Black Ribbon Award

Month: July, 2018

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. You can’t change it because there are no other clocks and your phone is … you don’t know where your phone is right now if you’re being honest with yourself.

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.

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.

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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 to 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 connection 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 Subtlety. 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 just 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, cried 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 you’re 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. The ground was dry but air was chilly. The cousins were in sweatshirts bearing 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 teemed with carnival-like commotion as they made their way south on the boardwalk. They kept falling behind his aunt who in turn tried 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’s eavesdropping, 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.

THINGS THAT HAPPENED

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A Thing That Happened no. 1
A Thing That Happened no. 2
A Thing That Happened no. 3
A Thing That Happened no. 4
A Thing That Happened no. 5
A Thing That Happened no. 6
A Thing That Happened no. 7
A Thing That Happened no. 8
A Thing That Happened no. 9
A Thing That Happened no. 10
A Thing That Happened no. 11
A Thing That Happened no. 12
A Thing That Didn’t Happen

A THING THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN

I believe I was here in this spot.

I’m trying to remember. Was it from this angle … or from this angle?

You’re standing in a reserved spot.

Reserved?

“Reserved,” I should say.

Oh yeah. You had to have a hat, right?

Right. They made decals, too.

I’m surprised so little of this has changed.

They’ve repainted the lines sometime since we left.

Not very evenly.

It’d be easier if it was daytime. Maybe a little to my left. No the other left.

Yes. Yes this seems right.

We were always on time. We had that in common at least.

I was barely.

Can you hear me from there?

Yes.

What do you miss most when you think of this place?

Not driving, actually.

Really?

I miss the challenge of it. You learn a lot of skills in persuasion they don’t teach you anywhere else.

Not having a phone?

Maybe. I don’t miss carrying quarters around, carrying numbers around, or digging into my purse to get them out. I don’t miss pagers.

I kind of miss pagers. I don’t miss dialing “911” to my mom for some petty bullshit. Like getting my skateboard run over.

I remember fewer phone numbers now than I did then.

I miss the backs of buildings. I miss actively avoiding people.

I miss the idea that smoking a cigarette magically transforms you to someone who’s lived a life without any of the actual effort.

You smoked?

I smoked once. I take that back I smoked one and a half times. Do you miss cops?

It’s hard to miss the one thing that hasn’t changed. I miss uncompleted residential developments.

I miss my old house.

I miss being more or less okay with not being the center of attention.

I miss cheap Wet Seal perfumes.

I miss the aroma they’d leave in the hallways in spring.

I miss drinking Coke at first period.

I miss skipping deodorant sometimes. Wait, no I don’t.

Actually I don’t really miss Coke at first period, either.

I miss thinking that hypocrisy was the exception, not the rule.

I miss people thinking that I couldn’t read.

I miss days that were so bad that all you could do was lie in your room and try to will three AM to stretch into lunchtime.

I miss days that were so good you secretly prayed the town would get nuked for fear it will just get worse.

I miss not having to constantly worry about being better.

I miss having only so much expected of me.

I miss being totally dependent.

I miss being stupid.

Maybe I miss it being okay to be both in the same body.

I think we’re actually smarter than most people.

How do you figure that?

I’ll page you when I do.

A THING THAT HAPPENED NO. 12

There’s a story I’ve heard about the time William S. Burroughs placed a “curse” on Truman Capote. After more than two decades of seething (and mutual) resentment of the unceasingly popular author, Burroughs wrote Capote a letter saying that he had “betrayed and sold out [his] talent,” that it was “officially withdrawn,” and that Capote would “never write another sentence above the level of In Cold Blood.”

I believe this only insofar as I believe that Burroughs would actually think he was hexing someone, or at least insist for the remainder of his life that he had done so. But I think about this a lot.

In June, Brandy Jensen tweeted that “one thing it’s important to remember is that almost all writing is bad … tweets, essays, novels, poems—all almost uniformly dogshit.” I think about this a lot too.

Eventually my thoughts converge and replicate into questions.

Would I, if it were in my power, make Jensens’s tweet the truth? Would it be worth it for me to divert all my time and energy from writing and reading to plumbing the depths of the Black Arts? To commit spell compounds to memory? To chart the maps of the spirit world for the nearest entryways? To barter for the highest stakes with unseen and unnamable shapes on their shrouded, ashen vistas, in forbidden dialects? Would I seek to go to the utmost extreme, to level the playing field, to protect something I love—or, in any case, to prevent it from spoiling?

Would I risk being the subject of scorn, calumny, condemnation, shame, oppression, censure, rumor, and the pointing fingers of people who’ve never loved literally anything? To be reduced to a muttering, black-cloaked, bird bone-necklaced stranger, glowering on mossy mounds, painting esoteric figures on trees to ward off intruders?

Ultimately, I would not.

But I think about this a lot.

 

A THING THAT HAPPENED NO. 11

Dear Mr. President,

I must admit that before you were elected to office, I never really paid you much mind. It seems so strange to say that now. And it’s not that I didn’t take you seriously, but that you were so far from my periphery at the time that you just didn’t register at all. I mean, I’d heard you almost as a kind of legend, a far off cryptozoological thing. It’s amazing how an election will change things, will humble you so thoroughly. I realize that I’ve never had a better advocate in your office than I do now; and America has never been in more capable hands.

With you in the White House, the United States is in control by the right people—our people. For far too long our region has been pushed aside, taken for granted, and outright loathed by neighbors near and far. But now I think your administration is making unprecedented strides in making them see the light. Wisconsinites will think twice of sending one of their locals to “make good” in your shadow. Oklahomans, Carolinians, Californians, Pennsylvanians, Nevadans, people from Maine will all see the futility of inhabiting your seat. Clearly from our lands the chain of power will be forged. Who but one of us can contain the hordes and bring them to heel?

I can’t fathom the mind of a Minnesotan or an Oregonian. What drugs are they fed to convince them that they are contributing positively to the strength of America? That they are worthy of the prestige being American confers? If what you say in your briefings is true, and I’ve no reason to doubt you, that we are a global laughing stock, then you and I must both know the source, and that total subservience is the only solution.

I fear, of course, that you will not see the light of the second term. Not because you have failed in your duties, but because so many of these “Americans” are living in denial from the truth. They are living in a fever dream of harmony and fellow feeling. They are in a voluntary coma and it looks like no amount of shock or shaking will compel them to wake up. Your sense of fairness and stoic fealty to the democratic process will be much abused in November.

If a second term is not in the cards, let me propose some modest parting measures of your executive power:

  • that you “expel” the NYC metropolitan area from the Union and spare us from rule by Idahoan or whatever. (Declaring also the placing of the center of its power on the right side of the river.)
  • that you make “Mother” the new national anthem. Admittedly it is not my favorite of your songs, and maybe “Where Eagles Dare” is more appropriate, but “Mother” has a certain majesty and authority sufficient to remind the rest of the nation what they threw out like yesterday’s trash.

I am ever your grateful and humbled citizen.

A THING THAT HAPPENED NO. 10

I’m at this restaurant with my dad. It’s Friday and it’s crowded. To my left are two teens who will NOT stop laughing. To my right are two nurses in identical haircuts
Short and kind of square

The place has been there for decades but has been remodeled recently. Like, it went up a whole –brow level by getting rid of the typewriters, bicycles, and pictures of people long dead and put up a train station motif
The staff used to where suspenders and khakis
*wear
Now they wear denim and white button-downs

Also, mason jars.
I didn’t noticed this one until recently when a waiter brought over what looked to me like a mint julep in a mason jar to the nurses’ table

Dad was telling me about whatever podcast he was listening to that day when I had 2 thoughts
One was that the teens would NOT ShUT THE FUCK UP
My dad was totally unfazed. He’s like 34 years my senior and somehow I’M the curmudgeon

Anyway, second thought was “where do all the mason jars come from?”

That seems pretty dumb
Like I could just LOOK IT UP right there
But it felt rude taking out my phone for a forum
*fourth
Or fifth time
Even if my reason was an actually good one
But I guess I could compartmentalize the thought and circle back to it later
I’m pretty good about that

“But why do that?” this guy tells me. He’s standing behind dad in a white suit
Tall, lean, maybe 40s or 50s
Kind of Paul Newman-looking actually NO
Who’s that guy?
SAM SHEPARD

Anyway “Who are you?” is what I say to him.
“I’m your guardian angel” is his reply. “I’m here to ease what troubles you.”
“So you’ll show me where the mason jars come from?”
“Sure”
“Awesome!” (that’s me)
“That’s it?”
“Basically”
“okay”

The he fucking grabs me by my shoulders and lifts me up. I’m not in the restaurant anymore but in some pulsating multicolored vortex and all this chirpy peppy elevator music is playing. Then we land not very gracefully in front of this huge factory sitting in the middle of this fast flatland
*vast
Like under a blue, clear sky, like a Malick movie

“here we are,” he says
“Where’s here?”
“This is the Prairie Partners Glass Company, one of the leading providers of the nation’s mason jars. Here each jar is painstakingly crafted to perfection”
“I kind of thought they recycled old jars” I say
“No that’s disgusting! What are you a fucking creep?”
I tell him I’m not

ANYWAY, he goes on, this is the factory floor where all the magic happens
And he waves his arm away to reveal a long conveyer belt
The jars are coming out one by one from a huge machine and the conveyer belt is lined on either side by people in yellow jumpsuits inspecting each jar
“Notice all the happy and productive workers,” he says. “No automation for THIS plant. Each jar is put through a painstaking process of authentication. They may be new, but they’ll look like you plucked them right out of the junkyard like a common scavenger. The jars are imprinted with fake years of production, defunct company names, or arcane folksy wisdom. Then they’re ‘detailed.’”
“’Detailed’?” (he’s making the quote-hands not me)
“Yeah, some are coated with dust or film, some are given light cracks or chips, others are fitted with a small bone or a dead spider.”
“Oh”
“The process is carefully monitored! The more steps a jar skips, the more severe the penalty.”
“What’s the most severe penalty?”
“The last one with the most poorly detailed jar has to spend their lunch break partaking in the floor manager’s choking fetish”
“Wait, the floor manager chokes the employee?”
“Oh no no no no, the employee has to watch the floor manager get choked out by his dom.” He leans in to whisper “it’s VERY awkward.”

“But after that, the mason jars are boxed and shipped across the nation to restaurants, brunch nooks, Etsy, Anthropologie … uh … Restoration Hardware … I guess …
“Wow, thanks!”
“Sure thing.”
We stand there for a minute.
“So … I guess it’s time to go back?”
“Wait what?”
“To where I came from?”
“Oh … uh … just go that way?” he points in a totally arbitrary direction
“What the hell? I thought you were my guardian angel”
“Where did you get that idea?”
“You told me”
“Oh … well that’s because you’re having a psychotic break. Or a stroke or something. idk I’m not a doctor.”

Then he flew up toward the sun and now everything is black and I can’t see wear I am
*where

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