Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Best Intentions

            He wants to be the Jewish Neil Young. When his parents hear him say it, they frown, shuffle their feet, and wag their fingers. No good Jewish boy plays in a rock and roll band, especially the sort of four and five piece crews coming out of California with their suntans, long hair, and marijuana smoke trailing behind them. Mike does not care. He wraps his arms around the idea that rock and roll will change the world and, even if it means shaming his family like his father screams, even if it means his childhood world turns its back on him, he isn't going to let go. He sees no other way.
             His father owns Evansville's oldest newspaper for many years until selling his stake and retiring in the early 1970's. His mother is a music instructor at a private school. Both parents are orthodox and visiting synagogue is not a choice. Mike questions everything he hears, pushing back against the rituals, the commandments, their attempts at wedging him into their design for living. He wants to leave, taking to the road and playing guitar, and kick the life he knows into the past. Flip-off the faith of his ancestors, spit on their kippahs, throw aside their rules and punishments, and mold a new identity from that. When he hears Neil Young for the first time in 1972, his cousin Clark sits beside him, leaning towards the speaker.
            “Wow, what’s this song called?” Clark says.
            Mike glances at the album sleeve. "Cinnamon Girl."
            “Listen to that guitar! This sounds incredible, Mike! What’s this guy’s name again?”
            “Neil Young. Used to be in a band called Buffalo Springfield.”
            Clark stares into the speaker and his eyes are blinking fast. “Never heard of them.”
            “Man, I’ve never heard anything like this before.”
            The growling, thrashing guitar chords are razors dissecting his life. They are cutting out the fat, the thick buffers his parents build to shield him from the world. The long, piercing string bends quicken his pulse and straighten his back. By the time Mike graduates from high school a year later, he has a car and a plan.
            “Dad, I’m not going to school in the fall. I’m gonna travel, see the country, play my guitar.”
            They are sitting at the dining room table. His father is writing out checks for household expenses and, when he hears Mike's words, shoves the checkbook and papers off the table. He pulls his head back, frowns, and flings his hand through the air. “Do you realize what you are saying? The chances that you are taking with your future?”
            “I don’t care. Maybe I'll go to school, but I'm going to go out and meet life first."
            “You are a fool, Michael, and a dreamer. You should be getting ready for school, yet you insist on this waste of time." His father coughs and strokes his hand across his shirt, smoothing out the wrinkles. "Be forewarned, Michael, that we're not paying for this in anyway and we will not bail you out of any scrapes.”
            Mike holds his legs together and clinches his fists. “I don’t expect you to, dad.”
            His father stares at him, then rolls his eyes and looks away. "You don't know what's waiting for you out there. America doesn't care about your guitar playing, your dreams, or the good in your heart." He turns his chin downward and arches an eyebrow. "And nor should it." He turns, reaches down, picks up his checkbook, and waves it in the air like a winning lottery ticket. "This is what matters, Michael. What you love only matters if it's making money and dreams are just that - dreams. They don't prepare you for life, they don't make money, and they never come true." He slaps his hand on the tabletop, turns, and starts picking up the papers from the floor.
            Mike shakes his head and stands. “I disagree. It’s a new day in America. Things are changing.”
            “Disagree if you like. You've made up your mind to hurt yourself and your family." The words are bursting out of him. He stares at Mike, leans his head back, and shrugs. "It's not a new day in America, Michael, but believe what you want. Children often do, despite the truth. There’s a lot coming to you, I am afraid.”
            In the summer of 1973, Mike drives his van out of Evansville tapping the steering wheel, bopping his head, and smoking marijuana. These are the days of Watergate, Wounded Knee, and the end of Vietnam. He thinks Nixon is reaping his karmic reward, the Indians should have killed more FBI agents, and marching ends wars. He is free, speeding west, and pictures himself playing his guitar just before sunrise on a California beach. The thought moistens his eyes and makes him smile.
            On the second day, he stops at a campground outside Cheyenne, Wyoming. No clouds stain the lustrous, blue carpet sky and the surrounding dense thickets of prairie grass are weaving in a soft breeze. Mike washes his body before cooking pork and beans on a campground grill. When he finishes eating, he rolls a large joint and walks through the campground.
            Mike sees a school bus while walking. Cinder blocks are elevating the rear end of the bus, a flat tire leans against a tree, and three people are sitting near the bus eating sandwiches.
There is an overweight man in his early thirties wearing brown corduroy jeans, a thin white t-shirt, and fraying sandals. White strains streak his long, thick beard and his thin hair brushes against his shoulders. He is scowling, his jaw shifting from side to side. There is a young guy, maybe twenty, with a thick mane of blonde hair, muscular arms, and a wide, round chest. The third person is a woman, also in her early twenties, and hovering near the younger man. Her long blonde hair is thin and reaches the middle of her back, the greasy strands knotting and sticking together. She has a gaunt, oval face, a fair complexion, and sharp features. There is a deep slope at the end of her nose and the tip juts out like a pointing finger. Her jaw is triangular and has a long, shallow dimple. She is tall, over six feet, and slender.
            “Hey man, you guys need help?” Mike asks.
            The two men look at each other. The younger man looks back at Mike and smiles. “Yeah, brother. There’s some heavy liftin’ here and we could use some help.”
            Mike extends his hand to the younger man first. “My name’s Mike.”
            “I’m Tim. This is my older brother Stan and my girl, Terri.”
            Stan shakes Mike's hand, gripping it tight enough to grind his knuckles together. Terri stands and bounces over to him. She hugs him, wrapping her arms around his neck, and pressing her body against his. “Man, it’s really cool to meet you! Ya got a joint, brother?”
            Mike smiles and widens his eyes. "Yup, I do. Let’s smoke out before we work.”
            The four of them sit in a circle near the bus and, as they smoke, Mike asks questions. Like him, all three hail from the Midwest and are driving cross-country. They have friends living at a commune south of Sacramento who invite them. A day ago, a rear tire blows out, but if they buy a new tire, they will be out of money, so they are sitting here waiting for Terri's father to wire cash.
            “So where ya goin’, man?” Terri asks.
            “California first. I wanna play my guitar in Golden Gate Park, on the beach at sunrise, and see Frisco. After that, I’ll go back east and then head south.”
            “Seeing the country, eh?” Tim asks.
            Mike nods. “Yeah, man. The war’s over, America’s America again. Things are gonna change for the better. I wanna see the country before I go off to college.”
            Tim smiles and glances at Stan. “Good idea. Fuck the war, never should have happened.”
            “I did a tour. 71’.” Stan says to Mike.
            “You didn’t try to dodge the draft?” Mike asks.
            “Couldn’t. I was on trial for some shit and they gave me a choice.”
            “What kind of shit?” Mike asks.
            “Don't worry about it. Just bullshit.” Stan spits the words out and chills Mike with his glare.
            “Hey, man, you think we can get a ride to the next town? We need some stuff.” Tim asks.
            Mike shrugs, tilts his head to the side, and nods. “Sure, man, I’ll help ya out.”
            The four of them walk to Mike’s van and, once out on the highway, they are talking again. Terri sits behind the passenger seat, Tim and Stan sitting behind her and Mike.
            “So ya really think that since the war’s over, everything’s gonna be different?” Tim says.
            Mike furrows his eyebrows and nods. “Yeah, man, how could it not be? It’s gotta be better.”
            “I didn’t see better in ‘Nam, man.”
            “I'll bet. You were a soldier, anyone would be outta their mind in that situation.” Mike says.
            “What the hell do you know about bein’ in that situation?” Stan says. He arches his voice, mocking Mike.
            Mike feels his stomach fluttering. He shifts in the driver's seat and grits his teeth. “I don’t know anything about it, man. I didn’t mean to offend. I just figure that’s the way it is.”
            Tim reaches forward and pats Mike on the shoulder. "Don't worry about, Mike. You're cool with us.” He leans back and sighs. "Yeah, the war's over, but so what? The war here never ends."
            Mike opens his mouth to speak, but Terri puts her hand on his arm and squeezes him." So, you play guitar?"
            “Yeah. I've got some money, but this guitar and a pound of grass I have will make me money," Mike says.
            “Really? You've got a pound in the van?" Stan asks.
            Mike turns his head towards the men and nods. "Oh yeah, got it before I left Indiana." He hears Stan mumbling something indecipherable and the two men jostling.
            Tim coughs. “Let’s do it after we score those tires," he says.
            Mike puckers his lips, smiles, and nods. "Cool, man."
            The highway is a narrow, granite vein dividing long plains of grass and Mike widens his eyes when he sees blurry, distant mountains swelling from the horizon. His window is open and his arm rests on the window frame as he drives. He raises his chin a little and his heartbeat quickens. No one is telling him what to do anymore. He is driving to a new land, a new world, where people are free and working hand in hand with one another to spread love, learn, and grow as human beings. No more synagogue, no more social protocols, no more imprisoning him in structures and designs that rob him of the room he needs to stretch and grow. His hair stands and pimples rise when the strong breeze sweeping over his arm tickles his skin.
            “So you said fuck college, I’m gonna travel, play my guitar and sell pot, huh?” Terri says. She giggles.
            “Yeah. I’m not going to do it forever or anything, you know?”
            “Outta sight, man. I betcha your folks weren’t happy.”
            “They weren’t, but I don’t care.”
            She slowly crosses her legs and rubs them against each other, hoping Mike notices. Mike looks over, turns his eyes back to the highway, and says nothing. He thinks her legs look like two long toothpicks with small, round splinters of bone bulging from her knees.
             “Hey man, do you think we could stop for a while? I got a bum knee that I need to stretch out. Need to piss too,” Stan says.
            “Sure, man. I’ll break out some of that weed too and roll a joint.”
            Mike drives another half mile before pulling over to the shoulder of the highway. The four climb out of the van. The western sun flickers behind billowing splashes of cloud smearing the sky. Stan stretches his back and stares off into the distance. Mike sees Tim whispering into Terri’s ear.
            “I gotta piss too,” Mike says.
            Tim nods and looks at Stan. Mike turns and takes four steps before he hears someone walking behind him. When he starts to turn his head, his head explodes, pains searing his senses and knocking him unconscious.
            A truck driver sees him alongside Highway 80, fifteen miles east of Cheyenne. Blood covers his face and an inch wide skull fracture is on the back of his head. He is still bleeding, his pulse racing, slowing down, stopping, and racing again, his chest straining for each shallow breath. The truck driver loads him into his vehicle and saves his life.
            The police arrest no one and the brain damage shreds Mike's memories. He remembers how the wind feels on that day. He remembers seeing the long plains of slumping prairie grass, Terri's giggle, and Stan's withering glare, but he recalls nothing else. His family brings him home. Mike never plays his guitar at sunrise sitting on a California beach, never finds the people working hand in hand to bring the world together, drinks and stays in bed for days at a time, but his family does not care. They tell each other that none of it matters; Michael is still Michael, even in this state. His thick blonde hair still parts best to the left, his slender jaw still gives his face a gentle look, and his eyes are as blue as ever. Mike is the only one who knows what he has lost. He is gone, dead, three people murdering his dreams for a sputtering van, an acoustic guitar, and a pound of marijuana, and will not dream again.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Bottle Jumper

            The first time Ben jumps inside a bourbon bottle is an accident. It is three in the morning. He eats barbecue potato chips with cream cheese, gulps mouthfuls of booze, and watches an old episode of Sanford and Son, Fred Sanford clutching his chest, staggering, saying that it is the biggest one yet. Ben needs to pee. He moves the potato chip bag from his lap and sits the bottle in front of him on the floor. When he stands, the room spins, his knees buckle, and he starts to fall onto the bottle. He closes his eyes and dives into the bottleneck, instead of impaling himself, plunging into the brown bourbon sea within.
            He is swimming, gliding through the liquor, and his eyes are open. He is breathing, but his lungs are not filling with fluid. Instead, he is drinking, not guzzling from a bottle, chugging from a beer can, or tossing back shots, but wafting with a smile on his face through the sour mash and absorbing alcohol into every inch of his body. All of the drinking, the feverish wide-eye boozing from sunrise until sunset, gives him what he wants at last. It promises to numb his heart, drown his brain, swallow him whole, and delivers on the pledge. Ben is not thinking about falling inside of a bourbon bottle. He is thirstier than most, so it is no cause for alarm. No one will find him floating inside a bottle, soaking up bourbon with a wide grin on his face.
            His hands and feet stick to the walls of the empty bottle when he climbs out. It is a tight squeeze through the mouth, but his body bends and narrows until he pulls himself through. His body is dry, but he feels the alcohol pumping through him. His chest is heaving with excitement and he doubles over to catch his breath. He feels free somehow. The television still plays. The empty bottle sits on the floor. He hears his wife's snoring in the bedroom. No one sees him fall inside the bottle and no one sees him climb out. He wants to keep it that way. He knows he can do it whenever he likes, but will hold back the desire to dive in. It is his special skill and his special place and no one must know.
            His wife can never know. He does not see her much since the funeral. She works twelve hours a day and, when she is home, slams doors, locks herself in their son's silent bedroom, and fills the house with the soft whine of her weeping. If she spies him diving into the bottle, or climbing out, she will take it from him. When they talk, she wants to shame and prod him.
            "Plan on leaving the house again, Ben? Or taking a bath? How about not drinking yourself into a coma today?" Her eyes are wide-open and twitching. Her skin is gray and moist.
            He is slumping in his recliner and watching television. She is standing behind him, so he cranes his head backwards to peer over the top of his chair. "I will. Today." His voice is hoarse. He turns his head away, grabs his bottle, and starts drinking. The gulping sounds like a heartbeat and he does not stop drinking until he hears his wife sigh and leave, slamming the door behind her.
            When she goes to work the next morning, Ben jumps into the bottle for a second time. Bubbles rising from the bottom pop around him and the warm ripples breeze over his face. The swimming is better than before. His slow, deep breathing helps his swollen body slither through the bourbon with ease and the hot tingling of his skin when the liquor soaks into him loosens his muscles and cools his flaming nervous system. The bourbon is the color of his son's Cub Scout uniform. He sees a brown world outside the bottle, moving, its refracting shapes and colors bobbing and weaving in his vision. After finishing the bottle, he climbs out, lays back in his recliner, and passes out.
            A week passes and Ben jumps into a bottle once a day. It is his first drink after waking up. When he opens his eyes and hears the stomping feet and smack of a closing door, he finds his bottle, breaks the seal, sits it on the floor, and takes the plunge. The other bottles he pours down his throat, but this is his "pick-me-up". It cheers him to dive into the depths of the bottle and suck in the sweet brown sea around him. He wants to spend more time in here, jump in more bottles, but he knows it is not a good idea. Someone will find out and they won't let him drink at all.
            Another week goes by, the days blending into one another like drinks spilling across a tabletop. After his wife leaves, he spends his whole day jumping into bottles, stopping when he sees the sunset, knowing she will soon walk in from work. His third bottle of the day tastes different than before. A splash of bourbon coats and thickens his tongue, but this thin flavor slides off. Bourbon warms the back of his throat, but now it pinches him tight when he swallows. The worst part is he cannot feel the liquor taking hold of him. He tips the bottle high into the air, filling his cheeks until they swell, but nothing works. He wants to jump into the bottle again, but fights the impulse and watches the hours pass until morning.
            A day later he decides to jump into a third bottle. He turns the thought over in his mind all day before convincing himself he will climb out before she gets home. He will drink nothing after she comes in and fall asleep in his recliner. If he checks the clock, dives and climbs out at the same time every day, she will never know. He does not feel well and needs the third bottle. He never stops sweating or shaking. He has terrible nightmares and hears voices when no one is there. If he jumps into a third bottle, the sweat will dry, the shaking and nightmares will stop, and he will hear nothing except the television.
            He is too weak to stand, so he sits the bottle on the table in front of him. He falls forward and shoots through the bottleneck, splashing into the bourbon below. He is sinking, the alcohol flooding and stinging his eyes. He inhales and, instead of breathing in alcohol, it rushes into his lungs and chokes him. As he sinks deeper, he thrashes and flails, the alcohol scalding his skin and the rising bubbles bursting against his chest like ascending bombs.
            Ben is not drinking anymore. He is dying, drowning inside a bottle of bourbon, and he knows it. He is holding his breath, his body pleading for air, and the churning brown liquor is burning the life out of him cell by cell. However, he sees how to save himself. If he heaves himself through the liquor, pushing off with his legs, and arching his arms through the alcohol, he can hit the side of the bottle, tip it over, and shatter it on the floor. The brown liquor will spill onto the white carpet, soak into the fabric, and leave a ruddy stain. He will be free.
He will not die.
            He swims through the alcohol, his legs pumping, kicking, his arms turning and pushing, and when he 

hits the wall, he hammers the glass with tight fists. He kicks the glass, the impact knocking him backwards, but

he grimaces and paddles back to the wall to pound it again. The alcohol shifts to one side and Ben topples

end over end. When the bottle crashes into the floor, a blinding white light washes over him.

His wife is walking through the door when she hears breaking glass. She drops her briefcase, tosses

her coat to the side, and runs through the house. When she sees Ben, he is on the floor, curling in a fetal

position, and shivering. He is wet, his clothes sticking to his body, and a halo of glass shards rings his body.

She screams his name, darts across the room, and kneels at his side.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Faith And Loss

            "You don't look good, Chuck."
            He is fifty-one, but looks ten years older. His name is Charles, but no one calls him that. When he is a fast rising air force officer and physicist, Chuck helps design a particle accelerator at the local university and has a wife, two kids, and his own home.
            "Nathan?" He is slumping against a concrete wall and smells of urine and vodka.
            "Yeah, man, it's Nathan. You alright?"
            "No, man, I'm not too good. I ain't done any good in a long time."
            A coiling, red snake inside is suffocating him. He rises in rank, but it means nothing. His knowledge builds bombs. He sees his children as gaping mouths and nothing more. He does not know how to love his them. He marries a woman who says yes and he hates her for it. When he leaves walks out on a wet August morning, a blurring light floods the house.
            "Where you going?"
            "I need a bottle before I go to 9th Street Park." Chuck says.
            "Let me help you, Chuck. I'll get your bottle and get you to the park."
            Chuck sighs. "Don't bother. If I don't make it, fuck it."
            "Fuck that. You could fall and break a leg or go to jail."
            "If I do, I do. Who cares? I sure don't. Maybe I'll get lucky and break my neck."
            Nathan waves his hand. "Come on, man, get the fuck up." Nathan drapes his arm around his shoulder pulls him up. Chuck sways and weaves, his eyes blinking.
            "Come on, man."
            Chuck starts walking, one foot following another like a man walking on ice. Downtown is blazing in the hot heart of summer and the Midwestern heat stirs a sour brew of eighty proof sweat and urine. Nathan glances at passing cars looking for police. Why am I helping this guy? I'm gonna get locked up. He is drunk, he wants another bottle, but there is more. From the moment they meet, Nathan wants to know why Chuck drinks. Chuck is dying, his sinking eyes small puddles of yellow clay.
            Nathan sits him outside the liquor store entrance and, when he returns, finds Chuck sprawling in the flower planter near the doors. Nathan shakes his shoulders.
            "Chuck, man, get the fuck up! They'll call the law!"
            Chuck slurs and hisses when he pulls himself up. He does not recognize Nathan. "Who the fuck are you?"
            Nathan sighs. "You know me, man. It's Nathan."
            "Oh. You got something to drink?"
            "Yeah, man. Let's get outta here."
            They cross College Avenue. Chuck breaks both ankles in two years, never sees a doctor, shuffling instead of walking, fraying clothes hanging loose from the thin black rope of his body.
            "Eatin' much, Chuck?"
            He shrugs. "Sometimes."
            "You gotta take better care of yourself."
            He squints and his face tightens. "Why?"
            "You don't have to die. You're a tough motherfucker, you could live a long time."
            He laughs. "I don't want a long life."
            "A real man is good and I'm no man."
            After blowing up his life, Chuck moves north. His family and friends search, but he is a faceless and homeless in a large city. There is no address or phone number. He drinks every day, passes out in parks, wakes up in jail, and feeds himself to the snake within.
            "Aw, come on, man. I think you oughta forgive and forget."
            "Forgive and forget? No one forgets or forgives anything. People bury things and get by."
            "I have faith I'll turn out alright."
            "You won't lose it either. You'll give it away, just like me."
            When Chuck trips over the uneven railroad tracks, his body sprays out like a falling man. Nathan stands over him. "This is no fuckin' good, man. You've gotta get up."
            He turns his head from side to side in the gravel. "I can't."
            "Yeah, you can. Just get up slow and lean on me as you're gettin' up."
            Chuck frowns, grabs Nathan's belt and pulls himself up. Both men fall to the ground, Nathan hitting the gravel hard and scraping his hand." Fuck!" Nathan climbs to his feet. "I'm going to get help. Let's get you off the tracks."
            When Nathan is dragging him across the gravel, Chuck stares at the sun, his jaw stabbing towards the light, slamming his hands onto the rocks. It's obvious why he drinks, he wants to die, Nathan thinks. He sees two police officers walking towards them. A thin man with a long nose and narrow eyes walks behind.
            "Stop it, damnit! Chuck, the fuckin' cops are here! I told ya! We're both going to jail."
            Chuck closes his eyes and shakes his head. "Sorry..."
            One officer is in his early twenties with a crew cut, smooth face, and dark suntan. The second is older, bald, and his round body teeters as he walks. The younger one talks first. "Looks like you guys have some problems."
            Nathan holds his palms out, pleading. "My friend's drunk and I'm tryin' to get him home."
            "Where's he live?"
            "11th Street."
            The older officer cocks his head. "How old are you? Have you been drinking?"
            "I'm 21. Yeah, I've had some to drink."
            The older officer looks at Chuck. "What's your name?"
            Chuck raises his head and opens his mouth. His tongue slides out and slithers across his purple lips. The younger officer snorts. "I'm pretty sure I know where he's going."
            The thin man points at Nathan. "I saw him trying to pull the black guy off the tracks."
            "Where do you live?" the older officer says.
            "436 South Pierce."
            "How much have you drank?"
            "Not much. I drank some whiskey earlier."
            Pockmarks dot the older officer's red face. "Do you think you can make it home?"
            Nathan puckers his lips and widens his eyes. "Yeah, sure. I'm not that drunk."
            "I strongly suggest you go there. If we see you out again, we'll take you straight to jail."
            Nathan nods. "Of course, no problem. I'll go home and stay there."
            The older officer jerks his head. "Get out of here then. Your friend's going to jail."
            That'll never happen to me. Nathan pats the vodka bottle hidden in his waistband and hears talking as he walks. "When I saw them, the black one couldn't stand up. I had to call."
            "It's good you did. If a train came through, it would have been a mess."
            The younger officer laughs. "No loss. Damnit, I need gloves, he's covered in piss!"