Short Stories and Creative Nonfiction Essays

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

     Many magazines and contests of late seem to cater to short attention spans and toilet reading; flash fiction or 'micro fiction' seems to be the order of the day. So I have been writing shorter pieces. Here are three of them; enjoy!


Based on true events. '80s nostalgia at its best: 



CRED

 

            It’s fucked up. The whole thing is fucked up. I’m sprawled across the jungle gym looking up at the night sky and Scott’s spinning the wheel of his skateboard over and over and Vince is staring blankly at the sand and the sky is definitely the wrong color. The streetlights from Magnolia Boulevard catch on the underside of shapeless, sagging clouds, half-assed and piss-stain yellow. It’s like the lights don’t know any better—oblivious to what’s beyond the clouds, they don’t even try to penetrate—just settle for the chaotic jumble of electrical towers and crisscrossing telephone wires that is suburbia. 

            It’s anyone’s guess how we ended up here other than it’s as good a place as any to skate: our elementary school playground—the same choppy sandbox where I ate it on the high bar years before and split my gums open on the sand. Back then, the upper schoolyard smelled of honeysuckle and you could pluck blossoms from the neighbor’s yard through rusty chain link and dribble the clear honey on your tongue. We’d roll that dingy record player to the classroom window and blare Popcorn or The Hustle onto the schoolyard during recess because our teachers decided learning to disco dance was imperative. A year later, we’d learn that Disco Sucks and go back to Zeppelin and Halen. But even that wouldn’t stick; we’d be the generation to trade in hard rock for hardcore punk the minute the ‘80s hit.

            We’re graduating junior high in a month, and those days are fog-shrouded, fragmented memories of another lifetime. Tonight, the air is still and the scent of honeysuckle stays trapped on the upper schoolyard along with clay ashtrays and the smell of new books and paste. Suckling honey is the furthest thing from our minds; our buddy’s been shot. Fatally. And not in a glamorous way…Jimmy woulda scored more cred had some FFF punk hoofed it to Burbank, called James a poser and put a slug in him. BPO’s no threat—just a bunch o’ suburban kids with nothing to do and plenty to prove, tagging their own hood and inflicting unintentional head stomps on their own in backyard swimming pool mosh pits. Naw, FFF don’t bother with teenage skinhead posers in ripped TSOL T-shirts, madras flannel and lime green creepers. Being a suburban skate punk is a fashion statement, not a political one.

            “What a stupid-ass way to go,” Vince says finally, grabbing the Djarum nonfilter from Scott and taking a long hit. His eyes well in the dim, pukey light. Poser or not, his feelings are real.

            “No shit,” Scott comes back. His knuckles scrub the sandpapery skull where the crewcut I bleached platinum in his driveway just a week ago has been shorn. “Makes no fucking sense.”

            “It’s like those fucktards that die on roller coasters,” I hear myself say. “Meeting your maker with cotton candy in your hand—ain’t no dignity in that.”

            Scott spins that lime green wheel for the hundredth time. “That’s why I don’t have no desire to go bungee jumping. Or skydiving. Plenty of ways to bite the dust; why tempt fate?”

            “Thrill-seeking is an addiction,” I say.

            “Well, James wasn’t seeking shit. That’s what makes it fucking tragic. Dude was just tryin’ to make a buck to bring home to his ma to help pay the rent. Didn’t ask for that train wreck of a woman, neither. Shitty hand all the way around.”

            “No shit,” Vince says, sputtering clove smoke with his distaste. “You know, Fuzzy stopped by to give her some records that belonged to James. Says she didn’t give a shit. Wasn’t sad or nothin.’”

            Something’s been lost in translation. It’s not possible, I think; even the shittiest mother ain’t thatcold. 

            “Maybe she’s in shock,” I offer. 

            “You think dying with cotton candy in your hand is fucked up?” Vince is full-on crying now, digging nails into his own close-cropped buzz. “Dying in a paper hat is worse…”

             I try not to, but still I picture it—James in that paper Taco Bell hat and brown polyester, adding oat filler to the ground beef when the glass doors fly open and the thug barges in waving a pistol. There’s fear in James’s eyes as he and the assistant manager—Wayne, I think—are forced into the walk-in freezer and tied up. Only once the registers are emptied are they shot, execution style.

            “There was $625 in the register.” Vinnie grinds the clove butt into coarse sand with his boot. “$625 for two lives…”

            Perp crossed over from North Hollywood, folks claimed the minute it made news. Taco Bell sits right on the border, where pavement goes from smooth black velvet to gritty and riddled with potholes. Beyond is where drug dealers lurk in darkened, stucco-slathered mid-century cubes, waiting to sell dime baggies to your kid or shoot you in the head. There’s no crime in Burbank, the story goes; thug must have crossed over.

            The clouds sag to shake off the piss-yellow light but they can’t any more than the three of us can shake off the nightmare of what’s happened and I sniff the air for honeysuckle. Not a trace. Vince tears at the spikey ridge of platinum that bisects his skull, torn up inside, eyes rimmed with angry red. I can’t help but smirk at the irony: after all the drama BPO manufactures, the real thing has come to roost. This is more than street cred; it’s life cred.

            “I loved that guy,” Vinnie sobs, anguished. “The world feels cheap without him.”

            I let his words wash over me, a pain that seeps. But it’s something more that hemorrhages, pooling like blood on flecked linoleum in our minds’ eye: innocence. Suddenly the jungle gym is a torture rack and I’m arched across it, flayed against a shallow sky that’s not heaven but something shrouded and suffocating. The torment Vince purges is real, however image-conscious posers can be, however angst-ridden the teen gameplay that prepares us for life. This can only be the first of many disappointments to come; how is it we feel so jaded at fourteen? How can the world feel so cheap?

            Suddenly, without warning, every light in the city goes out. Even the piss yellow clouds are consumed by pitch-black ness.

            No one speaks. 

*

 

            Somewhere in darkness, glass shatters. Me and Scott have dozed off but we hear shards of it glancing off concrete some distance from the sandbox. We jump to our feet; Vinnie’s MIA. Burbank is still blacked out but the cloud cover has thinned; a harvest moon scatters tangerine light.

            “Vinnie!” Scott calls across barren asphalt, hopscotches and dodgeball courts whose thick warbly lines read like alien crop circles in the dim ambience. There’s no answer.

            “Yo Vinnie!” Scott calls again. The only reply this time is the crunch of glass beneath a rubber sole, the horrendous creak of rusty metal being forced out of whack. We look up; the din wafts from atop the highest building on the lot—the auditorium.

            I turn to Scott in disbelief. “Fucker’s breaking in!”

            Scott looks pissed. “Don’t he know this place is rigged with alarms?” The question is rhetorical, the scene all too familiar. We both recall the time Vince lost it on the bus to snow camp, then holed himself up in that cabinet beneath the sink when it was time to leave and delayed our return by several hours. Not to mention the fight he picked with three punks at a park in an unfamiliar town on the way home to Burbank. Dude’s got a history of acting out; everyone knows Vince’s ma’s no better than Jimmy’s. Only her shitty resume boasts another distinction: vacant enabler to abusive husband. Vinnie' s stepfather got his hands on him pretty early on.

            By the time we manage to climb a rain gutter and cross the cement promontory, he’s pried the window full open. He’s at the bottom of a square pit sunken into the main roof, just before the pitched Spanish tile ceiling of the auditorium. A row of tall, louvered windows separate the pit from the vaulted auditorium—he’s smashed a sizeable hole in one of them, reached in and forced it open.

            “Don’t move, Vince,” Scott calls, anger now tinged with a worry that reverberates off cold stone.

            Vince looks up, washed in the orange light of the moon, and in a flash has slipped through the open window.

            “What the fuck?” The worry in Scott’s voice borders on panic; the spindly rectangular windows float ten yards minimum above the mahogany seats and slick linoleum of the auditorium. The adjacent pit is deep—no way to jump without breaking a leg so the two of us find a rain gutter and scuttle down as fast as possible but amid the palpable urgency it feels like treading through tar.

            We hit the ground and sprint to the open window. Just inside, Vince clings to one of the impossibly tall burgundy drapes that frames each portal, swinging high above the sea of mahogany seats. The lightless cavern threatens to swallow him, ingest his pain and his last sliver of faith and the desperate look in his eye that says he’s torn.

            “C’mon, buddy,” Scott croons, kneeling now in the scattering of broken glass. His hand is outstretched, reaching into darkness.

            “It’s fucked up!” Vince sobs. The angry red rims of his eyes expand like bloody reservoirs overflowing in a rainstorm. “The whole thing is fucked up!”

            I inch closer but don’t intervene; Scott, if anyone, can reach him.

            “It ain’t just Jimmy,” Vince moans, head shaking side to side involuntarily. “It’s the whole shitty thing.”

            “What thing?” Scott’s voice has softened, surrendered authority to channel the lifelong friend that’s been with Vince since before they traded clay pinch pots for clove cigarettes.

            “LIFE!” Vinnie’s rage detonates full force, quaking the auditorium and me.

            It’s then we notice what’s in his free hand. His leather boots are tangled up in folds of burgundy velvet, one hand clutching fringe. But the other swings free, clenching a shard of thick glass from the window. It’s hard to tell in the dim light, but I think I see blood welling where his fleshy palm enfolds the jagged triangle. Scott’s eyes dart quickly, nearly imperceptibly, in my direction. I wonder if it’s a signal to take some kind of action, whether Vince plans to slash a wrist or the drapes or if he wants to be helped like all those times at snow camp.

            “You’re not James,” Scott says gently, his words hanging on the air disembodied and ambiguous. “You can choose life.”

            Vince’s head jerks, more violently than before. “But what’s the fucking point? If it can be taken away in a split second with a single bullet?” His eyes lock with Scott’s, flashing moist with desperation and defiance all at once.

            Scott’s croon no longer emanates from childhood, but from a place of wisdom far in the future. “That’s the whole point,” he whispers, trembling fingertips at last reaching Vince’s in the hollow dark. “It’s precious.”

            Scott reminds him of all the plans the two have made—to skate the FDR skatepark in Philadelphia—best in the country—to see the Grand Canyon and one day the Serengeti, to get out of Burbank and make it big and eventually buy his ma a nice house and get her away from that bastard who was really what made life cheap.

            Vince loosens his grasp on the shard of glass and it clatters to the cold tile far below. I wrap my arms around Scott’s torso to lend leverage and brace him in hoisting our friend to safety. As Scott cements his hold on Vince’s strained forearms, I see it clear as day: whether Vince ever saves his ma or not—if we even can save another—whether Scott can be the one force that un-cheapens life for his childhood comrade, it’s in the trying that we save ourselves.

            Once Vince’s boots meet solid ground, Scott enfolds him in wiry fourteen-year-old arms and they stand that way for a long, long time.

            We return to the sandbox. Incredibly, the cops never arrive—must have bigger delinquent fish to fry in a blackout. Or maybe there was no alarm at all.

            

*

 

            I awake with a mouthful of sand, to the whir of a spinning skateboard wheel.

            “C’mon…get up!” Scott’s panicked. “My mom’s gonna kill me.”

            We’ve fallen asleep, the three of us, and woken to a chorus of birds and the first peachy light of dawn. The cloud cover has dissipated.

            “Go on,” I tell them. “I’m gonna hang for a few.”

            The two set off, boarding across buckled asphalt toward the open gate on Cordova.

            As I watch them shrink, I can’t help thinking Scott and I have it better than the poor kid. When it comes to home life, anyway. Maybe Vince is not the poser after all—maybe we are, and hope is a luxury.

            Before heading home, I wander to the upper playground. The rusty chain link fence is still there but the honeysuckle is not. A new homeowner has trimmed it down so vines no longer climb the fence, flaunting blossoms. I run my fingers along the lacerating rust barbs, skimming them as if their rough texture will be proof of life somehow. A lone blossom hangs from the shorn hedge, just before the end of the fence, where rich black pavement ends and sidewalk begins—the world beyond the schoolyard.

            I pluck the stamen from the one flower that remains and dribble the clear liquid across my tongue. In an instant I am transported, indescribably, to a place before the world was cheap.

            It tastes just the way I remember it.

            

            

           

This piece is one of few pieces I have written this year acknowledging Covid-19; it's based on an encounter I had with wildlife in my neighborhood:




 

The Run of Streets

 

 

            Other than the moon’s sterling light, darkness consumes any notion of what was, any vague recollection of a world before the plague, leaving a dimming composite of dreamlike vignettes unglued by time. Even the city lights are truncated, not daring to reach into the chilling void for fear of being culled themselves, decimated like so many thousands in the rapture that’s come to reckon. What’s left is surreal—a stark, deserted ghost town once known as the City of Angels. During the day, neighborhoods once considered ‘spotty at best’ have gone to pot, sprouted litterings of urban tags sprayed in clashing hues. Silver Lake’s abandoned reservoir has quickly grown over with muck, absent maintenance. Tonight, along with blackness, an eerie silence snakes between the rows of vintage streetlamps that sag in strings along with hilly pavement. The art nouveau lampposts are as outdated and anachronistic as dignity.

            Manuel Alvarez pulls Sheba closer on her leash as they bear west. Mid-pandemic, coyotes have the run of streets. Between the culling and the restrictions, signs of intelligent human life are non-existent on the street, after curfew anyway. It’s why he walks her at obscene hours, amid fog-shrouded orange orbs and eerie silence. No chance of running into a yuppie couple and their snot-nosed kid, or a hipster couple who think they own the sidewalk. Being immunocompromised, he’s always the one to cross the street. Out of courtesy and self-preservation both. Shit, it’s nothing new; even twenty years pre-pandemic he became aware that when it rains, he’s always the one to raise or lower his umbrella to accommodate passing strangers on a narrow sidewalk. Comes from being the youngest of four siblings in a Hispanic Catholic family, he suspects. 

            The downside to stolen late night walks is the coyotes. They appear from nowhere, bolder than ever, not slinking along the shadowy sidelines as they should, but front and center. Nothing more startling than encountering an entire pack, drenched in moonlight, trotting down the center of a deserted avenue and looking healthier than their former bedraggled, emaciated counterparts. For years, it’s been said that displaced wildlife is descending into man’s territory as he encroaches on theirs. As long as Manuel’s lived in the hilly part of town, he’s noted the ears, tails, and other assorted appendages missing from neighborhood pets. Even so, the coyotes have never looked quite so…well fed.

            He pulls the leash tighter. 

            Sheba is a mixed breed, like Manuel, her roots a mystery. She’s cute enough, for a rescue dog. When groomed, especially. But visiting the groomer is not an option right now. He fell in love with Sheba the moment he laid eyes on her at the shelter—soulful brown eyes receptive but not desperate, ears cocked askew, looking out of place among the purebreds who’d simply run away from good lives. She knew who she was. She knew her mixed heritage is what made her unique.

            The pandemic hit soon after he brought her home to his cottage-turned-artist’s studio. And in the year of solitude since, he’s never been so grateful for companionship.

            The two make their way southward on Kenilworth Avenue. The street is elevated, tracing the contour of the lake but one block up on the west side. There was a day the view of the lake below was magical when glimpsed between the dark silhouettes of houses and their manicured trees. The lights from the eclectic spangling of houses on the far side reflected on the water like streamers. Tonight the reservoir is a black void, reflecting nothing.

            Mid-block, Sheba’s fur stands. Manuel can feel it before the low growl rises in her gullet. It’s not coyotes that have her unnerved, but the chain that jangles with the sudden emergence of a neighbor on the slope above. And just as likely, the presence of another domesticated canine she can sense on instinct. Several yards above Kenilworth, a man gently closes the gate protecting his manicured lawn while keeping a loose grasp on the dog’s chain. It’s a purebred husky. An Isabella Siberian, the snow white breed with the ice blue eyes.       

            Manuel has nothing against purebreds; it’s the husky’s owner that makes his own fur stand, makes him want to turn on his heel and head in the opposite direction. It’s the developer who’s bought up half the neighborhood—vintage properties from the 1930s—and replaced them with pukey, piss yellow condos stacked one atop the other like charmless, stucco cubes of butter. Just this week, a dozen tenants were evicted from the vintage cottages on his block, displaced before the developer’s bulldozers arrive. At the worst possible moment, too, Covidally speaking. Meanwhile, the man’s own castle perches far from boxy stucco, blocks away where property values are higher and the need for multi-unit housing is nonexistent. Jeff Weber is the man’s name, and his LLC’s got a half-dozen pending lawsuits against it for rental law infractions. Not to mention those of the Historic Landmark Ordinance.

            Motherfucker, Manuel can’t help but think. The man is East Coast money all the way. The embodiment of gentrification and the enemy of his people—the true locals. Motherfucker’s the quintessence of entitlement, the poster boy for capitalist greed and exploitation and manifest destiny and a number of other fucked up societal ills that means his ilk should be the ones culled. But rather than being taken to heaven on chariots of fire in some biblical rapture, they should be taken straight to hell. It’s cleansing to imagine it, Manuel knows. He makes no attempt to swipe the thoughts away like a pesky swarm of gnats. His own peace of mind and security are at stake; just this week Jeff Weber’s goons came poking around his own unit looking for gullible tenants willing to fold for the right sum and vacate. Their thinly disguised cash-for-keys strategy is a way to avoid the hassle of abiding rental law. And to shell out less dough. There’s a reason the motherfucker drives a Mercedis and sports a Rolex at just-over-thirty.

            Manuel slows his step, taking up the leash’s slack and forcing Sheba to heel. If he plays it right, the motherfucker will go on his way ahead of them; not so much as an obligatory nod need be exchanged between the two. He reaches down to stroke his mutt, to sooth her and quiet the low growl. 

            The strategy works and the man continues on, oblivious to Manuel’s existence or even Sheba’s. Even the motherfucking dog’s senses are domesticated, Manuel thinks. Can’t even sense another fucking canine’s presence. His mind continues to reel, and not just about the developer—too young for his own fortune, probably raised with money but a crab in the boiling fucking water, oblivious to the privilege it brings. Manuel does not chastise himself for prickly thoughts; maybe he’s the crab in the boiling water, unable to recognize his own poisonous fantasies. In true form, they turn from yuppie entitlement and white privilege to the injustices of apartheid, the holocaust and slavery and the oppression of the LGBTQ community, his peeps—all the things that got society where it is: in need of reparation.

            Reparation. The word bounces from his skull to his tongue. It’s cathartic to say it.

            Manuel Alvares is not the type to project; everyone around him speculates about the great change on the horizon—the cultural paradigm shift bound to result from this apocalyptic impasse. He’s not holding his breath. For the blink of an eye when the pandemic first hit, traffic disappeared and air quality improved. Along with it came a decrease in property values, which many lamented. He welcomed it; it meant reduce rents. And the moratorium on evictions was a needed slap on the wrist to landlords. But it was not long before the enforced humanity blew over. Pandemic fatigue, as the media called it, the complacency that ushered in a second wave, a spike, meant that after a momentary lull, along with traffic and smog, the customary greed and entitlement slinked back from shadow. 

            Most frustrating of all, he’s slipped through the cracks himself. An eighteen-day hospital stay, pre-pandemic, the litany of opportunistic infections that read like War and Peace, and being discharged with a brand new AIDs diagnosis has changed life as he knew it. At the very moment when he should be digging in heels, advocating for his own survival and upping his game daily and his immune system along with it, the world goes to hell with a single microorganism. One that would pass if folks could just manage to do what he’s been doing for years: forego entitlement and isolate. It’s really not that hard considering others. In the triage mentality, he’s been utterly unable to get the care he needs to heal. Just one more card in the deck he’s been dealt. One more form of marginalization. If society had it their way, he’d be culled, too.

            The husky is barking. It’s percussive, jarring.

            A dozen yards ahead, toward the end of the block, man and dog have stopped in the middle of the street.

            Manuel can vaguely perceive it in the thick fog: a pack of coyotes has appeared from the side street, loping up from the lake below. The dozen or so of them continue on at a steady pace, cutting across the corner of a lamplit yard onto Kenilworth. The husky’s incessant barking does nothing to deter them.

            Manuel quickly turns back. He’ll take Sheba down the side street one block over and avoid whatever’s going to go down. They’ll cut down to West Silver Lake Drive and continue on around the lake’s periphery. But as they near the corner, Manuel sees that charging up the hill are another pack—or half of the first pack who’ve split away. This group equal the first in number; Manuel’s heart begins to pound.

            “HEY!” he shouts, full volume, stomping the gritty pavement. He keeps hold of Sheba’s leash, waving his arms madly to make himself as big as possible. His reaction is half instinct, half derived from tips he’s learned on network news. But such measures are meant for bobcats or bears, not coyotes who are supposed to be retiring and sheepish, who know they don’t belong in the first place.

            The pack keep charging uphill, unimpressed. They continue to advance, closing the asphalt gap. The husky is barking wildly at the other end of the block, flinging percussive anxiety to bounce cold off Tudor facades and Spanish tile. They’re yards away now. Manuel hardly has time to process the pack’s entitlement, to connect their feral resolve with an instinct to reunite the pack. He only knows in his gut that nothing is what it should be, that up is down and down is up and the animal kingdom has gone awry. A few years ago, birds stopped scattering as they should, magically getting out of the way when cars came at them, instead exhibiting some drug-induced inclination to be sluggish about it, as if ending up plastered on the grill of a Mercedis were some kind of glorious sacrifice. For that matter, it’s been a steady escalation of Twilight Zone-worthy events to make the world unrecognizable—from the dignity-stealing masks folks are forced to wear, to the election of a demagogue and the drinking of the Kool-Aid that makes strangers of loved ones. No way around it: there is a new order. Friends he once thought he knew are Trumpers, for God’s sake—the final nail in the coffin—cheering for a wall that would keep his people out. Cheering for reversal of the marriage equality briefly gifted his peeps as if it’s been nothing more than a cruel joke. And now it’s the coyotes.

            They’ve begun yipping, howling brazenly and cackling. Manuel grabs Sheba and clutches her in his arms. As much as he hates to turn his back on the coyotes, he has no choice but to retreat in the direction from which he came. But the first band are advancing from the other end of the street, cornering them mid-block. Along with the motherfucking developer, who’s backed away from the far corner with his snow white husky. For the first time, he locks eyes with Manuel, and there’s fear in them. The ice blue eyes of his Siberian flash in the dim light, obscured by fog. Both stealthy packs encroach from opposite ends of the street, blocking any escape. Manuel can feel Sheba’s heart pounding in sync with his own.

            As the two bands close in on their prey from opposite sides, their wailing unites, forming a demonic cacophony that rings out on the night. The husky barks incessantly but the sound of it is quickly masticated by the chorus of yelps and haunting wails. Still, no floodlights pop on, no headlights pan and no horns honk to stop the horror of it…the sudden lunging and snapping of jaws and the flying of fur—the slinging of crimson on ivory white there in the pale, iridescent light of an abalone moon.

            Manuel grabs the nearest thing he can find—a two-by-four protruding from a trash barrel—and swings madly. He keeps hold of Sheba but brings the board down first on corrugated pavement—it skids across impotently—then on matted fur and hindquarters, then straight across the backs of the grappling canines. When at last they scatter, the damage is done. 

            The white fur is parted, gashed, spangled with clotting blood. There is no twitching, no heaving, no real ending.

            For a moment, Manuel fantasizes it’s not the Siberian bathed in iridescent moonlight and slathered in crimson, but Jeff. He’s lying there in a pool of his own blood as he confesses he’s known all along what he was getting away with…

            “We all have a moral compass,” he purges, choking on his own blood. “I thought there’d be time to fix it. To atone. And now it’s too late…”

*

            The wail of coyotes is distant now, as foggy as vague recollections of a world before the apocalypse. Manuel’s halfway home, Sheba still in his arms. They were right, he thinks. There is a shift on the horizon. But it’s not what they think. The fact that up is down and down is up is part of the disillusioning heist that robs us of all we know. It’s only when we’ve nothing to lose, once we’ve been stripped of everything familiar, that we can start again. We must die to ourselves to be reborn.

            The image persists, hauntingly. Only instead of choking on his own blood, there is humanity in Jeff Weber’s eyes. He’s looking down at the blood-smattered carnage of his beloved—however privileged—husky. And then he’s holding her, in tears, cell phone tossed to the curb while waiting for animal control to arrive. Only it’s not a fantasy—it’s a memory.

            The word comes back to Manuel, as vivid and stark as blood on immaculate fur. If the world needs to make reparations for its greed, he needs to atone. For his prickly thoughts, his harsh judgments on humanity that are a glacier slow to melt. He needs to curb them, if for no other reason than the reality they manifest. He cannot unsee the night’s horror.  

            He knows the coyotes were acting on instinct. If anything, those two had it coming. That dog lost its instincts—too many baths, too much grooming. Too much…privilege. But even his own mutt is more privileged than those mangy, displaced, undomesticated coyotes. They’re the ones living off the grid, in need of reparation. 

            If we could only recognize our own privilege, he thinks, and be grateful for it. Manuel Alvarez knows there are worlds bigger and smaller than his own. That the inhabitants of all of them kick the dog, exploit what they can. At the age of seven, he saw a segment on TV about single-celled organisms that feed on one another, the micro-organisms intent on invading our bodies at any given moment, by the thousands. They live symbiotically as parasites—and a shower only multiplies their numbers. Manuel’s never wished to see the universe in terms of survival of the fittest, but it’s hard not to.       

            His mind grapples with how it’s all played out. The coyotes only took over the streets when the City of Angels retreated—capitalized on opportunity. It’s the damn pandemic. There’s been talk in the media of herd immunity. The idea that rather than flattening the curve to protect an inept healthcare system and free up hospital beds, this thing would have long since blown over if the masses went on with life…allowed the critical mass to be infected and develop antibodies. That by isolating and protecting we’re simply worsening the problem. He knows it’s just a metaphor. And he’ll never belong to the status quo by throwing in the towel on his integrity. He may be rough around the edges—a harsh judge of humanity—but if any crown that awaits him in heaven it will be for principle

            Back home, he pulls the blinds in the small cottage-turned-artist’s studio he’ll call home as long as he can. He’s grateful for it, fleeting or not. He collapses on a sagging mattress, pats his chest, and in a split second Sheba has leapt from the floor and curled up against his beating heart. The wail of coyotes is but a distant hum. He can do this for as long as need be, he thinks. Still, he considers the irony of it: foregoing touch, love, oxytocin, company—is the best demonstration of recognizing our interconnectedness. In the new order, anyway.

 

 

 



And finally, this piece was inspired by cobbled together news stories, an actual memoir I've read, and a fantastic thought I had while crossing Franklin Bridge in my neighborhood of Los Feliz, LA, something I do often...






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            The gulch is all we know. We imagine other such worlds—hidden places among the ferns, cradled in shadow between majestic, corrugated trunks that mingle with clotted soil, firmly entrenched and reaching for the sun. But today is cloudy and there is no sun…only a colorless sheath of tea-soaked cotton. 

            If not a weighty sky to shackle us, it’s the tangle of inextricable branches, the canopy of lies. Always something to block our escape…from the narrow granite chasm that’s all we know, the dream-spell illusion that is a matrix or a prison or some other pinion-shrouded cloak of deception. They’ve fed us lies, we know. About the world and its evils—about technology and something called the deep state guvurnment—a force to whom they’ve vowed to remain invisible…reducing themselves to cockroaches that scatter for cover when the tea-stained clouds part and light pours in. We’ve been indoctrinated with it from day one, since being birthed, each one of us, by a midwife: the virtues of living ‘off the grid.’ With adolescence came the unpracticed questioning, the suspicion, the envisioning of more and the want of it. There is more out there, Sophia and I now know, beyond the cloistered, fern-choked gulch.

            The day we purged our secret imaginings, confessed our desires, we bonded. More than any brother and sister should, we’d later learn. But the reliance is all we knew—that touch that is the only grounding thing in darkness. One day, a mudslide shattered our windows and belched its stink into our den. And with it, a single book. Smudged, nearly illegible, pages puckered and warped and cover contorted. We hid it for weeks, reading from it nightly by kerosene lamp. We learned of a faraway land called Iceland. There, a rite of passage in most children’s lives is the moment one bonds with another by admitting a belief in faeries. Our contract was like that; the day we confided our suspicions a decision was made, an unspoken escape plan put in motion.

            They’re fast asleep when we pry open the upstairs window. They do not keep us chained; the fear of the world is meant to be enough to keep us here in the gulch, our pattern of compliance so convincing they’ve become complacent. Still, we force the thing open as quietly as possible on rusty, gently moaning hinges. The nearest branch is several yards away, but it’s strong enough to withstand the force of the hook we’ve fashioned, and our weight as we swing one at a time from the windowsill to cling covertly to chafing bark. The sturdy trunk is a trellis for writhing, helplessly tangled shoots of ivy that climb into the stratosphere, and us along with it, the two of us scuttling like cockroaches only into the light and not away from it. It’s nearing dusk; a tentative twinkling of anxious purple twilight filters from above. 

            At a certain elevation, a swath of Amber light bathes the magnificent ivy-spangled trunk, raking in perfect molten orbs from the sinking sun. We bask in it, forsaking urgency. We’re nearly within reach of our destination; something we’re scarcely sure exists. We both claim to have seen it on clear days when the drapes are pulled, but its image is shrouded in childhood fancy—confounding dreams with concrete memories. 

            I feel it first, fingers grasping beyond the sticky tufts of needles—a sun-warmed slab gritty to the touch. Square but rough-hewn, sturdy and affirming; it’s real. I hoist myself upon the concrete precipice then reach down for Sophia. When we’ve both risen from our haunches to stand tall upon the arched bridge, we sigh in unison.

            Rimmed with ornate lanterns, the bridge spans a gulch that is only one of many. They meander between great swells dotted with trees and scored by paved roads lined with tracts of houses. Countless automobiles scurry along these tributaries, racing to beat the sinking sun. An outcropping of buildings rises far out on the plane, a pyramid of skyscrapers. Planes soar high above, bisecting the sky and the zigzagging cirrus clouds that converge on the horizon, at last diffusing into eternity. The world is more expansive than we could have imagined.

            A small plaque is embedded in the gritty, pebble strewn railing of the ornate bridge. 

            Franklin Bridge, Los Angeles, it reads. 

            “Los Angeles,” Sophia mouths, tentatively auditioning the words on her tongue. 

            The feel of them is unfamiliar, but novel. Her gaze is on the horizon, eyes imprinted with the crisscrossing cirrus tufts and the adventure they promise.

            “What shall we explore first?” I ask her.

            She hesitates.

            “Wherever we go,” she begins, the adventure in her eyes dimming, yielding to earnestness, “we must promise each other one thing.”

            “What is it?” I ask, my own sense of adventure chomping at the bit.

            “That we will come back for them.”

            My gaze shifts, gravity getting hold of it, to the shadowy cleft below and the cottage that’s out of view but we know to be huddled between sheer granite glaciers, shrouded in foliage. Inside, our eight siblings remain prisoner.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

 


The Value of Past and Future

 

            At the age of twenty, for my first Creative Writing class in junior college, I wrote a short story titled La Gare, about a train station. In it, two strangers, each waiting for a respective train, hold a conversation. It turns out the woman, the man’s senior, is traveling to a high school reunion in hopes of recapturing something from youth that has gone missing. The younger man’s destination is a new town where a romantic opportunity and a promising livelihood await. On arriving, he’s sure, life will be fulfilling. It’s a parable, of course—both characters miss the charm of the train station itself, and a surreal twist that leaves the reader to wonder if it exists at all. It’s a parable, of course.

            I’ve always been fascinated by time. I’ve been baffled by the illusion of ‘linear time’ that is said to but a construct of man, haunted by the ineffable concept of eternity, and inspired by the people, places and things that seem to defy time altogether. The stories that have resonated with me throughout life are those, like ‘Great Expectations,’ ‘Wuthering Heights ‘and ‘The Scarlett Letter’ that speak of the interconnectedness of every moment—a seed planted here or there that comes to fruition decades or even centuries later.

            I suspect the fascination is somewhat universal; like most things, it allures or repels. Those inspired by time cultivate a fixation with it and those who fear it dismiss it altogether, relegating past and future to the dusty, cobweb-laden corner of their minds in which so many inconvenient things reside—the annals of existential terror. My hunch that I am not alone in my fascination with time is confirmed by language itself—it is fraught with idioms, colloquialisms and figurative expressions on the matter: we love time when it heals all wounds, and we lament it when it marches on. We embrace the notion when it is on our side, and resent it when we run out of, are in a race against it, or have none to lose. Some sayings are contradictory: There’s no time like the present, and yet hindsight is 20/20! We waste time and never have enough of it, and yet time abounds when there is plenty of time for something. At its worst, time destroys all and all good things come to an end in time. You get the idea.

            In the late -90s, popular culture embraced—even touted—the value of being ‘in the moment.’ Entire books like Eckhart Tolle ‘s ‘The Power of Now’ entreated us to stop ruminating on the past or worrying about the future as this moment is all that truly exists. All else is an illusion; a cobbling together of neural circuits relegated to former sensory impressions. Worry about the future is no different; low-level anxiety is known to be more destructive to our health than acute stress. In that way, another popular sentiment seems prudent: change what you can and accept what you can’t. Surrender. Or conversely, take the bull by the horns and profit from every moment. Every moment is a universe unto itself that can be transformed.

            I subscribe one hundred percent to the above. I am acutely aware that many find themselves trapped in past narratives, beating old drums that do little more than justify the less-than-desirable circumstances and conditions known as their present. I see families that insist on holding members to old ‘roles,’ limiting their freedom to grow and transform; the challenge is universal. As an artist, I have had the good fortune of indulging a lifetime of meditation while plein aire painting or even singing. When engaged in the creative process, the mental chatter subsides, yielding to gamma waves; the equivalent of meditation or chanting. I also keep a regular regime of the aforementioned, but when I can’t, I remind myself that performing Ave Maria at the steering wheel of my car serves the same purpose: that of stripping away mind and ego. And not just for the embarrassment that arises when caught belting it out at a stoplight. Every painter knows that appreciating a dapple of light, or the play of light on a leaf as it refracts its hues into the particles of the atmosphere is a form of love. Appreciation—gratitude—is the ultimate in platonic love. In short, I am a big fan of the moment.

            And yet, another quality I would count among those that make me an artist is my nostalgic streak. My love and appreciation for history—for style and its evolution, for the dialectic of our human evolution. My fond memories, and even those with darker edges, are one hundred percent what I draw on in my writing. The reservoir of archetypes that live in me, infused with the authentic charge of a lived experience, is where the universality lies. I would not trade this love of the past for the world. The bonds I share with family and loved ones was forged (yes, chemically) by shared experiences and time spent together, whether tangible or not! Love requires a past. Indeed, so does the future. The word quierer, in Spanish, is used for to love. But literally, it means to want. In my experience, desire, another word for love, is the wanting of more. It’s a projection of hope and aspiration on an imagined future. All creation comes from envisioning what is not yet manifest but will be in the imaginary future.

            And so, I am torn. I strive to remain unhindered by the past, unshackled by narratives, mantras and counterproductive thought forms; after all, beliefs about the world are really just familiar neural circuits—the thoughts we keep thinking. At the same time, I value my memories and the collective annals of human history on the macro level. Memories of the past keep us warm on cold nights, and visions of the future inspire us to rise another day. To add to the value of past and future, consider the familiar conventional wisdom: we must remember history lest it repeat itself.  Communities and ethnic groups who have been marginalized, ostracized or even subjected to genocide very much honor this sentiment.

            I do not have all the answers, nor do I wish to impose my own values on others—simply to engage in the conversation and contribute to transformation. I would offer that, as always, balance is where it’s at! I have read and live by Tolle’s The Power of Now—have made a concerted effort to resist defining myself by the past in perpetuating it—to resist ruminating, perseverating or reciting the obsolete mantras that are a laundry list of excuses for so many. Simply put, my violins are firmly under lock and key. Similarly, I look for satisfaction and fulfillment now, rather than always attaching it to some future accomplishment or milestone. I strive to smell the flowers along the way, unlike those characters in the train station unaware of their surroundings. Even so, I cannot help but notice that those who take the dismissal of the past to the extreme—who seemingly haven’t a sentimental or nostalgic bone in their bodies, seem to be missing out. In fact, their memories appear to be stilted, repressed, unavailable. Victims of abuse, trauma, or even the horrors of war cannot be judged for keeping painful memories at bay. But within reason, I find the popular speaking out against the value of the past of late a form of overcompensation. A form of confirmation bias that justifies one’s own inclinations and asserts or imposes on others. To counter such, I am gently offering that there is value to past and future, as long as one observes balance. As in all things. I am constantly inspired by luminaries like Jane Fonda, Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem, who insist on remaining relevant. Rather than taking us dinosaurs out to pasture or to the glue factory, society might benefit from the wisdom that comes with age. These legacies, war stories, fond remembrances and tributes are the means by which we continue to transform and evolve! The theory of Relativity suggests that time is but a construct of man, that it is relative, and though it’s hard to wrap one’s brain around, that all times exist simultaneously in the space time continuum. It is my contention that many of our prophets—visionary Creatives—recognize this fact and often predict phenomena science or quantum mechanics has yet to explain. 

            As Mentalism, the Law of Attraction, Manifestation and other concepts often lumped into the New Age category of the bookstore capture popular imagination, the idea of heightened awareness, or consciousness, is more and more a cultural value. Many strive to navigate life ‘fully conscious’ or aligned. Far from the concept of enlightenment, stripping away mind and ego to one’s core consciousness is said to yield platonic qualities like love, compassion, joy, equanimity, creativity, and higher vision. I would add gratitude, compassion, empathy and pure appreciation to that list. In that spirit, the state of pure appreciation and gratitude that comes with stillness—with a heightened awareness of the most subtle stirring of a leaf or a dapple of light, is synonymous with being ‘in the moment.’ But perhaps it’s also being conscious—or aware—of all moments. J

 



           The Moment as Alignment


     During this seemingly unprecedented moment of isolation, our interconnectedness as humans, ironically, could not be more apparent. There has been much talk of the fear often at the core of our divisiveness. My own attention has turned to healing that divisiveness, dissolving those illusions that we are separate, isolate beings. In practice, many have had the experience of stumbling into states of higher consciousness, those characterized by platonic values like compassion, gratitude, unconditional love or agape, personal liberty and pure appreciation. It is in this pure state of awareness that we are most attuned to our kinship with all of creation as the physical manifestations of a single life force. When admiring, adoring or appreciating a perfect rose, an infant, or even a puppy, we discover the place where inner peace, stillness and well-being reside, beyond the constant mental chatter that normally dominates. Very few, however, have a conceptual understanding of how and when this state occurs. Ironically, the state is one completely independent of the conceptual mind. For this reason, I have always found books on how to align spiritually or reach a state of higher consciousness a contradiction in terms. But there is no way around it. The ideal would seem to be digesting concepts presented in a book, finding their resonance within based on past experience and imagination, and applying those principles moving forward.

            

            Many schools of thought distinguish between mind and ego, and one’s core essence or baseline state of awareness. There are many ways of putting it, but the consensus is that this state is synonymous with life. The conceptual function of our brains arguably evolved over time and became synonymous with language. And yet, as humans, we have come to identify 100% with that voice in our head that never pipes down. Plato called the realm of concepts, nearly always tied to a word equivalent, the realm of ideal forms. As a less than perfect example, the definitive statement, ‘this is an apple’ can be disproven if enough questions are asked. The truth is, what we call an apple is simply a collection of particles that is in process, subject to flux: that is, time, circumstance, and perspective. That collection of particles was once a seed, now appears to be what we call an apple, and will one day be in complete decay, its particles dispersing and returning to the collective. Deepak Choprah speaks of the body not as a ‘thing’ but a ‘process;’ the body one lives in today is not the body one lived in as an infant, or a toddler, or even yesterday. To compound the fallibility of labeling matter via language, both the apple and the human body we call ‘me’ or ‘I’ is 99.9999999 percent comprised of energy. In that way, ‘Apple’ (with a capital ‘A,’) is but a concept. There is plenty in existence that we simply can’t find the words for; we call that which defies language and cannot be approximated in words ineffable. The real problem is, those words that symbolize concepts are subject to context and laden with cultural relativity, connotation, and other baggage like intonation, intent and nonverbal communication.

            Mentalist schools of thought like the Law of Attraction and manifestation speak of the mechanics by which we create our own realities. To have a hand in it, we are encouraged to maintain an awareness of our narratives, world views and beliefs—which in the end, are just thought we keep thinking. Familiar neural circuits. Went on auto pilot, most of us are so seamlessly identified with the thoughts in our heads that we simply take them for granted. And yet we are still manifesting, all day every day—creating by default. Conversely, there are said to be moments of alignment during which one is stripped of mind and ego. In these moments, the mental chatter is quieted and we have access to pure state of consciousness. This heightened state of awareness severs identification with our conceptual minds. That is, we experience the true nature of things rather than the label or concept that language has attached to it. In this way, we disidentify with mind and ego.

            So, what is left? According to many, a pure state of being. The baseline essence of consciousness, unfettered by mind and ego.  In addition to yielding the higher platonic values mentioned earlier, I would venture to say that wellbeing and inner peace characterize this state of gamma waves, absent interference. During meditation, or when deeply engaged in the creative process, we tap into a field of pure potential that explains the metahuman feats of athletes at peak performance and the masterpieces of artists and musicians who seem to have a direct line to the transcendent. This is no small thing, as the field of pure potential is where all transformation begins—on the individual level and the societal. The wellbeing and health—physical, mental and spiritual—of an individual, is innate in this state. The forces that erode it, like low-level anxiety and chronic stress, are born in the conceptual realm; if one worries about the future, he or she may experience the physiological panic of a fight-or-flight response to something that merely exists as an idea in the mind.

            The benefits of reaching this state of detachment from what I’m calling the ‘conceptual’ realm—whether through meditation, prayer, chanting, creative endeavor or simple stillness—go far beyond the prospect of simply manifesting one’s desires. I would venture to say that doing so is integral to our evolution on a macrocosmic level, especially that of our ethics and morals. It should be clear that transcending the limiting thought forms of our social conditioning is what allows us to send rockets into space—we must envision what lies beyond current paradigms. And all inspiration, all imagination, lies in this field of pure potential. But the most prescient fringe benefit in my view, especially at this moment of acute upheaval and social strife, is the altruistic instinct that may just be our salvation. Only by recognizing our shared humanity—the consciousness we all share, can we choose compassion over judgment, grace and mercy over vengeance.  When we quiet our minds, we experience the true essence of things. Once one we dissolve the illusion that dominates much of daily functioning, can we appreciate a tree as just another physical manifestation of the consciousness shared by all of creation. We can see the shared humanity in the eyes of our fellow man. We can access the true power of love in the appreciation of a gentle breeze, a fluttering leaf, or the dapple of light dancing thereupon!

 

Friday, September 18, 2020


So honored that a story so close to my heart has placed in the annual 
Writing competition 2020! 




CIRQUE

The orphanage was a dusty place, and dimly lit. No matter the time of day or year, beams of speckled sunlight dared enter only at oblique angles, illuminating narrow slivers of buckled, faded wooden floors. Arranged haphazardly to conceal particularly unsightly water stains were great Persian rugs with fantastic designs, also choked with dust. As if to compete, the musty aroma of mildew hung in the air, a permanent resident of Wonderlodge Home for Children. The must and soot were perfectly warranted; the orphanage was actually a Victorian cottage predating the village of Slumber Cove itself. 

            The building’s classification as a cottage was somewhat misleading; in truth, it stood austere and grand, tiny shuttered windows dwarfed by a colossal Moorish spire like the Taj Majal’s. Some of the other boys and girls found the place oppressive—scary even. Especially in the rain. I, on the other hand, saw (and smelled and heard and otherwise sensed) nothing but magic. 

            Its nooks and crannies begged to be explored—laundry chutes and dumbwaiters leading to unknown places, pointy gables that had been converted into box rooms and attic space and then completely forgotten. My exhaustive exploration of the grounds, of course, was done in secret. During playtime, I’d steal away from the others and slip into some dark corner or other. Though it took an entire childhood to fully discover the place, the slow revelation—the magic of it—made all the lonely waiting worthwhile.

            There came a time when I did not have to seek out magic; it came to me. At the age of seven, I was abducted by a small band of clowns.

            But only for a week.

            They were your standard issue circus clowns—joyfully sad, provocative, creepy but not sinister or stabby, jubilant and vaguely inappropriate.  They exhibited all the qualities one would want from a circus clown. Only they did not take me to the big top or a carnival. Instead they took me to strange, exotic places far away from buttered popcorn, cotton candy and screaming children. They took me to places with strange names (that could not be found on any map) and places with no name at all (which I did not bother looking for on a map.) Far away places where birds swam and fish flew, where lakes reflected in skies and not the other way around. I saw upside-down sunsets that tickled the stars. Looking at them, I felt jubilantly sublime and sublimely jubilant. I felt ecstatic melancholy and somber whimsy and a number of other things difficult to describe.

            Later in life I would recall them only vaguely, as if from a dream, and yet never fully forget them, as if from a nightmare. Wherever they came from or continued to dwell, the poetic things I saw and felt hinted at what lay ahead—all the horror and beauty life promised. 

            My final night with the clowns (though I did not know it would be at the time) I saw the birth of a star. The clowns never spoke a word the entire week, but somehow they told me the star was mine. That it was more than a ball of gas; it was a whole world awakening. My world.

            I was returned home after a week, in one piece.

            The staff asked over and over again where I’d been off to. But I’d never spoken a word since arriving at the orphanage shortly after birth, so my silence was received as customary.

            A week later I was adopted out to a middle-aged couple with frosty silver hair.

            They quickly became Mum and Pop, the first I’d ever known. They came with a brother and sister—a built-in family. 

            I began speaking, and stopped seeing fish that flew or birds that swam. The clowns only visited in my dreams.

            Until they didn’t anymore.

            Eventually, even my dreams were clownless.

            I studied business and became an entrepreneur. I married and bought a home in the suburbs with a white fence and an orange tree in the yard.

            My wife Zoe became pregnant a year into our marriage.

            The night Zoe was due to give birth (or so we thought) her labor turned out to be a false one. The hospital staff sent me home but kept her for observation should there be an encore performance. 

            The moon was hanging full and low when I passed Slumber Cove’s only orphanage. Silvery light frosted the treetops and the peaked roofs. The great Moorish spire of Wonderlodge Home for children thrust higher than all the rest, silhouetting itself against the enormous cratered disc.

            For some reason, I pulled over.

            Twenty minutes later, I found myself still parked, gazing at the iconic image like a postcard sent to me from childhood. I’d driven by the landmark countless times, but rarely if ever thought of my childhood there—the long lonely waiting or the magic that made it all bearable. 

            But tonight, the half of my brain that was not anxiously fretting about impending fatherhood, the responsibility that came with it, the part of me that was considering running away, dwelt in that nostalgic place known as childhood.  Just beyond the iridescent halo of the harvest moon, a tiny star was burning brighter than the others. Signaling to me.  I recognized it as my star—the one bestowed on me by clowns. The one whose birth marked the unfurling of a world. 

            It suddenly came to me: when the clowns had appeared to abduct me, they’d not shown up on foot or arrived in a taxi. They’d climbed one-by-one from that old, rusted trunk in the orphanage’s basement. It had been off-limits, but I’d found a way to get in through a crawlspace in the back yard. 

            For some reason I found myself stealing across the narrow sidewalk, skirting the great Cyprus hedge that hugged the property, slinking past the porch and the kitchen windows, careful to remain in shadow. What are you doing? I asked myself. You’ve got  a mortgage and mouths to feed. Sanity to preserve!

The crawlspace was still there, its louvered hatch askew as it always had been, partially shrouded by overgrown weeds. I threw it aside as quietly as possible, eased myself into the mysterious dark. The trunk was there, exactly where I’d left it: slid up against a mildewed cement wall beneath the stairs. 

            I gazed into the dark recess, wondering what it would take to pry the thing open—a crowbar? A sledgehammer? And if the clowns were still available, would I have the guts to steal away with them and leave the life I knew behind? Half of me wanted it more than anything. The other half would miss my wife, my unborn son, the connections I’d made in life. Why couldn’t one have both, I wondered—the magic and the connection for which it was a substitute? I’d learned in college most of man’s endeavors were driven by fear. But when we obeyed it or stuffed it away in a trunk, the clowns went with it—the inexplicable, the indefinable, the inconvenient. The blinding beauty between the cracks in life’s fa├žade, the possibilities of true imagination that make life worth living. 

I decided to return to my car, and my life.

But first, I’d slide the trunk away from that mildewy wall, just a bit, out from under the splintery stairs and into the light. That way, should some kid be adventurous enough to explore the endless nooks and crannies of the dusty old manor, he might stumble upon it, and what climbed out of it just might make all the lonely waiting worthwhile…