Black Ribbon Award

ON PUTTING ONE FOOT BEFORE THE OTHER

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Let me tell you about this walk I took today.

I know that there is some apprehension from the reader when the writer that he or she—for some reason—chooses to read has pulled “going for a walk” out of his Subjects to Write About satchel. There risks a kind of repetition in tone. Every essay about walking, flâneur, or rambling is just that: rambling. Not just rambling but meandering, ponderous, gloomy, and solipsistic. They all seem to sound the same. Robert Walser based a few of his enchanting feuilletons on walks before dying in the middle of one. Walser’s contemporary Max Beerbohm hated walking for its own sake because it “stopped the brain.” Though if Rousseau is anyone to go by the only thing that stopped him on his walks was a loose great dane. I can’t tell if the quality of these works should serve as a warning or as encouragement. I guess you, dear reader, are going to have to suffer for your own poor choices as much as I will take pleasure in mine.

But to return to this walk, I had done it on an afternoon. It was half-spontaneous in the sense that when I went outside earlier in the day and found it overcast and cool, a refreshing detour from several consecutive days of sun and humidity, I made sure there would be time to go out. I wore a long-sleeved shirt and I was not less comfortable for it. That’s how I could tell this was a good idea.

Walking away from the house is much easier because everything else is down hill from it. I cut through on a path that leads down from the end of a neighborhood across the street from mine and into the parking lot of the local pool. It’s a meeting place for all kinds of wildlife. I’ve treaded carefully over midsize snakes and one large spider. I’ve seen plenty of deer galloping in rhythmic but panicked undulation through the tall grass and into the woods. Occasionally I’ll catch a fox darting in and out of the path. Today I passed two women in pink and black exercise outfits walking their dogs: a black lab and one of those small fluffy ones that are indistinguishable to me. Of course colors appear much differently under clouds than they do under sunlight, but I didn’t appreciate it until now, when the green leaves looked soberer, and the purples, yellows, and blues of the wildflowers demurred. Colors do less performing under the clouds. They get a day of rest, and also appear more present and dignified, more a part of the environment than as scenery.

My walk did have a purpose. I agree with Beerbohm in that much, that walking is better as a means to an end. Even my much longer walks were not done purely for kicks, but ultimately to make me tired, to vent my surplus of nervous energy, among other things. In this case I was walking to the library. Trips to the library have become disappointing lately. Because of some municipal property rigmarole, the library was relocated several feet to the east of its original site to the rectory of the local Catholic parish. It is much smaller and its catalog has been drastically reduced. With better lighting it has the potential to be an ideal place to read my own books, but today I stopped off and placed a loan order for one of its disappeared volumes.

Cars lined the farthest back row of the parking lot, yet the stillness of Church property on a weekday afternoon was totalizing, as if everyone had vanished. I looked at the front of the church and considered going in, if not to pray exactly then to, I guess, meditate on thoughts accumulated en route, though really long before: on the drifting away from friends, on the varying speeds at which morality approaches, on feeling generally adrift in life. Here I disagree with Beerbohm in that walking doesn’t stop the brain but puts it into overdrive. At least indoors I could set some of that aside, prioritize a bit. But no matter. The doors of the chapel (auditorium really) were locked, even as the interior doors leading into it were propped wide open.

There was for many years, from my youth up to as late as a few years ago, a man who could be found walking around town, and surrounding towns for that matter, any day of the week. No one—no one I knew anyway—knew his name, where he lived, or what he did. Some people called him “the leprechaun”; he was short, had a wide grin, and prominent nose and cheeks compacted under a large forehead. I heard him speak only once, to my mom as we walked our dog. He was kind, if abrupt; his New Jersey accent was heavy. What stood out most to me though, in addition to his being seemingly everywhere at once, was that he never changed, it didn’t even appear as if he aged. I haven’t seen him in some time. But I’m around town enough on foot to possibly stand in for a replacement. I’ve always wondered how “certain people in town” come about. Perhaps now I might know. But also, being seen is a less talked about component of walking, because it is less enjoyed all around. Anyone is subject to transformation of some kind through the eyes of anyone else around.

Let me also tell you about the walk I took the night before. My friend who lived a few towns over invited me for drinks at his house. I did not walk to his house, of course; I took an Uber. It consisted of riding on winding, hilly, sparsely lit back roads along lakes and thickly forested neighborhoods. It felt somewhat like taking a carriage ride to a castle—but I digress. Because I took an Uber, however, I timed my trip off somewhat so that I arrived earlier than expected. To pass time, I walked the length of my friend’s street. It was another eerily still experience, though hardly an outlier for a summer Sunday night. The trees on each side were either low or leaning over the street, making it look like I was walking a naturally grown corridor. House windows glowed with the pale blues, purples, and reds of televisual luminance. There was no one else outside. When I reached the intersection a half a mile or so from the house, I took a picture (provided above) of the streetlight and the mailbox at the corner.

Walking back I passed a jogger who was moving around me as I mindlessly gawked at my phone. A few feet later I heard a grunt from behind me. Looking back into mostly darkness I saw nothing and pressed on down the street. Then to my left rode a tall, thin man—almost skeletal in the half-light—in camouflage pants and with a cigarette on his lips. “Evening,” he said before riding off ahead of me into still more darkness, the blinking rear lights of his bike being the only visible proof of him the further away he got.

The reader, having through some sorcery gotten this far, might wonder aloud, “Are you maybe embellishing? You have, I want to say, a … cinematic tendency.”

The reader is advised to give it a try.

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THE SENSORY APOCALYPSE

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There is no form of writing that is more apt to reduce me to cringing than that which affects to prophecy. And yes, I am factoring in everything XO Jane has ever published. For not even the most scabrous, faux-vulnerable internet confessional can touch the dreary self-importance of a would-be prophet. Or even a confirmed prophet. A prophet who is wrong is tolerable because their smug self-assurance is only limited to a single person. While one who sees their visions even partially manifested will inevitably spreads their dour triumphalism to a mass of eagerly prideful but lazy bores. Nothing in human life is baser than being correct about something.

So it is with great personal sorrow that I myself must venture into the dark hinterland of strange vision. I must pass into the reflective and/or kaleidoscopic void of unconsciousness to access forbidden knowledge of time not yet reached and events not yet occurred. And I must render them in the only way I know how—on this glorified UHF station of a blog—for the betterment of all. This I do not out of the kindness of my heart, nor for any thrill of adventure, but because there is need of it, and no one else is around. My name is Mr. Morgan, and I am your substitute prophet. You’re welcome.

Instagram is my favorite social media platform. I apply none of those annoying wiggle-room phrases—one of, almost certainly, perhaps, quite possibly, etc.—because I am that confident in my assessment. No others really compare to the joy it offers pretty much any user. Its basic interface has remained largely static since I started using it six years ago, and those changes that have been applied to it have not, so far as I can tell, not made it worse. (Stories being the exception, but they solved that by allowing me to mute them.) This is possibly because Instagram is one of the few apps that has a valid reason to exist. It understands the power of visual stimuli and memory in the human experience. What passes time and eases tensions better at family gatherings than sifting through page after page of family photo albums? While its filter features don’t necessarily make it a haven of authenticity (assuming that is important to you), the underlying spirit of fun, adventure, bonding, peace, and experience broadly, is not as susceptible to the morass of vileness as its text-based compatriots. Indeed, look at the most annoying Instagram account, @fuckjerry, the majority of its content being screencaps of tweets and text messages.

But it is also because of these attributes that Instagram is no less vulnerable to the corrosive influence of the internet. In fact it is significantly more vulnerable.

It has always been understood that the greatest risk of perpetuating the internet was that it drastically reordered the value of civil manners. Previously one got on well in life by observing as a general rule propriety, taste, restraint, and discretion with the option of observing them more leniently in proportion to how intimate one was in a given situation. An effective use of the internet, however, requires something of a reversal. Transparency and crudity are of greater value while restraint and discretion is more frowned upon. Early on this was quite liberating because restraint and discretion can, as we are often reminded, conceal vice rather than instill virtue. But the openness of the internet has lately become its own problem. Obsession, exposure, polemic, harassment, counter-harassment, and recycled argument are all common conditions of OnlineTM. Imagine not a single Pandora’s box, but several boxes opening all at once.

With most social media, the internet is like an ill-managed biergarten; but with Instagram, it is more like a zoo. Everyone is exhibiting themselves and looking into everyone else’s exhibits. This is most prevalent in Instagram’s Explore feature, where one can scroll endlessly over algorithm-curated content. At its best it diverts the user with peeks into the past, into people’s lives, into places they have never seen personally, and into cultural substrata they knew nothing about before that are genuinely interesting and ennobling. Accounts like @saladdazed and @somewheremagazine are among its most redeeming qualities, at least related to my use of it. Though the feature itself has improved in what and how it shows, the saturating effect remains a problem that probably has no good solution.

There are two types of boredom. One is isolated—or individual—boredom; the other is systemic—or mass—boredom. We understand isolated boredom as we experience it more directly. Typically it is seen as solitary, characterized by a restlessness without aim—a rule of the self by idle hands. Yet isolated boredom conveyed in the right way has its glamor. A bored person in public can look like a subversive oasis in a desert of joviality. The presence of the bored person indicates the promise that there is always somewhere better to be. Systemic boredom is much different. It’s more of a pestilence than a feeling, spread by a sense of mutual distaste and malaise. Here the aimlessness, idleness, and solitude are features rather than bugs. It is a total retreat from activity of any kind, a world not of two idle hands, but several hundred at least. It indicates the promise that there is nowhere better to be.

Systemic boredom is a crankish sort of idea, to be sure. Circumstances have never arisen to make it seem like something more than a thought experiment. Until now. As one gets older, going to the zoo loses its appeal. The childlike wonder that shielded one from the listless imprisonment of exotic animals can no longer be propped up. Imagine, then, the effect of the digital zoo losing its own luster. Picture the glut of content, no matter how cool, how beautiful, how inspirational, or how attractive it appears, blurring into a beige-colored static. A sunset looks like tacky motel lobby wallpaper or a smiling couple looks like figurines. The sensory overload of the internet engenders the sensory apocalypse.

Of greater concern than systemic boredom actually happening is how systemic boredom will be dealt with once it does. There are positive scenarios, of course. Like people putting down their phones, taking up reading or walking or saying “Hi” to their neighbors. But negative scenarios must be anticipated, like users looking to “improve” their content by any means necessary. This is actually quite possible. Since the advent of the Paul brothers, YouTube has had a rash of users carrying out extreme pranks for the sake of getting clicks. The idea of users on other platforms taking up some creative destruction—or just unsolicited remodeling—simply because there’s nothing better to do doesn’t seem so outlandish.

I know at this point I should have some sort of metaphorical light to shine on the proper solution to make the positive scenario the more possible one. But because I am a prophet and not a troubleshooter I can stop just short. So … good luck with all that!

NOWHERE GOOD

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SCENE: A diner, near midnight. The diner has a counter with a row of booths parallel to it. Two booths are taken up at each end. One has three black-clad youths, the other a young woman. Another customer, an older man sits at the counter, behind which the staff—two waitresses and the manager—is milling around.

CUT TO ANGELA, a waitress of 28, approaches a table with three young, black-clad occupants drinking coffee and picking at a plate of disco fries in the center. She is holding a pot of coffee.

ANGELA: More coffee for you guys?

WARLOCK 1 [indifferently]: Sure.

WARLOCK 2 [identical tone]: Yeah.

ANGELA refills their cups.

ANGELA [to WITCH]: And you?

WITCH [meekly]: No thanks.

ANGELA [smiling]: Okay.

CUT TO the counter. ANGELA puts the coffee pot back on the heater. ROY, a customer of 55, sits hunched over. VINCENT, the manager of 50, leans over the register surveying the diner.

VINCENT [gruffly]: Tuesday.

ANGELA: Yes, it’s Tuesday. For another few minutes anyway.

VINCENT: Tuesday is hell.

ANGELA: Whattayasay?

VINCENT: It’s what I imagine hell is like. A Tuesday night in this place.

ROY: Why do you always work graveyard, then?

VINCENT: I sleep better during the day.

ANGELA: What’s hell to you, Roy boy?

ROY [smiling slyly and deadpan]: A gentleman’s club with an empty buffet.

ANGELA: Always classy. [Pause.] You know what’s hell for me? [Whispers.] Serving those ghouls over there for eternity. Every week it’s like this. They sit there ‘til closing, eat nothing but disco fries and drink nothing but coffee. What the hell do they do all night?

ROY: Cry in graveyards. Try to raise the dead. Sacrifice virgins. [Leering.] I’d be careful if I were you, Angela.

ANGELA: Gent bent, Roy.

VINCENT smacks ROY upside the head.

VINCENT: Your outta line.

ROY: I’m a paying customer.

VINCENT: You’ve been sitting here just as long as they have and you haven’t ordered a thing.

ANGELA [looking out]: They tip like shit, too.

BETTY, a waitress of 45, enters behind the counter.

BETTY: You think you got a weird table? Look at mine.

CUT TO a WOMAN sitting by herself at a booth with a near-empty milkshake. She about her 30s, thin, pale, with dark hair, wearing a slightly oversized grey pantsuit and red gloves. She looks slightly ill at ease.

BETTY: She’s on milkshake number four and I think she might keep going.

ANGELA: Is she wearing gloves?

BETTY: Yes, and I’m not sure how or if I can address that. [Pause.] She won’t make eye contact either.

ROY: Plausible deniability.

BETTY: Excuse me?

ROY: She obviously doesn’t want to leave a trace of her being here.

ANGELA: That’s not a smooth way of doing it.

BETTY: Like .. a criminal?

ROY: Could be. More likely I’d say she’s the Garden State Dish.

VINCENT: Her?

ROY: Why not?

ANGELA: I’m lost.

BETTY: The food critic.

ROY: He—or she—goes around local eateries, all across the state, all levels of quality, and rates them. Totally anonymous.

VINCENT [sardonically]: Part of the charm, I guess.

BETTY [apprehensive]: She’s waving me over. What do I do?

Pause.

VINCENT: What you always do.

CUT TO the WOMAN’s booth.

BETTY [sweetly]: Gosh hun, I wish I had your figure.

WOMAN [perplexed]: Excuse me?

BETTY: Oh don’t mind me. Another shake?

WOMAN [thinking]: Strawberry, please.

BETTY: You got it.

CUT TO the counter. BETTY returns to prepare the shake.

VINCENT: Doesn’t she want anything else?

BETTY: Doesn’t seem like it.

VINCENT: A sandwich? A surf and turf?

ROY: Maybe she’s been casing the place. Doing her due diligence. Samples the food during the day, and comes in at night for the ambience.

ANGELA: She does have that journalist look: smart … and poor.

BETTY walks past them with the shake and brings it to the WOMAN’s table.

BETTY: Here you go.

WOMAN: Thank you.

She takes the shake and starts to drink from it. BETTY stands awkwardly.

BETTY: Which one do you like?

WOMAN: Hm?

BETTY: You’ve had every flavor of shake we offer now. I was wondering which one you took to more.

Pause.

WOMAN: They’re all good, I guess.

BETTY: That’s nice of you.

Pause.

WOMAN: Do you need something?

BETTY: Oh … well … I was wondering if maybe you wanted something else while the kitchen is still open. [Pause.] We have a new item … fish tacos. They’re really nice. Not what you’re used to in places like this. [Pause.] Or, you know, just grilled cheese. I know that isn’t much but we have a special way of preparing it. [Whispers.] We use actual butter instead of mayo on the bread.

WOMAN: I have … indigestion.

BETTY: Oh.

Pause.

WOMAN: I’ll take the check whenever you get the chance.

BETTY: Of course.

CUT TO the counter. BETTY goes to the register to prepare the check.

VINCENT: What did she say?

BETTY: I tried to sell her on actual food but she wasn’t having it. Tough nut to crack. [She takes the check over to the booth.] Whenever you’re ready, sweetheart.

WOMAN: Thanks.

She goes into the breast pocket of her suit and takes out some bills.

BETTY: Did you lose your purse?

WOMAN [ignoring her]: Is this enough?

BETTY [counting the bills]: That’s fine. Need change?

WOMAN: No, thank you.

BETTY: Thanks, sweetheart. [She turns to go to the counter, but stops and turns back.] I did want to say, and I hope you don’t mind … [pause] … but those are really nice gloves you have.

WOMAN [looking at her hands]: These?

BETTY: Yeah. I think it’s a bold, but effective, fashion statement. [Pause. The WOMAN stares blankly and BETTY gets nervous.] Unless … it’s for a condition. I mean, if so, you conceal it well.

CUT TO the counter, ANGELA looking on.

ANGELA [muttering]: What in God’s name?

CUT TO the WOMAN’s booth.

WOMAN: I’m a … germaphobe.

BETTY: Oh … oh okay, that’s not so bad. My second cousin is one. I think he is.

VINCENT: Mam, we keep a clean facility here.

BETTY: What’s that, Vincent?

CUT TO the counter.

VINCENT: Tell her not to worry because we keep our restaurant clean.

CUT TO the WOMAN’s booth.

WOMAN: What is he saying?

BETTY: It’s … I’m so sorry; he seems to think you’re the Garden State Dish.

WOMAN: Garden … State … Dish?

BETTY: He thinks you’re the food critic. [Pause.] He means well, usually. I’m sorry if I outed you. Please don’t count it against us, we won’t tell.

WOMAN: I’m not the critic.

BETTY: Oh?

WOMAN [sips her shake]: I’m a critic. Not the critic.

BETTY: What do you criticize, if you don’t mind me asking?

WOMAN: It’s hard to explain. But … if I had to fine-tune it, I’d say … [thoughtful pause] … people.

BETTY: How do you figure that?

WOMAN: I suppose it makes sense if you think of critic as classically understood. [Pause.] A critic is a judge. So I judge people. That is my function.

BETTY: Like in a competition?

WOMAN: You could say it’s a competition. Although the people being judged might not see it that way. Or even know that they are competing.

BETTY [unsure]: Oh.

WOMAN: Now, some people know they are competing. Some people know that they need to stay ahead of the game to “win.” [Pause.] But they don’t really know their standings. And they fluctuate from time to time—often wildly.

BETTY: That reminds me of something. Like Candid Camera, but it’s not quite the same. This sounds more intentful … if that’s a word? Are you in TV?

WOMAN: I don’t know what you’re talking about.

BETTY: Bad guess.

WOMAN [sips from shake]: It’s not your fault.

BETTY: Are critics always so serious-looking? [Nervous pause.] Not that that’s bad.

WOMAN: I don’t know many other critics besides my immediate colleagues. I don’t think we’re as serious as people think. I think if anyone else had been tasked with our work they too might be a bit grave. But then that is why we get these occasional sabbaticals. [Sips shake.]

BETTY: Well it’s nice that they give you that.

WOMAN: But I don’t think anyone in my line of work sets out wanting to do it. This is the kind of thing you fall into.

BETTY [wistful]: Yeah … I know the feeling.

WOMAN: Sometimes I wonder, as we all probably do (I assume, I’ve never asked), what would it have been like if things had turned out differently. If certain actions had different outcomes, or certain decisions in which few had any input were never made to begin with.

BETTY: Yeah.

WOMAN: But I can’t keep these thoughts in me for long. [Sips her shake.] It risks empathy with the people I am judging.

CUT TO the counter. VINCENT and ANGELA look on.

ROY: Can I get an avocado toast?

ANGELA [matter-of-factly]: No.

ROY: Vince, come on.

VINCENT [not looking, half-attentive]: You had your chance.

CUT TO the WOMAN’s booth. BETTY is sitting across from her.

BETTY: I think a lot about doing things differently. I can’t really undo them, but I can improve my state in life.

WOMAN [sips her shake]: Hm.

BETTY: I’ve been going back and forth on starting school again. Getting my masters. [Pause.] Criminal justice. [Pause.] But I see my kids so little as it is. [Takes out her car keys, showing a keychain with a photo of a girl and a boy.] They’re booth in high school now.

WOMAN [looking indifferently at the photo]: I see.

BETTY: But … maybe if I could change things, you could change things, too.

WOMAN: I think I’m well past the point of being able to change things, assuming I ever had the chance to begin with. [Finishes off shake with a long slurp.] Anyway, my line of work at least allows me certain perspective of the efficacy of changing anything. Knowing the reality that, almost regardless of any real effort, everyone’s more or less going in the same trajectory.

BETTY: Where’s that?

WOMAN: Nowhere good.

BETTY: That’s … really sad.

WOMAN: You adjust. [Pause. Sits up, readies to leave.] Speaking of which, I must get back. [Slides out of the booth.] Before I say too much.

BETTY: Well it was nice having you, food critic or no.

CUT TO the counter. The WOMAN walks slowly past it to the exit. The black-clad youths are behind her at the register. ANGELA is behind the register with BETTY and VINCENT beside her. ROY makes eye contact with the WOMAN, she returns with a slight smirk.

ROY [somewhat fearfully]: You really do think you’re better than us, don’t you?

BETTY: Roy, what’s the matter with you?

ROY: Me? What’s the matter with her? Coming here all condescending. Lowering herself to our level.

WOMAN: Roy, if I am in any way superior to you or anyone else here it is not by choice. And if you think superiority is something that doesn’t come with trade-offs then I don’t think you know what it is.

ROY [bitterly]: I bet you’re going home to a cat.

WOMAN: Think what you choose to.

She attempts to leave. ROY takes light hold of her arm.

ROY: So what is your authority?

WOMAN [smiling]: I guess it’s this. [Holds up her gloved hand.]

ROY: Your glove?

WOMAN [pulling the fingers to remove the glove]: No, not exactly. [She pulls off the glove revealing an extensively scarred hand.] I can’t really put my authority in words so I’ll have to show you. [She walks back to the register towards the youths; she looks at WARLOCK 2 who looks nervously back. She holds out her hand.] How do you do?

WARLOCK 2 places his hand into hers. He instantly seizes in place. His eyes roll back into his head, before falling to his knees and vomiting. The other youths jolt back and freeze in terror. ANGELA goes to check on him. Everyone is horrified but too dumbfounded to be hysterical.

VINCENT: Holy fuck.

The WOMAN approaches ROY, looking at him coldly.

WOMAN: Are you satisfied?

ROY’s lips tremble but he says nothing.

BETTY: I’m calling the cops.

WOMAN [still staring at ROY but addressing VINCENT]: Before I go, I have a question. [Looks at VINCENT.] When you talk about Hell, do you capitalize it?

VINCENT: What?

WOMAN: That’s what you call it, right? Do you capitalize it when you say it?

VINCENT: I don’t fucking know, lady.

WOMAN [putting the glove back on, looking toward the exit]: Well, I guess it really makes no difference in the long run.

ANGELA: You’re a monster.

WOMAN: He’ll be fine. Improved quite possibly in his case. Good night.

She exits. Silence.

ROY [tremblingly, to VINCENT]: Just so you know … [pause] … it’s Wednesday.

END.

EMERGENCIES IN APPLIED ETHICS

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SCENE: Conference room in Area 51. GENERAL HANSON paces at the head of the table in battle fatigues. DR. CARUTHERS enters, disheveled and in sweatpants, accompanied by two soldiers.

HANSON: Dr. Eliza Caruthers?

CARUTHERS: Yes.

HANSON: Dr. Eliza Caruthers of MIT? Professor of environmental science?

CARUTHERS: Applied ethics in environmental science.

HANSON: Oh, right. I’m General James Hanson; I’m in charge of things here. Please sit. Can I get you some coffee?

CARUTHERS: No thanks; I had some on the plane.

HANSON: Very well. [To guards.] You’re excused.

The guards exit.

I want to apologize for the … abrupt nature of your visit.

CARUTHERS: For waking me up at two in the morning and flying me across the country, you mean?

HANSON: Like I said … abrupt. But I would not have done so if it the circumstances did not require your expertise.

CARUTHERS: Okay.

HANSON: We have, to put it a certain way, an applied ethics in environmental science emergency on our hands.

CARUTHERS: There are a lot of those nowadays.

HANSON: This one is quite pressing.

CARUTHERS: I see.

HANSON: You signed the NDA, I assume.

CARUTHERS: Yes.

HANSON: None of what you will be told must leave this room. No writing about it henceforth. Certainly no live-tweeting.

CARUTHERS: I left my phone in Massachusetts.

HANSON: Splendid! Not that you could have done much if you had it. No reception and spotty wi-fi are our greatest security measures.

Enter an OFFICER wheeling a covered object in on a cart.

OFFICER: Where do I put this?

HANSON: Right here where I’m standing.

OFFICER: Sir.

THE OFFICER wheels the cart in front of HANSON.

HANSON: Thank you, Sergeant. You may inform Dr. McKnight that we are ready for him.

THE OFFICER salutes and exits.

CARUTHERS: Dr. McKnight? Dr. Holden McKnight?

HANSON: You know him!

CARUTHERS [deadpan]: We are aware of each other.

HANSON: He’s been consulting with us on this situation for two months. He’s been instrumental in developing our understanding.

CARUTHERS: Holden is a programmer and linguist. What does this have to—

HANSON: The doctor will clarify everything momentarily.

McKNIGHT enters in jeans, a tucked-in flannel shirt, tennis shoes, a tweet jacket, and carrying a laptop.

McKNIGHT: General.

HANSON: Dr. McKnight, this is Dr. Eli—

McKNIGHT: Dr. Caruthers, so great we were able to get you.

McKNIGHT extends and shakes CARUTHERS’s hand.

CARUTHERS: An email in advance would have been nice.

McKNIGHT [putting laptop on the cart]: The hazards of our new calling, I’m afraid.

CARUTHERS: So what is this about, exactly?

HANSON: Dr. McKnight, you have my permission to divulge our situation.

McKNIGHT: Very well. About four months ago a quiet little neighborhood in the greater Bloomfield, Indiana area was made somewhat less quiet when, around 3:30 on a Wednesday morning, it was rocked by a bright flash, and very soon by an explosion. It hit smack in the middle of the cul-de-sac, leaving numerous broken windows and other frontal damage, not to mention a massive fucking crater in the pavement. You might have seen it on CNN.

CARUTHERS: A meteorite, was it?

McKNIGHT: So it was thought at the time, and reported thereafter. But you’re probably suspecting that that wasn’t the whole story.

CARUTHERS: You could say that.

McKNIGHT: And you’d be correct. Once the object was excavated from the street and examined it was soon apparently that there was something beneath the outer matter. This, to be exact.

HANSON lifts the sheet, revealing a small black box.

CARUTHERS: A cube?

McKNIGHT: Not just any cube. [He opens the box, revealing a small white dome, a silver button and a USB outlet.] A sphere cube!

CARUTHERS [standing up, examining it closely]: I don’t get it.

McKNIGHT: No one did at first until someone pressed this button. When it was pressed, the people around it were bombarded with incomprehensible and ungodly sounds. Needless to say, that left more questions than answers. And a burst eardrum or two. [Chuckles. Pause.] So that’s when they called me. [Opens up his laptop and types on it.] When they noticed the outlet here, they sought me out to develop a program with the aim of deciphering the racket. A lot of the top noise was just static, though a kind of static no earthly ear is familiar with. It was a tall order for any seasoned technician; essentially the demand was that I build a digital antenna of some sort. [Turns the laptop screen to face CARUTHERS, it shows a white binary sequence typing itself.] One that needed to reach only God knows how far away. [Pause. Goes into his jacket pocket.] In hindsight the coding was the easy part, it would be useless without … [takes out a small case] … the receptor. [He opens the case, revealing a two-way USB plug. He attaches it to the laptop and then to the box.] General, you do the honors.

HANSON pushes the button. The dome blinks red before turning solid. It emits a shrill noise that jolts everyone, not least of all CARUTHERS, hearing it for the first time.

THE BOX [in a male voice]: Hello? [Static.] Hello? [Static.] Are you coming in?

McKNIGHT: This is Dr. Holden McKnight, we read you.

THE BOX: Ah, Dr. McKnight. So happy to hear from you again.

McKNIGHT: This isn’t a bad time, is it?

THE BOX: No, not at all, Dr. Not … at … all. To what do I owe the pleasure?

McKNIGHT: The General and I considered what you told us last time.

THE BOX: Yes?

McKNIGHT: And we’re interested in helping. So I brought on a colleague from my graduate school days who’s eminent in her field.

McKNIGHT nods to CARUTHERS.

CARUTHERS: I’m … [clears throat] I’m Dr. Eliza Caruthers, I’m a professor of applied ethics in environmental science … from MIT.

THE BOX: Cool.

Silence.

McKNIGHT: So … if it’s okay with you I was hoping you could bring Dr. Caruthers up to speed on your … issue.

THE BOX: Where do you want me to start?

McKNIGHT: From the beginning, I guess?

THE BOX: Very well. [Pause.] GREETINGS PEOPLE OF … PEOPLE OF … What do you call your planet again?

McKNIGHT: Earth, it’s Earth.

THE BOX: Right, thanks. [Clears throat.] GREETINGS PEOPLE OF EARTH. I AM YOUR PLANETARY EQUIVALENT OF A DIPLOMATIC ENVOY FOR ZARKLIV—

HANSON [whispering]: We’re calling it “Melancholia” for our records.

THE BOX: YES, “MELANCHOLIA.” ANYWAY, MY NAME DLORXRORT, BUT FOR EFFICIENCY’S SAKE YOU MAY ADDRESS ME AS … KENNETH. I AM SPEAKING FROM YOU OVER THE SPAN OF THOUSANDS OF LIGHTYEARS IN A FAR-OFF SOLAR SYSTEM. I’M REACHING OUT TO YOU BECAUSE YOUR PLANET HAS MANY SIMILARITIES TO OURS. LIKE YOURS, IT IS MOSTLY WATER-BASED, BUT FILLED WITH VERDANT SPLENDOR, TEEMING WITH DIVERSE WILDLIFE, BUT DOMINATED BY A NOTABLY ADVANCED SPECIES—Hey, can I stop this voice?

McKNIGHT: Sure.

THE BOX: Thank you! So … our species is not humanoid, or even bipedal, but like yours it oversees all the affairs of the planet. We are reaching out to you, humbly, to request your assistance.

CARUTHERS: What kind of assistance?

THE BOX: We are, as I said, an advanced species, Dr. Caruthers. On our planet and, as you might have suspected, on yours as well. We have progressed beyond certain things on which you Earthlings are still reliant. Things like national divisions, natural crops, paper currency, regular employment, martial conflict, and the gender binary … to name a few.

CARUTHERS: You have more than two genders?

THE BOX: We have no genders and we are satisfied, thank you. [Pause.] But what we have as yet been unable to conquer is the specter of disease. We have quite possibly eliminated far more ills on our planet than you have on yours, but we are no less vulnerable to new ones. Currently our species is suffering under a new kind of virus that has spread rapidly thanks to an exotic new pet—another thing we, evidently, have been unable to progress away from. The symptoms are fatal, about an 80 percent mortality rate at best, but the process is slow and debilitating. People who have this illness find they cannot be outside for more than a few minutes; their membranes are very sensitive to natural light. They cannot move without vomiting or succumbing to dizziness. The final stage involves horrific convulsions and secretions of all manner of bodily fluid.

HANSON: That sounds horrid.

THE BOX: It is, General. Very despairing.

CARUTHERS: So … what I was … [whispers to McKNIGHT] Can we put that on mute or something?

McKNIGHT: What?

CARUTHERS: Mute. Can we mute it?

McKNIGHT: Excuse us a moment, Kenneth. [He takes CARUTHERS by the arm and leads her to the far corner of the room.] What’s the matter?

CARUTHERS: I mean, come on Holden. Really? Really? One-gendered quadrupeds?

McKNIGHT: You don’t know how many legs they have.

CARUTHERS: Did you vet this? Like really vet it?

McKNIGHT: For what? Who would do this?

CARUTHERS: MIT has a tech team dedicated to just this kind of thing. Hacking secured systems. Kenneth could be in a fucking basement in St. John’s, Newfoundland for all we know.

McKNIGHT: Let this be the first and final assurance that no one is podcasting into Area 51.

THE BOX: Let me also assure you, Dr. Caruthers, that this is no ruse.

CARUTHERS: I wasn’t insinu—

THE BOX: Do you not think that I’d rather be doing something else other than phoning some far off planet?

CARUTHERS: What actually do you want from us?

THE BOX: We need your help with our malady.

CARUTHERS: Is there some resource that we have but that you don’t that offers some kind of cure?

THE BOX: Not especially, no.

CARUTHERS: Well …

THE BOX: I mean that’d be nice if we got that too, but I think we’d have found that by now. [Pause.] No, actually it’s more of a space thing. As in room—not the plane that separates us. You are the nearest planet that is the least atmospherically antagonistic to us. I am reaching out to see about a temporary transfer of some of our affected to your planet.

CARUTHERS: As in a quarantine?

THE BOX: Just until we get a handle on the situation.

CARUTHERS: But there’s no cure.

THE BOX: “Temporary” has more than one meaning.

HANSON: Kenneth, have you figured out how many you’d be transferring?

THE BOX: Uh … well … that’s fair … uh … let me see. I don’t have exact figures for your metrics. But … [silence] … the present number, assuming the illness doesn’t intensify anymore than it already has is about six …

HANSON [upbeat]: Oh.

THE BOX: Hundred …

HANSON [neutral]: Oh.

THE BOX: Thousand.

HANSON [defeated]: Oh.

Pause.

CARUTHERS: And what if we decline your request?

THE BOX: Decline?

CARUTHERS: You know, applied ethics and all that.

THE BOX: Refusal would be unwise.

CARUTHERS: What would happen if we refused?

THE BOX: Use your imagination. As I said we are far advan—

CARUTHERS: Far, far advanced, yes. But, like, in what way besides your shipping abilities?

THE BOX: We have way better hair than your species has.

CARUTHERS: You’re going to conquer us with your hair?

THE BOX: No, I’m just saying as an example. Our hair is better. Yes, hair on “Melancholia” is not really the same as hair is understood on Earth. But it’s all uphill from there. For us, that is.

CARUTHERS: Even so … [Pause.] Say all of this goes as you foresee it. Getting things arranged will be very complicated going forward. We have to get this to the President, who must then appeal to the United Nations or NORAD or NATO or something.

THE BOX: Why are you being so process-heavy all of a sudden? The last people we dealt with were much more streamlined.

CARUTHERS: You … You’ve done this already?

THE BOX: What, you thought you were the first people we reached out to?

CARUTHERS: Who were the first? [Looks to HANSON and McKNIGHT.] Guys?

The two men look back blankly.

THE BOX: I’d have to go back and check. But they said they were the People’s Republic. What reason did we have to not believe them?

CARUTHERS: How long has this been going on?

THE BOX: A year … year and a half.

CARUTHERS: How many?

THE BOX: Like 4,000. A dry run. It’s fine from where we’re sitting and we’re not hearing complaints from them. So far as I know.

CARUTHERS: How many quarantines are you expecting to set up?

THE BOX: As many as it takes. You’d do the same, I’m sure.

CARUTHERS: Okay. Assume everything is fine. The process goes smoothly and we let you drop off your sick. Where would we put them?

THE BOX: In a safe place, I can assure you.

CARUTHERS: You’re going to have to be more specific if we’re making these arrangements.

THE BOX: The arrangements are already made.

CARUTHERS: Excuse me?

THE BOX: I feel like something needs to be cleared up between the three of you.

CARUTHERS: Guys what the fuck is he talking about?

McKNIGHT: Uh … I was going to mention …

CARUTHERS [sternly]: What Holden?

McKNIGHT: We didn’t make the connection right away. [Pause.] About a week after the box landed in Indiana, the residents of the neighborhood, who were basically stuck there, started to show some kind of … symptoms.

CARUTHERS: Symptoms?

McKNIGHT: Like they were gassed or something. Vomiting, light-headedness, blisters.

HANSON: Don’t forget to mention the … uh ….

McKNIGHT: Oh yeah, then vines started spreading from the crater. Now they’re pretty much all over town. And it’s growing.

HANSON: They’re being covered as wildfires in the media.

CARUTHERS: So the whole town is infected.

McKNIGHT: Yes.

CARUTHERS: It’s quarantined already.

McKNIGHT: Basically.

Pause.

CARUTHERS: So here’s a question. Did you two drag me out of bed just to impress me? Because I—

McKNIGHT: We’re in dark territory, Eliza. All of us.

CARUTHERS: I’ll say. [Pause.] So what is this all for? Some rubber stamp? This is ethically sound regardless of wider impact?

THE BOX: I was trying to be polite.

CARUTHERS [somewhat mockingly]: And I appreciate that, Kenneth.

THE BOX: I may be in another solar system, Dr. Caruthers, but I can still detect sarcasm.

CARUTHERS makes a sour expression at THE BOX. Pause.

CARUTHERS [to HANSON]: Have you at least contained the area?

THE BOX: The area is self-containing. The atmospheric adjustment is designed to extend to a predetermined radius, as much as needed to accommodate our sick. The landing point for the box was the exact center of that radius. We of course regret the inconvenience to the people of the town.

CARUTHERS: I would not want to see how you handle invasions.

THE BOX: No. You would not.

CARUTHERS: So how are you guys going to play this once this covers the entire south of Indiana?

HANSON: Chemical plant explosion.

CARUTHERS looks at him incredulously.

Maybe two chemical plant explosions.

CARUTHERS [deadpan]: I think maybe I will take that coffee now.

HANSON: I think we can all use some.

HANSON exits. McKNIGHT takes a seat next to CARUTHERS.

McKNIGHT: Please understand that I didn’t mean to deceive you. [Pause.] Yes, I admit, you should not have been called so late in the process. [Pause.] But things were moving so fast, and it’s completely out of our hands. [Pause.] Look at the bright side; you get to be a part of something momentous. Something no hum— … Something no American has done before. The honors would be—

CARUTHERS: What honors? The only way this is every going to be known is if we fuck this up—and we will.

McKNIGHT: Come on, what are the chances?

CARUTHERS: Ballpark … like … 85 percent.

McKNIGHT [laughing]: Eight— … 85! Come on, give me your optimistic estimate.

CARUTHERS [staring harshly]: That is my optimistic estimate, Holden. [Points to her face.] This is my optimistic face.

HANSON returns, hands CARUTHERS a cup of coffee.

HANSON: Sorry, I forgot to ask if you take anything.

CARUTHERS: Black is fine.

Pause.

THE BOX: So I’m still here.

CARUTHERS [standing up, stomping to the box]: Oh fuck off, Kenneth.

CARUTHERS yanks the receptor and throws it at McKNIGHT. The red dome becomes white again.

McKNIGHT: Hey be careful! That cost $400,000 to make!

CARUTHERS slumps back in her seat and sips her coffee, wincing slightly at its bitterness.

CARUTHERS: Applied ethics, my tit.

END.

FINE DINING. ADEQUATE SHELTER.

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This is a review of a local restaurant. Full disclosure: I have not eaten at this restaurant. Yet I will persist with its review. Call this thing that compels me what you will—principle, will to life, force majeure, etc.—but I cannot shirk it at this point. I’ve committed. It is the manly thing to do.

Actually, it is more out of amusement. The restaurant amuses me, as does the hotel to which it is connected. Less so the Starbucks, because who cares? You could say that I am enticed by the allure of places I have never been and of senses I seldom if ever indulge. My intelligence, usually passable on a bad day, fails to alert me of the precise name of this concept I am experiencing.

But, anyway—this restaurant. It’s not really the restaurant that amuses me, but the land on which it finds itself placed. The land is very special to me. It is a hilly green patch with some nice lakes that is crossed by a large intersection where my hometown lets out into several others. Once you leave that town and go out into the others, specifically by crossing that intersection, you would pass a place called the Colorado Cafe [sic]. Until it closed very abruptly last year, it was a large inexplicably western-themed bar, with pool tables, a mechanical bull, and a large space for performance, mostly cover bands, and square dancing. Imagine the Roadhouse in Twin Peaks but dumber and with a $10 cover charge. (Though a woman I worked with at a local Whole Foods rip off, also now closed, was from western Canada and understandably felt at home there.) Past the Colorado Cafe is a large shopping center, which had a Toys ‘R’ Us and movie theater that are both gone, and a TGI Fridays and GameStop that are presumably still there. Getting to those places as children required passing that hilly green patch, which did not have at the time what it has now.

People around here get confused when I mention Runnells Hospital. They think that I mean the Runnells Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare, a geriatric center run, until recently, by the county. The confusion over Runnells is partly my fault. I forget that it was not called that officially. It was run by Dr. John E. Runnells and called Bonnie Burn, and it was across from the entrance to Bonnie Burn Road. Dr. Runnells specialized in treating tuberculosis. He founded Bonnie Burn in 1912 as a sanatorium. It took up 145 acres of that hilly green patch. Dr. Runnells died in the 1960s. By the late 1980s, about the time my family moved to the area, the sanatorium fell into disuse.

I am choosing not to reveal the name of the restaurant, because there doesn’t seem to be much point in doing so. It bears the Thing and Thing construction that easily lends to confusion with other services and products that also use that construction: Huckle and Goose, Rag and Bone, Ebony and Ivory, Morgan and Morgan. Its décor is what I would call “rustic eclectic,” in the sense that it combines at least three distinct themes of elevated homeliness: family eatery, boomtown saloon, and urban speakeasy. It breaks the Michael Mann rule by using nothing but earth tones: brick walls and hardwood floors, dim and natural lighting, leather furniture and beige, off-white, or charcoal tabletops. The walls are covered with knick-knacks: photographs of people long dead, posters of events long past, and American flags too tattered to safely fly.

The intersection that crosses the hilly green patch is preceded by a curved road. So when one rode in their family minivan or station wagon, the sanatorium in its final state revealed itself as if it was on a rotating display. On gloomy days it appeared most clearly, the immense size and rot of it, graffiti-coated and boarded up. On clear days it was somehow more imposing. In the late afternoon when the setting sun shone right on it, glowing bright yellow and red, accentuating the extent of the rust and decay. Rust and Decay—that’s a nice name for a retail service.

Bonnie Burn is now mostly an office park. At some point a gym went up in the area, but now it also has that hotel. I suspect it was built to serve primarily the interests of visitors to that office park and the neighboring office parks. There’s really nothing else immediately close by. When you’re a hospital dedicated to helping cure severe and contagious lung ailments, it is unwise to be located in a heavily populated area. So maybe the hotel was put there to meet low expectations. That’s admirable. Not everything has to be epic. But History has other plans sometimes, and now that Bedminster has an auxiliary White House, my dad notifies me of New York Times reports bearing the dateline BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NEW JERSEY. That’s great. I’m glad. I hope they enjoy their stay.

Bonnie Burn had stiff competition in its new urban exploration/ruins porn market. There used to be two other complexes in the immediate area. Greystone was in Morris Plains until it was finally demolished three years ago. Overbrook’s ruins still stand in some form or another in Cedar Grove. Like Bonnie Burn, they collapsed in the late 20th century under the wave of progress, but Greystone and Overbrook were psychiatric hospitals. Bonnie Burn commanded low prestige, perhaps the lowest. Explorers can often separate themselves from psychiatric wards. Though tuberculosis is less common today, the condition is less discriminating. Bonnie Burn got maybe one mention in Weird New Jersey, and few with whom I talk about it, friend or family, really remember it. There is one legend, however, that Woody Guthrie was a patient there and that Bob Dylan once paid him a visit, but I have not verified these details. New Jerseyans are honest at heart, but few sane people ever take them at their word.

The new Runnells is about a mile north of its old land. Though it is more or less on the same hilly green patch. It is much smaller and has recently been subject to layoffs. I’ve been there a few times because that is where I vote. The earliest time I was there, though, was when I was a teenager. I went to see about volunteering, which my mom insisted I undertake out of contrition for a disciplinary lapse. I was very candid about my situation to the official with whom I interviewed about volunteering because I did not know how to frame the situation otherwise. Much to the puzzlement of all involved, she still gave me a blue volunteer smock and a name tag. I never showed up and if I can be candid once more, I’m not terribly curious about what would have gone differently in life if I had.

The food at the restaurant is probably fine.

MAGIC FINGERS

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You are in a room in a long-neglected motel on a long-neglected highway. It is late at night, but you are unsure of the time because the clock on the bedside table has been blinking 12:00 since you got there and you haven’t felt like changing it. The motel has no recognizable or memorable name and you know that, for reasons that require no articulation, that is the point. The sign bearing whatever its name is should probably be expected to be on at this time. But often it isn’t. When it is it doesn’t really work. You don’t know if it is supposed to be blinking but you know it’s probably not supposed to be blinking in the way that it is—twitching rather than pulsating. The spasms of light shine into your room from the slit in the closed curtains, which are made in a rough fabric patterned in zigzagging stripes of brown, orange, and red. If you sit up against the wall on the end of the farthest bed, your face will be dappled in the sign’s rose-colored glow every few seconds. It looks cool with the lights off but doesn’t register too well on your phone’s camera.

You are not sitting up tonight, though. You are lying on the floor, staring up at the stucco ceiling. You’ve lost track of how long you’ve been staying in that room, which is numbered 2F. It’s easy to lose track when you are virtually the only long-term customer in the place. Sometimes, during the day, you will see families of no more than four, passing by for a night or two, debating whether or not to go into the pool, which is the same shade of sickly green no matter what time of day it is.

But your sense of time passing has lately become more noticeable since room 2E became occupied by, you suspect, two people. Your suspicion is well founded because you can hear the sounds of them having sex through your side of the wall. To put it more pointedly, they are fucking, ceaselessly. It is almost impressive that it is only slightly muffled by your earplugs. But even if you do doze off you wake back up to it virtually unfazed. Maybe it’s the TV, you think. You try your own but find nothing. The sign outside just said “TV available,” which is true. There is not much else on offer. The Facts of Life on one channel, I Dream of Jeannie on the next, Dan Rather on the news.

You go out to get ice—because getting ice is what people do in motels. Plus the most recent stock of ice you piled up in the bathroom sink has almost melted and you will feel empty when it drains out completely. The ice box is at the other end of the motel. You walk past scores of empty rooms, all darkened except one that is inexplicably on.  The patter of your shoeless feet echoes all the way down your balcony. You reach the office which is closed and just as lightless. A rectangular box sits outside the office displaying a large aluminum can labeled BEER in blue letters and pouring a stream of suds over the slender fingers with red-painted nails holding it. You have given up to six dollars in coins in hopes that it will work this time. Now there is also no ice.

You walk back iceless to your room. You come up on 2E and the noise of its occupants. You find that the door is not only unlocked by slightly ajar, white light flickering through the crack. A DO NOT DISTURB sign dangles from the handle, a mixed message if there ever was one. You think for a moment. They are disturbing me. I will disturb them, you conclude. You open the door after working up your self-righteousness into a froth. There is no light in the room besides the static-flashing TV. It illuminates the beds. On one sits a reel-to-reel tape player omitting the sex sounds. Your wasted self-righteousness melts into nervousness as you lower the volume of the tape. Your rights extend no further than that, you think. The tape will run itself silent on its own volition. Soon, you hope.

You feel something on your foot. Looking down you see a centipede, a pretty big one made bigger still be the shadow caused by the TV static. Crawling over your toes, its spikey sediments wave like two tiny flags. You kick it off and bolt out of the room. It’s quieter now. You scan the layout of the complex from the railing of your balcony. The pool lights are on exposing strange black shapes, almost like sentient holes, spoiling the green water. The parking lot is empty besides a single Oldsmobile from the 1980s at the far end by rooms 1B and 2B. How exactly did you get here anyway?

You suspect that it is overcast tonight because no stars are visible on the horizon. Across the adjacent highway is a flat field of rough yellow grass.

The sign stops twitching for the moment. You hear a car approach to your right on the highway. Its lights shine brighter on the blacktop as it approaches. It gets closer, and louder, it passes going well above the 55 mph speed limit. It disappears.

You go back to your room only to find it locked from inside. You don’t remember it ever working that way, but anyway your keys and your shoes and everything else except the clothes you have on and the empty ice bucket are on the other side of the locked door. You sigh. You think about going to the pool and seeing how things play out from there. It is a nice night, mild with a slight breeze. But you remember that the pool chairs are those rubbery kinds that make the peeling sound on the skin of sunbathers every time they flip themselves over. They also have those metal armrests that are either searing hot or freezing cold. You did leave the door open in 2E, however. You conclude that they more or less live with you now and what’s theirs through some creative logic is yours.

You go into the room, turn on the lights, and turn off the TV. A velvet painting of a heard of elks with reddish fur galloping over a field is hanging just above it. You leave the tape on because you are accustomed to it now. You lay on the bed rather than the floor; it seems dirtier than yours. The beds are almost certainly more comfortable than yours. You look over and notice a coin deposit labeled MAGIC FINGERS.

“The fuck? I don’t have this in my room,” you say. Below that it says 25 cents will get you two and a half minutes.

You open the drawer. There are three quarters on top of the Bible. You think two and a half minutes is sufficient and put one quarter into the slot. Once the bed reaches its peak vibration you realize you are right. The tape on the neighboring bed is still going. You start to feel nauseous, but not too nauseous. Then you are too nauseous and you can’t move. The whole room begins to blur into a golden-beige fog, except the elks in the painting, which are as clear as ever; they are galloping faster, getting closer. The possibility of being trampled to death is not what you had planned on feeling. Vomiting all over yourself now seems like a quaint alternative. Then the tape stops suddenly, and you feel better. Then it starts again but sped up, then it slows down. The tape is unspooling from the reels, flowing from the player like shining lava. Now you don’t know what to feel.

The bed finally gets still. Everything is silent. The silence rushes over you and overcomes you like you’ve never heard silence before in your life. You rush to the bathroom. Turning the lights on you see the sink filled with a pile of ice. A sense of calm tingles on your skin. You approach it slowly, respectfully. The urge to dig your hands into it or plant your face upon it is real and acute. But you hold back—what’s yours is also theirs.

The tape is now a gelatinous mountain on the bed. You pick up the strands and hold them to light as if there is a message just for you. Be back soon. Make your self at home! Or something.

The tape gets caught on your finger, the more you try to get free of it the more it gets tangled around you. You find yourself spinning in place trying to free yourself but it keeps latching on until the tape is wrapped around your midsection. The tape spreads like malicious vines down to your shins and up to your collarbone. You fall onto the floor and become still starring back up at the stucco ceiling.

“Do your worst,” you mutter to the cockroaches and centipedes and whatever else is down here with you.

At some point, you think, you will have to plot your escape. Today is not the day that will happen.

SQUAD GALLOWS

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My least-favorite subgenre of horror is the slasher. As I’m on the record as a snob in this—really any—respect, this shouldn’t be a surprise. But it never started out that way. Like most horror fans, I was reared into the genre by watching slasher films. Slashers were what the video stores had in most ready supply, and under severe—but fair—constraints I could watch them. Only those few usual suspects—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween—stick with me today. Gone are the countless sequels and knockoffs that fascinated me in middle school but somehow didn’t warp my brain. Not totally anyway.

The slasher seems at first like a paradoxical type of film. It has adult themes and situations, but they are depicted in so simplistic a fashion that only a juvenile could possibly appreciate it. At the same time, however, the pornography parallels are not simple parent advisory group hyperventilating. If you exchange the special effects of The House on Sorority Row and Debbie Does Dallas, not much will actually change. I exaggerate, but not by much.

The dip in quality from the few good antecedents, where ambitious but shrewd filmmakers managed to wring out so much from very little, is sudden, steep, and without traction. For comparison, the 1978 film Halloween and the 1981 film Final Exam are very similar on the surface. Both depict a small locale being terrorized by a nondescript man with a knife. Both films open with a gruesome murder, and a lot of time passes until the next one happens. But one is remembered more than the other for good reason. John Carpenter—a student of radio suspense—knew how to create atmosphere, build character, and propel the story to its logical ends using chiefly a William Shatner mask and a synthesizer. Final Exam is more like a dollhouse than a film where characters wait around to be played with.

But occasionally there come along a few films, good or bad, that redeem the slasher in one crucial respect: depicting the toxicity of friendship, specifically of the clique. Admittedly this was never really the case, but a necessary byproduct. A slasher film needs bodies for quick, routine disposal (see paragraph two), a friend group going on a trip, to take a classic example, is one way to do that. The slasher genre can be seen as one long chain of dead #squads, whose ends were brought about as much by the bad behavior and dumb decisions of their a-types and the passive subservience of the b- and c-types as they were by actual murderers. The dynamic never really got its due, in part because the people being killed were meant relate in some way to the people paying to see them killed. But perhaps this had to have its moment, when the nature of friendship itself would be subject to unprecedented changes—like maybe right now.

The internet is not new to horror, but only recently has it been approached in any sophisticated way. Most internet-centric horror films of the late-‘90s and ‘00s look now as if they were informed by Dateline or Lifetime. The internet was still a novelty and had not changed social life very much. Kyoshi Kurosawa’s 1998 film Pulse works because it used the novelty to unsettling effect: being online will dissolve the wall separating the living from the dead. There is less excuse for that today now that human interaction is data-driven. An effective internet horror film needs the full understanding of how it works, how people use it, and how it can be used against them.

Unfriended and Friend Request were released in 2015 and 2017 respectively. They are both horror films centered on social media, but they take different approaches with different results. Neither film is considered a classic but Unfriended is the more critically lauded of the two. It is shot in its entirety as a Skype chat between five high school friends. Over the course of their chat they are interrupted by an unknown user, who has damning information on all of them and proceeds to use it against them in torturous ways (posting photos and videos on their Facebook accounts, for instance), before it kills each one. The user turns out to be the spirit of a hated classmate who committed suicide—revealed early in the film when our main screen shows a LiveLeak video of her death.

I made the mistake of seeing Unfriended when it was in theaters. It turns out you need your laptop to better appreciate its story. It’s a gimmick, everyone accepts that, but it is not an abused one. The makers were able to use the framing device as a tool to build suspense rather than as a cool distraction. This worked because they figured out the trick of social media: it makes you your own unreliable narrator. What we know of the antagonist Laura Barns is delivered in pieces largely by the characters who hated her. She was a “bully,” though no one clarifies beyond that. Blaire, our primary screen, quietly defends her former friend with reminders of her traumatic past. If you pause the film at a certain point, a news article reveals more context, including a learning disability, pre-existing depression, and other struggles. But soon we start to know much more about the group itself and how awful they are. Indeed, the deaths of each character seem almost merciful compared to the methodical breaking of the group’s bond and the realization that that bond was held in place mostly by a mutual lack of empathy for anyone but themselves, not even each other.

Friend Request was panned on arrival. I can’t say it was not earned. Though its effects and jump scares are better than I had anticipated, the acting is substandard and the film has a story only insofar as it copies, almost beat for beat, the arc of the Ring movies. Its views on friendship are not as well thought out as they are on Unfriended but that makes them, in a way, more worthy to explore.

The film centers on Laura, a student at a college that is definitely in southern California and not Cape Town, South Africa. She is conventionally pretty and an active social media user with over 800 Facebook friends; the film will occasionally display her friend count as it progresses throughout, it is an amusing conceit. One of the requests she receives is from a classmate Marina, a pale, black-clad, and awkward student with zero friends, online or off. She has an artistic streak, which Laura blandly appreciates. It doesn’t take long for Marina to go into obsessive mode, barraging Laura with DMs and “likes,” professing a sisterly connecting that plainly isn’t there. Laura has her own friends, as attractive and outgoing as she is, and when she rebuffs her for them in an understandable but thoughtless way, Marina takes it poorly, filming her suicide and uploading it on Facebook. But of course this is a horror film and so she is only mostly dead. Using occult ritual, she effectively transforms her spirit into an exceptionally lethal malware, killing each of her friends, and her mother, and uploading it through her account, which she cannot delete.

In his scathing review of Friend Request, A.A. Dowd writes that “there’s at least one unsavory way in which the movie feels timeless, and that’s its demonizing of—and total lack of empathy for—life’s social (and Social) misfits.” I remembered this line while watching the film. Like previous slasher films, Friend Request feels like it was made for “normal people,” or so it thinks. One of the most glaring plot holes of the film is why Marina would be interested in Laura at all. They have nothing in common, for one. What we know of Marina is Bad: she is weird, compulsively pulls out her hair, and has dark interests; what we know of Laura is … actually we don’t know anything about Laura beyond the fact that she is pretty and nice. But what more do you need? The film goes to comical lengths to show how Laura has the best life and the best friends. During the birthday scene, where one of those friends is offering a toast to a life of success and happiness as if these were self-evident rewards only they could conceive of, seems to have come from the Tommy Wiseau School of Nuance. Of course Marina wants to be her friend, they all do, and of course it’s not their problem that she cannot.

There’s something to be said for this view, for that is the kind of thing that social media does. We’ve always celebrated friendship in real time, but digitizing the scrapbook turns it into a kind of achievement, a secret society that is not at all secretive. This makes more sense as the viewpoint of the film changes. We start to learn more about Marina’s background, coming to college with a path of tragedy, abuse, and death in her wake. Her mother (you’re not going to watch this) was a member of a coven and a comatose burn victim when Marina was born, to take just one example. Marina and Laura now seem less like mismatched friends and more like totally opposed abstractions. Marina has had all the world’s ills foisted on her literally since birth, Laura all the world’s fortune. This is incel logic. Marina’s digital spirit texts Laura to say “u will know what it feels like to be lonely :),” and as her friend count plummets to 26, it feels almost just.

If horror can sometimes seem like comedy that isn’t funny, this is especially true in the case of Friend Request. I wonder if any of it could have been salvaged if it had been instead a dark satire, depicting the modern world through the eyes of either deeply entitled or hopelessly damaged young people. A world where the vicious strata of the internet is a haven compared to a featureless society teeming with clueless adults who, so far as I can tell, have no idea how to administrate a college, investigate a crime, or raise a child safely. In its present, more damaged, state it qualifies for memorialization through out-of-context GIFs rather than full cult status, assuming that is even possible anymore.

But both Unfriended and Friend Request at least leave the door open for deeper examinations of friend groups and the peril they constantly invite. Horror is more than its bodies; people are more than their friends. And yet people will still pay money for friends to put other friends through all sorts of Hell.

PROPER ETIQUETTE

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Hi. Hello. Yes. Hi. Good evening and welcome! It’s been too long. Yes, very long. How long do you think? Two years? No! Really? Wow. Yes. Hi, who are you again? I’m sorry. Oh my, well how about that? Yes. Put your coats in the bedroom, right down the hall there to your right. Just pile them on the bed. I was just mixing the punch when you guys got here. Oh no, you’re not early; you’re just on time. You’re within the bounds of proper etiquette. No it’s not spiked … yet. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. So everyone will be over in the living room, so grab a drink—I have craft beer, we have light beer, I have liquor and mixers on the far table by the TV—and do make yourselves at home. Just be careful because there is a monster sitting in the corner. Oh hi! Yes. Welcome and good evening. Wine, oh thank you! I didn’t get any myself. Coats are on a pile in the bedroom. Excuse me. Yes, in the corner. Uhm … which corner, you mean? That corner. To the right of the bookshelf. Yes, there it is … little scamp. No that’s where it is, mean-looking thing. No I’ve never seen it move, and I couldn’t tell you just how agile it is. It’s certainly hard to be agile in this apartment. Ha. Ha. Ha. I mean, just be careful. Don’t bug it. Oh hi! Coats in the bedroom. More beer! No, very good. I’m not sure I have enough. I’ll put it in the cooler. Coats in the bedroom. Did I say that already? Oh boy! They just got here, they’ll show you. You guys don’t mind, do you? Thanks. What’s that? Oh, well it’s hard to say. I want to say green—or green-ish. But that corner doesn’t get a whole lot of light from anywhere, and it looks kind of scaly in some glances, so I wouldn’t rule out silver. If it’s turned a certain way though, you can probably catch the spikes going up its back, each slightly longer than the last going up. I think. But I’d rather not bother it, you know? I’m not sure when I first saw it. Today, I guess. Oh, if that Pandora channel isn’t to anyone’s liking I’m all for switching it to something more contemporary. I thought the jazz channel would be more … conversational? Oh hi! Yes, good evening and welcome to my humble abode. Wine! No, no, no. The more the merrier I always say. Coats in the bedroom just down the hall to your right. What’s that? No, I think you’re fine. I’m pretty confident you’re fine, in fact. In fact, I think you’re sounding a little prejudicial right now. This isn’t like you. Just because it’s a monster doesn’t mean it’s going to hurt you. What? Oh, yes, there is a monster sitting in the corner, by the bookshelf. Our mutual here is very concerned about it. Frankly I think you’re blowing this completely out of proportion. That’s a very accusatory tone you’re using, by the way. You’re acting as though I planned to have a monster sitting in the corner of my apartment, like it would be fun. I get it. It’s not ideal. But things are going well so far. Well how about this! Aren’t you two a sight for sore eyes? How was Iceland? Copenhagen? Isn’t that in Iceland? Oooooh okay. Well, I think you can see how someone could make that mistake. Coats in the bedroom. Of course you can keep your purse but I wouldn’t worry. Now I resent that insinuation. Yes you are insinuating. I would never put my friends in danger. I would never compromise the safety of the people I care about. I think you’re beginning to annoy the guests. Eye color? Blue. Oh, you mean it? Oh … well, sometimes they are red and sometimes they are black. No I haven’t asked what meaning the color change has. Well it’s a very rude thing to ask for one. It is. How would you feel if some stranger asked you out of nowhere why your hair is blond? Of course it’s the same thing! No if you’ll excuse me, you’re not the only guest. (Thank God.) Oh, such a lovely picture! How old is she now, nine months? Two years? Already? Goodness how time flies. She’s adorable! No I haven’t read My Year of Rest and Relaxation yet. I’m still three chapters into A Little Life. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. What’s that? The dip? Oh, the dip! It’s still in the fridge. I’ll go get it. And more ice? Yes I have that too. Holy shit, you scared me! Have … have you been watching me this entire time? Look, dude, if it means that much to you why don’t you go ask it yourself? I don’t know what it eats; I haven’t seen it eat since I first noticed it. Years, maybe; ions even. Perhaps since the dawn of time on this very spot, before the building was even here. Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe it’s already eaten and just wants to have a good time? Far be it from me to tell it to do otherwise. Here, make yourself useful and put this ice in the cooler, please. Okay, fam—the dip. Is. On. No I’m not sure we’ll do a summer rental this year, if you know what I mean. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Well you’ll know just how it feels when you get banned for a decade from the Hamptons! Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. The bathroom is across from the bedroom. Yes, where the coats are. Oh, no need, no need. What I don’t know can’t hurt me, right? Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. What is it now? If you’re just going to ask me again about You Know What I don’t know what else I can tell you. It is what it is. Ho. Ly. Shit. You are being just so rude right now. I’m feeling cross-examined. Really, how fucking dare you come into my apartment and ask such intrusive questions about my personal life. They were so about my personal life. I can tell a loaded question when I hear one. You know what? I bet this isn’t even about the monster. This is about Jessica, isn’t it? For fuck’s sake, man, that was so long ago. She lives all the way on the other side of the country. We haven’t spoken in years. Okay, fine, you’re scared, but that’s really a you problem at this point. Everyone else is having a great time with or without a monster. They have zero hang-ups about the monster. Maybe—and this is just a suggestion—maybe you could emulate them and enjoy yourself. I thought that was why you came here. Oh here we go—the words in my mouth again. Just like old times. I meant nothing by it jus that you should mingle and join the conversation. Maybe then you won’t be so fixated on the monster in the corner. And if I knew you’d be making such a big deal about it I wouldn’t have brought it up in the first place. No one would be affected by it in the way you’re affecting everyone else right now. Fuck me? Fuck you! Fuck right the fuck off if that’s how you’re gonna be for the rest of the night. And while you’re at it, take everyone with you. Goodbye everyone, the vibe has been brutally murdered and here is its killer. Yes, yes. Good night. So long. It’s been real. Maybe some other time. Coats in the bedroom, make sure you have the right ones. Yes, yes, take back any unopened wine, I’m sure they’ll find suitable homes. Yes, we’ll get together again soon, but with a modified guest list, of people with proper etiquette. Yes. Yes. Goodbye. So long. Well, I guess it’s just you and me again. At least someone spiked the punch. A little too much. You don’t drink, do you? Oh, I see. Well you should have thought of that while they were still here.

MY BASEBALL ESSAY

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This is my baseball essay. I will now commence with the writing of my baseball essay. Baseball is a sport. Though it does not look like a sport at first glance. Like other sports, it involves human people, placed in particular positions on a field of grass arranged in a particular way. But in baseball, the players don’t play. They mostly stand around, moving a few feet at intervals of several minutes. If you are a human person who prefers to move as little as possible, baseball might be the sport for you.

I will now continue with the writing of my baseball essay. If you are a person who appreciates baseball who at the same time cherishes your health and well-being to an above-moderate degree, I cannot recommend that you keep reading. But you will anyway because when my baseball essay is complete, it will be very well written.

I remember that I did not move very much when I played baseball. I was often in the outfield. That is where Police Athletic League coaches preferred to put the team members who did not exhibit the apparent skills required for playing baseball. But even if I had those skills I imagine that I would still be standing around because standing around is what playing baseball entails. When I played baseball, the pants for my uniform were at least one size too big, so whether I was moving or not I had one hand wearing a mitt while the other hand was holding my waistband. I had a red mesh cap with the PAL shield on it that my dog at the time—a mostly adorable, occasionally ferocious German Shepherd-Labrador Retriever mix named Spunky—chewed to shreds. My number was zero. When my brothers played baseball my mom coached their team. She claimed that she was the first female baseball coach in town. When I mentioned this to classmates, they corrected me by saying that another mom had preceded her. I declined to verify either claim.

Growing up in a certain area, I’ve come to know many fans of the New York Yankees. I attended one Yankees game as a child with my dad, my brother nearest to me in age, and several other children from my town but with whom I did not attend school. Nothing happened. I take that back, it rained. Riding the train to New York City on the same day a Yankees game is scheduled is my least-favorite time to commute after rush hour. Yankees fans on the train are a lot like their players. They stand around. They take up limited space. They are deeply disappointed when space is limited further by people who are not obviously fans of the Yankees. It took me many years to associate with an avowed Yankees fan free of the unease of being pummeled for breathing air before they had gotten a chance to breathe it themselves.

Riding the train while a Mets game is scheduled is a far more pleasant. For one thing, Mets fans who are from the same place that I am from are far less numerous. Another thing about Mets fans is that they are extremely polite to the point of deference. No, they are subservient. They know acutely the absurdity of being who they are to the point that they internalize it. Mets fandom is an inextricable extension of their bodies, perhaps even ingrained on their souls. If I met a Mets fan on the 7 train, and I told him to get down on his hands and knees and lick the floor for my amusement, he would not refuse me without enduring far worse consequences. I would never do this, because I am kind, but I make sure Mets fans remember that I can. For one cannot respect Mets fans as one would any other human without themselves inviting other kinds of dominance.

You are reading my baseball essay. It is going very well.

I have never been to a Mets game, but I have been to more Orioles games than I can count. I take that back, I’ve been to three Orioles games. I went to one when I was young. Nothing happened. I went to another when I was less young. Nothing happened. Six years ago I watched one from a hotel balcony too far outside of Camden Yards for me to do more than deduce with some confidence that nothing happened. Orioles fandom is something altogether different from Yankees or Mets fandom. It is not so much a fandom as it is a complex, or a trauma. No one loves baseball more than an Orioles fan; as such, the sport is never running out of ways to disappoint them. The team always loses, even when the records mark it as a win. Each loss is etched into the cosmos as a payment for the installment plan that maintains the universal order and keeps morality from dissolving into the abyss. Still, baseball itself will never be good enough for the Orioles fan. Baseball is the lover who leaves their embrace at two in the morning without even so much as a note. The lover looks a lot like Babe Ruth. Did you know Babe Ruth is from Baltimore? You do if you know an Orioles fan. Unfortunately he moved to Boston to pursue other interests.

Occasionally I am told that there are teams who are not the Yankees, the Mets, or the Orioles. The baseball team I played on as a child was called “Philadelphia.” My uniform was red and grey, colors that people who associate openly with “Philadelphia” presumably like.

Regardless of one’s team allegiance, however, baseball fans are united in the belief that baseball is poetic. No baseball fan has, to my direct knowledge, ever said this explicitly; but they do not need to. Compare, if you will, the widening and slight watering of the eyes of a baseball spectator to the widening and watering of the eyes of someone reading about how Galway Kinnell once stayed up all night staring had his sleeping child or whatever, and I challenge you to tell me the difference. In fact, you are permitted to read books during a baseball game. You are safe, the baseball fan implies, from the brutal penalties of reading during a football game, where anyone caught is thrown onto the field, hogtied, and dragged from one end zone to the other and back by a chain attached to a running back’s waist. Baseball is sportsmanship embodied, which respects discipline, valor, and beauty, not unlike poetry. Football is the prose of sports: dense, clumsy, functional, and Spartan.

If you’ve made it this far into my baseball essay, you might suspect that the idea of Ty Cobb playing with sharpened cleats is very delightful to me.

I do not know what else to write in my baseball essay. Here are some random images presently in my head that are related to baseball.

  • A Huffington Post headline that reads “Harvard Study: Baseball Desensitizes Empathy and Defensive Reflexes Faster and More Irreversibly Than Pornography.”
  • A fire starting in the middle of Yankee Stadium for no apparent reason, which quickly engulfs the entire complex before a wind strengthens and carries its flames into the other boroughs—Staten Island included—and burns the entire city to rubble. In the future people will look from across the Hudson River at the rubble. One will ask, “What used to be there?” One will say, “New York.” The other will ask, “Have you been there?” The other will say, “No.” Still another will say, “Yeah.” The others will say, “Really?” The other will say, “Yeah.” One of the others will say, “For how long?” The other will say, “A few years.” One of the others will say, “What was it like?” The other will say, “Nothing happened.”
  • The year is 2038. The sound of multiple chainsaws revving at the same time echo from the field of Shea Stadium.

Thus concludes my baseball essay. I hope that you liked it. But if you read it and it did not make you feel very good, please listen to this song.

If you have listened to that song but still feel bad, your next best option is to repress those feelings for the duration, and to remember that there might still be time to take up jai alai.

SUMMER FIRSTS

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Eric left his towel back at the house. It was early afternoon and the sand on the beach was directly under the sun; he could not take off his sandals or sit. He slept in and his friends left earlier without him. By the time he got there they had all gone into the water to body surf. Standing closer to the shore and peering out into the waves he could just make out their heads bobbing up and down in the water like bath toys.

He looked around the beach and saw a preponderance of flat, gleaming bodies; flesh sloping downward, almost lifeless. They looked like slabs of back bacon on a buttered stovetop. Any moment now the special badge-wearers would come out with their large coolers, sticking the tanners and loungers with their knives and prongs, placing the cutlets between buns, and washing them down with Natty Light; or mead, maybe.

There should be far more exciting wastes of a day pass, Eric thought to himself as he strolled north on the boardwalk. The boardwalk was long, extending 18 blocks of the beach town. Looking straight ahead from the middle position where he walked, the path narrowed violently as if it had no end, as if he was on a public treadmill where everyone could move at their own speed. Eric kept looking back to make sure he was not obstructing the joggers, but every time he did there was always one right behind him, glaring sourly as they moved to either side of his lumbering frame. Eric tried to be as courteous as things went but was always mystified by the deference expected of him by the quick-footed.

The end of the boardwalk was marked by a 15-foot replica of a lighthouse, one of two holding up a sign over the adjacent road reading SORRY TO SEE YOU LEAVE! between two smiling suns in heart-shaped sunglasses. The fake lighthouse on his side was defaced with a frowning face in dripping red spray paint.

Eric had no memory of the boardwalk having such charm, or being this hot. Of course the only other time he’d been there was 20 years before, when he was around 11 or 12. He, his mother, his younger brother, an aunt, an uncle, and three older cousins (the oldest a boy followed by two girls) had cramped into a two-bedroom beach house, for which the adults pooled near-equal chunks of their savings to rent for a four-day getaway. It rained for all but one and a half of those days; much of it was spent trying to quell confined boredom. Eric remembered a great deal of noise that his mother and aunt tried to placate with delights not afforded him back home. He drank as many as four Cokes during the day paired with a slice of white bread slathered with chunky peanut butter, which he gagged with every bite before washing it down with an ice pop that turned his mouth either red, blue, purple, or green.

During the day, the older cousins would sit in the living room watching Jerry Springer try and fail to convince lesbian strippers, runaway punks, black nationalists, and Klan members to “have a conversation,” or whatever. Eric asked his mother, often sitting in the kitchen with her sister swirling a glass of wine and staring out into the rain, if he could go watch with them, and she waved him off. But every time he tried to join, the cousins would turn off the TV and glare at him until he left. At night they would gather at the table and play the available board games: Monopoly, Parcheesi, Sorry, Connect Four, Candy Land, and Stratego. On the drive down, Eric’s uncle regaled everyone in the car with his ambitions to have a cookout every night with different meats: chicken cutlet on Thursday, bratwurst and burgers on Friday, pork chops on Saturday, and Taylor ham pork roll sandwiches throughout the days. But his uncle, younger than his sisters and not tied by parentage, was seldom in the house.

Eventually the rain did give way on Saturday afternoon, and they had all gone outside for the first time. The clouds did not clear, leaving the beach sand claylike and the water colder than usual. Eric’s mother and aunt sat on beach chairs on either side of the cooler containing mostly Cokes and the least-favored green apple-flavored ice pops. The children played at the edge of the water, dodging the waves and chasing each other around to no exact purpose. Eric’s brother took out a Sailor Moon Frisbee, actually from the family sitting next to them, and threw it into the ocean. The owner of the Frisbee, a girl about his age, was crying incessantly, and Eric’s brother started crying incessantly. Each faced each other beside their respective parents, with Eric’s mother apologizing to the girl’s nonplussed father who nonetheless took her apologetic offer of 10 dollars.

“Tell her your sorry,” Eric’s mother said to his brother. Which he did, garbled as it was by his sobs. The girl wiped her nose on her father’s bathing suit and looked away.

Summers like this were supposed to be summers of “firsts” for his generation. For his cousins this would have given them opportunity, presumably, to share a beer with and steal a kiss from another same-aged vacationer, on the beach at night or under the boardwalk, whom they would never see again. As the day went on the cousins’ style of play grew rougher and surlier with the understanding that these opportunities would be denied them until next year. Eric, at least, would have his own “first” when he witnessed what would later be described as “public drunkenness.”

That night, Eric’s uncle came back to the house holding a bagged beverage and in the company of a man of similar comportment whom no one knew. At his repeat and somewhat frenzied urging, he led us all to the boardwalk which, because everyone else was beset with the rain, was bustling on either side of the street. The ground was dry but air was chilly. The cousins were in sweatshirts bearing either emblems of colleges none of them could ever hope for admission. Eric and his brother wore sweatshirts with Looney Tunes characters.

Eric had not been conscious that his mother had any anxiety about crowds, but felt it in her grip on his arm.

“Mom, you’re hurting me!” Eric’s brother yelled.

“Just hold your horses, you two,” she replied abruptly.

The boardwalk was teeming with carnival-like commotion as they made their way south on the boardwalk. They kept falling behind his aunt who in turn was trying to keep up with his uncle and the strange companion, who seemed to have a separate agenda. As they rushed past the businesses, Eric heard a patterned soundtrack. “Glory Days” in a bar, “Livin’ on a Prayer” in a t-shirt shop, “Born to Run” in an ice cream parlor, “Runaway” from a motel balcony.

At a lull in the crowd they finally caught up with his aunt and cousins who were at once drained and frazzled looking around for the uncle and his sidekick, who were now out of sight. Eric’s mother and aunt had a tense exchange that the children could not hear save Eric’s mom saying, “There’s an ice cream place back that way.”

“It’s freezing and the line was out the door when we passed it,” his aunt said.

Eric’s mother shrugged; then his aunt shrugged. The kids cheered and led the way back.

They were the last in line at the ice cream parlor and the crowd on the boardwalk began to thin out. Eric’s cousins had their own conversation as they stood around a figurine of a cone of soft serve with a smiling face only slightly taller than Eric. Eric listened in, again with their speech coming out in fractures. The girls were chirping and wide-eyed over the singer of Silverchair. The boy rolled his eyes imploring that “Silverchair bites,” much to his sisters’ displeasure. When they noticed Eric was eavesdropping, however poorly, the boy turned to him with a smirk and asked, “Can you get us some cigarettes?” Eric froze and nervously shook his head no. The three of them laughed.

The surrounding boardwalk suddenly looked darker as businesses began to close. Coming south out of the darkness was a group of older people, five men and two women. The men were wearing either denim jackets or Baja ponchos and cargo shorts. The two women were in oversized sweatshirts and cutoffs with exposed pockets. All of them had Slurpees in their hands, either Coke or Cherry-flavored. As they walked they passed around a bottle of clear liquid, pouring the contents into their Slurpees. When it came to one of the men it had only a few drops.

“Real classy, guys” the man said, shaking the bottle over his drink.

The group laughed as they came to pass Eric.

“Fuck it,” the man said, and launched the empty bottle at the base of the soft serve figurine, shattering it to pieces. Eric’s cousins froze.

“Randy!” cried the nasal voice of a female.

“Watch it, man,” said a rougher male voice.

Randy appeared unfazed, turning a wide grin at Eric that looked completely black, like a void waiting to obliterate him. As the rest of the group passed him, the two women waved and smiled sheepishly. They took cover behind the men once they saw the mutually hard glares of Eric’s mother and aunt burning holes into their foreheads.

Eric’s mother flagged a nearby man in tight black shorts and a yellow shirt that read BEACH PATROL. In his arms was a bicycle helmet but he had no bicycle, keys were hanging around his neck. Eric looked up as his mother sternly but methodically laid out what had happened, or so Eric could glean. The patrolman looked out into the darkness of the southward direction the group were walking and listened placidly to her complaint. The patrolman shook his head from side to side and said things Eric could not hear; though he caught several instances of “miss.” Eric’s mother looked less and less assured.

“These are violent men, miss,” Eric heard the patrolman say gravely. “And you should know better.”

The patrolman turned quickly to Eric and flashed a grin no less black than Randy’s. Indeed, more than half of his face was shrouded.

“Have a good night, miss.” He twirled his keys like a bored gym teacher and walked lazily in the same direction as the group. Eric couldn’t tell what was down that way. It appeared far blacker than anything else he saw, yet the people who remained on the boardwalk all appeared to be going in that direction, and at the same slow and listless speed, as if it was calling them. When they disappeared into the dark, Eric imagined they were absorbed by it and made part of it.

Eric’s cousin handed him a cone of chocolate and vanilla soft serve with rainbow-colored sprinkles jimmies. He was led away from the darkness at the end of the boardwalk by his mother’s marginally more relaxed hand. He felt that he’d been spared for whatever reason and was free to go home, though maybe he would not be so lucky next time.

“Well that guy was fucking helpful,” his mother muttered to herself.

Eric looked up at her and she looked back embarrassed. It was also the first time he’d heard his mother swear.