The Quiet Cabin in the Busy City

Decisions

are for those

willing to cut off

possibilities.

It is tempting

not to make them

because of the illusion of choice—

all those choices

one could choose.

It’s like the summer after high school graduation

there is fear

of walking down, the wrong road

but reassurance

that you can walk back

and try another path.

It’s so tempting

to contemplate the way

and never make your own way in the world.

Eventually, we have no choice

if we never make a choice

and our decisions get compared

to the decisions of others.

We can quickly lose our way

trying to get more

or to out-do

someone else

or we might just be trying to survive.

The quiet cabin in the busy city

is where we need to be honest with ourselves

amongst the chaos, the competition, and the envious eyes.

Ambition will take you places you don’t want to go

and equally dangerous

are the constricting lies we tell ourselves.

We need to know what we can live without

as time runs out

as our opportunities shrink.

We can make friends with lots of people

be a player

in this mad game of life

with our hands and feet in many honey-pots

getting stung

from all sides

being the biggest bear

in the forest

or we might plod-along

down a solitary path

overgrown

without promise, of a destination.

It takes love

to honor

yourself.

It takes faith

to keep walking.

It takes desire

and willingness

to ignore the desires of others.

Your eyes focused on the way

there can be no return

because it’s the last trail.

You can’t listen to anyone’s advice

but your own.

You must walk this path

alone.

I Am Those Things

For years

now

I’ve been searching for who to be

it’s not uncommon

among adolescent boys

they go through a dream phase

when they hang their idols

on the walls

big men, larger than life

and they reach their peak

of fantasy

but then the bills

come

and the girls turn into women

with needs

and the rules

say “No”

and the adults say “Yes”

“You’re one of us.”

“Buy a house. Do the responsible thing. Care about politics.”

and the young men

become old

and worn out

trading their years

in decades

like inflation

burning their time

away

they might have company

at the end

but no one told them

they would have to take those last steps

alone

and that’s what I am right now

I find, my adolescent dreams

have matured

and I no longer have to watch the movies

in fact, I can’t stand them

although, the symbols

they left behind

have become an amalgam

of my most cherished possessions

Hemmingway, holding a glass and staring into the crowd

or Bukowski declaring himself a genius

when no one else knew

he was alive

Style comes from living

through thoughts that subtly speak

a stride

that carries itself

and knows it

despite the lock-step

of successful soldiers

No more do I need

to join the insane laughter

or agree

death will shudder to take me

I’ll walk that path

alone

It’ll be a long walk

through darkness

where I face my demons

until I see the light

where there are only angels.

Videogames Can Make You Smarter

Nothing unexpected happens in Maple Grove. The neighbors prune their trees and cut their hedges. A stranger can tell what each house does for a living based on the cars in the driveway. The Prius and the Nissan Leaf belong to educators. Their house is blue with purple trim. There is a Rainbow Peace sign stuck into their rose garden—apparently, they are still living in the 60s, and they believe everyone should love each other; in fact, it would be a good idea if the government forced people to do that. They all live in the same row, and are seen huddling in circles, passing grass, and listening to rock music with their hair blowing in the wind.

A few streets down are some rusted-out trucks. The picture window is always open, displaying a pirate flag. The guys out front are bald, big, and have bellies that stick out from beneath their Metallica t-shirts. There is always a firepit and a conversation. The rest of the houses belong to retirees, and people who want suburban life. Most of the houses were built in the 1950s—they are the one-story ramblers with brick or stone siding.

This particular story concerns two neighbors; one with an enormous yard, and the other with a tall hedge. The hedge is over 10 feet because Bob Schramm has put-off trimming it due to his other projects. He has built two decks, put in a hot tub, and installed a Choi pond with waterfall. Lately, he is having trouble with the racoons.

“I know how to solve your problem,” Richard says.

“How?”

“Stakeout with a bee-bee gun; I still have mine when we were kids. Just give me 24 cans of beer and I’ll pop the bastard!”

Bob trusts his brother like a best friend, and in the morning, Richard has killed something, but it’s the neighbor’s cat. He couldn’t see straight and still managed to shoot it. That’s what three tours in Vietnam will do, along with paranoia and regular flashbacks.

Bob has three daughters and a wife who changes her religion every year, and who insists that everyone adopt the appropriate prayer before each meal. She was Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, and now Jewish. They adopted a boy with a traumatic brain injury. His name is Christopher, but everyone calls him Chip. He has to wear a football helmet to protect his brain from further concussions, and as he grows up, half the side of his body becomes more and more paralyzed or neurologically affected.

The green house with the big lawn next door always has new renters. There was a steel worker, long-haul trucker who shot himself, young guy who owned two pit bulls and worked from home, and the latest guy. He is approximately 37, good looking, and single. He remains single, which causes the neighborhood to talk.

“I think he’s gay,” Marilyn says. “He always has male friends over, but I never see him with a girl.”

“No…no, that’s not it; I heard he’s a sex offender. I checked the neighborhood database, and I think his house is the sex offender house,” Margaret says. They get to gossiping, and pretty soon, they are ready to convict Adam on circumstantial evidence and their expert eye-witness testimonies.

It does not help that Adam is a bit eccentric, and by eccentric, I mean curious. He grows cucumbers in terrariums, plants zucchinis and tries to get them as big as he possibly can; then he gives them away on Halloween. He has his own sense of humor. In the summertime, Adam pays Christopher to mow his lawn. It’s a push mower that Christopher has to operate with one hand.

“The boy,” as Bob calls him, takes-off his shirt, exposing his pasty-white belly, and long curly brown chest hairs. As he walks the mower around the yard, he tilts to one side. His pants come down, exposing his crack. Christopher has to stop and pull up his pants with his one good arm, which causes the mower to die. Then he has to yank the cord to get the thing started again.

“Hey Chip, would you like a root beer?” Adam asks.

“Yeah!” Christopher yells. He limps over.

“That’s some work you’re doing; it’s over 80 degrees,” Adam says. “How are you holding up?”

“My dad told me I have to wash the cars, after.”

“Well, that should cool you off. Have you played Grand-Theft-Auto?”

“Yeah!”

“I’ve got it on virtual-reality, if you’d like to try it out?”

Christopher consents and they go inside. The setup looks like a dentist’s chair. It’s grey and molds around the person who lays in it.

“The cool part about this chair is that it can help you to sense the game,” Adam says.

Pretty soon Christopher is shooting gangsters, stealing cars, and having sex with prostitutes. It’s a great time. He barely notices the electricity, running the length of his leg. He can’t see the blue light because he has on goggles, but his whole body looks like Luke in the Return of the Jedi after being electrocuted by the Emperor.

Strange thing is that Christopher walks better after that. His special education teachers in the 21 Program notice that Christopher is getting all the answers right. He even corrects his teacher. That never happens, and it makes Ms. Gray self-conscious that someone with an intellectual disability is helping her teach.

“When you go to college and get a Master’s Degree in Special Education, then, and only then, can you give me instructions in how to teach,” she says.

Christopher isn’t fazed by her insecurity. “I think I’m going to study chemical engineering,” he says.

“Yeah, like that’s going to happen,” she scoffs.

He goes home for dinner. His mother is saying the Jewish prayer, and then he corrects her.

“Mom, you’re supposed to say, ‘King of the Universe’.”

“Honey, it’s ‘prince of the universe.’”

“Mom, I’m pretty sure it’s ‘King’.”

She checks. “By god, you’re right. What’s got into you?”

“I don’t know. Can I go play videogames with Adam?”

“Okay, but come back home in one hour.”

That fall, Christopher goes to college—community college and he starts taking chemistry classes. In one quarter, he is on the cross-country team. He plays videogames as much as he can and has major discoveries in the chemical field. His parents always say not to trust strangers and that videogame will rot his brain, but not taking their advice has worked out. Perhaps, the worst vice is advice, and in only 6 short years, Christopher has his PhD and the Nobel Prize.

The End

Smile

There is nothing better

than being able to confront yourself

in the mirror

and smile.

When you do this

you know

you are doing something.

It is not the grimace

or cast-down eyes

look of worry

or stress.

The arches of your smile

transcend sadness.

It’s a monument

you tried to conquer

in the world

but stealing someone else’s smile

and making it your own

does not work.

It’s like wearing a mask

that does not fit

and even if people smile back

you know your smile is not genuine.

It does not belong to you

and it never did.

Many

are waiting for others to give them happiness

and there’s a long line…

People are unhappy

because they want what belongs to them

they seldom realize

their smile

is their own

and having something to smile about

does not come from confronting others

but confronting

one’s self.

Clarinet in the Sky

It was my senior year of high school, and my peers were already taking their SATs.

“I’m going to Brown; I just got in,” Ally said. My sister had wanted to go to the Ivy League since she was in 6th grade. She was one of those annoying people who know what they want to do with their lives. She had everything planned out; I only felt sorry for her future husband because he would be one of those betatized men who would watch her four kids while she went shopping. She wasn’t going to have them—that would destroy her figure. No; she was already looking for surrogates. Anyway, this story isn’t about her, but it’s about what happened to me spring of 06′ when everybody was making plans for college. I loved music, but I was horrible in the band. My mother was a single mom and we didn’t have much money, so I had inherited her father’s clarinet. It wasn’t my instrument of choice, but it was the only one we had. They say playing a musical instrument will make you stronger in math, but I was failing Algebra and when I got my SAT scores back, I could kiss my dreams of the Ivy League goodbye, along with the State schools. I was headed for community college.

I guess status and success don’t really matter, if a person loves what they do; and I loved music, though I wasn’t very good. My uncle picked me up from school on occasion. He was a good catholic, and since my father was absent, he stepped in as an occasional role model. “Why the hell do you want to play a musical instrument anyway?” He asked. “I guess if you ever become homeless you can play on the street.” I think I glared at him. He had a lot of money, but when I asked him if he would buy me a new clarinet, he said, “It’s not the instrument that makes the musician, but it’s the musician that makes the instrument.” How did he know? He was an accountant and his idea of good music was The Riders in the Sky. There were cracks in my clarinet, so no matter how well I played, it always squeaked. It was getting so bad, that I kept getting looks from my band teacher. “We don’t have a replacement clarinet for you, and you’re throwing-off the other instruments. If you can’t get a new one, you’ll have to leave.” This was coming from the lady who went out of her way to recruit anyone. I guess, I was on the bottom of the heap. I told my uncle about getting kicked out of band. “Uncle Keith, I’m 3rd chair; there’s not a fourth, and when the music stops, I won’t have a seat.”

“That was clever; did you come up with that on your own?”

“Are you going to help me out, or not?” I asked.

“I’ll tell you what. You bring up your math grade to a C+, and I’ll buy you an instrument.”

He meant it, so I worked hard. And the harder I worked, the more I was convinced I had a learning disability, but I managed to pull-off a C, right before the final exam results. I knew I failed, but that wouldn’t affect my grade for another two weeks, so I showed my uncle my C for spring quarter.

“That’s not a C+,” He said.

“Come on, I worked hard.”

“In life, there are winners and losers; I’m trying to teach you how to be a winner. I guess I’ll make an exception this time, but if you can’t make the grade in the real world, you’ll be playing on the street.”

I nodded and affirmed what he said, so he consented to take me to the music shop.

“I thought we were going to the Orchestra Outlet on 4th,” I said.

“You’re spoiled! That place is for suckers. This here is where the best deals are made.”

“It’s a pawn shop,” I said.

“I know. Let me teach you how to make a buck on the street.” We went inside. There was a glass display case at the front counter, filled with guns resting on red velvet. A Jewish man who looked like a Rabbi stood behind the cash register. He had a thick beard and silver spectacles. He wore a black gown that went down to the floor, but nothing mesmerized me like his rings. They were gold. He had one on each finger, with emeralds and rubies at their center.

“Good morning, sir. Can I interest you in an item for home defense?”

“Yeah. Let me look at that Glock. The Russian and Mexican gangs are waging war on the outskirts of my neighborhood. If the Somalians get involved, it might turn into a blood bath. One can never be too careful. The problem is, they all have automatic weapons.” My uncle was 5’5”, and had served in Vietnam; the look of pity that some people have had been erased on his face in the war.

“Perhaps, body armor?” The cashier asked.

“No offense, but I don’t believe in buying second hand body armor. Anyway, the best defense is a good offense,” my uncle said.

While they were negotiating business, I had a look at the musical instruments. There were a lot of violins, French horns, trumpets, and saxophones, but not a clarinet. When I returned to the front counter, my uncle was spinning the cylinder on a six-shooter.

“.357 Magnum; that will stop anyone in their tracks—only requires one shot, but you got six.” They were so excited about the prospect of shooting someone. I guess that’s the result of continuous war; my uncle never left his, and the Rabbi had served in the Israeli military. He was very pro Ronald Reagan. Before we left, I thought I would ask him if he had any merchandise in the back.

“You don’t have a clarinet, do you?” I asked.

“You know what, I do have something like that. He vanished for a moment, and came back carrying an enormous box. I was surprised he could lift it. It weighed at least 50 pounds. “The rope and music book come with it; there are three songs, each of increasing difficulty; you will be surprised what happens if you play well.” He handed it to me, and when I took it, I knew I had something special.

“You see,” my uncle said. “A pawn shop is where kings go to shop.” I put the box in the back of his Acura SUV and he drove me home. When we got there, a man in a cheap suit was talking to my mom.

“I’m sorry; we have to do it! You haven’t been making regular payments.”

“What’s wrong mom?” She was crying.

“Our home is going-up for foreclosure,” she said.

“Georgina, I can help you out,” my uncle offered.

“Keith, I can’t pay you back, and besides, any help you can offer would be temporary. We won’t be able to make the payments. It’s better if we rent.”

“Well, if you need a place to stay, just give your sister a call.” My uncle turned to me. “Jason, let’s play golf next Saturday. I want to talk to you about colleges. Accounting is a fine career.” I thanked him, and he drove off. The prospect of making a living with numbers made me nauseous. I carried the box up to my room, and took the clarinet out. It was dusty, but when I wiped it off with my t-shirt, I admired the midnight wood and silver keys. I almost blew on it, but then I remembered it was second hand, which also meant second mouth, and I didn’t want to get a musician’s cooties. I wiped it off with alcohol and started playing. I wasn’t very good.

“Can you take that outside?” My mom yelled. I knew she was under stress, so I didn’t argue. And besides, it was a sunny Tuesday afternoon. I looked inside the box and pulled out the music. There was a rope in there too, at least 50 feet long.

“What the?” I said. “Why does this come with a rope? Maybe it’s for when a musician fails, and he has to make a living on the street, and then he gets depressed.”

I could read sight music okay and I opened the book to the three pieces. The easiest was River Dance. The Intermediate piece was called The Sultan Saxophone. And the third was Hard. It would take me years to perfect. It was even difficult to read the notation. The title was called Triumph of the Spanish Armada. I just left the rope in the box and started playing the River Dance. I made several mistakes and the clarinet squeaked. It sounded like a dying mouse. Knock that off!” My neighbor shouted. Fred was over 80. He lost his wife last year, so he was even grumpier—hard to believe. “At least learn how to play better!” He yelled.

“I’ll have to practice to get better; that means I’ll have to make a few mistakes,” I said.

“Well, play slower so you don’t make as many!”

“Why don’t you turn your hearing aid down!” I yelled.

He waved his hands at me, like he couldn’t be bothered, and went back into his house to watch jeopardy.

It was actually a good suggestion; so, I decided to play slower, and sure enough, I made less mistakes. A cloud floated over our house, like it was responding to the music. The sky was completely clear and baby blue, except for that enormous cloud getting lower and lower in the sky. It felt like rain, but that was impossible. It was nearly 80 degrees. A fog started to envelop my back yard, and I kept playing. That’s when it happened. The rope in the box, peaked over the side and rose into the sky. I gasped, and then it fell back inside. It couldn’t be, I thought. I’ll only know if I keep playing. So, I continued to play the Irish dancing music, and the rope reached out of the box, and this time, it shot into the sky. I could barely see the sheet music. The whole yard was shrouded in mist. I got to the end of the piece where there was a refrain, and when I stopped playing there was an echo in the air that repeated the song as I had played it. When you aren’t good, it’s horrible to hear yourself; it’s kinda like listening to your own voice on a recording; you realize you don’t sound like a talk-radio host, and more like the annoying geek that asks for lunch money. How did the rope rise? I wondered. And why did it rise? What was the purpose of it? I grabbed hold and pulled. It didn’t give. So, I pocketed the clarinet and climbed. It was surprisingly easy. I’d tried the same thing in gym class with significantly less success. The rope was anti-gravity. My body weighed less when I was on the rope. And pretty soon, I was climbing into the cloud. I couldn’t see, but there was a light shining in the distance, like the sun was trying to burn the fog away. I followed it and tripped on a pillar of stone.

“What is this?” The fog cleared and I was lying at the base of a ruined castle. A much newer and sturdier looking one stood in the distance. There were green hills extending all the way to the moat, but before I could get there, a voice spoke.

“You’re trespassing.”

“Where?” I asked.

This belongs to the leprechauns.”

“I looked behind me. The rope was tied around the pillar and I could see where it hung in the crevasse.

“Show your face,” I said.

“Why?”

“I want to speak to someone in charge.”

“Our King is very busy.”

“Well, is there a second in command who can make decisions?”

“I am he.” A little prince walked around the pillar of stone. He wore a purple cape with a golden crown, studded with red rubies. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m just wondering why I’m here.”

“Well, you could have only gotten here with magic, and powerful magic at that. Do you hear that music playing?” I did; it was the River Dance. “You got here by music,” the prince said. “Why don’t you come play in our orchestra.”

“I’m not very good.”

“Don’t worry, if you play with us, you’ll get better. I followed him into the castle where 200 little men were practicing musical scales. The prince motioned that I should take a seat as 1st clarinet, and then he started conducting. He gave me a cue and I did the solo. I don’t know how long we were playing but I noticed I was getting a heck of a lot better. When we finished, it was time for me to go.

“Come back anytime,” the little prince said. I waved and climbed back down the rope into my back yard. When my feet hit the ground, the rope fell out of the sky.

At school the next day, my playing had improved so much that my teacher passed me by 2nd chair and I became the first. “You’ve got natural talent,” she said. ” And you got a new instrument. Let me have a look.” She fingered the notes, examining the wood. “I’ve never seen anything like this. The keys are pure silver; that’s why it’s so heavy. I don’t know the maker. It’s a Spanish name. Cortez.”

I didn’t care who the maker was. I was playing much better, and I couldn’t wait to try out the next piece. I wanted to see where it would take me. It took all my newly acquired skill to play The Sultan Saxophone. When I did, the wind changed directions and began to blow hard. Sand whipped into my face like I was being blasted by an industrial sand-blaster. The music was Middle Eastern, and a wall of sand, like an enormous tornado touched down on the lawn. The grass was eaten away, along with the oak tree. I was getting blasted too. And I went up the rope into the eye of the storm. I saw a circle of light that I followed until my head popped out of a well in the desert. Sand was dispersing like the four winds and a castle rested among the dunes not a hundred yards away. I walked towards it for shelter. Another sandstorm was coming, but before I could knock on the door, I was struck from behind. I woke in an opulent bed chamber where a sultan stared at me through greedy eyes. I was already in chains.

“Where do you come from?” He asked.

“From another world.”

“And where is that?”

“It doesn’t matter. I was taken here by magic. I came out of yonder well.”

“Oh, we don’t let the heathen drink from our pure water. For that, you will be thrown into a pit of vipers. Take him away.”

I was carried to a room and tossed down the stairs into a pit. There were thousands of snakes, molting and slithering towards me. I noticed the adjoining room was filled with jewels. It made sense. You could throw your prisoners into the treasure room and they would never be able to spend it. The stone floor was littered with numerous skeletons. Vipers were slithering out of the eye sockets, coming towards me. The slaves closed the doors, waiting for me to die. I didn’t have time to think. Then I remembered my clarinet. I started playing, but I could only squeak. It sounded like a dying mouse, and the snakes came even closer. They knew that sound. Then I hit the tune, just right, and they parted, like the red sea. I had charmed them. Then I walked into the treasure room, playing, and filling my pockets with rubies, emeralds, and gold coins. I was so heavy; I could barely walk. I tried the adjoining door, and it opened into the desert. There was the well I had climbed out of. I stopped playing, and started walking toward home, but before I took another step, I felt pain on my heel. An insidious Asp had bitten me. I only had a handful of minutes before I would be paralyzed and my heart would stop beating. The faster I walked, the faster the venom worked into my veins. I reached the well, and rather than climbing down, I just dropped. I hit the lawn like I had landed on a pillow. I took off my pants and shirt, and stashed the treasure behind the oak tree. My skin was turning purple.

“Mom, take me to the emergency room,” I gasped. Then I feinted.

When I woke up, the toxicologist was looking into my eyes. I haven’t seen viper venom in a long time. “You haven’t visited any zoos lately?” She asked.

I shook my head. I was just happy to be alive.

“Honey, how did this happen?” My mother asked.

“I can’t explain myself now,” I said. “But maybe later.”

When I was released from the hospital, I collected the gold and jewels and put them into a safety deposit box at the nearest bank. I decided to go to school the next day, despite nearly having died. When I got there, they were having tryouts for Julliard. Some scouts were listening to promising students.

“Do you mind if I try-out?” I asked my teacher.

“I guess it wouldn’t hurt,” she said. “But don’t expect that you’ll get in. You have to be able to play at a really high level.”

I was nervous. My fingers were sweaty, but I didn’t have anything to lose. When it came time for me to play, I decided on The Sultan Saxophone. When I finished, the judges all clapped. “That was a one-of-a-kind composition. I don’t believe it has ever been played before. We’re assuming you composed it yourself?”

“Ummm.”

“And modest too; you’ve got a seat at Julliard. You should major in performing and composing arts.”

I was speechless. That summer, I packed my bags, paid off the house, anonymously, and began living in the dorm. I was making rapid progress as a performer, and already had three job offers, even though I didn’t need a job. I was a multi-millionaire. Still, the prospect of the last song was always at the back of my mind. I wondered what would happen if I played Triumph of the Spanish Armada.

I got the piece out, one ambitious afternoon, flexed my lips, and gave it my best try. By this time, I could read the notes, but the rhythm and melody were impossible. The blending of sounds was a battle of magnificent proportions. Outside the dormitory, on the front lawn, the rope started to rise.

“How does he do that?” A co-ed asked. Her jaw dropped, and I was getting unwanted attention, but it started to rain, and then it poured, and everybody ran inside, except me. I knew what was happening. There was so much water falling that it was difficult to breathe, and then a whirlpool began churning around me, and I climbed the rope into an ocean in the sky. I emerged, coughing up sea water, and grabbed hold of a wooden deck in the bowels of a ship.

It occurred to me; how foolish I was. My future was set, thanks to the clarinet, but I had to push it. Curiosity got the better of me, and I prayed that I had nine lives or at least three. I could hear talking above deck. It sounded like Spanish. I knew a little from high school, so I could just barely make-out the conversation. The ship was going to sink in the storm. There was a foul wind and a queer song disrupting the tempest. I was about to climb on deck, when a hand grabbed me from behind.

“We’ve got a stowaway on board.”

“Don’t be stupid. We’ve been at sea for over six months.”

“Well, check the captain’s log; you’ve never seen a boy like this before.” I was dressed in a polo shirt and cargo shorts. I stood out from the sunburnt faces and groggy eyes.

A man who commanded respect, stepped towards me. “Boy, where do you come from?” He asked in a Spanish accent.

“I have traveled here by magic,” I said. “Possibly, I was carried by the storm. You can still hear the music playing.”

“Two Corvettes chased us into this hurricane. Either save us, or we toss you overboard as the Jonah you are.”

I knew sailors were superstitious, and the captain wasn’t the exception. The only thing I knew how to do was play, and that’s what I did. The storm ceased and the clouds parted.

“Hurray!” The sailors shouted.

“You are who you say you are. I am Cortez.” He shook my hand which was against all seaman’s etiquette, but I was a musician, and I guess that counts for something.

BOOM BOOM

Two cannon balls flew across our stern.

“Battle stations!”

A third corvette was headed directly towards us. There was nowhere to run.

“We’re doomed!” A sailor shouted. I started playing again, and the sails did strange things. They were filling with music and our ship launched into the sky. Soon we were above the clouds.

“Any chance I can have my old clarinet back?” Cortez asked.

“You don’t mind if I borrow it for a while?”

“I guess that’s okay. Just be sure to give it back. It’s on loan, remember? Play the song anytime and the rope will drop from heaven.”

“Ai Ai, Captain!” I saluted, and then I dropped out of the bottom of his ship, landing face up in the dormitory lawn, completely soaked.

“How did you do that?” One of my roommates asked.

“Music,” I said.

The End

The Mexican Suitcases

My apartment is a complete mess, and I like it that way; it tells me without using words, that I am doing other things, more important things, with my time. My mother tells me, “All you need to do is clean a little bit every day, and your apartment will be spick and span.” This is coming from the woman who told me that I should make my bed each morning and tidy my room growing up. Perhaps, after years of reminding, I take perverse pleasure in letting everything go.

“Leaving a messy bed sets the tone for the day,” she said. If that’s true, my life is complete chaos, and I’ve been leaving it messy as often as I can. There’s freedom in chaos. But my mother is not so easy to dodge; she knows my psychology.

“Andy, your toilet needs cleaning. How can you expect a woman to enjoy your company if you leave a dirty ring around the porcelain?”

“Mom, toilet cleaner costs money; and it takes time to clean the toilet. It is decidedly feminine to change oneself to meet someone else’s expectations. I feel it will do me more harm than good if I’m worried about what other people think.”

“Who taught you to think this way?” She asked. “It wasn’t me.”

“Thankfully, you taught me how to read, and I have come under other influences.”

“Like who?”

“Bukowski.”

“That man’s a pervert.”

“He taught me so much.”

“Well, I never… If you come over, be sure to clean up your dishes. And why can’t I call you?”

“I ran out of minutes on my cell phone.”

“Well, why don’t you get some more?”

“This way, I don’t have to talk to people, and I save money.”

“Andy, I’m worried about you. Well, at least, email me.”

“I shut my internet down. I still use the library though. You remember how you threatened to kick me out of the house if I didn’t go to college?”

“I don’t know if it happened that way.”

“Well, I realize my fear was unfounded. There is so much freedom in being homeless, and I nearly have enough money saved for my van.”

“Andy, why don’t you get a condo; you deserve it! You’ve worked so hard.”

“I’m afraid mom, I was destined to be a vagrant.”

She started to tear up, and I felt bad. “Don’t worry mom, I’ll be okay, I have the best books to keep me company, and I’m not homeless yet.”

My dad came into the living room. “Forgot to pay your power bill, uh?” He asked.

“Yeah, but I avoided the penalties.”

“You need a wife to take care of that sort of thing.”

“Dad, it’s the age of feminism; women don’t do that anymore. A man must make his own way.”

“Honey, talk some sense into him; he doesn’t shoot straight anymore.”

“Well, I was going to ask you guys if you wanted to come over for dinner this Saturday.”

“Clean your apartment first,” my mother said.

“Okay.” I went home. It was bad. There was trash under my bed. I didn’t have a table, so I was eating all my meals in bed. Perhaps, this motivation came from the realization that I might live with a woman one day (although I’m doubtful) and she would never let me eat in bed.

It didn’t matter; what did matter was the enormous mess; I just didn’t have the inspiration to clean. Sometimes I did, and I always waited for it. Now I live my entire life by inspiration, kind of Toa-centric, which means, mundane business gets put on hold.

The solution was not coming to me.

“Let’s cast some light on the situation, shall we?” I opened the curtains. It was the dry humor of one of my accounting professors, and the joke fit my personality now. Strange, I couldn’t stand that guy when I took his class. I guess it’s like spinach, you hate it when you’re young, but when you get older, you realize it’s good for you and it doesn’t taste half bad. I looked through the window. There was that cleaning store on the corner, I’d past at least half a dozen times. What was the name? Ernesto’s Brooms and Vacuums. Maybe they hired out maids too. That was beating the system. Bachelors always had maids, at least the cool ones did, and then I thought about what bachelors did to their maids. It was a fleeting fantasy, and in real life, they probably screamed RAPE.

So, I went to the corner store. Going out of Business was written on the window in red marker. “I wish I came here sooner,” I said. “Sorry you’re going out of business.”

“Oh, no problema. Landscaping is the rage now. My uncle has just acquired another truck. Times are changing; one needs to change with them.”

“I can’t argue with that,” I said.

“The guy came out from behind the register; he wasn’t even Mexican. “Are you Ernesto?”

“Si senior.”

He had an enormous pot belly, and he was red around the eyes. I couldn’t tell if it was drugs or alcohol or both.

“Why are you talking like that?” I asked.

“When you’re in the cleaning industry it pays to be a stereotype.”

“But you’re going out of business. Do you even speak Spanish?

He shrugged. “No, but one needs to adapt to the lingo, if you know what I mean? Maybe it didn’t pay as well as I thought it would. I blame the virus and the government shutdown. Good news is, I’m getting a big stimulus check and I’m going to buy an XBOX.”

“I’m glad the government’s money is being spent well,” I said.

“Heck, the rich get richer, but nobody knows how to have a good time like me. Now, if I can get a six-pack of Coors, I’ll be all right. Say, why did you come in? Is there something I can help you with?”

“My apartment is a mess and my parents are coming over for dinner this Saturday. You don’t hire-out maids, do you?”

“I wish we did; maybe I’d get a little action on the side. My wife died last year, the virus and all.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“I’m not; I’m a free man. It was her idea to open this cleaning store. What is it with chicks and cleaning? I don’t know. What was it she used to say? It was her dream. Now I remember… ‘My house will have a thing for everything and everything in its place.’ What a horrible slogan. After she died, I traded all my stuff to the Good Will. Now I’m living out of my car.”

I saw myself in him, and it scared me. “So, no maids… Do you have a vacuum?”

“No vacuum. Not even a broom. I’m sorry. There’s not much I can do to help you, but wait… I do have something, but no, I shouldn’t.”

“I’m open to suggestions,” I said. “I don’t have the inspiration…”

“Wait here a second.”

He went into the back room that was mostly bare and boxed up. When he came out, he was carrying two suitcases. “These are direct from Mexico. You open these, and your place will get clean in a hurry.”

“Really?” I asked. What’s in them?”

“It’s not drugs; I would’ve taken them if it was drugs. No, it’s something else. And you can’t give them back, and you can’t get rid of them, once you take them. Just know, you’ll probably never have to clean again.”

I took the faded lime-green suitcases from him. The sides were chipped, leaving spots of yellow. I wouldn’t take them through airport security. Like hundred-dollar bills, they probably had traces of cocaine on them. 

“Well, that was the last thing I needed to get rid of; thanks for taking them off my hands; well, I got to go.” And he just up and left, like that. I hoisted the suitcases off the counter and walked the block to my apartment. Strange thing, the suitcases started to rattle a little bit. I wondered if it was a dust buster, or some antique from before the 80s, but Ernesto said it would help me clean my apartment, and I was willing to try anything, at this point. When I got home, I bounced the suitcases on my bed, and flipped the metal latches. I turned them on their sides, and opened them wide. Inside, was a little man in a Mexican suit, and in the other one, I assume it was his wife. She wore a faded red dancing dress with a midnight top. They were like dolls, but they were also like people. They stood two feet tall. There was no life in them.

“They must be worth something; I wonder why he wanted to get rid of them.” I put them on the floor and decided to take a nap. It might’ve been hours when I finally woke up. It was late at night, and my bedside light was on. The smell in my apartment was gone. The wood was lemon fresh and there was a pine fragrance in the air. I turned on the greater light, and everything was clean.

“What the…?” Then I looked at the figurines. They were smiling like ventriloquist dummies. I decided to make eggs to take my mind of the miracle. I cracked them and dropped the shells in the sink.

“No senior.”

I whipped around. “Que?” Their eyes were following me, even though their bodies were lifeless. “You tell me, are you alive? Do you speak English?”

“Si Senior.” And the dolls came to life. They were like miniature servants who wanted to please. “I can make you the best huevos rancheros. My name is Margarite, and this is Jose, my husband.”

“I’m Andy. I really need some help cleaning and cooking.”

“We know.” They started cooking the eggs with salsa, in perfect harmony, dancing to Mexican music. I couldn’t believe my luck. It was magic.

When my folks came the next day, they were thrilled. “Andy, did you get a girlfriend?”

“More like a husband and wife.”

“What?”

When my parents went home, the house was in perfect order, and the dolls started watching a Mexican soap opera.

“Can you change the channel?” I asked.

“No, this is our entertainment in the evening.”

“I want you to change the channel or I’ll put you back in your suitcases.”

Jose gave me an evil look. “You wouldn’t dare.”

“I would, especially if you look at me that way again.”

“Margarite, we best do as he says.”

They walked into their cases and I closed the latch. I turned off the lights, but I couldn’t go to sleep. Those dolls were giving me the creeps. Then I heard the latches snap. I went to turn on my light, and something sharp cut me on the wrist. I flicked the switch. Jose was holding a salad knife to my throat.

“We want to watch our soap opera,” he said.

“Okay… Okay… here’s the remote. My apartment was filled with Mexican drama and song. I was hostage in my own apartment, so I decided to call my mom.

“How’s the cleaning coming?” I asked. “You said your house would be perfect when I finally left.”

“Well, it hasn’t turned out that way,” she said.

“I have the solution for you. It comes in two Mexican suitcases. I’ll drop them off on my way home from work.”

The End

The Hole

I’m always trying to fill the hole

it seems like it should be easy

but it’s not

and this time of year, I’m gaining weight

the hole can be filled with many things

my favorites are

pizza

poetry

and Chinese

It takes a loooong time

to learn how to fill the hole properly

and you can forget how to do it

When that happens

you’re useless to yourself and to other people

time is just time

something to be done, until you go to sleep

and you pray that you can restart the next day

There is a scientific, metaphysical process to owning your own time

Otherwise, time happens to you,

where people can’t wait to get through the day

and when all the days add up

they say, “Where did the time go?”

But they didn’t know how to fill their time when they had it

and they didn’t know how to fill the hole

It’s like having bars of gold

and not knowing what to do with them

it takes imagination

to spend money

it takes even more imagination to spend time

and most people don’t have any imagination

they are waiting for the job

waiting for someone to tell them what to do

waiting to die

and waiting to live

Many things we do

are a waste

they don’t stick inside

So, there are two ways to deal with the hole

1. You can find something to plug it

and the following have been tried: god, transcendence, and love

although, these usually lead to constipation

or 2. Decadent Desserts

the problem is, these move through the hole faster than diarrhea through the colon

and you have to keep eating

to stay alive

If you stop or get tired of eating

then you might be tortured by pleasure

Pleasure requires continuous hypervigilance and planning

Number 1 is the easy way

Number 2 is what most people try

and can never sustain

Eventually, they grow tired of food and time

and they hate life

because it gives them the same meal, day after day

then they start thinking about heaven

and they turn pain into a principle, “Life is suffering,” they say.

“Eternity is forever.”

But if you ask them what they are going to do for eternity

they can’t tell you

If I live to be a thousand

I’ll just keep writing

Every once in a while, I’ll say something that makes sense

and I’ll live for these moments

the hole is filled

even for just a while

and then I’ll have to think of the next line

to fill it

again.

The Safe House

the storm rages outside

it’s a snowstorm

with freezing rain and icicles

I’ve tried to go outside, more than once

Because the roads are clear

I guess the snowplow has been going

the problem is…

I’m on the 3rd floor

and the stairs are covered in ice

I can see myself falling

to my premature death

or one of those life-altering accidents

so, I retreat inside

and lie in my bed with the broken springs

getting hungrier

I didn’t prepare for this storm

but I’ve got lots to eat

I’m 10 pounds over-weight

and I’ve got a week off from work

so, I’m hoping forced exile

is a forced diet plan

My body can eat itself

and I’ve already lost 4 pounds

I’m reading books by drunk writers

who had venereal disease

I feel safe in this apartment

because there are no women and no booze

although, I do think I might need some to get through the next couple of pages

I look in the mirror

and I’m shocked by how thin I look

Is the scale broken?

I still have 6 more pounds to go

I was a skinny kid in high school

we can never go back

even if we get back

to our high school weight

Being closed off

in an ivory tower

does one good

because we can escape everything, we “need”—

all that stuff that weighs us down

I have to face my face in the mirror

It’s been 15 years

since high school

I’m still a kid

and I’ll be saying that

when I’m 70.

Chapter 7 The Master’s Table

Dinner was served on a long table in an even longer room. The Master sat on the far end and motioned for Gregson to sit down. Silver trays were heaped with the most unusual delicacies. Gregson recognized them to be fruits and vegetables, but the center was filled with tentacles and purple sacks that looked horrifyingly like brains.

“I trust you have never eaten this kind before. It is out of this world. Similar to what the Japanese call Calamari. I hear you are looking for me?”

“What?” Gregson asked.

“You are looking for Madelyn’s ex-husband. I am he.”

“You don’t look like the picture she gave me.”

“Let me see that,” the Master said. “Oh yes. That was before I lost 100 pounds, got hair plugs, and reconstructed my face. It was a painful process. My name is Doctor Swanson.”

“I thought I just saw Doctor Swanson?”

“She is my creation; created in my image.” He said this like he was god, and Gregson quietly thought he knew why Madelyn divorced him.

“Your creation?”

“Yes. All of the women here, were created by me. They do what I tell them to do, unless I want a mild argument. The food you are eating is from a planet neighboring our solar system. I have built a retirement home there, on a beach with an endless shore.” He said this in a dreamy voice, recollecting his dream home.

It was difficult to disbelieve him. And none of the food resembled anything on planet earth, with the exception of the squid, but it looked more alien than underwater.

Digital ticker-tape rotated the room like a trading floor. There were pictures done by Salvador Dali on the walls. Melting clocks set the emotional tone in the room.

“Your ex-wife wants to collect,” Gregson said.

“I know. Madelyn will never be satisfied. She stole my heart and all my money. She wants to bleed me dry, like a spider. Now she wants what the government can’t trace—the most valuable commodity.”

“Bitcoin?” Gregson asked.

“Freedom.” Before he could speak again, an alarm sounded.

“Containment in Chemical Room 3!”

“Follow me,” Dr. Swanson said.

When they got to the chemical floor, Gregson looked through the glass. Scientists in lab coats were trying to escape.

“Not again; I told them it’s volatile.”

“What is?”

“The virus; I’ve designed it to wipe-out life on planet earth.”

“What?” Gregson asked.

“We need to start over. Women are in control now. Pretty soon masculinity will be dead, if it’s not already. There’s nothing left to explore; there’s nothing unknown; humanity has become civilized—too weak to wage war.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?” Gregson asked.

“Without war, there can be no heroes.”

It was all starting to make sense to Gregson. “What about your scientists? Aren’t you going to save them?”

“They can’t be bothered by the virus; like the good doctor, they’re robots. How do you think I got them to build my beach house on Planet S?”

“Planet S?”

“Planet Swanson.”

Chapter 6 Doctor Swanson

Gregson was ushered into another invisible doorway. The office was covered in valentine hearts and birds hanging from the ceiling on fine threads. They were coo coo birds, which seemed appropriate for the office of a psychoanalyst, Gregson thought.

A woman entered the room in a tight-fitting skirt and a silk blouse. She had strawberry blonde hair and very kissable lips.

“How long do I have to wait?” Gregson asked.

“Not long; I’m Doctor Swanson.” She said this, not with authority or superiority, but casual comfort, like she had settled into her profession.

“Why don’t you lie down on my couch?” Gregson followed her into the next room, where a Freudian Bed rested in the corner.

“Face down, please.”

Gregson did as he was told. It was comfortable to be ordered around by a woman in charge, and he found himself getting drowsy.

“Now, I’m just going to put the straps on.”

“Straps?” Gregson asked.

“It’s so you don’t move around and lose concentration. I’ll be asking you lots of questions, and I’ll be giving you a massage too, so I’ll need to take-off your shirt. Gregson’s polo was easy enough to slip up, and Dr. Swanson started rubbing hot oils on his back. Her hands were stronger than a man’s, and Gregson felt vulnerable for the first time. It gave him an erotic feeling, like his inner beast was being subdued.

“Now, what do you want that you don’t have?” Dr. Swanson asked.

“Thai food,” Gregson said. Dr. Swanson made some notes and kept rubbing. The hair on his back was getting matted. “You are a man,” Dr. Swanson commented. “Now, just the filler information. Where do you live?”

“In my imagination,” Gregson said.

“And why are you here?”

“I’m tracking down an ex-husband.”

“Okay. Now I’m going to name-off some fruits. Listen carefully. Apple. Banana. Orange. Blueberry. Grape. Peach. Which one do you identify with?”

“Banana,” Gregson said.

“Which one do you want to eat?” Dr. Swan asked.

“Peach.”

“Interesting… Now I want you to look at these ink blots. What do you see?”

“Girls on the beach. Girls giving a guy a massage. Girls… I’m sorry Dr. Swanson, do you want me to say?”

“I think I got it. A fixation on sex. Okay. What is your grandest ambition?”

“To take an adventure I can never come back from, and be puzzled by a mystery I can never solve.”

“You check-out just fine. A most unusual personality,” Dr. Swanson said. “Now how about taking me out on a date?”

“Would love to, but I already have a dinner date at 5 with the Master, and it looks like I might be late. How about taking off these straps…?”

Dr. Swanson thought about it, and paused for a long moment.

“Dr. Swanson?”

She eventually undid the leather straps with hesitating fingers.

Gregson hated to disappoint a woman, especially a doctor as hot as Doctor Swanson, but investigating always came first; the woman would be investigated later.