Book cover image for The White Noise Album
Heroinum/Dirt Heart Pharmacy Press (2016)
by JØnathan Lyons
The White Noise Album (Pages 44-98)
That was the worst hangover I'd ever had: a home-set broken nose; a home-set broken arm in a sling we'd made from an old sheet; the acid hangover crackling at the edges of everything; the alcohol hangover, with the asphalt-scarred feel it brings to your ass and innards; the neck still sore from the spinout and the rest; and the post-narcotic funk. And God, we'd killed people. I was miserable. I was sure we'd get caught.
But taking the party to our place meant one thing: Hospitality. Even if we had no money, even if we were hung over half a dozen different ways, by God even if we'd run from a fatal collision in which we were most likely the cause, we'd prepare breakfast for whoever had stayed. Today's menu was typical: an omelet-scramble of a dozen eggs; however much milk seemed right to Lee Ann's intuitive gaze; onions and green peppers chopped in the kitchen by Lee Ann or me; and topped with Mexican Style Velveeta, the cheese-spread with hot peppers and other Mexican stuff in it. We'd scoop the breakfast scramble onto a bed of hash browns from the freezer and melt the Velveeta and serve Jimmy Dean breakfast sausages on the side.
Lee Ann smiled at me over the food as it cooked through. Her look said one thing to me: All in all, things were OK. No one had died — none of us had died, anyway, nor even suffered a life-threatening injury. That was amazing! God, did I hurt, but she was doing it again: Somehow, even through all this, things seemed to be looking up. If you just looked at it right.
The Good Life, Pt. 2
The Rheinlander bottles in the window, that was a couple of weeks before the time with the rat. That was a stroke of genius. No shit. We stayed in bed for a few extra hours that morning, only getting up for aspirin, or to take a leak. I only barfed once, and it was a small one, no big deal. I did it to myself, sneaking a little hit of smack in the bathroom, away from Lee Ann, so she wouldn't know I still had any around. I didn't even mention it, just gargled my mouth out with a swig of beer. I made sure the phone was off the hook. No need to take calls from Burger King if I didn't work there.
Man, were we happy. I played music on the radio and Lee Ann stripped and sang along with Springsteen, but only a few lines, and with a huge smile: "Well lately when I look into your eyes, I’m goin down … " but she left out the parts of the song that were about a burnt out couple tired of each other and doing one another more harm than good, their love melting down into hatred, both setting each other up just to knock-a knock-a knock-a each other down, down, down, down. She gave me a blowjob to that song to celebrate my last day at Burger King, and ignoring the pain of the bruises she'd left on me, I thought to myself: Y'know, life is all right.
Miles was in to open the Fox Head at 11:30, usually, just before the lunch rush. We didn't even need to change course to avoid Burger King. That was off our beaten path. It was cold — winter mornings in Iowa are like that. So we bundled up, no big deal.
But the Fox Head was not open when we arrived, and it was something like 12 degrees out, far too cold to wait around outdoors. So we decided to wait in Dirty John's Grocery until we saw the Open sign light up.
After a while — I wasn't wearing a watch — Lee Ann started getting antsy. As she gnawed impatiently at a fingertip, a little old woman behind the counter seemed to take a suspicious interest in us. Lee Ann was not amused. Her hands had begun to shake, just a little. Nothing just anyone would notice. I was pretty sure it was just the LSD, not DTs; she didn't do all that much smack, really.
She turned to me. "Jesus Christ, why can't we just go over to the bar and get a seat?" she said. Her voice had taken on an angry edge. She turned and glared at the woman behind the counter. "What?" she demanded. The little old woman started, surprised. Lee Ann and I had been drinking for a couple of hours and were now otherwise medicated, and while I hadn't seen a reflection of myself, I could see it all over her: dark circles under sunken eyes, creases tracing the weariness around her eyes and mouth.
With an irritated huff and dismissive, stabbing wave, Lee Ann stalked away from the old woman. When she thought she was out of the woman's sight, she scooped a fifth of whiskey into her bag.
The little old woman said, "Is there anything I can help you find?" Her voice was full of worry — she probably didn't much fancy entertaining a couple of junkies already at it at this time of day — but she asked.
Iowans. You just gotta love Iowans.
I think that the woman might have seen Lee Ann shoplifting. She certainly could have, with all the security mirrors set up around the store. But she let Lee Ann walk out of the place with no hassles. I looked at the store's clock on the way out, smiling apologetically at the woman. It was 12:15. Other people had walked by the Fox Head, peered in, and moved on. We decided on George's, another bar only a block away. I'm amazed it didn't occurr to us before then, but we just usually didn't hang out there.
We trudged through the snow of unshoveled walks between us and George's.
There were customers at George's, probably a bigger crowd than otherwise, had the Fox Head ever opened for lunch. As we pulled off our layers, one by one, Lee Ann drove a fierce glare into me. This wasn't going to be good. The storm that was Lee Ann Russo was about to come ashore.
"Don't!" I whispered.
But she was past that point. Her voice climbed to a shriek that turned every head in the room. "You worthless sonofabitch, can't keep a job, even a shitty job, won't defend me when there's old ladies looking me up and down like I'm a thief or something!"
God, I loved that scream. But this was public. This was embarrassing.
"Where you folks been drinking earlier?" asked the bartender, a wiry thirtysomething man with stringy, colorless hair and the smoke-stained look of tavern life about him. He seemed familiar, somehow, though I couldn't place him.
"Oh, uh," I said, "just, y'know, at home. And stuff."
He shook his head No at me and walked over. "Sorry," he said. He addressed me by name. "Another day, maybe. But I can't have you two in here like this right now."
Lee Ann gave me a look trembling with rage, willing me to act, her expression delivering the message: Coward. Loser.
I guess by that time my reflexes and reaction time must have been down. I did take a swing at the bartender, but he just sidestepped it and slugged me. I know I went down. It didn't hurt much, really, but it numbed my cheek and knocked me over. Can't imagine how much that would've hurt if it'd happened in the days after the crash.
Lee Ann bitched and moaned all the way home. About a block from the police station she laid into me about the burger job again, and again, and again, and I just let one fly, doubling her over. A second too late I realized how dangerous it was to have done that right out here, in the open, in the daylight, near a police station. This was the kind of thing you kept private. But no police came. We were lucky.
The rest of that day is a blur of misery and intoxication. I remember watching something on TV. I remember the awful gray light of winter seeping in through the blinds. I remember laying low. When I heard a truck pull up outside, I knew it was Bobby Earle's rusted once-white '67 Ford pick-up. I peaked out the side window and sure enough, there he was, eyes glassy and unfocussed, dirty blonde hair unkempt and spraying out from under his Lorsban cap, a thermal vest on over a flannel stained with engine fluids, his moustache struck through with frozen snot. It was, indeed, my landlord. I recall Lee Ann seeing him once.
"Where'd he ever get the money to buy a place — even this place?" she said.
"Inherited," I told her. I'd heard about people getting something for nothing and not giving a shit about it. So it was with poor inner-city folks who were handed new homes in so many failed projects. So it was with Bobby Earle and the property left to him by his long dead daddy. Bobby Earle didn't need a job; but his daddy, seeing what his money was doing to Bobby, stipulated in his will that the estate was to provide Bobby with an allowance, the house he lived in, and the house we rented. That way, Bobby couldn't get at all the money at once to squander, I guess, and would still be taken care of. And his allowance was evidently enough for him to get by on, seeing how infrequently he actually seemed to try to get the money out of us. In exchange, though, we didn't dare call to have him fix anything. When the downstairs stool backed up, it pretty much rendered that room unusable.
Bobby drank very heavily, had shots with whatever he bothered to eat for breakfast. By the time of day when he started wondering about the last time he'd got rent from us, he was usually blind drunk. Not hard to fool him. He knocked unevenly for a few minutes; I saw his silhouette pass on the other side of the drawn living room curtains.
Then muffled cursing, boots crunching on snow and gravel in the drive, and the engine of the '67 turning over. Bobby Earle wouldn't try again today.
My internal clock was so messed up I fell asleep at 4:30 or so. When I woke up, the clock said 6:45, and it being dark out, I didn't know whether that meant daytime or night.
I cracked open a capsule of speed, cut it into two lines, and snorted them. Lee Ann was nowhere to be found. Least, not at the house.
I found her out at the Fox Head with Larry and Shitty, very, very loaded. Shitty was sitting pretty close to her, and I thought maybe she'd hit the end of the line with me. But she turned to face me, streamed smoke from her nose and mouth, through a beaming, mood-swung smile, and I knew everything was going to be all right.
Shitty turned to see what she was looking at. With a smile that hesitated for a hiccup, he waved me over, cigarette dangling from his mouth. "Dawn of the Fucking Dead, man, where'd you come from?"
He clapped me on the shoulder and pulled a mug from the fridge behind the bar.
Larry looked nervous, too, like the three of them had been caught at something. I did not care. Truly I did not. I let Shitty pour me a beer and used it to wash back some more cheap speed. There was music on the jukebox, a noisy crowd having drunken fun on a cold winter night, and I didn't know what day it was. Honestly, no idea. The cigarette smoke was so thick I didn't even have to light up. I felt like a gypsy. It was like surviving by picking what you wanted to eat from the apple trees as you walk pass, or from someone's garden. Things were looking up.
That's the thing about those nights: They weren't all that bad. We'd hit some rough spot, then Lee Ann would make all the bad just kind of drift away, even if she'd caused it in the first place. "Lee Ann says you were out pretty hardcore," said Larry.
"Yeah. She told us she shook you and shook you, but you were dead to the world," he said.
Huh. Never had any idea she tried to wake me. But then I thought maybe she didn't, really; maybe she just had to get away from me for a while. I don't know.
I don't know how late it was when everyone fell into their spots around the house, but Lee Ann fucked me somethin' special. It was still dark out. I told you about those le cheval voodoo possessions of hers. They were getting longer. I thought maybe she didn't give a fuck about consequences, or maybe she thought a kid would make everything right for us. A lot of people make that mistake. I don't know. But I had to fight her pretty hard to get pulled back in time. She tore up my back with her nails trying to hold on.
When she was off and I was holding a clenched fist over her, blood running down my back, she glared at me, locked eyes with me. She gave me a few seconds like that, then pushed past me. Through the open door of the bathroom, I could see her digging at the skin under her nails with the lid of a bottle cap.
After the crash, damn, did the cold made my broken arm ache. I didn't have it in a cast, but Shitty'd set it, and we'd hung it across my chest in a makeshift sling, a loop of old bedsheet tied around my neck. The pain you get when you move a broken arm the wrong way teaches you fast.
We putzed around the house, stayed fucked up most of the time. We all agreed it'd be best not to be out and about in a small town sporting injuries that made us look like we'd been in a car crash, not while the fatal wreck was still being looked into and was fresh on everyone's mind. My black eyes slowly faded from swollen and purple, to less swelled up and a kind of brown-beige mottle. Shitty and Larry brought us drugs and booze. Twenty days into it, Lee Ann and me were stir crazy and in need of other company. I tried out my arm free of its sling, and it didn't seem bad.
"Whaddaya think?" I asked Lee Ann. She was an amphetamine blur twitching her way along the seams of the house. I tried to tell her that speed was not the way to go when you needed to kill time, but —
"HellYesLet'sGetTheFUCKouttaThisHellHole," she said. Her eyes were glazed over, wet and distant, dilated. She shook. She glowered mercilessly at me, my black-mood baby. She blew past me, shoving against my hurt arm, and it didn't feel broken anymore, but the shove left it a little sore.
When we turned up at the Fox Head, Shitty looked like the sun just rose at his door.
"Guys!" he said, smoke gusting around the cigarette in his mouth. Shitty's teeth were ringed in stains that I presumed to be tobacco; it looked like eyeliner for teeth. He kept a full, brushy beard during the winter months. Shitty pulled a Marlboro hard pack from the pocket of his red-and-black flannel and shook some toward us. We took him up on the offer. Someone put a Joplin tune on the jukebox.
While we sat, smoked, and drank, Shitty caught us up on what we'd missed, which was pretty much nothing. Once or twice I saw Lee Ann making eyes at some young, clean-cut guys in a booth across the bar. I'd never seen them in the place before, hadn't seen them come in, but then, my back was to the door. I decided not to notice her making eyes. She could play flirt if she wanted. We were in this thing together.
The jukebox said, "Oh Lord, won'tcha buy me, a Mercedes Benz?"
Sitting across from Shitty with Larry someplace nearby, it felt so much like old times I forgot Lee Ann's mood. God damn, can that woman's mood swing. All at once, out the corner of my eye, I saw her glaring straight at me.
"You don't care," she said. "You don't care one bit about me."
"Now, Lee Ann — " I said.
"Three weeks in that fucking coffin of a house with you … "
"We had to, honey. We — "
"Almost got me killed in that wreck — " Her eyes smoldered angrily at me, her lips pulling back from her teeth in a clenching snarl.
That set off Shitty, who wanted no one talking in his bar about any fatal wrecks he'd had anything to do with. "Lee Ann, for fuck's sake, pipe down," he said, his voice a hoarse whisper.
"God-damned murderer, that's what you are, a god-damned mass — "
I didn't feel it coming. Her words had turned sour on me so quick I didn't even know she'd pissed me off. But she had. She'd crossed the line. And before I knew what I was up to, my elbow'd connected with her nose, knocked her off her barstool onto the floor. Blood streamed from her nose and mouth and she bawled, angry at the blood, angry at the world, angry at me.
Shitty said, "Look, you gotta get her outta here, I can't have you two in here like this."
I felt a deep, subterranean pain in the arm I'd broken and which I'd just nailed her with, the right. The break had been just below the elbow, and I obviously hadn't seen a doctor or anything, but I was at that moment pretty sure if I had, he wouldn't have advised me to hit things with it just yet.
Shitty was around to our side of the counter now, got us each by an arm and walked us outside. "Seeya next time," he said, smiling and nodding. He deposited us on the walk out front, turned, and headed back in, shaking his head.
The clean-cut guys spilled out, three of them, and the one who she'd been batting her eyelashes at came straight at me. I put up my dukes, but I usually lead with my right, and I'm not much of a fighter to begin with; having to stop and rethink how to lead with the left instead stopped me dead long enough for him to double me over with one to the gut. A boot or a fist or something caught me on the forehead and down I went, scraping my hands in the snow and sand and salt.
Then, in the quiet dark of the night, I heard Lee Ann shrieking. I looked up to find her on top of the clean-cut, looked like she'd jumped on his back from behind. She was howling all sorts of crazy shit at him about having to go through her if he wanted to hurt me, her husband with the broke arm anyway, what the fuck did he expect, the big tough man, like that.
Imagine that: Her husband.
In amazement, the clean-cut ducked and let her just kinda slide off him, over his head and onto the ground.
"Crazy bitch," he said, shaking his head. "Crazy bitch."
He turned and waved his cohorts along. "Let's go. Fuck these people. Lowlifes."
"We didn't want you down here, anyway!" The shriek again. After a second, she added: "We don't want your kind around here!"
Lord, did I love that shriek. Who could resist Lee Ann all fired up like a bag full of bobcats? Not I. I stuck out my left hand, a peace offering, and helped her to her feet.
Lee Ann looked around in a daze, turning slowly around, around, around in the snow. Her eyes came to rest on a nice, well-kept house down the block. A family home. A good place to live. It was two floors plus attic, an exterior that looked to be made of some kind of big gray bricks. There was still a Christmas tree lit in the window, though we'd laid low and stayed high through the holidays, and hadn't put up anything like that, didn't have anything like that.
Lee Ann wandered toward the big, stately structure, her mouth gaping.
"Look at that place," she said. We could see a woman in a house dress sitting at a table with a man whose shirt was the kind that looked like it had had a tie on it earlier. They were smiling. We could see two clean, glowing kids in the window, passing a bucket of rolls we knew were fresh and hot. We knew that because that was what would be right, the right way to do things. And this was one of those families that did things right just because that was the right way to do things. I'd never met a family that did things right just to do them right. A happy family gathered together at the dining room table for a square meal. The man of the house didn't even have a martini. I realized that I must have thought it was later than it was. But the scene was a sight to behold for the sheer, Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post cover normality of it. A sight whose picture-book normality stirred a burning shame somewhere deep down inside us both.
I usually kept such visions from my mind with a kind of mental game of tag. If such ideas never tagged me, I wouldn't have to worry about them. But to keep the ideas at bay, I had to be aware of them, had to live right at the edge of that truth: That I and Lee Ann were not that kind of people — that we were another kind.
Lee Ann had begun to cry, softly now.
I put an arm around her — cautiously, but I did. "What's got you down, baby?" I said.
She couldn't seem to not look at them. She just stared.
Very softly, she said, "Those people — why do people like them get to have what they've got? Why don't we get to have what they have? Why don't we get to have a nice, warm, fixed-up house, and a nice family, and a nice dinner, and nice, happy children … "
She suddenly looked like she'd put on 20 years. Her stare broke from the family, slipped down the walls of the house, down the yard, to her feet. I couldn't see her face then, but the tears fell to the cold ground.
Lee Ann snatched up a rock and flung it at the house with everything she had. It struck the gray brick of the side wall, didn't hurt anything. I was so caught off-guard I couldn't even think of what to say. She dropped to her knees, grabbing up more rocks, then lurched to a teetering upright and started raining gravel down on the house.
She said, "That's not true! That's not true! That's a lie — that's a goddamn lie!" like someone was trying to pull a fast one on her.
A light came on over the front door. I don't remember what I said, but I had to do a kind of running tackle, scooping her over my shoulder to get us outta there.
When we got home, we found a note from Bobby Earle's lawyer, threatening us with eviction if we didn't contact him and pay up to current. Our time on Dodge was running out.
My arm took a few more weeks till it stopped hurting so much. But a cold snap always made it ache. Damn. The morning was dark, overcast even more than usual for February in Iowa. Lee Ann was crying when she woke up. I was just rubbing at my arm, absentminded, didn't even hear her at first.
"Plate," I thought she said. I reached out to her, finding her in the darkness. My tongue tasted like a skid mark, and I in no way recalled coming to bed. I coughed my throat clear, felt around for a smoke.
"What's that, baby?"
"I said," her voice harsh, "I'm. Late."
A haze went over my eyes as I thought of all the things we could do to get out of it. There was always some way to get out of it.
"A baby could fix everything," she said, and her eyes were dreamy all of a sudden, and I thought of the dreams that must be flickering behind them. A baby room in our house. A wicker carriage. The white dress she'd wear on wedding day. The more I thought about it, the less likely it all seemed. The house wasn't our house — not really. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, Bobby Earle would be by to kick us out. I was often surprised that he hadn't done so yet. I'd let the grass go all summer last summer. Finally mowed it when the city stuck a complaint notice to the front door. That grass was nearly four feet tall, and still no sign of Bobby Earle. I think he missed the whole thing.
But Lee Ann was feeling good this morning, seemed happy enough for the size of the problems we found ourselves saddled with. I wasn't about to interrupt that. It was my time to make sure things kept looking up.
The Good Life, more
We needed out. The only thing keeping us from homelessness was Bobby Earle not showing up, and he was going to come knocking at the house sometime. That note from Bobby's lawyer and Lee Ann's and my last fight had sent Larry away with his bags to a one-room walk-up across town. We were the only ones left, and we didn't have any money for rent. For anything. It was good luck that we'd never accumulated much in the way of possessions. Otherwise, my plan of action would've never worked.
All we had in the world fit into three duffle bags. Lee Ann's road-weary Lincoln, expired plates and all, was enough to get us to the Days Inn practically next door, in Coralville, just off I-80.
The clerk gave us a look, and I guess we did look a bit washed out, but things were starting to look up. The hotel wouldn't ask us to pay up until it was time to check out. When that happened seemed to be up to us.
Our new home was dee-luxe. It had a bedroom with cable, a desk, and a dining table. A semi-separate kitchenette next to the table held a little fridge and microwave and a Mr. Coffee. There was an indoor pool. Lee Ann and I dined on room service burgers some nights, delivery pizza others. We'd get beer at the Hy-Vee down the road, then pour a couple into plastic coffee travel mugs, snap down the lids, and take them down to poolside, to the hot tub. One morning we met a guy who was traveling through on business, wound up at the Coralville Days more or less by chance. A secretary in his office chose that one because it wasn't as pricey as the hotels in Iowa City. Said he was there to sell paper to a printing plant south of town. A traveling paper salesman? I'd never heard of such a thing.
I told him me and Lee Ann were students who were between leases, riding out the time. He laughed.
"In college I guess you can do things like that," he said.
We laughed, too, nodding and sipping beer from our mugs. These were good times. We were living the good life, a jet-set hotel lifestyle. Everything was new and clean and worked.
We walked into the lobby, microwave meals and cold Milwaukee's Best in tow from the Hy-Vee, on our twelfth morning at the Days. The clerk cleared his throat at us to catch our attention. I walked over to the counter.
"What's up?" I said.
He looked around like he might get caught talking to us or something. "The manager said to have you two pay up," he said.
"Ah," I said.
"I thought I'd let you know before he came knocking on your door."
"Ah. Well, now, I appreciate that," I paused to look at his ID tag; "Jerry. I really do much appreciate it."
Lee Ann and I rolled everything into our duffle bags and our grocery bags and loaded up the Lincoln. We wanted to stay in the area, because a little townie tavern called Billy's had grown on us and we wanted to be able to walk there. We set down about three blocks from the Days, at a small motel called The Sunflower Inn. The Sunflower was an older building made of big cinder blocks, painted white, a strip of individual rooms sharing walls, side by side. There was an outdoor pool, but it wasn't late in the year enough to use it. But all that didn't matter much. We'd found another place to stay. Lee Ann just kept smiling at me, happy to have me showing her the good life. She talked about quitting smoking. I wasn't interested, but kept that to myself.
Our fifth night at the Sunflower, the time seemed to have arrived. We watched cable with our beers until sunset, then walked down to Billy's. I ran a tab and made like a big spender. We drank like there was no tomorrow, smoked our way through three packs. When we'd put back enough beer, I ordered a round of Wild Turkey shots. Then, with Lee Ann giggling drunk, I ordered another. I cracked open a capsule of Benzedrine and, while she was visiting the Ladies' Room, stirred it into her beer. I added the contents of a capsule of blue cohosh. Then another. An herb expert at the little hippie store told me it was just the thing. I stirred her beer again. I don't even remember how many I bought. But I remember paying the tab with a check. We could go to Billy's one more time, maybe, before they were after us for that.
I woke to Lee Ann gasping and sobbing. She was throwing up in the bathroom. She must have felt awful with all the toxins we'd pumped into her together at Billy's. There was a wide, wet red circle on her side of the bed. And I tell you, despite a pounding hangover and a sense of impending diarrhea, relief swept over me.
In the bathroom, I cradled Lee Ann's head, running my fingers through her hair.
"Don't worry," I said. "Nothing's gotta change. Don't worry. You'll see." Things were looking up. 'Cause see — it was my turn to do it. My turn to get things to looking up again for her.
The Helvetica Story
"The Helvetica Story" first appeared in the journal Eleven-Eleven, Issue 15, August 2013.
I heard about Helvetica. What a story! As a child, all the print-journalism fonts used to bully him.
"Snub nose!" they'd sneer.
Often, he would find "GET SOME SERIFS!" on typewriter paper epoxied to his school-locker door, in the telltale script of his tormentors: Times and his cousin, Times New Roman. The Times cousins often brought Courier with them to heckle Helvetica. And Courier was a good enough guy, actually, but a bit dull. They only brought him along because he took up so much room.
It was frustrating, being harassed by fonts that had been around since hot-metal typesetting; it was no secret that exposure to that much lead early in life caused learning and behavioral disorders, so what was he supposed to do? He didn’t want to get a reputation for picking on the slow kids.
The calligraphic fonts did their worst, looking askance down their lavish swoops at him, but they’re so tight-kerned you couldn’t pry a needle from their ass-cracks with a tractor.
Still, it all took its toll, chipping at Helvetica’s self-confidence day-in, day-out. Discrimination against the sans-serifed continued to plague him, leading to a misspent young adulthood of sex, drugs and rock & roll. He went out to nightclubs on the prowl, and he got around, littering the town with offspring he’d refuse to acknowledge — Arial, Futura, Univers — but the lineage was no secret. They were chips off the sans-serif block. Anyone could see those vertical and horizontal strokes from a mile off.
When the computer age began to dawn, the people he was contractually bound with began demanding exorbitant licensing fees. To spite them, he renounced the name he was known by commercially. He became “the typeface formerly known as Helvetica.” He started calling himself \—/, which was irksome, because as far as anyone could tell, it was unpronounceable. “Artists,” they said, shaking their heads.
But it bore the clean lines and straightforward angles that were his calling card, and the fans still recognized him.
He went around wearing caps with bills as camouflage, and jackets with epaulettes, to blend in among the serifed. Then he went to work on his skin, tattooing on whirling tribal patterns, flowing sickles and curlicues to mask the bland, smooth lines he always found staring back at him from the mirror.
In those dark days he hung out in the clubs at night with the twin goth typefaces Morpheus and Mason. The Avant-garde fonts were part of that whole scene, and got \—/ (nee "Helvetica") hip to new modes of expression through his art. He discovered that he had a knack for photography. His still images captured the majesty of the hot- and cold-set presses of yesteryear. These were well-received in small, bohemian galleries, but eventually he discovered that he had access to a greater range of expression that the additions of motion, sound, and lighting afforded.
And then \—/ had moment of clarity, a brilliant beam of light striking his imagination from another place: Gone were rules suggesting that a typeface must be set in stone — or in lead, or on a printed page, for that matter. His first use of the new medium was to change the rules, conceiving of an ever-shifting, animate font. His creation would be one wherein parts of each character would be showcased separately by its own, individual lighting, rotating at its own rates and angles. In this new medium, he found harmony between the serifed and sans-serifed that he had always found missing in his own life. A watchful eye would capture the transformations: At times each section of each character had its serifs, but those flourishes would fade as people watched, to cycle back again. He called the concept font Animalgam. (It even made Prototype, from the edgy Virus Fonts, jealous to have been crafted in such a static format!)
He unveiled Animalgam as a gallery installation, a high-definition, ever-shifting animation, when along came a man, a designer who would become a thief, who'd come to desperation and nearly to suicide with his own inability to inspire a client. Admittedly, this was a big client, and this job would make or break one’s reputation in this business. And this client had become impatient.
The thief, whose name does not merit mention here (why give him further fame, even if it is infamy?), pilfered Animalgam to satisfy this big-ticket client. The client was a 24-hour news channel whose executives wanted to add an edgy design element. They commissioned a logo so distracting that viewers wouldn't be able to pry their eyes from it. Thus was Animalgam stolen.
Of course \—/ never saw a penny for it. And he felt robbed. He did.
But he had had the troubled youth of one bullied for being different; the days and nights spend off the map, hanging with goth and industrial types, and even those crusty-punk corroded fonts, Vintage Typewriter and the other worn-down fonts. He’d even hung out with Gill Sans, though not for long; certainly Gill Sans had been sleek and perfectly legible, even from a distance, but his unsavory paraphiliac obsessions, particularly concerning his own children, found him quickly demoted to persona non grata).
While \—/ was out of the spotlight, imitators stepped up, trying to claim his spot. A boy band of look-alikes appeared with corporate sponsorship. Its lineup:
Helv, by Microsoft;
Monotype’s CG Triumvirate;
Paratype’s version, Pragmatica;
Bitstream’s Swiss 721; and
Nimbus Sans, from the type designer URW++.
But, like the group of look-alike / dress-alike / James-Dean-hairstyle-alike musicians hired to back Morrissey when the Smiths called it quits, the fans knew that they were not interchangeable – not quite, anyway – with \—/.
And others – always others. He saw his reflection as he walked downtown one afternoon and thought he’s gained some weight, until he realized that he was only see Helvetica Rounded, just out for a stroll.
When the boy band broke up, his corporate sponsors renamed Helv MS Sans Serif; rebranded with their corporate identity and with the rise of the Web, ironically enough, MS Sans got most of the attention for a while.
That was the arrival of the Internet age, and with Windows the dominant operating system, MS Sans was everywhere. But the new age brought another surprise: On-screen, the serifed suddenly looked awkward. Chunky. Clumsy. Probably not very smart, and certainly not very stylish.
The new media shined a hard light on the serifed, and found them pixelated and wanting.
Into this new era, \—/ awoke and, his old name now spreading, knew that it was time to reclaim his title and emerge into the spotlight once more. His re-emergence demanded a makeover that would impart sophistication, maturity, perhaps a whiff of something European. Thus did \—/'s Neue (new, in German) persona arrive.
the reflecting pool
"the reflecting pool" first appeared in Hotel Amerika Issue 8.1, Fall 2009.
6.8 josh sommerford gazes into the swimming pool, its surface glassy, reflective, its floor glittering pool of water and sunlight and glass, and time pooling, pooling, in the pool. their pool: that of josh sommerford and josh sommerford's wife, teema; their pool. but it has seen better days. electrically-luminous, drying leaves scuff along the poured concrete in the early autumnal breeze. a skin of dead insect chitin roofs one corner.
1.1 when josh and teema first met, he was certain that the fates must have planned their unlikely meeting in time and space, specifically during their undergrad years at iowa, working in hair nets, bulky, starched-white uniforms, and under tube lighting, at the unfortunately-named burge food service. burge. purge. regurge. ick.
this is the earliest of their moments; it is the earliest of the reflections.
this is the earliest of their moments; it is the earliest of the reflections.
1.2 he can see it all as though it's playing out before him; he reflects upon the reflections in his reflecting pool, his and teema's, reflecting the moments — their moments, vivid as the original. meeting her, stunned with her beauty and vivacious energy, teema teeming with life! hair nets and bulky starched things and all, but his vision cut through all that to find him stunned by her beauty. in a hair net! imagine.
6.9+ 1.2 he can see it all as though it's playing out before him; he reflects upon the reflections in his reflecting pool, his and teema's, reflecting the moments — their moments, vivid as the original. he's not well, our josh, we can see that. his hair is unkempt, the scotch from last night fouls his first-thing-in-the-morning breath, to which he is adding only coffee. the effect is a taste on his tongue, the taste and texture of a skid mark on pavement. he hasn't shaved in a few days — not long enough to seem to be in active pursuit of a beard, merely unwashed and hardscrabble; he looks like shit — because, who's gonna care, right? besides, there are no more mirrors in the house.
x.1 all these moments, reflected …
6.4 he sometimes sees himself reflected, sometimes a few years younger, healthier, hair cared-for and beard kept in check. happier times, these, with josh, and josh with teema. he can see it in his eyes in these moments: he felt preposterously lucky to have her, had hardly believed when, after working with her for seven months, he finally worked up the courage to ask her out. he can see that gratitude, see it reflected in his eyes, reflected in the pool, these early, happy moments.
6.5 other times, he sees himself toward the end of their time — his and teema's time — together. if he cared about himself, he would not like what he saw. but he no longer cares. he first noticed the reflections in the pool a few days after teema left, packed up her prius and their dog, boris the borzoi, and, like a wrecking ball to his gut, drove away, boris grinning his canine grin, tongue lolling, as he watched through the rear window and the prius pulled away. pulled away forever. dumb damn dog. josh does not feel like joshing. he is, instead, devastated. teema is the love of his life. he cannot come to terms with the notion that she will be absent from it from here on out.
2.1 the swimming pool (josh sees as he reflects upon their lives together) has become the epicenter in their lives. she has become a poet of that rare, publishing kind, and teaches poetry classes part-time at a local college; and he has a dull but well-salaried position documenting an internal software project for at&t in new jersey. the two fling themselves into their new professional lives, gathering a circle of good friends and their families, and begin hosting parties 'round the pool. people bring beer, wine, floaties, kids. it quickly become a community, these people, these drinks, this pool: everything revolves around the pool that summer. everything —
4.2 — at first they do not react to teema's withdrawal from the festivities.
the gatherings, in fact, do go on —
x.2 all these moments, reflected …
y.1 all this light, pooling …
note 1.1 sometimes, an object can accumulate an extraordinary weight as a story progresses, can become the black hole about which the story orbits, accumulating meaning, waiting to one day, perhaps, suck in the rest of the story, bring it crashing to its demise. Think, e.g., of hulga's wooden leg, in flannery o'connor's "good country people."
3.2 josh sees himself joshing around the pool, sloshing a bit of gin and tonic on the poured concrete surrounding it, he wearing one of his trademark pairs of mirrored sunglasses from his oddly large collection of them. "don't fall in," teema cries, but she's laughing as she does so. and, josh sees, there's that look again in her eyes: a happiness, a wonderment, a vibe. she retreats to their kitchen and returns with a fresh pitcher. boris trots about, the people sneaking him little slurps of beer, tongue lolling through the middle of that borzoi grin — not the smartest of hounds, but a happy one.
6.1 josh is wracked with abandonment, betrayal, dumped, left to die, at this end of the spectrum. teema is gone, and boris the borzoi with her, packed up and left to her parents' home in iowa. teema has left. has left him. teema has. he gathers several pairs of discarded mirrorshades from the previous eve, hurls them to the concrete, and stomps on them. lenses fly. he tosses them into the pool; the mirrored lenses spark up at him from the pool floor. it strikes josh as having an odd, shattered beauty to it. and as this notion strikes him, he catches a moment, a flash — something passing across the lenses. what the — ?! he gathers more of last night's glassware from around the pool and begins a rain of shattering glass down upon the pool's floor, a sparkling, electric shower of light captured, however briefly, in slow-motion descent, repeating luminescence through the transmarine atmosphere, a shower of sparks and glints and shards of light.
x.3 all these moments, reflected …
y.2 all this light, pooling … a static rain of phosphor and moments, water and glass and light … a labyrinth of moments …
6.6 and josh sees them: the moments. his moments — their moments together — playing out across the shattered mirrorscape of the pool. these moments, these everyday happinesses, that he thought had disappeared forever, gone down the road toward iowa with the dog, he sees them … sees
1.3 — their moments, vivid as the original. a lifeline to these happinesses, these scenes.
6.9 josh fears that if he leaves the reflecting pool, the reflecting will stop. ah — there's the first date, his mistaken impression that a guy friend she knew might instead be a boyfriend, the awkwardness on both sides as he and teema worked up the courage to try some expression of affection, a hand-holding, a kiss, even, maybe, maybe … . josh feels a panic: he can only see the scene in fragments. vivid fragments, but a patchwork of reflections in the pool, in the shards. he wants it — wants to relive it as fully as he might. into the house he runs, to the kitchen, to the cupboards. he carries glassware out, the long-stemmed ones, the no-stemmed wine glasses, and begins shattering them into the swimming pool, shower after tiny, isolated squall of sparks and memory and light flickering down through the water. out come juice glasses, the blue-glass goblets, the red-glass snifters, and shattering, down they go.
x.4 all these moments, reflected … across the pool's surface and its floor.
y.3 all this light, pooling … a static rain of phosphor and moments, water and glass and light … a labyrinthine, luminous pool of reflections …
1.4 there they are. josh can see them reflected in the hurricane of glass and lenses on the pool's bottom: their moments, reflected in a dizzying, dazzling labyrinth of light: a car he can't afford to ferry him to and from her parents' home across the state, in des moines, that first summer. they spend time together, skinny-dip at a local country club after hours, scaling a low fence and shedding clothing, excitement piqued with the risk. he sees the two, naked in the pool, reflected in his own pool and its reflective glass gazing ground. he can reach out — he can almost touch it … almost …
7.1 at one end of this stands josh, no job, no degree, no pool, but he's just met a girl. her name is teema. at the other end stands josh, older, broken, stopped making it to work so the degree isn't much use, a gazing pool full of sparks and moments, glittering, electric moments, vivid as the original, and no girl named teema. but he has the pool. he is afraid to leave its side now, afraid the reflections will stop, and he'll be left without her forever.
x.5 hairnets … first date … first jobs … a beautiful, happy, if not very bright, russian wolf hound … the pool … the people round the pool, the entourage … life that summer in orbit about the swimming pool …
3.1 he glimpses the parties: their friends, their friends' kids, boris the borzoi, gin-and-tonics all 'round, big band music alternating with underground music brought along by the male members of this group, this entourage, in an ongoing competition to out-hip one another, the music swimming out from the house, their house, his and teema's. their entourage beginning to arrive shortly after five, just after clocking out, and, hell, they're friends, so josh and teema show them where the spare key is kept, just in case that godawful central jersey, north-south traffic ties one or both of them up. the gatherings must go on!
3.3 drinks slosh on the poured concrete. tipsy friends occasionally play up their tipsiness, tumbling into the swimming pool in full dress; that gets a laugh every time.
1.x: reflective, reflect
6.7 josh sommerford gazes into the swimming pool, its surface glassy, reflective, its floor glittering, a coherent pool of sunlight, and time pooling, pooling, in the pool. their pool. josh sommerford; josh sommerford's wife, teema; their pool. but it has seen better days. electrically-luminous, drying leaves scuff along the poured concrete in the early autumnal breeze leaves brown with death have swirled into one corner, and dead mosquitoes ride the waves nearby.
breeze. leaves brown with death have swirled into one corner. a skin of dead insect chitin roofs one corner another.
4.1 the entourage, you see, come to admire josh and teema, this ideal-seeming young couple, recently married and still shining like a honeymoon, come to idolize their marriage, see it as an example of how best to go about the business of lifetime partnership. that radiance, that clear affection, drew the entourage into an orbit around them, each friend alight like a tiny nova, luminous, alive. they could never conceive of life after work that summer, around josh and teema and boris and the glimmering pool, as finite, endable, mortal. these moments were their moments, too. which is why — at first — they do not react to teema's withdrawal from the festivities.
— the gatherings must go on!
4.3 they want to ask what's wrong, what's bothering teema, the first day of her withdrawal. they want to, but they do not. they want to on the second day, too, and so on, but because bad news about josh and teema would be a heretical thought, they do not ask him, and she does not appear.
0.4 everything begins to zero here —
6.2 and josh begins to see them: the moments. his moments — their moments together — playing out across the shattered mirrorscape of the pool. these moments, these everyday happinesses, that he thought had disappeared forever, gone down the road toward iowa with the dog, he sees them … sees , horribly, himself: disheveled, unshaven, skin flaking, hair a stalled hurricane of dandruff.
6.2, addendum he can't stand the sight of himself, his ruinous face a reflection of the lives he's ruined, a reflection of the ruin he has wrought upon himself, the ruin he has, himself, become. he roams the house, smashing mirrors and tossing the shards into the reflecting pool.
0.3 everything begins to zeroes here —
x.6 all these moments, reflected …
0.2 everything begins to zeroes here —
everything zeroes here —
0.0 everything zeroes here — moment zero —
josh sees her, reflected in the shards of light and reflection, a mirror of shattered glass and transmarine, see the look on her face when she realized the truth.
x.7 all these moments, reflected …
4.4 — the gatherings must go on!
the gatherings, in fact, do go on —
5.1 the entourage keeps the fire burning, keeps the gatherings going, though a few raise eyebrows when teema's prius isn't in the driveway one day when they arrive, and thereafter does not return. they keep bringing the beer, the drinks, the so-hip mix cds, and themselves. but then josh stops coming out to the pool, as well.
4.5 — the gatherings must go on!
the gatherings, in fact, do go on —
4.6 someone leaves an old fedora on the kitchen counter, near the screen door, so everyone can pony-up for things like paper plates and plastic glasses. what the hell? they have the spare key. they clean up after themselves diligently. but after a few days an unease creeps into the entourage — for who are they entourage to, if both josh and teema have withdrawn?
4.7 — the gatherings must go on!
the gatherings, in fact, do don't go on —
they peter out as the members of the entourage begin to contemplate the heretical: josh and teema have had a falling out. the last of the die-hards calls it a season when josh, who has been out of sight these past few days, suddenly reappears, litters the pool bottom with the shards of the house's glassware and all of the reflective lenses from all of his sunglasses, and takes to falling asleep in a lawnchair by the pool,. he is not well, our josh; he hasn’t shaved lately. his hair a blizzard of dandruff, always about in the same pajamas and robe, all sliding toward ruin. he can’t stand the sight of himself.
x.8 hairnets … first date … first jobs … a beautiful, happy, if not very bright, russian wolf hound … the pool … the people round the pool, the entourage … life that summer in orbit about the swimming pool …
and teema’s voice, like winter wind across razorwire, a sound so sharp and crystalline it threatens to shatter in to a blizzard of tiny, blazing crystals of ice and fire: “why the hell would you ever do this to me?”
… finished. in the reflection of the reflecting pool, josh sees the tale-end of his time with teema. her name is ghislane, she works with josh, and when teema finds the hotel receipts there is no consoling her. josh, unable to admit the scope of his sin, simply returns to the party. for a time, anyway. teema does not.
7.2 the whole of it has become a much, much narrower passage than before; he can only go back as far as meeting her, and never makes it past the first reflections in the pool. at the far end stands josh, no job, no degree, no pool, but he's just met a girl. her name is teema. at the other end stands josh, broken, stopped making it to work so the degree isn't much use, a gazing pool full of sparks and moments, glittering, electric moments, vivid as the original, and no girl named teema. but he has the pool. this is all he has left now; it is the last of their moments — the last of their reflections. he is afraid to leave its side now, afraid the reflections will stop, and he'll be left without her forever.
x.9 all these moments, reflected …
note 1.2 sometimes, an object can accumulate an extraordinary weight as a story progresses, can become the black hole about which the story orbits, accumulating meaning, waiting to one day, perhaps, suck in the rest of the story, bring it crashing to its demise. think, e.g., of hulga's wooden leg, in flannery o'connor's "good country people."
josh and teema's pool; it is a finite pool, a gathering of shards, moments, and light, shattered glass and mirrors, hairnets at one end and unkempt psychological ruin at the other: the end of their moments, all swirling now in the far corner with the leaves, brown with death, and the chitin bodies of the season's mosquitoes.
“32 Ft/Sec2” first appeared in the Journal of Experimental Fiction, Issue 39, January 2011.
1.1b damon's life flashes before her eyes: playing doctor with janet, the girl who lived down the block. wondering, now, what has her life been like
1.1a lorraine's life flashes before his eyes: the drought that year during her childhood when the spiders went crazy, webbing anything and everything they could, and how spectacular and terrifying all of that gossamer silver thread was, wafting in the breezes, draping from every outdoor surface.
3.1 the inexplicable sense of heartbreak and loss when his first girlfriend who, at age 12, he barely knew really; how could something so small actually knot him up inside?
9.1 her husband returning from world war ii, a war hero — her husband!
2.1 falling —
moments flashing —
but this is not normal time, it is brain time
and it is nearly at a standstill …
0.2 he is falling through the air now. nothing can stop that. he's taken the leap.
7.1 the american dream: a small cottage on adams street, in a young neighborhood; the life-giving joy of a family that rapidly grows, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight; the horrible death of the soul that a stillbirth bring to the couple: the injustice, the inversion of time represented by parents burying their child.
4.1 his job as a copy editor, his fluency in four style manuals, and webster's dictionary of english usage, which none of the other, more seasoned editors had even heard of, his pride at being one of the vanguard who watch over the english language. late nights working for a morning newspaper, later nights, occasionally, as the night editor, the one who sticks around after the paper's put to bed, waiting to proofread the first copies as they roll off the press.
10.1 jim — her husband! — a sizeable man to begin with — gains weight over the course of their years together; she feeds him well the rest of the week, and on sunday, she feeds the extended family pot roast with mashed potatoes, stewed veggies, and buckets of gravy. jim retires from his car-delivery job at 65, right on time, and, with a growing sense of uselessness, tumbles into a slow cycle of despair and, two months to the day after retiring, dies of heart failure, leaving lorraine to settle the details, the remains, of their lives together. working with her children, she finds an apartment within a retirement home, and settles in to a schedule: card games monday night, big band music from the '40s and '50s on tuesdays, wine socials thursdays and saturdays, etc. she is enjoying a glass of wine in the peace of a seat on the screened-in porch of her apartment —
5.1 meeting damiana there, of all places: at the news desk. they worked together well into the night of august 31, 1997, an evening that began with a bulletin over the newswire around 4:30:
***news alert***news alert***news alert*** /
princess diana in car accident. broken arm.
more to follow.
and the two of them looking at each other, knowing that a broken arm would not provoke a news alert like this, that — they both knew it — something bigger was happening. — and learning a few hours later that diana was dead, and that a slow news night had suddenly become something no one working the evening shift would be escaping anytime soon. and the following morning, the two of them greet sunset at his place after work for a drink, the newspaper having become an all-night project, rather than getting off at the usual midnight punch-out time. and that being the beginning, as the moments passed and neither moved to end their conversation, and they realized something was happening between them.
6.2 — to take a flying leap from the retirement home across from their his apartment
2.3 falling —
moments flashing —
but this is not normal time, it is brain time
and it is nearly at a standstill …
a nearly immortal moment
he will fall, eventually, but for now, his thoughts and hers swirl in one another's minds
8.1 and lorraine's war-hero husband taking over the finances, cashing the checks, meeting his war-hero buddies at the legion hall saturdays, returning home with precious little of it remaining at the end of the day. and their fights over the finances, her screaming at him, demanding that he take better care of his children and not drink his paycheck every saturday. and their children filling the small house past capacity, the two adding bunk beds in the second bedroom and more in the basement. and the children growing up and one-by-one, attending columbus high school, the city's catholic high school, and, one-by-one, the children graduating and moving on to find jobs. the 60s were well afoot by now, and the children, one-by-one, found jobs or, in the case of the oldest boy, went to fight in vietnam.
2.2 falling —
moments flashing —
but this is not normal time, it is brain time
and it is nearly at a standstill …
a nearly immortal moment
3.2 the inexplicable sense of crushing, inescapable heartbreak and loss when his first girlfriend who, at age 12, he barely knew really; how could something so small actually knot him up inside? damiana was, pointlessly, torn from him in a wreck with a pick-up piloted by a man who was swervingly making his way down highway 35 from austin's sixth street bar circuit. it was weeks ago — months; why can't he shake the sense of horrifying desolation?
and lorraine's husband, jim, slowly coming around, slowly spending fewer days at the legion hall, slowly bringing more of his paycheck home to the family. and the two of them, empty nesters now, watching the first of their grandchildren arrive, and the presence of children's laughter in their small cottage again, after so many years.
0.3 he is falling through the air now. nothing can stop that.
hurtling earthward at a speed approaching 32 feet per second, squared
0.1 when his eyes —
when her eyes —
and they connect, form a circuit,
0.0a fuse. they are locked in now, he in hers, she in his. he is falling. nothing can stop that now; he's taken the leap. but this moment, this exists in its own kind of time: it exists in the mindlocked space of brain time, their neurons firing at the speed of light, compared to which 32 feet per second squared is a syrupy, crawling pace.
(from his perspective, she realizes, she'll seem upside-down, though he's the one who's wrongside-up …)
6.1 their wedding, the wedding of damon and damiana, planned and scheduled for three months out, a date mocking his loss from its marked spot on the calendar that hangs in the kitchen. he is out with the other editors after finishing up one night, when it happens: a friend of one of the women he works with comes home with him afterwards, because when you get off work at midnight, two a.m. seems pretty early, and they sleep together. in the morning, he feels like a monster, subhuman, because although damiana has been gone for months now, he still feels, burning at his core, a sense that he has betrayed her. he cannot stand his own company. he considers the worth of life without damiana, and he decides —
4.2 his job as a copy editor, his fluency in four style manuals, and webster's dictionary of english usage, which none of the other, more seasoned editors had even heard of, his pride at being one of the vanguard who watch over the english language. late nights working for a morning newspaper, later nights, occasionally, as the night editor, the one who sticks around after the paper's put to bed, waiting to proofread the first copies as they roll off the press.
0.3 he is falling through the air now. nothing can stop that.
hurtling earthward at a speed approaching 32 feet per second, squared
2.4 falling —
moments flashing —
but this is not normal time, it is brain time
and it is nearly at a standstill …
a nearly immortal moment, stretching on and on
he will fall, eventually, but for now, his thoughts and hers swirl in one another's minds, when she decides that she's staying right where she is: in his headspace. forgive yourself, she thinks to him, and in the next instant: fission will occur, a separation; and damon will taste cabernet on his lips.
0.x he she will fall through the air now at that moment. nothing can stop that. but that moment has yet to arrive. and it is the current, nearly immortal moment with which we are concerned.
not falling —
not hurtling earthward at a speed approaching 32 feet per second, squared.
"Waterloo Talking" first appeared in Rivet: The Journal of Writing that Risks, Issue 1, Summer 2014.
Hughes Avenue in Waterloo, Iowa, was not a new street, and not in a new neighborhood even back then, but with so many kids arriving on the scene, so many young mothers and so little traffic, the concrete seemed more like a playground, a surface suited more for children than for cars. That's where we lived, we Farbens, that mid-'70s summer: In the house on Hughes Avenue where my mother had grown up. She'd hang laundry out on the line and white sheets that had flapped in the wind for a few hours would come back fresh as the breeze.
It was the first time that word had ever come between us, and it tore open a fissure between David and I that we never managed to make right.
We'd steal a flower from the riot of unchecked growth in old "Auntie" Agnes' yard for our mother. If we only took a single flower, and only once in a while, and then only from the blossoms that pushed out over the sidewalk, through the black iron fence surrounding her raised, terraced yard, she never seemed to mind. Fritz never did.
Fritz was Auntie Agnes' dog, a barrel-chested monster mutt who, whatever else was in his pedigree, showed clear signs of German Shepherd lineage. But there was more. Fritz was bigger than any Shepherd we'd ever seen, and his hair, though short, was a riot of shades and tints. Alongside a German Shepherd's browns, blacks, and golds, Fritz had streaks of blonde and tan and red slashing through his coat. Fritz loved us neighbor kids. He'd draw his hulking form to the edge of the fence and, with a cautious, delicate whine, ask for our hands and attention.
My family never really had much money; my mother dropped out of high school when she became pregnant with me at 17, and my dad worked construction.
For us, brotherhood arrived unexpectedly: Black and my age, David's parents became traffic fatalities on Highway 20 in a fiery head-on collision during a thunderstorm. A pickup coming the other way misjudged the slickness of the roads and hydroplaned smack into them. My friends and I wowed each other with the ghoulish details we conjured of the scene, envisioning the carnage through the lens of our imaginations: The driver of the pickup hadn't been wearing a seatbelt. Had he launched, a human torpedo bursting through the windshield and into the car carrying David's parents as they returned from dinner at a Cedar Falls restaurant? Did they all burn to death? What did that smell like? We imagined the whole thing like an action movie, the same collision viewed again and again from different angles.
That sort of speculation died off when David came to live with us. No one could bring himself to ask another child, especially one who looked so lost, so dazed, such questions. I was 11 years old, just three and a half months older than David. Mom and Dad were his godparents.
My father, a stern man of sturdy Germanic stock, seemed mystified as to how he'd suddenly become the father of a black child; somehow, something seemed out of whack with us. And David, ebony-skinned David, stood out like a film negative of the rest of us.
I hated him. Not at first — I mean, we were great friends when we were just friends, but it was different when he was my brother, got all that doting and attention from my parents; they were trying to engineer a comfortable readjustment and give him space to mourn. David didn't seem to recognize that the crash had really happened, that his parents were really dead. And in the midst of that haze of denial, my parents suddenly didn't seem to have time to give me any attention.
The Bickner kids were a grubby, scrappy pair of boys training to follow in their father's white trash footsteps. Their future was to become two more on the town's long list of habitual offenders, bump from job to shitty job, land in the county jail occasionally. They lived only a few blocks away, up Argent Way, which crossed Hughes near our house. Johnny, held back in 8th grade, and Joey, who like David and I was about to begin sixth grade, already pedaled, sullen and sunken-eyed, around the neighborhood, trying to look like bikers, toughs, bullies. Unlit cigarettes poached from their father's pack dangled from their lips. They used to find sticks, fallen branches, and clang them along the wrought-iron bars of Auntie Agnes' fence, taunting Fritz into a hulking, snarling rage. I told you that Fritz loved us neighbor kids. Really, Fritz loved every kid in the neighborhood except for the Bickners, and the Bickners worked to earn that dog's wrath.
David was the first black person in our neighborhood. There was a kid named Cullen, who was not white, but not black either, and none of us actually knew how to peg his pedigree. And we didn't dare ask, either, for fear of showing our stupidity. Cullen had black hair in great, wavy curls atop his bronze head. His quick, confident smile, his humor and good looks, charmed us all.
Cullen welcomed David aboard on our missions to Exchange Park to climb the things we weren't supposed to climb. I felt betrayed. I fumed in silence when Cullen, too, suddenly divided his attention between us. To me, my unexpected brother was stealing away my parents and my friends.
We climbed up the outside of the rocket-shaped platform and slide, scrambled backwards up the slide. From the outside, we wedged our feet through the bars meant to keep kids in, following the curving steps all the way to the top, 30 feet up. Simple! I remember watching from inside, as David edged along the rocket's outer bars, unaware in that child's way of the danger he was putting himself in. As his bronze hands clutched the bars before me, and he braced to climb higher, I thought: How easy it would be to give his fingers a quick punch and watch him fall; it would be a terrible accident, and my parents would rush in to comfort me over the loss of my best friend, my new brother.
I didn't do it. I wasn't quick enough, and the moment passed, and in the aftermath, as my brother scaled the rocket, my heart clutched and lungs ached like I'd been kicked by a horse. My eyes burned with guilty, salty tears. I had seriously considered killing David when he had done absolutely nothing to me, apart from survive his parents' deaths. I never told anyone about that.
We'd all scrape our nickels and dimes together to buy ourselves a bottle of grape Nehi, a kid's candy-sweet soda. Whenever any of us felt the need, we'd find the bottle sitting there, on a picnic table near the slide, and take a pull from the shared treat.
Sometimes the Dewitt boys would come along. The chain-link barrier around the top of the public picnic shelter inspired us. The warning, the very verbotenness it implied, was too much to resist. It set us to work thinking up ways to conquer the barrier and get up onto the roof. Here's how we did it: The fencing ran along the top of the shelter's flat roof. We climbed, following it along the edge and around the corner, to where it ended — apparently at the point Parks officials determined too ambitious a goal for troublemaking kids. The shelter always seemed to be littered with empty Old Style quart bottles in the mornings, before the clean-up crews came through.
Beyond the park, just to the West, flanked by Conger Street to the north and the Cedar River to the south, stood an old Army outpost, long disused. But gravel pits with obstacle-course tires remained, as did the boarded-up beige-brick building we could never seem to find a way into. And the best basic-training hazard of all: The manhole-covered tubes the Army had left accessible. The steel manhole covers were heavy for kids our age, but swung up on their hinges with sufficient effort and determination. They were about eight feet deep and dank, moss clinging to pocks in the poured cement. Rounded, tread-textured iron rungs embedded in the concrete served as steps. They were treacherously slick when it rained.
Life in working-class Waterloo was a relentless saturation campaign, a marinade of attitudes suspicious of education, pointlessly aggressive, a walk tough don't act too smart zeitgest that knocked people down and kept them there. It was something that the population, somehow, had gotten convinced to perpetuate. We'd see a kid as optimistic as the rest of us at the end of the school year come back from summer sullen, reeking of cigarette smoke, picking fights — a kid who'd given up and decided to go nowhere. A kid beaten by Waterloo. We'd watched it happen to the Bickners' older brother, Jerry. He took up his father's brand of cigarettes and anger, found a shitty-wage job at the DX, and dropped out of high school. Then Waterloo took Johnny, then Joey.
But we were at the park, we Waterloo kids still too young to have had our dreams beaten out of us by the constant pressure of that attitude. Even Janet, one of only two girls our age around, had snuck down to the park with us.
When I came scraping down the too-dry slide, I found Cullen there, talking with her. Janet motioned me over with a nod that flipped aside the short, straight, raven hair her half-Japanese ancestry had bestowed upon her. "Come on," Cullen said with that smile. So I did. They led David and I across the park, past giant concrete cylinders mounted on their sides for kids to scamper through, over to the old Army grounds. Between the two of us, Cullen and I were able to lift the lid on one. Janet descended, then me, then Cullen. But David wasn't so sure.
"This place doesn't look safe," he said, a wave of his hand taking in the entire compound. And he was right — it really wasn't.
"Jeez, David, no one'll know," Cullen said. His words did not convince my new brother. Cullen stretched out his hand, offering the bottle of Nehi.
"David," I said, the fog of shame making me feel more brotherly toward him, "trust me. It's OK."
David met my green eyes with his deep, walnut-brown gaze. And he did — he did trust me. After all that. Reluctantly, he nodded. He scrambled down the ladder after us.
"What's all this?" I said.
Cullen smiled serenely. "Janet says she'll show us if we show ours."
Janet grinned, her back straight as a bolt, her chin jutting, defiant.
And so we did. Don't ever let anyone convince you that children are free of sexuality, that they are innocent. We were not. None of us would ever have let on what I'd done with Cullen there, or he with me, or that Janet had chosen to experiment with David. I doubt I even could have said the word fuck at that age — or known exactly what the word meant. Our parents would have had some godawful punishment for us, their sexually naïve, not-yet-oriented, interracially experimental, anything goes children, if they'd found out. They would have rounded us up to make sure we all knew none of us was to see the others again, not even in school. I'm not even sure you could call it fucking. It wasn't — not really. I think I'd have to say that it was more a negotiation, kids trying to figure out what it was all about, how, exactly, it all worked.
But summer was in its final days, and the city, in its wisdom, had drawn up a new map. To thoroughly integrate the schools, they said. Like a gerrymandered Texas voting map, a single line snaked up the hill along Argent and snatched away David and I, leaving Janet and Cullen in our old school, Lincoln, just down the hill. They could walk to school, but we'd be riding in one of the dungy school buses across town. The Bickners already went to Roosevelt — expelled, we knew, from Lincoln last year. Roosevelt would be our new destination.
The neighborhood parents were not happy. Roosevelt was a black school, part of the chain of schools that emptied into East High. Because all of the white families, including those of Waterloo's petty local politicians, sent their kids to West High, the black schools were severely underfunded. My Mom and Dad openly talked of East High as a firetrap. That was where they'd gone, and that was why they'd decided to keep the house on Hughes, rather than sell off her part of the estate: to keep me in the West High line of school succession. Now that plan was ruined. Death ran young in Mom's family. Everything seemed to. The house belonged partly to my mother, but my grandparents had left it jointly to both her and her brother, Karl, who wasn't in any hurry to get the money.
I don't know why I went back to the park alone; maybe I was just bored — none of the other kids seemed to be out and about. David was home, playing with what were now our toys in what was now our shared bedroom. Maybe I just wanted to go and play without him around. Maybe because it had just rained a cold, hard downpour, and playing with our toys inside was getting old. But anyway, I did, I walked all the way down the hill to Exchange Park and, bored, decided to climb the picnic shelter alone. My usual handholds in the chainlink were slick and cold enough from the rain that my knuckles got sore, my fingers quickly numb. The chainlink along the flat, tarred rooftop was about 12 feet up. When my lead foot slipped on the slick, narrow edge of the roof, my stomach curdled. I had no easy way down. Cold, wet blacktop ran alongside the shelter. My second foot slipped before I could replant the first, and I hung there from the chainlink and for a second it seemed like I could just hold on, just hang there, like maybe I didn't have to fall. But my weight was too much for my cold, sore fingers. The fence bowed outward, dangling me away from the building, rusty snags biting into my fingers, and I just could not hold on.
I fell. My stomach squeezed in on itself. I didn't know what would happen. I've since heard people describe this moment as though it were flight, but I wasn't flying, I was a rock, a chunk of asphalt plunging toward a hard, paved surface. I must have jammed out my left arm to cushion the blow, because it met the unyielding blacktop with an agonizing crunch. The rest of me crashed down on it. I don't remember much about the walk back to the house on Hughes, except that it was a slow, cautious process; if I twisted my body too much as I walked, the pain whited my vision over like a lens flare, and I had to stop, catch my breath, and squint back the tears. If I breathed too deeply, that hurt like hell too.
None of us were allowed to go to the park unsupervised again. My folks made calls to the other parents. My fractured ulna earned me a cast and sling and a scathing indictment of how expensive my irresponsibility had been.
The last night before the new school year, the sun was still high up in the late-August sky at dinnertime, still, unforgivably, shining bright with invitation. This was what was merciless about summer ending so soon: Why wouldn't the sunset get in line with the school schedule? David and I decided we would head out into the neighborhood after the meal and see who was around while we still could. It was a school night, so we had to be back early, way before sunset. David finished up ahead of me. I told him I'd catch up. I felt like I was around him all the time anyway; it was annoying. So he headed out ahead of me. This was Hughes, our neighborhood — we were safe.
Outside I heard Fritz bellowing savage oaths of wrath at something, could see him leaping up against the black wrought-iron barrier that bordered his yard.
I stepped out the front door, looking to see what was aggravating the huge dog. Half a block away I saw Joey Bickner holding David's arms, clamping them from behind, as Johnny, the unlit smoke jumping around in his lips, pounded his finger into David's chest, yelling. Johnny held an empty grape Nehi bottle by its neck. He swung it down against the concrete abutment of Agnes' raised terrace. He must have seen that in a movie, thought it was cool. Fritz snarled. He lunged with everything he had, bashing his face into the iron fencing, a teddy bear turned raging beast. And incredibly, I remember thinking, Broken glass? Kids play around here.
Johnny waved the sharp, jagged edge of the bottle's shattered bottom at David's face, the dirty, straw-like burr of Bickner-family hair spraying out at all angles.
Johnny was sneering, dominant. The only word I could make out from him this far away was nigger. David was the negative again, no matter what. The bigger boy buried a fist in David's stomach; David tried to double over, but Joey pulled him back to his feet.
"Bickner!" I said. "Get away from him!" I grabbed my bat from the yard and ran toward them. Johnny Bickner knew it would take me a few seconds to reach them and decided to get in another cheap shot before I could close the distance. He dropped what was left of the bottle, cocked a fist back and pounded it across David's eye, then went after his arm, punching again and again until I was almost close enough to club them. Joey let go and David sagged, shuddering, the left eye already swelling. I swung the bat with my right arm, forcing the Bickners back.
"Whatsamatter faggot?" Johnny said, sneering. "Don't like yer girlfriend doin' niggers?"
The bottom dropped out of my stomach. Niggers? I thought. Faggot? I felt heat radiating from my face as it flushed with angry, humiliated red. How could they possibly know about Janet and David? We hadn't told anyone. I swung the bat again, a wild, one-armed swing, but they were a dozen feet away, laughing. I never could hit anything with that bat.
"Maybe your mamma does black guys," said Joey. "Yeah — how else do you get a black brother? Maybe that's whatcher so pissed off about!"
I stepped menacingly forward, aiming the bat for Joey's square-headed temple. Way down Argent, I saw Garland Bickner lope unsteadily onto one of the brown, dead crabgrass islands that dotted the Bickners' cracked, dirty front yard. The man wore only blue jeans, no shirt or socks, and low enough they might not even have been buttoned. His beer belly swung liquidly, bulbously before him. He leaned unsteadily on the tireless rusted Chevy he had up on blocks. I could see that dirty gray, strawlike mess of hair atop his head even from that far.
"Goddamn you little bastards, you get the fuck down here an' eat!" he said.
Johnny and Joey Bickner snapped to an upright, military-like posture and blanched white, their faces suddenly bloodless. Silent tears and sudden worry flushed across their faces. Their eyes flitted nervously at one another for a moment, then they broke into an all-out run, barreling with everything they had toward home. Garland Bickner had risen for the day, and he had spoken.
I reached down to help David to his feet, but he flinched away in pain; my right hand had squeezed his left, where the Bickner boys had landed so many punches.
I walked to his other side, slipped my right arm under his, and pulled his heaving form to its feet. Fritz barked after the Bickner boys from within the wrought-iron border of his domain.
David fixed his dark-eyed gaze on me, his expression full of Why?.
I didn't know.
"Come on," I said, "let's go home."
When the first Monday of school came, my mother loaded us down with Six Million Dollar Man lunchboxes — the kind that got us laughed at by the older kids — and tote bags full of school supplies, and walked us to the front door to see us off to the bus stop. "Don't go getting yourselves in any trouble," my father said. "And don't ruin your new clothes."
The first day of classes at Roosevelt Middle School, I did not even manage to make it into the building before I went against his wishes. A horde of black kids saw David and me coming and intercepted us before we could reach the front door. I'd never seen so many, and not another white kid in sight.
The ringleader, kind of a short kid with an immense, malicious smile stabbed a finger into my chest. "Where you goin', White Boy?" he said. White Boy. He was using it as a name for me, an insult.
I was terrified. I knew black people — well, some black people, David and his family. People always said things about them, always said they were violent, dangerous, criminal; West High kids knew not to walk around near East High. But none of that was true — I knew people like David and had known his parents. That was all garbage, stereotypes, stuff for racists.
I glanced at David, whose eyes stared back, unblinking. This was altogether new for him, too. There were about 15 kids gathered around us, laughing, jeering, but only at me — not David. It was the first time in my life I'd ever seen more black kids in one place than white.
"I said," he said, "where you goin', honky?"
Honky? I thought. I'd never been the target of a racial slur before.
The ringleader, though, was cocky, and my paralysis only made him braver. He swung a fist out, thumping it into my arm — the left one. The scene disappeared under a crushing, searing wave, my eyesight whited out by the pain of the attack on my broken, useless arm. I fell, ripping my pants and skinning my knee on the concrete. I knew how angry my parents would be at the economic assault on my new school clothes. There was a numbing strike on my mouth.
When I opened my eyes again and looked up, the ringleader was looking David up and down, pacing back and forth. He could not seem to decide what to do about a black kid he'd never seen before going around with a white kid. He couldn't seem to find a way to make sense of the two of us, together. The ringleader — whose name, I later learned, was Darnell Redd — pointed a finger at David and asked, "Fuck you doin' with White Boy, boy?"
But his tone was half-hearted. With David too stunned to reply, Darnell Redd was losing interest. "Come on, y'all," he said to the deafening, obnoxious group of black kids. He led them, his chest puffed out in triumph, to the playground. So that was me: the white kid. White Boy. I was the one who didn't belong.
I thought for a second that no one in our neighborhood had called David "Black Boy," but then I remembered the Bickners and what they had called him.
David was at my side. "Come on," he said. "Come on, get up now."
He was careful to pull me up by my right arm, avoiding all contact with the left. "Got to be a nurse's office here. Come on."
The arm was fine. It ached like hell, but Darnell Redd hadn't managed to do more damage. My lip was swollen, numb, torn against my teeth. When David and I walked past the principal's office on my way back to class, there sat Darnell Redd, a broad grin on his face as he awaited whatever impotent punishments the principal, Mrs. Jayden, might visit upon him.
As I looked in on the smug, defiant bully, it seemed to let itself out of my mouth, form of its own volition. Under my breath, I heard myself say it.
David stopped. His posture stiffened. And immediately, I wanted not to have said it, not to have thought it. I would have done anything to un-say it. But it was too late. I had betrayed him — betrayed my younger brother. I thought I saw him shudder, but he turned away from me and hurried down the dark hall.
Other students talked to me, some of the school's meager Caucasian population. They all seemed to slink along, stealthy kids trying not to attract attention.
"Darnell's father's in and out of jail all the time," said Danny Sparks, a slight kid with dirty blonde hair and a posture that said he was ready for a fistfight. "Darnell isn't afraid of anything on earth but that man. Principal Jayden knows it, but she can't seem to think up with a punishment that makes any difference."
"Why don't they just kick him out?" I said.
"I dunno," said Dan Sparks. "Maybe they want to give him a chance not to turn into his dad."
I nodded. I was beginning to understand. "This place does that to people, doesn't it?" I said. "But Darnell doesn't seem to care. Maybe he wants to turn into his dad."
Danny Sparks shrugged, looking me over uneasily.
"Look, why you hanging around with a black kid?" he said.
"He's — " I said. I hesitated, not knowing why. The words just felt out of place, somehow. "He's my brother," I said, finally. But I knew what he meant — the message at Roosevelt was loud and clear. Danny Sparks gave me another doubtful looking over. Then he shrugged, turned, and slunk silently away.
At lunch, David and I sat together, of course. Why wouldn't we? But we sat alone. White kids sat in all-white groups in the gym-turned-lunchroom, the black kids likewise self-segregating at other tables. We ate our bologna-on-Wonderbread sandwiches, then went out to see the playground. It was dismal. The school's brick walls were filthy with accumulated pollution, the paved concrete schoolyard a cataclysm of faults and fissures. We made newcomer mistakes. We kept tripping as we walked, our shoes jamming into pavement raised at the cracks. Our occasional stumbles brought knowing, mocking glances from veteran students. The playground was stocked with decades-old, tarnished jungle gyms and twirlbars worn to a discolored gleam by generations of black girls, spinning end over end on them, one knee locked over the bar, as a dozen such girls did now.
As we walked along, a girl, a tall, coffee-and-cream-complected mulatto, flashed a dazzling smile at me. I walked into David, not watching where I was going, not watching anything except for the girl, her gleaming, long, black braids, her skin darker, richer than my boring, pallid vanilla, but not as dark as David's. I smiled back, my fat lip a stretched, red bubble above my teeth. She was beautiful.
"That's Trisha," he said sullenly, the first words from his mouth since I'd said it. "She's in my first class."
I nodded. There was a sort of man-made cove along this side of the school building, a brick and concrete inlet, an alleyway with training wheels. There, in the shadows cast by the bleak, dirty school building, stood Johnny and Joey Bickner, Johnny now a year older and much bigger than any of the other kids. Couldn't they have done something with him that didn't guarantee that a school bully wouldn't also be the biggest kid around? They eyed David and I as we walked, secretively, but not too secretly, exchanging comments. They wanted us to see their disapproval.
We rounded the corner of the playground to an expanse of chainlink and shattered concrete, more a battleground than a place for children to play. Weeds grew, unchecked, from the larger fissures further out. And I heard David sob. He couldn't hold it back anymore.
I wanted to say something to remove that word, get it out from between us. Un-say it.
"Why'd you say it?" he said.
I saw him through tear-blurred vision; the sky overhead had gone an overcast watercolor grey.
I wanted to say, "That was Waterloo talking." I wanted to say, "I'm sorry, David — I'm so sorry." But I couldn't. Shame cemented me in place, bound my tongue up in a regret I just couldn't find words for.
David forced himself to look at me, forced his eyes to meet mine, and with a fallen look he said, "David?"
And I saw us, finally, for what we were: reflections. Reciprocals. Negatives of one another — David black, surrounded by white, and me, white, surrounded by black.
And I knew what he must be thinking; I knew that he must be rethinking my position among the people we knew, relocating me in his mind alongside Johnny Bickner and Darnell Redd, whose view of people and their place in the world was so black and white it could find no room for the in-between hues of Cullen, or Trisha, even huge old Fritz's rampant shades and tones.
I wanted to squeeze his arm then, like I thought a big brother should. I wanted to tell him, "No more. I promise. It's all right now. It's OK. I'll never say it again. I promise. You're my brother." I wanted to. I really did.