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My dishwasher and I have been at war for some time. This war is being waged on two fronts. On one side is my ongoing search for a bowl or plate or pot so dirty the dishwasher cannot clean it, but so far I’ve found nothing, including a recent plate coated with the super glue residue of leftover fried eggs. The other battle is a certain steak knife I’ve run through the wash at least five straight times. There is a bit of unrecognizable debris stuck to the tip of the blade that no amount of hot water and dish detergent will dislodge. I could easily scrape the debris off with a fingernail but that would be like conceding defeat. This is a ridiculous war because the dishwasher obviously possesses the horsepower to clean any dish it wants but refuses to acknowledge the steak knife. I think it’s mocking me.

* * *

I don’t watch a lot of television, and I don’t have cable, so the only way I get national news is to read it on the Internet. But I don’t even do that as often as I probably should. I’m too busy looking for that little red alert on Facebook that tells you when someone leaves a comment or sends you a message. Other sites I read with regularity are this one and DamnYouAutocorrect.com. But that’s not what this is about. This is about everyone sitting around watching cable news all day and then complaining how everything is wrong with America. The thing about America is there is so little wrong with it that we have the luxury of watching theater disguised as news and then complaining about how put upon we are. Of course what’s wrong depends on which network you watch. None of them can agree what’s wrong, only that something definitely is. The cable news networks also seem to agree they should compose theme songs for important news stories. Can you imagine being a musician who makes a living this way? Hey, Mutt! We need a quick ten second theme to introduce the war in Afghanistan. Can you whip up something by nine? But Mutt is expensive, and so are satellite trucks, so the way networks pay for their broadcasts is with prescription drug commercials. These advertisements are invariably more interesting than the news itself because they, a) suggest you diagnose yourself with an illness, and b) consume most of their precious air time warning you about side effects. Like this pill will stop you from peeing so often, but you also might shit out of your ears or die or see the future. Whose bright idea was it to put the lay public in charge of prescribing drugs to themselves? Am I the only person in the world who doesn’t understand this logic?

* * *

In downtown Memphis, moments after I emerge from the hotel, a man approaches me and begins to chat. It’s nine-thirty at night. I’m starving. The friendly fellows quickly ascertains I’m looking for a restaurant, away from the tourists, and helps me locate one. I know this game but pretend like I don’t. We talk all the way to the restaurant. He learns I’m a writer and promises to visit my web site and send me an email. I learn he has a “fifteen-mile walk home in the rain.” When I inquire about a potential bus fare, the amount he quotes is about the same as one of the vodka-laced Red Bulls I will consume with dinner. This sounds like a fair investment to me, so I give him the bus fare and go inside.

The restaurant isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough. There’s a bar, a few tables, and a stage where a live jazz band is preparing to play. The crowd is mainly young professionals, dressed a lot like me, having drinks and watching the local pro basketball team on flat screen televisions. I sit down and order a drink and a burger, and while I wait for my order to arrive I send flirty text messages on my iPhone. The band is decent and I snap a few pictures and text those, too. Eventually a girl walks up to the bar and stands next to me. I realize she’s the same blonde I noticed earlier at an adjacent table. She just stands there, drinking water, and I realize she expects me to say something to her. So I do, and when the girl turns to me I can see she is very pretty, like model pretty. She tells me about her job, about how she doesn’t like it, and asks where I’m from. I keep looking back at the table behind us because I’m pretty sure that guy over there in the pink shirt is her boyfriend. It could also be the guy in the suit, but my bet’s on Pink. I’ve got a nice buzz, and I should be feeling happy, but instead I’m confused. Why is this petite supermodel chick talking to me where Pink can clearly see her? And why am I pretending to care about her boring job? I’m texting someone who isn’t here and occasionally being chatted by someone who is, who apparently doesn’t want to talk to her boyfriend, and everything seems absurd to me. I’m listening to jazz music in a Memphis bar, and though it’s pretty good music I start to think how odd it is to be sitting in bar full of locals, listening to a band play jazz because they sort of have to, being in Memphis, like I’m watching all these actors play their parts. When the blonde and I run out of things to talk about, she wanders back over to her boyfriend and the rest of their group, and I turn my attention to the television. Occasionally my phone buzzes, and the conversation moves forward, albeit glacially, and I wonder if my text buddy were here in person, would we be on our phones talking to other people who were not here?

The guy who directed me to the restaurant never sends an email.

* * *

On the interstate, on the way home, I listen to stand up comedians to distract myself from the reality of a six-hour drive. I listen to music. I wonder what draws us to listen to music, to these same melodic rhythms again and again. Sometimes music evokes emotion in us, sometimes it inspires us, but very often we listen simply because we cannot bear the silence. On a normal day you might be working in a cubicle or in your living room, your hours might be filled with the concerns of other human beings, and time flies by with little knowledge of its passing. But when you’re on the road you’ve got nothing but six hours of asphalt and tractor trailers and drivers who won’t get out of the left lane, and suddenly the hours assert themselves. They become worlds, planet-sized, immensity so great you can barely detect their curvature. Which is why you distract yourself with pleasing melodies and rhythms, drumbeats that count off the many moments so you might forget about them.

And you wonder if maybe that’s what you’re really doing every day. Distracting yourself.

* * *

If our bodies are electrochemical machines, the core programming code instructs us to survive long enough to engineer successful offspring. But human minds, perhaps uniquely, possess the ability to override genetic commands. We use latex or hormones to defy industrious little swimmers. But to what end? For some, bearing children is the next, obvious step in their forward-marching journey. Others give no thought to the gravity of bringing life into the world. And maybe a few of us, consciously or not, look at parenthood as a concession of defeat, just one more reminder of the meaningless void. Maybe we see those smiling baby faces as the army that will eventually defeat us.

* * *

In the end, though music may often be a distraction, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes you hear a melody so beautiful you are compelled to stop the forward march and give yourself fully to the moment directly in front of you. Sometimes you make perfect contact with the golf ball and launch it four-and-one-half football fields into the distance. One day your first novel sells and the only response you can think of is to cry. Another day your eight-year old niece calls you on video chat and you read her a bedtime story over the Internet tubes.

If that smiling face is the beginning of military occupation, it’s certainly difficult to resist.

* * *

Today I ran the dishwasher. This time the blade of the steak knife emerged clean, pristine, like it was brand new all over again. I don’t know if it matters or not, but I won that battle.

I was in a Memphis parking lot. It was early morning. Before sunrise. Mother’s Day. A dark skinned man with a powdery white beard hobbled towards me.

“You gotta smoke?”

“No.”

His head bobbed like an egg in boiling water as he scratched at his cheeks. “You want one.”

I declined.

“Suit yersef.”

A woman with the shortened shuffle of a wind up robot approached from the far side of the parking lot.

The man yelled in her direction, “Hey, Mary. What you fry’n up for Motha’s day?”

“Same thang I’m always fry’n up,” she shouted back through a cough.

I walked to the pay phone and slid in quarters. She answered.

“Hello?”

“Wendy?”

“Ryan?”

It had been a month since she left me in Indiana with no money, no car, no idea what to do with myself. I had slept behind truck stops in Arkansas, in the woods of Missouri, in Waffle House booths across Tennessee. All in an effort to arrive where her Mom had told me she would be… Memphis, on Mother’s Day.

Her mother was not biologically her mother, but a friend of her sisters who had adopted her when she was twelve. Her birth mother had passed when she was young, and was buried in Memphis.

And that was where I was.

I got on a bus in the morning’s version of dusk and headed up Poplar. She had said to get off two stops past the second McDonald’s. The first one came quick, but the second was far enough away to make me second guess whether I’d missed something.

Finally the second pair of golden arches which were meant as my  landmark appeared. I wondered if the somewhat epic subtext of the sign had anything to do with the appeal of the restaurant. I wondered if the sacred was aided in its march towards the profane by the daily vision of golden arches rendered as plastic fries. It occurred to me that McDonald’s was something like the costume jewelry of food, faux-regally filling the void of the delicious. Also, I wanted a Big Mac. It’s near impossible to be in the vicinity of the chemically created wafting aroma of Big Mac without triggering involuntary salivation. And, as they seem to line city streets like mile markers, we must salivate way more than we realize.

I got off two stops later, crossed the street and entered through the open wrought iron gates of the cemetery. Wendy had said she’d be in the Southwest corner. “By the big black angel,” she’d said.

And that was where she was.

She was smoking as I approached. Her eyes were watery, which made her smile seem a little inappropriate. I felt like I was being hugged to death by the thick morning air. I put a hand on her face, which felt wet and sticky, like a kid’s cheek covered in the invisible residue of mashed carrots. She threw her cigarette down, but the cool air still facilitated tangible exhalations.

Her laugh made the moment shiver slightly into the psychotic, but she returned things to order with a few solid words, “I’m glad you found me.”

I nodded and moved close to her.

She took off a glove and put a frigid hand under my sweater onto my bare belly. I took off a mitten and ran my fingers through her greasy hair.

In the lingering psychosis of her laugh we sought each other, first cautious, then manic. Soft touches disintegrated into grasping at flesh, distrusting the solid and aiming to touch whatever lay beneath it. The wool of sweaters was thrust upward, denim and the rough white cotton of long johns tugged down as anatomy found unlikely paths towards communion.

I swear I heard her mother’s voice, though I couldn’t tell you what it said. It was like a scream in the tenor of the careless wanderings that led us to this moment. It wasn’t a condemnation, but not exactly a celebration either. A howling ode to the bacchanalian undercurrents and a warning all at once.

She put a finger against my throat. I wondered for a moment if she was trying to choke me before realizing that she was checking my pulse.

I looked her in the eyes and she smiled lucidly.

I put my fingers against the beat of her pulse, too.

We both lay laughing under the wings of the big black angel.

“Now what?” I asked her.

“Now we get Miles,” she answered.

Miles was the dog she had grown up with in foster care. She had spoken of him often.

I hid behind the McDonald’s as she hopped a fence. I sat, back against a dumpster, still wishing I had a Big Mac. If there were any real sacred spaces left they would smell like McDonald’s. I imagined a priest swinging a burger box attached to the end of a long chain as he stepped slowly through the isles of a Walmart, chanting something about baby back ribs in a muffled hum.

After fifteen minutes, she appeared, holding what seemed to be the end of her belt attached to the collar of an overweight Beagle I could only assume to be Miles. We ran, thumbs extended along the side of the road, but to little avail.

Miles was breathing hard before we made it a mile. Ironic.

Finally, a mini-van pulled over. A woman, a large woman, dressed in what seemed to be a floral patterned table cloth, and seemingly missing only the rolls in her hair and the threateningly brandished rolling pin, leapt, surprisingly athletically, from the sliding side door and ran towards us shouting loudly, “That dawg has diabetas!!!”

I ascertained that this was not someone offering a ride.

“That dawg’ll die if he don’t take’m his meds.”

Wendy let go of the belt that was serving as a leash, hiked her pants up and continued to run down the highway.

I looked at the large angry woman, who was now grabbing Wendy’s belt and securing Mile’s safe return, and then at the girl running fast away from me down the side of a Memphis highway, and decided the best thing I could do would be to scream at a cloud.