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1027 A friend of mine emailed me recently to ask for help with a personal essay. It was a short piece about how all the great stories seem to be about doing heroin or cheating on your spouse.

She’s not imagining that. There are some great stories out there about doing heroin and cheating on your spouse.

The piece reminded me of certain “envy essays” I’ve seen around on writer’s blogs, The New York Times, and in interviews. “I’m so jealous of Lena Dunham/Cat Marnell/Cheryl Strayed.” Very talented and determined people have these feelings.

It happened again.

I was moving along in my happy little life as a writer and teacher of Creative Nonfiction (CNF), keeping a healthy distance from the writers and teachers of Fiction (F), staying on my side while they stayed on theirs, when seepage occurred. A writer of CNF spilled over to the F side without telling anyone. Or was she a writer of F who infiltrated the CNF side surreptitiously? It’s so hard to tell these days. But I knew one thing for sure: the border had been breached.

About A Bout

By JJ Keith

Memoir

“C’mon. Bare-knuckle brawl. I win, you break up with her. You win and I’ll never bring her up again.”

He put his hands on his slim hips in dramatic protest. “I’m not gonna fight you. How do you think it looks if a black guy beats up a prissy blonde?”

I wasn’t worried about how it looked. Ernie could talk himself out of anything. That boy had a candy-coated mouth and friends in every corner of our mostly white, middle-class high school. My white ass, however, had four to six friends depending on how much I had been running my mouth. Some may have called me unpopular, but the disdain was mutual. During high school I took a full load of courses at a nearby community college so that I only had to go to high school in the mornings. That summer, I had just claimed my diploma a year early and was about to leave Ernie behind to finish high school without me. Not that he minded.

“Fight me!” I jumped up and down on his bed, throwing punches into the air. “C’mon. Let’s go. I wanna be a pugilist.”

It always distresses me when I hear writers (often memoirists) say that they could never have told the story they did if certain family members or friends were still alive. Frequently, these are child abuse stories, but they might also involve alcohol and drug problems, a coming out experience—crime. Or perhaps the work in question simply presents an unflattering portrait of certain people that the author is reluctant to own up to face to face. Novelists and poets can confront this same dilemma of course, although there is the perception (read: illusion) of greater creative distance (Thomas Wolfe could’ve told you about the pitfalls there)—but it’s precisely this margin of difference, however thin and vague it may be, that the memoirist is trading on.

First Contact

By Rob Williams

Essay

Her name was Nedelia. She was a skinny, shy Hispanic girl, with enormous glasses (just like me) and a faint mustache whispering across her upper lip (very much unlike me—but more about that in a second). In my memory, she is always wearing a light blue skirt, knee-high white socks and a white blouse. She looks lovely, although I never would have said that about her at the time.

“Thank you for your interest in Zoetrope: All Story,

 

We are a staff of two, assisted by a small team of brilliant and generous volunteers, who are collectively dedicated to reading and responding to the 12,000 submissions All Story receives annually…

…All-Story does not accept submissions via e-mail. Send stories to:…”

The above guidelines come from Zoetrope: All Story, one of the top tier literary magazines of today. My response:

Dear Zoetrope,

Your submission guidelines are fucked up. Snail mail had a purpose…once. There are better options, and the time is now.

The list of deservedly established writers published at your magazine is formidable: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Woody Allen, Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Roberto Bolaño, Robert Olen Butler, Don DeLillo, Mary Gaitskill, Kathryn Harrison, Ha Jin, Jonathan Lethem, Yiyun Li, Naguib Mahfouz, Alice Munro, Salman Rushdie, Kurt Vonnegut, & David Foster Wallace. Many writers would love to join this crew, do not mind submitting, and hope to be “discovered” on the slush pile. Yet how do the majority of your authors submit? I doubt Woody Allen stuffs an envelope and drops it in the mail, fingers crossed, hoping Zoetrope will make his proverbial day. But that’s what you demand of the regular scribe, and while all writers are not stereotypical “starving artists,” they would love to save a dime or two, unlike ol’ Woody, who can afford the postage. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, Woody’s earned the privilege, but then why bother taking submissions from the masses? No matter how good an unknown’s story is, Woody and friends aren’t gettin’ bumped. Fetid grapes aside, The New Yorker now accepts E-subs, but even The Diddle Ass Review should. And so should Zoetrope.

Electronic mail or submission managers are no longer science fiction, and function more efficiently than snail. E-subs might create an overflow of stories, but there are solutions: short windows for submissions or charging nominal fees (not writer friendly, either, chief sinner Narrative Magazine, charging nasty clam so they can pay all the writers they solicit, but that’s another rant). Here’s the analysis:

Estimated annual cost of 12,000 nine-page stories plus cover letters:

  • $ 600 12,000 8½ x11 envelopes 120 x $5 per packet of 100 envelopes
  • $14,040 $1.17 Postage for 12,000 submissions
  • $ 240 12,000 4×9 envelopes for SASE 120 x $2 per packet of 100 envelopes
  • $ 5,280 $0.44 Postage for 12,000 SASE
  • $ 1,200 120,000 pages @240 x $5 per 500-page ream
  • $ 960 Printer ink cartridges @10,000 pages per cartridge = 12 x $80

Total = $22,320 or over $1,800 per month.

  • Not included but should be considered wasteful:
  • Gas to deliver 12,000 submissions plus 11,998 rejections and two rewrite requests
  • At 3 inches a 500-leaf ream, a 60-foot tall tree of paper

Time at printer preparing envelopes, etc. @five minutes/submission = 100 hours (not to mention time spent by “brilliant and generous volunteers” who, with Bartleby-like futility, refine skills in a Sisyphean search for fabulous stories that will never be accepted by Zoetrope)

Fifty Zoetrope clones would push the cost over a million dollars. Smaller mags? Every 100 subs/month = $2,232/year. Yet as the smaller mags regularly publish from slush, the waste not as egregious.


Zoetrope, your guidelines continue: “Before submitting, non-subscribers should read several issues of the magazine.” What a deal! I’m sure you’re not intentionally trying to screw writers, but c’mon, this is way totally like effin’ really just absolutely too fucked up.
Certainly, writers should do their part, not waste editors time with inappropriate submissions, and buy, read, and support literary magazines; that’s yet another topic. Bottom line: writers might buy more magazines if they had more money, and they might read more if they had more time. Right? If one writer has ten stories and submits each story twenty times that’s over $350 a year a writer could spend on food, rent, books, and subscriptions to literary magazines. Sure, Zoetrope, you are not the only guilty party. Those lovable stalwarts over at The Sun, despite their concern about social issues, environment, and poverty, refuse to evolve. Others? The list includes The Atlantic, Crab Creek Review, Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, The Texas Review, Zyzzyva, etc., not to mention the publishers and agents that postpone electronic. The cost rises into millions of dollars, a forest of paper trees, and oodles of wasted hours. So Zoetrope and cohorts, big and small, agents and editors and publishers, take heed: Stop the snail. Or be fucked up.

Sincerely,

Caleb “The Mad Writer” Powell

How did you two meet?

JON COTNER: One summer I visited Boston, and met mutual friends of ours who’d rented a sprawling apartment with a screened-in porch. I was 19 and broke, didn’t really have a place to stay, so I moved into the porch. Boston was different from New York—apartments were larger, more conducive to extensive crashing. The following winter I returned to that apartment and met Andy as I stretched on a bedroom floor, shortly after the room’s official resident had left for work. It was 7 a.m. Andy entered the bedroom from the living room (where he must’ve been trying to sleep), hoping to gain a few more hours’ rest, but the bed had already been occupied by another scavenger. Standing above me, Andy looked down. He seemed a bit shocked. It was “love at first sight” in the sense of instantaneous and irrefutable friendship.


Who, or what, inspired Ten Walks/Two Talks?

ANDY FITCH: The book contains excerpts from two projects: my Sixty Morning Walks (sixty-minute walks through Manhattan for sixty straight mornings, each described in sixty-sentence entries), and our collaborative Conversations over Stolen Food (transcripts from forty-five-minute conversations recorded in public, across New York City, over thirty consecutive days). In Ten Walks/Two Talks, Jon and I decided to fuse these projects, based on our admiration for Ed Ruscha’s hybrid photographic books—such as Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass, Various Small Fires and Milk, among others. Previous philosophers and poets, among them Socrates and Basho, often combined talking and walking into an interrogative, interlocutory, aesthetic and athletic practice. Here we try to do the same.


Utagawa Hiroshige’s prints appear before each section of Ten Walks/Two Talks. Why did you select his work?

AF: Hiroshige’s preference for idiosyncratic views on familiar places taught us much about how to enjoy city life. For us, he is the consummate urban philosopher if philosophy amounts to a careful picking-and-choosing of attention, a selection designed to prompt enthusiasm and engagement with everyday life, in the face of inevitable death. We didn’t want to adopt such abstract language in this book, however. Instead, we wished to put into practice Emerson’s assertion that “the glance reveals what the gaze obscures.” The rhythmic appearance of Hiroshige images is meant to remind readers of the glance’s immediacy, just when the undeclared prejudices of a sustained narrative gaze begin to solidify, and to seem “true” or “objective.”


Your talks sound more like a performance than how regular people speak. How much were they edited? Do you two talk this way all the time?

JC: During the early years of our friendship, we would meet for walks at night—following semi-frantic private attempts to read and think. Those initial dialogues had the performative aspect of two guys who, through their stammers, sought to create meaning or a language-world. We were both motivated in part by the consciousness that we  misspent our adolescence. I’d lost irreplaceable hours in a refrigerated living-room watching The Golden Girls and Wimbledon. Somehow I wanted to regain time, to at least slow it down and inhabit its flow more fully. Perhaps my dialogues with Andy sound different from “regular” conversation because of a shared, almost physiological need for engagement with the insights and moods of passing moments. Not to say the two talks in Ten Walks/Two Talks, as well as those making up Conversations over Stolen Food, haven’t been tightened. Readers will still find leaps, stutters, oscillating narratives and dialogic rhythms, but we’ve compressed the original transcripts to provide a livelier readerly experience. Editing the thirty talks took years of painstaking work. Yet surprisingly, many people believe the edited transcripts are verbatim.


Ten Walks/Two Talks is classified as Poetry/Nonfiction. How did this come about? And finally, any thoughts on “genre”?

JC: The day before Ten Walks/Two Talks got printed, Andy and I exchanged emails with Anna Moschovakis, our editor at Ugly Duckling Presse and founder of its Dossier Series. Anna asked how we wanted to categorize this book (she had to put something on the back cover). It’s funny: the three of us had been discussing the project for months, but only at the last moment did genre arise. That’s one reason UDP is so wonderful. Since the Dossier Series features cross-genre work, we decided on “Poetry/Nonfiction.” But are the Walks poetry, and the Talks nonfiction? Or vice versa? Or do both forms partake of both categories? To me “Poetry/Nonfiction” indicates the irrelevance of genre. Andy and I have, for example, published dialogues as poetry, drama, nonfiction, fiction, ethnography, literary criticism, even feminist criticism. Conversation doesn’t have its own genre. It might belong to all genres.

AF: I teach creative nonfiction in an MFA program, but I mostly assign philosophy, poetry and films to my students, and Dalkey Archive soon will publish my critical study of the artist-poet Joe Brainard. In each of these media, there is a perverse, low-affect aesthetic that I love. Within literature, this aesthetic often verges on creative nonfiction since it considers mundane existence the most overlooked of possibilities, and on poetry, since it achieves its effects through charm, elision and implication rather than faithful attention to the fact. It makes use of whatever lies ready at hand, yet remains, first of all, exciting.

The bellhop had one eye. He didn’t wear a patch. So I just gazed at the scar.

As if he had a little of Oedipus in him, he looked at me sadly. “Right this way, sir,” he said. “You’ve been waiting.”

“Not very long though,” I said, gazing past him into the Sahara Hotel Sports Book. There were several rows of tables and chairs, and a wall full of TVs. A few days before, a group of Algerian nationals had gathered. They hooted at the television in unison, taunting as if Landon Donovan would never score a goal. Now the Sports Book was nearly empty. Except for one Asian man. His head nodded toward his chest as if he just went ahead and died there.

“Right this way,” said the bellhop. His uniform was golden. It shined against his deep black skin. His hair was slightly receded. He looked like he’d been working the casino for so long that he might have known Elvis, who himself stood in ghostly iconic history in a nearby black-and-white photo that hung poster sized behind the front hotel desk.

The bellhop followed me into the elevator.

“Sorry to trouble you,” I said.

He fumbled with some keys as I punched the nineteenth floor.

“Ain’t no trouble,” he said. “We’re just short staffed is all. I can’t do everything. So some people just gonna have to wait.”

“I hear you,” I said.

The elevator felt old. The building sighed, sagged. The smoky casino had carried itself into these steel walls. When the elevator stopped, my twenty-eight-dollar room was only a few steps away.

Down the hall was a set of rooms where a minor league baseball team was visiting Sin City. Their organization must have struck a deal for cheap rooms. It was just a straight shot down Las Vegas Boulevard to the Las Vegas 51s homefield. There, a parking lot held a ghost town of washed up casino signs. Golden Nugget, Moulin Rouge and Stardust all lay in rust and decay with piles of others. Unlit bulbs in the thousands rimmed the dozens of signs, evidence that history’s lights wink and go out in the bleak asphalt desert.

The bellhop and I walked to my door—right around the first bend from the elevator. I pulled out my plastic room key. I’d taken it down to the lobby once already and got it replaced. But the latest key didn’t work either. “Here,” I said, swiping the key, only to hear a beep and a buzz and see a red light flash. “Just temperamental, maybe.”

“That ain’t no good,” said the bellhop.

I tried not to look at the scar where his eye had been. But who can help staring into mystery? My eyes shifted. I saw a man who had suffered. Behind him I imagined the real Oedipus. He stood down the yellow hall with black holes for eyes. He looked for his mother but could only fumble past two prostitutes scarred with tattoos, suffering all Jesus-like themselves as they disappeared into a room.

“I got a master key,” said the bellhop. He pulled out a metal card shaped like my plastic room key. He swiped it and the red light flashed. “Isn’t that something,” he said swiping his master key again.

I saw beads of sweat on his dark brow. He leaned forward, shook the boxy keylock device attached to the door.

“You’ll get it,” I said.

They oughtta replace some of these,” he grunted.

I’d taken a walk. McDonalds across Sahara Avenue stood next to a black-painted abandoned casino. Another casino wrapped in glitter and Big Mac big screens was really a second McDonalds around the corner on the Strip. Giant cranes stood near that. They hung over tall buildings with shiny grey-blue windows that reflected a decayed urban sky, where even dusty smog seemed to break apart and drift to the earth. It fell from above those of us who walked beneath all the scaffolding on porn-covered sidewalks with nothing more ahead of us than promises of helicopter rides, girls in pits dealing cards at the Riviera and Peppermill pancakes.

My feet hurt from all the walking. The dollar-menu burger had long drifted its way through my gut to more hunger pangs. I just wanted to sleep. I wanted to get inside my room and gaze out the window down at the streets, where the sleek monorail station was a soft whoosh, and the tower where Latoya Jackson lived in a high room upon infinite desert comfort stood over it all.

“I gotta get maintenance,” the bellhop said.

Pancakes weren’t sounding so bad. And the Caravan Cafe was just an elevator ride and a quick walk past rows of empty slot machines anyway. “I’ll get something to eat,” I said.

“It’ll be fixed by the time you return.”

“Ain’t no thing,” I said.

“You just don’t know about these machines.”

“Not your fault,” I added as I imagined both of his eyes gone just then. Behind him I saw Oedipus laughing. I saw the casino; his mother; the city mother. His lover. She was a big glittering sagging bitch with her finger wagging for a few more rings.

As I headed back to the elevator I imagined him in his golden uniform ascend through the floors and sail over the casino, across her glittering eyes and neon breasts.

*NOTE: This piece was written entirely on an iPhone.

I held the restaurant door open for a young couple. “Thank you, sir,” the young man said. I followed, walking in late.

It was more than twenty minutes past noon. Twenty minutes past the time I was supposed to be there. At the service I’d lingered, said goodbye to a couple of pastors.

There were crowds of people in the restaurant. A bottleneck at the hostess station.

She already had a table so I slipped through. “Just walk straight in,” she’d texted.

I was looking down at a pair of shoes in front of me when I looked up and spotted her across the room. Dark hair. Skin like the half-hidden woman sitting among other women in Paul Gauguin’s painting, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

Her head was tilted too. Had she just stepped from the rolling edge of a paintbrush soaked in lovely brown tones? She leaned a little to the left. Not talking. Maybe she just did. Or was about to. Her hair was as black as island darkness. Her lips were a splash of red-brown even from so far away.

Making my way past booths and tables I sat down next to her daughter. The girl wore a fabric pink flower in her just braided brown hair. She hugged me, gave me a kiss. “It’s been a long time since you gave me one of those,” I smiled.

She gave me a drawing. On it there were squirrels, trees, a beaver, a river, beetles. She’d colored it. I pictured her imaginirium surrounded by crayons and stuffed animals.

Across the table her mother’s lips looked as soft as I remembered. I looked at them and thought of a drink from a fountain, grapes, the moment thirst is broken by wetness. Flashes of dew drop kisses. Sprinklers wetting summer grass. Lips warm and soft rubbing across dry fingertips.

The girl’s mother pushed a small white plate of fried zucchini toward me. “You need to eat your vegetables,” she said.

A few days ago she knew I went on a twenty-mile bike ride. “I hope you stayed hydrated,” she’d written.

I spoke to her daughter and ate the zucchini. The girl nuzzled. “Will you make me a picture of the ocean like you did of the desert?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, soon having a stare-off with her mother across the table.

“Where did you learn that?” her mother said, returning the glare and then smiling.

“From you,” the girl whispered.

“I’ll draw you pictures of ocean life,” I soon said to the girl. I imagined sitting on a beach with a pad of paper, holding a sand crab flipped onto its back. My pen strokes would capture every detail.

Later we left the restaurant. I glanced at her mother’s dark shoulder. A ridge of delight. Taut muscles. Sweet curves so soft you couldn’t find a cloud more heavenly. In the Gauguin painting the very same island woman shows just a hint of shoulder.

And there she was, head cocked to the side, thinking—just like in the painting.

Just like in the painting where there are plants and animals and a wash of exotic uncertainty.

Just like in the painting where a mysterious blue island statue casts an eerie glow opposite from the woman.

When I got dropped off I hugged the girl and tried not to cry like I did in church.

I always do that.

Cry in church.

I looked over at the girl’s mother, said goodbye, closed the car door and turned away.

The lawn was wet. There were drops everywhere. Just moments before there must have been rainbows. I imagined them in the clouds, floating above an island of uncertainty and beauty.

As I found my keys I caught a glimpse of their car driving away.

I need a place. Just one room. I prefer furnished. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is Chinatown, Las Vegas.

Looking on Craigslist I find an ad for a furnished room. I want to live within walking distance of Asian food, neon foot massage signs, and the angry faces of smoking Chinamen.

The ad says to call May.

I dial. No answer. I leave a short, polite message inquiring about the furnished room. I say I’m an interested party and not much else.

A few hours later I get a call back from a Chinese woman. She sounds confident, mysterious. I imagine my phone quickly filling with incense. “Hi, this is May. You interested in room?”

“Yes, a furnished room.”

“You want two bedrooms? I have two bedrooms.”

“Just one. In Chinatown.”

“Ohh. Chinatown. Why you want room?”

This is the second time in two days someone has asked me why I want a room. The day before, a woman named Mindy was on the other end of the phone and said the same exact words. Her voice was distrustful, disinterested.

“Because I need a place,” I said to Mindy.

“Speak up. I can’t hear you. Will you speak up?”

Mindy hung up. I leaned back in my office chair and wondered if anyone overheard my call come to an abrupt end.

Now May hangs on the other end of the phone waiting in anticipation for me to answer. I feel that whatever I say will be part of a mysterious puzzle of locks hiding treasure beneath the Forbidden City. “I just moved here,” I say.

“Ohh. You just moved here.”

“I want to live in Chinatown,” I say again.

“Ohh.” Every time she says this I hear her voice trail off, hiding five other sentences. “I have a place not far from there. You catch bus. Close to Chinatown. Ok? Where you work?”

I tell her I work for a radio station.

“Where you come from?”

“California. I’m in Las Vegas now. I live with a DJ.”

She explains the rent, says that doubling it is what it would take to move in. “You like that? Ok?” she asks. I imagine May in a slinky Asian dress talking into an old rotary phone. The smoke-filled room casts shadows on her aged face. “When you want to move in?”

“As soon as possible.”

“Ohh.”

“Can I see it tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow. Tomorrow… Listen, I will give you number. You ask for May Wong. May. She no good English. You speak very slowly. She meet you there.”

“But your name is May.”

“She another May. You call her. You show up. She show it to you. But speak slowly. She no good English. I call her right now.”

I get off the phone, wait a few minutes and call the second May.

“Yes?” There is an uncomfortable moment.

“May Wong?”

“Yes.” There is another silence. “See house?”

“Yes.”

“Nine… a.m.?”

“Yes.”

“Ok.”

“Bye?”

The home is just around the corner from a mansion with an amazing horse statue guarding a giant metal gate. The streets are wide, quiet, with big single-story homes and half-circle desert landscape driveways that probably look like emoticons when one’s peering at them from the sky.

John is with me. He’s the DJ. He carries a blue bag filled with work papers and notebooks. “You don’t mind if I tag along for the walk through?” he asks.

I’m all for sharing the adventure. We soon wait outside for May Wong to show up in a Mercedes. I ring the doorbell. It’s loud, a “ding dong” fit for a castle. I step back. No one answers though two cars are parked on the side of the house. The front doors have two different colored locks: one silver, one brass. Both wooden doors look like they’ve been dragged through gravel pits and rail yards.

Ten minutes later May Wong calls. “See house?” she says.

“I’m here.”

“Wait.”

“Yes.”

“Three minutes.” She hangs up.

“She’s going to be rolling up in that Mercedes any minute,” John says.

Down the street I see a tiny red hatchback that looks like a Smart Car. It pulls in. May can barely see over the steering wheel. She scoots it into the shade beneath a seventy-foot-tall pine tree.

“I should have taken that shade,” John complains as we watch the car roll to a stop and tiny May Wong step out. She carries a green handbag and a little pink coin purse with cartoon characters on it. She pulls out a set of keys.

“Hi May,” I say. 

She ignores me and walks to the double doors. She fumbles with the keys and the silver lock for a good thirty seconds before finally pushing open the left door.

John and I follow her into a dark foyer. Off to our left is an extravagant living room filled with statues and paintings. One of the statues is missing a head. I scan quickly for old wooden chests and gaudy birdcages filled with gremlins. She bypasses the room and takes us past a living room that has a giant TV, couches and a coffee table covered in newspapers and magazines. We step into a hallway. Its walls are covered with photos and paintings. It’s alongside a kitchen where a huge rice cooker and three blenders sit on the counter. I wonder if any of them work.

May continues down the hallway. She stops, turns and gives a half smile and motions to a door. She fumbles with the lock and can’t get it to work. Walking away from the door she heads further down the hallway and looks around a corner and starts talking to someone. “Kevin,” she says then immediately starts talking in Chinese. She disappears around the corner but I can hear them talking.

Kevin’s voice is sleepy. He’s in a room and has been woken up. He says something in Chinese to May.

I look back at John who is far down the hallway behind me. He’s taking photos of pictures on the wall.

May appears from around the corner and motions to another door. She opens it and I step inside a tiny furnished room. There’s a big window with a view of the back yard. I gaze toward a yellowing weed-covered lot and an empty cement swimming pool. A faded blue diving board looks brittle in the heat.

“You like?” May says.

“Sure,” I say.

May then shows me a laundry room, a garage and then a bathroom obviously occupied with Kevin’s things. It’s a mess of bottles. Towels lay piled on the floor.

I wonder if there are rooms at the other end of the hallway. “You have other rooms?” I ask.

May gives me a curious look but shuffles down the hallway to the other end where there is a clean bathroom. There are also two doors. One has a lock on a brass handle. She opens it. It looks just like the other room she showed me. I’m happy it’s far from Kevin for some reason.

“You like?” she asks.

I look at the other door. There are combination lock dials on it. “Who lives there?”

“Mimi Lin,” May says.

“Ohh,” I say.

She leads me back down the hall, past black and white photos of a Chinese woman. The photos look old, from the Fifties. The woman in them wears cat eye glasses. Her hair is shoulder length. There is a mysterious gaze in her eyes.

“You like?” May looks at me curiously. Her stare is long, almost pleading.

“You mean do I want to move in?”

“Yes.”

“I have to think about it.”

“You call Mimi Lin.”

“Who is Mimi Lin?”

She points back down the hallway to the room with the combination locks.

“Is she the owner?”

“Yes. You call.”

“What’s her number?”

She can’t say the numbers but shows me her phone. I see Chinese characters. I see my phone number. I’m one of the only two people May Wong has spoken to in the past two days according to her phone list.

I write down the number she says belongs to Mimi Lin. There is something fishy about it. Something familiar.

That night I get a call. It’s from the number. I don’t answer. I realize I’ve gotten calls from this number before. I listen to a phone message. “Hi, this is May.” It’s the first May. The old mysterious May. She doesn’t call herself Mimi Lin, though it’s the number May Wong gave me for her. “Do you like the house May Wong showed you yesterday? Please give me a call. Thank you.”

I hang up in wonder. Is Mimi Lin, the woman behind the mysterious combination locks, really May?

That night I take a walk down Spring Valley Parkway, and then onto South Rainbow. As I head past Ravenwood Park I decide to call Kike. She’s my mysterious Chinese friend whose old piano teacher died from a heart attack after a lesson one day. She was blamed for putting a curse on the teacher. She claims her grandfather’s ghost regularly visits at night to tickle her feet. She lives with a gypsy.

She often assists me in making crucial life decisions.

We make small talk as I walk down the burning streets of west Las Vegas before I finally bring up the possibility of living in Mimi Lin’s house.

“We all have choices,” Kike says.

“There was a decapitated statue in her house,” I add.

“Ohh. Then you have to beware of what you’re getting yourself into. Sometimes a normal home can be one of sacrifice and spirits.”

“Sacrifice?”

Kike lets out a breath. I turn up the volume on my phone. “Let me tell you a story. I don’t like to remember this. When I was seventeen years old I was very sick. My family drove me to a home in Long Beach. I didn’t know why I was there. While I sat waiting, a witchdoctor suddenly brought forth a white chicken and a big empty tin, like a popcorn tin you might get for Christmas. The witchdoctor had a knife. Anyway, in a twisting motion he cut the head off the chicken.

“He drained its blood into the tin and added some ashes. Then he took toothpicks and jammed them under my fingernails. He pulled them out and squeezed my blood into the tin to mix with that of the chicken. He spit into it too. Then he poured in some alcohol and set it on fire to release the evil spirits as well as commit the sacrifice in exchange for those evil spirits sickening me.

“Then it was time for me to be renewed. Cleansed. He then grabbed a water bottle. There was no fancy container. Water is water until you bless it. Then it becomes holy. He poured out some into a cup. He blessed it and spit in it. I was terrified. But he held out the cup. Everyone looked at me. And so I had to drink it. I gagged. I wanted to throw up. But I knew they would have just made me drink more. So, I held the cup and drank.”

I soon get off the phone with Kike and continue my walk. I think about a friend at the Cannibal Islands who told me about meeting an old woman hanging laundry. The old woman revealed a story about a criminal getting eaten by those who discovered his crime. I’m thousands of miles away, but I wonder about that sacrifice cleansing an entire island. I think about Kike’s bleeding fingers, the chicken’s stained feathers and Mimi Lin’s statues. I think about her locked door and the photos on her walls.

I look toward the edge of the city into a pink dusk and a rainbow of desert mountains along Red Rock Canyon that jut above rooftops.

Later, walking through the darkness I wonder why I am even in Las Vegas as I continue to ignore calls from Mimi Lin.

Image from Flickr.

I don’t know what happened. I could be one of those people who black out, who say things in moments where there’s no clarity, no real consciousness, just daydreaming –  starwalking in silent dreams during schoolyard bells.

The bus dropped me off near Geneva Avenue — that’s on the southside of Bakersfield. It was a poor blue collar street with stray dogs, tumbleweeds and the shitty kids I grew up with.

Walking home, I remember a short Asian-Mexican boy with a cleft palate. His face always looked angry, distorted. He had a mouth like a pumpkin scar. He was in the group of kids following me, encouraging the boy at the front of the pack to get me.

There’s no pride in fighting when your father claims to be a fighter and he never teaches you how to even slap someone with a glove and say, “Touche!” So I kept walking.

The boy following me was a dirty-faced white kid with dark stringy hair. He thought I said something at school. Something mean. Something that questioned his boyhood maleness. I racked my brain for some sort of explanation since I had no memory.

He turned me around and clocked me on the left side of the temple.

He was taller than me. He looked tougher. But I remember it didn’t really hurt. And I didn’t fall down. I just stood there. “I don’t want to fight,” I said.

Eventually he and the others left. They were laughing. I got one final stare from the kid with the cleft palate and permanent angry eyebrows. His curdled milk lips knotted into a gleeful smile, thirsting for blood.

I turned around and walked home. I was looking forward to reading another book in the John Carter of Mars adventure series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’m guessing I was about halfway through “The Chessmen of Mars.”

There’s a Star Wars kite that flies through my imagination. It fights a plastic parrot over a lonely section of the city. Cars zoom past and we all ignore them. The kites dart and dodge. They batter one another. They’re  not really even there. But I can open the front door of my apartment and see them flying across the apartment tops in a pool of blue sky.

On a rainy day I can still imagine the summer sunlight, the kites fluttering, dipping with each tug, and two little boys with hands wrapped in string.

I suppose it might not mean anything that when I needed to move again, I moved right back into the same apartment where I used to live. In an entire city block of carbon copy apartments it’s the same exact one. About thirty feet outside the apartment is a little area of cement. Dates and initials are carved from the mid 1990s. I lived there with my mom and my sister. My mom died in 1998 from an aortic aneurysm. My sister now lives somewhere in the mountains south of Bakersfield (about 70 miles north of LA). I’d left the apartment around 1996 and thought I’d never look back.

Sometimes it’s really disturbing living someplace I thought I’d left far behind. It’s tough convincing myself that I really did make progress in my life. I’ve seen and done a few things since then.

My mother watched “Singing in the Rain” a lot. I can see her doing that when I’m passing through the living room.

Sometimes I go and kick dirt off the initials in the cement. I think of dreams I once had while living in the apartment the first time. I can still see those too.

On occasion, when the front door opens, like today, I can hear a little boy crying from atop a swatch of grass. I gaze upward as his Star Wars kite breaks off into an uncontrolled arc across the sky. It goes crashing outside of the apartment sea, over a fence and alley, and into a row of homes, never to be found.