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Jeffrey Pillow JEFFREY PILLOW is a contributing writer for The Nervous Breakdown and Hoops Addict. He lives in Charlottesville with his wife, daughter, and dog -- three separate entities. A certified basketball junkie, he also loves cheddar cheese and poorly crafted science fiction thriller films involving cold-blooded animals and bad acting. SEE Shark Attack 3: Megalodon. His work has appeared on Yahoo! Sports, USA Today, and 16 Blocks magazine et al. Visit him online at www.jeffreypillow.com.

Recent Work By Jeffrey Pillow

Thomas Thwaites is an interesting fellow.  He describes himself as a “designer (of the more speculative sort), interested in technology, sciences, and futures research,” and his work as “communicating complex subjects in engaging ways.” Armed with an MA from the Royal College of Art Design Interactions, Thwaites has written a book called The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011).

It was selected as one of NPR’s Best Books of 2011.

Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich by Mark KriegelHe was the sad-eyed wizard of the hardwood, wearing floppy socks and scraggly hair upon his head, the prodigy child of his father, Press Maravich. To a generation he was known as Pistol Pete, a soulful magician with a leathery, orange globe ricocheting from the tips of his fingers to the tips of his toes, the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history—a legend.

Fudged Resume in a Difficult Economy

It’s 4:35 AM and I’m running around the house like a chicken with its head cut off. Up and down the stairs. Up and down. Up and down. Back and forth. All the while the orchestral “William Tell Overture” by Gioachino Antonio Rossini is playing in my head as if plucked from a scene in a Looney Tunes cartoon when Elmer Fudd is chasing that whaskily wabbit Bugs Bunny through the forest with a double-barrel shotgun.

I shit you not.

Except I have made up impromptu words that go like this:

Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
OH MY GOD… Oh my God God God

Rewind back a few minutes.

4:30 AM: My wife wakes me and informs me she’s in labor.

Not as in I-am-going-to-work-now labor.

Labor.

Child labor.

I-am-getting-ready-to-have-a-baby labor.

The conversation goes a little something like this.

WIFE: I think I’m going into labor.

ME: You?

You, question mark.

This is what my wife later tells me I say when all is calm and we’re sitting opposite one another in our hospital beds.

“You,” as if someone or something else in the room was getting ready to give birth.

My dog Motzie is fixed, so it’s obviously not her.

The television has no genitals, so it’s definitely not it.

I don’t have a vagina, so it’s definitely not me.

I’m pretty sure I would have recognized if it were me anyway. I hadn’t even bought any cute maternity clothing for work. It’s definitely not me.

And I have a penis.

That always makes giving birth difficult.

Unless you’re Thomas Beatie.

So there I am: 4:30 in the morning.

I wasn’t expecting this even though it’s been nine months coming.

Our first child isn’t due for two-and-a-half more weeks on April 27.

It’s April 11.

And the kid has my genes.

I’ve been determined there’s no way this baby is arriving on time if it has my genes. I’m never anywhere on time. I even have this funny scenario in which following my death—whenever that is—at my funeral, I don’t arrive on time.

It plays out like this: Everyone in church is mourning my loss. Tears are flowing. Family, friends – they’re all sobbing and boohooing their eyes out. The preacher stands in the pulpit at the podium or whatever it’s called in church. He looks out into the crying crowd. In walks a guy from the side door dressed in black. He’s holding a note. He walks over to the preacher and hands him the note. The guy walks back toward the side door and out. The preacher clears his throat and addresses the congregation, delivering the following:

“I’m sorry but I’ve just been informed Jeff is running a few minutes late and will arrive shortly. Until then, he has asked that his friends and family join in a hymn together. Please turn to page 368 in your hymnbooks as we sing, “Holiday in Cambodia” by Dead Kennedys, followed by an a capella rendition of “Nervous Breakdown” by Black Flag.

I’m putting this in my will. I’ve told my wife that if I die before she does, this has to play out exactly as I have written. If not, I’m going to come back as a ghost and haunt her. (Not really)

That shit will be hilarious.

Tears go to laughter. Quite the send off. Quite the exit. Just how I want it.

“Oh, that Jeff,” someone will say. “He sure knows how to get a laugh out of someone [pause] — even in death.”

Yet it’s April 11 and my kid is on the move down the birth canal.

I quickly pack a few clothes, toothbrush, toothpaste, clean underdrawers, deodorant, cell phone charger, and my bottle of Citalopram, which I call my chill pills because without my chill pills I’m fucking crazy I tell you. Crazy.

Not really.

I take it for depression. Have since about six months after my dad’s death.

Leukemia. Age 59.

I saw my dad die before my eyes over a two-month span, then held his hand as the machines went beep and his soul ascended.

Two years later I still can’t face the fact my dad’s dead.

And here I am, about to become a dad myself.

I run back downstairs, open up my laptop, and type an e-mail to my boss.

“Not gonna be in this week. Having a baby. Not me. My wife. Some proofs will be coming in if you could take a look at them and sign off. They’re good to go. If you need to make any changes (which you shouldn’t), the InDesign files are located in the Comm. Info folder. Here’s my cell number if you need me but don’t call me for the next couple of hours. In labor. Not me. My wife. Holy crap!”

Rewind back again to me sitting in bed, my wife delivering the news she’s in labor.

“Did you call the hospital yet?” I ask.

“No. I will now.”

She does.

“Come in at 7:30,” they tell her. “Come sooner if your body tells you to.”

Flash forward less than two hours later.

6:20 AM: “I think we need to go now,” my wife tells me as I finish up my e-mail to my boss.

“Oh crap, I haven’t eaten anything yet.”

Yes, that’s right. I’m thinking about food at a time like this.

I have no idea what I’ve done over the past hour-and-a-half. Why the hell have I not eaten?

“We can stop by McDonald’s if you want.”

“We can? Are you sure there’s enough time? I’d rather you get to the hospital than me a chicken sandwich and extra hash browns.”

At this point, my wife is freaking me out with her breathing.

“Breathe in and out like they told us at our child birthing classes,” I say, trying to soothe her. But on the inside, me, I’m hyperventilating. On comes the “William Tell Overture” again. Bugs Bunny shoots down a rabbit hole.

Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
OH MY GOD… Oh my God God God

“Yes. We have time,” she says. “You need to eat.”

See how wonderful wife my wife is? Always looking out for the nourishment of her husband even at times such as this. She continues:

“You can get into a funk when your sugar is low.”

Now the truth comes out.

“I don’t want you in a bad mood with all this about to happen. It could be a long day, a long couple of days in the hospital.”

She’s right. I do get into a funk when I don’t eat on time. And I eat all the time. Like six meals a day. It’s the only way I can balance my sugar. Even when I played basketball in college I was like this. Before the game in the locker room, I’d eat a Snickers and drink a half bottle of orange juice while Coach gave his words of wisdom. At halftime, I’d eat another Snickers and finish off my orange juice. Otherwise, I’d get the shakes – like Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias.

But I’m not diabetic. I’m hypoglycemic.

I put my dog in her crate, tell her to be a good girl, that she’ll have a new best friend soon, and scat.

6:30 AM: We stop by McDonald’s. I pull up to the drive-through window and order a chicken sandwich, two hash browns, and a large Coke.

“$4.29. First window please.”

I pay. Onward to window two.

It’s taking longer than usual to fulfill the order. I’m a very patient person, probably too patient in my day to day life (they say patience is a virtue), but I want to say, “Can you guys please hurry it up? Just this one time. It’s an emergency. My wife is in labor.”

But I imagine the 18-year-old kid who is waiting on me, stop and say rather coldly, “Then why the fuck did you stop for breakfast dickhead?”

And he’d have a point.

A very valid point.

Out comes my combo meal. Peace and chicken grease Mickey Dee’s. We’re off to Martha Jefferson Hospital.

I use this as an excuse to drive like a bat out of a hell down 29, just like in the movies. Then I picture a cop fly up behind me with his siren on to which I stick my arm out of the window and wave for him to pull up along side me. Then I say, “Officer, my wife is having a baby. Can you please escort us to the hospital?”

He nods yes, flashes his lights, and I roll my window back up, turn to my wife and referencing the cop, say, “Sucker.”

We (“we” as in me following behind sucker cop) bolt down the highway, going through red lights like it ain’t nobody’s business. I smile for the asshole traffic camera they just installed at the intersection of Rio Rd. One day I’ll put the photo the Police Department sends me in my baby’s scrapbook.

But none of this happens. Because this isn’t the movies. It’s real life.

But I continue to drive like a bat out of hell, weaving in and out of traffic, beeping my horn at any car in my way and yelling at them, “Get out of the way you slowpoke prick. My wife’s having a baby.” A very cautious, alert bat out of hell I might add. Okay. You got me. You called my bluff. So I’m not really driving like a bat out of hell. I’m going 55 MPH in a 45 (technically, I am breaking the law) and there is hardly anyone on the road. I’m not weaving in and out of traffic. I’m not beeping my horn. I’m not yelling.

6:45 AM: We arrive at Martha Jefferson Hospital on Locust Avenue. I pull up to the Emergency Room entrance. A security guard approaches and opens the door for my wife. He tells her where to go. I tell him where to go (hell) and to stop looking at my wife’s cleavage (she’s pregnant. Her breasts are full of milk, nourishment for my soon-to-be first child, you stinkin’ perv). Actually, I do none of that either. He isn’t even eyeing my wife. He’s very polite like some child’s nice grandpa.

I park the car, strap on all our bags like I’m some oversized coat rack made of pine, and make my way to the Maternity Ward.

It’s Go Time…


While in college, I tutored the following subjects for two years: Anatomy & Physiology, Biology (general and Advanced), and Microbiology. Yet there is one area I was never made privy to: the timeline of the umbilical cord. Going into the last weeks of childbirthing class with my wife, I suddenly find it psychologically incommoding I never learned that following labor and delivery, the umbilical cord is not cut all the way down to the bellybutton.

Yes, all the way down to the bellybutton.

Maybe you’re like me and didn’t know this.

Or maybe you aren’t.

Suddenly, I feel like the dumbest person on Planet Earth for not knowing this.

For the last 36 weeks, I have been a bit scared of having the honor of cutting my baby’s umbilical cord.

“Who needs scissors,” I told my wife when she was around 24 weeks. “I’m using my teeth. Look at these incisors.”

Then I grabbed the air with two hands as if I was holding an invisible rope and started gnawing.

Humor comforts me in times of the unknown.

Note to future dads: Your wife probably won’t find this amusing.

What if I didn’t cut far enough and my baby had an outie? I remember back in the summer days of my youth thinking that kids at the pool with outies looked funny.

Or what if I cut too close and my baby has the ultimate innie, a three-inch deep crater that will collect lint for all eternity? All this time, I’ve been terrified I would cut the umbilical cord much too close to my baby’s stomach and cause some nightmarish infection, thus subjecting my first born to weeks of antibiotic treatment and various hypoallergenic ointments 3x a day.

All because I cut the umbilical cord too close to the bellybutton.

And it would be all because of me.

Her dad.

Her hero.

The man she would grow up idolizing and compare all men to who ultimately could never measure up .

Or at least this is what I like to tell myself.

Then I learn the real story: that after I cut the cord—not all of it, just some of it—a clamp is placed on the leftover upright noodle and remains clamped until a week or so later when said umbilical cord dries up and falls off.

“If you’re lucky,” our childbirth instructor said, “You’ll go to pick up your baby after a nice, long rest and you’ll see the umbilical cord lying there in the crib.”

Just lying there?

In the crib?

Like a fat earthworm that has baked in the hot sun?

Shouldn’t someone have sent out a mass e-mail to all expecting parents that along with taking your baby home, you also take home part of the umbilical cord?

Look, I’m not grossed out by this.

Actually, I am slightly.

But why is it I didn’t know this?

When I told my mom that Allison and I were expecting she didn’t tell me about the umbilical cord.

Neither did those Biology textbooks.

Then again, we never did get to the very end.

Science is sort of like history in that regard. You never get to the Civil Rights Movement or Vietnam, nor do you get to the nitty-gritty in concern to the timeline of the umbilical cord.

Whereas I’m the youngest of two children, my wife is the oldest of four. She knew this already. Maybe all women do. Maybe this tidbit of information is something all women receive when they get their ears pierced.

Allison’s youngest sibling is nine years younger than her.

“I remember when I was a kid, Emily [her sister] and I would go into the nursery each morning to see if Carrington’s umbilical cord had fallen off yet,” she said to me while we were eating some 80/20 Angus Beef hamburgers I’d cooked up.

“What do you mean you’d go in and see if the umbilical cord had fallen off?”

“It dries up.”

“What do you mean by ‘it dries up’?”

“It dries up and falls off.”

“Falls off?”

“Yeah, falls off.”

“The umbilical cord?”

“What did you think happened to it?”

“It stayed at the hospital . . . with the placenta.”

So let this be a lesson to all you expecting first-time fathers out there. When you go in the nursery to snatch up your baby for a good rocking and see what appears to be either a turd or a chewed up cigar in the crib, Red Auerbach has not returned from the dead and been watching over your baby at night. That’s your baby’s dried up umbilical cord stump.

And let this also be a lesson that I am apparently not the right man to talk to in regard to tutoring you for any Biology class, especially Anatomy & Physiology.

As for me, I guess it’s about time I get some shuteye. As the story goes, there isn’t much of that in my near future. But it’s all gravy.

Here’s to first time knowledge and dried up umbilical cord stumps.


Dear Robin Lopez,

Please cut your hair. You look like American Idol Season I runner-up Justin Guarini.

You do.

You really do.


I ask you this with the sincerest of intentions.

Every time I watch a Phoenix Suns game, I think three things:

1. Aaron Brooks could be Chris Rock’s double should Chris Rock ever pull a Martin Lawrence (Rebound, 2005) and make a horrible basketball film;



2. If Steve Nash isn’t the spitting image of cigarette smoking, rebel bad ass Kelly Leak from the original Bad News Bears (1976) with Walter Matthau as Coach Morris Buttermaker then no one is; and



3) How you look like that guy from American Idol.

Justin Guarini.

And I’ve never even seen a full episode of American Idol.

Seriously, I haven’t.

No, I’m serious.

And it’s because of the hair.

Not mine. That’s not why I have never seen a full episode of American Idol.

It’s because of your hair that you look like Justin Guarini.

It’s not like you’re suffering from what Andrew Bynum suffers from or Brian Scalabrine. Bynum looks like Tracy Morgan because of the face.



The same as Scalabrine being Michael Rapaport’s doppelganger because of the similarity in facial features.



Although, I take back the latter in some regard. It doesn’t help Scals that he and Rapaport both sport the red do and that Rapaport takes part in the NBA Celebrity Game during each year’s All-Star break.

But Robin, don’t get me wrong. It’s not just you. Anderson Verajao looks like Justin Guarini too, which is why I’m making a carbon copy of this letter and replacing your name with his at every occasion.

I know, I know — the hair is your good luck charm and you can’t just go and chop it off like Iverson did with his trademark cornrows. (Look where that got ole AI: a roster slot with Beşiktaş in the Turkish Basketball League) Your hair is what helps you bring in those mind-shattering statistics you do night in and night out as the Phoenix Suns big man: .1 apg, 2.2 bpg, 3.3 rpg, and 7.0 ppg. Averaging 3.3 rpg as a 7’0″ center is some feat. Very Rodman-esque.

But this letter is the least I can do. I’m only looking out for you.

And hey, at least I didn’t say you looked like Sideshow Bob.

Because although you do somewhat, Varejao has totally got you beat on that one.



Sincerely,

A concerned NBA fan

Jeffrey Pillow


From galencurry.com:

Galen Curry honed his skills as a musician in the most intuitive way: by playing music whenever and wherever possible. He [has] played in jazz combs, chamber singing groups, wedding bands, and wind ensembles. He has toured the Eastern Seaboard with a rock [outfit] and Eastern Europe with a concert choir. For years, Galen front Upstate New York alt-rock band The Beds and Virginia funk-rock ensemble Ultraviolet Ballet, and it was with these bands that he began to find his voice as a songwriter.

Galen’s musical talents are now focused on a burgeoning solo career. Based out of a vibrant Charlottesville, Virginia, music scene, Galen honors his southern heritage with unmistakably American tunes that supplement his singular tenor with clever lyricism and upbeat rootsy instrumentation, but it is his penchant for heartfelt and rollicking live performances that definitely set him apart from the crowd.

Continued from my first TNB post one year ago, “In Search of the Man Chair; or, Was That Billy Corgan?: Part I

TJ MAXX IS A STORE I DESPISE with all my heart and soul yet I find myself here, walking through the automatic doors with my wife at least once per month. Ding. That is the sound the entrance makes once you step foot into the land of no return. It’s the sound of a married man being castrated, his balls clipped and left to dangle on a rack beside a pair of discounted Bill Blass dark denim blue jeans. My mom loves Bill Blass dark denim blue jeans.

A monthly venture into this discount store was in our vows two Junes ago:

“Do you solemnly swear,” the preacher began, “to accompany your wife to TJ Maxx, Marshalls, or Goody’s at least once per month for as long as you shall live?”

Gulp.

There was no turning back. The women in the congregation stared at me waiting for my reply.

“I do.”

I see my dangling eggs on the same rack each time I enter. They are starting to shrivel now like sun-dried apricots; but they are not quite the color of sun-dried apricots. Those are not my balls. Those belong to John Boehner. My balls have a better and more natural tan. A brass color. PMS 7503 on the Pantone color swatch chart used by commercial print vendors. All credit is due on the color of my eggs to my Native American forefathers, particularly Charlie Meron, the 6’7” gentle giant.

But I digress…

My wife and I are here for a purpose. To buy crap we do not need at half the original price. A Rolling Stones lamp. A framed photo of a pop art Marilyn Monroe. A bronze rooster made of metal and concrete playing a saxophone. A glass jar of imported spaghetti noodles.

No, no, I fib. Someone else will be buying those items—except for the bronze rooster made of metal and concrete playing a saxophone. I bought that three years ago.

We’re here to buy new bras.

HOORAY! for pregnancy!

We walk toward the bra aisle and I suddenly feel uncomfortable. Breasts of all shapes and sizes and colors stare back at me from the dangling tags. I avert my eyes and do not want my wife noticing me stare at the perky, lifted breasts of strangers. I shouldn’t feel uncomfortable but I do. It’s sort of like buying my own underwear. A strange man’s package is in my face with a slight chub perfectly timed for the flash.

“Do these tighty whiteys make my penis look okay?”

“Don’t let your wife see those other guys’ weenie outlines,” Jason says, “she’ll start to compare.”

“My wife isn’t that shallow,” I tell Jason.

“Don’t think she isn’t looking.”

“Don’t make me take an extra 10mg of my medicine,” I reply, “I’ll make you vanish you son-of-a-bitch.”

“What do you think of this one?” my wife says, holding up a speckled pink and black bra.

“That’s nice,” I say.

“I really don’t want to get a bra this big,” she returns.

“It’s okay,” I say, consoling my wife.

She grabs two more bras, a white one and a black one, and we walk toward the dressing room.

There it is, in all its glory, the TJ MAXX man chair.

“Back in a minute,” my wife says.

There is a 10-to-12-year-old boy sitting across from me. He wears a white hoody that is slightly pointed at its peak, and is playing a PSP, that lucky bastard. I twiddle my thumbs. I took text messaging off my phone about eight months ago so I can’t pretend I’m checking my text messages. Actually, I can because none of these people would know any different, but I will know, so I don’t. I’ve grown to hate people who walk around with their phone in their face and in their hands at every turn.

“He looks like a little Klansman,” Jason whispers in my ear, referring to the boy. “All he needs is a Celtic cross sewn onto the breast.”

Jason’s right. He does look like a little Klansman sitting there. I imagine him in the middle of a field sitting atop a horse with a burning cross at his back and other Republicans sitting atop horses with a burning cross at their backs.

“Is Sandra coming to relieve me or not?” the slightly overweight, young black woman behind the counter says to a slightly overweight, older, redheaded white woman wearing a Santa cap. “And why do it smell like Chinese food up in here?”

It does smell like Chinese food. Day old Chinese food actually. That’s been re-heated. Broccoli and chicken and shrimp fried rice. Nothing smells worse than day old Chinese food reheated in the microwave. Not even day old Mexican.

Ironically, two Asian girls come jetting down the aisle. They are playing hide-and-go seek from their mother, I presume. They are much too old to be playing hide-and-go seek in a discount store. One looks to be about 14 and the other 12. The little Klansman never lifts his head.

“She’ll be in at 11,” the slightly overweight, older, redheaded white woman wearing a Santa cap says to the slightly overweight, young black woman behind the counter.

My wife comes out of the dressing room. “I like these,” she says, “but not this one,” holding up the black bra. “The straps sort of dig into my back.”

We walk back to the bra aisle and I say farewell to strange breasts I will see in another month or so when we go on another TJ MAXX bra-shopping venture. We make our way to checkout. The woman in front of us, with her husband in tow, picks up a pair of cheap sunglasses, tries them on, and looks at herself in the tiny mirror on the revolving rack. I see a bag of Jelly Belly jellybeans.

“I love Jelly Belly jellybeans,” Jason says.

“So did Ronald Reagan,” I tell him.

“You just had to ruin the moment for me, didn’t you?” he replies.

My wife and I exit and I hear the ding. I look back and bid my balls adieu which hang from a 50% off sales rack as “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” by Gayla Peevey begins to play.


Dear Fetus

By Jeffrey Pillow

Letters

Dear Fetus,

At 22 weeks, your mother and I will learn whether you are a boy or a girl. My mom—your Gammie Pillow—has informed me the exact date is December 20. (I believe she has an internal countdown meter, which projects all of your life’s milestones) Just to forewarn you, I will probably make some uncalled for comment during this particular ultrasound.

Scenario A: Doctor says you are a boy
DOCTOR: And that right there is your baby’s—
ME: Oh my gosh, is that his penis? It is enormous.
DOCTOR: No, that is his leg.
ME: I’m pretty sure that is his penis.

Scenario B: Doctor says you are a girl
DOCTOR: And that right there is your baby’s—
ME: Oh my gosh. My daughter doesn’t have a penis, does she? That thing is enormous.
DOCTOR: No, that is her leg.
ME: Oh, thank God. I thought my daughter had a penis.

That is when your mother will give me the evil eye. Actually, your mother will probably lecture me prior to the visit not to make any penis comments. I will still make a penis comment.

Love,

Daddy

Derk Richardson of the San Francisco Chronicle has described the band’s sound as “the heavy sadness of Townes Van Zandt, the light pop concision of Buddy Holly, the tuneful jangle of the Beatles, [and] the raw energy of the Ramones.” Hailing from Concord, North Carolina, the Avett Brothers have burst onto the music scene with the release of their acclaimed 2009 album, I and Love and You, and there’s no looking back.

I had the fortunate opportunity to speak with Seth Avett of the band to discuss—among other things—this very album, their recent rise in popularity, and whether or not beard envy was involved when working with the man himself: Rick Rubin. Enjoy.

In the summer of 2007, I was doing research while at the University of Virginia for a seminar under Syed Rizwan Zamir for his class, Islam in the Modern Age: Tradition, Fundamentalism, and Reform. Before I picked up reading fiction as an undergraduate, most all of what I read dealt with political science, the author I read the most by being the famed linguist and political dissident, Noam Chomsky. For my final project, I decided I would contact Chomsky for an interview to see what he’d have to say on the subject matter.

Screw it, it’s worth a shot I figured — even if deep down I knew there was no way he’d respond.




The next day I opened my e-mail, and saw it: Noam Chomsky to jwp5u.

After reading Chomsky’s response, the short answer being, “No, I don’t have the time,” I called home to my parents. Despite the rejection, I was so excited I could nearly urinate my pants and I think I even felt a little dribble at one point.

“Go up to my room,” I told my mom over the phone.

“Why?” she responded.

“Make like Nike and just do it. Look on my bookshelf. Do you see a guy named Noam Chomsky?”

She walked upstairs. I could hear her open my creaky bedroom door.

“Yes, he’s all over the place.”

“He just e-mailed me,” I said to her. “I asked him for an interview and he said he couldn’t do it. Isn’t that awesome?”

“That he said, ‘No.’”

“No, that he responded to my e-mail. Noam Chomsky wrote me an e-mail. Isn’t that awesome? NOAM AVRAM FREAKING CHOMSKY!”

“That’s wonderful,” my mom said to me in a sort of I-can’t-believe-you’re-this-excited-about-an-email voice.

And so ends one of the single greatest moments in my life.

Noam Avram Freaking Chomsky . . . man!

I am The Wannabe Novelist. Yes, in title case. To one day drop the adjective (“Wannabe”) and simply be The Novelist or at least A Novelist is a goal on my corkboard of goals that is thumbtacked to the left hemisphere of my brain.

From Brad Listi’s “It’s Kind of Like Creative Herpes”:

I like to joke that one of the best things I ever did in my career was to tell everyone close to me that I was going to write a novel back when I was twenty-one and dumb and fresh out of college. I remember right after graduation I went to a family wedding and stood around all fresh-faced and boozy talking to aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, wearing the coat and tie, receiving congratulations and answering twenty questions about the future.

“So what are you gonna do now? What kind of career path are you gonna pursue now that you’ve graduated college?”

“I’m gonna write a novel.”

THE ORIGINS: From a Construction Site to the Classroom

It was at this age, 21, I, too, seriously began writing—though I did not know it quite then. I was not in college or fresh out; I was working a meager paying job in construction. A friend of mine by the name of Jeremiah, 23, had recently been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. It was July 2003. The night of his diagnosis, I sat in my car at the basketball court across the street from my house and his. We were next-door neighbors growing up, and the basketball court, to us, had always been hallowed ground where memories of our youth together had been birthed on its very blacktop. The floodgates opened. I cried every salty tear I could accouch from my swollen eyes.
 
There was a green notebook in my car and an ink pen. I always kept both with me wherever I went. Although I had never written seriously in my life other than horrible love poetry to high school girlfriends, a handful of left-wing, anarchist inspired Letters to the Editor of the local newspaper, and rock ‘n roll lyrics (for the greatest cow pasture rock ‘n roll band to ever exist, Anti-Lou), I used to jot down fragments of thoughts and emotions, or whatever popped into this head of mine. It was a way of controlling all of what bounced around up there. Therapeutic writing, nothing more than emotive prattle.

I flicked on the dim interior light of my car and commenced writing. A little over a month later, I made the decision to enroll in a local junior college. Jeremiah’s sudden diagnosis urged me to think about my own situation in life. I had health insurance, not through work but individually purchased at the request of my parents, particularly my dad, who had not long before overcome his first battle with cancer, Stage IV Colon Cancer.

Could I financially afford to be sick? Jeremiah had a well-paying job with substantial benefits working as an accountant for a firm based in Charlottesville. Therefore, his company was, at the start, helping foot his medical bills, and could also afford him the time away from work while he recovered from the first of what would be his numerous surgeries and hospital stays, first at Lynchburg General Hospital, then the University of Virginia, and later, Duke University in Durham. If I were to get sick, whether from a more likely cause such as a car accident or injury considering my employment in construction, I simply would not get a paycheck. Although I worked with a company, I was considered self-employed, an individual contractor per se. Thus, I had zero benefits. No AD&D. No sick days. No vacation. Nada. If I didn’t work, I wasn’t paid. It was that simple.

Up until this point, I had never really thought about my future seriously, at least not more than a passing nod of what questions tomorrow would bring: peanut butter and jelly on white, or ham on rye. I was never engrossed with the idea of college while in high school. Neither of my parents went nor did any grandparent. Only one of my cousins on either side of the family had been to college and most recently, my sister; hence, college was never really up for consideration for me, never an ambition to attain.

I began college part-time, taking night classes while I worked full-time during the day. I studied on the carpool to work as we drove to our next job site and during my lunch breaks. If I could cut it in these night classes, I would enroll full-time the following year. I was petrified my first day of class having not situated my rear end in a classroom in over five years since high school. Nursing students, being that the class I enrolled in was Anatomy and Physiology, surrounded me. I had even enrolled a day before the add/drop date finalized, so I was already behind from day one by about a week-and-a-half. It showed in my first test. I flunked it miserably. I didn’t know how to study although I did try. Not only had it been half a decade since I last cracked open a textbook, I never once studied in high school. I winged it all. I did well then, but I winged it. There would be no winging it here.

I’m in over my head, I thought. I stared at the results of my test and hung my head. My professor, Mrs. Lisa Dunn-Back, approached me as I shuffled my way out the door.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “You can drop your lowest test score and lowest two quizzes. You’ll be fine. Take a look at your test. Do you see a pattern?”

I didn’t.

“The questions you missed were from the first week-and-a-half of class when you weren’t part of the lecture. You didn’t miss a single question from the week you were here.”

She was right.

I picked my head up. Determined, I made it a point to read every single line on every single page in the gigantic Anatomy & Physiology book that was required for class. I’m going to ace this next one, and I did.

“I told you,” Mrs. Back said, stopping me again as I made my way out the door that day.

A few weeks passed, and with them a handful of tests and quizzes. I piled up A’s and suddenly found myself on the job site during the carpool and my lunch break so immersed in the class text, I knew that I had made the correct decision. I called Jeremiah on a weekly basis to see how everything was going. I told him about my plans to return to college full-time the coming year, but was hesitant to tell him my reasons why, his diagnosis being the wake-up call that made me realize how fragile life is at its core, even at such a young age.

Being that my first round of night classes were science-oriented, there were no creative writing assignments that propelled me forward in wanting to etch my way closer to becoming a writer. To be honest, I had not given it a second thought; to be a writer, that is. What did happen during the time I learned of Jeremiah’s diagnosis and throughout my first year as a part-time student was scribble down little scenes from our childhood. Nothing intact. Nothing literary. Fragments only: An adventure down the train trestles, through the woods playing a game of War as children, or what have you. I jotted down these scenes on scraps of vinyl siding and metal trim, on empty cardboard boxes that housed coil or downspouts.

By the end of my first semester, I had managed to achieve the highest average in Mrs. Back’s class, “the highest average of any student in any of her classes,” she alerted me; this, obviously, after dropping my first test which, due to its very low score (and I mean very low score), would have pulled me down a couple of points easily.

“Have you ever thought about the University of Virginia?” she asked me the last day of class.

Jeez, I had only completed my first semester of class and my professor was already asking me about a school I never in the world thought myself material for ever since I was a kid. I laughed a little, “Well, no not really.”

“You should,” she said, and that was that. My professor had lost her mind.

Then, after another semester taking the second part of Mrs. Back’s Anatomy and Physiology course, came the decision; not quite of LeBron James’ epic proportion, but an important decision nonetheless; and it was, though I had been mulling it over for quite some time, very difficult to make: to leave the job and the co-workers I had known for the last three years of my life, who I had become such great friends with, and return to school.

I loved my job. I really did. Yet I knew it wasn’t in the cards for me, not in my future at least. My boss knew it was coming. He could see the transformation I had made in less than a year’s time and how engaged I had become in the life I led in the hours after work, and he graciously accepted my resignation, and let me know that, should I need any hours to work anytime in the future, I would be welcome to them with his company.

I enrolled full-time at Southside on the John H. Daniel campus in Keysville, Virginia. One of my classes, College Composition I, an English course with Professor Judy Lloyd (then Stokes), would be the first class on my plate, beginning at 8:00 a.m., Monday morning. I had no idea then how much this mandatory course would alter the path I would travel from that point forward, how it would open a window into my creative soul. I was about to find out.

Rich Ferguson - More Cowbell!

Street poet, cadence carpenter Rich Ferguson (Where I Come From), who could somehow make enchiladas relevant in the post-post-modern jib jabs of verse, rhythm, and rhyme, is an American spoken word artist to behold. Street meets soul as if a lingering piece of San Fran gold mysteriously appearing from the gluts of the LA Basin, liquefied reverb, straw cap, cawing through air spaces in his gums, “The Earthquake is Here! Where’s the Kick Drum?”

Tapping into the arterial vein of Los Angeles street life, Ferguson’s poetry oozes raw emotion with a pink underbelly. Be it the “boom-boom beat of all these bombs dropping” after the loss of a dear friend or the recollection of one night’s cross-dressing exploits (“The panty hose was the hardest to get on. Every inch of the way, the elastic material constricted movement, bound blood, itched the skin”), Ferguson’s inimitable interplay of lyric and language, culture possessed and exorcised by words and wordsmiths, haunted shadows on sidewalks, beckons the listener/reader line by line to sway side to side like a healed Stevie Wonder to the beat of a song wholly his own in statu nascendi inter spem et metum.

Ferguson has studied poetry alongside the poetic voice of the Beat Generation, Allen Ginsberg (Howl), shared a stage with the likes of the Godmother of Punk, Patti Smith (Horses), and even recently appeared—as in Monday, July 12, 2010 recent—on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” accompanying musical guest Tracy Bonham (Masts of Manhatta). If you thought the cowbell went out of style with Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken, think again. Ferguson could play the spoons or a musical instrument made from the cardboard remains of a toilet paper tube, strung tight with rubber bands, and you would still be hypnotized by a soulful magician not to be confused with Rich “The Ice Breaker” Ferguson.

Ferguson’s words are not silky smooth like white clouds in blue skies peppered with pretty birds singing love sonnets. The man is less Wordsworth and more Whitman. Whitman 2.0, 2010, Los Angeles, California. Rough to the touch like sandpaper grit that picks at the epidermal layer of your skin in little square, flaky bits.

Cue Clark Griswold. Drum roll please . . . .


*

THE INTERVIEW

JEFFREY PILLOW: First Rich, thanks for taking the time to dissolve this East Coast/West Coast beef between Biggie and Pac and talk with me. How would you describe the parallel of music, rhythm, and rhyme in your spoken word/poetry?

RICH FERGUSON: Before I began performing spoken word on a fairly regular basis I started out as a musician. Drums were my first instrument. I gradually moved on to singing lead, and later learned how to play the guitar so I could write songs. Over the years while playing music in various rock bands, I was always doing spoken word on the side. Sometimes within the band as well. During those years of training, rhythm and rhyme was obviously a big part of my diet. Once I began performing spoken word, and writing material for performance, I found that some of those skills crossed over quite naturally into the material. In regards to spoken word, however, I’ve been very fortunate to have people champion my work. One person that comes to mind is Bob Holman. He’s a fantastic NYC poet/educator. I feel very blessed to have him in my life. He’s really opened quite a few doors for me in regards to performing opportunities and meeting various writers over the years.

JP: I believe it was Duke [Haney] who said this once over at The Nervous Breakdown, though I may be misquoting him (or someone else if it wasn’t Duke), that music was the creative instigator, that it all started with music at a young age. Music does that, doesn’t it? Sends a pulse right through your veins. It only takes one song during the years of teenage angst to send you on a path where you never look back.

RF: Yeah, I’d say that music was a definite creative instigator for me as well. From a very early age, as early as 3 or so, I was always listening to the FM radio and beating the hell out of the naugahyde sofa, and singing along at the top of my lungs–even when I didn’t know the words. Music’s always been the engine that has fueled me throughout life. I’ve been very fortunate to play music as well. And when I say fortunate, not only do I feel it’s been such a blessing to play music, but I’ve also had the good fortune to meet some of the most amazing people I’ve ever known through the experience of playing music. That gift led me quite naturally into performing spoken word. Whether I’m playing or recording with actual musicians, or performing by myself, I always aspire to bring a certain musicality to everything I say and how I say it.

JP: Influences? Anything really: music, fiction writers, nonfiction, neighbors, oddballs, circus clowns, carnies, et cetera.

RF: Musical influences: I get a lot of crap for this one, but Rush is really one of my first musical influences. Or I should say that Neil Peart is the guy that got me interested in playing drums. Terry Bozzio is another drummer that’s been a big influence over the years. I actually had the extreme good fortune and honor to meet him last year and collaborate with him on a spoken word/music video piece entitled, “From Within to Without.” I think it’s on my YouTube page.

Fiction writers: I love Raymond Carver. Not so much because I feel like I write like him. Mainly because I don’t write like him. Let me explain . . . sometimes I feel like I use way too many words to get my point across. Carver is one of those writers that is able to go straight for the heart, straight for the jugular vein in the fewest words. His work is very lean and to the point. I admire that greatly.

JP: I hear ya’. I’ve tried to train myself to not be so longwinded yet I still fail miserably. I get it from my Mama. That woman can straight release some words from her gut, which is fairly amazing since she has a blib on one of her lungs. Collapsed way back when from blowing up a pool float.

Your thoughts on pool floats or other inflatable devices?

RF: So sorry to hear that your mom had such a hard time with that pool float. As for me, I can’t recall a problem with pool floats or inflatable devices. Now that I think of it, though, not long ago I went to see Brad Listi interview Chuck Palahniuk here in L.A. During the course of the interview, Chuck threw some inflatable toys into the audience. Some were huge Oscar-like statues. Others were giant-sized hearts. Everyone in the audience–and we’re talking a pretty big theater–were huffing and puffing trying to blow up these toys. Me, I damn near thought I was going to get a collapsed lung while blowing up that heart. But I made it. In fact, I currently have it sitting in my living room.

JP: Sorry, sorry. Influences, yes. Back to that.

RF: There are other writers that I love reading for inspiration: Neruda, Rilke, Rumi. I love the mystical and lyrical nature of their voices. I also enjoy the poetry of Patti Smith, Mayakovsky, and Saul Williams.

A couple other fiction writers I enjoy: Richard Brautigan, George Saunders, and Mark Richard. I just love their sense of imagination and word play.

In regards to other inspirations: Heck, inspiration is all around in everyday life. I’m trying to get better at picking up the clues.

JP: Six degrees of Kevin Bacon, I have to ask: Patti Smith . . . you once performed on the same stage with her. What was this experience like?

RF: Performing with Patti Smith was amazing. A dream come true, really. The amazing NYC poet, Bob Holman, was the mastermind that put that show together. The only thing that could’ve made the evening even better would’ve been having the opportunity to hang out with Patti and pick her brain a bit about her experiences and let her know how much she’s influenced not only my creative work, but my life. But she was pretty much keeping to herself that evening, so I didn’t bug her.

JP: And [Allen] Ginsberg? Jeez man, you studied with Ginsberg? I keep a copy of Howl and Other Poems at my cube at work. I jokingly said to my wife when I started writing for TNB that the crowd there is like The Beat Generation: 21st Century Edition starring [Brad] Listi as Jack Kerouac, and if anyone should play Ginsberg then it’s gotta be Rich.

RF: Frankly, I don’t think I should be the one playing Ginsberg. Actually, that should be another TNB contributor: Milo Martin. Some years ago when he was living in S.F. he was propositioned by Ginsberg at City Lights Bookstore. Milo graciously refused the offer. Still, near blowjobs over writing workshops–I think that officially puts Milo at a lesser degree of separation from Allen than me.

JP: How are you different than Rich “The Ice Breaker” Ferguson, the magician?

RF: This is a funny question. I never became aware of this guy until someone once wrote me and said: “So I googled your name and this magician guy came up. Some other guy named Rich Ferguson.” I did a little bit of investigating and saw that this guy has TONS of videos on YouTube and stuff. In fact, I think when you google the name Rich Ferguson, his name comes up before mine. At one point, when you googled the name, he came up, I came up, then there was this cross-dresser in London that also came up. Since then, I think the London cross-dresser has changed his name. I think he was really starting to feel the heat. Ultimately, it’s one of the my life ambitions to beat the magician Rich Ferguson in the Google pool. I actually spoke to him once on the phone, and we had a great conversation. He’s a super sweet guy.

Jeffrey Dahmer Pillow

JP: I feel ya’ Rich. It took me a while to climb Google’s ladder too. Back in the day, the first search results you’d get when you googled me were Jeffrey Dahmer pillows and Jeff Gordon pillows. But no more. The Jeffrey Dahmer pillows still trump me sometimes in the Google Images search. Unfortunately for some likely cannibals and future serial killers out there, they sadly come upon my website from time to time when searching for Jeffrey Dahmer collectibles. Google Analytics has clued me in.

I had to ask about The Ice Breaker. When I was doing research for my article, the magic man appeared. I think as me and Greg [Olear] discussed once, when you do a search of Brad and The Nervous Breakdown, you get links to a Brad Paisley song of the same name . . . .

I’m sure you’ve been asked this a dozen times already but how was the experience on ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno?’ You were groovin’ dude. In synch hand claps. The cow bell. You were straight jamming on stage.

RF: The Leno experience was great. The crew was great. The band that I played with [Tracy Bonham] was amazing. Here’s the thing, though. There’s a tremendous amount of waiting around. That’s the one thing I wasn’t prepared for. I got there at 9:30 a.m. There was a sound check at 11:00. Then there was a lunch break. At 1:30 we did a tech run-through with cameras. Then we had to sit around until 4:45 when we did the actually taping. Yeah, the most challenging part of the whole deal was to have to sit around for all that time, then when they said, “You’re on” you really had to be on. Because we basically just had one shot at the whole thing.

JP: Well, you guys damn sure nailed it . . . .

What’s a good web address where folks can listen to your work?

RF: Two places where people can check out my spoken word/music tracks and videos are MySpace (www.myspace.com/richferguson) and YouTube (www.youtube.com/fuzzydoodah).

JP: One last thing, Mrs. Butterworth or Aunt Jemima? Who makes the best maple syrup? Inquiring minds want to know.

RF: I’ll go with Aunt Jemima. If for no other reason than I grew up with her. Gotta stay loyal to my homegirl. She gave me many fine, sweet mornings during childhood breakfasts.

JP: Thanks for your time Rich. Best of luck in your continuing beat in the literary world.



RICH FERGUSON has performed across the country and has been heard on many radio stations, including WBAI in New York City, KCRW and KPFK in Southern California, and World Radio. He has shared the same stage with Patti Smith and Janet Hamill, Exene Cervenka, David Thomas of Pere Ubu, Holly Prado, and many other esteemed poets and musicians. He has performed at the Redcat Theater in Disney Hall, the Electric Lodge (Venice, CA), The Knitting Factory (NYC & LA), the South by Southwest Music Festival, the North By Northwest Music Festival, the Henry Miller Library, Tongue and Groove, Beyond Baroque, and the Topanga Film Festival. On the college circuit he has performed at UC Irvine, UC-Santa Barbara, UCLA, El Camino College, and Cal State Northridge. He is a featured performer in the sequel to the film 1 Giant Leap. It’s called What About Me, and also features Michael Stipe, Michael Franti, K.D. Lang, Krishna Das, and others. Ferguson has studied poetry with Allen Ginsberg and fiction writing with Aimee Bender and Sid Stebel. In addition, he has been published in the LA TIMES, spotlighted on PBS (Egg: The Art Show), is a regular contributor to The Nervous Breakdown, and his spoken word/music CD, entitled Where I Come From, was produced by Herb Graham Jr. (John Cale, Macy Gray).

While viewing a Ted McCagg cartoon, Jeffrey Pillow remembers an incident when he was 17 involving a bottle of massage oil, a 58-year-old masseuse, and his penis.

“We have a surprise I really think you’ll like,” my mom and sister said.

It was the eve of my high school graduation and I was about to party like it was 1999.

Because it was 1999.

“There’s only one catch. You have to be there at a certain time this coming Saturday.”

Finally, my mom had caved. She was going to sign for me to get that tattoo I had been talking about for so long. I had even drawn out the design: a skull with an old man’s hat with a safety pin sticking out the brim and a pair of dice rolled off to the side. The skull would be smoking a cigarette.

Finally.

Only that wasn’t it.  I would learn as much twenty-four hours after receiving my diploma.

“A professional massage,” my mom said. “I figured with all the stress leading up to final exams, you could use one.”

Fuck, I thought. I’m never getting that tattoo.


****

I got there early, arriving at 9:45 AM. My appointment was at 10:00.

“I hope this bitch is hot,” I said to myself, walking up the brick steps. I popped a stick of Teaberry gum in my mouth so that my breath would be fresh.

“Just go in the room right there and slip off your shorts,” the lady said. I assumed she was the receptionist.

She was approximately 58-years-old with a soft face and gray/white hair, cut short like women cut it once they hit 46 and give up on looking like women. She wore light green polyester slacks. She had a fupa. I would later learn this terminology from my well-mannered wife.

“Fupa?” I asked.

“Yeah, Fat Upper Pussy Area,” my wife said.

It was the first time I had heard my wife say the p-word.

“Say it again,” I said.

“Fupa.”

“No, the p-word.”

“No.”

From Urban Dictionary [dot] com:

Fat Upper Pussy Area (aka. Gunt) -You’ve all seen them, most commonly associated with obese burnt out High School Teachers (Good God man, I’ve seen FUPAS swallow an entire desk whole!) and the Wolf Pack (You know who you are).

Causes: Fupatitis P.

Only known cure: Fupandectomy

Used in a sentence:

Biiiaatch, get your god damn FUPA off my desk!!

Mrs. Addis, I mean Da’aaaam! (nuff said)

Look at dem fupers over der eh. (Canadian Fupa sighting)

Bertha’s pouch above her vagina is bigger than the rest of her body. She’s bigger than the Fupapottomaus, she is a FupaSaurus Rex.

I entered the room to change and first took off my shirt and socks. I swished around the Teaberry juice in my mouth to get the flavors all across my palette. I didn’t want to have bad breath. You know, just in case. I’d read many a Penthouse Forum letter about massage clinics. I knew what sometimes went on in these establishments –- and I was 17. A man can dream when he’s 17, even if he can’t dream at any other time in his life. The possibility existed that this adventure might end in ecstasy, and if that possibility existed, by George I would be ready.

As I was taking off my shorts, the 58-year-old woman with a fupa opened the door.

“What’s taking you so long?” she asked peeking over at me. She had two small white towels in her hand.

Jesus, give me a second, I thought. I’ve only been in here two seconds.

“Well, let me know when you’re ready. I’ll be waiting in the lobby when you’re done.”

She’d be waiting? Shouldn’t she be at the front desk answering the phone?


****

I was lying face down on my stomach when she entered, my face peering through a hole cut out in the bed. I saw her clean white shoes as she entered and those green polyester pants. A towel was over my bottom. The 58-year-old woman was not the receptionist. She was my masseuse for the morning. She squirted some massage oil in her hands and began by rubbing my shoulders and neck then worked her way down my spine. Such soft, delicate hands, I thought, yet so strong.

Oh God, this feels so good. Why have I never had a professional massage before? Knead the bread, I thought as she took the muscles of my back into her hands. Just knead the bread.

Who cares if she’s not a stunning 18-year-old brunette?

“Any areas of special interest you’d like me to work on?” she asked.

“All over,” I said. “But if you could do my calf muscles and legs for a little bit that would be great. I play basketball religiously.”

She squirted some more massage oil in her hands and worked on my calves first then my feet. Then she made her way up my hammies. They were so tender. Man, I really underestimated how good this could feel.

Holy shit, she’s getting close to my thighs.

Oh my God, I’m getting a semi.

Breathe deep.

Fat women. Fat women.

Fat women in purple leotards. Fat women in purple leotards.

Fat women in purple leotards riding unicycles.

Oh my God, she just graced my perineum.

I’m sure it was an accident. Definitely an accident.

She went down my hamstrings again and to my calves.

Then she came back up.

Oh my God, it wasn’t an accident.

She just touched my perineum again. And my balls.

Oh my God, she touched my balls. Oh my God, my penis is getting swollen. Oh my God, she’s going to hit my penis with her hand. It’s facing my knees. It’s facing my knees.

Red alert.

I should have worn boxer briefs. Boxers was a bad idea.

“What is wrong with you Jeff?” my internal narrator Jason said to me. “She’s 58 for crying out loud!”

I’m very well aware of this, asshole.

“Say something.”

Like what? Excuse me, you just touched my balls and now I have an erection?

“She knows what she’s doing,” Jason said. “What are you going to do when she tells you to flip over?”

Oh no, I hadn’t thought of that.

I had to figure out a way to position my penis so it was lying flat on my belly.

There was no way to be subtle though I tried. I lifted my crotch from the table and positioned my penis flat against my belly.

This is humiliating.

“Just go with it,” my penis said.

Hey, fuck you buddy. She’s gotta at least be 58. She’s wearing green polyester pants.

“Grass on the field, play ball.”

“Penis,” Jason said. “SHUT . . . THE FUCK . . . UP! This woman’s vagina is up to her belly button.”

“Mmm,” penis said. “Vagina.”

“Alright,” the masseuse said. “Flip over so we can get your front.”

Then she began working on the front of my shoulders and arms.

She’s gotta know, I thought.

Then she began massaging my chest and ribs.

Oh my God, the towel just moved.

“Reporting for duty, sir,” penis said.

Flaccid. Become flaccid. Oh please become flaccid.

She must have seen that. There’s no way she didn’t see that.

This is the worst day of my life. Someone’s grandma is getting me hard.


****

Fifteen minutes later, the massage was over. She left the room and I stood up, erect as a newly placed statue in the town square. I put my t-shirt on and pulled my shorts up, positioning my swollen, aching penis under my waistband. I walked to the front desk with my gift card.

“Thank you,” I said to the 58-year-old woman with a fupa.

“Thank you. Come again,” she said with a smile.

That bitch is mocking me, I thought as I walked out the door and down the brick steps.


****

“How was it?” my mom asked as I entered my home.

“It felt really good,” I responded. Then I went upstairs to my bedroom and locked the door.

[Insert happy ending here]

I came in early yesterday from work. My wife and I had an appointment with our real estate agent to view a handful of homes. Before we left, I checked my messages on Facebook. In my inbox was a message I never expected to read from a mutual friend who now lives in Florida.

“He died a couple of weeks ago,” the message read.

Between the ages of 15-18, I never had a greater friend than Brian. From dawn till dusk, we four were inseparable. Then the house came crumbling down. Rick had a bad trip on acid and did a stint in a psychiatric ward in Petersburg. Ricky was in and out of jail for drug possession, and BBP had returned to New Jersey to be with his family.

After he left, Brian used to call me at all hours of the night. His mind had began deteriorating long before he left, and as it would be later confirmed, he suffered from the disease of paranoid schizophrenia.

He changed his phone number a half dozen times, his number never the same each time he called.

“They are listening,” he would tell me. He believed the government had tapped his phone.

“They are following me,” he said. They being government spies.

He would see friends from Virginia he believed were in New Jersey, visiting.

“I saw Jeremiah,” he would say. “I saw Kelly and Gary.”

But he never really did. They were never in New Jersey.

He saw ghosts of friendship.

He ditched his cell phone and started using calling cards. He would call me from various payphones in Trenton, New Jersey. Then one day he arrived at my doorstep in a beat-up pickup truck. He had no driver’s license and he was supposed to be in court that day in New Jersey for assaulting a police officer. But he was here, in Phenix, Virginia, to visit his friends — one last time.

He arrived around 4 AM and we visited his old home that he had boobytrapped before he left. He believed people were breaking into his house when he was not there.

“Stealing my dope,” he thought.

But they were not.

A string was tied from the front door knob on the backside to the trigger of a loaded shotgun. If someone entered that was not supposed to, it’d be “all she wrote,” he said. But no one ever had their head blown off because no one ever entered his home except him.

After he left Phenix that day years ago, he called me a couple of time using his calling cards. Then I never heard from him again. None of us did. And we had no way of contacting him though I tried numerous times to find a way to get in touch with his sister.

“He died a couple of weeks ago,” the message read.

From what cause, I don’t know just yet. I imagine I will shortly. Maybe. If anyone knows.

It could have been a car wreck. A sickness of some sort like cancer. Drug related. Suicide.

Suicide wouldn’t surprise me, though it saddens me.

“The comfort I take in his death,” I said to my wife, “is that he will have found peace that he no longer could find while alive.”

And I am trying to find a way to reach his sister but will probably fail miserably like I have for the past ten years.

We four were inseparable at the height of our teenage existence.

“He died,” I said to Ricky over the phone. He choked up.

“He died,” I said to Rick.

And we feel so detached from the death of a friend so great. I think in that detachment is the comfort he has finally found peace, as cliche as it may sound. It’s true.

I searched for his obituary but have been unable to find it. His family did not celebrate birthdays and, for all I know, maybe they do not celebrate deaths either.

“An individual person is not important,” he had said of his father’s beliefs which he did not share.


Years ago, in my last seminar while at the University of Virginia, we were given a final project. The class was The Road in American Literature taught by Jennifer Wicke. We had the option of writing a story 10-15 pages in length.

I ended up writing an 80-page story on BBP’s return to Phenix those years ago. I fictionalized it by changing the names. But it was no fiction. Brian’s name was not Ezekiel. My name was not Jackson. Ricky was not Charley. Rick was not Chuck. This is part of what I wrote:


I was lying in bed, a book in hand, my thumb resting on the inside joint of the pages when an old ghost pecked at the window in my room. The floor creaked as I made my way across to investigate the sound. The ghost pecked again. Crunchy wasps and ladybug shells, their souls retreated, were scattered in chipped white paint on the window sill. I drew up the Venetian blinds. Dust fell freely and tickled my nose. The apparition below stood in four sections, divided, suspended on the cross of the pane, glaring up at me. His arms were spread. He let them drop, releasing a pebble from his palm.

The figure motioned with his hand and began to walk toward the front door. I paused from where I stood and glimpsed at the neon light of the alarm clock atop my nightstand: 4:30 a.m. Possessed with the motion of the apparition’s hand, my body responded and drifted wearily down the staircase toward the front door. I began to open it simultaneously reaching up to flick the porch light on from the interior, but the bulb only flickered and fizzled out, the sight outside the door becoming visible only momentarily as if a match’s flame snubbed out. I opened the door. Three invisible Mary’s stood by the ghost in disbelief. None had removed the stone from the tomb but the body had emerged and now stood before me—intact, breathing. He is no Christ figure, I thought, only the criminal who asked for redemption in the final hours.

“It’s been a while Jackson,” the phantom said but ghosts do not speak. I stared into the darkness. The darkness stared back. The figure lifted a cigarette to his mouth and inhaled. The red cherry lit up his face. The face grinned.

****

Quite some time had passed since I had last seen Ezekiel. I never expected to see that sinister face again—the split front lip, the cigarette dangling from it, tobacco smoke pouring out of his nostrils; but now, standing before me, the face beamed. The abandoned orphan had come home in search of his natural family. Dried spittle gathered around his mouth like a rabid dog broken free of its chain. A beat up Ford pickup truck sat in the distance with New Jersey plates. As the two of us began to walk toward the truck in unison, matching one another step for step, the smell of gas fumes too early in the morning nauseated me to the core of my stomach. Ezekiel turned the key. The engine roared in the calm of the otherwise silent morning as sleeping birds nested high atop the limbs.

Painted strokes on a gray-black canvas kept in harmony as Ezekiel and I rode off into the hours before dawn. The crisp morning air drifting from the open windows of the truck wrestled with loose paper in the floorboard as we began to pick up speed.

I looked at Ezekiel.

His hair had grown out, an afro of sorts, jutting into the background like hungry snakes lying wait on the dewy grass of a cornfield in spring time. His mind was ready to bite, spit venom, and then retreat back to the path it slithered its way from prior to our meeting again. Thick glasses like Coca-Cola bottles framed his eyes. These were the same glasses given to him less than a month before his disappearance, now a little scratched on the lens but holding up nevertheless. Ezekiel looked as if a mad scientist or some sort of social deviant unfit to roam the streets freely at will.

Send him back, his father would say.

Send him back.

To the white padded walls of the asylum. Four pills at breakfast. Four pills at dinner. Mouthwash that tastes like toilet bowl water. There you just sit in a room without locks. An eye peeking through the keyhole. Peeking through the pane.

A toilet in the open.

A nurse watching you shit and piss and twiddle your thumbs and color in a coloring book like you are in elementary school.

She knows by now on average the amount of times it takes you to wipe your ass. She watches you like a hawk does prey through the glass pane and counts each wipe out of boredom more than anything. Six good wipes usually and before you wipe she knows you always lift your ass off the seat a little and look back into the bowl to see what you’ve expended.

“Cigarette,” Ezekiel asked tapping the bottom of the pack with his palm. His face lightens up.

“I’ll have one.”

“I thought maybe you had quit.”

“I did.”

****

Two cars were out at this time of morning: Ezekiel’s raggedy pickup the two of us secured in its seats and Kenneth Gold, the local newspaper deliveryman dropping off a fresh batch of the day’s Dispatch. Ezekiel flung his arm into the air, waving. Kenneth reared his head only to nod slightly and in a begrudging manner, and then returned to opening the orange box to place inside the newspapers. Ezekiel turned off the highway and up the dirt driveway to his former residence. The road was weathered and eroded, conduits made so by rain onto the silt and bits of orange clay, nay enough compacted dirt nor rock to keep the road whole and ingot; and as we traveled down it, the truck shook from side to side as the house came into view. He downshifted gears, slowing the engine to a halt. The porch light was on.

The hummingbird moth
Danced into the morning sun
But there was no sun.

Ezekiel took a drag from his cigarette and I heard the crackling of the paper as the cherry ate away toward the filter. He removed his glasses and wiped the corners of his eyes. The whites of his eyes had the appearance of jaundice and the vessels around the iris were burst. The stubby beard on his face looked of four or five days since last seeing a razor. The smell of sweat and an unwashed body seeped through the white shirt he wore, the neck of the shirt yellow and brown. He opened the door and placed his foot to the ground. Ice crystals had formed in clods of orange and brown soil. When Ezekiel’s feet met the earthen floor, a crunching sound was heard as the crystals collapsed into nothing. Standing outside of the vehicle, he crouched down and peered back in to where I still sat. He flicked the cigarette butt to the ground.

“You coming,” he said.

As we made our way on foot up the remainder of the driveway, the white light from the porch grew brighter. The house sat high atop the hill like a poor man’s plantation manor. The windows were non-existent and the panes stared back at us forming hollowed out eyes. Shards of glass had fallen from the metal crosses that were not completely concave as if melting ice-cycles in February stabbing into the ground. The roof was of rusted tin spotted with patched blocks of shiny silver. Black tar used as sealant oozed from the corner of the patches, its tin quilt in dire need of more patterns to sustain the rain whence it came, leaking from the ceiling.

Together the two of us sat down on the front stoop. Ezekiel pulled the pack of cigarettes from out his front pocket and tapped two cigarettes above the rest. He lit one and the other by its cherry, handing it to me. The smell of smoke was thick as we both looked out into the yard. Pipes were scattered about, as were bolts, a porcelain toilet, and kitchen sink. Primordial oak trees that witnessed every life that went inside, that died inside, and that left and never returned stood to the left and right of the tattered home now become of itself with no inhabitants yet another decrepit country house. The limbs reached out like his father’s hands beating the termite infested wood siding and moths flew into the porch light and fell like Icarus back to the wooden planks into a black sea of other dead and decomposed insects.

Ezekiel stood up from the stoop and peered into one of the broken windows at the front of the house. Inside were buckets to relieve the floor of rot. Trails of splotched black mold peppered the rotting floor. He pulled a flashlight out from inside his jacket pocket and shined it at the ceiling. The ceiling was warped and stained tawny and coffee colored, and there too splotches of black mold. A lone light flickered about inside, shorting from the water that had leaked from the roof over time and found its way into its circuits.

****

The sun rose, febrile and hot orange, birthing the start of a new day. Far off, the cockalorum of a rooster could be heard, the shrill of its lungs blowing mightily as was its everyday call. Sleeping birds arose and ruffled their feathers amongst the leaves of the oaks and people all across this sleepy town smacked at their alarm clocks and awoke with deep yawns expelled from their guts . . . .