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FIRST CONTACT: CHAPTER 4

Welcome back for week four of the serial novel Cancer? But I’m a Virgo, where we explore my experience with cancer, chemotherapy, sex, drugs, comedy and death. If you’re just tuning in, click here to start from the beginning.

We’ve spent the last three weeks introducing our main character – our hero, if you will. And, uh, that’s me, in case you were wondering. I’m very charming.

But what is a good hero without a really strong nemesis? A hero is nothing without a proper enemy. And so here we stand, awaiting our villains arrival. Quiet now.

He’s close.

Hands inside the cart everyone. This is where it gets ugly.

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I pull into my driveway around 11:30 p.m. I’ve spent the last two days in Vegas smoking enough pot to transform my brain into one of those slimy slug-souls from The Little Mermaid. The house is mostly dark save for a small desk lamp radiating a warm glow in the front window. Like the jingle of that popular hotel, my wife has left a light on for me. The trip back from Las Vegas was mostly uneventful (outside of me having to shit off my front bumper but that story is neither here nor there); the trip driving west always lacks any of the magic of the possibility that crackles in the air when heading toward the Electric City. I haven’t slept more than a few scattered hours in two days and I can feel it.

When I finally open my front door, I immediately feel the warm welcome that is Home. My wife has an aura about her that allows her to take the mundane and turn it into the extraordinary. Our house is no longer wood and dry wall. It is flesh and bone and personality. It is living and breathing and welcoming. She chooses color palettes and purchases knick knacks; the bar-style dining-room table, the weird collection of antique cameras on top of the shelves in the kitchen, the vintage teacher’s desk in the living room, the furniture, the mirrors, the finds, the little treasures. I try to imagine what I would have done to this house if I’d lived here alone, if we’d never gotten married.

I’m seeing white walls. I’m seeing a stained couch. I’m seeing pizza boxes. Maybe I’m a little heavier? Maybe I sleep on a pile of wood chips in the corner? An old blanket tangled around my ankle?

I sit down on my couch and I close my eyes, letting images of the weekend roll through my imagination: Caesar’s Palace, The Venetian, the games, the walking, the laughing, the people, the servers dressed like Alice Cooper and Michael Jackson and Madonna. I chuckle to myself, having proudly taken that right of passage into Manhood that is Las Vegas. I’m 26 and at the top of the world.

Finally settled in, I pull out my pipe and stash of weed. The smoke fills my lungs and I quickly begin to disconnect from the world. So I lost $400? So what?! What’s money? It’s just paper. It’s just representative of something. Take my money, take my job. I’d rather move into the woods, anyway. Lose myself in the trees, get out of the city. I hate the city—the smog, the traffic, the cement. I want clear blue skies and trees and rivers and rocks and animals and stars.

I have to pee.

I stand up and walk to the bathroom, down the dark hallway, bumping into the doorframe. I flip on a light and there, sitting in the corner, is the toilet. It’s all come to this. My whole life has come to this toilet. Every step I’ve ever taken has led me right here. The first part of The Journey that is my life is about to end. Every choice, every waking moment has brought me here, to this bathroom, in this house, in this room, at this time, in this mental condition.

I reach down and fumble with my zipper, pulling it south. I reach inside my jeans and think briefly about my one testicle—its existence a constant reminder of the missing twin—and I start to pee. I stare at the red wall in front of me, thinking, Bright red paint. That’s a bold choice for my wife to go with. But she did it. I wonder what people think when they’re standing here fondling their nut sacks and peeing?

I look down and realize that I am, indeed, fondling my nut sack. This is a simple truth of the world; men just sometimes absent-mindedly grab handfuls of themselves and we bumble around blindly. It’s like a security blanket. It’s platonic. It’s like petting a dog.

Mid-pee, mid-stream, mid-relief, my left hand feels something that does not belong. A foreign object on my body, a second tongue, a third nipple, a fourth knuckle—it’s not right, not normal, not standard. It’s the size of a pea and rests casually on my single remaining testicle.

And this is the moment where my life breaks in two. I don’t know it yet but this is the moment of impact. Nothing will ever be as it was. Nothing will ever be the same.

Imagine with me . . . try to set aside all of your individual predispositions and personality traits. Listen to the stories I’ve told you about myself, pick up my luggage, my emotional baggage, my history of illness (both real and imagined) and touch my genitals with me. Imitate me. Channel me. Possess me. Feel the lump on your singular ball.

Also, you are pretty high right now.

I turn the pea over and over in my hand like a pebble, examining it, touching it, feeling it, becoming familiar with it. No. I can’t become familiar with it. I know that immediately. We will never be friends. The hypochondriac begins whispering in my ear. He knows what it is. He, the great soothsayer of sickness knows what is happening right now. Whatever it is (you know what it is) I know that I hate it. Whatever it is (you know, just say it), I’m sure it will all go away soon. Just avert your eyes and breathe and (CANCER!) it will all be over soon.

Cancer . . . .

A woman tells me that she’s pregnant. She tells me that it’s crazy and exciting and wonderful. She tells me that she knew she was pregnant before the test results. She tells me that she just knew . . . and right now . . . I need no more explanation than that. I understand completely.

Cancer . . . .

I zip it back into my pants and stare at the red wall and think, “ . . . . . . . . . . . . ” and then I walk out of the bathroom, down the long hallway, and into my bedroom, where my wife is asleep. I wonder how she’ll take the news. Will she cry? Weep? Fall into a great depression? Will we cling to one another for mutual comfort, swearing fealty to each other? Swearing that we’ll get through this, don’t worry, no matter what, etc., etc., etc.? I try to summon images of Hollywood movies into my mind; how have I seen this done? How did Mandy Moore break the news in A Walk to Remember?

Jade opens her eyes and says, “You’re back. How was Vegas?” and I say, “Good,” and I say, “There’s something on my . . . . ” and it’s weird but I am six years old again, and I’m talking to my mom about my bawl, and I don’t want to say it.

“What time is it?” she asks in a gravelly voice. “Late,” I answer tenderly, quietly, wanting to keep things as calm as possible for the storm that is about to erupt. “It’s around midnight.” She asks me if I’m coming to bed.

I sit down and run my hands through her hair, the words in my throat, on my tongue, my lips. I say, “I felt something on my testicle. It’s a lump. I think . . . I think I have . . . cancer.”

There is a pause. She looks at me and blinks, once, twice, and I know some great emotion is on the precipice of bursting inside of her. She shuts her eyes, takes a breath and says, “You are such a hypochondriac. You have cancer now? Please.” And she clicks off the bed lamp, leaving me in the literal, figurative, and metaphysical dark.

I am furious (scared). I am angry (confused). I am full of questions, and I want (need) answers. An idea hits me, and I do that thing that no one should ever, ever, ever do when they think they have cancer growing on their nuts and are super super high at the same time.

I get on the Internet and do a Google search for “Hard balls on balls” and the first option is a gay pornographic website starring body builders. I try again. “Infected nuts,” and this time it’s something about oak trees being poisoned. I try again, “How to check for testicular cancer” and the first hit says, “How to check for testicular cancer.” Bingo.

Article after article after article pops up, an encyclopedia of penial knowledge at my shaft tip all for me to soak in and fear by myself in this paranoid state. “This most certainly will be a night I will never forget,” I think to myself as one hand scrolls the text around the monitor and the other pinches that little peapod on my privates.

The first article says, “Take a warm bath, loosen up, pinch your nuts like this. Does the tumor feel like a little rock? Is it the size of a pea? Does it lack feeling? Then it’s probably cancer.”

Red flag, red flag, red flag. Cancer, cancer, cancer. Tumor, tumor, tumor. That’s the first time I’d seen that word as it related to me. I was looking at the word tumor, and I was touching something in my body that may or may not have been (I know it is) a tumor a tumor a cancerous tumor inside of my body I have cancer tumors cancer tumors cancer tumors.

Maybe it’s just a fluke, this article. Maybe I’m seeing what I want to see, believing what I want to believe, y’know? I want to know that what Jade is saying is correct. I’m a hypochondriac, and none of it is real. I click on another article but it says the same thing. Article three and four are likewise. By article eleven, my hope is not simply beginning to break, it is broken.

I. Just. Know.

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So that’s it. That’s it for this week. And I know what you’re thinking. “Wow, that’s some really bad news – getting a little tumor like that.” Yeah, it is. But, trust me when I say that this is only the beginning and if the story stopped here, it would barely be a story at all. Over the course of the next few weeks we are going to systematically break Johnny down until the only thing that’s left of him is a hollow little shell, filled with anxiety and hopelessness.

We are going to destroy him.

But we’ll do it together and it will hopefully be a lot of fun to watch.

So, next week be sure to come back for Birthday Present: Chapter 5 with excerpt below . . .

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She looks at me and, with her complete confidence in my health asks, “Well, what did he say?” and, without missing a beat, I respond, “I have a tumor.”

She takes one more step before collapsing onto a parking block and begins weeping. This is when the reality all hits me, and I weep as well.

 

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The Orange and the Sock: Chapter 2

 

Hello, boys and girls! Thanks for tuning back in for chapter 2 of the on-going series Cancer? But I’m a Virgo, a dark comedy about the time my body tried to kill itself. There’s romance, there’s sex and there’s drugs. It’s all coming, week by week, until the bitter end.

But before we get to that, I have to tell you a couple things that happened to me before. Way before. Years ago. Decades now, actually.

Today let me tell you a story about something that happened to me in elementary school. And it’s very important. Let me tell you a story about an orange and a sock.

Sit down. Curl up. And let’s get very, very, personal.

PS. To start from the very tippy-top of the prologue, click here.

 

 

 

 

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I am six years old, and I know that something is wrong with me. It’s something that stretches far beyond the reaches of the faux-fashionable brown mullet that frames my over-sized head, making me look like the Son of Frankenstein. The wrongness is not the cold sore on my mouth that has been emblazoned into so many family photos from that year. It is not my excessively bushy eyebrows that look like storm clouds.

The year is 1988, and the wrongness has always been. It isn’t something that came about or was discovered one day. It is something that I’ve simply grown horribly accustomed to, the way someone who lives next door to an airport may eventually drown out the jet engines with their own thoughts.

I have only one testicle.

Or rather, I have two. But the second is undescended, just chilling out in my six-year-old abdomen, afraid to come down into its hormone hammock. I know this is unnatural and wrong and I’ve thought about it every single day for as long as I’ve understood its wrongness. For as long as I’ve understood that boys have two and I have one, I have dwelt on its absence. For as long as I can remember, this has been my body.

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One day, after spending an inordinate amount of time contemplating my testicle, I decide to approach my mother about the issue.

I go upstairs to their bedroom where my mother is folding laundry. The question burns in my stomach and in my throat, and I don’t want to say it because, even though she is my mother . . . she is my mother . . . and I don’t want to talk to her about my privates.

“Mom?” I begin. She sets aside one of my dad’s brown military shirts, folds her hands in her lap and smiles with a welcoming air. This is her finest quality; she will give you everything she has, every ounce of attention, every piece of love she can muster. It belongs to you.

I lean in the doorway and fidget awkwardly. I look down at my sneakers. I look down at my zipper, guarding my dirty secret like a monster with a hundred teeth.

“Why . . . do I only . . . have one . . .?” and I can’t even bring myself to say that final word, afraid it will just hang awkwardly between us like a vampire.

“One what, honey?”

Today, there are hundreds of synonyms for it. Then, I knew only one and the word choked me. I stare down at the brown almost-shag-but-not-quite carpeting, dirty with white dog hair. I look up and begin fiddling mindlessly with the doorjamb, reaching out and running my finger over the wooden plank. I expel my breath and quickly cough the syllable out as nonchalantly as possible.

“Ball.”

My hands convulsively go toward my crotch, and I feel dirty and perverse having said the word in front of my mother. We often forget as adults that children know shame, true and terrible shame that dwarfs our own. Children lack the proper familiarity that they are not alone in their experiences. To them, the world is happening for the first time, and the world only exists in the bubble of their own realities.

As a man, you can accept who you are, and you can own it. Your flaws can become quirks that you wear proudly, if not a bit oddly. As a child, you are simply different from everyone else, and at six years old, I am extremely ashamed about my secret, and I want nothing more than to be Normal.

My mother tells me that my “ball” is up in my tummy and that it’s been that way since I was born. She tells me that the doctor says it will just come down one day, abracadabra. It’s simply going to appear again like a mysterious second uncle.

She tells me that, after the doctor found it, he never checked again, never followed up—that during all my infant appointments, it was never rectified. As a man, when I press her and ask, “Why didn’t you do something? Say something?” She says, “I eventually stopped changing your diapers and then . . . ” She shrugs sadly as the thought trails off.

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As a boy, I cry about it often and the tears add to my shame and eat away at me from the inside like a cancer. Eventually, after not just months of living like this but years, I finally bring the issue back to my mother’s attention.

When? When is my bawl coming back down?” and I say it just like that, bawl instead of ball. I really lay the emphasis on the inflection, spitting out the word like venom. I am eight years old now and I’ve never felt so much as a rumble from the mythical Loch Nut Monster.

Sometimes I try pushing on my abdomen, hoping to cause a miraculous healing. I imagine an “extra” testicle just suddenly slopping down and filling up my nut sack like an orange in an old sock and voila problem solved.

This does not happen.

As the year progresses, larger questions begin surfacing in my mind. The Big Questions. The Long-Distance Questions that perhaps no normal third grader has any reason to be thinking. But I am no Normal third grader. I am a child who spends endless hours meditating on his genitals and pressing on his abdomen, hoping to give birth to a testicle.

What happens when I get married? The thought drops in my lap like a cinder block. I’m going to have to tell a girl about my secret. This prospect is worse than anything I have ever imagined. I try to conjure up the conversation in my head. Would I tell her before we were wed? Would I tell her after we were married? Would I tell her on our wedding day so that we’ve already spent a bunch of money and our families were all there and she wouldn’t be able to run away? Yes, that’s the way I’ll do it. I’ll trap her!

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the . . . . A heaviness fills me, and something I had never considered strikes me like a slap on the face. Fertility. Potency. Mobility. These are not words that I understand, but they are words whose meanings I comprehend. Can a man create babies if he is lacking half of his equipment? I’m imagining a jet with one wing. I’m imagining a gun with no bullets. I’m imagining a dick with no bawls.

At a third-grade level, I fully understand the basic concept of where babies come from—insert Tab A into Slot B. But I don’t understand what happens when one of the key components has gone AWOL. I don’t understand the science behind it. Is one a positive charge and one a negative charge? Do you need them both to create some kind of high-powered, special juice? Is one the fluid and one the sperm?

My life is crumbling before it’s even begun, and my mental state is collapsing. I rush home after school and begin demanding action from my mother. “Where is my bawl?! I want it back! It’s mine! I want to see a doctor, and I want him to fix me.”

 

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This is the first time I’ve had any kind of physical done. I’d never been in any type of sport, so I’d never been required to go through the customary “Turn your head and cough” routine. I am terribly nervous as I sit in the waiting room, my hands sweating, my foot bouncing. This is the first time that anyone outside of my mother will know my secret, and this person will discover it by touching me. I am eight, and I am about to be fully exposed in front of a stranger in the most intimate fashion possible. As I wait, instead of reading a magazine, I just stare at a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, an artist whose work I will become well acquainted with in roughly twenty years.

“Johnny . . . Broogbank?” People more often than not say my last name with a question mark and a randomly misplaced letter. My mother and I stand up, and in the back hall they measure me, weigh me, blood pressurize me, and escort me into a broom closet adorned with more Georgia O’Keeffe specials.

I stand up and begin to pace wildly while cracking my knuckles. My mother suggests that I relax because the doctor has “seen it all” and I care little and less because I have seen “almost nothing” and I’ve never had a grown man fondle my package before and I find the idea to be terribly off-putting, even at eight. Or rather, especially at eight.

There is a gentle knock at the door, and I immediately know that we have entered The Point of No Return. My stomach drops and all the butterflies inside of it take flight. He enters the room, a stethoscope around his neck, and his physical features immediately remind me of the pink Franken Berry cartoon character on the cereal box, enormous and hulking, thick in the shoulders, hairy hands, but a kind face with a gentle smile.

Dr. Franken Berry asks my mother and me a few questions in that friendly but sterile tone that most GPs have before tapping the table and telling me to “Pull down my pants and hop up here.” I fumble slowly with my belt and then, in sheer neurosis, I ask, “Underwear too?” and he replies in the affirmative.

And it’s in that next moment while bent in half, my hands clutching the waistband on my very tight, very white undies that I wonder why I asked my mother to come here with me.

Dr. Franken Berry feels around my abdomen and begins pressing and I almost tell him, “Don’t bother, I’ve been trying that technique for years,” but instead say nothing. He grabs my bawl and says, “Turn your head to the left . . . and cough. Turn your head to the right . . . ” and I see my mom sitting in the chair. She looks so sad. Her eyes are downcast and she fiddles with her fingernails. I am glad she’s here, and I am glad she’s looking away, supporting me quietly in my shame. “ . . . And cough.”

He tells us we need to do surgery to try and draw it down and I am joyous, celebratory even. I am going to be whole. I am going to have two testicles. Two bawls. Like an x-rated version of Pinocchio, I’m going to be a real boy.

I’m pulled out of school for the operation because I will be hospitalized for three days, the entirety of which are all very blurry to me. The tent-pole moments I will highlight are as follow.

I am all alone on a gurney in a hallway. A male nurse approaches me and says he’s going to give me an IV. I’ve never had one, and I am horrified. I see the size of the needle and my horror turns to terror. He rubs my arm and massages it and slaps it and then says, “All done.” The man was an artist and his craft so perfect and painless that, to this day, it is the IV that I rate all others by.

Inside the operating room, I count backward from ten and only get to nine before I black out from the anesthetic.

My next memory is laughing with my mom in the recovery room. Some commercial has come on that consists of a talking roll of toilet paper, and I believe I am able to recall this specific moment so vividly not because of the humor but because of the pain, which is intense and, very literally, sidesplitting. The surgeon has cut a three and a half inch gash on the right side of my groin, and I can hear it scream every time my muscles cinch up. What he did in there, I have no idea, but it feels like I’ve been stuffed full of hot thumbtacks. Laughing and crying, I ask my mom to turn off the television and to please stop imitating the talking toilet paper.

My next and final memory of the hospital is me asking my mom, “Did they do it?” and her simply saying, “No,” and I am so crushed that I weep in my bed. I am eight years old and the finality of it is the worst news I’ve ever had in my life. I will forever have only one testicle. One bawl. I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to listen. I just want to forget.

Perhaps this seems overdramatic, but to a young boy, fitting in is the world, and I’ve just been told that I will forever be different and not simply through the color of my hair or my height or my language but by the one thing that makes a boy a boy.

A doctor enters the room to check my incision. It is the first time I’ve seen my wound and the sight disgusts me. My skin on either side of the cut has been pinched together and folded over itself and then sutured through a number of times. It looks like someone has laid a thick string of flesh-colored, chewed up bubblegum across my skin and then threaded it with long spider legs. The smell is foul. It is yellow and blue and dripping fluids but the doctor says it looks fine, which I take as an extremely relative deduction.

He asks me if I have any questions and I do. It’s one that I have to know the answer to but am horrified to ask for fear of the truth, for fear of more bad news. I simply say, “Can I still have kids?”

The doctor looks at me and just chuckles and says, “Yeah. You can still have kids. Think of your second testicle like a spare tire. It’s just in case.”

Just in case, I think. Yeah. After all, what are the chances I’d lose my backup, as well?

The doctor leaves and my mother, at a failed attempt to make me feel better says something poetic like, “It was all shriveled up and dead so they had to pull it out. They said if we’d left it in there for another week it could have caused cancer.”

It is a phrase that I will revisit frequently in my life, wondering if something was left behind, lying dormant, waiting. . .

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We did it! We made it through! Together! And I’ll be honest, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little like Dumbledore taking Harry Potter into the pensieve to share with him my darkest memories.

And now it’s your turn to share! Please share this post. I want to get this thing published but we need it to spread its vile tendons out into the weird world of social media. Share, rinse and repeat. And click the follow button down at the bottom to get alerts when new chapters come out. Next Monday. And next Monday. And next Monday. And on and on. Until we’re done.

 

 

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THE DESERT: CHAPTER 1

Welcome back! This week we’re looking at Chapter 1 from my book Cancer? But I’m a Virgo. If you’d like to start from the top, click here! Otherwise, we’ll see you at the bottom of the page! Let’s go.

PART 1

“Insert pithy yet poignant quote here that signifies the beginning of a long but life-changing journey.”

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It’s 5:45 a.m., and the sky is just beginning to lighten, turning from black, to shades of gray, to purple, to orange, same as a bruise. The sun just begins to peek over the mountains directly in front of me, and it’s one of the most beautiful and serene things I’ve ever seen.

I stare directly into the glowing orb and watch it rise, rise, rise, until it’s a blazing white-hot inferno too bright to look at. I roll my window down and the warm desert wind hits me in the face. After driving straight through a chilly night, it’s the perfect temperature. I crank the stereo; Zack de la Rocha’s latest band, One Day as a Lion, has just released its first five-track EP, and it has been my soundtrack from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for the past several hours.

The wind blows in my ears so I turn the music up louder. I turn the music up louder. I turn the music up louder. It’s at maximum volume and I am simply screaming alongside the lyrics, shaking my head and pounding the steering wheel. Whenever a car approaches, I quickly compose myself, pretending to just be a regular guy driving a regular family-friendly car on a regular freeway. As soon as I’m sure the car is out of sight, I resume my full-body-dry-heave inspired dance moves. Remember, dance like no one is watching . . . unless someone actually is. I am Axl Rose. I am Anthony Kiedis. I am Andrew W.K.

I slowly push my foot toward the floor and watch as the speedometer begins its sluggish ascent up the numeric Mount Everest built into my dashboard—75 . . . 80 . . . 90 mph . . . . I lock it in and cruise, watching cactus and dirt blur past me on the left and right. There is a certain freedom in the desert, a dirty voice that calls out to let everything go . . . a voice that is Reckless Abandon.

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At this time of morning, there are almost no cars on the highway so, like a horny high school boy, I begin to nudge a little further, just to see what’ll happen: 95 . . . 96 . . . 97 . . . 98 . . . . I’ve never pushed this or any other car to 100 mph, and being this close makes me want to just stick it in and slam it down.

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I take a deep breath, hold it, and juice the pedal. The gage immediately leaps like someone has jammed a cattle prod into the base of its skull . . . 99 . . . 100 . . . 105 . . . 110 . . . 115. At 120 mph I scream out the window at the top of my lungs.

I am twenty-five. It’s one month before my birthday, and I am invincible.

Nothing can touch me.

Nothing.

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Short chapter this week but please stick around! We’ve got a little set-up to do before we dig into the really bloody, painful, tragic stuff – you know, all the really delightful things!

Next Monday we’ll be experiencing Chapter 2: The Orange and The Sock where we’ll talk about my penis. It’s going to be really uncomfortable and I hope to see you there!

Hit that follow button in the bottom right corner so you don’t miss it!

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Cancer? But I’m a Virgo.

Alright, folks! This is it.

A few years back, I had cancer. Spoiler alert, I lived. A couple years after coming out the other side of the dark tunnel that is doctors, drugs and disease, I wrote everything down and compiled it into what is sitting before you now – the prologue to, what most of us today would call, a “book”.

I’d like to be able to release a new chapter every week for the duration of the novel so, if you’ll stay with me, together we can relive this treacherous, life-altering, reality bending experience together over the next 42 weeks. Yeah, that’s a serious commitment but if you’re down, I’m down.

Actually, even if you’re not down, I will probably just blindly and stubbornly press on on because this is my blog and I can do whatever I want here. My house, my rules, baby!

However, on the off chance that you are into it, please click the follow button in the bottom right corner and we’ll slowly mosey down this little rosy road together.

Let’s begin.

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It’s my twenty-sixth birthday and I’m standing in front of a rotund Indian man with my pants around my ankles, my wiener hanging limply between us like a sad-faced emoticon. He gently pats the paper-covered exam table with his meaty hand and in his thick accent says, “Please sit up here.”

I pull myself onto the table, no easy feat with my pants bunched on top of my sneakers and my hands cupped neatly around my genitals for the sake of modesty. The ultrasound technician takes a seat on a low stool next to me, pinches my noodle between his thumb and forefinger and says, “Hold this, but don’t pull on it.” First, this is everything nightmares are made of. Second, I can’t help but stop to wonder what kinds of patients typically find themselves in this room. Men who, when confronted with a white-robed stranger, posters of bisected colons, and the aroma of cleaning supplies, are suddenly thrown into such an erotic frenzy that they simply must begin to “pull on it.”

I lie back and hear the sound of two rubber gloves being stretched and adjusted over as many large hands, the latex squeaking against itself. The noise sends a shiver up my spine, and the sterile smell in the air turns my stomach.

I just want this over. I just want an answer.

The Indian Man says, “I’m going to apply the jelly now,” and I’m thankful for the heads up because, lying here today, I have no idea what to expect anymore. Things have been spiraling quickly out of control for about a month. There are too many questions cropping up without near enough answers. My life has become a really terrible episode of LOST, except there are no polar bears or time travel or bad CG smoke monsters . . . .

He begins to gently rub the cold gel on my nut sack when, making a desperate stab at comedy, I nervously blurt out, “Hey, man, you’ve got the best seat in the house!” I say it as a joke. I say it to lighten the mood. I say it because I’m afraid I’m going to die, and I need to laugh.

The Indian Man completely disregards my comment and instead pulls out an ultrasound gun that he places against the taut skin of my scrotum (the room feels like a brisk 64 degrees and my body is adjusting accordingly). As he snaps several high-contrast black and white photos of my testicle, I shut my eyes and pretend that I am somewhere else; in the parking lot, at work, at home, in outer space. I attempt to force myself to have an out-of-body experience. I want to step away and come back when this is all over and hopefully “all over” is in just a few moments and not several months or years from now.

I open my eyes and see, on the ceiling directly above me, a little sign that reads, I’D RATHER BE FISHING. I begin to count the dots in the tiles, one hundred, one thousand, one million little pinholes above me, and I place my mind inside each one. The Indian Man takes his time and is very thorough in, what is for him, a routine scanning procedure. For me it is everything.

The silence is palpable. I can feel it in every pore of my body. I can sense the electric buzz from the machine where, as I glance over, I can actually see my testicle for the first time in my life. It just rests there like an enormous black and white egg filled with hope and desperation and anxiety and sperm. The quiet resting too heavy on my shoulders, I break it with, “Is it a boy or a girl?”

The Indian Man doesn’t smile at the joke. Instead, he simply states, “It’s a tumor.”

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That’s it!

Next week let’s meet up right here again for CHAPTER 1: THE DESERT. And if you think you might miss it, hit that follow button in the bottom right corner and we’ll speak soon!

 

 

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First World Problems

Sometimes too many words are just too many words so I’m going to keep this one short.

While visiting Nicaragua I heard a man say, “If you can fix it with money, it’s not really a problem… if you can’t fix it with money, then it’s a problem.”

Really simple words that have stuck with me for the last six months and have given me a simple clarity to most of my everyday issues.  I hope you can take a moment to meditate on that phrase and then go have a GREAT WEEK!  See you next Monday!

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/101108613″>First World Problems</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user3183899″>John Brookbank</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

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Bedtime Stories: Chapter 2

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I ask Rory to step into his pajama bottoms and I say, “What is our bedtime story about tonight?” and he says, “A dragon!” and I say, “Good choice.  What color is the dragon?” and Rory says, “Red!”  I say,  “Wow.  And what color are his eyes?” and Rory says, “His eyes are pink,” and I say, “What else do we know about him?”  Rory thinks and then says, “He has wings!”  I say, “So he can fly.  Yeah.  I like that.”

Quinn says, “He has little wings!” and I say, “Little tiny wings?  On a great big body!?  That’s funny!” but Rory says, “NO!  BIG WINGS!” and then Quinn says, “YEAH!  BIG WINGS!” and I say, “Okay… here we go then…”

I say, “Once Upon a Time… there was a great big Red Dragon and… what was it doing?”

Quinn shouts, “FLYING!”

“Once Upon a Time… there was a great big Red Dragon and it was flying along, soaring through the air.  It flew over the countryside and over homes and cottages and villages and castles.  It flew over rivers and it went anywhere it wanted to go because it was a dragon.  Then, as The Red Dragon was flying over a pasture, it saw a field full of… sheep.

Rory says, “And two elephants.

Quinn says, “And two hippopotamus.”

“GREAT!  So The Red Dragon is flying over a pasture and he sees a field full of sheep and two elephants and two hippos and The Red Dragon swoops down and picks up one of the elephants in its great big claws and carries it away back to its mountain cave far above the clouds.

Rory stares at me with his mouth hanging agape.  I say, “Do you understand how big that dragon is?  It picked up an entire full grown elephant and then flew away.”

Rory says, “Bring my elephant back, DRAGON!” and I say, “We’ll get to that…”

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So the next day The Red Dragon is flying above the pasture and he sees the two hippos and he swoops down and he picks one up and he carries it back to his mountain cave far up in the sky above the clouds,” and Quinn says, “That’s my hippo!

I say, “It sure was!  And now it belongs to The Red Dragon!  I hope someone rescues them!  So… the next day, down in the pasture a couple of people are walking along, tending their sheep.  Who is walking along?” and Quinn says, “Miss Brittany!… and Nadia!… and Ben!”

SIDE NOTE: Miss Brittany is a good friend of ours, Nadia is her daughter and Ben is another friend.

I say,  “Miss Brittany and Nadia and Ben are out walking in their pasture looking for their missing elephant and hippo–”

“It’s my hippo,” Quinn says.

“Yeah, sorry… Uh… Miss Brittany and Nadia and Ben are walking in their pasture looking for the missing hippo and elephant that respectively belong each to Quinn and Rory… when suddenly… a great big shadow falls over them.  What was it?”

Rory whispers, “…..draaaaaagon……”

“Yeah.  It was.  The Red Dragon was back.  He swooped down again and he grabbed one of the sheep and–”

Quinn interrupts me.  “No!  Not a sheep!  A horse!”  I say, “But there are no horses on this farm.  We’ve already established this.  There are a ton of sheep, a couple of elephants and a pair of hippos.”  Quinn says, “They are not sheep.  They are horses.”

“Fine.  We’re replacing all the sheep with various brands of horses.  The Red Dragon swoops down and grabs a horse in its claws and lifts it into the air but that horse is Miss Brittany’s favorite horse and so Miss Brittany shouts… what did she shout?”

Rory says, “Give me that horse back, DRAGON!”

I say, “That’s right.  And what is the horses name?” and Rory says, “That horse’s name is Maximus!

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“ALRIGHT!  Miss Brittany shouts, “Give me that horse back, DRAGON!  Give me back Maximus!” and then she quickly gathers Nadia and Ben into one arm and she jumps into the air and she grabbs onto the horse’s tail and she gets carried away as The Red Dragon flies higher and higher and higher and the ground slowly drops away below them.  They fly higher and higher and higher–”

Rory takes up the chant, “–and higher and higher and higher and way high UP into the SKY!  ABOVE THE CLOUDS!”

“You got it.  The Red Dragon is taking them back to his cave high up on the mountain above the clouds.  That’s the plan anyway.  But Miss Brittany keeps shouting, “Let go, Dragon!  Let go, Dragon!” and so finally The Red Dragon does.  He opens up his claws and let’s Miss Brittany and Nadia and Ben and Maximus fall.  They all plummet through the air, falling faster and faster and faster, head over feet and above them all they can hear is the booming voice of The Red Dragon laughing and laughing and laughing– BUT THEN!”

Quinn gasps.

“Another dragon… Quinn, what color is this dragon?” and Quinn says, “I don’t know…” and I say, “Any color you want,” and she says, “Oh, ok.  PURPLE!” and I say, “BUT THEN!  A GREAT BIG PURPLE DRAGON SWOOPS IN OUT OF NOWHERE and saves them.  He picks them up in his claws and places them on his back and says, “What are you doing here?” and Miss Brittany says, “The Red Dragon stole my friend’s elephant and hippo–”

Quinn says, “Oh yeah!  My hippo!”

“–and we’re trying to get them back.”  The Purple Dragon says, “I know where The Red Dragon lives and I can take you there,” and so he flies and flies and flies higher and higher and higher into the sky and above the clouds and to the mountain cave where The Red Dragon lived.”

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Rory says, “Is it a red house?” and I say, “But of course.  The Purple Dragon lands on the edge of the cliff where The Red Dragon’s Red House is attached and The Purple Dragon says, “I’m sorry friends, but I can go no further because I am too big to get through the door.”  You see, The Purple Dragon was enormous.  He was easily two or three times the size of The Red Dragon.  I mean, he was crazy big so he tells Miss Brittany and Nadia and Ben that he’ll just stand outside and keep guard while they go in to find their missing elephant and hippo.  So, they leave Maximus sitting outside as they turn and enter The Red House.  They open the door and you know what they see?”

Quinn says, “I don’t know…” and Rory says, “What?” and I say, “It’s a big cave that stretches on and on and on and gets darker and darker and darker.  But far away they can hear their elephant and their hippo.  What does an elephant say?”

The kids each make elephant noises.  Quinn’s kind of sounds like a crying monkey.  Rory’s sounds like a donkey that’s been kicked in the testicles.

“Miss Brittany leads the way into the darkness until…… they can’t see anything anymore….. now, Rory, Quinn… both of you shut your eyes.”  Both of the children do so.  “Do you see that?  That’s what it looks like in the cave.  It’s so dark they can’t see anything… so they just follow the noises of their beloved animals on and on and– WAIT!  What’s that?

Quinn says, “WHAT!?” and I say, “THERE!  In the distance!  A light!  They rush onward to the light and it gets bigger and brighter and bigger and brighter and they find…. what is it?”

Quinn says, “Baby Dragons……..”

“Yeah… well, sort of.  They find a great big glowing egg that’s as big as our house.  A dragon egg!  It’s glowing and it looks like a lightbulb but when they touch it they find that it isn’t hot.  THERE!  Behind the egg!  It’s the elephant and the hippo!  They found them!”

Quinn says, “YAY!” and Rory is completely asleep now because I think he forgot to open his eyes.

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“Miss Brittany hops on the back of the elephant and Nadia and Ben both jump on the back of the hippo and then BOOOOM!  The giant glowing egg cracks open and then EGG-SPLODES into a zillion little pieces that fly everywhere and they hit Brittany and Nadia and Ben but they’re okay but out of the giant egg crawls…”

Quinn says, “A baby dragon….”

And I say, “TWO baby dragons.  They’re twins.  Just like you and Rory.  So the Little Girl Baby Dragon chases the elephant and goes chomp-chomp-chomp!  And the Little Boy Baby Dragon chases the hippo and goes chomp-chomp-chomp!  And Brittany kicks her heels into the sides of her elephant and she shouts, “Let’s ride!” and she disappears into the darkness with the Baby Dragons right after her.  Now remember, these are baby dragons but they’re very, very, very big!  Their egg was the size of our house so these baby dragons could eat a whole elephant!  Miss Brittany rides through the darkness and on her neck she can feel hot breath chasing just behind her and Nadia and Ben ride through the darkness and they can feel hot breath just behind them and everyone can hear the chomp-chomp-chomp getting closer and closer and closer and then in the distance they can see the light!  They can see the exit!  They race towards it and they burst into the sunlight but The Purple Dragon isn’t there to let them down from the mountain cliff!  The Purple Dragon is up in the sky wrestling and fighting with that naughty Red Dragon!  The Baby Dragons run out of the cave – chomp-chomp-chomp – and our friends are all trapped!  CHOMP-CHOMP-CHOMP!”

Quinn says, “Daddy, stop chomping on my ear,” and I say, “Oh.  Sorry.  Okay.”

“The Purple Dragon says, “JUMP!  JUMP AND I’LL CATCH YOU!  TRUST ME!” and so Miss Brittany and her elephant and Nadia and Ben and their hippo and Maximus all run towards the edge of the cliff and they fall and fall and fall and fall and fall and The Purple Dragon tries to break free from the much smaller but still very scrappy Red Dragon but can’t!  Our friends continue to fall, end over end, head over feet, over and over and over again.  They break through the cloud cover and the ground is getting closer and closer and closer!  The houses and the castles and the roofs are getting bigger and bigger and The Purple Dragon is still wrestling with The Red Dragon.  The Red Dragon laughs, “HAHAHAH!  HAHAHAHAH!  AHHAHAHAHAHAH!” and then, with a loud CRASH everyone smashes into the ground and dust and dirt flies everywhere and the earth cracks and there is nothing but silence.”

Quinn stares at me.

“The Purple Dragon and The Red Dragon stop wrestling and they just float in the air and stare downwards and The Red Dragon says, “Did they die?” and The Purple Dragon says, “That was a long fall…” and down on Earth… Brittany’s eyes slowly open… and slowly…. slowly…. everyone stands up.  You see, everyone had bits of dragon egg stuck to them from when the egg exploded… and everyone knows that as long as you hang onto a piece of a dragon egg, you can’t die.”

Quinn says, “Ohhhhhhh…”

I conclude, “That night, all of our friends had The Purple Dragon over for dinner and, Quinn, do you know what they ate?”

Quinn says, “They ate eggs.”

And I say, “That’s right.”

 

The End.

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When Wives Go Wild

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There’s this old episode of The Twilight Zone where these two neighbors are super chummy with each other at a dinner party.  One guy says to the other that he just had a bomb shelter put in and the neighbor chuckles to himself and pokes fun at the homeowner; says he’s far too over prepared.  The gag in the episode, of course, is that the warning sirens come on moments later and suddenly the neighbor wants into the bomb shelter.  Sadly, there isn’t nearly enough food for both families so the guy that owns the place locks his guest out.  Well, the neighbor, not accepting death so nobly, decides that if he can’t be saved, no one will.  The man turns into an animal and just begins ravaging this door.  He’s going at it with an axe, he’s screaming, he’s losing his mind, his eyes wide in terror and rage.

This is no longer a friendly neighbor.  This is primal man.  Borderline animal.

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The episode ends when the door is finally kicked in and the two men are about to kill each other when the sirens go off and the, “This is only a warning” recording comes on.

Awkward. Situation. For. Sure.

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The men revert back to their civilized states, nod to one another and then sort of shift slowly towards the door as standard life has been restored.  BUT… it raises the question, what sort of animals are we?  What sort of beasts are lurking just under the surface?  Just behind the veil of security, the illusion of law, the commitment of marriage?

What I mean is this…

My wife left tonight.  Not left me, thank goodness, but left to head out with The Ladies.  She and three friends have gone to watch a Roller Derby Tournament.  Yes, you read that correctly.  That’s what type of woman I’m married to.  In her free time she goes to watch other women get beat up.  She’s like Patricia Bateman but in a good way.

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So I’m dealing with one of these circumstances where I’m on solo dad duty and everything moves sort of slowly but we get it done and we cycle the kids through the dishwasher and into the pajama machine and then tuck them away in the sock drawer and everyone is happy but then… the house is quiet… and there are no adults… and so I look around and try to decide what to do…

What to do…

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And the very first thing that comes to my mind, THE VERY FIRST THING, is to make myself a bean burrito at 9pm.  NINE PEE-EM!  I suddenly have a flashback of myself standing in a dimly lit dorm room ten years ago chasing a six pack and three unfiltered cigarettes down my throat with a can of cold refried beans; a diet my dog wouldn’t even touch…. if my dog were alive… which she isn’t… please see last blog…

Now, contrary to popular belief, I AM 30-something and so I actually DO try to watch what I eat from time to time and especially when I eat it.  Gone are the days of chowing down on Taco Bell at midnight.  I’m an adult.  I’m married.  I have responsibilities… and so I pick up my phone and I text The Guys.  I text the two gentlemen whose wives are currently out with my wife watching women shove elbows into each other’s guts and faces like a modern day Coliseum on skates.  I hear Shang Tsung shout, “FINISH HIM!” and then some roller derby enthusiast rips off her skate and crushes her opponents skull with it.  Blood spatters all over the ground and the audience golf claps gently.

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The first guy, we’ll call him Mickey, says, “I’m drinking.  I’m drunk.  I’m drinking drunk.  I’ve had five drinks.  I’m alone.  I’m drinking alone… and bisquits and gravy sounds amazing.  AMAZING.  I wish I had bisquits and gravy.  I only have two week old lasagna.”

I say, “Don’t do it, Mickey.  It’s too late and it’s too old.  Just stay away.”  He says, “I’ll be fine.  I’ll microwave it.  Heat kills bacteria,” and I say, “I’m not sure… if… that’s… trooooo…”

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ABOVE: This is what all microwaves look like in my imagination.  Just total last resort.

In another text thread I hit up the other guy.  We’ll call him Andre (just because I don’t know any Andre’s and so never get to tell stories about them).  I say, “Whatchyoo up to tonight?” and he says, “I just finished eating a Kung Pao 3 Musketeer,” and I say, “Is that one thing or two?  Is that like… an American-Asian candy bar?” and he says, “It’s just one thing.  It’s Kung Pao with chicken, beef and shrimp,” and I find that I’m thinking about that bean burrito again.  I’ve got some salsa in the fridge.  I’ve got some sour cream I bought for some kind of potato the other day… do we have tortillas?  Screw it… I’d eat it on bread if necessary… even just mixing it all up like a stew doesn’t sound terrible

Andre says, “This is what happens when girls aren’t around… just regret…”

I text him back and I say, “We’re never truly men.  We hit college and that’s full maturity for us – for every man.  Everything beyond college is just a mask.  Some guys are better at wearing it but it’s all just a chore to be civilized.  As soon as our wives leave, we immediately revert (just like the guy from The Twilight Zone).  It’s just masturbation and sadness and nachos, in that specific order.

He laughs but, as I’m opening up a can of refried beans at 11pm I catch myself in the mirror and I realize that if I ever lose my wife, I am totally and completely doomed.

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ABOVE: If she leaves me, everything in my life will immediately go wrong.  I am certain of this.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

To my wife, who I know will read this because you read all of the garbage I write, good or bad; thank you for making sure I’m not a slovenly maniac with an axe trying to chop down my neighbor’s door.  Thank you for making sure I don’t subsist on refried beans and Telemundo alone.

Please, please, please, go crush skulls.  Please, please, please, go absolutely wild.  Please, please, please, always come back to me.

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ABOVE: If this town isn’t big enough for the both of us, I don’t wanna live here.

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The Year of The Yes

What did the fish say when he swam into the wall?

Dam.

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You would never mistake my father for an outdoorsman.  This isn’t to take anything away from him since everyone has their own personal interests but he’s never been the type to grab a gun or a fishing line and head out into the woods at 4am to kill something.  Likewise, I wasn’t raised in a home that had guns or knives or camouflaged hats and orange vests.  Our home never had a skinned deer strung upside down in the garage or a set of tools that were made specifically for sawing through bone.

As I grew up I knew of my cousins or close friends disappearing into the wilderness with their fathers and uncles and coming back with photographs of them holding some animal’s head propped up, its tongue lolling stupidly out of the side of its mouth; blood trickling down it’s chin, it’s eyes as black and vacant as outer space.  The deer looks like he’s trying to be funny, striking an immature pose.  Or maybe he’s drunk and his human buddy is supporting him.  Or maybe there’s an arrow through his heart and he’s dead.

There are photos of guys in ice tents and alongside riverbanks and streams, holding up fish that are large and equally helpless looking. Their eyes gaze blindly about while their mouths gasp helplessly for oxygen as they, essentially, drown on air.  A bunch of fish on a bright green rope, each of them stitched to the next, hanging from their jaws, gravity pulling against their slimy bodies.  My friends point to these photos and say, “My dad caught a 12lb fish,” and I say, “He looks afraid,” and they say, “Fish don’t feel nothing.  They’re stupid creatures.”

But still… I can’t help but wonder.

My friends invite me to go hunting.  “You gotta kill something,” they say and I just shrug.  The idea of entering the forest appeals to me, of finding my prey, of stalking it silently.  I love the idea of lifting up a gun and expelling my breath as I line it up in my sights.  My finger on the trigger and then… and then… and then… I simply have no desire to follow through.  I just want to enjoy the hunt without pulling the trigger on the kill.

When I say as much my friends say, “It’s just a stupid deer,” but, as I gaze at the photographs magnetized to their refrigerator, I can’t help but wonder if that look on their face isn’t stupidity, but fear.

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Late last December / early January I decided that I wouldn’t do a simple New Year’s Resolution.  I wouldn’t be losing any weight or quitting a bad habit or picking up a good one.  I wasn’t going to hit the gym or be more punctual.  I had my sights aimed higher.  The clock struck midnight and I stood up and shouted, nay, declared, in my most noble and regal voice, “Let it be known forthwith that the year of our Lord, two-thousand and fourteen shall hereby be known as The Year of the Yes.

I place my chalice of wine down as my family gazes at me with fruit log crumbs falling from their mouths as I explain, “It’s The Year of the Yes.  I’m doing anything anyone asks me to do,” and someone says, “Like that movie Yes, Man with Jim Carey?” and I say, “Uh, yeah, sort of like that,” and someone else says, “You’re going to do anything?” and I say, “Well, not, I mean, not anything but most things.  I mean, there is a very strong possibility I will do something if someone were to ask me to do it,” and then someone else says, “So, it’s like The Year of the Probably-Maybe?” and I say, “It’s the Year of the Most-Likely but that doesn’t sound nearly as smooth.”

Everyone mumbles agreement, takes a sip of their egg nog and the year rolls on.

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Four months later, in the Spring, I find myself camped at the bottom of a large ravine, two hours out of cell phone reception with not a soul for miles and miles about.  Myself and a few friends have taken it upon ourselves to disappear into the wilds for three days and, you know, it’s The Year of the Yes, so of course I’m here.

We pack as light as possible but, even between five guys, our packs are still 70lbs.  Tents, sleeping bags, water, food, black and white television, Macintosh laptop with external hard drives, stereo system with 5.1 surround sound, Xbox 360 and various other necessary supplies.  It adds up quick.

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On our second night we throw our fishing lines in the water with bait and a prayer and wait… and wait… and wait…  Overhead the sun passes through the sky like a lazy comet and, as our shadows grow longer, our hope grows darker.  Nothing is biting, nothing is jumping, nothing is even splashing.  For all we know there are no fish…

Then it happens, Andy gets a bite and screams.  His hat falls off his head as he struggles to bring it in.  The creature thrashes against the fishing line as it’s pulled up, up, up out of the water and into the air.  The four of us stand in a crescent around our brethren and gaze onward as he navigates the hook from the greasy mouth.  He says, “Rainbow Trout,” and I say, “How do you know?” and everyone, including the fish, turn to look at me as though I’ve just asked how you know if something is a giraffe.

Andy shoves a stake through the mouth of the fish, pulls a rope behind it and makes him into the world’s grossest keychain.  He tosses him in the water and I watch as the fish lolls lazily about in the shallows, still alive.  I say, “When do we kill it?” and Andy says, “Later.  After we’re done.”

Hours pass and slowly, everyone catches one fish.  One fish for each man.

Except me.

Because I don’t really fish.

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I stand along the bank and I stare at the four fish tied together.  I look at their eyes and I try to wonder what they’re thinking.  I wonder if they really are stupid.  I wonder if they have any feelings.  I wonder if they’re afraid.  I wonder if they know.  Anything.

Andy pulls them out of the river and says, “Alright boys, I ain’t cleaning these all myself.  We’re each taking one,” and, since there are four fish and five men, and because I lack experience, I easily and obviously count myself out.  As the sun sets, the shadows don’t disappear so much as they envelop us completely.  Flashlights, lanterns and head lamps get clicked on and I watch as each of the first three men clean their fish, preparing them to be laid inside tacos that night.

To my right, one fish rests on a log and, even in the darkness I can see that he’s still struggling to survive.  He’s still fighting and trying and hoping and wanting to be put back in the water.  Call a fish stupid all you want.  When it’s sitting on land with a hook pulled through it’s lip, attached to a string and unable to move, it knows something is wrong.

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Andy looks up at me and says, “Your turn, Brookbank,” and I say, “Ha.  Nah…nah, I’m solid.  I don’t really – I don’t really have any desire to, y’know, whatever.  Cut a fish.  Clean a fish.  Scrub-a-dub-dub it.  Throw it back for all I care.  Or clean it yourself.”

Andy looks at me and says, “Cool.  Hey, next time I see your wife, I’m going to tell her that everyone cleaned a fish except you because you were afraid to dirty your pedicure,” and I say, “Pedicure is your toes.  You mean manicure.  Unless you’re talking a total mani / pedi then–” but he cuts me off, “Whatever!  You know what I mean.  I’ll tell your wife you were a weenie!” and I shrug and say, “Eh, nothing new there.  She’ll probably believe you.”

He slowly sets down his knife and points the flashlight in my face.  I smile and stare back.  “What you got?  Nothing you can say is going to make me touch and kill and clean a fish.  I don’t care.”  And now I can’t see his face because the flashlight is blinding me.  I hold up my hand and try to cover it up but it doesn’t help.  The other three guys look on.

Andy says, “This is The Year of the Yes… and I’m inviting you to clean a fish with me.”

I swallow hard and smile, knowing that he has me.  Me and my stupid resolution-thing.  Me and my stupid big mouth telling everyone about how I’m going to just go all willy-nilly-whatever.  I hold out my hand and Andy shouts and Eric stands up to grab the fish.

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They bring it to me and say, “Grab it here, like this, and it won’t thrash away… you got it,” and then the fish is in my hands and I’m squeezing it in my fist and it’s staring into the distance and then it’s staring at me and then I’m laying it on a cutting board that we’ve fashioned out of a chopped log.  I press it flat on it’s side, applying pressure against it’s, what, midriff?  Chest?  Torso?  And then someone presses a machete into my right hand.

Andy says, “You can use a filet knife and that might be easier–” but I say, “No…” because truly I imagine slipping and accidentally scraping off its face, leaving it alive and screaming.

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I lift up the machete and someone in my ear whispers, “Year of the Yes.”  And then someone else whispers it and then Andy says, “Hang on, I want to take a photo.”  I pull the machete up, into the air and think, “You are 31 years old.  You’ve never killed an animal.  Today you earn your Caveman Badge.”  Andy says, “Pull the trigger,” and I stare into the eye of the fish and say, “Sorry, friend,” and bring the blade down as fast as I can.

There is a flash as the camera goes off and the blade lands with a hard and sharp thunk into the wood and the head of the creature pops off the cutting board and lands in the dirt.  Blood spurts from the wound and the its smooth body gives a quick flap before going still.  Eric says, “You did it!” and someone laughs and shouts, “Year of the Yes!” as I stare at the headless animal in front of me who was just here but now is sort of not.  Andy says, “Now the fins,” and I cut into them, pulling them off and throwing them into the fire.  I slice the fish from tip to tail, yank out it’s guts one at a time and scrub its interior with water until my hands are caked with grime and filth and scales and death and I feel, strangely and wildly, intoxicatingly alive.

Andy slaps me on the back and says, “Datta boy!” and I set the filet knife down, scratching an itch on my face with the back of my forearm.  I did it.  I took life.  It was here with us and I extinguished it.

I pick up the head, caked in dirt and dust and stare at it.  The eyes stare back at me and I still don’t see stupidity.

I still see only fear.

 

I ask Andy to send me the photo.

 

 

 

 

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“How I Was Nearly Beaten, Mugged and Kidnapped in Nicaragua” … OR … “How I Spent My Wife’s 30th Birthday”

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For the longest time I’ve had this ridiculous hero fantasy wherein I find myself in a hostile situation with various other civilians – the two most used locations in my brain are a gas station robbery and an airplane during a terrorist take-over.  I hear stories about these things happening all the time; I read the news articles, I’ve seen the YouTube clips uploaded from security cameras, I’ve watched the Caught on Tape! TV specials.  Everything is calm and then, just like that, you’ve got a gun in your face, piss in your pants and the register is hanging open.

I always hoped that if I were to find myself in a real life crime-drama scenario that I would be the guy who Did the Right Thing.  I tell myself that I would act honorably and valiantly but there’s a little voice in the back of my head that says, “When sword meets steel, you will fold.  You will hide behind a rack of candy bars and sports car magazines and you will squat down and shiver and pray and wait for it to be over.”

I tell that voice that it’s wrong.  That I’m made of better material but… until it happens… you never know what you’ll do.

Two and a half weeks ago while visiting a foreign country, I finally got to see if The Voice was right…

***   ***   ***   ***

For my wife’s 30th birthday we wanted to do something exotic… something extravagant… something adventurous.  We talked about Red Lobster but said, “NO!  Bigger.”  We talked about skydiving but said, “NO!  Bigger.”  We talked about having a Latin American themed birthday party complete with pinata that looked like Jade but we said, “NO!  Bigger…. but let’s save that idea for 31…”

BELOW: A photo journalistic approach to some of the awesome things we thought about doing for Jade’s birthday…

Petting a camel.

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Having a staring contest with a seal.

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Going camping.

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Wearing masks.

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Breaking things.

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Around this time we serendipitously ran into a couple at an ice skating arena one night who told us they’d just returned from honeymooning in Nicaragua.  “Nicaragua?” I say, “Isn’t that a war-torn, poverty stricken, wasteland?”  The husband shrugs and the wife says, “Yes and no.”  They pull out their iPhones and show us pictures of an exotic paradise, photos of extravagant beaches, videos of adventurous hikes, swims and ferry rides.

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We were sold.

“The only thing you gotta remember,” they say together ominously, “Is that everyone there is really poor and they’ll steal things from you… not because they’re violent but because it’s a course of survival…”

Two weeks later we’d purchased our tickets and two weeks later again we found ourselves airborne, somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, heading for a land who’s foreign tongue we did not speak.  I felt like Indiana Jones and my wife was that short Asian kid that follows him around, always helping him out of trouble.

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Neither of us had experienced international travel before besides the one time my wife visited the Bahamas and the single time I was in southern Texas so neither of us really knew what to expect.  Everything was new and revelatory; virgin territory.

On the plane I sit next to a Jehova Witness who just retired two days ago.  To celebrate she was moving to Nicaragua for three months.  Thinking about her I realize that she’s still there now (at the time of this writing) and it makes me jealous.

The captain buzzes over the intercom and tells us we’ll be landing in twenty minutes.  Jade and I push up the window, expecting to see Strange and Foreign Nicaragua, a land covered in jungles and vines and explorers carrying machetes but instead we only see a phosphorescent orange glow emanating from the city; a color that screams the word “HEAT!”  Traffic slowly crawls below us, cars and trucks and motorcycles.  From above it looks like LA at night… or Miami at night… or New York at night….

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ABOVE: Nicaragua by day, which is more what I was anticipating when I opened the window.

The plane lands, everyone stands up, Jade and I grab the only thing we’ve packed – a backpack per each of us – and exit the plane.  It’s then, as I step into the terminal, that it all hits me very hard.  I am in a foreign land.  I don’t know anyone and, most noticeably, I can’t read any of the signs.  Letters that I have been familiar with my entire life strategically reorganize themselves to stand out like strangers on boards that might as well have been blank.

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ABOVE: Bookstore in the airport.

The airport is quiet.  There are few people and no security.

Outside we find a man that the hotel has sent.  He holds a sign with our name on it and, as we approach, he introduces himself as, “Mumble-Mumble, I speak very fast Spanish.”  I place my hand against my chest, feeling like Tarzan, and say, “Johnny,” and he says, “Yonni,” and I nod.  My wife says, “Jade,” and he, like everyone that’s ever met her, says, “Jane.”  It’s good to know that the mistake transcends language and culture, making us feel right at home.

He takes us to an unmarked car and opens the doors for us.  PS, we’d read stories about taxi drivers picking travelers up, driving them into dark alleys and mugging them so i was ready for his attack… if it were ever to come to that…

The man, Mumble-Mumble, drives us through a large city called Managua and it’s unlike any I’d ever seen.  Homes and businesses in various states of disrepair are found on every corner.  Domiciles that most would find uninhabitable are everywhere; we see toddlers walking in ruins, families eating in filth, couples enjoying the night air, surrounded by debris; corrugated steel, cracked wood and rubble.

We pass a street corner where a small gang of eight year old kids are washing windshields for money.  On the same corner are women covered in short dresses, long hair and thin sheets of sweat, selling themselves on a humid night.

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ABOVE: This picture was not taken at night… but all the pictures that were taken at night were dark… so you get some day time photos.

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ABOVE: For the low, low price of just 85 cordobas, you too could enjoy the processed goodness of a quesoburguesa doble!

Jade and I begin trying to converse with our driver.  The three of us speak slowly, trying to find familiar words and phrases; shaping things with our hands.  He tells us he has diez hermanos or ten brothers.  He tells us that the children working the streets are the children of drug addicts who can’t take care of them.  He tells us that Marc Anthony is playing a show in town tonight.  He tells us we should go.  He says, “Trabajo!  Trabajo!” and snaps his fingers and dances but I don’t know what it means.

He turns off the main road onto a dark street and the solitude of our situation creeps under my skin.  We pass abandoned garages and dark homes and broken windows; patched up fences and homes with no doors.  A group of six motorcycles blow past us, their engines tearing through the silence of the night and the driver tells us there will be a motorcycle convention in the center of town tomorrow but all I hear is “There are motorcycle gangs everywhere.  Watch out!”

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ABOVE: The outside of our room at Hospedaje Naranja.

He takes us to Hospedaje Naranja (Hotel Orange), where we’re staying the night, and walks us to the front door, who’s gate is locked from the inside.  A woman cautiously peeks around the corner before recognizing her friend, smiling and pulling the dead bolt.  Jade and I step inside and the woman quickly latches the door behind us with a nervous giggle.

She speaks fluent English, checks us in and asks if we’re hungry.  She suggests three restaurants and, little do I know, but this is the first of several choices that will ultimately lead me to an undesirable end.  We choose the closest; a Peruvian place three doors down the street and our fate is sealed.  The woman says, “Very close.  Very safe.”

We put our bags in our room and walk the half a block to the restaurant.  It’s now 9:30pm and dark.  Every car I hear approaching is a kidnapper, a thug, a villain ready to Do Crimes.  We enter the restaurant and order our food in the best Spanish we can muster.  Jade orders wine and I get a shot or trajo of whiskey.  We order a pasta plate and share it.

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The woman who owns the restaurant approaches our table and asks where we’re staying, asks what our plans are, asks how the food is.  She sits down at the table and tells us that her tablet (knock-off iPad) is broken and it’s erased all of her family photos.  She says something about batteries and RAM and wireless signals.  She asks if we’d like her to pull some herbs from her garden to make us a fresh and delicious tea but we decline.  Jade, because she’s genuinely not interested, me because I’m afraid she’s going to slip me some kind of date rape toxin that will render me useless before I wake up handcuffed to a bed with a man named Tony rubbing his dirties all over me.

The woman sighs, disheartened, and then we take another turn closer to the pit.

I say, “Is there a bar around here?”  The woman looks at me quizzically and says, “Bahr?” and I say, “Yeah, uh… drinks?  Beer.  Cerveza?” and she says, “Bahrr?  AH!  Pub!?” and I say, “Yes!  Si!  Si!  Pub!” and she tells us that there’s one on this very block.  She draws an invisible map on the table and says, “Go right and right and right.  Not far at all.”

The night is young and, maybe it’s my one shot of whiskey or the fact that I’m realizing that my fear of all Nicaraguans has been unfounded and that everyone truly is kind and gentle but the pub sounds like a good idea.  The taxi driver was friendly and helpful.  The woman in the lobby was generous and wonderful.  The restaurant owner and our waiter were both smiling and genuine people.

“This is Nicaragua,” I think.  This is how life should be.  I’m projecting my anti-trusting violent mindset onto these people.  I’ve watched too many movies.  Seen too much TV.  People are people and people are kind.

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The woman says, “I will take you there,” and we say, “Okay,” and she grabs her coat and then we’re in the dark street and then we’re walking towards her SUV and then Jade is saying, “Wait, what is happening?  I thought she was walking us?” and then I say, “Yeah, but she’s driving us.  It’s okay.  She’s nice,” and then the woman is on the other side of her car and Jade and I are standing in the dead street with both doors open and Jade is whisper-shouting, “We don’t know her.  She could take us to some factory and sell us into sex slavery and men will stick it to your maize-hole,” which of course is a Spanish joke if you can translate it and I say, “Don’t worry.  Everyone is so nice!  She’s just going to give us a little ride!” and Jade says, “I don’t want to.  I don’t want to go,” and, looking back… I’m really amazed at how stupid and careless I was about to be, crawling into a car with a stranger.

Luckily, we never saw how that story ended because, like all good stories, the unexpected occurred.

Suddenly, the woman, out of my line of sight on the driver’s side of the car, screams.  SCREAMS.  She hasn’t stubbed her toe or slipped or broken her ankle.  This scream tells you immediately that something nasty is happening.  Again.  SCREAMING.  In my mind, I remember it all in English, but I have no idea if that’s true or not.  It seems like she would have shouted in her native tongue but all I can recall is, “Stop!  Stop!  Stop!  No!  Stop!”

Jade says, “What-” and I begin to hesitantly walk towards the back of the car… and then from out of the darkness a man appears, slightly heavy set, Latino fella.  Late 20s.  The image is blurry and I’m having a hard time processing what is happening; everything has gone from calm and unsure to chaotic and unsure in literally seconds.  I see the man and I see the woman and they are struggling.  The woman is hanging onto something – her purse – and the man is pushing her away from it, trying to break free.  She’s struggling like it’s her newborn child he’s trying to pull away and, finally, he succeeds.  He grabs her dress by the shoulder and violently throws her to the ground.

The entire exchange happens in one or two seconds; I walked around the back of the van and then saw a man overpower a woman and throw her to the ground.  It was very fast.  Everything else moves at an incredible rate… everything else moves faster than I can process; faster than I can make decisions or weigh pros and cons.  It all just…. happens.

But this is my moment.  The one I’ve been waiting for my whole life.

And when it is upon me, I don’t think, “Here is my moment,” and The Voice never speaks up.  There is no internal dialogue of whether I will act or not.  Whatever is inside… just exists.

The man turns and begins to run and I immediately break into a sprint after him, my Dad sneakers slapping the hot concrete like pistons.  And then there is suddenly a motorcycle with a second man in the street, waiting, but I don’t slow down.  I don’t know where it came from or when it arrived or if it was there when we exited the restaurant but I am certain that my runner is heading straight for his getaway driver.

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ABOVE: This was not the robber… believe it or not, we did not pull out our cameras during this ordeal.  This is just a random man on a bike.  Although, the bike looks similar and the man looks similar…. so…. maybe…….

I’m out of shape but The Thief is even thicker in the center than myself so I’m able to close the gap between us just before he reaches the bike.  He pauses momentarily to skip and hop into the air; the plan to land on the back of the bike and his friend to, of course, escape into the darkness with their loot but…

…I don’t know where the truth is in this following section and I don’t know where my wishful thinking is – everything is a gray blur – but I’ll give it to you how I remember it and how I hope it happened.

The Man slows down to leapfrog onto the back of his accomplice’s bike and, as he does so, glances over his shoulder.  This is the first time, I believe, he realizes that he is being pursued… and it shocks and surprises him and causes him to stumble, foiling what would otherwise have been a practiced and flawless landing on the bike.  In the background, echoing, I can hear someone screaming.  Maybe it’s the woman from the restaurant, maybe it’s my wife, maybe it’s both.

The man stumbles and, instead of hopping smoothly onto the bike, lifts his foot up and catches it awkwardly after seeing me.  He lifts his foot again and lands half sideways on the seat, hop-hopping to keep his balance, the back of his left knee draped over the seat prematurely, the driver now struggling to hold things upright.  I catch up to him and, as I’m running, begin to pull my fist back.  I’ve never hit anyone in my life and it’s about to happen.  We are on an impact trajectory, folks.

The Man holds out his left hand, trying to block me and, with his other hand, pulls back his fist and begins to say, “No!No!No!No!” and then this is the first time that everything slows down.  Finally, the fast forward is done and a clarity rolls through my brain.

I see two men standing in front of me that are clearly capable of very dark things.  I see two women standing behind me, the latter of the two pressing 50.  I see myself stopping these two men and then me standing in a street with both of them coming towards me.  I don’t know if they have knives or guns.  I don’t know anything.  I don’t know anyone.  I’m in Nicaragua.

And then I see my children, in my head, clearly.

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ABOVE: The two things that I love most; my children and my hammock……… Oh, and Jade is nice too.

And then I realize that whatever is in that woman’s purse is not worth losing what I have at home.  I don’t care if she has a hundred thousand dollars in there and three gold bouillons and the Busch’s Baked Beans family recipe.  I suddenly realize that that purse is going to go away… and I am completely okay with that.

I pull my punch and take a step back.  The guy sees me hesitate and hops the rest of the way onto the bike.  I assume that our exchange, his entire pause, was roughly seven seconds.  Just enough…

The bike revs and the two men wobble and then take off into the darkness just as a third man appears over my shoulder; this one running directly towards the motorcycle.  Like the others, he too came out of nowhere and it only takes me a moment to realize that it’s the waiter from the restaurant.  He shouts and the bike revs and takes off but he doesn’t stop.  He cranks his arms and chases the bike for a solid 20 feet.  His arms outstretch… the bike picks up speed… he’s closing the gap… as the bike finds its balance… and then just before the bike is out of his grasp, he wraps his fingers into the shirt of The Thief and throws him to the ground, pulling the entire bike sliding onto the concrete with a bang and a hissssss.

Looking back, I wonder if the two criminals were thinking the same thing I’ve been thinking, which is…. seven seconds.  If we’d only had seven more seconds… if that stupid American hadn’t…

In those seven seconds they would have been able to ride free and clear.  As is, they did not.

Two, three, four, six, nine, twelve men suddenly come running from behind me; various restaurant workers who heard the ruckus.  The driver stands up, pulls his bike up, hops on and takes off, leaving his partner in crime lying in the street, alone, as the twelve men encircle him before dragging this would be felon to the curb and begin beating him mercilessly.

Jade and I slowly step backwards, towards the other side of the street and disappear into the shadows, retreating back to the confines of our hotel.  For the remainder of the night we lie in bed and slowly flip through 93 channels of Spanish television, hoping to learn a few phrases for the coming week but the only word I’m able to pick out is ayuda.

Help.

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At midnight I shut the light off and try to go to sleep but merely stare at the ceiling for what feels like hours.  My heart rate has long since returned to normal but I still feel as though adrenaline and fear are pounding through my veins and my brains.  I hear a noise outside and go to the window.  Nothing.  I crawl back into bed and hear a scamper from the room next door.  I listen and wait.  Nothing.  I get up and use the bathroom, make sure the window is locked and secure.  I double check the lock on the door and then peer out from behind the curtains slowly.  I hear a motorcycle approaching and wonder if it’s the same man, coming back to the neighborhood to pick up his limping and beaten friend.

I crawl back into bed, under the cold sheets and wonder what it’s like to live in a world where this occurrence does not throw you into a state of panic and fear and unease.  I think about the men that came running from the restaurants and realize that this wasn’t the first time this had happened.  This wasn’t An Event.  This was A Lifestyle.

This was Managua.

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Talking to Strangers: Gary

I’m standing in my kitchen preparing to feed my dog when I suddenly hear an intense, gut-wrenching wail emanate from outside.  The pitch and tone of this noise is so off balance, so absurdly wild that it’s hard to equate it to anything that is “everyday” without bastardizing and perverting it first.  It is whale music if said whale lived on the land and had first consumed a large quantity of oxycontin; sort of a very slow motion ooo-waaaahhh

It is a sound so haunting and unearthly that I assume whatever creature is making it is probably either in the throws of its death rattle or a raging frenzy fueled by pure blood lust.  It is the sound of a cat dying while giving birth.  it is the sound of a real life tree frog so amped up on Monster energy drinks that it’s genuinely trying to sing something by Limp Bizkit.  It is the sound of eternal despair.  Standing at my window, an image from The Princess Bride pops into my mind wherein the main character screams and his friend mentions that it reminds him of The Sound of Ultimate Suffering.

This is The Sound of Ultimate Suffering.

I set the dog’s food on the counter and approach my side door, peering out, past my driveway and over the tall hedge that separates my family from The Neighbors – the nameless entities that exist within such close proximity to me without actually affecting or intruding upon my bubble of influence.

There in his driveway is The Man, walking by himself, shoulders slouched, head down, feet dragging.  He walks down the concrete path, turns at the sidewalk and heads towards the grocery store; his body shaking and wrenching and racking with sobs.  I am compelled to immediately leave my house and grip him and ask, “What’s wrong?” because he looks to be in so much emotional pain that my heart, as a human, is hurting just watching him… but it feels strange to me and the task feels like a true challenge that I’m not sure I can take on.  I want to call out to him but I don’t know his name.  After seven years of living next to this man and his wife… I don’t know their names.  This fault is a personal short coming of my own and says more about me than it does about them.

I watch him disappear out of sight and then the opportunity is gone…

A physical description of the pair would look something like this…

The guy is tall and slim with uniquely distorted facial features.  He looks to be in his late 50s / early 60s.  Huge eyes behind bigger glasses; long scraggly hair that cascades down his skeletal face but the crown of his head is hopelessly bald; jutting chin with small mouth; thin arms, big hands; long legs that take tiny steps; he’s an odd pairing at every angle and, every time I’ve overheard him speak while sitting outside, I can’t help but imagine Goofy, that famous Disney character, after having smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for the better half of a century.  His voice is bubbly and cartoonish while still maintaining a throaty quality, unexpectantly hitting the highest-highs and lowest-lows seemingly at random.

His wife is short and plump with long black hair and a featureless face.  I have probably glanced at her sideways 300 times and… I’m not even certain that I could pick her out of a line-up.  This, however, is not a short coming of her face.  This is a short coming of myself and my own awareness.

Everywhere the two go, they go together; always and forever the two are a pair.  In all the years that I’ve lived in this house, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen either of them one without the other.  And this is why, on this particular day, I knew something was up.  Something was strange.  Something was wrong.  Something somewhere was not right…

On this day, disappearing from my sight, the man was walking alone.

The next day my sister, her husband, my niece and my wife are all packing into our cars, rushing out of the house; we have hot plans to hit the zoo in about 25 minutes and we’ve got free tickets if we can be there by one o’clock.  A friend of ours is doing us a favor by meeting us there to get us in even though it’s during her children’s nap time and so she’ll have the kids in tow and it’s just, y’know, it’s rude to keep people waiting.  Time is ticking and the kids aren’t listening and they won’t get in their car seats and the sun is beating down on me and dangit I’ve forgotten my phone inside so I run back into the house to grab it.  When I walk out, the first thing I see is my sister and her family sitting inside their car, waiting for me.  Hurry, hurry, hurry.  The second thing I see is that my wife has successfully buckled in my children and is now sitting in the driver’s seat, waiting.  Hurry, hurry, hurry.

The whole show – hurry, hurry – is on my – hurry, hurry – back.

The third and final thing I see is my skinny, nameless neighbor standing in his driveway staring at me through the hedge, his eyes peering out between broken shrubbery.  I nod but he doesn’t move.  I step off my porch and say, “Hey,” but he doesn’t respond.  Just those eyes… watching me, staring at me, unblinking, vacant.  I open my gate and begin to walk down my driveway, wondering if this guy is in some kind of drug induced hallucination (because he strikes me as the type who has them once in a while) and I’m trying to debate just how weird this is about to get…

He sidles a few steps to his left to a vantage point wherein I can see him a bit better.  He stares at me and cocks his head and I say, “Hi, there.  How are you doing today?” and he says, in that haunting, helium-high voice, in a tone that suggests he’s done nothing worse than burn the meatloaf, “Well, today I am not doing very well,” fiddles with his hands, looks at his knuckles, looks up at me with direct, piercing eye contact, “You see… my wife died yesterday,” and immediately I am hyper aware of my surroundings.  My sister is watching me.  My brother-in-law is watching me.  My wife is watching me.  This man is watching me.  I do not know his name.  I do not know his wife’s name.  He has been my neighbor for seven years and I do not know their names.  I want to hug this man and give him some comforting words but, first and foremost, I don’t believe there are any words that will help him without simply minimizing his tragedy.  Secondly, there is a hedge separating us.  I pick up a leaf and begin tearing it apart.  I say, “Your… what!?  What happened?” and then immediately wonder if that’s a socially acceptable thing to ask.

How does one respond appropriately?

Why is this man telling me this?  Who am I to him?

And then I realize that, outside of his wife, I am perhaps the closest thing to a human in his life.  I don’t talk to him but when I see him I lift up my hand in recognition.  When we run into each other at the grocery store down the street I nod, I smile.  I say hi.  I do nothing.  I don’t do enough.  But I wonder if I’ve somehow done more than anyone else.  I wonder if most people turn their backs on this guy with his unique features and strange voice and ratty clothes.  I wonder if I, even in my state of absolute minimal contact, am The Guy Next Door for him; a familiar face.

Someone.

My phone in my pocket is on silent but it buzzes.  The Family is wondering what I’m doing; chatting up Mr. Tall Glass of Water when we gotta be hitting the street.  They can’t hear anything.  They don’t know.  They just see Johnny having a quiet conversation with The Neighbor.

I am acutely aware of their waiting and watching.

He gathers himself up and says, “Well… we used to live in Denver.  When we moved to Los Angeles several years back, she developed asthma.  Two days ago she caught a cold.  Night before last it got worse.  I told her that we’d take her into the hospital in the morning if she was still ill.  Yesterday morning we woke up and she was having troubles breathing.  She sat up and I said I’d get her some tea.  When I got back to our bedroom she… she had died.  I tried giving her CPR.  I tried like hell.  I called the paramedics.  This was at 7:45 in the ay-em.  They came and tried to revive her.  They really did try their best.  They took her away and pronounced her dead at Kaiser at 8:16 but… that’s not true.  She was dead at 7:45.  She died here.  In our bed.”

And then he stares at the hedge and picks up a crisp leaf of his own and begins to destroy it, bit by bit.  I don’t say, “Are you alright?” because I’m sure he’s not.  I don’t say, “How are you doing?” because I’m sure he’s not doing well at all.  I don’t say, “Do you need anything?” because I think he just wants to talk to someone and have someone, anyone, listen to him.  I think the words don’t matter as much as the physical presence of a human, leaning in, nodding, making eye contact.  I think he’s a lonely man who was living with a lonely wife and they both took care of stray cats and now…

I look at him and hear his voice and realize that the sound I heard earlier were his true wails of grief; a man sobbing with unexpected loss and inconsolable grief.  It truly was The Sound of Ultimate Suffering.

He says, “We always thought I’d die first.  I’ve had Stage 4 cancer for 15 years.  I’m 57.  We talked about what she’d do when I died but we never… we never talked about this… she was only 46.  She was healthy…”

The phone in my pocket buzzes and I’m certain it’s my family again, asking me what gives.  I ignore it and instead say, “I had cancer… I had Stage 4 cancer…” and he says, “You and me… we are both miracles,” and I nod because the idea makes me feel like there is magic living inside of me, as though I somehow cheated death and now everyday is a bonus I wasn’t supposed to receive.

He says, “I don’t want to keep you,” and I say, “Don’t – you’re not…” and, while I am always physically uncomfortable making people wait I just… this is obviously too important to walk away from.  He sees I mean it and I’m not leaving until he’s done talking and so he opens a floodgate and begins drowning me in a very personal history about how he used to be addicted to oxycontin but now he only strictly consumes methadone (which he “pack rats away”).  He tells me horror stories about oxycontin and about his struggle with drug addiction and how he couldn’t let it go.  He calls it a Merry-Go-Round from Hell that I couldn’t get off of

He shrugs, done with his story.  Done talking.  Done, maybe, with everything.  I stick out my hand and say, “I’ve lived next to you for so many years but we’ve never met.”  He grabs my hand tightly, in a firm man-handshake that I would not expect from his physical frame, and says, “I’m Gary,” and I say, “I’m Johnny.  What is your wife’s name?” and then a thought runs through my mind that tells me I should have said, “What was your wife’s name,” but I don’t bother correcting my macabre grammar.

He says, “Veronica,” and I say, “Beautiful.”  I say, “Gary, I don’t know what you’re going through but let me know if there’s anything I can do…” and he says, “There is nothing you can do for me.  I see your kids.  Hug them.  Enjoy every day.  Because it will be taken away…”

And then he turns and walks up the driveway.

Two days later I see him returning yet again from the grocery store (alone) with a bag of cat food while I’m sitting on my front porch.  I raise my hand in the air and shout, “Hi, Gary!” and he stops in his tracks, stares at me for a quick moment before averting his eyes, mumbling something under his breath and disappearing out of my sight.

Another two days pass and, as I’m pulling into my driveway I see a couple of Jehova Witnesses walking up to Gary’s house, towards his front door.  They knock but there is no answer so they turn and try their luck elsewhere.

Another 48 hours have slipped by and still I’ve neither seen nor heard any sign of life from The Tall Man that Lives Over the Hedge.

It’s now been five days since I’ve seen him and I’m beginning to wonder at what point I realistically need to walk over there and knock on his door because, honestly, all I can think about is his large stockpile of methadone.

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