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.
Editor's Note: This story is part of Joyland's Michigan stories series.
John R. Allen
509 N. Ulston Street, #2
Detroit, Michigan 48201
This is the final notice regarding the outstanding balance of your DEE gas and electric account. If you do not pay the below sum within two (2) business days, you will be returned to the dark and cold forever.
Detroit Edison Energy
1 Power Drive
Detroit, Michigan 48226
We’d been sitting on that ratty floral couch in the ranch-style house in the foothills of the Ozarks for almost an hour watching re-runs of M*A*S*H on the only channel the rabbit ears could pick up. My cousin—Little Tom—was especially quiet on account of the nasty case of Chickenpox he had just gotten over.
Bit of a pussy, his dad, Big Tom, would say about it. Supposed to have that when you’re a goddamn baby, not a goddamn adolescent.
Everyone mostly agreed, but Big Tom was one of those sumbitches you hear about always makes a situation worse than it needs to be: trucker by day, gone weeks at a time hauling frozen foods from the Ozarks to Galveston, home for long stretches, too, and when he was he guzzled Coors Banquet and wore only sleeveless ‘80s band tees and cussed and loomed over that house like a big hulking beast come to terrorize us in our only refuge.
Wake up and don’t fall back asleep. Wake up and thank the noise which sounds like a submarine in trouble. Make your lunch and put it in the brown bag. Thought you’d be done with the brown bags after grade school? Think again. You’ve gotten too comfortable. You lack discipline. And the only remedy for this sorry state, this collection of bad habits now called Your Life is to undo the encouraging judgment of Dad and the principal and even that worthless guidance counselor who spoiled you utterly with cooing cough-drop-scented aspirations of World = Oysterism and never telling you that you were soft and lacked even the barest prospects of professional success. It’s all a big joke, a shaggy dog story whose repetitive punch line has brought you to this morning, to every morning, waking up to a blaring S.O.S. noise in order to put that sense of urgency back in you, to give you a wandering itch that never stays still enough to scratch.
There’s a photo in the Saturday paper Dad wants Shell to think about. It is really simple: a man’s hand—giant and white—is holding out a black kid’s teeny tiny hand so all the world can see.
“Dad, is it a girl’s hand or a boy’s?”
Dad says, “Does that matter?” and goes back to the Sports.
Really, it could be a doll’s hand, or an Egyptian mummy’s. It is that wrinkled. The nails need a clip. And the wrist, draped over the man’s lined palm, is no thicker than one of the rubbery carrots rolling around in the bottom of the crisper. It must be hot there. The contrast between the black and the white so sharp, it’s as if cut with the X-Acto Dad uses on boxes.
Excerpted from the in-progress novel, Buffalo.
Because Bea’s collection consisted of more than what she could store in refrigerators or under the bed she took Kotter on a tour of Buffalo’s female body parts. Cities were, according to Bea, a patriarchal invention and the urban space was one in which women were forced to navigate in a way that was uncomfortable and unnatural. The Feminist’s Guide to Walking the City also encouraged an awareness of, and subsequent tribute to the working women enslaved throughout the urban landscape. This suggestion was contained within a chapter called “Stoned” which Kotter thought was funny and Bea did not. She put on her hat, a scarf and some waxy lip balm from a green tin. Her hands then black in leather gloves, she pointed a finger at him.
“You think this will be boring.”
“I guess so,” he said.
Editor's Note: This story is part of Joyland's Michigan stories series. Come back throughout April for more Michigan stories.
“On the other side then” “torrential against the shape of rain”
“I met everyone on behalf of” “the child who brought me here”
“The ground caves in at spots” “and beneath the streets are
seasons” “with their own rooms” “These must be the barracks,”
“where the whole situation sleeps and speaks” “in tongues”
“A man comes to me” “with patches on his eyes”
“he has already been here” “behind me” “for years”
“He says” “ ‘Brother, it has been a long time’”
“I remember:” “this is a place” “outside of gender”
“I should not have called him ‘him’ ”
Editor's Note: This story is part of Joyland's Michigan stories series. Come back throughout April for more Michigan stories.
“Do you grind your teeth,” the Hygienist asked, but Callie didn’t answer because the Hygienist was fiddling in her mouth, and because Callie knew the Hygienist already knew about the teeth grinding. The Hygienist had taken photographs inside Callie’s mouth, and they were now blown up larger than necessary on the screen. The Hygienist had also scanned the questionnaire Callie had filled out in the waiting room. On the form, Callie had admitted to irregular flossing, so the Hygienist knew about this, too. The Hygienist knew everything.