The Old Man and The Bridge

The road is full, especially this morning as an old brown sedan crawls across it. It’s Wednesday, eight o’clock. But the old brown sedan doesn’t appear to have any particular place to be by any particular time. The motor sputters and backfires, while the shadow of the vehicle paints the cobbled road beneath it with a thick, lingering brush. As the clock ticks, the other drivers push wet bundles of frustrated energy from their windows, and the road leading up to the old narrow bridge is suddenly packed with cars; filling with blinking red lights. Blinking in the falling snow. The old brown car rolls on ahead of them all, a person’s head barely visible over the steering wheel. It’s wearing a corduroy hat. With ear flaps. Somehow, the car slows down even more.

Incredulous at the prospect of such a simple yet absurd problem, the others smash their horns in collective protest; they shout, as if to lift the sedan from their path.  Passing drivers flow in epileptic slow motion from a coagulated oncoming lane, consulting dashboard clocks and frozen speedometers. Before the snow gets worse just get me there, is their appeal to God.

A big bearded man in a big furry hat is twisting the wheel of his tow truck the way you would open a big jar of pickles. The bearded man peels off a glove and he points his fist out the window while he steers with the other, keeping pace with the old car. He wonders what the guy in the sedan would say if he knew what the bearded man had done to another guy with that same fist only yesterday. But then he looks across at the man and pulls his foot from the pedal, twisting the wheel again.

The horns become a rising chorus of disharmony, pulsing like off-kilter bells—each pushing, each struggling to stand apart from the desperate grating din of the other horns; panicking cars weave around and hurtle past as the clot of traffic tightens and constricts upon itself at the mouth of the bridge.

A truck door slams nearby. On foot now, the bearded man waves his hands over his head as he crosses the road. The noise increases now that the bridge is entirely blocked in that direction; the occupants of the cars in the oncoming lane grit their teeth and raise their eyebrows.

The old brown sedan rolls into a shallow pothole and stops; and with a soft thud that no one hears anyway, the old man’s head lands on the steering wheel. His sedan joins the chorus of honking horns; a feathery column of smoke rises from its tailpipe.

 

Book Review: I Could Pee on This, and Other Poems By Cats

Some will say that she is ignoring you for a reason. Some will tell you that there is so much more going on in her mind than simply being fed and having her water changed more often. The uncovering of several paintings by George W Bush has given the scientific community a great deal of hope for the creative capacities of those at the southern end of the food chain, which carries us upward to this. Collected for the first time in written history are the poetic thoughts of our finicky friends, as dictated to Francesco Marciuliano. Contributing writer to the Onion and the creator of Sally Forth, a widely syndicated comic strip. Marciuliano also writes for the PBS television series Seemore’s Playhouse.In this collection he assists his elegant companions through the editing process of masterpieces, like “Nudge,” “I like Your Nose,” “Self-Affirmation,” and “Some of My Best Friends Are Dogs.” Why, the feline sonnet could very easily have come straight from discarded portions of “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith:

I would lie by your side for the rest of our lives
I think I’ll walk away right now
I should let you pet me for a hundred years
I think we need some time apart
I should be kissed a thousand thousand times
I think I need to be somewhere else
I could sit on your lap forever
Don’t you even think of trying to get up
Well, you should have gone to the bathroom beforehand
Because forever is a very, very long time

And here, in a form reminiscent of “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell, comes the title piece:

Her new sweater doesn’t smell of me
I could pee on that
She’s gone and left her laptop open
I could pee on that
Her new boyfriend just pushed my head away
I could pee on him
She’s ignoring me ignoring her
I could pee everywhere
Now she has me in her lap
I could pee on this
I could pee on this

I Could Pee on This is filled to overflowing with the heretofore unwritten wants, needs and daily existential struggles of tomcats, tabbies, Angoras, grimalkins and even pusses of the Scottish Fold variety, caught in the act of clandestine creation.

In the photos included in this book, they gaze at their owners’ computers, one paw in front of the other tap-tapping the keys, deleting here, deleting there, pondering the next line, the next hairball or even the dirty look they just got from the dog. The subliminal consciousness of today’s feline is teeming with artistic workmanship of this caliber, and thanks to Chronicle Books some of the best can be yours.

“Sometimes ‘Meow’ just doesn’t get the point across”

 

(Previously published in Central Circuit magazine–Seattle, WA, 2012)

Bookshelves For Sale, Cheap

Our way of life has grown expensive—to the planet. And so, with an eye toward moving forward and wasting less paper in the process, Amazon did their part with the debut of the Kindle. The device of tomorrow, they envisioned a world without books. Wouldn’t that be so much better?

But with the maintenance of ecological balance in mind—the need for a living environment that is sustainable—comes the question: is a book made of paper more wasteful than a reading device made of plastic? A device that will never biodegrade? A device that will reside in a landfill forever as soon as the person who impulsively purchased it grows tired of its novelty and goes back to reading actual books?

A friend of mine bought a Nook. He was offended when I suggested that most people who buy e-reading devices don’t actually read. They’re simply gadgets, I told him. But I was wrong. This, he said, was the way of the future! I asked this same friend about the last book he read. He couldn’t tell me.

Trying out an e-reader myself, I was disappointed by how unwieldy, how awkward, how clunky it felt in my hands. It was nothing like a book (hardcover or paperback), which I could shove in my backpack, loan to a friend, toss, drop or use as a doorstop. I love the way each book has its own feel and smell. Books are personal, unique. But on a screen Crime and Punishment looks and feels just like everything else.

I’d sooner pull a *Raskolnikov on an e-reader than sit and try to mentally digest the thoughts of my favorite author.

Speaking of Dostoevsky, my paperback copy of The Brothers Karamazov went through the kind of hell only its author can sufficiently describe: subjected to a Seattle winter, a clumsy owner and the forces of gravity. But if you got your Nook wet it would blink twice, fizzle and die. Drop your Kindle on the kitchen floor? You’ll be on your knees scooping shards of plastic from under the refrigerator.

I asked that same friend what happened to his Nook. He lost the adaptor that recharges the battery—hasn’t touched it since.

*To learn more about pulling a Raskolnikov, read Crime and Punishment.

 

(Previously published in Central Circuit magazine–Seattle, WA, 2012)

Around The Garden Stone

He was reading from a collection of James Wright. She liked to listen. She explored the scenes he described. She constructed new ones for herself—falling backward, downward into them as wakefulness dissolved and sleep encompassed her—it felt like something was hidden deep inside of a place in her soul she never knew existed. And from that first time that she lowered her hands and allowed herself to drift into the scenes that he described, she recognized a part of herself that was changing, gradually. Urgently. How to get back to that place? Until he read the words she wondered if the words had ever existed, or had they waited for him to utter them and breathe life into their shapes: letters and then words and then ideas and images poking from the soil, unfolding and coming into flower.

“Saint Judas” was the girl’s favorite poem. By day she thought about the image in the poem of a man at the mercy of hoodlums. The person who came to rescue that man was and wasn’t the one reading the poem—was and was not the one who lay beside her.

She asked him to read it that night and the language took shape in her mind. Images fashioned by sound delivered her to the chambers of her sleeping self—and when she opened her eyes and looked over and saw the sunlight on his arm and his chest rising slowly, she knew that she loved him.

It was several months before the boy realized that his copy of Saint Judas was no longer on the shelf.

The Black Camel

The black camel that knelt at the sick man’s gate wore a sign around its neck:

I AM A SERVICE ANIMAL

I AM WORKING

PLEASE ASK BEFORE YOU PET ME

But children being children, they put their tiny hands all over its hump, prickly and fuzzy like a coconut. The black camel tried to seem indifferent. They stroked its ears; they laughed. The camel never looked at the children. His job was his job. And while he liked the attention, he knew he shouldn’t encourage it; he was working. He continued to kneel and wait. A boy about seven, showing off, tried to climb the black camel, and one of the sick man’s family opened the door and shooed them all away with a copy of the New York Times. She closed the door and the children were back to straddle the camel’s neck, press on its sides and ask it silly questions, play with its long eyelashes and answer themselves in deep camel voices while they rubbed its long black snout. The black camel tried not to groan, it all felt so nice. The kids were still playing when the sick man was brought out, pale and skinny and unshaven, an arm around the necks of each of his younger brothers’ necks. They waited with the children as the black camel stood and the sick man rode him out into the middle of 24th Avenue, turning right and slowly heading south, toward Market Street. The Number 40 bus eased up behind, but it didn’t honk. The light turned yellow.

Lethe’s Shore

To Lethe’s shore he came with raft in hand, and he stood upon the grey sand, watching the waters as they drug things past—things that rolled over and disappeared. Tumbling mementos. Things like the box of letters; things like the unfinished photo album: things that bobbed and others that sank. Things like the personal check for ten dollars, smuggled, without knowing, back to Seattle. “For Sex!” it said on the memo line—her name, civilized, in the upper left hand corner, and his name, a rowdy scrawl in block letters beneath. He found it in the pocket of a folded pair of blue jeans. The check was a single-minded tiny flying carpet, there on the river. It was from the week he spent with her—the trip down before he took the plunge. A week spent in bed. They went outside for fresh air—to a nightclub that let guests smoke on the patio. Her friends came by their table. But no one disturbed them at the apartment. Could Colin and Beth have heard them? The mutinous tremor of their own voices that rose from out of the quicksand of her bed: pleading with one another in the aching seconds before. Sleeping to wake and repeat. He remembered something from the photo album: it was a picture of Beth. She was wearing his red boxer shorts and his white undershirt. Short red-brown hair stuck to her forehead. He wasn’t supposed to show it to anyone. He never got the chance. The rectangular, unendorsed slip of paper slid over a rock and was gone. The photo album was already gone. Just then a tiny box floated by, rotating in the water. Then it sank, a few inches of ribbon sinking behind it.

187 Champions

Violence has the ability to reshape the way that you look at things—especially when it follows you from the place where you were born, appearing for a brief and horrible moment in your new city, before returning and reasserting itself in a macabre double-play, positioning your hometown before the cameras of every news outlet in existence.

I was at work in one of the offices at Seattle Pacific University, transcribing part of a chapter for one of the professors in my department. The phones were silent, the hallways were empty, and the sun had only just begun to poke its head up from the place where it goes to sleep. Then I blinked, and the infuriated ricocheting bark of our campus emergency alert system erupted from hitherto unnoticed speakers embedded in the walls. A man’s voice instructed me to remain where I was, shouting: “THIS IS NOT A DRILL—I REPEAT, THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

The computer I was using momentarily froze.

The university had just been locked down. I stood, clumsily, and hurried to close the blinds hanging from windows in room after room, finally reaching the faculty lounge. That was when I heard something land in the bottom of my stomach with a KLANG! as I tried not to imagine what it might feel like to get shot. Feelings of confusion and dread hit me there at the same time, where they seemed to be building a nest.

I returned to my desk to wait, unsure where this danger might be coming from or going to. I learned that the bank on my campus—and it’s a small campus—had been robbed. But not before I found myself weighing the consequences of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “SPD is on campus. Updates will follow as we learn more,” read my flashing computer screen. And on the way to my first class, a little later, I saw a group of grimacing police officers bump into one another in the entryway that connected the SPU bookstore and the US Bank.

A month after the incident, my brother Aaron texted me half a dozen times in as many seconds. I was back at SPU, twelve-hundred miles away, studying for finals. I thought of the bird I’d seen flying back and forth as it put twigs in a hole in the upper face of one of the campus buildings, the Otto Miller Hall. The hole that stared at you as you approached the building.

“Turn on the news,” Aaron said.

The latest mass shooting had just taken place in my hometown. San Bernardino is on my birth certificate: I grew up there, met my first girlfriend there, popped my first zit there, drove my first car, wrote my first short story and started my first garage band there. With its parched, khaki-colored landscape, shimmering under a graphite veil of polluted air, San Bernardino sticks out of the map like an old rusted nail. I have two decades worth of memories as a San Bernardinian. With its smog alerts and its Santa Ana winds, the fire evacuations, the racial tensions and race riots at my high school, along with the orchestra of gunfire that documented the evenings at my girlfriend’s house—all of it was par for the course in San Bernardino. Sixty miles southeast of Los Angeles, my hometown had its share of everything that would make you want to escape from it: drugs, petty crime, blight and a homicide rate that would spike when the city declared bankruptcy in 2012. But I was long gone by then.

“There is panic in San Bernardino,” said John Weeks in the Sun Telegram, the local newspaper, “the homicide rate is out of control. People are being shot dead while paying their respects at the memorial sites of other people who have been shot dead.” But that was before Bonnie and Clyde and their black SUV full of pipe bombs came roaring into town to celebrate Clyde’s Christmas party.

It’s safe to say I’m from a pretty messed up place. When I was a kid, my hometown had one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the country. And as reported in the Sun Telegram, a group of policemen drew national attention to the increasing death rate there, selling t-shirts that read “San Bernardino 187 Champions.” Writer Pamela Fitzsimmons described it: a pair of vultures were “waiting on the city’s welcome sign, mark[ing] off the body count.”

I spoke to a friend of one of the victims, who said the killers walked from place to place, pumping bullets into people. Her friend was in intensive care when we spoke.

My brother Aaron was close enough that they locked down his building and sent him home from work. My stepmother and my other brother were only three blocks away when the shooting took place.

Last year we had our own random shooting, here at Seattle Pacific University. A stranger walked into the Otto Miller Hall with the cognitively distorted fantasies of the kind of momentary fame that the Columbine and Virginia Tech killers were enjoying in their blackened afterlife. The stranger had stopped taking his medication and turned to alcohol instead, wanting to be able to appreciate to its fullest the electric hatred channeling through his body. Garbled voices of his heroes swam in his head. They offered advice. He took a tour of the campus with a couple of students and returned later, armed. Just inside of Otto Miller, the desperate man killed one student and wounded two others before he was tackled, while attempting to un-jam his shotgun.

I remember thinking of that, and of the dread that I felt when our campus was locked down during the bank robbery. It was a feeling I was unaccustomed to, even after growing up in a predictably unpredictable city like San Bernardino, where I stood a better-than-great chance of being on the receiving end of an act of violence the longer I stayed. I saw it in the faces of some when I went back there for the holidays. And I missed Seattle pretty quickly after I arrived. But I felt like this violence was following me, closing in wherever I go.

I put the phone in my pocket and headed to the Otto Miller Hall for my next class.