Thursday, August 23, 2007

the soprano

Today, in my old neighborhood just beyond old Highway 63, rivers of dark ice lay exposed on the sidewalks and the asphalt where cars and foot traffic have torn through the blanket of snow that covers everything in sight. Just beyond Mr. Cooper’s home sits the small, peach-colored two-story house where my voice teacher used to live. It used to be that you would see strands of Christmas lights peering through the aftermath of another winter storm, but I hear the widower who lives there now is a non-practicing Jew who doesn’t celebrate the holidays. Looking at it, petrified in the ice with the rest of the neighborhood, the house seems much more austere than I recalled.

I remember the first time I actually saw the interior. It’s been almost ten years. My girlfriend then, Penelope, had encouraged me to get voice lessons so both of us could audition for leads in Sacred Heart’s Easter mass, even though the only reason I was in the chorus was to be with her. She’d found Mrs. D’Amico’s number on an old wrinkled printout pinned to a bulletin board in her school’s choir room. The name sounded familiar when Penelope handed the number to me. I called it later; a woman with a mellow voice answered with a distant “Yes?” I told her my name and that I wanted voice lessons. She replied that she knew who I was; she’d lived up the street from me my entire life. Even over the phone, it made me feel strangely naked that Mrs. D’Amico knew what I’d looked like growing up. I’d never actually met her.

When I went to Mrs. D’Amico’s for my first lesson, it was October, one of those soggy autumn afternoons after school where the sky was gunmetal grey and brown leaves had already began to collect in the nooks around porches and sidewalks. I hated this time of year. Halloween was the Christmas-before-Christmas for most kids, but I was diabetic, and my friends—who’d all since moved away—would make me go be a proxy candy collector for them; they’d never given me anything in return except a small bottle of cheap vodka in that last year of trick’o’treating before we’d decide we were too old for that sort of thing. They were all starting to get girlfriends.

As I stood on her steps for the first time, the autumn breeze raced past, colder than usual. Even though it was the afternoon, I was shivering a little when the burgundy front door opened slightly and a face peered out. “Are we ready to sing?” the soprano asked.

No. I wasn’t.

Up until that moment when I was finally looking at her, Mrs. D’Amico had been nothing more than a silhouette in the draped windows of her home, where muffled arias sometimes wafted out to the street as I passed on my bike—and at that moment I was struck speechless. Streaks of grey exploded from the crest of her hair like Impressionist brush strokes, silver against fading dirty-blond, and when she said my name I saw that beneath a small, curving nose, she had the skin and the smile of a twenty-year-old girl. I couldn’t place her age. She was not young. But she was beautiful. She invited me in.

I took my wet shoes off in her small foyer as she disappeared down a flight of stairs. Ceramic Halloween pumpkins grinned at me from beneath a full coat rack, where dark, figureless wool jackets seemed to be huddling together for warmth. I could see a scarecrow wearing a colorful scarf and an evening gown through the doorway to her den. The frames hanging in the hallway all bore some Halloween theme, little comic Frankensteins, black cats, cartoon witches… Later, after I’d been to her house season through season, I’d know that every decoration was a transient, just placeholding until the next major holiday came along. Mrs. D’Amico appeared again from the stairwell, holding two steaming mugs.

“Would you like some tea? You know you would.”

I didn’t drink tea, but I felt compelled to say yes. Her fingers brushed against mine when I took one of the mugs from her and cupped it between my hands. I forgot to ask if it was sugarless. I watched Mrs. D’Amico instead. “You should never sing cold,” she said, swaying as she stood near me, and she hmmed a kind of warm half-sigh that actors gave when peddling coffee in TV commercials. She glanced at my socks as I tasted the tea in tiny sips. It burned my tongue.

I wondered if I would tell Father Gaddis I’d had impure thoughts here. I decided I would probably let it slide, just like about the things I’d wanted to do with Penelope, which she’d not allowed. Already, I hadn’t told the Father about necking with her in the sanctuary after everyone left, or about how sometimes we hadn’t even waited that long.

Mrs. D’Amico started telling me about singing in the classical style. She compared the proper technique to the way babies cried; their voices never got tired. “When you shout for help,” she said, “there is nothing forced about it, is there? It just comes out.” She looked at me quizzically, as if examining the exact impact of this statement. She told me that that was what I’d be getting out of proper training.

She led me up the stairs to her studio, past some portraits of her and a man with a thick beard and small eyes; a deceased husband, I’d find out. I tried to catch the lines of her body swaying beneath her cardigan and skirt while her slippered feet padded up the stairs, trying to spy the soft spots where muscle once might have been, wanting to place an age on her frame. I was unable. I briefly forgot I was there to be taught to sing, instead wondering what she would have looked like if she were my age, if she were someone in one of my classes.

She stopped a moment. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I caught sight of her panty-line.

“Listen, buster,” she said, shortly. “I know your mother.”

My heart caught in my throat. She turned her head a little, nose up, as if sniffing the air. I was scared, and stiff with surprise—did she know what I was thinking? How?—but she continued into her studio without me, as if already over it. After that point I was sure Mrs. D’Amico had psychic powers, making me wonder every now and then if she knew all my other unrepented transgressions—like the way Penelope would sometimes ask me about the things I thought about when I wasn’t with her: “Space shuttles,” I’d lie. “Sports cars.” I’d list off everything except what I was really thinking about: losing my virginity. “What about God?” Penelope once asked. “Yeah,” I lied again, “Him too.”

And it was as if Mrs. D’Amico, like Penelope, always secretly knew when I wasn’t telling the truth.

Strips of snow glaze the limbs of the naked, angular oaks along this street where I used to live, and dark ice clings to the undersides of their boughs like stains of sweat. I came back to this town for a friend’s wedding, and I find myself wondering if snow, like rain, is supposed to be good luck. Isn’t prayer is a form of asking for luck? The priest at the ceremony asked the guests to pray for the marriage, and out of old habits, I faked it.

Later, after I found out Penelope was there, it seemed fitting.

I’m standing at the top of a hill I used to sled down. Somewhere in the distance and out of sight, a branch crackles under the weight of the ice—and then again, and again, like deep, sharp breaths being drawn one after another.

Mrs. D’Amico’s office was far different from any other room in her home, and I remember being glad for that. It was like an oversized broom closet with walls blanketed by hundreds of pictures, newspaper clippings, and portraits hanging in congested alignment; it looked like an improvised quilt of memories. Over half of the photos were of Mrs. D’Amico when she was young, starring at operahouses in cities I’d heard of—Budapest, Vienna, Prague—but couldn’t place on a map. After a few lessons, I learned to stare at the portraits on the wall as I sang. Mrs. D’Amico called it engaging the right half of the brain to stop it from interfering with the left brain’s singing. She accused me of thinking too much all the time. Don’t get in the way of yourself. I used to keep a collection of those sayings of hers, but I lost the notebook in a move.

On afternoons when Mrs. D’Amico was trying to teach me diction—I couldn’t sing my O’s or my diphthongs properly in slow, sad songs—I’d distract her enough until she would tell me about when she was younger. She’d describe how her dress once caught on fire during a production of Turandot—how that wasn’t even the first time something like that had happened—and I’d wonder how Penelope could ever become this woman’s age. While Mrs. D’Amico seemed to emanate history, Penelope’s faith had made it seem like she would be a naive seventeen forever, crusading through life armed with her ponytail and pink lip gloss, suspended in time by prayer. Meanwhile, I’d been feeling years older than I was, and had finally become lonely in the company of her impregnable juvenescence.

Months after Penelope and I had broken up, and I’d quit going to mass at Sacred Heart, my mother would ask me what she was still spending money on voice lessons for. I’d tell her Mrs. D’Amico said I had a nice voice and could always use something like that down the road. I didn’t tell my mother I’d stopped practicing and would go just to drink (sugarless) tea and listen to Mrs. D’Amico tell stories.

She would allude to things like the affair she had once in Prague with an older tenor she’d long admired, and its quick demise, lamenting that sometimes singing was “the only thing” some of her colleagues were good at. It should have been the sort of mildly ribald anecdote that made a student uncomfortable, but it wasn’t; in those moments, her eyebrows would furrow and she would plant her chin on her hand while she took on a wry expression of vacant, comic disturb. Her theatrical sense of humor again made me wish I had a friend my age like her. Sometimes we would stand in her office staring at each other and I would wonder if we were in a singing lesson at all.

“Back to your song,” she’d say, snapping out of it. “That ‘solitude’ in the first verse needs some work.”

I walk from Mrs. D’Amico’s old house towards mine, breaking the virgin snow along the still-blanketed sidewalks there. The city’s snowplows have yet to make it out, just like when I lived here, but I’d risked the drive today anyway. We were always the last block on their routes, it seemed.

The houses are crusted over in sheets of ice and snow, but I can tell mine still looks the same, though the new owners have planted a tree in the yard where my swingset once went. When I look up the street, I see a dull light on in the front window of Mrs. D’Amico’s old house now, and as if on cue, chilled wind sweeps up the road.

I slept with Penelope last night.

I hadn’t seen her in four years.

It’s an unexpected dénouement, for me. Some of the guys I hang out with these days would say that it’s a good way to tie up loose ends, wink-and-a-nod, but as I shuffle along on the ice, I can’t help but feel some old-fashioned Catholic guilt. The Penelope last night, who’d had her nose pierced and left a bra dangling on the chair, changed her politics, drank too much, cursed more—the very same old Penelope who had lived a few blocks over, who used to read C.S. Lewis and speak softly and murmur It’s time to go whenever I got to the point she decided was too far. She’s a different woman now, but I feel like I’ve gone back and taken advantage of the same girl.

I’m not good at dénouement.

I arrive back at the sidewalk in front of Mrs. D’Amico’s old home, my toes a little numb from the cold. Looking at the house, even with just the one lit window, I can still recreate the photos on her wall in my mind. There was a time when I’d daydreamed what would happen if I were only twenty years older… that number eventually drifting down to fifteen, ten, seven, as my lessons with her survived my parents’ divorce, a couple hospitalizations, and my time with Penelope.

Mrs. D’Amico had moved away right after retiring from the university. The last time I saw her was the only time I ever saw her really sing, a few months after she’d quit teaching lessons; it was at the university concert hall, a farewell concert—a gala is what they called it—where she was to perform a Porgy and Bess medley with a baritone, the accompaniment arranged for wind ensemble. That night I remember being excited to finally see her on stage, and being overwhelmed by how beautiful the opening music was. For the first time, I felt the sound in all the ways that Mrs. D’Amico was only previously capable of describing in metaphor: a strange collage of colors, textures, and sensations, a jumble of exotic vocabularies Mrs. D’Amico had lodged into each other like aesthetic shrapnel. I’d always thought she was just speaking in hyperbole, and I felt ashamed for doubting her.

The jazz licks pounded off the walls of the auditorium and into my ears and I buried myself in the massive chords of Gershwin’s opening themes—the way I still would years later—immersing myself right up until Summertime started, one of my all-time favorite songs, and Mrs. D’Amico began to sing.

It was terrible.

Mrs. D’Amico sang like most other operatic sopranos, which is to say, shrilly, incoherently, with machine-gun vibrato, scoops, and alien-sounding vowels. I’m not sure what else I was expecting—Ella Fitzgerald, I think—and yet, there it was; the endgame of training. This was the wailing baby, the shout for help. And as the concert dragged on, in celebration of her retirement, I couldn’t help thinking it was also like a retirement of her classical technique, put to bed by Jazz, Pop, and Rock.

There was a long line of people waiting to greet her after the show, and I was near the end of it. Many of them were former students. Seeing her talk to them so enthusiastically made me wonder why she never told me I wasn’t any good, a lingering suspicion that would be confirmed when I wouldn’t win a college music scholarship anywhere. Mrs. D’Amico hugged me when my turn came, and it should have been a good, long hug, but I pulled away a little earlier than she did. Mrs. D’Amico paused for a moment to attempt a knowing smile at me, but I had just seen the same smile given to a dozen of her former protégés. Then, while we talked, a tall distinguished-looking man with grey hairs eating at his temples came and took her arm. “Keep in touch,” she then said to me, nodding gently, looking a little older than usual, a little more tired.

The auditorium had cleared out except for the last of the musicians. As I walked out to the parking lot, I saw them put their instruments into their cars and drive away.

My breath fogs in the air. Funny; it almost makes me laugh just now, remembering that: “Keep in touch.” Penelope said the same thing to me when we exchanged numbers. Neither of us will ever use them.

A snow plow rolls down the road, finally. The snow sloughs off the scoop of the plow in a way that would make a surfer jealous, had it been water. The driver waves at me. He has bright red cheeks and a big smile. He looks younger than I am.

I wave back, but am stuck in a memory yet again: that winter after I’d had a few lessons with Mrs. D’Amico under my belt, when Penelope had gone walking with me after mass during December’s first heavy snow. I was making fun of her, her cheeks either ruddy from the cold or from blushing, and she tackled me, sending me falling to the soft down of the snow somewhere along this street. I feigned a diabetic attack until she took concern, and then I grabbed her arm and dragged her down. We rolled around. We made snow angels. At some point I then leaned over and whispered some corny thing, but sweet; it came out of nowhere, something that kid on the plow might have said had he been in my position, something a normal guy would say.

Penelope had laughed, and leaned in close, until I’d felt her breath on my cheek. She paused and looked me in the eye. In the falling snow, everything was silent and calm. Nothing moved. “Sing me something,” she then said, quietly. “…Funnyman.” I would oblige, only after taking a second to let the moment stretch out as long as possible.

Today, the kid in the plow disappears somewhere around the next street, and I feel a strange urge to wish him luck, though I don’t know why or what for. It just feels like I should—like it’s necessary. Then, taking a deep breath, and checking the banks of snow running along the houses I’d once known to make sure no one was listening, I stop a moment for a song, as if to see if this is still the only place where loneliness sounds strange.

Monday, May 21, 2007


*[honorable mention, 2007 Mahan Writing Awards]

It’s another July in the Balkans, and it’s hot. Jeremy and I ditch our Bosniak rags and stop trying to pretend we’re not journalists. It was pointless in the first place. An American smile here looks like it belongs in a movie.

We’re hiding in the cellar of the cottage belonging to Emira’s brother, eating dried fruits out of dusty jars and peeking through knots in the wooden door to see what’s happening outside. Emira’s brother crouches facing the entrance. He’s holding an old Nazi rifle that quivers every time a Serbian column passes on the road into town. We know things are bad because Emira has stopped sneaking off to see the Dutch Battalion captain. Still, I feel oddly relaxed, since Jeremy and I are not the ones the Serbs are after, so I’m not sure what makes me feel worse: when a Serb trooper will rattle the cellar door, or a Bosniak refugee. Doesn’t matter who they are; they’ll try the lock, give a futile kick and move on after we stay quiet. Except there was one Bosniak who started to jar the door so much that Emira’s brother shouted from next to me that he would shoot the man if he broke the lock. The Bosniak stopped jiggling the door, and pleaded to be let in—the whimpers that followed felt like they lasted hours, not minutes—but eventually his voice faded away to the growling of a Serbian troop truck.

Still, Emira is smiling. Like always. She has the same smile when she’s happy, nervous, upset—we’d thought maybe she was on drugs when we first met her scuffling around outside the Dutch U.N. compound a few weeks ago. She’d seemed distracted when we interviewed her, always looking over her shoulder towards the Dutchbat housing, but that smile was the Mona Lisa’s of young Bosniak women and something about that was charming. Jeremy liked her English. We gave her work as a translator. She’d at least always look friendly. But sometimes it disturbed me to see her smiling while she was terrified.

At the moment, she’s running her fingers through her nephew’s coarse hair. His mother disappeared sometime during the night. That made her brother distraught, and Emira has been talking just to break up the silence.

“You can buy anything in New York City, correct?”

Of course, I say. I can’t help but smile. Jeremy fiddles with his camera and snaps a shot of her with the kid. It never gets old when people ask me about the States. I love to talk about New York City, and I can tell Emira where exactly to find the best pastrami sandwich in all of Brooklyn. While I tell her about that deli—the one that was a block away from the apartment I once shared with Jeremy—I notice a faded photo of Ronald Reagan nailed to the cellar’s wall, hanging above a half-complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica stacked on the floor.

“I would go for the grocery stores,” Emira says. “Freedom of speech? That can be taken away. But to go to a grocery store? You don’t know how good you have it. I’ve heard I could buy anything in an American grocery store.”

Jeremy sets down his camera. His expression tells me he’s finally out of film. I ran out of paper a few days ago. There was none in the cottage, though the thought crosses my mind to start tearing out sheets from the encyclopedias for later.

“I went to Paris once when I was young,” Emira says, tugging on a lock of her nephew’s hair. We hear more vehicles churning on the road outside. “It would be nice to be married,” she pauses, “and to have that sort of lifestyle.”

I’m not sure what ‘lifestyle’ she is referring to. If she’s talking about Paris, I want to tell her that being a Muslim in France is not all that it’s cracked up to be; if she’s talking about a future with the Dutchbat captain, I want to tell her to brace for heartbreak.

One of those passing rumblings doesn’t fade, and the growl of a diesel engine chokes to a halt.

Voices come from outside. Jeremy cradles his camera in the crook of his elbow.

I learned from a stint in Lebanon that international law mandates military full-metal-jacket 7.62mm rounds used in military-issue AK-47s be designed to limit tissue disruption: to wound, not kill. Jeremy told me that’s why the crazies who shoot up playgrounds with assault rifles never tally big body counts. But knowing that does not stop me from cementing my hands to my head when they kick in the door. The sunlight spills in around the silhouettes of Serbs swarming in. They seize us and take us outside, and to my embarrassment the words that shrill out of my mouth are ‘American! American! Are we safe?’


Guillermo Rosado pulls off his headset and puts his hands on his hips. A cameraman sighs as the Spanish-born director starts pacing around the extras wearing Serb uniforms while glaring at the ground. I try to ignore the soundmen rolling their eyes at each other, bored twentysomethings in khaki shorts and sweat-stained state-university t-shirts who hoist up boom mics for a living and shift their weight to kill time.

Take eleven, I bet they’re thinking. We saw this coming.

“What the fuck was that?” Guillermo asks me. “You have one line in the whole movie! Don’t make me get an actor.”

I take a deep breath and again try to block out the fact that everyone on the set is watching me, Jeremy especially—he’s been so serious since we’ve started filming. But I also become worried that Guillermo will find a more muscular, better-looking version of myself to play the based-on-a-true-story cameo of “Journalist 1”—that’s me—and that Jeremy would be stumbling out of the mock cottage with someone else, someone who hadn’t been there. For someone who has been there, I sure as hell can’t act like it. With each defective take—of many—Guillermo becomes increasingly agitated, and even sweet-hearted Jenny Orr, who plays Emira, is starting to lose a little of that strapped-on Emira-smile. In between takes she tries to show me the focusing techniques she learned during her collegiate track days. “Focus on your goal,” she says.

In spite of all this altruistic energy I have from making a movie to enlighten people on what happened in Srebrenica, I focus on sleeping with her. It’s a nice thought. She’s attractive. But former-Olympians-turned-star-actresses don’t sleep with skinny journalists-turned-amateur-screenwriters.

Jeremy slugs me on the shoulder just a little too hard for it to be completely friendly. He’s been very serious about the movie. After I finally nail my line, he walks off slowly towards the extras’ canteen without saying a word.

On a knoll just past the set and beyond the director’s trailer, a crowd of Slovaks thrum around a cordon, locals who are just trying to catch a glimpse of what is going on. They had been surprised an American film crew would come to Slovakia. The filming site has become something of a local curiosity. Next to the locals is a smaller contingent, but a more rigid-looking bunch, Bosniaks whom Guillermo has invited to watch the filming. Beyond those groups is a special cordon for the tiny collective of Serbian expatriates who are protesting with chants that the massacre never happened.

I was disappointed to find out later that their stance had become increasingly popular in Europe. It was as if the people hadn’t followed the coverage of their own war.

The spectators had been stationed much closer to the set earlier on in the filming process, having remained quiet and well-mannered until day nineteen, when an old woman standing near the Bosniaks suddenly burst out in the middle of a take that the extras playing the Serb troopers were dressed like Croats. It took Guillermo’s staff three days—three days—to verify that the woman was wrong, and that the appropriate uniforms were being used.

So the cordons were moved back, and filming continued marching on.

We had just gotten back from Mauritania, from doing a puff piece on a Saharan ore train that had been made into an ad hoc mass transit system, when we got an invitation from Guillermo to come visit out in L.A. for a while. He took us into his home and told us that there was buzz about Oscar possibilities. We freaked out, obviously. After we had left, I kept telling Jeremy not to get excited, that we might not get nominated. I just had a nagging doubt, but Jeremy wasn’t going along with it.

“We should get some strippers,” he’d said.

But he fell asleep on the cab ride back to the hotel, and we settled for drinking when we got to our room. Tonight Guillermo had put us up at the same place that we’d spent a month writing the script in, and at the moment we were sitting out on the balcony drinking and watching the traffic on the boulevard below go streaming by.

From the balcony, you could see palm trees rising over the avenue that ran along the moon-dimmed coast, the waves of the Pacific throbbing against a beach that was just out of sight. In the room we’d written the screenplay in, it had been a clear view of the parking lot and the backs of a couple fast-food restaurants, and sometimes I had spent those early mornings before Jeremy woke watching the janitors take out trash to the dumpster below our window while a set of twin-brother busboys split a joint and kept an eye out for the management.

But now it was a pleasant L.A. night and we were bullshitting about award thank-you speeches. If people had a concept of what an Oscar-nominated screenwriting team looked like, it probably wouldn’t be anything resembling the two sloppy drunks who currently sat cross-legged facing the Pacific in some hour just before dawn. Not that I really felt like I could be an Oscar nominee. The screenplay had been reworked by the studio’s script doctors almost beyond recognition.

“I think we’ll win,” Jeremy said. “Did you see Venerable? Please. What a piece of shit movie.”

“Just tell me what you’d say,” I said.

“You know how they have best original screenplay before all the really huge awards, right? Best director, best actress, all that?” Jeremy said. “Well, it goes like this. They announce we win. One of us goes onstage to accept the award. Except when we give our thank-you-Mom speech, we instead say that we decline to accept the award. That the movie and the Oscar would not have been possible if tens of thousands of people hadn’t died. Then we say that we will leave the Oscar onstage to make a statement against genocide everywhere, Darfur, wherever. And then—here’s the kicker—we invite all of the other winners after us to leave their Oscars onstage next to ours if they want to say they’re against genocide. We set down the Oscar and make a big dramatic exit. And then who the hell wants to be the asshole who doesn’t set their award down next to ours and declare that they love themselves more than they hate genocide? They’d have to leave theirs onstage as well. And even if it’s just playing along, that is a huge message on the biggest of national stages, and—well, just imagine, we could be starting an entire movement.”

It was a hell of an idea and I would have been out of breath if I had tried to say all that, but Jeremy had always been a good talker. The first time I’d met him at an internship, he talked so much about the Mets and his ex-girlfriend that I hardly got a word in edgewise. It was only after we’d roomed together for a while that he’d cooled it a little. In those days, before we’d hooked back up with the same bureau, we’d be working ourselves to death just to get our foot in the door on a few lootings and minor crimes here and there. My favorite memories from back then were when we’d get home from work, exhausted, and sometimes we’d sit by the window and talk about all the good we were going to do by reporting the news—you know, that ‘truth-will-set-ye-free’ thing that most young journalists have. We weren’t unique in that respect. Jeremy would bring a joint, and we’d smoke and shoot the shit all night about saving the world from while watching peaceful life in Brooklyn go passing by from fifteen floors up. On nights like those it seemed like I could stay in New York forever.

And now we were thinking about how big names in liberal Hollywood would hate to have a genocide-sized dent in their reputations. I keep wondering how even stranger this is all going to seem when I get older. If Europe can have amnesia about a war, what stops my own history from sounding implausible? “The movie? Jeremy had come up to me one afternoon in Kuwait with a not-quite-plausible-at-the-time idea.” “We were going to change the world at the Oscars.” My life felt like hyperbole right now.

Jeremy rubbed his feet and ran his fingers up and down the neck of his beer bottle. My mind swirled with all sorts of complications with his Oscar plan: what if the conductor cut us off before we had a chance to finish our dramatic speech? What if they cleared the stage for some kind of absurd ballet performance and they had to remove our genocide Oscar? Worst, what if we stuttered a little too much in our acceptance, looked a little too insignificant, and we ended up like those kids in high school who planned the community service volunteer projects that no one went to?

But I didn’t say anything.

We sat there for a few minutes while the breeze drifted past us. Jeremy asked how I was doing, and ran a finger through his long blond hair, which he had grown out sometime before the filming of the movie. He said I’d been acting weird ever since we’d wrapped. I told him that we’d seen a lot of other people die in the course of our careers, and I didn’t know what Emira Arslanovic did to have her story deserve an Oscar.

He shrugged and stared out at the sea. His eyes were dulled over in the moonlight.

I’d been thinking about it a lot lately. Outside of her relationship with the Dutchbat captain, Emira hadn’t had much of a personality—the studio guys had filled one in for her on their re-write—and she hadn’t even been the first translator we’d lost. But one of the reasons she’d stuck out to me, outside of the smile—and now, outside of the movie—was that she’d never sat around talking about the ‘big question.’ Not the meaning-of-life ‘big question’—a lot of people around Bosnia still strutted around as if they already knew the answer to that one—but the other really big question, the one that was on everyone’s minds there:

Who had started the war?

What I had learned in Bosnia was that it felt like the sides had given up trying to compare atrocities to determine who was the most evil, and were instead endlessly debating whose fault the whole shit-storm was. And it was hard to convey that dialogue to the Western readership, because the discussion inevitably involved groups of people that the West hadn’t even known existed—Croats, Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks. It’d sometimes later keep me up at nights knowing that the closest the average American ever got to understanding the Balkan crisis was when President Clinton ordered airstrikes while being impeached: they just thought he was taking out his frustrations on some country that they’d heard of before. They only knew the word “Bosnia” because it was a drone-like hum in the background of their news, just insignificant enough to ignore, yet visible enough to recognize as being the name of a place they never wanted to fucking visit.

Just like everywhere else I worked.

This was my career.

A car driving on the boulevard below gave a long honk, and its pitch sagged as it passed. Jeremy shrugged again, and he said people were ready to hear the truth about what happened in Bosnia.

“The truth is Jenny Orr is four inches taller and thirty pounds lighter than Emira was,” I said. “It’s the Hollywood-izing of a tragedy.”

Jeremy smiled. “Goddamn athletes.”

He wanted to be the one who set the Oscar onstage. I just knew it. Maybe he deserved it. The whole project had been his idea anyway.

He said goodnight, and he went inside to bed to let the booze put him to sleep. I got a quick flash of those old days, though things obviously could never be the same. I sighed. At least I wasn’t abroad. Christ. I missed not knowing how fucked up everything was.

I looked back down upon the Hollywood boulevard below, watching the late-night traffic sweep by in anonymous little increments.

Anonymous little increments, like the Bosniaks who stream past the sides of our troop truck as we pass by. The Serb troopers are taking us to downtown Potočari, where thousands of Bosniak refugees clog the streets. For each block we pass our view is paced by masses of living bodies. Some not living. The stench is overwhelming. Most are moving but not sure where to go. Bosniaks wilt away from the Serbs with rifles who walk unfettered through the crowds. I have seen this sight before—soldiers with guns, unarmed crowds afraid. The uniforms are different, but it seems like the inevitable outcome is universal.

The truck stops near a white house and the Serb captain tells us to get out. He keeps Emira’s brother on the truck with a sharp grunt. A line of Bosniak men stare at the ground at Jeremy and I as we get out with Emira and her nephew. Just past a row of guards we see Serb troopers resting on the lawn. The Bosniak men are herded into the truck. Sweat rolls down their faces under the July sun. We lose sight of Emira’s brother behind the new tangle of arms and torsos in the back of the truck. The Bosniaks in the truck look at us. Their lives end soon.

The Serb driver turns on his radio as he rolls away. I hear Elvis.

We walk past the squat buildings downtown and become a part of the masses we had watched while driving by. As we pass we hear rumors of torture. One story says a Serb cut a boy’s throat in the middle of a crowd. Emira holds her nephew closer.

I notice Jeremy has been talking the entire time. I’m not sure when this started. But he’s not speaking to anyone, just himself. The pitch of his voice gets higher each passing minute, like Hail Marys of increasing desperation. But when I watch Emira’s face his words become like part of the scenery.

Her smile has tightened into a smirk. Her eyes dart across the crowd. Initially I think she is looking for friends and family. But she is looking for blue helmets, the Dutch UN peacekeepers. There are only a hundred or so in Potočari. Every now and then you can catch a flash of their uniforms among the people. The refugees swarm to them, plead for help. But the Dutch are not permitted to intervene. The UN has deemed it so.

We pass by a pair of peacekeepers and Emira does not turn her head. She’s looking for a specific one. The Dutchbat captain. Emira picks up her pace. She seems to know where she is going now, and she moves quickly. We struggle to keep up with her on the stretch of road pocked by months of Serb shelling. She practically drags her nephew behind her. The standing Bosniaks near us weep. Some sit, stone-faced, as if resigned to their fate.

Single gunshots slap somewhere in the distance.

We approach an old home near the Dutch compound. Serbs have already cleared the UN base and are loading Bosniak men into trucks. Trucks heading to warehouses and schools already stained with blood. A Serb trooper watches us pass and smiles. I turn my face away. When we approach the house I see the Dutchbat captain looking on from the yard. He is armed yet his hands are on his hips. He does not smile as he sees Emira approach with her nephew.

Emira is always smiling.

They meet. The Dutchbat touches Emira on the waist, touches her like there is something special about her. This makes me strangely jealous. The Dutchbat looks over his shoulder almost coyly, as if to say: Is love a crime? He then turns and leads Emira and her nephew into the old house. Another peacekeeper smokes on the porch. Watches them enter the house. The door closes.

Jeremy is still speaking. I try to listen to his words. He is still praying. Even though he stands next to me I feel like I am eavesdropping. But then suddenly without pause he changes gears. Describes sights and smells. Commentates with the tone of a field reporter. Runs a finger through his hair. Narrates his experience to himself. He is shaking. A rumbling sound comes from up the road. A column of old buses pass. The Dutch near us watch. The Serbs are separating the men from the women. The women will go on buses to Bosnian-held Kladanj, the men will stay and go on trucks later. Trucks headed for fields with holes. With bulldozers waiting to move earth over the holes.

I don’t belong here.

The porch door opens and Emira appears, alone. She pauses, then steps off the porch. No Dutchbat. No nephew. Alone.

She tells us she has to go now, saying it through a smile of gritted teeth. She begins walking up the street and we follow her. The masses of Bosniak bodies are in motion. Serbs direct the motion. Women go left. Men go right. Jeremy’s words speed up.

Someone shouts at Emira. A Bosniak?

No. The Serb captain from our truck. I don’t understand what he says, but Emira’s expression offers a translation: Where is the boy? Emira remains silent. The Serb captain approaches and repeats while Jeremy and I observe. Jeremy’s voice quiets to a whisper as Serb guards circle Emira. The Serbs have never been this brave in front of Western journalists. Like a kid, I feel like I should close my eyes, or else I’ll have the image of them tearing at her clothing buried somewhere in my memory forever.

Serbs grab, push, grope, punch, kiss, taunt, laugh, grope again. She falls on the ground. A guard pushes her face into a patch of mud. The Serb captain reaches for the fly of his pants while another tries to restrain her. I wish I had a gun, but that’s just wishful thinking. All I do is watch. Watching is my job.

Bosniaks stream by. The July sun pours down on everything.

Emira breaks free. She runs. The men follow. I already know how this story ends.


Something strange happens.

As she dashes away, I see her legs flash briefly and peer out from the tear in her skirt. And then, again, as they churn and wheel over the mud-caked road towards nowhere.
Something about Emira Arslanovic is not quite human.

It is the way she runs. Almost like a Greek goddess. Like she is immune to gravity. Like she has wings. I look, and I am not entirely sure I see her feet touching the ground. Your imagination can do funny things to you. She’s kicking up little clods of silt, so maybe she is not flying, but something is not right. She is getting away.

Something odd happens to me: the feeling of joy. It is a miracle.

Tears flow down Emira’s face, down past her grin, and she blows by us, defying all logic, each stride seeming twenty feet long compared to the slowing steps of the Serbs behind her. Her legs shine again, pale and strong, their muscles expanding and contracting—

And with the soldiers hopelessly falling behind, Jenny Orr runs out of the frame of the shot, and right out of reality.

Guillermo calls cut.

Jenny trails off and crouches down once her legs stop pumping. No one in the crew moves. The extras playing the Serbs stop running, and they put their hands on their knees and gasp for breath. The air on the set seems to radiate silence.

Except for the faint sound of protesters shouting in the distance. We did not start the war.
Jeremy turns to me and sees my face and asks in a whisper if an Oscar would mean everything was worth it. I don’t reply.

Jenny hasn’t stopped her actress’ tears yet. Behind the camera, Guillermo puts his hand on his face. A twenty-minute continuous take has just been completed. Four months of preparation for the panoptic second-to-last scene. Finished. The next, final scene is planned to be tragic in its simplicity.

We wait for Guillermo’s word. Success or failure. It’s almost like he can’t make up his mind.
But then after what feels like an eternity he stands up—abruptly. Voice hoarse, he calls for makeup and says to make plans for take two. The air is let out of the crew and all the actors in a collective fuck.

But not me. I still can’t accept that those nights watching over Brooklyn are lifetimes away now, and that those chants are my future.

Guillermo Rosado walks over and kneels by the side of Emira Arslanovic, and we all look on as he caresses her mud-streaked hair and whispers in her ear that she has to slow down so the guards can catch up.

There's No Crying In Baseball

Wrigley Field slumbers not too far away, but I won’t be seeing it tonight. We’re sitting on the roof of Sesame’s beat-up Buick Regal and she’s attacking her pack of cigarettes the way a nine-year-old would abuse a Pez dispenser. The windows are rolled down, it’s three in the morning on the North Side, and the stereo plays Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha, old soul pouring out of speakers, dissolving into the unseasonably warm spring night. I can’t really say how we got here or why we’re sitting on this particular street, but I know Sesame is chain-smoking because of her family, and I’m just another guy waiting for the right moment.

I’m not familiar with Chicago at all, but I think we’re safe. Two fragile-looking teens wrestle on a nearby stoop, laughing flatulently, and I can’t tell if they are flirting because they’re gay or high. I say this because Sesame and I had wound up at a gay-pride block party after hitting the bars, and we partied for a half hour before I figured out what was what. They were serving beer, what can I say? I like living on cruise control.

“Fucking Diego,” Sesame says in between drags on her fourth cigarette, the words flying out with the smoke of her breath like exhaust from the Buick’s tailpipe. “This is just like him, you know. I mean, you don’t know him, but this is just like him.”

“He seemed okay when I met him at the door,” I say. “Quiet, I mean.”

“No,” she says, taking another drag through those epic lips, “He’s an asshole.”

She’s right: I don’t know Diego. But the more she smokes and talks about her brother, the more I think he might actually be an asshole. I want her to shut up and listen to the radio and look up at the moon, I want to say that I’m sitting under the stars on the roof of a car belonging to a mystery Latina with great legs I’d met two days before the end of spring break, but the more I sit here, the more I realize that the sky isn’t as clear as in Iowa, that alien Chicago is just a backdrop for her daily routine. And she won’t stop blabbering about Diego.

But I won’t make a misogynist judgment on her character, because that was the sort of thing my brother would get after me for, and lately I’ve been trying to be better.

“You doing okay, right?” Sesame asks. She raps her fire-engine-red fingernails on my knee. “We could go party somewhere.”

“No,” I say. “This is fine.”

“So,” she sighs. She looks across the street towards the quiet apartment buildings with a few lit windows scattered across their fronts. “Tell me something I don’t know, Corbin.”

“Left-handed people live eight years fewer than right-handed people.”

“No, something about—wait, are you serious?”

“I don’t know,” I say. She offers a cigarette and I turn her down. I’m already past my limit. She lights another.

“Seriously though,” she says. “I like surprises. Surprise me. Anything.”

I’d like to humor her, but as usual can’t think of anything clever to say once put under the proverbial gun. There are a few interesting things, I suppose. Speaking of the gun, when I was twelve, I shot my younger brother Sam in the arm with a .22 (by accident). My first kiss was in the middle of a cornfield. My uncle won it big in the lottery and blew the winnings in six months. It’s Iowa stuff, and none of it surfaces—probably because I’m not surprising. Maybe I need to start keeping stock trivia about myself readily at hand.

“Yo, excuse me!”

One of the kids from up the street has gotten off of his stoop and called to us from a distance. He’s real skinny. His frame resembles that of my brother Sam’s from his picture on my mom’s mantle, immortalized at age twelve wearing a junior high baseball uniform and a shaggy haircut. The teen waves. When he comes under a streetlamp, I see he has Sam’s junior high haircut, too.

“Hey,” he says, stumbling a little as he nears. He looks high. “I was just wondering if I could bother one of you nice people for a light?”

I was going to lie and say I didn’t have one, but that seemed pointless with Smokestack next to me. I say nothing, deferring to her judgment: her city, her call. Sesame takes another drag and leans forward.

“Yeah, sure,” she says. “Come on over.”

The kid sidles up to the car and Sesame gives me her Bic lighter, which I hand to him. I see his eyes up close, big and brown and dilated. He can’t be older than eighteen or nineteen. God, he’s almost a dead-ringer for Sam—looks just like him.

“Thanks,” he says. He pulls out a joint with a shaky fist and fires it up. He puffs, and the smell slips into my nostrils, bittersweet. “Y’all live here?”

“Nah,” I say. “I’m from Iowa City. Just in town for the weekend.”

“’Y’all’?” Sesame pauses, furrowing her brow as if listening intently to the boy’s word as it rolls off her own lips.

I wait for her to say that she lives in Wrigleyville, but the admission doesn’t come. From the corner of my eye I see she’s staring down the street, at nothing. It hasn’t been like her to not be social, but then again I don’t know her well. If she hadn’t started talking to me first, last night at the bar, we wouldn’t have met at all.

“Iowa City, huh?” the kid says. “Home of the Cyclones!”

He laughs and spins around twice before losing his balance and going to a knee.

“Hawkeyes, actually.” I say. “I’m on spring break.”

“Nice,” he nods, lurching onto his feet. “I’ve been saving for junior college.”

When he drops his hand to his side, I see needle tracks, sores peppering his arms under the hard light of the streetlamp. Sesame sighs out of the blue, disinterested, saying nothing. We fall into an awkward silence. Looking at the kid’s black windbreaker, I space out for a moment, and worry about the end of the night. Sam used to ask me what base I’d gotten to, after I came home from dates. Even though he didn’t go on dates, sometimes he’d start laughing, and would say he could tell I hadn’t even been to first. That was a long time ago, so standards have changed, but let’s just say that mysterious existential sighs make my inner Sam question the likelihood of crossing home.

The junkie coughs and shields his joint away from the street as a police car creeps by, the officer driving giving us a sidelong glance.

“Your friend,” I say, pointing over to the stoop. “Is he okay?”

The guy in front of the brownstone apartment is sprawled diagonally on the steps, one hand grabbing the crotch of his jean shorts, the other pointing at the sky, wavering wildly. Gravity: a bitch to the inebriated.

“He’s having the time of his life,” the kid smiles, taking another hit.

“What is he doing?” I ask.

“Counting stars.”

“What about his other hand?” Sesame asks.

“Well,” he delivers a sheepish aw-shucks kick to the pavement, “Can’t be romance in everything.”

“Guess not.” She puts out her fifth cigarette but doesn’t go for another. “What’s your name?”

“Billy,” he says.

I ask Billy where he lives, and he points to the building above the stoop where his friend sits. He laughs—cackles, really—and for some reason, I want to ask him what shooting heroin is like. I don’t want to try it, just want to know. I’ve been having weird dreams recently, semi-historical fantasies of going to the ballpark with my brother, watching Hank Aaron sock homers that fly for miles, even though I’ve never seen Hank Aaron play. I want to ask Billy what can make that kind of high.

“Y’all wanna come up?” Billy asks. “Come party?”

“We’ll come up,” Sesame says, like it’s nothing. She slides down the front of the windshield. I watch her legs shudder along the glass, hypnotized. I’m distantly aware of being unsure what she’s leading me into. She squeals. By the time I’m off the car, Sesame is already halfway down the sidewalk with Billy. As I pull the keys out of her ignition, roll the windows up, and lock her doors, I think about the lonely train ride back to Iowa, starting tomorrow at noon, and regret that I couldn’t get my friends to come to Chicago with me.

I follow Sesame and Billy to the stoop, where we meet Billy’s friend. Billy introduces him as Evan and says he’s a mute, but Evan, on his back, grunts and shakes his head no as soon as Billy stops talking. Evan has long, stiff blond hair that covers his eyes, and just to shake my hand he has to brush it aside to see what he’s reaching for. In between swipes I see dilated pupils around electric-blue irises. Billy comes over and helps him to his feet, and I see that Evan must be even younger than Billy is, both looking to be in their late teens. Three summers ago I was washing cars outside of Des Moines for gas money. I hesitate to say ‘different strokes.’

Billy opens the door to the apartment building and leads us upstairs, Sesame close behind. The place is quiet, save for ancient stairs groaning under our steps. Evan is having trouble walking, so I lend him a shoulder. He smells strange and I can’t place the odor. Sesame’s hips sway in front of us, bouncing under her skirt as she sashays, giving a whiff of her scent—something like cherries—and Evan gives me the uh-huh look of approval. Sam would say that I’m going to get in even more trouble if I keep hanging out with questionable characters, and I had really been trying to be better about that.

We reach the fifth floor, and lurch our way to door 5D, adorned with a large smiley face sticker awkwardly placed over a fading Cubs pennant decal. While Billy fumbles with the keys, I realize that Evan hasn’t actually spoken yet. On a whim, I turn to him and say “hey,” and he just smiles back at me and nods happily. His breath smells terrible, like old tuna.

Billy laughs, apparently remembering that he doesn’t lock the door, and he turns the knob. A draft from inside slides across my face. As Billy and Sesame move out of the way and I see more of the apartment, the smell on Evan’s jacket makes sense.

Birds. A goddamn messload of birds.

A chorus of chirps and twitters comes in confusing stereo, as the voices of various cockatiels, canaries, finches, parakeets, parrots and cockatoos overwhelm the apartment almost as much as the powerful smell of bird shit. There are cages numbering in the dozens hanging from the ceiling and leaning up against the walls, shoved up against each other, stacked on top of each other on the hardwood floor; a few are covered with sheets, but most are exposed to the air, which I guess must make for few restful nights. Collectively the birds’ feathers make up almost the full range of the color spectrum, green yellow red white and so forth. The room’s only actual furniture was a rickety old dresser and two naked mattresses, hiding behind an island of cages on the far side.

“Sorry about the mess,” Billy says. “We’ve been trying to organize.”

Sesame shoots me a rather superfluous organize what look as Evan stumbles past her and sits gingerly on the girded home of a couple parakeets.

“This is ridiculous,” I say. “Doesn’t your landlord care? Don’t your neighbors complain?”

Billy shrugs. I presume there must have been some kind of miracle in order for him to get the lease. Evan gets up and starts walking towards the mattresses, giving Billy a hard smack on the ass as he walks by. I don’t know if that means they’re gay or not. Sam was gay and it was years before I found out.

I see a cockatoo flutter out of the corner of my eye, and I wonder if I’m going to see someone shoot heroin into their arm.

“You guys want to smoke a joint?” Billy asks.

“I don’t have any money,” Sesame says, poking her finger between the flimsy wires of a yellow canary’s cage. I wonder what she’s thinking about.

“No, it’s on the house,” Billy says.

He gestures for us to follow him towards the back of the room, where the glow of the streetlamps illuminates the ceiling through the windows. The cages are arranged so two paths run from the front door to the back, so tight in spots that Sesame and I have to shimmy through sideways between walls of chickenwire and aluminum. Empty bags of feed cover the floors, and I see that all of the cages are splattered with shit and seed. Sam used to keep a canary, and Dad had been all over him about keeping its cage clean. I had forgotten about it until now, but when Sam and I would listen to the Cubs play on the radio in our living room, the canary would get excited every time the stereo started cheering until one afternoon in September it got so excited it chirped itself to death on a home run call. The Cubs were winning, and after a reliever picked up the save we went and buried Sam’s bird in the backyard next to an old maple.

I look at a similar canary perched near Sesame, and try to remember the name of Sam’s bird.

The mattress Evan crouches on is ancient—the two of them placed side by side must be the apartment’s furniture as well—and I when I sit next to him, my ass hits the hardwood floor through the exhausted padding. Sesame comes to the head of the mattress next to me, and tests the padding with her hand. Maybe finding an errant spring, she swats my knee, and I straighten out my legs as she stoops to sit sideways on my lap. My blood warms as I feel her weight come down on my thighs. She’s not as heavy as would be expected. To help keep her balanced upright, I put my hand on her lower back, where her top has ridden up and exposed bare skin. My fingertips feel hard muscle, and I begin to think that I could easily take a vacation in the small of her back and not be heard from again.

“Here you go,” Billy says, using a Zippo lighter to ignite a joint he pulled from out of the beat-up dresser. He passes it to Sesame. She takes a long burn and holds it in, waiting, waiting, going so long that I think she could pass out, and then she slowly blows it all away, the stream churning in the air and drifting to the tall nearby cage of a molting green parrot. I expect the parrot to make an ironic remark, like it would if this were TV, but it just shifts its weight to scratch itself while getting bathed in smoke. Sesame stops a beat to admire her handiwork before passing the joint to me.

“You smoked before?” she asks.

“Once,” I say. “It’s been a few years.”

“It’s been a few minutes,” Evan says. “Give that shit to me if you’re not going to do anything.”

“Just hold on, man,” Billy says. “He’s cool, give him room.”

I put the joint to my lips and breathe it in. Sesame reaches for my hand on her back. I start to move it away, but she grabs it and squeezes, returning it to its place against her skin. A pair of cockatoos begin chattering loudly, and Billy smiles as he leans back against the dresser. It teeters behind his weight. I try to keep from exhaling, because—god—it’s all so much, and when Sesame squeezes my hand again I cough and the smoke comes out hastily, spilling out away from the green parrot’s coop and over the old bags of feed, splashing through cages and against the faded tan wall paint.

“Easy, cowboy,” Billy says, leaning over towards me. I hand the blunt to Evan, who takes it and does a leisurely drag. He adjusts his crotch as he smokes, and winks at me when he sees me watching.

“What?” he says.

“What are all these birds?” I ask.

“Give me a break, they aren’t really ours,” he says, as if offended. He rides the high and lays back on the mattress. “Well,” he stops, scratching his head with fingernails almost as long as Sesame’s. “Actually, they are.”

“But we didn’t get them,” Billy interrupts. “I mean, I still don’t really know what some of them are. Obviously this is a parrot. And those are parakeets over there. But seriously? I have no idea.”

I wish Billy would sit down. Sam was one of those standing types also, and while it’s cute that Billy resembles my dead brother, the similarities are becoming too uncomfortable.

“So how did you get them?” Sesame says. Evan hands the joint to her, and she takes another puff.

“I used to live here with my grandma,” Billy says. “I never knew my parents, so she raised me. She kept birds all my life, said she liked the way they talked, how they seemed to fill up the apartment. We never had this many. It was just a few, maybe four or five. But right before I graduated high school, she started buying more and more. I thought that maybe she was upset because she felt I was wasting so much by not going to college and she was buying all of these birds out of stress, but it turned out later that she had dementia and she didn’t really know what she was doing. She died a little while later.”

“I’m so sorry,” Sesame says.

“When was this?” I ask.

“She passed six months ago,” Billy says. “I had a little money saved. Landlord let me keep the apartment. Asshole never actually saw all this, by the way. I suppose he was just happy with getting a steady check. This guy moved in a bit later.” He gestures at Evan.

Sesame has been holding the joint, and she hands it to me. I take another pull, feeling much more relaxed this time—much more—and I wish the big green parrot next to us would say something.

“Couldn’t you have done something with the birds?” Sesame asks. “Like give them to animal control or something?”

“Fuck, I don’t know,” Billy gives another aw-shucks kick to the floor, “I didn’t want my little guys getting put down or anything.”

I didn’t know they put down birds. I don’t think they do. I’m not sure. I hand the joint back to Evan, who has remained silent. It occurs to me that Evan and Billy still don’t know our names. It seems a little late to bring that up, but I keep getting this gnawing urge to blurt it out.

“You guys want do some blow?” Evan asks.


Sesame speaks before the little warning siren in my head can even go off, the one that tells me coke is out of my league. But then again, I’m not so sure—tonight I might be feeling like a try.

Billy lifts an aluminum TV lunch tray off of the top of the dresser, pulling out skinny wire legs that let it sit off of the floor by a few inches. He sets it down next to the mattress and I see it’s covered with a big montage of famous historical hitters in baseball, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth and the like. Sesame gets off of my lap as Billy goes back to the dresser and opens a drawer—I wonder which one has the syringes, the heroin—and Billy pulls out a Ziploc bag filled with white powder. Evan has gotten up and is on his knees next to the baseball lunch tray.

The birds have quieted.

Billy crouches down and gets the coke into two lines while Evan rolls up a one dollar bill into a tube, and, with a lean down over the baseball TV tray, Evan does a line off of Ted Williams. He jerks a bit, and tries to shake it out. It’s kind of weird to see coke use in person. I’d only seen it happen in movies. Evan hands the single to Sesame. She goes straight down like she’s done this before, taking her hit off of George Brett and Willie Mays, but her feet spasm as she reacts, and I get the sense that she’s just jumping into this headfirst. Evan has leaned back against the mountain of parakeet cages and Billy looks at me like it’s my turn.

“Coke’s expensive,” I say. Billy nods. I come forward off of the mattress and crouch in front of the baseball TV tray. This kid isn’t saving up for junior college. I look at all of the empty bags of feed. Billy puts down another line across Hank Aaron, and Sesame hands me the rolled-up bill. I look at the powder. Sesame is sitting next to me, buzzing, and she’s leaning in so close I can feel the heat coming off her. The coke line forms tiny little ridges and bumps, so much like little cumulus clouds, and right now I just think to myself that I am never going to be able to think about baseball without getting an image of forty million cockatiels.

I pass.

I’m perfect where I’m at, because if Sesame gets much closer I feel like I am going to explode out of my skin. I hand the single to Billy, and he snorts the line without flinching. Evan just starts giggling, and he runs his hand down Sesame’s back. I reassess the possibility of Billy and Evan being gay—but then again, maybe it’s joy; Sam once said that out of all the drugs, even heroin, it was the coke high that made you feel like you were on top of the world.

Evan leans forward.

“All right, so check this out,” he says. His voice is gruff and deep for someone so young and skinny. I notice a little gold cross dangling from his chest as he turns to face me. “Billy. Recite Blake.”

Billy pops up to his feet, looking excited, with a wild look in his eye. He strikes a dramatic pose, hands up in a voodoo magic sort of position, and begins to recite.

“’Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright, in the forests of the night, what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

Sesame claps. I remember hearing that poem somewhere else before, but I’m still stuck on trying to remember the name of Sam’s bird.

“Okay,” Evan says. “That was too easy. Do Thomas.”

Billy skips in place for a second, and then recites again—god, he looks so much like Sam, and I hate it.

“’I see the boys of summer in their ruin, lay the gold tithings barren, setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils; there in their heat the winter floods of frozen loves they fetch their girls, and drown the cargoed apples in their tides.’” He bows.

“How the hell do you know all this?” I say. “I couldn’t even memorize a stanza of Dr. Seuss.”

“Grandma used to make me memorize poetry,” Billy says. “Said it was a lost art. I guess we’re long-distant relatives of some famous nineteenth century poet.”

“I think it’s great,” Evan says. “So much bullshit goes on, in the world and such, and sometimes I feel like we’re the last living romantics.”

I can’t tell if he means “romantic” in the capital-R sense of the word or in the roses-in-the-middle-of-the-table way, but I’m not really sure how much that matters. I think I know how he feels. Maybe.

“Billy, the Kavanagh,” Evan commands. Billy doesn’t horse around this time, his expression slackening to be more serious. Sesame hasn’t said anything, but she’s getting jittery and she latches on to my arm. I look down for a moment, and think I’d feel a lot better if this mattress was a little cleaner.

“’To be a poet and not know the trade,’” Billy recites, “’To be a lover and repel all women—twin ironies by which great saints are made, the agonizing pincer-jaws of Heaven.’”

Sesame aaahs, orgasmically almost, and out of nowhere I suddenly want to know more about these kids, what makes them the way they are, and I begin to feel a sense of urgency since come noontime Chicago’s a memory. A strange feeling washes over me. It would be nice to make all of this stick before I go back to the sterility of home. I want to tell Billy my name is Corbin, that he looks like my dead brother Sam, and I want to know what happens to him when I leave. It could be like starting again.

“Enough of that pretty shit,” Billy says, his mood darkening. “Tonight is a special night.”

“Oh, what happens tonight?” Sesame says, unclasping and clasping her hand on my wrist.

“We set the birds free,” Billy says. “I don’t have the money to feed them anymore. And I’m not letting the City get them. I’m gonna let them go.”

“Seriously?” I say, feeling like that seems a touch dramatic.

“Will you help?” Evan asks.

I see they’re serious, but again, before I even really consider not doing it, Sesame has me on my feet. She twists and does a pirouette like Billy did earlier, and then Billy and Evan are on their feet, and then we’re going at the cages. I want to sit down, I am in a state of entropy, my body is trying to stop moving—but now the goddamn room feels like it’s spinning—and the birds, having settled since we’d arrived, begin to grow agitated with the activity.

I don’t want to free birds. I want to see Wrigley. Or maybe sit down.

And I don’t know what it is—maybe it’s the pot—but I am remembering a day about year or two before Sam died and before I left for college, a cool afternoon when we’d been sitting out on a bridge over the creek just outside city limits and drinking Dad’s beer since the folks were on vacation. The county sheriff drove by. Both of us jumped over the edge to the creek bed below as soon as he hit the brakes, ran like hell through the thicket that bordered the cattle farm, and when we came to a stop beneath a gnarled old oak near the tree line we stumbled across a familiar old rusted-out house safe lodged between the roots. It was a classic piece of discarded woods-treasure, a landmark for walks through that particular spot of the thicket. Years ago we had placed a baseball sticker next to the dial, and it had long since been washed away with the rain; all that remained was just a whisper of adhesive gum. So right there, standing by the safe, when we were still a little drunk and catching our breath, Sam came out to me: he was gay and always had been. I laughed and asked him if he’d gotten high when I wasn’t looking.

“Shut the fuck up,” he’d replied. I’d said the wrong thing.

It occurs to me that before tonight I haven’t thought about him in forever, and for a brief second it almost feels like I’m about to cry. But I hold it back easily.

My head hurts. I follow Billy down one of the cage-isles. Sesame and Evan have gone down the other. I’m a little tentative with the first couple of cages I open. I expect the birds to thrash, to fly out at me when I unlatch their little wire doors, but they don’t, as most of them cling to the backs of their cages, terrified that something is actually happening to them. I feel bad scaring them, but I get a little more confident as I go along, getting smoother, going at cage after cage while Billy is near me doing the same.

“I have this brother,” I say to him. “Sam.”

“That’s great,” Billy says, blankly, staring at a cockatoo who stares right back at him.

A few birds have gotten out and are starting to flutter around. Feathers will begin to collect on the floor in a minute. I feel something brush the back of my head. The chirping becomes deafening, but I still hear Sesame’s voice from across the room:

“…But my brother Diego doesn’t think I should go—“

Billy’s still expressionless, barely taking a second look at me when I call his name, like he’s focused on something a thousand yards away. He tries to coax a big reddish parrot off the top of a cage.

“—I told him, if I want to go to California, then I’m going,” Sesame continues.

Billy picks up a feed bag. All of the cage doors on our side are open, and the birds are beginning to perch on top of their cages and on the tops of the open doors. He begins waving the feed bags at the loiterers, trying to coax them towards the back of the apartment, towards the window. I pick up a bag and begin doing the same, not really thinking about the futility of herding a swarm of animals towards a two-by-four foot opening.

“I’ll do whatever’s best for me, because I’ll only live once.”

Sesame’s voice is dry and big, almost like Sam’s. I think about home, and right then I shout a “fuck” to try to keep the memories from reappearing in my head when I realize that they have started coming in swarms.

Sesame comes around the corner, by the door. Evan has disappeared to the other side of the room and the girl is talking to herself while a consortium of finches congregate on cages stacked against the wall next to the front door. Sesame stops speaking, walks into me forcefully, and she leans up to kiss me but is sloppy and misses my lips. I pause for a moment, like I’m watching myself, and I feel like the tinted sunglasses are off, like now I can see her for what she is: a tall pretty Latin girl dialed up on coke, not much older than the junkies. She kisses me again, on the lips this time, and I finally remember the name of Sam’s bird.

Casper. Named after the cartoon character—a dead kid, right?

“Do you have a hotel room?” Sesame reaches around me, and I feel her fingers clasp on my ass.

“Yeah,” I say. This is what I had wanted when I first saw her, isn’t it? “Why not your place?”

“Diego,” she says, and I see her eyes glaze over as she looks at me. “Hotel.”

I can’t even say goodbye to Billy and Evan; she has me out of the door before I can tell her that, suddenly, I want to stay. Even though it feels like time is speeding up, it takes us five minutes to make it down the five rickety flights. She’s all over me. Every time she plants a sloppy kiss I tell myself to stop the neurotic bullshit, that this is what’s fun when you’re young—right?—and I wonder what’s wrong with me that I’d be acting like I wasn’t interested in women. My inner Sam laughs at me. I shout “fuck” again, but this just puts Sesame into more of a frenzy.

I can’t help but wonder if this is how the junkie poets upstairs do romance. Then I realize I never figured out if they were actually straight or not.

Maybe it doesn’t matter.

We’re outside, and I see birds everywhere. The silent green parrot rests on a postal box, and a crowd of small talkers chatter away up on the streetlamps. It feels like I’m rounding the bases to rounds of applause, a chorus of little feathered fans cheering me on as Sesame practically drags me to the car. I try to freeze Billy’s face in my memory, so I don’t already forget him by the next time I’m awake—but all I have is the image of my brother Sam, playing baseball at twelve years old.

I give up and let everything remind me of him.

Sesame starts the engine, scaring a little yellow canary off the hood ornament. A new music format, the dance music of the eighties, sings out of the car’s speakers and drowns out the street-side avian symphony. She turns the radio up and puts the Buick in gear.

Yet—after a moment, the car still hasn’t moved. I take a deep breath, and I smell her again, that perfume like cherries. Then I hear her cry a little.

If I would just turn my head, I’m sure I’d see tears starting to stream out of her eyes from some new-emerging trauma. But I don’t. I simply can’t twitch an eye her way. I’m staring at all the birds and aching for the days Sam and I had simply drifted along, aimless and fleeting navigators of a new world, the two of us almost like the ghosts that might pass through the shadows of Wrigley on some never-ending night like this.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Virginia Tech: The Unwanted Perspective

It’s Monday, April 16, the night of the Blacksburg massacre, and I want you to do something for me. I want you to imagine that you are the as-yet-unidentified Virginia Tech shooter.

So, you’re dead.

Let’s back up.

I’m sitting here on my couch, watching CNN, and it’s approximately nine or 10 hours after you walked into the Norris engineering building on the Virginia Tech campus. Virginia Tech police Chief Wendell Flinchum is conducting a press conference in which he has just revealed that the police have a preliminary identification of your body.

On the TV, Flinchum is tall and tan, and while he seems like someone with a kind demeanor under normal circumstances, he looks uncomfortable in the glare of the camera lights, the outlines of his funeral-black officer’s uniform smothered by a forest of microphones on the podium. The faceless voices belonging to reporters bark out insensitive questions from offscreen, just like in the movies. “How does it feel/Why wasn’t more done/What went wrong?” they bleat, all at once. People will probably say that Flinchum did not show enough emotion during the press conference. To me, however, he seems like he could be in agony, but maybe just in a quiet suffering, not the kind that looks stirring in a video clip. I try to imagine myself in his shoes, and fail.

“I can’t hear,” he murmurs in a passive drawl, eyes down into the microphones, “Everyone is shouting.”

I feel sorry for him, along with everyone else involved. It’s an authentic tragedy. Yet, because all of it’s very dramatic, it goes without saying that the rest of us are drawn to the story. You’re still a mystery, and there will be some time when everyone is going to try and figure you out, what all the motives were, the background, were you not held enough as a child?, whether you kept a diary or left a farewell note. Facets of your story will be discussed at length by the appropriate groups: gun-control advocates will point to this massacre and call for stricter laws, while Second Amendment advocates will say that an armed bystander could have stopped the madness; psychologists will make you a case study and dissect your personality piece-by-piece, as if you were a science project; school administrators will look at the aftermath of Norris Hall and think about all the ways they can make a college campus more like a bank vault, simply because of you.

We’re just beginning to build your profile for posterity. And when it’s over, you will become a concept, a neatly-packaged topic that can be pulled off the shelf like a loaf of bread at a grocery store, and your name will be one that we can point to and say, “Yes, here is a terrible example of [this].”

But to call you “tidy” is inaccurate.

Sometime last week, before all this happened, maybe you picked up a photo off your shelf from when you were 10 years old. “That’s me,” you might have said, holding up the frame. “I looked unhappy even then.” Maybe you were posing with an abusive father, a foster parent, someone who didn’t love you. “That’s from my 10th birthday party, when my brother took my present away from me,” you’d said. “I cried later.” You’d felt a tingling of old emotions coming back from those little memories, and maybe you could see how you got from there to here. You turned off the lights and sat on your bed or you looked out the window for a while and you just found yourself looking back at that picture in the dark, feeling like you could understand everything.

But memory is unreliable; you know this. People forget and reconstruct their pasts all the time—I can barely remember high school, and sometimes there are gaps in my memory that just can’t be realistically plugged unless I get jolted into recollection. So, a week away from mass murder, you were staring at that photo and possibly making up an entire past from little images and fragments to explain how you’ve gotten to where you are now, just like the media will. You’re a collage of storylines, and, what’s even more terrifying than the prospect of us not ever knowing why you did it is that you could have had a normal, happy childhood, and you can’t even remember it. Or choose not to. It’s like someone once said, that remembering was an activity “so much more psychotic than forgetting,” as if it took an act of writing fiction to remember who we were.

We get to make a story about you too. That’s the other half of this bargain. Police will come into your room—hoping it’s not booby-trapped—and they will look at your photo and some caustic officer will say it’s too bad you didn’t kill yourself earlier. To them you become modern-day Satan. That’s a storyline. They’ll flip through your papers and maybe see that you wrote bad poetry or were obsessing over a girl. They’ll start putting you together, trying to create a composite sketch of what human failure looks like. When it’s over, we’ll have you pieced together like a personal-history Frankenstein, a photograph making an elbow here, an awkward encounter with a professor comprising a leg there, an interview with the family completing the torso. No one will give us the directions; we’ll just stitch you together.

You’ll get a name and a character flaw and an article in Wikipedia. Then, when enough time as passed, we’ll close your chapter and call you complete and try to forget you until the next one of you comes along.

That’s how it is.

Someone’s voice sticks out from the others’ in the chorus of needy questioners and asks Flinchum for the gunman’s identity; he declines to answer.

Here’s what scares me—since you’re as yet unidentified, you could have been anyone: an ex-con, an ex-marine, a student, a former student… anyone. What’s more, Virginia Tech is a campus not too unlike dozens of other middle-sized American universities—it even looks like my school—and your victims were taken indiscriminately. They were people no different from my classmates here. And while the media will blare headlines about the record number of dead, the disturbing part of this crime is that it is marked by its indeterminacy as much as it is by its severity: this could have happened anywhere, to anyone, for no reason at all. It was just as likely to happen here, to people I know, to me. There might never be an answer to Blacksburg’s cries of “Why us? Why here?” Because neither of those actually mattered.

That’s not much of a story. We prefer our plots to make sense.

But all of this is a lot of forethought. You’re interesting because you don’t make sense. You’re still a narrative in motion, and there’s still a lot that has to happen yet before the excitement around you is over. As I sit here watching the aftermath on TV I can’t help but think how people who know much about guns (plus your future copycats) will be darkly impressed; for you to kill 32 with a pair of medium-power pistols is a miraculous catastrophe. But what it tells me is that you were calm—it’s hard to orchestrate much of anything when you’re panicked—and the chains on the doors of Norris Hall also say that this wasn’t a spontaneous crime of passion.

I imagine you standing in a classroom doorway, emotionless. Your mind is still, like that of a Zen monk. Detached. You feel nothing but the weight of the pistol in your hand, heavy and recoiling with each thoughtless pull of the trigger. I want you to have a motive, but I can’t dream one up for you. I can only imagine you as empty.

And as I watch the people hashing and rehashing the various fragments of stories on CNN, trying to patch together some kind of semblance of cohesiveness, I see their frustration. Chief Flinchum and university President Charles Steger are already facing criticism for not responding quickly enough, but there was no way to anticipate that a double-homicide would lead to 32 dead. The simple fact is that you, Unidentified Gunman, could have happened anywhere.

Like at my high school. You might have come close, once. I only remember this because, today, you’ve now reminded me.

You—you were a friend of mine, a few years ago. My next door neighbor, a scrawny guy three years my elder. You were dark and funny and wore black trench coats to school, even after Columbine. A few days after those shootings happened—after my parents had sat me down with a newspaper with all the victims’ names and photos and told me they were concerned about the violent videogames I played—I remember sitting outside with you one afternoon, a cloudy day when the grass had just recently turned a deep green, and I was rocking on a swing set I was too big for and listening to you talk about the “tactical mistakes” Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had made. You described in specific detail how you could do it at my high school. Start in the front office.

Your father kept guns in your home.

I didn’t think you were serious—which was the fatal mistake repeated by many others many times over in the history of school and workplace shootings—but you graduated and let me off the hook, managing to make it into the military before you had your mental breakdown. At least you didn’t kill anyone. Outside of duty, that is.

That I know of.

I turn back to the TV.

So, you’re dead, and Virginia is still ready to scour your corpse for a name and a history and a reason why. But I think no reasoning explains away 32 bodies, the “senseless violence,” two words that barely mean anything, a phrase like an anonymous void, like the secret emotions of a 10-year-old who feels private joys and pains too new and too massive and too incomprehensible to have real names yet. You grew up, and, unlike the rest of us, simmered until you boiled and exploded, shattering into a thousand tiny pieces, leaving us to be at a loss for words while try to piece you together again.

“Chief!” a reporter barks. “What is the shooter’s name? His name, Chief!”

Flinchum, a lifelong Blacksburg resident, puts his head down, his badge glittering pointlessly in the glare of the camera lights, and declines to answer.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Main Event - nonfiction

(Nick King photo, Columbia Tribune)

I’m one of the few hundred who have come to watch the Nazi horde descend on Columbia, Missouri. It’s a beautiful spring day. The sun feels great and you can almost hear the birds twit-twitting over the propellers of the news helicopters. Counter-protestors told everyone not to come. No one wanted a repeat of the Toledo riots. If we try to fuck up those Nazi pigs, they said, the cops would have to intervene and that would make the fascists looks like the victims.

But we came. Let’s be real: how often do you get a chance to see a Nazi rally? Of course we were going to go see the goddamn Nazi rally. It’s the political equivalent of a three-ring circus—well, maybe one that abuses its animals—and, as with three-ring circuses, fascism is not so popular since the mid-twentieth century.

People are packed on the corners of 9th and Elm so tight you can almost imagine getting teargassed because of the tweaked-out kid in the Che Guevera t-shirt standing in the front. He looks like someone who could make a bad decision. I move away.

It looks like everyone is waiting for a parade, I think. And then I remember that it is a parade, the Nazis have a permit and everything. Everyone’s standing around and peeking up each road, trying to see which way the marchers will be coming from, because no one knows. The last memory I have of people lining the streets like this was back at the homecoming parades of my hometown Cleveland, Missouri. Children would be swarming around like fruit flies and clutching cones of cotton candy in their sticky fingers right up until the moment they heard the bass drum of the marching band reverberating in their chests, and then they’d position themselves along the sidewalks, in front of all the mashed thrown candy that was too squished to be worth picking up, just trying to catch a glimpse of the source of the music coming from somewhere up the street. Their parents would look on with a Norman Rockwell-sort of contentment. Instant nostalgia.

Except now there are college students, not children. And we are waiting for the fascist swine instead.

Police are everywhere. Earlier, on the way to my morning run I saw them swooping up Hitt street. All kinds and varieties of squad cars. Paddy wagons. Motorcycles. Horses. It was like a scene from Blues Brothers. “I hate Illinois Nazis,” someone says. People laugh nervously. A squat-looking officer tells people to stay the fuck off the opposite sidewalk.

I look around. The makeup of the crowd: mostly college kids, but some middle-aged geezers too, and people in tie-dye t-shirts, blacks, Jews. A kid with a Marxist t-shirt and a mad-bomber-looking winter cap. It occurs to me that outside of the people in tie-dye t-shirts, the blacks, Jews, and Marxist party members, the rest of us are just here to see what the hell neo-Nazism is all about; the concept of it existing in the 21st century is so completely alien to me that I forget to be pissed off, as something so bizarre it’s hard to take seriously. It seems like I am not alone in this sentiment, as the crowd of observers here may not be linked by their common humanity as well as they could be by ownership of a digital camera.

Everyone’s got a goddamn camera. Forget the press, who are climbing up the fucking trees to get pictures. Even the cops have cameras. On the monstrous Christian Life Center looming over the intersection I would have expected SWAT snipers, but instead I see a lone police officer with a telephoto lens. Pictures must be important. We’ve got to make this moment stick.

A person looks east. Another person looks east. People look east. The crowd lurches.

Nazi bastards!

I see them in the distance, materializing from behind an apartment building, marching parallel to 9th street. Actually, I only see the signs bobbing up and down. Mob squad police trot alongside and block my view. The press sprints up the road towards them, like a 100-meter dash with a camera-bag handicap where gold medalist gets pepper-sprayed.


Oh, fuck. The Nazis aren’t coming to this intersection. They didn’t turn.

A little air is let out of the crowd. They were ready to go. But I don’t despair; I know the parade route. I leave the mob standing at 9th and Elm and decide to catch the Fascist monsters on University Avenue. I am surprised no one goes the same way I do. I’ll be able to get a close look. Sure enough, when I make it to University, people are sparse. Just a few look on from their apartment stoops.

I get excited.

I see the horses first. Cops with helmets on horseback telling people to clear the sidewalks. Then I see the press, keeping a few paces in front. Next, the teenagers with punk-rock haircuts who just walk alongside, being a part of the action, as well as a few black-rights activists silently holding up their fists.

Then I see them.

And in one of those odd little moments where expectation meets reality, I want to scratch my head.

There are only twenty or so Neo-Nazis. A few of them are dressed in Nationalist uniforms, and have shaved heads, but other than that, they look average. A couple dozen white people who look an awful lot like the people back in Cleveland, Missouri. I must have been expecting space aliens with Hitler moustaches or something. All of this hype for a few fascist boy scouts. They pass. I don’t shout anything. There’s no point. My excitement has disappeared. Disappointed, I begin to head back to my apartment.

But I stop. Pause a moment. And I turn to run. Towards 9th and Elm.

The Neo-Nazis aren’t the main event.

I take a back route. I get excited again. On the way I see three guys jump out of a car with a few six-packs of beer, laughing and keeping their hands on top of their ballcaps to keep them from flying off, shouting hurry up, we’re going to miss it!

I make it to the intersection. The waddling cop tells me to get the fuck off of the sidewalk. And right then, right as I cross the street to go be with the crowd, I can see everyone craning their necks, looking up the road, trying to catch a glimpse of why they’re all here.

Hundreds of people with almost one expression. I’ve never seen people in Columbia this excited about something. I’m stunned.

It’s like they’re stuck in that arrested moment that seems to exist just before every memory begins, and right then, it feels like it could last forever, Christmas morning in Hell, the crowd anxiously waiting to see what happens when Point A finally reaches Point B. And God, I wish someone would turn the cameras around, and catch the look on their faces right as the wild unknown prepares to step into reality—they don’t know it, but they’re the stars of the show.

Monday, January 01, 2007


*[this story published in "Epic", Spring 2005]

The well-worn shoes of a piano player. The tips settle in a permanent lift, with a deep crease in the leather where the toes raise frequently to press on the pedal. There’s a sort of understanding that the shoes will do their best not to get in the way of the wearer, that they will perform and continue to press up and down at command without complaint, that at the end of the day they will remain shoes and nothing more, nothing less. The well-worn shoes of a piano player.

Tie the knot. Tie the knot. Delicate fingers belonging to delicate piano players understand that as soon as the shoe is bound to its master that they are free to pursue other occupations, such as piano-playing—or tapping, clenching, groping, depending on their owners. Some piano players resemble musical pimps more than artisans. That’s how it is, how it’s been, how it will be. There’s a piano over there.

Press! Lift, press, hold. A quick glance at the brunette. She’s watching. Good. Piano players—talented, attractive ones, that is—are magnets for the other sex. Of course, it’s merely coincidence that those piano players are wearing shoes. Coincidences, like playing “As Time Goes By” or something by Donny Hathaway or whatever sounds pretty, even if it’s being written on the fly. Written On The Fly, for the blonde in the corner. Thank you (expressed in an attractive smile. Sex makes music so much easier).

Fingers, around the glass. Where do you work? Oh, that’s nice (want to go upstairs?). The fingers are dabbling now, meandering back to the piano. Easy chords this time, the attention is fully away from shoes and such and on the well-rounded hips sitting next to the maestro. Delicately… yes! Pull her hand towards the keyboard. Teach her something, that’s sexy. You see, this is a C major chord… move this finger… now it’s minor. Now, just keep pressing down on those keys. He plays some fun rhythm, letting her feel like she’s making music too. His shoes meander over to hers; a strange meeting. How are you? I’m fine, ready to begin? It was an “accidental” contact at first, but the worn soles will soon find themselves a comfortable spot touching hers.

Laughing, oh, she’s laughing, he’s got her now. He’s not looking for a relationship, or he’d be playing Gershwin or Beethoven or something—no, it’s a one-night stand for you. Thank you, Mr. Gaye, “Sexual Healing” on this piano will be over in a moment if you’d like to step in and say a word or two. Shhh, he’s dead, you shouldn’t say things like that. Giggle. She smells nice, he smells like cigarettes. The consummation of the two scents, sweet and bitter, covering up some mid-20’s emptiness, “no home to go to” and all that melancholy shit. Even though a shoe gets walked on every day, it has a purpose, some pedal to press, some crap to step on. When you’re 26, you think you want a little sex, but actually you really want a lot, and you’re hoping Mom doesn’t figure out what you’ve been using those piano lessons for.

Oh, she’s looking at him now; so it’s true what they say, Night Time really must be the Right Time. The piano is going to resemble a portable Vegas at this pace. He lets his left hand keep down on keys for the G minor, but that’s more of a commando distraction for his right hand reaching for her. The right shoe starts to press down on the pedal involuntarily as they share some meaningless kiss. Meaningless, in the sense that it’s like some formal declaration of combat, that these two will meet in battle, “lay down your arms / and surrender to me” and all that. They finish signing their declaration, the shoe lifts off of the pedal (with a creak. These old leather guys have been with him since his senior year. Mostly, they spend the day being crouched on as he’s fixing copying machines). They get up, the bench pushed back (he’s standing! He means business!), and the click-click up the stairs, the click-click past the door (just one click from the knob, it knows its place), and a clunk-clunk as a pair of old beaten-up dress shoes are ejected across the room.

Morning. The shoes are ass-over-teakettle on the wood floor. Familiar position, they take it every night. His mood can be ascertained by their trajectory through the air, their distance from each other. Scientists could write case studies about that sort of thing (but we won’t go there, this story is about sex and shoes). He’s sitting up in bed, cigarette dangling from his lips. He doesn’t have to go to work for another couple of hours, but he needs to head out before she starts wanting things from him—like a phone number, or an address. He needs to be real quiet, or she’ll wake up. Maybe today he would look for that better job, stop smoking, apologize to his mom, call his ex, whatever it takes to turn it all around—but first, he has to put on his shoes.


I studied music at Hulston College in my years before the Army, and I remember that in the fall semester of my senior year it was a surprise to all of us in the piano studio when we’d heard that the famous autistic piano player kid, Jeff something-or-other, was coming to Hulston to do a recital towards the end of the semester. He’d been on a million morning talkshows to play piano and promote “his” book, a best-seller ghostwritten by his dad, who was also his handler. The reason the visit was a surprise to us was because our only musical claim to fame was that our piano studio owned the highest male-to-female ratio of students in Hulston College, which had only until recently been known as Hulston Women’s College.

(Some old rich widow, an alumnus, died a couple years before I enrolled, and in her will she made a huge endowment towards creating a scholarship program for piano players—the Yzerman Fellowship—stipulating that the school could give out as many of them as they wanted as long as they were equally divided between male and female students. This was a miracle I guess, because everyone had expected her to leave the money to her cat or something. But either way, I was one of these scholarship students, and when you met people at parties and it somehow slipped out that you went to Hulston—dear God!—you told them you were an Yzerman Fellow just so they didn’t think you were a queer for going to what was still basically a women’s college. But I digress.)

If I remember correctly, the autistic kid was already onstage when Lisa, Aubrey, Tiller, Eddie and me entered the small recital hall and piled into the back row of plastic seats; we represented about half of the whole set of Yzerman pianists at Hulston, and that was the regular group I ran with back in those days. The hall, which was the former chapel, was pretty full—it didn’t take many to fill—because there were a lot of older people in the audience we hadn’t seen before, community people who didn’t have any connection to the College and just came to see a big-ticket performer. It was a Saturday and none of us wanted to be there, but our attendance to piano events was a scholarship requirement—God bless that Yzerman money—so we drank a bit before coming, because there’s nothing quite like going to a recital on a good buzz. Our buddy Pollacks, another Yzerman kid, was giving a piano composition recital a bit later anyway, so we were hunkering down for the long haul.

“How long is this supposed to go?” Eddie asked. He was clutching a football, looking very Heisman except for the huge winter coat he was wearing. We shrugged. Up onstage the autistic kid, Jeff, almost looked normal; I mean, he was sitting up straight and everything. But it was the eyes that gave it away, the big spaceman eyes, electric light blue sapphires that were focusing on things a million miles away. And it was his hair, too, a pale blonde disheveled mess of hay that looked like he had just gotten out of the pool, which actually would have been kind of fashionable if it weren’t for the fact that he was a retard and he didn’t style it that way on purpose. (Autism is retardation, right?)

The kid’s dad got up to lecture, an older guy who looked about my dad’s age, and while he introduced himself the rest of us in the back bullshitted about what we were going to do for Christmas break. Tiller was going to visit family in Georgia, and Aubrey—who was cute, by the way, except when she smiled—Aubrey was going to New York for Times’ Square on New Years. I didn’t hear what Eddie and Lisa said what they were going to do, because some bluehair in front of us kept turning around and going shush! to us. She probably had an autistic grandkid; we looked one seat over from her. Yep.

(I’m going home to Philly, I whispered.)

To show the audience just how fucked up the kid was—for dramatic effect, I imagine—Jeff’s dad asked him all sorts of easy questions that he couldn’t answer, like “What time does your watch read” and “What color is my hair,” and every time it was Jeff’s turn to answer he’d just rock back and forth a bit, pause, and his dad would ask again, and then Jeff would shake his head and stammer out an “I don’t know.” His dad asked him if he could see any women in the audience, and Jeff replied “I can’t remember.” God, I remembered thinking, that really tore at your heart, but then I turned my head and saw Aubrey starting to nod off next to me. She was Inuit (not that that had anything to do with her sleeping). She would send me a letter once during my first Iraq tour.

The kid started to play a couple pieces from memory, a Mozart and a Chopin, and of course he was ridiculously good. You just don’t get your autistic kid on Oprah unless they’re some kind of savant. He’d rock back and forth as he played, and sometimes he wasn’t even looking at his hands, those crazy eyes just staring off into the belly of the Steinway as he played, probably counting the number of vibrations each string made per second after the mallets struck them or some Rain Man bullshit like that. Two seats down I saw Tiller scowling a bit, and then I remembered that the Beethoven Jeff started to play was the same piece that Tiller was struggling with at the moment.

“Goddamn retard geniuses,” I heard him say. “Fuck!” The bluehair in front of us shushed him, then turning back and stroking the head of the little grandson boy next to her, who was rocking back and forth and probably counting the fibers in the sweater of the blonde girl sitting in front of him. As Jeff was running through some of the piece’s arpeggio runs, much to our horror a little line of drool bungeed down from his lip and landed somewhere on the keyboard of our Steinway. We all groaned. Everyone had to play on that piano at some time or another.

After he finished the Beethoven, everyone roared in applause—I clapped—and his dad began what I would call the “stupid pet tricks” portion of the recital. He had Jeff get up from the piano bench and sit on a chair on the opposite side of the stage while he played random notes for Jeff to listen to. He’d then ask Jeff what note he had just played, and Jeff would rocket them out there, A-flat, C, F, D-flat, because he had perfect pitch. And then all of us instantly hated him, because in the music world having perfect pitch was sort of like being born into money, and no matter how hard you tried, you were always going to be the bank president’s son who hung out with the kids of mill workers. (Well, that’s not always true. One of the guys in my platoon, Pfc. Williams, is a bank president’s son, and we just know him as “Stiffy”—something completely unrelated to his socioeconomic status, I assure you.)

Following the perfect-pitch display, Jeff went back to the piano, and his dad pulled a small portable radio out of a canvas tote bag. He flipped it on and it crackled with static, which gave Jeff the shakes so bad the kid started to hug himself, but soon Jeff’s dad found a radio station that was playing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” which, ironically, used to be my father’s favorite song before Mom left to pursue her career. Jeff’s dad let the song go through the chorus and a verse before he flipped the radio off and told Jeff to play it. Jeff hit every note. Then he told Jeff to play it as if Mozart had written it. This got our attention. Jeff started playing, and somehow he managed to do it, and do it convincingly, adding all those delicate bounces and frills characteristic of Wolfgang. I finally admitted to myself that, yeah, the kid was better than I was.

The recital ended after a few more sickening talent displays and a couple sob-story moments where the dad talked about how hard all of it was; his wife had left him, sometimes he struggled to make rent, etc. When it was over we Yzerman kids wandered out of the hall as most of the audience members were mobbing Jeff and his dad with questions and even a couple autograph requests. I guess that’s what fame looked like. Lisa, a senior who’d later go on to teach gradeschool, said in her characteristically snobby way that while the recital was impressive, his performances “lacked soul.” Tiller ran downstairs, where the practice rooms were, and when he came up a couple minutes later I think I’d guessed correctly in assuming that he ran through the Beethoven just to make sure he could put more soul into the piece than the autistic kid had. Then all of us bashed on the Jeff some more for not playing with feeling, probably because we were trying to feel better about ourselves.

We saw Pollacks standing outside smoking a cigarette, so we went out to chat him up. It was about fifty degrees outside, warm for December, and the last of the streaks of ice on the pavement in front of the music building were melting away, the remnants from the freezing rain that had come through a couple days ago. Pollacks waved to us, but pointed out west where the sun was setting. We had a perfect view of it from the music building, which sat on a hill overlooking the soccer and football fields, and it was a sunset for the books, the clouds exploding reds and oranges against a mint blue sky. I wished I had a camera.

“You know,” Pollacks shouted, “I had never really thought about it, but think about how many people are looking at this sunset. I mean, everyone in the city should be seeing what we’re seeing.”

There was something profound and idiotic in his words, but he could have been right; I had normally thought of watching the sunset as being kind of a private moment. I sat down on the bench next to where Pollacks smoked and took in the view; it would later surprise me how similar the Iraqi sunsets were to the ones at home. Eddie jogged around the sidewalk holding his football, asking each one of us if we wanted to play catch, and when he asked me I made sure there was a condescending tone in my voice when I told him no. Aubrey said she would’ve except she had tiny hands—she couldn’t play Liszt, who had huge fingers, the bastard—and so she probably couldn’t catch a football. Tiller shook his head when Eddie asked, and then Lisa explained to the overeager freshman that no one was going to risk jamming their fingers a week before finals performances—though, I thought to myself, I wouldn’t mind not having to play accompaniments on the final juries for all of the school’s prissy goddamned singers. Eddie shrugged, laid down on the sidewalk and began flipping the ball to himself.

I had been thinking about the future a lot since I only had one semester left. I think I only got the Yzerman money out of blind luck—I didn’t really want to go to college in the first place, so winning the award felt like an accident, or a miracle—so I was going to end up with a degree in music performance that I didn’t particularly deserve. I didn’t belong in a music school anyway, where being “edgy” meant saying you preferred Beethoven to Mozart; where I grew up back in Philadelphia, being “edgy” was more like carrying a knife and threatening to use it. Dad had suggested graduate school over one of our talks on the phone; he had done graduate school back in the day to parlay getting shipped off to Vietnam. I had spent quite a bit of time down at the recruiter’s office lately, but I didn’t tell my dad that just yet because I knew he’d make me have second thoughts. Still, I knew even back then that there was just no way I could have stomached grad school.

Tiller was still going off about autistic-savants. He said he didn’t trust anyone who was gifted, because Nature had spoiled them rotten and that they could “sit on their asses and just do as they pleased while everyone else had to fucking work.” Lisa got after him once he started calling Jeff a “snot-nosed retard” over and over again. Tiller was not a very good piano player—though he’d gotten better recently—and I got the sense he was one of those kids who had gotten roughed up early, who would have a chip on his shoulder for the rest of his life because he couldn’t take it easy, and I felt bad for him because of that. He just wanted to make it, like the rest of us. But most of us weren’t autistic, gifted, whatever; we had no in. Tiller was going to kick around Hulston a couple extra years after his Yzerman Fellowship ran out, but the moment he graduated he fell out of touch with everybody.

Now, Pollacks, there was a guy with talent. On top of virtuoso playing he had a knack for writing nice tunes, so he was minoring in music composition since Hulston didn’t offer it as a major. I had tried writing music a couple times, finding chords I’d like and splicing them together, and I’d get real excited, like maybe this was the birth of something great, that I was unleashing the hidden prodigy from within, but then I would try to stretch out the genius of my one chord change over five minutes and then I realized my music was always going to lack the life and the direction of a real masterpiece. Then one time I sat in on Pollacks as he composed on the piano, and it was like watching fireworks—he’d sit there and tinker with chords and lines until all of a sudden they would explode with life and color and you knew that something deeper was happening, something vivid and powerful, but also a little bit temporary, because he wouldn’t write half of what he played into his music.

It kind of reminded me of this sunset, actually. Sort of.

Pollacks lit another cigarette, and I remember wondering why he was going to smoke up his suit thirty minutes before his family was going to come hear him perform his compositions. I wondered why he wasn’t warming up right then, since he was the most serious of us at what he did, and a little bit of my hero-worship for him was getting tarnished. Some guys like Eddie played piano just so they could have something they could use to pick up girls. Nothing wrong with that; Liszt did that and still was magnificent. But if any one of us Yzerman kids was going to get famous—for real famous—it would be Pollacks. Pollacks had perfect pitch. Not that that was everything; but it was still something. When he last wrote me, though, he mentioned that he was having trouble getting into good graduate schools because admissions committees were a bit wary of a degree from Hulston College.

The rest of the audience poured out of the doors and a few of them pointed at the sky. A couple of sax players we knew wandered by the front of the building, piss-drunk, on their way to someplace or another, and I was thinking I would be drunk all the time too if I had to play saxophone. There was no bigger waste of life than playing sax, excepting maybe playing bassoon. One of sax boys called for the ball from Eddie, who sat up and launched it as hard as he could for no apparent reason. The pigskin was like a bullet going through the air, a blur, and it hit the drunk in the chest, knocking him down, the ball tumbling down the hill towards the football field’s bleachers. The other sax player chased after it a bit before falling on his ass on his way down the slope and starting to roll. We laughed pretty good at that.

I saw Jeff and his dad leaving the music building through the side door. The dad had the canvas bag slung over his shoulder, and was trying to zip up Jeff’s coat as Jeff was swinging his arms back and forth as if in an effort to make the task more difficult. I had seen on one of the nighttime interview shows how Jeff would occasionally have an angry outburst, since I guess autistic kids always suffered from sensory overload and that real life was sort of like a constant state of trauma for them. Or something like that. I remembered Tiller had seen that TV special with me.
We all watched from a distance as Jeff’s dad had to assist Jeff to their silver sedan, at times prodding Jeff’s legs so he would keep moving. Jeff didn’t seem to have a care in the world. Suddenly they stopped, with a jerk, and the dad leaned over to look at something on Jeff’s slacks; and then when Jeff turned towards us we saw that he had peed himself. He didn’t ever change his expression, or even act like he knew we were watching him. And then I realized that Jeff was as old as I was. I had been staring right at him during the whole recital but it took me until now to recognize that he wasn’t just a kid. He was in his twenties. And then it hit me, that, somewhere along the way, without paying attention, I had gotten all grown up too, and sitting on that bench, I felt kind of silly without really being able to say why.

“Man,” Lisa said. “Takes any doubt out of my mind that the dad’s taking the easy road and milking him for money.”

“Fuck him,” Tiller said, and then he started shouting at Jeff. “Yeah, fucker? Piss yourself? Go fucking cry!”

The father and son ignored Tiller, if they could even hear him. Jeff’s dad maneuvered his son into the front seat of the sedan, getting a roll of paper towels out and drying off Jeff’s legs. We didn’t really know where Tiller’s outbursts came from until later, when he had his junior recital late the next semester and his family came, including his (surprise!) mentally disabled younger brother, who sat in the front row and made squealing noises all through Tiller’s Beethoven; and we knew that little brother Jacob was never going to be on Oprah, because he wasn’t the kind of mentally disabled that gave kids special powers.

It was sad.

Eddie got the ball back from the sax guys, and Tiller began jogging out a route, ready to play catch. The silver sedan rolled away. I tried to push what just happened out of my mind as Aubrey came and sat next to me on the bench. She was cute in that Inuit sort of way, except every time she smiled you were reminded that orthodontia wasn’t too high on the Inuits’ cultural priorities. But it wasn’t really the smile that was bothering me; I was starting to get fatalistic about my romantic career, knowing I’d be gone in six months and probably slogging it around the globe with the Army for three years while she was busy taking scale exams and going to parties.

But she bumped her leg up against mine flirtatiously, and it cheered me up. The rest of us watched the sky as it melted away, and Eddie and Tiller tossed the ball at each other as if everything was fine.

All of that was a few years ago. It seems strange to me to think about the Hulston years, because on some days it feels like maybe they didn’t really happen; at bare minimum, my time at college could only be considered a four-year-long holiday. This week we were searching for the mujahideen who made the improved explosive device that detonated and killed Pfc. Newman on Monday outside an Iraqi police station. I had met Newman once; he seemed like a good kid. It really feels like a lifetime later that I am kicking down doors in Fallujah—or maybe two lifetimes, as this is now my second tour.

On Wednesday morning we had gotten a reliable tip on a house that sat the corner of one of Fallujah’s dangerous crossroads, but when my unit raided it that evening we didn’t find anyone home. We checked around for booby traps, and then for bombmaking materials, but we didn’t find any; after a little more investigating, we concluded that we had probably just sacked a regular civilian’s residence.

The sky outside was turning to dusk when we were told to wrap it up and roll out. While SSgt. Baker and Pfc. Williams were taking a last look around—the last two of my good friends still in Iraq—I noticed an old upright piano in the corner, and I poked at a couple of keys with the muzzle of my rifle; as the barrel bounced off of the ivories, a warbled tone came out of the upright, immediately signifying that it hadn’t been tuned in years, if it had ever been tuned at all. I sat down my rifle and began to play anyhow, first some Jerry Lee Lewis, but then something from my Hulston days, some Rachmaninoff, and even through the tinny chords I think you could tell something beautiful was down there, hiding beneath rusty harmonies. It sounded awful, but it sounded great. Baker and Williams came to see what I was doing, watched me, and told me they didn’t know I could play. They didn’t know a lot about my life before the Army; no one did.

And then, I don’t know what started it, but Williams laughed, and kept laughing, and then Baker started laughing too, and finally I began to laugh with them so hard I had to stop playing. Tears were rolling down my face I was laughing so hard.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: those were not your regular garden-variety ha-ha laughs. Those were the kind of laughs that came from the dark side of you, the laughs that knew nighttime was coming and that the insurgents would be active soon, the I-know-we-could-be-dead-soon laughs. Maybe you could call them the laughs of knowing your insignificance; I don’t know. I just know that the regular kind of laughing doesn’t happen over here very much. Not as much as it used to.

Yet as the low Mesopotamian sun still streamed through the open window and the piano’s dying notes still vibrated in the walls, we stood there laughing anyway, like idiot-savants oblivious to the world around us. It reminded me of a memory from my second life, of that moment on the bench when Aubrey gave me an imperfect smile as I watched the way the light was reflecting off the clouds; I was just sitting there, trying to decide whether it was kind of sad or kind of funny how I had started to figure everything out—how that, no matter how much we practiced, it was beginning to look like none of us were ever going to be more famous than a given sunset, because people were suckers for the sight of a little radiance bleeding into the color-violent horizon.