On the train coming into Sacramento, I spent the time shuffling back and forth through my notebooks, trying to come up with something of value, something deep to say, to a room full of 200 strangers about writing.

And not just writing, but the hardest of all: Humor Writing.

I’ve been fortunate with much gratitude beyond all measure.  Over the years, I’ve sat with, worked with, learned from, listened to some amazingly deep and well educated people. Almost all of them teachers in one way or another. However, I myself am not a certified teacher and I don’t feel as if I know anything. Especially about being funny and talking to a room full of people about using Humor to write memoir. How did I get in this mess?

The ball started rolling years ago. I wrote a essay in list form, entitled A Brief History of My Failures With Women. The piece was written in concert with loneliness, as I walked back through some of my earliest memories attempting to track where and why I felt such a social misfit.  Partially inspired by the casually vivid storytelling of Spalding Gray, partly a random writing exercise during lunch at a new job where I had few friends, it was a piece I wrote just to hold my own hand.

Spaulding

But there came a point when I was asked to submit material for a journal.  At the time, that piece– written initially for my own eyes and daring– was all I had and was what I sent. I expected a perplexed No-Thank You in reply, but instead it was published and developed a life of its own. One of the teachers in Sacramento is still using it in her classes some 15 years after it was written. And here I was returning to Sacramento to read it for an audience and talk about it.

That it was initially embarrassing to’ve existed at all is one thing. But that it was seen as Funny was… well… let’s just say I started seeing a therapist just in time.

I’m no teacher. Did I nervously admit that already?  And I found myself unable to prep a speech on paper. I was thankful for attending some Storytelling-Without-Notes open mics, but those were about true stories and memory, not teachable lectures. So, I made some ‘notes’ regarding writing. I Googled, I stumbled through the library as if I were drunk. I copied this and wrote down that. But eventually I felt I had to let go and do the bulk of the speech off the top of my head. Not from any illusion of confidence, mind you.  But this: Most audiences (myself included) would rather you talk TO them rather than AT them from behind the gated security of a bunch of notecards. But what exactly could I say?

I was told to fill 30 minutes, which soothed me.  Time-wise, 30 minutes is nothing.  It takes 10 minutes to read the essay.  I could futz around for 10 minutes introducing the piece.  That’s twenty.  All I had to do was find a dignified way to stop.  (SPOILER: I didn’t, I just stopped)

My coworker at the office, without knowing what I was doing that weekend, gave me a book by David Sedaris that he said he found pants-pissingly funny. I brought the book with me on the trip as if it were a good luck charm or an alternative bible, though I never opened it. I thought: you can no more tell someone how to be funny than you can tell someone how to sing. Even I can occasionally freestyle a well-timed joke, but not on stage like a stand up. I’m no comedic genius. I couldn’t counter a heckler.  Whatever was funny in my original essay, wasn’t intended to be funny.  It was just the way I saw it, remembered it, thought about it.  I looked through some books on humor writing and quickly became overwhelmed.  I didn’t have the confidence to talk about being funny.  But I felt I could encourage people to write and keep going, and hopefully encourage them to bravely tell the truth in their work.

I was surprised to not be nervous.  I was more surprised the room stayed with me.  They listened.  A laugh or two emerged though never from the entire room.  The room lights remained on and I could see well into the back as some appeared to take notes.  I was strangely relieved to see one person get up to leave, though I think they eventually came back.  I got through my speech without humiliating myself.  Afterwards, several people asked good questions.  And though I did record it, I can’t bring myself to listen to that mp3.

Below is a list of notes I made.  They’re the framework holding up whatever it was I said.  Some of these I used, some I didn’t.

*I’m here due to a horrible mistake / here to admit all my failures
*How do you dare approach your story (esp. using humor)
*Your story has unexpected virture
*Be Honest / Be Encouraged that your story already speaks for someone else. We are all the same. Its in engaging our humanity (our weakness as much as our strengths) where our commonality intersects.
* Know Yourself: be okay with your story and experiences and tread lightly across it.
* Your story has weight only because you’re carrying it.
* You’re a survivor of your life, NOT a victim of your life
* Part of being a survivor is learning to let go– let go of your assumption of control
* Be vulnerable. Be your own punchline. Soften your intensity. Soften your attachment
* Tell the truth. This kind of writing (memoir) is a kind of journalism.
* Humor/Laughter isn’t always about humiliation but recognition. A laugh is a shocked response/ something abrupt and unexpected.
* Mel Brooks: Tragedy vs. Comedy. Tragedy is me falling into an open sewer. Comedy is YOU falling into an open sewer.
* Mark Twain: Get your facts first then you can distort them as much as you please.
* Even in non-humorous writing, humor can/should be found. Humor makes a way of approaching the difficult. The heaviness of the subject matter leads itself naturally to humor. SEE: Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes

I feared I would be late to the lounge for the 7pm reading, but as usual I was compulsively early. I sat at the end of the bar, not recognizing the friendly couple next to me until they spoke, we all but arriving together, and me knowing them from a reading in my neighborhood a month prior. He, too, was published in the journal we were both there to read for. I ordered a beer, though I wanted nothing except to get down to the work. They ordered food, getting bar food so expensive and modest they may as well had burned a twenty dollar bill, the smoke fulfilling the same hungers.

I followed them upstairs to the performance area, which I hadn’t known existed. A huge wood ballroom with a red carpeted stage and DJ Booth set up, several tea candle lit tall tables. A huge dance floor. A bar in the corner. Two tables set up with merch in the back. On the wall between the stage and bar, a youtube video of commercials from the 1970’s was projected. The room was too big for the people in it. As soon as we entered, the couple I was with was approached by another couple they both knew and that couple invited us to join them. The man from the second couple was introduced to me as a teacher, about to do intro to poetry class for high schoolers. Though listening to him as he talked …scared me for the sake of those kids.

By some miracle I wasn’t self conscious being the odd man out. The unpaired black thumb at the table. How I am usually the unpaired black thumb at any table. I joined them and remained cool. It didn’t take long before the event started, and the man I knew got up to read first. Then a cartoonist was invited onstage to talk about his work while his strips were projected onto the wall. I was next, climbed onto the stage and faced the room.

From the stage, the room was huge, nearly cavernous. I thought of every Backpack MC’s I’d ever seen who’d stalk the stage like a caged animal and demand the audience to come up front and be with her. Support her. Feel her. I wanted to encourage everyone to move towards me since the room felt so distant and distracted. It was quiet, or perhaps I just couldn’t hear anything. I looked best I could through the spotlight and saw a group of friends standing at a tall table. More people were crammed into the distant booths well across the room, almost too far for me to underhand throw a tennis ball. Even the pair of couples I sat with had shrank in the distance to the size of large paperclips. I read three poems. Could anyone hear? Am I doing this right? At the end of one poem there was a huge lag between my voice and any response. They clapped automatically after I stopped talking. I read a poem I thought was funny and it was greeted with stoic silence. This was the reading I’d been most looking forward to, yet it flamed out before anything sparked. I finished, came back to the table with the couples. One man gave me his fist, which I should have met mid-air with my chin. A woman leaned forward and asked: What were the little houses?

The little green houses? I asked, of the poems title.
Yeah.
Monopoly houses.
She leaned back and said, Oh.
And in the ensuing silence, I thought: Didn’t I explain that? It isn’t in the poem? Um, damn.

The night went on like that. So little energy so much time. It was as if there were a rushing river between the stage and audience and nothing could be heard over the noise of the moving water. What could I have done better? Differently?

When the event broke for music, the dj climbed the stage and got in position. I passed off my drink ticket, grabbed a complimentary journal and escaped out of there quickly, thanks to Lyft. The driver barely spoke to me. I tipped him well for leaving me alone.

The next reading the next night: I didn’t want to go. I nearly skipped it, but decided, stop being a hater, stop being negative. There could be a huge blessing in the middle of every room you avoid.

I tried to be late, and couldn’t. I burned time in the courtyard of the Asian Art Cultural Center. By the hour of 7, most of the venues were closed. A woman entertained her two toddlers, a couple of friends sat talking. Then I grabbed a bench at fountain stocked with a half dozen coi and tried to breathe. When I finally made it to the gallery, it felt quiet and warm. The audience sat zombied and waited while music played. I couldn’t immediately sit down and though I saw one person I wanted to say hello to, I instead looked at the art on the wall. The host came over and greeted me. I said all of nothing. I considered the art for a long time before the event finally started. Why did the room feel so… Heavy. Warm. Inactive. Narcoleptic. A toddler took over the back rows of the event, trying out non-sense language on a pre-teen girl who’d been cuddling her stuffed Pikachu doll. He touched it lovingly before the event started. The host tried to shake the room slightly, telling them its okay to move and speak as if this were church, though no one did.

I was introduced after a pastor blessed the room, then after a woman who dismissed herself as a poet– yet read beautiful little poems.

The crowd was larger than I expected, 25, 30 people I’d guess. I refused the mic though cameras were set up to record it. I used my voice to fill the space and read three poems.

What did I see? People were with me, with warm listening eyes. One or two actually smiled to the degree I thought they really heard what I was doing. But most, yeah, stared like zombies. I appreciated one woman to my left who listened actively. One bearded brother in back I seemed to mostly read to. He would have been cool talk with afterwards. I thought of the old David Letterman show, how he would keep his theater close to freezing, he once said because when its colder audiences are more active and lively. I went back to my seat, feeling guilty somehow. I regained my seat and the main event started.

It wasn’t late, it wasn’t quite 9, but I was so distracted and nervous, I had to leave. Two women flanked either side of the performance stage, and I knew they were waiting for a signal from the reader to dance. I awaited for the same signal, but ran out of patience, got up as to take another photo of the room, then wandered over to the bathroom.

When I left the bathroom, I left the gallery, its resonating silence reaching even out to the street. The sun had just set. Though my legs felt stiff and achy, I ran away from there pretty quickly, not totally clear as to what was wrong with me. Both readings in their own way were gorgeous ceremonies, if just church quiet. I paced the bus stop, nervous. If I didn’t want to be there, where did I want to be? And with whom?

Breakfast of Lions

Posted: February 21, 2017 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

lions02

Once every nine weeks or so, I share Sunday breakfast with my friend, Tureeda. Poet, teacher, storyteller, medicine woman as she’d describe herself. I forgot how our ritual started two years ago, but my heart has relaxed into them for their consistency and the warmth generated at our cell-phone free table and our eye to heart talks. To hear, to speak, to be received, to eat in peace: surrounded by families, saucer eyed babies in arms and carriers. (Dogs, eh– She’s not feeling that. “What is it with them and these dogs?” Once we were at a table and a man brought his golden retriever inside with him, as if they both needed to consult the menu.) Beyond performing/writing, Tureeda and I have adoption in common– and all the weird emotional baggage associated with breaking from family at an early age. She endured foster care; I was under the spell of family being adopted as a baby and raised under the assumption until 19.

“There’s an adult adoptees circle for people of color my therapist encouraged me to join,” I told her. “For three months I tried to go, and can’t follow through. I sign up then chicken out every time. I tried finding the office during a storm once and got discouraged a couple blocks away and gave up. But this last time, I realized what was holding me back. At the last minute, I decided again not to go. Instead I stayed home and with my nervous energy decided to clean up. And while sweeping, mopping and all the while fussing, I guess… I thought to myself: I don’t want to join another family.”

“How’d you feel about that? When you thought that?”

“Awful. Terrible. Disappointed. I didn’t realize that that was how I felt until I said it.” I said. “Its a struggle to voluntarily want to join a circle of family or people, because all I ever seem to remember is how they end.”

She’s of an age (which I will not give) that prefers the old fashioned way of sitting with someone and… talking. Listening. We do not veer attention to our devices, but rather our hearts and our meal.

I know. Crazy talk, huh?

Usually, I expect a libation of tears over our meal. She will mention something, think something, recognize something, and then stop, look 1000 yards past everything around us, then her eyes would fill. Often I feel happy enough just to be there with her, give her space to feel whatever she wants. Our breakfast doesn’t feel right unless there are tears. I wish I was that sensitive. One day, perhaps.

What will I do without these meals? She eats mindfully slow. Seeming to weigh and compare the importance of each fork full on her tongue. I think often of my other friend who vacuums his plate as in some unannounced contest. With her, I am patient. I am encouraged to slow down.

We talk, sharing our recent weeks and events. There is no urgency. Silence is allowed. She finishes her plate and while working her way through a mug of tea, it occurs to me to tell her about my dream.

“You know,” I started. “Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been having these really vivid dreams. My mother has made some cameos in a couple. This last one, the one I wanted to tell you about… She was in this huge bed in this mahogany bedroom. She was dressed head to toe in white. Like, um… Like…” I couldn’t pull the word.

“Like to be baptized?” She said.

“Yeah, yeah. But I was thinking…” I still couldn’t think.

“Yoruba?” She said.

“Yes! Exactly, like that. I mean, she wasn’t Haitian or anything, obviously, but that’s what I was thinking. Like an Orisha or something. Even her hair was tied up in this huge white cloth. Anyway, the room she was in was full of these female lions. Like there were four or five sitting in what looked like a closet on the other side of the room. Just chilling. And some were just wandering around. I sat on the bed with my mom. And at some point, another lion came up on the bed behind me and put her snout to my head,” I put my palm behind my head and rubbed the short hairs there, recalling the weight and sensation I’d felt of a huge, wild nose checking me out.

I went on: “She was smelling me which kinda made me nervous because I expected her to start…”

Tureeda stopped me. It seemed a wave of emotion rose over us both, engulfing our table and exploded in white water. Oh James, she said. She raised her arms above her head, as if she’d just seen the Holy Ghost. This surprised me. She’s not into the Church and is suspicious of Christian religion since she knows a lot of the history. For her to do that movement, to reach above her and seem to pull down a curtain from heaven, was startling. Tears filled her eyes briefly. Her arms like those of a teen on a descending rollercoaster. I had never seen her do that. So spontaneous and natural. And sudden.

“You are so protected,” she said finally. Firmly. My sharing was conversational, me filling a moment of silence at the table. But she made me self conscious. That brief image from my dream went deeper than I thought. She seemed to tremble and I reached across for her hand. She lightly squeezed my fingers.

“That dream is so… powerful. There is so much protection around you. Wow.” She said stunned, breathless. After a while she responded with tales of other dreams, psychic messages. The waitress returned and removed our plates. Silence fell, as did a gentle rain.

I waited.

“Deep,” she said, finally.

image
Months before it opened, I was asked to participate in a poetry reading as part of a museum exhibit. When I finally went to the gallery, Generation to Generation at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, it was as reporter with a notebook slipped in my pocket. It wasn’t until walking through the gallery and being present with the material that I was startled by how appropriate it was for me. The theme was Inherited Memory, and for me as an adopted son, I felt all my memories were inherited and somehow not wholly mine. I maintain memories from both the family who raised me and the family I belong to by blood– memories, it seemed, that neither side was all that interested in engaging me with.

Another local poet, who turns out to be my cousin in my adoptive family, mentioned in social media something about his grandfather and great-grandfather. I knew both of those men, and because of my cousins age, I wasn’t wholly sure he did. I was at his grandfather’s bedside the afternoon he died, I remember his great grandfather capping on me for being a chubby kid crawling under the dining room table, wondering if I’d get stuck. Body shaming children. Yeah, that was the good old days alright.

I walked through the modestly sized gallery and stood for a long time with each work. I made notes, here and there, regarding everything I saw. As if I could take tiny DNA samples of each piece and work them into… something. Much of the art was fascinating, gorgeous. But of course there was one I was deeply drawn to. Unbeknownst to me, it was made by a brother, Hank Willis Thomas. The work, What Goes Without Saying, is a installation using a wooden punishment stock with a classic style steel microphone positioned before it. Somehow, that piece is indicative of my poetry life and memories. In its stillness and juxtaposition, it says everything I haven’t been able to put into words. Its the kind of art I wish I’d made.

hwt12_008_what_goes_withough_saying_1860

Thinking about Inherited Memory, thinking of my adoption story and my cousin, thinking too about that stock in the middle of the gallery, I started writing. The drafted poem was about my adoption and me being the holder of family story that no one has time to hear, nor wants to. The following week, I returned for a second lap through the museum, this time with one of my poetry friends. I wanted to see it again through her eyes, see it again for myself, see if anything new caught my attention for subsequent re-writes. A couple days later I had a solid second draft that felt good to go.

The idea was to pair a poet with one of the art works on display. I was open to read wherever I was assigned. But when I got the email from the event organizer saying she was having me stand with Thomas’ What Goes Without Saying, I audibly gasped and immediately texted my friend about it. I was to stand with one piece that really got my attention.

I auditioned a third draft of the poem at a open mic in Oakland, after which another friend came up to me and said: You just told my story! I hugged her, and said: I had to.

The event was held on “the last good night in America” as the following day was the, ugh, inauguration. There were about six or seven writers paired with paintings, installations. A museum volunteer moved a mic stand from one work to another while a second volunteer recorded it on a video camera, and another acted as curator introducing the name of the artist and the poet. We were given only a few minutes to read. Early on it felt like a remarkable and special evening, an event I would have gone to if I hadn’t been in it. Art excites me. Certainly this kind of event has been done before, but here and tonight it felt new and different. The audience herded from event to event and was open and attentive. When it was my turn people assembled into an arc around me and I read from my journal sending my voice to the people in the back peeking over shoulders. Years ago, I wondered if audiences could be engaged with my adoption story, if anyone could relate to an adoptees mindset, to my struggles with identity and family. Now, I no longer care — I write as truthfully as I can and let it go. If it holds meaning for you, awesome. Lets talk. If not, let the words wash over you in the abstract and we’ll soon move on to something else.

The event ended and I felt positive and energized. What is this on my face?? Oh, my bad– I’m smiling. I told the organizer she should do this every year. It would get my attention again even as an audience. My friend came to see the final show and even got to participate. The whole event lasted about an hour, afterwards we stood around chatting with folks until we all were gently swept out by patient security guards, one of whom, an older African brother, smiled at me–recognizing me from my earlier reconnaissance visits– saying he liked very much what I was doing and told me so lovingly and parental while steadily pushing me towards the exit.

ambiance by bonnie elliott

The Lyft driver pulled up and I jumped into the more inviting front seat for a change, asking first if he minded. He didn’t. A vibrant youngster in a backwards baseball cap, his car smelling like chocolate cookies vaped, not baked. He immediately asked where I was going– to a poetry reading at a bookstore (“Do you read your own poems or…”), then asked what kind of poetry I wrote (Gothic, via his understanding, because I settled on describing my work as dark and honest.) and who I liked (I thought Tongo Eisen Martin, but said Sylvia Plath)

An aside here: what do you mean when you ask someone: What kind of poetry do you write? Slam, I guess is an answer. Rhyming couplets is another. Where should I be filed? Who asks lyricists: what kind of lyrics do you write? Romantic or death metal?

He was so young. When he asked me how long I’d been writing, before I told him the mid 90’s, I looked him over and was pretty sure he wasn’t even born then.

Quickly though, he veered the conversation to women and girls. Asked about groupies, asked about women falling all over me after a reading. The balloon of my long denied heart popped having to confess myself a failure at that. I have no game, I said.

All poetry is is game. He said.

I shrugged. Sometimes, I feel more comfortable standing talking to a room full of strangers rather than speaking to just one.

He nodded.

The streets boiled and foamed with rain. The windshield melting as if I were having an acid trip. He turned off the main street we were on, then crazy zig zagged up this street, then down that one before telling me he was from Los Angeles and using Waze.

Then he said: Its all about confidence. You can have the words, but if you’re lacking the confidence behind them…

I nodded. I thought of how weird and lonely it had been for me over the years. Somehow I could move a room to standing ovation and still walk home quietly alone.

And though there were other routes Waze could have taken, we followed the street I’d grown up on. It was dark and wet and out of focus, but there was my old school, the grocery store, the old clapboard house that looked like it should have been demolished in the 70’s now having outlasted most of my family. Finally, there was my former house which was now dark and fenced and no longer recognized me or awaited me with the porch light flaring. I didn’t turn towards it to gawk, either. It was an ex- I had no conversation for.

My driver, though… Why was this like therapy? Him agreeing and saying: I should charge by the mile.

He asked if he could vape, cracked his window and went on.

He considered one-night stands about as good as any relationship. Better, maybe. Said collecting No’s is not a deterrent from continuing to move to a Yes, 7 or 10 people down the line. Always be closing. His friend got really lucky on internet dates, he said.

I listened, wished I’d had a better story to share or even a better life at the house we’d passed. But this kid was vibrant and I liked him immediately. We talked like old friends right until he dropped me off at the bookstore. I shook his hand and swallowed my next line: See you later…, realizing I wouldn’t as he was just a friendly stranger.

***
If you’re going anywhere on a stormy night, you may as well go to a poetry reading at a bookstore. Bottles of wine, sliced cheese, bowl of tangelos. Thought I was going to be late but I wasn’t.

The one other reader to be featured that night whom I was really looking forward to seeing– since he was my cousin, kinda — would be a no show. There were three other readers, two women– one older, polished. The other young and inventive. A bearded dude, then me. I read two new poems, one about an three month old olive which I still had in my pocket like a worry stone, then a longer poem about a woman here in the office who died late last year and who apparently I never expected to be missing as much as I did.

I was genuinely surprised to see one of my friends standing in back of the bookstore, listening. I’d forgotten I’d even told him about the reading. Another friend whom I ran into around Christmas kept her promise to show up and she brought her mother who lived several blocks away.

But no, there weren’t many single women there, there weren’t any young women there except for one of the features. Mostly it was older people and of them, dudes. I sold two books. The bearded writer who also featured introduced me to his husband. We three chatted afterwards about writing about nature. I showed them the dried olive I still had.

An older man whom I knew years ago– longer than that– circled back to me after the reading and offered a ride. He was taking home the young woman who also read and who happened to live one freeway exit past my building. The three of us walked to his car. He passed us copies of the lyrical poem he would have read if the night were an open mic and recited some of it. Despite offering us rides, he insisted on paying for our chapbooks, because as poets what else do we have. He’s 77 now, he said. He’s not of age to be argued with. Our price was to listen to his poem and his compulsory chat about politics: drugs, war and the CIA.

He dropped me off at my building and despite having not seen him in several years, he told me he loved me. I told him the same. He and the woman were pulling off for the freeway as I was closing the door.

ui7qolp

The continuously awesome journal Eleven Eleven has published three familiar poems which are up and available for your critique. Its a consistently gorgeous journal and website I’ve admired for long time. Its an honor to get in with so many other strong artists.

I went to an open mic last week, and an old friend asked what my writing goals were this year. I’m pretty simple; send out more stuff to get published, (which means, you know, I have to keep writing) wrestle with the octopus arms of my manuscript, and apply for some writing retreats. A retreat with purpose will do me much better than just staying home where I fall into a black hole and no work gets done. But this is a good motivator and great omen for the forthcoming year.

haunted-house

HE awoke screaming again. His head steaming and raw. He coughed to near seizure while some slow moving slime thawed, dripping the length of his throat like mis-swallowed gum. His breath was reticent to move and once it did unobstructed he angrily pounded the bedding with his fist until flurries of sweat rose in swarms akin to fruit flies. The blackened room glowed red within his eyes. Nothing had changed.

A long, heavy chain of days had been spent here in this house that rattled and leaned from one side to the other like some lumbering, clumsy beast marching in place. He rose from bed as if snatched up by his collar and compulsively rubbed his eyes with ashen palms. The room percolated with a milky green haze. The walls were dim and out of focus in the darkness, but he could hear their agitated chattering and scratching

He limped to the bedroom door and opened it, looking out the hallway towards the staircase leading down to the living room. To the right of the stairs the darkness breathed and watched him. In response he coughed and spat on the floor, cursing. The mass welcomed this and smiled.

He scratched the roughed skin in back of his head and coughed a routine prayer: How long. How long.
Downstairs what modest furniture there was danced the rooms circumference as if the entire house was a ship tossed between angered ocean waves. The carpet curled and ripped between the furniture like meat chewed between black teeth.

The house was an ever evolving sickness that worked hard to expel him. The other houses in the suburb were all equally hostile. From one end of the street to the other, the row of them appeared swollen and bruised like severed heads silently snoring behind beards of blackened trees. Their windows depressed in eyeless sockets yet blinked with unnerving shadows floating within. Such horrible things to be assumed through windows greased black.

It was his daily act to walk the neighborhood, though there seemed to be no safe place he could go that would take him. Leaving the space would depend upon some arbitrary unseen matrix, would be as easy as opening a door or window or it would be a locked room puzzle. His hand felt palsied reaching for the door and to his surprise it popped open with no resistance. He stepped out onto the porch beneath an open wound sky. As far as he looked, each house along the row pulsed with an internal seizure, noisily blinking hiccups. Each house was a bully he learned not to approach no matter what show projected along its windows.

He climbed down off the porch glancing across the face of each house which seemed to reach towards him baring some acrid and dishonest benevolence. He walked the length of the block. The sky rolled like an ocean left untreated after a spill.

His memory stalled shyly and failed him. There seemed to be houses he approached before, courage tested, but his body ached having learned well enough to stay away from them. The street felt secure and unlike the houses, quiet. He walked along the reptilian asphalt gently. His daily walks, no matter the length, were depressingly repetitive until he discovered some four blocks away a huge gaping tunnel burrowing down into the earth. Daily he fixed his attention on it, but dared not approach settling instead for just watching it to see what may emerge from its darkness or enter it. It resembled the opened mouth of a drowning victim, selfishly snatching a final breath. It was imposing and dark and cold drawing nothing except his gaze and releasing only steady gulps of steam.

The neighborhood around the hole remained blackly silent and still. He walked onward until he clearly saw it exhale ringlets of smoke. The ground around it were like lips of ashen gray. Nothing grew close to it. What trees there were, were infuriatingly black and malformed as if they had spines that had broken.

At the edge of the hole, he saw something that startled him. Sitting at its entrance was a small boy seated on a bicycle. The man’s heart cranked one way then another. He stopped several paces behind the boy who quietly focused on the blackness sighing smoke. The child was clean and calm. He wore a jean suit with a simple white shirt lined blue and red. White sneakers glaring against the stubborn ashen blackness of the soil. The bike was a red mini racer with raised handlebars.

Where did you come from. He stammered.

The boy turned towards the man’s voice but not to look directly at him. The boy appeared more sad than surprised.

Stranger, the boy diagnosed. Then turned his attention back on the nucleus of blackness and its tongue of smoke.

I’m not going to hurt you, the man said. I don’t know how long I’ve been here. I don’t know how to get out. Are there others? Where are your parents?

The boy looked at the sticky black ground which churned slightly as if it itched.

Why is everything in ruins, the man asked the silence. Why is every here place haunted?

What you dream last night? The boy finally said, asking the dirt more than the man. Remember?

I..I… I The man shook his head, no, and remained silent. Then: I worked as a driver at a firehouse, he said. It seem like…one day the alarm went off. Everybody looked at me, waiting for me to start the truck cause no one else knew how. But we’d never had a fire before either. And everyone was waiting on me. Just standing around, waiting. And I couldn’t remember where the keys were or nothing. But, seemed like, I went through everything. And I found them and we get to the building, and its like, the building is painted in fire. Everybody runs knowing what to do. But I just drive the truck. And the chief comes and yells at me to help. I get on the ladder and it extends all the way but the building goes right into the clouds. I look and the fire and the clouds blend in to one another. I see people hanging out the windows but they’re so far up they look like seeds. My heart is just… And then. They all jump at once. Just start floating down to me. I got nothing. Not even a hose. I’m just at the top of the ladder. I yell at them to stop but they keep coming. Getting larger above me. And I just. I wake up. Right then. Choking from the smoke in my room.

Look, The boy said.

The man stepped forward. Within the nucleus of the ring, the darkness moved.

From within the darkness, the man saw the outline of a figure take shape and approach. A head, hanger of shoulders. An arm. A torso. The dim shadow made the man more afraid and he began to back away from the boy and the ring. Finally the man saw it was but another young boy, looking dazed. His skin ashen and his eyes saucer wide and glistening. He approached the boy on the bike who motioned for him to sit on the handle bars. He kicked off. They rode straightaway into an accepting darkness. Going towards no place as the man could see. No tiny lights awaited. The street just veered off into nothing, as did the boys.

The man began to run after them. Words shooting from his mouth automatic, every floral apology begging acceptance he could think of. They didn’t look back. The smaller boy kicking pedals, his weight shifting. The other boy on the handlebars held himself in place. The man’s lungs burned. The boys took straightaway down the street, getting smaller and more dim in the darkness until they were gone and the man was alone again. He stared deep into the narrowing distance, as trying to understand something and couldn’t.

He took one street then another back to his familiar residence. The yard was busy with black insects swinging back and forth through the air a kind of beaded curtain. They rose from the oil slick lawn like smoke. He passed through the front gate. The house stared down at him coolly, then opened its mouth letting him in.