Monthly Archives: September 2010

The author at work, doin’ his thang

Me reading my short, flash-fiction story “Nunchucks! (…and Voyeurism)”, at my Summer 2010 MFA residency:

Today, The Best 15 Nonfiction Books I’ve Personally Ever Read

1)     Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer
2)     Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas* – Hunter S. Thompson
3)     True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa – Michael Finkel
4)     A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
5)     On Writing – Stephen King
6)     The Joke’s Over – Ralph Steadman
7)     Mentor – Tom Grimes
8)     The Snow Leopard – Peter Matthiessen
9)     Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
10) Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself – David Lipsky
11) The Sheltering Sky* – Paul Bowles
12) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert Pirsig
13) In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
14) Outlaw Journalist – William McKeen
15) Last American Man – Elizabeth Gilbert

All the President’s Men – Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, The End of Faith – Sam Harris, In Patagonia – Bruce Chatwin, The Boys on the Bus – Timothy Crouse, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 – Hunter S. Thompson, The Colossus of Marousi – Henry Miller, Running with Scissors – Augusten Burroughs

Now, for The 15 Best Story Collections I’ve Personally Ever Read

Again, the only stipulation I used was that I had to have finished the book to include it:

1)      Girl with Curious Hair – David Foster Wallace
2)      Demonology – Rick Moody
3)      Collected Stories – Amy Hempel
4)      Where I’m Calling From – Raymond Carver
5)      Jesus’ Son – Denis Johnson
6)      Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned – Wells Tower
7)      Lost in the Funhouse – John Barth
8)      Stardust, 7-Eleven, Route 57, A&W and So Forth – Patricia Lear
9)      Forty Stories – Donald Barthelme
10)  Civilwarland in Bad Decline – George Saunders
11)  Oblivion – David Foster Wallace
12)  Refresh, Refresh – Ben Percy
13)  The Elephant Vanishes – Haruki Murakami
14)  A Kind of Flying – Ron Carlson
15)  Through the Safety Net – Charles Baxter

Airships – Barry Hannah, Five Skies – Ron Carlson, Brief Interview with Hideous Men – David Foster Wallace, The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God – Etgar Keret, In Persuasion Nation – George Saunders, Slow Learner – Thomas Pynchon, The Book of Ten Nights and a Night – John Barth, Drown – Junot Diaz, The Question of Bruno – Aleksander Hemon, War by Candlelight – Daniel Alarcon, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves – Karen Russell

Next up will be my favorite nonfiction books.

The 15 Best Novels I’ve Personally Ever Read

The only stipulation I used was that I had to have finished the book to include it:

1)      Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
2)      The Road – Cormac McCarthy
3)      Candide – Voltaire
4)      The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
5)      Ishmael – Daniel Quinn
6)      The Greenlanders – Jane Smiley
7)      Night – Elie Wiesel
8)      The Four Fingers of Death – Rick Moody
9)      Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer
10)   1984 – George Orwell
11)   White Teeth – Zadie Smith
12)   The Crying Lot of 49 – Thomas Pynchon
13)   The Rum Diary – Hunter S. Thompson
14)   House of Leaves – Mark Danielewski
15)   The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz

Honorable Mentions (because it’s my list and I can):

Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy, Absurdistan – Gary Shteyngart, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers, We – Yevgeny Zamyatan, The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolano, Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay – Michael Chabon, The Human Stain – Philip Roth, Then We Came to the End – Joshua Ferris, The Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut, Invisible Monsters – Chuck Palahniuk, Wieland – Charles Brockden Brown, Less than Zero – Bret Easton Ellis, The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway, The Broom of the System – David Foster Wallace, Angels – Denis Johnson

Next up will be my 10 favorite short story collections.

A Most Dangerous and Mysterious Man

This, in some form or another, is going to be my submission for Opium Magazine‘s 7-line
short story contest

[UPDATE 9/9/10: Below is the current iteration that I submitted this a.m. for the contest. Cross your collective fingers!.]

A man on his phone at a urinal says, “I’m being chauffeured around today, honey, because I
keep falling asleep at the wheel.” He and I are both relieving ourselves when he says this—both
of us adhering strictly to the unwritten two-men-pissing rule: one empty urinal between us,
eyes forward. But when I overhear his admission of recent—and seemingly chronic—narcoleptic
fits while driving, I cannot help but turn my prying gaze, midstream, toward him. Who is honey?
Should she or he not already know this man is a repeat somnolent driver? I want to ask, but he
absconds before I can adequately shake and zip, leaving me only a wet pantleg to mull over.

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The Universe and Language, Creators and Cannibals

The universe cannibalizes itself, recycles itself.
Everything made from everything else.
Ashes to ashes...
Elements fit together like Legos to make everything,
different combinations.
A few molecules,
the only difference between plastic and margarine.

Similarities run amok, abound,
between physics and language.
Discourse alchemy:
As above so below
Letters combine to create words, phrases and sentences.
Construct, deconstruct and reassemble,
ad infinitum.

Words, ideas, elements and energy.
Recombined, redistributed — evolution.
Life evolves.
Language breathes.
An organic system of architecture,
assimilating one in-to the other.

Elements constitute the universe.
Words depict the elements, symbolically.
Assembled into different configurations;
Create representations, promote understanding.
Human beings, both part of and other than,
reveling in their affiliation and otherness, simultaneously.

Cognitively conflicted.

Dissonance ensues.

No new ideas truly materialize,
knowledge is only ever re-discovered, re-membered,
discoveries that always were and always will be — there.
We, human beings, perhaps,
use these words, use language, to identify,
to differentiate, to organize and to ostracize.

The ego.

Identify the inferior and the superior,
with affiliation the result.
Elitism is thus bred.
Words used in creation of the other,
determine and detract,
with a terrible and arbitrary swiftness.

Devaluation emerges in kind;
value, likewise.
Gold, silver, tin, rust;
Chemical and physical make-up,
assembled by the universe,
equally insignificant and precious,
unwavering equanimity.

**[Don’t forget to check out my latest short story below, “The Black Hole Cometh,” or click here.]

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The Black Hole Cometh: A Short Story, 1st [“complete”] draft

(This is draft “1.1” of my newest short story “The Black Hole Cometh.” More revisions will likely follow!)

BUFORDSVILLE RETIREMENT COMMUNITY — aka: The Old Folks’ Home, The Home for Oldies, Old Mold’s Bar and Grille, McMoldy’s, the Stairway to Heaven, The Last Train Stop to Nowhere, The Dead End, Hell, The Black Hole, etc. I’ve heard them all — was located in a part of town no one would (or could) ever mistake for “the best.” This is a simple and inarguable point of fact.  The part of town itself in which BRC called home was seedy and old — the phrase abject disrepair springs to mind when one thinks about both subjects either together or separately.

And being that the old part of town is where the more useless… sorry… mature citizens were expected to “retire” — and I use the term retire loosely — the whole situation would be funny and ironic in a kind of way that something truly ironic is funny, but only then some supreme master of the obvious says something like “no pun intended,” when, in fact, a pun was mostly obviously intended.  The pun itself however constitutes such unimaginably poor levels of quality and creativity that, when uttered, causes standersby to laugh uncomfortably because the situation has taken a turn toward the excruciatingly awkward[1] but that’s a whole other story.

The point of this story is that the Black Hole was basically just a weird fucking place to work at or have anything else to do with in the first place.  The neighborhood, as I said, was one of the oldest in Bufordsville, and it showed.  This area was well known to even those not born and raised in Bufordsville because of the overall poverty, violence and gang activity.  There was a shooting just about every night within a few square mile radius of BRC which pretty much meant we were at ground zero.

A few months back, the BRC’s man with the plan (and check-signing authority), Bob Delaney, hired a young new guy named Gary — who had the unfortunate last name, Indiana — as a geriatric nurse at Bufordsville Retirement Community.  Gary, by the nature of being both male and a nurse — two provisions that only served to double his unfortuity, specifically where he and his general interactions with other members of staff and BRC residents[2] alike were concerned — had a rough go of it from the gun.  He was the only male nurse on staff, and he was also the only member on staff under the age of 58, replacing me as the resident spring chicken (as BRC, like the society at large, was where the medical community sent its aging professionals, in the twilight of their careers, as well).  Consequently, every corner of the facility had a distinct, unmistakable scent of Brylcreem, Old Spice Original and Youth Dew in spades.

Being 28 and fresh out of nursing school, Gary Indiana may as well have been employed at a retirement facility on Mars for all the familiarity he felt at the BRC.

Bufordsville Retirement Community was also home to a sort of local folk hero, though hero is perhaps not the right word —more like, celebrity — a seemingly ordinary housecat of indeterminate breeding named Blackie[3], whose name, while not exactly adhering to all of the diversity and sensitivity sections of the BRC policies and procedures manual[4], was certainly much better and more appropriate (not to mention far more racial- and culturally-sensitive) than the nine-lived celebrity’s first two names: Old Pussy and Mr. Spooks.

No one could really say for sure if it was his half-missing ear or his two disparate-colored eyes that lent him the special abilities that almost everyone’s always attributed to him, and which have also garnered him such notoriety, but without adding too much conjecture to the whole mix, the damned cat seemed able to predict a BRC’s patient’s death with a startling, uncanny level of accuracy that, in truth, kind of freaked more than a few of us out.  I mean, you just knew a resident was warming up to cash in his or her chips if someone on the night staff reported seeing Blackie curled up on that elderly resident’s pillow.

Blackie isn’t the only reported and documented feline allegedly privy to this special, though freaky, ability.  Oscar, a tortoiseshell and white cat at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Centre in Providence, Rhode Island has accurately “predicted” the last days for more than 50 patients.  He spends his time pacing from room to room, rarely spending any time with the patients — he’s kind of an antisocial little fucker — except those with just hours to live.  If Oscar’s somehow kept outside the room of a dying patient, he actually scratches on the damn door trying to get in. I believe I read that in one of the British newspapers Gary’s always leaving around.

And so Blackie isn’t alone in his gifts, but as far as anyone knows, he’s got the highest batting average: 100 percent, so far.  The inter-facility death pool was even shut down[5] since the hairy little bastard’s basically all but eliminated the element of chance and surprise.  When rounds would begin the next morning — as sure as death and taxes — if that cat was fast sleep and purring soundly on the resident’s pillow (and usually it’d be none other than Gary Indiana who’d find them — both the former patient and the sleeping cat — since no one else wanted any part of actual work that early[6] the patient was for sure guaranteed to have kicked the proverbial bedpan sometime during the night.

But people just really loved that cat.  Some of the old birds who had husbands staycationing long-term at BRC — old birds who spent their visiting time crocheting sweaters no one would wear and scarves nobody wanted — would bring knotted balls of yarn for Blackie, even though they only mildly interested him. Some of the more cognitively-questionable patients over in Psych. would “accidentally” turn their dinner trays over after eating only the pureed carrots — god only knows how anyone, even people who spend the vast majority of their day drooling all over themselves comatosely, can eat that mush, but they did.  And then Blackie would get several helpings of tuna casserole (tuna that was actually made with the less appetizing parts of a chicken) and mashed potatoes, or whatever side dish the residents were being served.

Why an animal that was seemingly the physical incarnation of the death’s own harbinger had remained so popular was anybody’s guess.  Aside from the fact that, for all intents and purposes, Blackie was pretty adorable with his crazy two-toned eyes and 1.5 ears, not to mention the fact that he was somehow almost completely hypoallergenic to all residents and staff, which of course really endeared him to those residents and staff who’d always loved animals but, due to a myriad of allergy-related problems, had never had any of their own since they loved the act of normal, uninhibited respiration even more.

So as I’ve said, Gary Indiana would be the one who’d find the dead BRC resident and the sleeping cat and, typically, he would also be the one who’d deliver the bad news to the deceased’s families over the phone because — I mean, really — who wants to deliver that kind of news before a person’s even had their morning cup of coffee?

To clarify, it wasn’t exactly that Gary, himself, was disliked by all of us around Bufordsville Retirement Community; we’d never say that about him.  He was just more or less addressed in a way that bore a resemblance to that of Patrick Swayze’s character in that movie, Ghost — as if Gary’d somehow found it extremely difficult to physically exist in the world like the rest of us did, trying without much success to interact with people and their surroundings.

The majority of the BRC staff, we just paid Gary as little attention as possible without too obviously coming off, ourselves, like a bunch of old washed- and used- up assholes trying to make his life as unpleasant as possible while he worked there.  I mean, that was, in fact, what we were doing — we just didn’t want it to seem so… obvious — hence our favoring of more stealth-like tactics we ultimately implemented under the guise of simply ignoring him.

Things didn’t get any less weird at BRC once Blackie started following Gary around every-goddamn-where he went, either.

During rounds, Blackie would trot alongside Gary.  When Gary went to the break room for coffee, Blackie went right with him.  Vending machines? Same deal.  Gary couldn’t hardly take a piss without that cat on his heels, lickety-split.

We started joking around that Blackie was trying to tell Gary something which, as you can probably imagine, Gary didn’t find nearly as amusing.  We didn’t think Gary found much amusing, actually.  The guy was weird even for the BRC.

And what else was weird was that the old people stopped dying around the place once the cat started following Gary.  It’s like death had given up his attention on everyone else and focused it on the young nurse named after the birthplace of the King of Pop.

No one was dying and Gary’s actions began getting stranger and stranger.  He stopped taking breaks, so we couldn’t rib him as we usually did.  He looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks and he even started to smell a little funny, which, in a retirement community like the old BRC, was really saying something.

Someone even said one day they heard Gary in one of the bathroom stalls mumbling nonsensically to himself, Blackie was sitting just outside the stall door flicking his tail this way and that, purring.  Gary was saying stuff like, “how does it know where I live?” and “Oh god, I think I’m rotting…  It’s actually making me rot.”  Gary said a few more things but my colleague didn’t stick around to listen, preferring instead to “hold it,” as he put it, for six more hours until his shift was over and he could go home.  He said that smell we’ve been associating with Gary was even more unbearable in there where proper ventilation was almost nonexistent, too.

And by “it,” we all assumed Gary meant the cat, in reference to making him rot, but the fact that it knew where Gary lived and the effect that particular circumstance had on him just cracked our shit up.  Though, with respect to the overpowering smell, he very well may have been rotting — we weren’t sure — but that aspect was decidedly less funny.

What was also decidedly less funny was when we arrived at work the next morning after the bathroom incident to a squad of police cars parked in front of the main entrance doors.  Some shit of an indubitably serious nature had obviously gone down over night and we weren’t sure we wanted to be a part of it — we were all getting too old for this kind of thing.  The police were just going to tell us things or ask us questions that would ultimately require us doubling up the milligrams of our ACE inhibitors for a while.

When we walked in, our co-workers’ faces told us everything we needed to know.  Dying had once again commenced at The Black Hole.  The police presence only gave the sullen atmosphere a dark and ominous overtone.

Camera flashes were going off capriciously and police tape cordoned off the men’s restroom.  No one was talking; their shoes, all at once, had become the most interesting two things in the universe to them.

Three of us who catch the 22 bus from downtown together every morning shuffled a little bit closer to the action.  Big Bob Delaney, sat on a bench just outside the breakroom adjacent to the bathrooms with his face in his oversized hands, rocking his head back and forth, the pigment across his balding crown all splotchy, as he was taking whatever terrible news he’d received rather terribly.

We asked the officers standing closest to the yellow tape what happened and they gave us a one word reply as stark and affectless as if this was the type of thing they witnessed on a daily basis: Suicide.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out who it was in there beyond the tape, but before we could verbally hypothesize among one another, we heard Bob Delaney behind us say: Gary… before his voice broke up and he reverted into a sobbing mess again.

The other part didn’t come out until later when the papers got wind of the story.  There were two bodies found dead in the men’s restroom that morning: that of both a 28-year-old male and a charcoal gray cat of an unknown age.

Now, I’m no animal lover, but what Gary did to Blackie was just sick and — pardon my French here — but it was just real fucked up, too.

Police determined the color of the cat by the removed and discarded pelt they found balled up in the trash can — Gary’d actually skinned him!  We were sure of one thing at that point and that was that Gary’d completely lost his fucking marbles.  The cat finally drove him over the edge we figured.  All over the walls and the mirror, Gary’d written Follow me now! Follow me now! in what was later confirmed by a team of crime scene investigators as feline blood, and when we heard that part, we all agreed we could almost hear Gary screaming those words at the top of his lungs.

I don’t think any of us realized the kind of lunatic we’d been working with for those several months.  No one could’ve foreseen what happened.  We all agreed that it was probably best not to tell the investigators that a few of us had the bright idea of hilariously transporting Blackie to and from Gary’s house once we realized the cat seemed to really like him.  We just thought it’d be funny.  That’s what we get for thinking, I guess.

But the story’s weirdness doesn’t stop there.  No sir.  There was a note — there always is, isn’t there?  We didn’t hear about this part until we read it later in the papers, either.

The note was actually, first and foremost, a sort of confessional.  Gary had a guilty conscience he’d wanted to relieve himself of.  And some say this is the saddest part: Blackie didn’t really have any special abilities, or at least any extra special abilities, so to speak.  Though, in my opinion, that’s not the saddest part.

Once Blackie had — what we realize now — accidentally predicted a few deaths, people started talking and getting excited about being a part of the BRC.  Staff members joked with residents, residents liked Blackie.  And hey, if they were in fairly good health, why worry about the cat?  He only predicted the sickest resident’s death, ones who died in their sleep, natural causes, respiratory failure.

But we were in for a shocker when we read what was in Gary’s note: he’d actually killed the majority of the residents Blackie’d predicted.  No one else got to work before Gary.  The night staff was lean and Gary always seemed pretty affable to them.  But the residents who were sick, who were in the last stages of their lives, anyway; Gary was sneaking into their rooms when the BRC was quietest and smothering them with their pillows!  Their bodies were just too weak and frail to fight him off.

He’d then locked Blackie in the room with the deceased and an hour or two later during morning rounds, he’d “discover” the scene as if he’d had nothing to do with it earlier.  He confessed all this in his note.

However, when the cat started showing up everywhere Gary went — which, as we later found out, basically consisted of the BRC and his house — he just started to lose it, bit by bit.  He thought the cat wasn’t actually the physical embodiment of death, but of karma.

Paranoia began seizing hold of Gary and, as a consequence, he began not sleeping, not bathing — thus the source of the odiferous odor that followed him everywhere.  He also began eating only very little.  At the end of his rope, he finally decided he had to get to the cat before the cat got him.

And he did.

Oh boy, did he! What a mess.

After the cat skinning and bloody painting exhibit, investigators said they believe Gary’d more or less panicked and plunged the knife into his own throat, which he immediately realized was a terrible idea by the wounds it left in him as he tried to remove it.

The whole scene was just grisly and I’m not sorry I didn’t see it firsthand.

So that probably brings us up to speed, I suppose.  Suffice it to say, that was the last day for a majority of BRC employees.  There was just no way any of us were sticking around after that.  We couldn’t be sure who we were really working with anymore, and when you can count the number of years you have left on your own two hands and feet, sometimes early retirement seems like the best course of action in the end.

Most of us didn’t work for the money, didn’t necessarily need it.  We worked for the camaraderie.  It beat greeting people at Wal-Mart.  But one thing for sure is you can’t have any kind of real professional, camaraderie once you’ve worked with someone who turned out to be a knife-wielding, elderly-suffocating loony toon.

Some of the others put in their two weeks, but not me.  I simply said to hell with it.  I needed all the time I could get to process how we all played a part in this event and never fessed up to it.

But like my dad — may he rest in peace — always used to say: a guilty conscience beats a prison sentence seven-out-of-seven days a week.

[1] Bad puns are, as a matter of fact, equitable in many respects to passing wind in a stuffy and crowded elevator and will under no circumstances whatsoever make you more popular.

[2] Or just people in general.

[3] Who also was really more of a charcoal-gray hue than black.

[4] Which, all BRC employees were given a 75 question True/False quiz over before commencing employment.

[5] Which had, at one point, been a seriously profitable on-the-side enterprise for me.

[6] And in hindsight, one of the reasons we all probably kind of resented Gary.

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