to hold it: sun rising and rooms quiet, everything in its place.
Catherine’s throat was soft and open to the orange light of the salon. Josie held the back of Catherine’s head in one hand, moving the nozzle with the other, rinsing Catherine’s hair with warm water. Catherine felt herself relax into Josie’s hand, give in, let this other, younger woman support her. She had her eyes closed. The water was loud against her skull and against the porcelain sink and Catherine allowed herself to slip away into her body where it was dark and endless and uncommonly quiet, where the hand holding her head was part of her body going on forever.
Then the water stopped.
The phone was ringing.
“He can fuck off,” Josie said.
Once on a bright spring morning in a time much like now but also different there was a young Craigy in a room full of friends. Standing apart, stilled by feelings of affection and terror, he cast about at their mostly pretty, mostly childlike faces. Debbie, Andy, Billy, Stacy, Bobby, Cindy, Russian Stan. Here they were, lounging freely, lounging well, a braided scent above of donuts, marijuana, tobacco, shampoos, soaps, oils, sweat. Soon, taking care, thinking how really kind of beautiful this all is, Craig stepped into their center. “Hey, uh, listen everyone,” he said. “I think I could, well, you know…”
Here you are minding your business in your blue fiberglass seat when this totally creepy thing starts happening. You’re checking out the other commuters in your metro car, being discrete: a bunch of used-up looking people on their way home from so many separate days of hard work. You, on the other hand, are just about to begin yours. You’re trying to decide which of the people intrigue you most, but no one’s much to look at, especially the men, and the fact that you have to decide whom to wonder about really underscores the banality of everyone. You sure picked the wrong car today. As usual you can pick out at least two men who think you’re not so bad looking yourself, including this one giving you a prolonged look like he wants to let you know you’re “delectable,” or some other drippy word a commercial would use to praise a chocolate. This is the baseline type of shit you deal with on a daily basis.
On Monday nights, Shelly goes with Jack to this bar called St. Mark’s that used to be a dive, but is suddenly and without explanation, cool. Now, Hollywood-types fill the leather booths, with their mussed up hair and good shoes, discussing who’s getting deals and who’s getting fired. Shelly sees it every day, in outdoor cafes all down Third and Beverly, the agents leaning back in their chairs, adjusting baseball caps, thumbing cell phones.
On Valentine’s Day, he writes a word on an index card. Before leaving for work, he puts it inside a gilded box on Lea’s dresser. Every year it’s a different word; it’s meant to describe her. He uses a thesaurus to help him. This year he’s settled on melliferous.
But when he rises on the morning of the 14th, he forgets to leave the box on her dresser. First time in over a quarter century; just clean forgets. He laughs it off that evening, shows her the card, everything’s fine.
At the speed of sleep I shoot up the bathroom. Another tragedy on a Friday. I’ve unzipped my Gratuity Pouch, the one I put the bills in, and am pissing through it onto the stall.
Two months ago I climbed a ladder—when I was still capable of painting houses—and rolled white paint on a cracked exterior (put a blanket over a crime scene). Just as I was coating the final corner, my sneaker slipped perfectly off.
What happened next was I woke up on the grass with a head that didn’t work the same as before.
Now I’m standing in a stall cursed with amateur graffiti. People can hear me. Someone said I’m giggling—but it’s not that innocent a sound.
What the hell are you doing in there? someone asks, knocking with their shoe.
Just fine. Thank you! I say.
I think someone’s in there with him, says another man.
Just me, thanks!
Dag Gilliam wakes in a mildewed hammock on the tarpaper roof of his Culver City vitamin shop, Body Temple. The dawn air has an October bite he feels deep in the lungs. Even in the butter box mirage of California, nature tries to slap you once in awhile to take notice of her.
Dag pushes his lean six-three through a couple half-assed sun salutations, but cramps quickly from the night of awkward sleep and a two bottle hangover. He is an angular, reasonably handsome fellow, but often taken for older — a receding tide of thin grey hair adding years to anyone’s guess.
Jurgen Koch has to be the worst cook in the world. So you wonder why he owns a restaurant, and why he cooks in it. It’s simple; he owns it because it was an easy business for him to buy in Tofino. When he came here on vacation in the '90s and did the West Coast Trail, he fell in love with Vancouver Island and saved up for the next ten years so he could move here from Germany. And he does the cooking because he’s a cheap son-of-a-bitch who won’t pay a real cook. I’d love to tell my impatient customer this, but I can’t. I love living in Tofino, too, and I don’t want to lose this job. Suck it up, sweetheart, I think. You don’t look like you’re starving to me.
Faye and me were really up a creek. The rent was due and collection companies were ringing the phone every couple of minutes. My problems all stemmed from my second divorce and the child support I couldn't afford in the first place. Credit cards were the source of Faye's. She liked to shop a little too much and it'd caught up with her. So we did what we had to do. We pooled what money we had and Faye maxed out her last two cards. We loaded her wardrobe into the car and took off with no real direction.
For two days we just drove around pretending to be outlaws. I handled the wheel and Faye the map. She got into the habit, between painting and repainting her nails, of reading off names of all these small towns we could settle down in.
Harpersburg, she'd say. Maybe Murfreesboro. You know how I love Tennessee.
See, so, the thing I don’t get about human nature is why pay good money for satellite TV when you can get crystal clear over-the-air broadcasts from Buffalo and beyond using a simple directional antenna you can buy for like fifty bucks at The Source?
And so I say this to Eric and Eric’s like, arms crossed, this sneer on his face. “Oh, you mean I have to, like, move it slightly if I want to pick up something other than Buffalo?” So reluctant, so skeptical, and all I’m trying to do is save him some money.
Avery. Town where the farm was, with the barn and the goats and the one cow, who was so old and sagged you could see the peaks of her back ridge pointing up through her hide and who hadn’t produced a drop of milk in probably a decade. There were chickens, too, and about a thousand cats either stalking the mice or sleeping in piles under shafts of sun. It wasn’t a bad spread, all in all, if you just looked from the outside and ignored all the boney girls dragging ass through the garden and sloshing pails of water to the bath out back or the dudes trying to figure out how to chop fire wood, nearly taking their own legs out. The people of Avery pretty much ignored us, figuring we were just a bunch of hippies, which I guess a lot of us were. Avery isn’t too far from where Edgar and I grew up, or too different. No one’s ever heard of Avery—or they hadn’t, anyway, before we came along.
Trappers came and dragged the alligator out of the ditch in my backyard, bound her front legs and threw her on the flatbed of their pickup truck one afternoon in late May. They wore cutoff denim jeans and sleeveless shirts called “wife beaters,” and carried poles with big loops on the end that tightened when you pulled on them, duct tape, and big coolers of raw meat.
I had heard the neighbors talking about the gator. They said it came out of the drainage pipe at the end of the subdivision, made its way down the length of the ditch, and disappeared into the pipe at the other end. It was nine feet long, at least, and looked sinister and possibly pregnant. It ate half my neighbor’s Yorkie and left the other half rotting on the grass on the edge of her yard. She showed me a Polaroid of the corpse while I toed the banks of the ditch looking for baby minnows, which I later learned were mosquito larvae.
Excerpted from Once I Was Cool, a collection of personal essays now available from Curbside Splendor Publishing.
My ovary is the size of a cherry tomato.
A cell the size of a grain of rice grew into a tumor the size of a tangerine and sucked up my ovary. Like Pac-Man.
That’s how my doctor explained it: "Like Pac-Man." Later, on the operating table under all sorts of anesthetic, I remember thinking, Pac-Man, hahaha, before passing out completely. When I came to, she told me the tumor could have killed me.
32 years old. 6-week-old baby. Dead by tangerine.
"I told you not to come,” she said.
I closed the door and smiled, placing our bags down in the hallway.
“Hi Penelope,” I said.
Ralph and I kept our shoes on. The floors were a tan oak, but with deep grooves and plenty of splinters. I searched for Penelope’s eyes while she twisted hair around her index finger.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hey Penelope, good to see you.” Ralph went to hug her and it was awkward, her arms straight as he tried to avoid her large belly. He gave her a smile before he asked, “Do you have something for us to eat?”
“There’s salmon in the freezer,” she said, waving to the corner of the room, “not much in the fridge, I’m waiting for the delivery. Veggies in the garden, grains in the pantry. Why’d you come anyhow?”
I laughed. “You knew we were coming, we drove all the way from Toronto.”
When it occurs to me that I might be having a heart attack, my life does not flash before my eyes. My first thoughts are not of my childhood; they are not of my wife or family. I do not think, “I’m only thirty-eight, why now?” Oddly enough, the first thing that comes to mind is that I’m going to miss my mother-in-law’s Thanksgiving turkey on the weekend.
It’s an odd thought, I think, as far as last thoughts go.
I’m on the bus, on my way home from work, and I clutch my chest, sit up straight and look around for help. I can feel the fluttering of my heart in my hand. It’s vibrating right through my flesh. I pull open my coat and notice my phone in my pocket. I’d set it to vibrate during a meeting this morning.
All of a sudden there was a small business in the house that sat on the corner of Richmond Road and Hanover. It was the little bungalow-style place that had been home to a photo lab and before that a local bank with a drive-thru window along the side where the carport used to be. It was also, a few people say, headquarters for the Republicans in the last mayoral race. Even though that race was non-partisan, we all knew who was backing Berryman. But overnight, the way condos go up and churches are torn down, the way long-distance friends lose the ability to pick up where they left off, the eaves of the building were painted red, the white siding got whiter and a sign appeared: Decision Makers.