golden tusks, part 1

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So I drove around in my car for a week and took notes with my eyes and fingers. This is writing as practice for being human, so please pardon the lack of a point.

CLEVELAND

The semester ended the first week of May, which leaves me without much to do for the better part of the month. Eventually I will have and have had to resume working to pay my rent and my Obamacare and keep myself in rice and beans. But from a responsibility standpoint, like a meatspace obligation for my body and brain to be in a certain place at agreed-upon times, I am at present radically liberated, in all directions from 0 on the axes of freedom. I am expected but not required to show up at something like eight more Cleveland Indians games before August 1, and I am supposed to talk to my shrink on Wednesday mornings, but I do that via Skype. I did sign up for a Spanish class. A year and change of Spanish class 13 years ago earned me “Beginner II” status which is both a conceptual contradiction and also exactly where I belong, in a spectrum of activities.

I have access to a 2008 Honda Accord and some spare (not that spare, really) cash both of which stoked visions of escaping my usual orbit. Of course when you escape orbit it’s not really clear what you are escaping to. You’re just free from whatever version of gravity was hassling you. You are not guaranteed a new or better gravity.

Part of what pushed me out of the door was what happened to me the last time I had nothing to do for more than a few days, I fell into a pretty harsh depression. I slept all day, and when awake i ritually abused myself with junk food and unhappy thoughts. This kind of episode felt and feels like dropping something fragile; your humanity falls from your hands just fast enough that there is nothing you can do, just slow enough that you can regret all the way down, even before some version of yourself hits the floor and smashes up.

So given my liberty and a desire to box out gross depression, I drove away from home.

HAGERSTOWN

I drove to Hagerstown, Maryland via the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Hagerstown was a stopping point because it was most of the way to Baltimore while still likely possessing a <$50 a night motel, and there was a minor league doubleheader there, I learned from the Internet before leaving. At Breezewood, Pennsylvania I turned south off the turnpike. I briefly stopped to pee and have an energy drink. In the bathroom/energy drink place, I saw a man with a flaming cross tattooed on his upper arm. The cross had the Confederate flag inlaid. I thought about whether he meant the flames as a condemnation of the late rebellion or more like an emphasis of his confederitude.

After leaving the interstate, I drove through towns where you could see the passage of time piled up like junk mail in a rude visual archeaology. In places like Clear Springs I saw 19th century farmhomes leaning on 20th century shops patrolled by 21st century lives. Bad tattoos and little econo cars draped with aftermarket gear, plastic bits rattling in the music of woofers. Acres and acres and acres of riding-mowered grass sweated in the sun. Every other house seemed to have coughed up its guts in a yard sale. Clothing and side tables and plates and bikes.

A local Red Lobster sponsored a stretch of highway. I wondered whether that adoption included spiritual and material responsiiblity for everythign that happened there. Like if you died on that road whether Red Lobster would sponsor your transit to the afterlife.

I drove on the Red Lobster road until I hit a town that was bigger than the others, with more roads and more train tracks knotted together on a set of ridges. This was Hagerstown.

I found a motel in a town called Halfway MD, at a junction of roads where chain stores sprouted like mushrooms. There was a horse tied up in the back; either his/her name was The Wonder Horse or he/she was described to me as a wonder horse. His/her owner was a long-necked elderly man with a snow-white goatee. The horse was appearing in a show of some kind at the county fair. He/she was chestnut with a bolt of white on his/her forehead, unaware or unconcerned by the long purple leash that secured him/her to a chain link fence between the hotel and an overpass bending away back toward Hagerstown. A billboard overhead told me and the wonder horse about the current lottery jackpots. There were two large people, mother and son, crouching in the shade of trees in front of the motel, all their possessions stacked neatly next to them, including a forlorn chihuahua in a kennel crate big enough for a small bear. I wondered what they were doing until I realized they had been kicked out or otherwise left their lodgings at the motel.

A different mother with drained eyes clutched a toddler and a microwave dinner, its cardboard already limp with defrost. The Motel 6 clerk told me her favorite rapper is from Cleveland.

I drove along the edge of an old cemetery, inching through the rush-hour traffic of a small city. I listened to Neil Young right up until I turned my car off in the parking lot of the ballpark. As I entered the stadium, “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynrd Skynyrd played, and I noticed the line where Ronnie Van Zant addresses Neil Young in the third person.

It was Country Music Night at Hagerstown Municipal Stadium, parts of which date to 1930. If you wore a cowboy hat or boots, you got in for $5. I paid $9, having neither article of clothing. I didn’t see anyone in cowboy gear except for the game’s genial, perfunctory MC. He wore cheap Halloween costume pleather chaps, a cowboy hat, and a neckerchief. He didn’t have a six gun or a lasso, just a wireless microphone through which he narrated a game of musical chairs between children pulled from the crowd. A young boy named Caleb won. I forgot what Caleb’s prize was.

I got bored midway through the first game of the doubleheader and decided to wander around Hagerstown before the sun went away.

Time to Pray

I went back to my hotel and the horse was still there, chewing grass in the dark.

I woke up and ate oranges and wrote for a couple hours, after getting lost in a mall parking lot looking for the coffee drive-thru at 6 am. I packed up my stuff and drove south to the Antietam battlefield. The sky was bright and generous, and restless wavy hills swam in the sun. Every few hundred feet a stone marker elaborated on the details of how many of which kind of soldier died nearby. I looked into a white church that had been shot up. I looked into a ditch that had filled with dead guys. I had to pee badly but felt it would be impolite to pee on a national historic site, so I held it until I got a few miles away.

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I drove south on a road that nearly disappeared into the hills and brambles before breaking onto the valley of the Potomac. I snaked around onto a bridge into Virginia, briefly, and then West Virginia. Harpers Ferry was beautiful. I looked at the small outbuilding where John Brown holed up during his raid. I stood on a rock Thomas Jefferson stood on. I bought postcards but not a stuffed doll of John Brown, clutching a small stuffed Bible with gilt edging. I watched the human traffic drip past on the Appalachian Trail and left for Baltimore.

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BALTIMORE

I think I was in Baltimore once before, but most of my understanding of Baltimore comes through stories. Homicide and The Wire and The Corner. I expected rows of battered, hopeless brick houses and I saw that but I also saw everything not on screens: people, pigeons, sunlight, small trash dancing in breeze, weeds, living of lives.

I walked through Lexington Market and, wandered around downtown. The crowds by the market were African American; by the ballpark they were white. I bought a ticket to the game and watched the Angels practice. A buxom woman haggled with a coach in the bullpen for a signed ball. He wanted her phone number.

I drove north to a combination record and book store and bought Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, in a paperback edition the size of a half-loaf of bread, and Dynamite by Louis Adamic, and a random tape cassette of noise music after soliciting the clerk’s recommendation. I don’t even have a tape player at the moment. I talked about Harvey Pekar with the shop guys and left. I parked on the edge of the Johns Hopkins campus and scurried through the Baltimore Museum of Art in the last hour before closing. I saw a chair with built-in bookshelves and a motorcycle wheel. I saw a good Rockwell Kent and learned that Horace Pippin exists. I tried to make it to the Walters Museum before closing but failed. I left my car in what seemed to be a legal parking spot and walked to the ball park.

I watched kids and not-kids grub for foul balls. I ate a problematic amount of barbecue that somehow cost $22. I felt like I had swallowed a sandbag. I finished the giant serving of pork out of duty and completism as much as desire. No one but me cared whether I finished the pork.

The umpires were all introduced as “Mister.” The game was orderly and short. The home team lost. I saw Albert Pujols hit a home run. Mike Trout didn’t do much. Under some guilt, I scavenged a novelty mini-helmet that had the last bits of someone’s melted soft serve in it. In the bathrooms after the game ended, I washed a stranger’s ice cream out of the miniature hat and paper-toweled it dry as a crowd of people tiredly peed out 9 innings of beer.

My parking spot near the Walters Museum turned out to have been legal, or at least legal enough. I drove to a motel in a scruffy suburb using my phone as a GPS.

I woke up and drove toward Annapolis, a place I have definitely been before. I veered off onto a bridge across the Chesapeake and rose up over wind-ridged water. I was thinly disappointed because I could see land ahead of me the whole time. I had been hoping I would get a few minutes in the presence of nothing but asphalt water and sky.

I saw an electronic sign on the edge of the road that asked:

T E R R O R
T I  P  S  ?

I drove up some kind of official scenic byway through small towns on the eastern shore of the bay. I saw signs reading FOR LEASE GOOSE PITS. I remained curious enough later to find out what a GOOSE PIT is; it’s a duck blind, but for shooting geese instead. I don’t think the birds care what you call the thing you shoot them from.

The day smelled like manure and sunshine and exhaust. I drove on a bridge high over the town of Chesapeake City and was very pleased with the world and my freedom in it.

PHILADELPHIA

Immediately after this I hit the traffic shadow of I-95 and crawled the rest of the way to Philadelphia. I did pee in Delaware, at a very well-lit rest stop.

Everything in Philadelphia feels like you’re facing the back of it. The city is always turning away, not out of shyness or coldness, just a half turn undone. I ate fancy pizza in a bohemian area. A wall-eyed cocker spaniel vibrated in the heat and watched me, unconcerned by my consumer politics re pizza. I wandered through a street fair and acquired a tote bag for free.

I walked down streets that felt puckered by the passage of time, the houses loosened in their settings like the teeth of an old person. A cramped graveyard stared up at the sun. I intentionally got lost on side streets on my way down to the baseball stadium.

The Philadelphia ballpark is new and bland. It sits on the south side, in a strange asphalt plain broken only by enormous sports arenas. The complex feels like a Mesoamerican necropolis, but the names of the gods have been replaced by banks and telecom firms.

I haggled with a scalper. I was close to buying a $60 ticket from him for $30, but he called me “big guy,” which always turns me sour and mean. I walked away from him even though it was a good deal. Instead I spent the same $30 on a seat in the upper deck. The Philadelphia team was very good in the recent past, but not anymore. Prices had yet to reflect the falling arrow of their fortune.

Grady Sizemore plays for Philadelphia. He was once a rising star for the team that I like. His legs turned out to be no good, although I’d probably trade mine for his, even with the maintenance history. Sizemore happens to be one year younger than I am, so I used him as a kind of sounding on the passage of time. If ballplayers are around my age, I can’t be too close to dead. This habit started with the information on the back of baseball cards. I looked at the dates of birth for Nolan Ryan (10 months older than my father) or Dennis Eckersley (closer to my mother). Very few ballplayers born in the 1940s lingered into the cards of my childhood, cards I don’t even remember acquiring (1986 Topps). Before long everyone was born in the 1960s; I remember being excited that Ken Griffey Jr was less than 12 years older than me. I stopped collecting baseball cards and didn’t really notice when the first players born in my decade showed up, but Grady Sizemore was shy of 22 years when he arrived in the majors on July 21, 2004. I was 23 years and a few weeks and somewhere in New York City on that day.

The act of measuring my temporal place in the universe by the relative age of ballplayers always seemed logical and correct to me. In hindsight it seems slightly weird. Like why would I not be able to take this same reckoning from any adult? In time I started doing it with anyone whose birthdate you might come across—the kind of people you look up on Wikipedia.

Sizemore was born at roughly the same time as me. That was a signal to me that I was in the flower of my early adulthood. I was as good as I was ever going to be. Now Grady Sizemore by general consensus is used up, as a ballplayer. He still has 50 good years of life on earth left by normal actuarial thinking. I should have about that many too, with preventive care and good luck.

Grady Sizemore is not old. But on a milewide jumbotron, he looks drawn, with a little iridescent gray stubble in his chops, I see these details maybe only because I see the same things in my own face. Felt like driving through a place I used to live, or walking past the pencil scratches on a doorframe recording the growth of little kids now out in the world with doorframes and pencils of their own.

Threats of rain evolved into an actual storm. The sky emptied itself. The 20,000 or so Saturday night fans were chased by loudspeaker scolding into the concourses, for fear of lightning. I tucked myself in between steel girders and ate two $1 hot dogs. The cavernous stadium concourse felt like an ark full of drunks. The grounds crew spread a tarp over the infield like they were putting some giant creature to bed.

The game was delayed for maybe an hour. I waited out the delay, just for the sense of outlasting something. It was a sloppy game between bad teams. and I got bored a few innings after the resumption of play. I squished out to my car through the mealy humid air and rummaged in my trunk for a Bruce Springsteen record. I took my shoes and socks off and drove barefoot over the Walt Whitman Bridge. My shoes were still off when my car filled with sea air on the road into Atlantic City.

ATLANTIC CITY

At midnight on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, there are just a few drunks hooting like songbirds. I paid too much for a grody hotel room and rode a sleepy elevator with tipsy middle aged women. They all spoke at once and leaned into each other as they disappeared into the third floor.

In the morning I walked the boardwalk again. The only aim I had was to dip my fingers into the Atlantic like holy water and then to see if I could find this one stretch of railing I remembered from a a shot in an episode of The Sopranos, not because that episode held special meaning, but because I wanted to compare two things. I found the railing (it turns out I had driven more or less exactly there from Philadelphia) and I left.

The rest of New Jersey was just roads and tolls.

NEW YORK

In Manhattan, some of the men held their dates by the arm like cops hold prisoners in transit. (to be continued)

APPENDIX A: Haircutting Establishments Witnessed

  • Hair We Are
  • Hair Update
  • Just Hair

APPENDIX B: Partial list of salient anxieties

  • Why did I buy a $20 cooler at Target just to keep these six oranges and unnumbered baby carrots cold
  • Did I pass the road I want (multiple)
  • Why is this city so rusty (Philadelphia)
  • What if New York shoots a prehensile vine out and keeps me here forever until i am a skeleton made of calcified, omnidirectional regrets

descriptions of skies, running catalog

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Under midwestern clouds like great gray brains
—Denis Johnson

Clouds like headless sheep
—Margaret Atwood

Then a blood red cloud line appeared along the horizon, and grey clouds resembling cement castles with turrets, rested upon it. Yellow clouds rolled above the castles, like immense butterflies unable to find a bush upon which to light.

In a short time all turned scarlet, then purple black, then mauve. At last dark shadows crept over the earth, and all colours merged into blue, through which the stars shone.
—Jim Tully

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
—T.S. Eliot

The sun has the attenuated autumn quality of seeming to be behind several panes of glass.
—David Foster Wallace (h/t to M.M.)

(…) pilot-light blue
—also DFW

The clouds that Monday morning were piled up like laundry.
—Raymond DeCapite

Almost indigo, shot with iridescence as if veins of a newly discovered precious mineral have been exposed
—Stuart Dybek

the sky looked like something flat and heavy shoved up against the kitchen window
—Denis Johnson

From where Irene sat, she could see the open sky above the East River. There were hundreds of clouds in the sky, as though the south wind had broken the winter into pieces and were blowing it north …
—John Cheever

The day had been bright but never warm with those flat-bottomed, fast-moving clouds that seem to make the land flatter and the wind colder.
—Michael Martone, “The Greek Letter in the Bed”

The sky looked temporary in its exaggerated blueness.
—Kellie Wells, “Star-dogged Moon”

#29

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Deserter 29’s cubicle was freezing. He could never get feeling to stay in his hands. That numbness was part of why he left. Also the hunger. The army had only allowed crackers and half-rotten bananas into the war for several weeks. 29’s banana that morning had been all rotten. He spurned his crackers in protest. He gave them to 30 and sucked bitterly on thoughts of desertion instead.

All morning, he starved and shivered. 29 deserved better than this. Even if he didn’t, he would rather steal better and see if he was caught. Just before the noontime banana and crackers break, 29 set down his gun and raised his hand. The lieutenant came by, and 29 asked if he could use the bathroom. The lieutenant gave him the key. 29’s teeth chattered angrily as he walked out of the war forever.

He did actually need to use the restroom. It would not do to begin a new life with a bladder so full. Fuck the lieutenant, 29 thought. That drip would have to put in a request to the army for a new key and oversized fob.

29 conducted his business and washed up. He turned for a paper towel. There were no paper towels. He found instead a new-fangled hand dryer. The bathroom had been updated since the last time 29 peed. The dryer stared at 29 from the wall, mounted above the empty wastebin. The brand name SCIMITAR was scrawled across the upper lip of the dryer’s mouth-like vent.

As he jabbed his hands toward the Scimitar, 29 stared at himself in the bathroom mirror. He watched his own face as the dryer roared to life. Pulses of air made the skin of his hands dance. The Scimitar bellowed pleasure in its work. 29’s frozen hands were returning to him. He smiled. He was having a handsome day.

29 stood before the Scimitar for hours. His hands went from cold to warm to uncomfortably hot. From wet to dry to desiccated. His skin began to harden and crack. The meat underneath began to roast. Feeling sharpened into pain, pain into desire.

Hands, particularly the hands of a petite man like 29, don’t hold much meat. What flesh there was was stringy and sour-tasting. There is some justice in my tasting this way, he thought while chewing.

The roar of the Scimitar deafened 29. When the guards found the deserter, his skeleton hands rattling in the synthetic wind, he couldn’t hear their commands to surrender. The guards took photos of his rare self-mutilation. Then they shot 29 and put him in the wastebasket, which was happy to have a job again.

Cake

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So at age 34 I decided I wanted to become a German chocolate cake. One specific German chocolate cake, sold at a vaguely upscale local chain grocery.

My human biological existence, I never questioned that. I loved my wife, my progeny, some of my acquaintances. I fed on their love.

I suspect in their own human cosmologies, they were world-spiders too. Love was flies. Prayers were prayed for the fly community to prosper, to produce a steady supply of sacrifices. That is a gruesome metaphor but life is a gruesome metaphor. I ate and was eaten, I was love. I was also flies.

There was one very hard moment. A close friend of mine—we were out for drinks—says to me, you shouldn’t be a cake. Make cakes instead, if you’re hung up on cake. Become anything but a cake. Become an animal or a ghost, become a box of crackers. Cakes? Cakes are the worst, he said. Think about how caught up in themselves cakes are, how insular and low-stakes the cakecommunity is. Who, he asked, wants to do their time in that shitty prison? Who wants to be a mound of ingredients and then sit there in a pan and become this inane treat, go through that sordid transformation from a tub of glop into this terrible uterine thing and then they paint you like a cheap rotten god? My friend actually says all of this to me in the middle of some random downtown bar. He says, Don’t get caught up in cake life. I nodded like I was hearing him, like his points were flies to sustain me, like he wasn’t eating my only serious dream.

their souls still shaped like their bodies

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Deserter 20 realized the four of them had stopped walking. The three goblins were staring at him.

“20,” said Red Dave in an apologetic tone. “We need to talk.”

“Yeah I’d actually been meaning to ask you guys when you thought we might get out of here anyway. Been a long day for me. Shot in the head and heart before noon, reborn in these woods. Haven’t eaten since breakfast. I haven’t seen you guys eat either. We should get something to eat!”

“That’s sort of what we wanted to talk about,” said Thomas.

“Oh OK, so this is like all of you want to talk to me. Not just Red Dave.”

“Yeah this is like a conversation between the goblin community and the human community as represented here.”

5k

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Confused cries rose out of the trapped civilians as they winced against wave after wave of swirling moneygarbage. They still clutched wildly through their tears at the passing greenbacks. I could see them all, cowering together in a lump, between the scissoring legs of the circling joggers. Their eyes were wild with a mix of fright and greed.

too many secret developments

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Deserter 36 transcended electricity. “I’m sick of all this lurid and tawdry convenience,” read a message written in charcoal on a strip of tree bark and posted to his publicist’s account on a popular social networking site.

An account registered to a man who appeared to be a main boss of the army commented on the post shortly after its initial appearance. “YOU HAVE TO USE IT,” he said in regular old typed letters.

The next day, a second photo of tree bark appeared.

“No, fuck you guys, being a dick in this way is permitted,” the faint charcoal lettering spelled.

the smaller god

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“Man do we wish we had a pizza.”

The chorus was singing again. Their intonation of the name of the small self-sacrificing god itself spread an awareness of mutual hollownesses in all those present–35, his betrothed, the chorus themselves.

“But we’re skint,” added the chorus of friends.

“Well, I ripped all my money to pieces on purpose,” 35 barked. “It was pissing me off. Fuck those pieces of paper and their attempt to be a decisive part of my life.”

“Fuckin’ A, yeah,” the chorus replied. A few confused looks were exchanged among the singers.

“Destroying it made me feel like a future king of war,” 35 barked. He barked everything he said.

“Fuckin’ A, definitely,” the chorus reiterated, with a hint of tranquilized formality. “But a pizza would be perfect right now. It would satisfy every bodily shortcoming we feel. Hunger. Sensory impoverishment. The understanding of ourselves as people who get to have pizza when the lust for the small god visits. Even our faith in folk notions of when the small god will come, what devotions spur him toward us.”

They all agreed on the desire, and that they lacked the cash required for fulfillment, save one dissenter. The betrothed possessed a line of credit with local merchants. An argument ensued. The disagreement quickly became about more than pizza.