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Cultural Strip Mining

Warning: Extended Metaphor Ahead

In the hill country of Kentucky and West Virginia, they mine coal. Frequently, this extraction - in the interests of expediency and cost-cutting - entails dynamiting the top of a mountain off and accepting as collateral damage the clogging of creeks with the silt of these pulverized mountaintops. The men sent down into the bowels of these blown-open mountains are stricken with lung-blackening sickness, and crushed in cave-ins - these men are economic grist for this mill. And it is a brutal and dirty mill. A greedy and rapacious mill.

Recently, I had two experiences as a cultural cog in a comparable mill, albeit a more eggheaded and, on the face of it, more benign varietal. The first was as host of one of the Chicago Community Trust's On the Table discussions. These were meant to as a chance for every-day Chicagoans to brainstorm about making the city better. As goals go, a good one, to be sure - a good, if formless and non-urgent, open-ended and theoretical one. The second was presenting WRITE CLUB as part of the Chicago Tribune's Printers Row Lit Fest, which is an annual convening of authors and booksellers in the south Loop. Again, in theory a good and worthy gathering of the kindred to celebrate the written word, but it practice a heaving mass of directionless and slow-footed humanity that seems to have as much affinity and regard for the craft and practice of writing as the average sweat-streaked attendee at Taste of Chicago (which as anyone who has ever been can tell you could well be featured HERE) has for fine food.

Exploitation is a strong word.

Which is why I use it. I believe in strong words. They make your meaning known.

The owners of coal mines are exploiters - both of the natural world they pierce and plunder, and of the human beings they send into their pits to wield shovels and dynamite on their behalf.

I believe that the largest cultural institutions are exploiters of a different and more sly sort. Where the owners of mines exploit people using purely economic leverage, cultural institutions exploit artists using leverage internal to the artist, namely the fallacy of "exposure," the need to "put yourself out there." And, killingly, the need - the bottomless, unquenchable need - for validation. If we were not flattered to be invited, if we we did not succumb to the long-ago urge to eat at the cool kids' table in the junior cafeteria we - let's face it - never leave, then we would have the requisite clarity and self-respect to say to such invitations "Thank you, no. The 'getting my name out there' that this would get me is nominal at best, and is more than likely a fiction. I wish you well in your venture, but I have too much of my own work to do to devote any of my limited time to it." In short: I vounteer for enough shit of my own, I'm not gonna volunteer for your thing.

But no. 

The prospect that THIS - this gig or panel discussion or special appearance or whatever - THIS will be the thing that brings me to the attention of the PHANTOM PATRON WHO WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING FOR ME. Given the starry-eyed idiocy of this conceit, the Power Ball-hitting astronomical length of these odds, it becomes plain that for the artist participating in the Large Scale Cultural Happening/Street Fair/Festival, there is little to no benefit to be had. Whereas the cultural institutions get to demonstrate their capacity/willingness to engage in "outreach" (to the margins of culture, i.e. the hard-working poor), or their interest in "staying current" (i.e. co-opting what vestigial coolness can be got by glomming onto the small-scale, the authentic, the homespun), or in hopping on some bandwagon or other, or in merely providing their massive audience with buffet-style variety - the aristists/producers/makers get to spend their finite time on a gig that with a dubious/ambiguous payoff. 

If it sounds like I'm being petulant or ungrateful, I don't believe I am, and here's why: 

  • The time I must devote to such a gig (booking, coordinate with event producers, etc.) is not comparable to the time I must devote to my own shows/events, in this respect: it is not targeted; it is scattershot, by which I mean the the audience I'm likely to reach in such a setting is entirely random. They have no context/intro for what my collegaues and I do, they therefore are better able and more likely not to engage with it fully/wander along to the next booth/tent/juggler/food truck. 
  • Each time I accept such an engagement, I tacitly endorse and ultimately reinforce this climate of exploitation. As an experienced artist and show producer - when those newer to the field witness me accepting such gigs, they themselves grow more likely to accept such gigs in future. And the large cultural institution is both absolved of its reliance upon the uncompensated skill and time of artists, and is granted greater license to do so in future. From both sides - it becomes a feedback loop that consists, for artists of "I can't even ask for a fee/stipend - there's people lined up behind me for the prestige/exposure of this opportunity. Plus - who knows where it might lead?" and for cultural institutions of "We are doing good by showcasing the work of small organizations/local artists and may remain secure in our virtue."
  • Audiences, for their part, get a randomized collection of the willing - a too-frequently uncurated collage made by committee. It therefore takes the highly intrepid and discerning audience member to make out and appreciate the aims and achievements of any one performer/producer/artist, and to do the requisite followup to find more of their work in future. 

For my show WRITE CLUB, for instance, there is a demand implicit in the experience of the show that you pay your full attention, as you are required to assess and pass judgment on the merits of the writer/performers you see. It therefore does not lend itself to the festival setting "poke your head into a tent and keep wandering" model of consumption, like you'd nosh on items from a passed hors d'ouerves tray. I recognize that the principle at play is "given the chance to check out your stuff, they might track you down at your regular venue," but in practice, it's far more likely that people attending such things will regard attendance as an end in itself, not as some scouting mission to augment their upcoming cultural calendar. It is WAY more likely that a festival attendee will end their association with WRITE CLUB where it began - "Saw this neat/weird thing at Printers Row where they kind of argue with each other."

And there is nothing wrong with this. As a consumer of culture myself, I recognize that it is extraordinarily tough to get me up/off my ass/out of my routine to engage with your work/project. I am very busy, and I am very lazy, which creates a high hurdle to clear. So I don't begrudge audiences. I almost never do. But I DO begrudge institutions who offer vague/likely fictional deferred modes of payment - "exposure," "audience development," "higher profile" or however they frame it - in lieu of some modest fee or stipend.

Mine is an economically tenuous life. There are weeks, it sucks to say, when fifty bucks would make a substantive difference in our house. In exchange for pursuing work I believe in, I concede stability and prosperity. ABOUT WHICH I AM NOT COMPLAINING. I will get bulldozed into a pauper's grave. I know this. I mostly accept this. There is the impulse to respond to any such sentiment with some variation of "Fuck you pal, because capitalism." 

I know. Capitalism. Fully aware.

But - accepting capitalism on its face - which large cultural institutions must, as they pay their staffs and operating expenses, etc. Then some voice within the marketplace has assigned value to my work. Some curator/booker has become somehow aware of me and has determined that my presence adds value to the experience of their audience. Yet these cultural institutions - in contravention of capitalist principle - expect me and scores of others to accept a wholly ephemeral and theoretical form of compensation. If you sat across from the HR person at your job and they said "We really dig your stuff, and we're prepared to get your name out there if you'll carry on working for free," you would not go "Thank you so much - I will DEFINITELY hype the company to my networks," you'd scald him with your coffee and flip his desk.

Why am I naming names, here? Because exploiters - however good-hearted or well-intentioned they may be - never change course unless compelled to do so.

And I'm not biting the hand that feeds. Because the hand fails to feed.

And I also am naming good names: when WRITE CLUB has been invited to gig at MCA, or the Poetry Foundation, or the Chicago Humanities Festival, or the Smart Museum - all these places have paid us for our trouble. And WRITE CLUB, in turn, pays the artists we invite along.

And don't hand me the "but we're a non-profit" or the "but our company/industry is hurting" argument, either - all the institutions in the above paragraph are non-profits. I've worked in and around the non-profit world for over a decade, and know that it's as much about the values you espouse and priorities you advance as it is about the size of your bank account. And if the Tribune is hurting so bad, then maybe a conspicuous dog and pony show is maybe not mission-critical. And Chicago Community Trust - as neat an idea as your On the Table might be - is it honestly anything more than a PR blitz for you? Are you seriously intent on making manifest any of the strategies that arose from the hundreds of events you had no hand in creating?

And, no WRITE CLUB does not pay its artists. MYSELF INCLUDED. There is equity from top to bottom - shitty, stress-inducing equity, yes, but equity nonetheless. 

To continue torturing the metaphor:

I'm not even a cultural coal miner. I'm not sent down into a lightless shaft and told where to swing my pickaxe. As an individual artist, I'm at best a cultural prospector - knee deep in an icy river, peering into my dented pan in search of the stray nugget among the pebbles and grit that is of greatest interest to me. Nobody directs my gaze. Nobody guides my calloused hand. But when the exploiters up the mountain throw a fair as a cheap way of keeping their miners docile and they ask me to play my fiddle, I will expect them to pay me to do so. If they attempt in vain to dazzle me with the fantasy that my fiddle-playing at their coal-country fair will put me before the footlights of vaudeville or get me in the moving pictures, I'll offer them my back and turn my attention back to my dented pan.

And I hope that the rest of you sunbaked prospectors will do the same.


Guts & Glory, Final Show - The Need of Suffering, 5/19/15

Men, as a rule, do not suffer well.

We cannot cope with the sadness that threatens always to overtake us. We are always afraid, and cannot put a name to being so. We are chronically confused, but are incapable or unwilling to acknowledge this reality.

Mostly, I think, we do not like the admission that we are sad, and confused, and afraid.

That’s what all the fuckin’ and fightin’ is about. And how sports have come to consume us.

We are persistently sad, and deeply confused, and badly afraid. So rather than attempting to grapple with these, we lash out with our fists and our dicks. Or guns, which is really just a dick-fist.

And all this inciting of chaos, obviously, fails to provide us any relief. So we continue to grow worse.

Till we collapse. Or change. Adapt or die. Which is actually not an easy choice. Because the misery you know is infinitely preferable to the change that remains opaque.

For me, the avoidance of suffering takes the form of ingesting alcohol. In quantities that are dangerous and swinish. But then I stopped. A while ago, now.

This April, I reached twenty-one years of refraining from drink. Which is not an achievement. It’s just the ongoing reestablishment of common sense.

My last drink was a shot of Irish whiskey at the Waveland Bowl on Western Avenue in the early hours of April 26th, 1994.

You know that shudder you get when you toss back a slug of booze – that last one of the night that you know is a shitty idea? That jigger of poison that causes your gut to constrict and roil behind your belt and the entire front of your head to pucker so hard it threatens to collapse in on itself.

For most us, that last hateful dose of battery acid we pour down our gullets causes us to wise up and go easier next time. For some of us, though, that last hateful dose is not the last at all. It is only the dose we’re able to choke down before we pass out or run out of money. Or die. Then we get up the next hateful day to begin the sorry cycle again. I was one of these. But at about 3AM on April 26th, 1994, I knew I had to set the whiskey down for good, or I would die stupidly.

So I did. And so far, since then, I have wished to live more than I wish to die. Which, as I say, is actually not an easy choice.

But, before I stopped pouring poison down my gullet, I did shitty things. I was selfish and beastly.

My then girlfriend – the woman who would one day become my wife – bore much of the brunt of my self-loathing and rages, my disappearances and indifference.

A few months before I took that last hateful dose at the Waveland Bowl, I deluded myself that I had fallen out of love with her. That it was over. Because I was, I claimed, smitten with a woman from my work. And while it is indisputably true that I was attracted to this woman from my work – that I lusted after her pretty desperately – it was nothing like love.

My then girlfriend-now-wife and I had been together since college. And at that point, we’d been with each other for like seven years. Had lived together for five; had been in love from the start. So when I gave my weak break-up speech, I did not merely break her heart, I pulverized it. I shredded it. I roasted it and ate the pieces.

And my best self, my truest self, wished to remain with her forever. Which is what I wish, still, tonight as I read this.

But I am a man. And am no good at suffering.

So. Instead of confronting the great sadnesses that befell me, I drank liquor. In swinish and dangerous fashion. And raged. And despaired. And mistook my own turmoil and heartsickness for a waning between myself and the woman I loved. Or, more precisely, the woman I should have recognized that I loved, but failed to.

So there was this new, other woman. At my job. And she was blisteringly attractive. And she made known that she found me compelling. She thought me artistic and clever. And she was so, so hot. Like ridiculous.

Because, listen – I didn’t always look like this.

And there was such suffering in me. But I am a man. So could not suffer, not directly. And so the miasma of my squalid pain and her heart-stopping physical beauty conspired to convince me that I was in love with her.

Which I might have been. If I was a different kind of man. But I am not. I am… this.

Because – as is the way with physically beautiful people – this woman was, through no fault of her own, just as boring as she could be. Physically beautiful people, they live in an untroubled state, a blithe and unconcerned condition, secure in their magnetism and expansive prospects.

So because I am a man, inept at suffering, I jilted the woman who would one day become my wife in a brutish and cruel way. And I took up with the new woman. I will not name her. She was not at fault. Her intentions were good. She deserved better than me.

This new woman was decent to me. And kind. And the sex was phenomenal. Like spine-cracking. Like the fillings might shiver right out of your teeth. Which is a price you’d happily pay for sex such as this – awakening on a pillow scattered with your fillings dotted with blood.

So. On the face of it, I should have been happy – I was having mind-blasting sex with a crazily beautiful and uncomplicated woman. For somebody who claims to be an American dude, I was living the dream.

Yet still I remained sad, and confused, and afraid.

Because when you are in the pit of addiction, a pit you have clawed your way all the deeper into because you lack the courage to suffer, happiness is impossibly remote, and your every dream curdles into night sweats and menace.

Somebody once said:

The only way out of Hell is through.

I have found this to be true. Whenever I have attempted to snuff out my suffering, whenever I have tried to defer or diminish it, it remains coiled in a corner, ready to overtake me. There are no end runs around Hell, there is no bargaining with anything that has the patience of the infinite.

So she – this new woman – had only one rule. Which was that I not show up at her apartment drunk. She didn’t attempt to forbid my drunkenness, she just didn’t want it at her place.

So one night I’m hunkered at the bar where I worked, pounding whisky.

The woman arrives, gives me a once-over, and calmly requests her keys. In the distillery behind my eyes, I took her to mean that we were through. So I dug her keys out my pocket with thick-fingered hands, avoided her gaze, and handed them over. I spun on my stool with the intention of draining every bottle behind that bar.

And that night is when I began finally to sicken myself and to curse my cowardice enough, to develop suspicions, at least, that I might wish to climb up out of this pit. And begin properly to suffer.

Because in all the Pandora’s box of the human heart – is there any feeling more putrid than self-pity? I don’t believe there is.

I drank for a while after that. But it was that last-gasp chase of the addict, the idiotic scrambling of the ghost that doesn’t know it’s dead.

That woman deserved better than me. I deserved better than me.

And, the only way that I could win back the woman I then loved, and love still, was to become something other than I was. I had to adapt. And to adapt – to really adapt – is to suffer.

If ever you have betrayed someone, then you know it’s a long way back to them. You have dug by your meanness of spirit and your selfishness a gulch between you. And there is no grappling gun. You must braid the strands of a rope bridge – hour upon hour and day upon day, you must continue twisting like a spider the strands that will connect you once more, like Charlotte, weaving her web – unconcerned with self, uncertain that you are deserving, unsure if you can ever make it back across.

And across that gulch, sometimes, when you are really very fortunate, you may gaze while you weave upon a person with the grace to forgive you. A person whom you loved all along, and who will have you back if you will only accept the need sometimes to suffer.


Havin' a Dick, Bein' a Dick

So we live across from this college campus. It's not a prestigious institution or anything - it's the kind of place where non-ace students and first-generation immigrants and beleaguered working people go to try and claw their way up the economic ladder. As it is grassy and passably quiet, I frequently walk our dog through there. One of the students I pass with some frequency is a young Muslim woman - she has shy eyes a tentative gait, dresses in a head scarf and ankle-length dresses. Whenever we approach, she grows clearly very apprehensive - smushing up against the fence as we pass, or stepping off the sidewalk into the street to avoid being too near us.

Now - I am not sure whether her cringing away from us is cultural (laws of modesty precluding direct contact with a man unknown to her; some prohibition on contact with dogs about which I'm unaware) or personal (she's petrified of dogs, or cannot abide my bacon smell or whatever). But here's the thing: it doesn't matter. Whatever her reasons for shying away, whatever her motivation for not being cool with our placid dog and myself being near to her - these are none of my business. My obligation - as a passably decent person sharing a public walkway with her is to make every reasonable effort to accommodate her. I keep the dog on a short leash as we make our way toward her; where possible, I will turn a corner or cross the street. I have never spoken to the woman, and do not foresee that I ever will. But if she and I are to peacably coexist on this patch of territory, I can offer this small concession without hardship or inconvenience.

The other night, as part of the Chicago Community Trust's annual "On the Table" initiative, I convened a small group of Live Lit producers and performers to talk craft, the challenges of the work and producing shows on shoestring (read: "nonexistent") budgets, etc. It was on the whole a lively and worthwhile conversation among thoughtful and interesting people. It was a cool meeting about a form of work I've devoted much of my creative energy to for the last five or so years.

The next day, my partner (in WRITE CLUB, and in her venture Pixiehammer Press) sent a kind email pointing out that I'd been interrupting the women there. More than the dudes. She included a link to this piece about what is apparently a widespread dynamic.

Now - my motivations for doing so, in my subjective experience/belief, were rooted in my excitement about the topic, my addiction to inserting a joke wherever I'm able, etc. When she emailed me this gentle observation about my conduct - and that's all it was, it wasn't even a corrective or calling out or anything - my kneejerk response was something like "fuckingfuckingfuckingFUCK - I totally didn't MEAN to be a Tool of Patriarchy or whatever," and to feel peevish and defensive.

But upon reflection, the standard that must apply is the same one I try to adhere to with the young Muslim woman whom I encounter with my dog. Namely, that it doesn't matter what my motivations might be. If the effect of my conduct is oppressive - even a little bit, and only to certain of the more sensitive parties there present - then I'm in the wrong and I need to adjust. Now - can I claim that I'll pass every Bechdel test applied to my future conversations? Nope. Do I reserve the right to make fun of everything you hold dear? Yup. Will a large part of me - maybe the majority, even - continue to eye-roll at all forms of ideological purity and excess of self-seriousness? Absolutely.

However - since I am not the subject of a lifetime of getting manterrupted all the goddamn time, neither am I qualified to assess the relative validity of the phenomenon or its objectionability. I'd have to be a lady for that. And I furthermore want the world my daughter will inhabit as a grownup to be (marginally, at least) better and less fraught with avoidable forms of bullshit. Therefore, when a trusted and valued colleague who is a lady calls to my attention my own transgressions in this arena, my obligation is to pay serious heed, and - as with my dog when we're headed through campus - make reasonable accommodation.

If you're a dude, I doubt you've read this far. But if you have, then this is at you: evolving sucks. It involves sustained effort (which blows), empathy (which does not come naturally to us), and mindfulness (which - honestly - fuck that). But if you recognize the current shittiness of too goddamn much of our world - a world we are forced to share with other people very different from ourselves - then at some point, you have to acknowledge (however begrudgingly, falteringly) your own role in the shittiness. If we as a species are to diminish our prevailing shitiness, we must accept our own contribution to it and mitigate it.

Which means, essentially, quit being such a dick.


Dave Boobs.

So I entered this short story contest in hopes of winning a cash prize. Made it through first two rounds before getting knocked out for the finals. They give a Genre, a Main Character, and a Subject.

For this story, I got Drama (shudder), a 13-Year-Old Girl, and Overbearing. Here's what I did. I like it pretty well, I think. 


Look, I’m sorry. But Davinia is a stupid name. It just is.

So I call her Dave. Not to her face or anything – since I can’t really face another respect lecture from Dad. Which is a sick joke, given the Mom Situation.

But, to me, she’ll always be Dave.

Which she might not be if she wasn’t so gross and horrible, but she is. That waxy face. Like a fried egg. And she can keep burning that mustache off, but that thing is stubborn.

And those bulgy lips Dad bought her over spring break. And that Trinidadian or whatever doctor. Who squirted her lips full of that poison so they’re all lopsided, like drifting to the left, so she always looks like a melting platypus.

And if she doesn’t ease up on the chemical peels, she’s gonna wind up like that one lady in Argentina or wherever, who kept peeling and peeling and peeling, till they finally burned into the little blood vessels inside her face, which started leaking, so she wakes up one day, and her already weird face is basically a skin bag full of blood. That’ll be Dave – gross, immobilized blood mask of a face.

And those boobs. Those ridiculous, hard boobs. Like hugging a bag of coconuts. Which – if she would take the HINT – is not a thing I wish to do, all the hugging. Best I can hope for I guess is like wriggling over to get a side-hug, since she’s always storming me with her coconut Dave-boobs, completely disregarding my OBVIOUS anxiety response every time she’s closing in.

But, like every other aspect of how she deals with me – totally tone deaf. Total overkill. The texting – I swear if she sends me another string of stupid Hello, Kitty emojis like I’m some kind of baby, I will scream. Plus, her eyesight is too crappy to be able to really see them half the time, so she’s basically just sending me a string of total nonsense. Plus: those Post-Its she always puts in my lunches – lunches we BOTH know Esperanza is making, which, I mean, YES, is Esperanza’s JOB, obviously, but Dave thinks if she sticks a Post-It that says “Miss You, XO” or “You go, Girl!” on the Tupperware thing of baby carrots in that TOTALLY annoying super-girly handwriting, that I’ll get worn down and accept the stupid fact that she married my stupid dad, and we’ll all be a big stupid family, even though I already HAVE a mom (even if it’s only for few more weeks, and even if she’s mostly pretty out of it from her meds) – it’s ridiculous and pathetic.

Which would all be fine – or bearable, I guess – if she didn’t have such a boner for fondant. I mean, I will include a ganache in CERTAIN cakes, but fondant is a full-on crime.

Because I have been baking since WAY before she showed up – but she watches one frickin’ episode of Cake Boss (which just proves her lameness, because how can you watch that crap show when Ace of Cakes exists?) and thinks we’re all bonding or whatever. So I keep coming home – from my CLASS, where I’m actually learning to bake WELL, not show-offy stupid baking like on TV – and she’ll be sculpting little malformed, like THINGS. Where you can’t ever really tell what it’s even supposed to BE, except like “An Animal of Some Kind,” and she’ll come tottering out of the stupid kitchen in those heels she’s always got on (you’re not tall, Dave – we all know you’re not tall, so you’re not fooling anybody with your stupid, slutty-looking shoes), and will be SHRIEKING at me the SECOND I walk in, before I can even get my JACKET off:

“Emmy! Emmy! Come see! Come see the panda I made as the topper of your Chinese New Year cake! Isn’t it the SWEETEST?”

Which, OK, first of all – I have told her like fifteen thousand-million times my name is Emma. Emma is my name, and I do not appreciate being called Emmy. My MOM called me Emmy. When I was LITTLE. And not for a long time. And if she DID, like a couple months ago when she woke after that last surgery, she’d remember, and try to RESPECT my feelings a little bit. And, also – this THING she’s do proud of and eager to show me is very much NOT the sweetest. It looks like a turd. A black and white turd. This, like, butt bullet. That dropped out of a Dalmatian. And she comes bursting out of the kitchen, cupping this sad little turd like it’s an orchid or something. Nice try, Dave. But your stubby man-fingers are not any good at this kind of stuff. Like at all. If you were like six, this fondant panda would be incredible. But you’re like forty-nine. So this sucks. And you suck. And STOP HUGGING ME. Let me at LEAST put my stupid backpack down before you start ASSAULTING me with your hard, weird Dave-boobs.

And then the look on her stupid Frankenface is so, like, DESPERATE for approval, and she’s BLOCKING MY WAY, so I can’t even get past her, till I say like “Yeah, nice, OK,” or whatever noncommittal thing. While in my head I’m going “I would smash my own cake with a skillet before I’d let that piece of panda poop sit on top of it. Now GET OUT OF MY FACE SO I CAN GO TO MY ROOM.” So pathetic.

Or like how she pretends to know tennis. When it’s completely OBVIOUS she like panic-searched Wikipedia after she saw me watching the Australian Open last month to find a couple facts or whatever. And I also honestly think it’s a little bit weird that after I’ve told her like eight separate times that Venus Williams is my hands-down favorite player, she keeps like trying to steer me toward all these different WHITE players, who are nowhere NEAR as badass as Venus Williams. And how she keeps printing out these like Yahoo News stories about Maria Sharapova or whoever. When I have EXPLAINED to her that I like Venus because Serena is so obviously more dominant and how Venus has to play harder cause she’s in her sister’s shadow all the time. Like Mom, how she can’t talk anymore because the feeding tube, but her eyes are still super fierce – not stupid Taylor Swift fierce, but like actual fierce. So I couldn’t care LESS about Martina Hingis or Maria Sharpova or Ana Ivanovic, or any of the WHITE players Dave thinks are more SUITABLE, or whatever, because why else would she keep killing TREES to print out these dumb things, which she HIGHLIGHTS, with a HIGHLIGHTER – a BLUE highlighter, which anybody can tell you is the shittiest color, instead of sending me a LINK like a normal person.

I know. Karma and everything. But GOD, I hate her so much.

And then all the selfies. All the “snap from up high, just like I learned from Buzzfeed” pictures she’s mashing herself into me to take. When she drags me to Girls Spa Day, or Virgin Daiquiri Party, or any of thousand other idiotic Bonding Experiences she’s always organizing. And guess what, Dave? Even though you frame the pictures so nobody can see your gross neck, we can still see it in real life, so you’re wasting your time. And she puts them ALL on her Instagram. For her only followers, which are like my dad, and maybe her Zumba instructor.

The worst. Just. The worst.

But of all the asshole things she does, maybe the awfulest is also the nicest, or whatever. The rides to the goddamn hospital. In her stupid Audi. That smells like a demon made of Skittles farted in there. The stupid, stupid, shitty rides to the hospital. Where I get to go watch my actual mom getting slurped away by the cancer, like the mattress underneath her is giant sponge, and it’s drawing the meat off her and replacing it with morphine. Those are the worst. Because Dave tries to keep things light (“We can hit the DQ after!”) which is horrifying. Or she’ll try to furrow her eyebrows, but can’t, really, because of the Botox. And call me “kiddo.” Makes we want to slap the teeth out of her head.

Because she shouldn’t be giving me THESE rides. I’ll sit in her stupid candy-stinking Audi to go to volleyball or River Clean Up or the library or even therapy – pretty much ANY place else, and I’ll be fine. But HERE. To the hospital. THIS ride. Is one she shouldn’t even BE on, much less the only one WITH me. SHE should not be in the goddamn lobby thumbing through her stack of magazines, her Lucky and Allure, or swiping her way through Pinterest on her stupid iPad. SHE should not be working her way through a Frappucino while I’m upstairs staring at the respirator skeleton where my mom used to be.

SHE should not be taking me to stare at a Peanut Buster Parfait after. HE should.

HE should be taking me. HE should be able to set aside his Survival Guilt and his stupid Trauma About Grandpa and his Throw Money At the Problem Philosophy and TAKE ME ONCE A WEEK TO WATCH MOM DIE. He needs to have some balls. He needs to be a man.

He needs to be a dad.

And as shitty and stupid and fake as she is. I hear Dave arguing with him about it in the night. Every week. And really, I can only hear her. His voice is just a muffled drone – wordless, rational-sounding, measured. “You need to do this, Paul.” Dad murmur. “That is shitty, and you know it. I am doing the best I can with the bullshit situation you’ve put me in, here.” Dad mumble. “Fuck YOU, Paul. You don’t GET to be the coward asshole, here. You need to step up. Because if you don’t, she is going to hate you forever. And she’ll be right.” Door slam.

Wow. Way to be, Dave.

I can picture my dad after she stomps down the hall to the exercise room, staring at nothing and swirling the ice in his glass. Doing that remote, abstracted thing that he seems to think gets him off the hook for stuff. Dick.

I mean. I get it. Mom was never easy. Peering over her glasses at you. Always giving you the feeling you were interrupting something big. That she was favoring you with her attention or something.

And then when she first got really sick. She turned mean, so mean.

And Dad folded up. Like the terrified asshole he is. And they got a divorce. Because he couldn’t take it. Couldn’t take her. Then he found Dave. Who was simple for him, I guess.

So Mom is in a coma again. And Dave takes me down there. And for whatever reason it sucks worse than usual. I don’t know why, really, but over these months I’ve made a rule: I don’t cry in the room. Even if Mom is totally out. I don’t cry in the room. So on this Saturday, I hustle down the hall to the bathroom. Then when I compose myself a little bit, I head back. And I hear a voice. Dave’s voice.

And she’s saying, to my mom: “Gloria. I don’t know if you can hear me. Or if you’d care if you could. But I am so, so sorry. And she is such a great, tough, smart kid. And this is so totally awful for her. And Paul is such a weak chickenshit. And I’m just so sorry.”

And I leaned against the wall and smelled Dave’s makeup smell mixing with the sour dying smell of my mom.

And I didn’t say anything. Not then. But from then on, I tried not to be quite so hard on Dave.


The Wisdom of Solomon

Donald and Evelyn had been affixed to one another for almost thirty-two years. To say that they loved each other would be overstating things – even calling them attached to one another by anything stronger than habit would be a stretch. Their allegiance, such as it was, consisted more of a kind of adamant fixity on the condition of being married, rather than any abiding or personal stake in each other.

Their definition of themselves as individuals, to the extent that they thought with any frequency or care about such things, was in large measure dependent upon being a married person. Golfer. Gardener. Spouse. These formless conceptions of themselves, these predigested descriptors – these provided them some minimal degree of clarity and comfort.

Donald had one time thought, to his own rueful amusement, that their marriage was like a dog turd that had spent a long winter inside a snow bank – when the spring sun melted it free, it retained something of its form, but was blanched and ghostly and odorless.

Evelyn, for her part, regarded Donald’s presence in her home as a low-level nuisance that was decades now in duration – he was an infestation, almost, of some lumpy mammalian pest that she could never bring herself to drive away.

They had raised an unspectacular child who had long since moved away, and who, if they were honest, was fading in their memory.

What passed for conflict was when they both slept, and the dog ambled off the foot of their bed – there would be a listless jockeying of feet to lay claim to the warm patch vacated by him. In the morning, in the wake of this listless maneuvering, there was a slight increase in how clipped were their exchanges.

On the whole, though, they just marked time in proximity to one another – Donald on aimless walks, leash limp in his hand, staring blankly at the dog’s asshole; Evelyn absently reading middlebrow books that never stuck in her memory. They would dine on sensible portions, stay informed about world events in a resigned and tongue-clicking way, and would gaze unblinking at their own flickering screens while seated not far from each other.

In all, theirs was a tidy and arid little life. They were both flat-footed and glassy-eyed, pear-shaped and settled, in body and mind.

But when Donald awoke with the cold ring of a gun barrel pressed into the meat of his left cheek, the way they had been was snuffed out completely.

Evelyn’s eyes flew open, as a voice – a hellish, robotic voice – said “Wakey-wakey.”

And, for the first time in long time, Donald and Evelyn were awake.

“You know who I am?” said the voice behind the mask, digging the gun barrel into Donald’s face, then lifting it and resting it on Evelyn’s forehead. There was a smell in that room, now, like cordite and something musky.

Donald and Evelyn nodded furiously, tearfully. They knew who this was.

They had fretted in their low-intensity way over reports of a string of home-invasion killings throughout the region. The press called him the Solomon Killer, after the king in that baby-splitting story. He would break into the bedroom of a sleeping couple and force them to choose which of them he would shoot in the face. He would only shoot one of them. If there were kids in the house, he would leave them alone – he would only shoot a spouse in the head while the other one watched.

Profilers claimed that it was this compound suffering – the survivor’s guilt, the traumatizing spectacle, the visions of blood-spattered pillowcases persisting long after he had committed the crime – these were the real goals of the Solomon Killer. The production of a corpse was, for him, just a means to these. On the television, on the Sunday morning programs, the profilers conjectured soberly that the Solomon Killer’s… gratification resided in this “long tail” of grief and misery.

“So,” said the voice. “Which of you is it to be?”

Without hesitation, in the span, really, of a flinch, Donald and Evelyn pointed at each other. Fiercely, and with purpose.

And, in those trembling and wide-eyed instants before the gun went off and the room filled with the ferrous smell of blood, Donald and Evelyn, their index fingers stabbing vehemently at the air between them, saw one another more clearly and understood each other more fully than they had in a long, long time.