Cowtown

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I should have known I’d make a good fool the first time I put on that stupid fucking paper ice cream cone hat.

Summertime in this thriving strip mall/dying farm town is rough. There is nothing much to do—all of the kids that can afford to fly home and sleep 12 hour nights in beds they don’t make do so. The rest of us look down the barrel of three hot months that smell like manure (the dying farms), chemical-laden asphalt (from the all the new parking lots and shit) and exhaust (from the interstate).   You know, come to think of it, the first wave of departures in June doesn’t feel bad at all. It’s nice to imagine life without racket of dum-dums at the fraternity next door—a dying fucking tradition anyway, I mean, Jesus, how do you have ONE fraternity? I guess you just have to come to Cowtown for that.

Cecilia and I had been broken up since late spring and I knew she was lurking around for the summer, not because she couldn’t afford to go home, but because she had real bad issues with her stepfather.   And possibly because she wanted to stay close to me.

I’d been working at “The Scoop Soda Fountain” in the town’s only “Legitimate (Mini) Mall!” for a few months when I was still dating Cecilia, so when she appeared that day in August with her mascara all smeared, trembling under the Food Court’s enthusiastic AC, Clarence hollered a greeting before he saw her state. Then he ducked his head and shouldered close to me. I was sweating, suddenly, standing over the sorbets.

“I think that’s your cue, dog,” he whisper-ordered, and since he was my boss, I folded up the hat and by some pre-arranged drama narrative arc, met Cecilia at a sticky round table off to the side.

She cleaned herself up and tried at a smile and I’m half-southern, so I had to smile back, even if I felt like sprinting for the north exit. But as I felt my face muscles work, I was seeing, in my mind, the night that Cecilia tried to throw herself into traffic because I broke up with her (I broke up with her because she had broken up with me, fucked this corn-fed wide receiver and then convinced me to get back together). And right at that same moment at that sticky table, I swear to God, a faux-farmer (actor, I imagine) in cartoonish overalls walked by leading a very well-groomed, very cute Holstein calf on a leash, swarmed by cooing toddlers. And Cecilia did this thing that she knows how to do where she giggles in a perfectly delighted, impulsive, young way, right through her red eyes and over her smeared cheeks, and I don’t care if you just lost your pet calf, you smile.

So I smiled.

And she leaned in and hooked my wrists and wrestled our noses close and started in on a monologue that combined erotic promise and tearful plea and I felt my heart sink and other parts rise and then Clarence appears with a banana fucking split (there was an actual cherry on top) singing in his goddam gospel baritone “Reunited—and it feels so good,” and Cecilia is smile-crying now and I took a spoonful of hot fudge that she pushed toward me to earn time because I’m pumping my brain like brakes gone out to stop this and then, I swear to God, Sinead O’Connor is singing through the mini-mall megaphone speakers (so I can’t even blame Clarence), “Nothing Compares,” and Cecilia doesn’t even have to work at it anymore, Clarence is watching, big arms folded, nodding along, and some large stroller pushing mothers who have parked for milkshakes are weepy and grinning at us and I know that the following chapter of time in Cowtown—however long it turns out to be—is going to feel a whole lot more torturous than the summer ever did.

And so I kiss her.

Galaxy

The young woman had caught a jetliner east to Jersey to spend the Holidays with her “best friend,” the term that she used both genuinely and euphemistically with her Mormon mother; genuinely because it was true and euphemistically because she was also the young woman’s lover or at least had been in the now-long-gone-days of Rutgers. They had scuttled their erotic passion for a passionate social media, Skype and text message friendship as the young woman slid into a bland career of marketing nearby her divorced (the scandal!) Mormon (perhaps…unwell) mother and her Jersey lover skated easily into the Queer bohemia of the Tristate. So, the Holidays of 2006-2007 broke onto the horizon pregnant with possibility and already haunted by hope.

 

And Christmas Day broke upon the two young lovers with a splintered gold and blue sky magic that sent them into a mania that would, before the night fell, include hi-jinks and escapades: dining and dashing from a greasy spoon in SOHO with the excuse that they had forgotten their purses at the hotel; tongue kissing atop a sidewalk vent with impractical skirts billowing like Marilyn Monroe’s and cabbies cat-calling with their horns; rifling a strangely open retro clothing shop for Audrey Hepburn costumes in which to linger at 5 star hotel bars, sipping cosmopolitan after cosmopolitan; gobbling hot slices feverishly on a frozen bench at Washington Square Park, pillbox hats askew, cigarette holders tucked behind reddened ears as the greasy shadows began to grow long. They paused only for the young woman to dial her Mormon mother twice on her Samsung Galaxy and leave sweet, tipsy apologetic messages that did not acknowledge the mother’s jilted anger at being “abandoned for the holidays.”

 

So it was markedly horrific in that way that only the promise of mania jilted and sabotaged by the plunge into darkness can be when the women lost track of each other outside an Irish Bar in the West Village and the young woman from Mormon country was discovered by a dishwasher in the small hours of December 26th with clothes and throat ripped in unnecessarily thorough manner, her lifeblood pooling beneath a dumpster.

 

The Mormon mother blamed the Jersey lover, of course, and how could she not? The Jersey lover blamed herself for without the distraction of a small bladder and a shot of Jameson proffered by a kindly Indian businesswoman, she might have not dallied in the elbowed interior of that bar while her lover slipped out the door for a smoke and toward her awful end. And so she forewent attendance of the young woman’s funeral. The Jersey lover respected the mother’s sorrow and did not disturb it by any intention for a full year. She tucked herself away into a pocket of her old life and ate Xanax and made it till tomorrow until one night she knew she might not and in a stumble fury dialed her dead lover’s phone number in the vague hope that she could at least hear her voicemail greeting and scream pain or apology or perhaps rage into the virtual mailbox.

 

The mother, possessed by a similar longing to, a), somehow connect with her gone daughter via telephone and, b), somehow aid the apprehension of the person responsible for her brutal death (as if they would for some reason call the number), had kept the worse-for-wear Samsung Galaxy that NYPD detectives had delivered up to her in a jumbo size Ziploc along with lipstick, tiny sequined purse, Virginia Slim Light 100s, and six orange tic-tacs. So she snatched up every ring that came in, fielding calls from clueless classmates, from advertising execs, from telemarketers, always with urgency, always with a hello? that said, instead, who are you and what have you done? The Jersey lover, to her credit, paused and bit through the cognitive fog of Xanax and rapid-cycling grief and spoke the Mormon mother’s name aloud, for the first time in her life, as a question:

 

Genevive?

 

And though neither party got what they had wished for when their hands punched the numbers in hopeless ritual reaching, they did find one another and they did weep together on the line and they did share stories deep into the late winter night and they did seed a relationship that would come to resemble something like that between a mother and her daughter.

Food Bank

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I never shied away from the fact that I was a rotten shit in high school and I have tried my best not to hide behind the fact that all of my buddies were, too. That’s not any excuse—even our behavior had been due to peer pressure, that’s a bullshit copout, and I can’t even claim that. Just a kind of free floating permission to be as wild-ass as we could be, an unspoken game of one-upmanship to see who could push the envelope the furthest before the apathetic teachers or staff actually took action.

 

Solomon Brazier smoked a bowl in the back of Spanish class, blowing tokes into his sleeve. Polyester wrapped Mr. Abrams sniffed and looked confused but that was about it. Carlton Chivers tagged the door of every classroom with his Flash! nom du guerre, then moved on to every single teacher’s desk. He pulled this caper off within a week. Jenny Strongbow pasted the answers to a chemistry quiz on the back of geriatric Ms. Genevive’s suit jacket so that as she walked around, telling us all that she was “watching us like a hawk,” she delivered the answers to each student. Jenny stripped it off her back without any guile on the way out to lunch, just tossed it in the wastebasket, chuckling.   Avery Short chased a freshman down the block, blacked out drunk at midday, and slammed a metal garbage can down over him, told him not to come out till after school and the poor little dude didn’t.

 

Anyway, there is a lot to be said about the kind of public education that not only allows this type of behavior to be the rule, but that inspires it. I mean, looking back, I know we were rebelling against the busywork nonsense and radically outdated textbooks and crappy instructors and rain of asbestos. At least on some level. Not a conscious one at the time, to be sure. Shit, we were too immature to organize a house party (so we drank in the park nine times out of ten) to say nothing of some kind of political statement.

 

I had a lot of time to think critically about my high school self and the retroactive politics of delinquency. The line at the food bank twisted around the front of the joint and down the alley, but before I even had gotten in line, I saw him—Mr. Greeley, junior year algebra, quivering in a frayed track suit, gripping a cane like with impossibly huge, white knuckles.

 

Because, see, what I remember most about Mr. Greeley is how soft-spoken he was, how much of a pushover—no, it’s what we did to him that I remember most. It’s another round of self-delusion to say it’s because of who he was—the garbage we dished out is on us.

 

Like when he got his small yellow Datsun painted with a local plumbing company’s ads to earn a few extra bucks, presumably, and eight of us picked it up during lunch 3 days running and dropped it in the middle of the intersection. He had the ads stripped away and we left his car alone except for breaking into it to smoke doobies.

 

We did shit like sell weed out of the door of his classroom like it was a dope house, stared him down when he got a tiny touch of indignation about it.

 

Like drink fat mouthed bottles of Mickey’s malt liquor openly, burping like frat boys while he tried to teach a formula to the four earnest kids listening.

 

Like the day that I came in half-cocked on Mad Dog and Mexi herbs and wrestled three desks over to and out of the third story window while he was dealing with Sam, a sensitive, tiny nerd that we all tortured, in the hallway.

 

That last one was what finally did it, I guess. He came back in, shaking his head, left hand out, subconsciously guiding Sam toward his seat. That impulse, I see now, of guidance, of the desire to share, actually, to help lead us toward knowledge and growth that we spit on and threw back at him because he was a shy, decent cog. Ah. Anyway. When he took stock of the fact that three of us were standing desk-less, he didn’t understand, then he did—but only that our desks were gone—and then he rubbed his head like he was trying to get a fire started up there and wordlessly pointed to the hallway.

 

I’d spent a lot of time thinking about Mr. Greeley, actually, as I worked my way through gigs grant writing and needed algebra to help me with Microsoft Xcel and didn’t have a lick of it. I came to arrange it so that Mr. Greeley stood in for all my crimes of the era—every diss of my mom or dad, every freshman shouldered or punched, every gram snorted, smoked or sold, every rotgut 40 oz of malt liquor hard to the liver that was still in the process of growing back then.

 

And at the food bank, 15 odd years later, an out of work grant writer wannabe rock star, I watch as ancient Mr. Greeley reaches his knobby claw out at the first station to the cocky young buck probably doing his community service for a DUI. I can barely catch the harsh whisper that Mr. Greeley lays on the young kid when he reluctantly leans in a few inches, but I hear the kid’s honk of a dumb young voice—nope, that’s it man, one onion per—and look behind the kid’s tribal-tattooed elbow and see the crate bursting with Vidalia yellows and the kid returns his moon face to his big smart phone.

 

I suppose I told that kid to give Mr. Greeley a Vidalia yellow and that I probably didn’t do it nicely. I recall that I was invited to leave the establishment by rubber-aproned ex-con types not too nicely. I hope that Mr. Greeley cooked whatever it was he wanted the extra onion for. I hope he didn’t somehow recognize me.

 

I hope he doesn’t remember me at all.

Bluffing

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Bluff was the location of the wildest and most consistent parties and, also, there was the tradition of “bluffing” to shove one of your buddies off the “bluff” at the most unforeseen moment. The irony is terrible that neither definition of “bluff” actually applied. It was a cliff. Period. A one hundred foot plummet off an upward-tilted lip of earth adorned with clover and dandelions at the far end of a county park, out of earshot of the parking lot even without the roar of sea winds that muscled up the ragged, rocky face of the cliff and stirred drunken teenagers’ hair in interesting ways. And, therefore, faking a shove off it was a lot more like a threat.

 

Bluff had been played on the girl once. She went out there as a freshman, which even among freshmen, was considered a pretty foolish thing to do. The crowd she rode with was peppered with other first year students clutching warm cans of Hamm’s like they were talismans, but mainly it was sophomores and juniors and even some seniors. Because she was appropriately wary of this crowd—getting good and cracked on an early Friday afternoon—she instinctively moved to the highest part of the bluff so she could observe everyone present, but of course this put her back to the open air at the edge of the cliff. When one upperclassman girl distracted her by inquiring after her peculiar ethnicity in that innocent and moronic blonde suburban way (“Ohmygod yoursooocute whatareyou?”), a redhead rocker chick with a hatchet face and leather jacket that would go on to die with a needle stuck into her arm at the ripe old age of 17, grabbed the girl and shoved her hard toward the edge. The redhead had good purchase on the girl’s backpack strap, so she probably wasn’t in any real danger, but nonetheless she shrieked, a spurt of piss got away from her, and she both vomited and began to cry when the redhead released her, disgusted.

 

The girl had come a long way since that freshman afternoon. She was a legal adult, however burdened with a handful of AP English essays before she could kick high school and the awful postcard town full of phony white people goodbye. She had lost her mother to a man named Ramon from Florida and her older brother to an IED in Fallujah. She still had her taciturn father that turned the engines of the town’s luxury SUVs inside out seventy hours per week, and her best friend, a wickedly smart film buff named Arthur, and a string of ex boyfriends that got more embarrassing the more she reflected. And so she tried not to. She tried to be mindful and in the moment and breathe, like her Buddhist auntie Celine had taught her once. That’s what she was doing the night of the last high school party she ever planned to attend, fittingly back on the bluff in the deep black of a late April night.

 

She had been there enough times with boyfriends or Arthur or on her own that she knew just where it was safe to place her feet without danger of the winds whirl-whipping her away into an ugly swan dive. She stared out at the obsidian ocean, seagulls like small triangles of cotton jagging about, using the force of the winds for swoops and ascents. She tipped a sip of German pilsner into her mouth and didn’t spit it out when the hand slid like a boa over her hip because she’d known it was coming.

 

His plot for dealing with her after having raped her in the bathroom at his parents’ Christmas party—she would always smell potpourri and asparagus piss at the most unwelcome moments—was to treat her as often as possible like his girlfriend. Of course she didn’t take to it and, for months, would slap him away, shout him down, spit at his giggles, but she’d found with time that all of that only made it worse. People quickly believed that no guy so adorably smitten and devoted despite her rejection could be guilty of choking her out and having his way with her over a toilet. And when she did stop protesting, when she let him put his arm around her in public, he thought it was victory. And he cooed cruel triumphs in her ear about what he would do next. And she could feel that this was the night that he would actually try.

 

His forearm was around her waist and his hand palmed her thigh through her jeans and she could smell the animal in him. She sighed, as if in resignation and ducked beneath his arm, coming face to face with him, albeit three inches below where he now stood on the lip of the bluff, his back to the sea and desolate song of the gulls. Behind her she could hear the inane squeals of drunken girls and false bravado of drunk boys boom and shatter in the loose thicket of Evergreens where the keg was planted. The sickle moon lit the white of his narrowed eyes and one canine tooth as he half-grinned. She shook her head, as if at herself, and slid one hand demurely onto his crotch, which responded with instant heated expansion. Before he did it, she knew it because she’d seen it happen, against designer wallpaper a year earlier: his head tip back in pleasure. She pushed hard, but didn’t have to. His eyes snapped back in time to catch hers and she’d be lying to this day if she denied the burst of pleasure in her brain, the flood of dopamine that followed the image of his going, his cry erased by the wind. She stayed and finished her beer, but didn’t peer over. She knew she couldn’t see anything at all, way down there on the dark violence of those rocky, sea-smacked shores.

Splitting it Three Ways

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The fan stirred the soupy air with none of the force necessary to transform it into a cooling agent. The A/C had clunked off again and hour ago with the sound of a drunkard falling down a metal staircase. Candles guttered on the mantle over the sealed up fireplace, my little piece of protest against the gagging efforts of the landlady over the antebellum charms of the split-level ghetto cottage. I’d left the door to the porch cracked for the prayer of a breeze off the Cape Fear, though I knew it meant there’d be a cicada or two to scare up from the filthy living room the next day. Also, open doors and windows were kind of like television—they could bring entertainment in the form of domestic quarrels or drunken sing-alongs or whispered plots. It wasn’t uncommon for the Wilmington Police to play a role in a production just beyond the edge of my rental property as they did this particular night.

 

A blue loop of light went round the ceiling at a quicker clip than the fan and a red one chased it. Radios squawked and tires chirped on curb; other clichéd sounds of The Man arriving. I listened. Car doors heaved closed, muffled protests, young men’s voices raised in timbre (which, I once read, is an inheritance of ancient survival tactics, like dogs showing their bellies or avoiding eye contact). I slipped out from under the damp sheet, clicked the dog shut in the bedroom with her peaked ears and ready bark, slid out to the balcony and beheld the quotidian sight of three young black men cuffed on my curb with two white policemen standing practically on top of them. One cop was advising them to divulge or produce anything that could hurt them.

 

Boys, he drawled, I’m tryin’ to help y’all here. If y’all got something in that car I should know about, go on ahead and let me have it before my partner digs it up? Much better idea.

 

The young men chose to remain silent, which they had not been made aware was their right. Silently myself, I congratulated them, lit a smoke and leaned over the railing. Good cop let his veil slip as he scowled at me through my smoke; I waved lazily like I was on his side and he, no doubt divining my skin tone, eased his scowl into a tight-lipped smile. Presumable bad cop emerged from the Nissan Maxima with a Mag Light trained on his opposing palm. He slammed it down on the cruiser’s hood like he was at cards.

 

Which one of y’all shitbirds owns the crack?

 

Soft curses, almost like prayers, puffed up from the young men on the curb. I felt my own crawl up my throat with an exhalation of Marlboro. Stay silent, I implored them, three times over, catching myself as my voice almost became audible across those impossible ten yards. They did as I wished. Good cop paced like a professor, hands at his lower back.

 

C’mon now y’all, he cooed, I can split this rock three ways and charge all of y’all or one of you can man up and take it.

 

The filter burned my thumb. Now I didn’t know what to implore them to do. My memory scrambled over legal knowledge—wouldn’t the driver just automatically get it? But if he did, and it wasn’t his, what did that mean for these men?

 

Y’all got ten seconds to get smart, good cop sighed.

 

Bad cop took up a position behind them with fat fingers that tickled Glock grip. I dropped my smoke in the grass accidentally, grateful for the first time for the humidity of the night that would extinguish it. My mind raced: could I call out advice without getting arrested myself? What would I say? Stay silent? Someone claim it? Should I at least let the cops know I was watching with the eye of a critic and not some smug white interloper in this blacked-out block? Time ran out. Bad cop hoisted the first young man one and folded him—bam!—on the hood. Bam!, two, bam!, three. Three distressed, bruised letter L’s with cheeks pressed to the hot hood of a Caprice. Good cop flipped a blade open and sighed again, snapping that rock in three. I went inside to try for sleep.

 

Domestic Disturbance

 

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God, we fought like dogs. No use in denying it. It’s true to say it was passion but all the assholes in the world would say that’s just me trying to get lipstick on a pig. Doesn’t matter anymore, but for the sake of telling the story I’m gonna insist: it was passion. Loved that woman with a power that terrified me—terrified me she’d meet someone better, which would’ve been easy, terrified something’d happen to her at her job (she worked in a fuckin’ nail salon and so I spent time researching hazards in nail salons), terrified she’d just disappear like a dandelion spore, float off into a sunray and morph with all that light. Lyla was that beautiful to me—ninety pounds soaking wet and barely a hair on her golden body besides her honey hair to my two hundred pounds of mediocre man meat. I didn’t start off doing anything more than worshipping her but the fear crept in as it does and by our second year we were gnashing teeth and I was putting holes in the plasterboard on the regular and the cops got accustomed to coming around, would look all tired and put out when we answered the door, like they were our parents and we ought to have been sleeping. But wasn’t ever a mark on either one of us and so they always just threatened us with noise complaints. Neighbors hated us of course. I liked to tell my buddies too that it was the fuckin’ that bothered them the most, but truth is that the fighting was probably louder and certainly worse to listen to. I was jealous, sure I was. I’m not even ashamed of that. I heard a preppie kid in a bar say one time that jealousy was for insecure men and yet when I stared over at him he cut his eyes away and hit the road without even finishing his funny little drink. So I don’t know about that.

 

Anyway, point is, that on a November night not two days after Thanksgiving we were laying it out like we never had before: leftover turkey was mashed in the rug and glasses were broken in the sink and Lyla had definitely pointed a carving knife at me and I had taken a hollow-core closet door off the hinges and decorated it with fist holes. Phone rang off the hook, neighbors stomped and banged and eventually the officers showed up. This time one of them, it was a skinny Mexican cop, he told me, no shit, wagging a finger at me that you know, Elway, sooner or later everyone thinks you gonna actually hit that woman and kill her. Now, I have no way of telling you why the way he said that struck me as funny and I bet Lyla couldn’t tell you either, even though she was the one that started crowing first when I shut the door on the coppers. Like he’d said something really funny. I don’t know, I guess when you get deep enough in a spit and vinegar kind of love affair, you forget what you’re even fighting about—I couldn’t tell you now what it was that night. Sometimes you’re just fighting and the only way out is walking or fucking, at least for me, because, see, I wasn’t ever going to lay a hand on Lyla. Maybe that’s what was funny to us. We got straight to ripping shirts off each other in the living room and stumble-wrestled our way to the bedroom and I don’t mind saying I was already pumping away by the time her back hit that thrift store mattress. We got into that rhythm of it where it’d get real quiet and we stared into each other’s eyes as I went harder and harder. That’s what was happening: me, on top of Lyla, my hands on either side of her face, trying to pump my way right into her blood, like I wanted to disappear inside of her, when the frame snapped and the bed caved inward like a goddam taco and my hands slipped onto her throat as we fell downward and her neck snapped under my fingers.

 

When that Mexican cop came in to cuff me, I could see him trying to look angry. But he looked more spooked, like he’d jinxed the holy hell out of me, Lyla, and just maybe himself.