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03/27/2019 – There Used to be Palm Trees

You don’t know how long it’s been. You can’t remember where you’re going or where you’re coming from. You don’t even know what road you’re on. Maybe Sunset, or possibly Franklin. It could even be Wilton or Van Ness because you’re equally unsure of the direction in which you’ve been travelling.

Horns blare incessantly, and hateful voices spew profanities over the revving of engines. A dozen or so cars ahead, the siren atop an ambulance flashes and warbles in vain.

No one is moving.

You’re not sure anyone ever has, or ever will.

Legions of vagrants march across the gridlocked lanes of standstill traffic. Most of them lurch mindlessly forward, weaving between the motionless vehicles, braying and lowing like retarded children. Some of them stop to rap their grime-encased fists on the tinted windows of Teslas and BMWs, screaming jumbles of garbled expletives. They slap the black glass with the soggy and peeling slabs of cardboard upon which they’ve scrawled their entreaties for mercy in felt-tipped broken English.

Sighing, you look out at the brown sky that looms overhead, thinking that it seems lower than you last remember it being. You can’t recall the last time you noticed it or gave it any thought, whether it was an hour ago or a week ago, or maybe years ago. All of those durations are equally possible, just as it’s equally possible that you’ve been sitting here in traffic for any or all of said durations. For all you know, you’ve always been in traffic. You may very well have blinked into existence right here in this car, on this road, stuck in this traffic jam. You may be eternally en route to the same indeterminate destination, with your point of origin being an ambiguous space in time that may or may not even be there at all.

It is not, it would seem, for you to know.

All you know is that the sky definitely seems lower. It seems so low that it may, at any moment, collapse atop everything like a smothering blanket over a wailing infant. The sky isn’t supposed to be that close to the earth.

There’s a pack of cigarettes on the warm dashboard. You don’t remember being a smoker. Picking it up, you thumb back the top of the box. Your face crinkles at the unpleasant scent of stale tobacco that wafts out of the nigh-full package.

“Can I get one of those?”

The voice, cool and languid and distinctly feminine, comes from beside you. A burning chill of cold terror washes over your skin in a prickly wave of goosebumps. You attempt to swallow but your throat doesn’t work.

A thin hand, bone-white, its fingernails long and pointed and lacquered crimson, reaches over and gently takes the cigarettes from you.

There’s a pause, and then a rustling that’s followed by the smooth, paper-against-cardboard sound of the cigarette sliding from its home. Everything has become so suddenly silent that you can almost hear her lips close around the filter. The three successive clicks that follow are almost deafening, and then you can actually feel the heat of the flame as it explodes out from the little metal chamber.

The slow, velvet whisper of her inhaling the smoke is like a lover’s goodnight kiss. She holds it there in her lungs for the duration of one…two…three…four lurching beats of your heart, and then releases it in a Santa Ana whoosh of lilting wind from between her lips.

You still haven’t looked over at her.

“This town,” she says, “it used to be beautiful.”

Your hands tighten on the steering wheel, whitening your knuckles. The leather grinds against the calluses on your palms, and you wonder just how long you’ve been gripping it.

Each passing moment arouses more terror within you. This woman’s presence indicates that you’re probably either insane or dead, and you aren’t sure which would be worse.

Knowing that the question needs to be asked, you croak, “How…long…have…you…been…here?”

And she says, “Oh, darling, I’ve always been here.”

“I don’t think you understand.”

“No, I don’t think you do.”

Your mouth opens, then closes. Repeat. Repeat once more, and you feel like a fish so you hope she isn’t looking.

“That’s why there are so many of them,” the woman says. “They came because it was beautiful. They came when the sky was still blue, when it wasn’t scraped by towering apartment complexes and office buildings. When the air didn’t make your eyes water and your lungs ache. They came when there were still beaches. Palm trees. Parking lots.”

You’re straining to remember this. Part of you feels like there might be shimmering glimpses of those images somewhere inside you, but right now, all you can remember is the traffic. Sitting here, in your car, locked in the eternal maze of unmoving lanes. Starting and ending points both unknowable. There is only traffic. There is nothing else.

A homeless woman frog-leaps onto the hood of your car. She crawls across it with the slow, spidery movements of a lizard. Her head whips around to look at you. Part of her face is obscured by long, frayed ropes of dreadlocked hair. Her one visible eye locks immediately with yours. The white of it is watery and smeared with the red splotches of broken blood vessels. Her pupil is pinned and piercing. Her mouth is coated in a dried and peeling yellow paste that’s oozed from the huge, festering sores on her lips. On her narrow, knobby wrist, you notice a purple rubber bracelet with “I ❤ LA” stamped across it in smudged and faded white lettering. You avert your gaze, and she scrambles off the car to join the milling herd of faceless destitution.

Up ahead, the ambulance’s siren flicks off.

The mysterious woman next to you takes another drag from her cigarette. Her voice made low and sultry by the held-in smoke, she asks, “Have you ever had steak?” She exhales slowly. When she speaks again, the airy lightness has been restored to her voice’s timbre. “No, you wouldn’t have, you’re too young. You used to be able to get meat here. They had steakhouses, and burger joints, and a delightfully grotesque faux-Mexican chain called Del Taco. But that was before your time. Before everything got replaced by vegan restaurants and sushi bars.”

You’re suddenly struck with an inexplicable urge to weep, even though you have no idea what this woman is talking about. There’s just something about her melancholic tone, the way she speaks like a widow delivering a quiet eulogy while the congregation of mourners leans forward and strains their ears to clutch desperately at her every word. No one would dare ask her to speak up.

You can hear her just fine.

She’s all you can hear.

“You used to be able to smell the ocean,” she goes on. “And the eucalyptus trees, before they plowed and burned them to make room for…for what? Innovation? Expansion? The future?” She grunts with exaggerated disgust. “Now all you can smell is pot smoke and engine exhaust.”

This era of which she so lovingly speaks, you wonder how long ago it was. No matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to remember these things of which she reminisces with such sorrowful yearning. She must be ancient, but her voice is youthful and clear. The hand that had taken the cigarettes from you had been that of a smooth-skinned young woman, not a wrinkled old spinster.

“I think what I miss most, though, is the movies. That’s what this town was all about, you know. It was where people came to have their dreams blown up to titanic proportions and splayed across enormous screens for all to witness. It was where your wildest fantasies became ninety-minute realities that were bigger and more spectacular than you could imagine, even if you were to live them out yourself over the span of a lifetime. You sat in a huge dark room full of a hundred strangers, each of you being transported into the same alternate reality, each of you leaving with a different experience. You all saw the same images, heard the same mellifluous voices and extravagant scores of thunderous music. You all saw the same thing, but each of you felt something special and unique, and no one could take it away from you.”

“That doesn’t sound real.”

She laughs softly, humorlessly. “That’s because it’s not real. Not anymore.” She motions out the windshield at the sea of traffic. “This is what’s real, now. This is all that’s real. And you want to know a secret?”

You don’t. You really don’t want to know any secrets at all, but you can’t make yourself tell her that. It probably wouldn’t stop her, anyway.

You sense her shift in her seat, and then you feel her warm, heavy breath in your ear as she leans in close. You can smell her perfume beneath the layers of cigarette smoke. A teardrop of sweat trickles down your brow.

“The secret,” she whispers, “is that it’s only going to get worse.”

She pulls away, leaving you rigid and breathless. You don’t know what to say, but you feel like you’re supposed to say something.

For the first time, you turn your head and look at her.

Then you ask, “Were there really palm trees?”

 


 

03/04/2019 – Chastity

It was on their wedding night that the girl first saw the boy turned into a man, and it was a very ugly thing, indeed.

She sits by the open window, a warm breeze tugging lightly at her hair, beckoning her out beyond the gently-rustling curtains and into the still of the night.

If the fall were farther, maybe she’d listen.

Instead, she wipes at her eyes, lights a cigarette, and looks at the man who lies asleep in the bed.

Yes, the man, for that’s what he is, though he hadn’t always been that way.  Not to her.  No, up until this night, he had been a boy.  Her boy.

He’d been the boy on the playground, pushing her off the swings and yanking her braids, only to follow such acts of juvenile cruelty with a surreptitiously-passed note ending in “Check YES or YES”.  Two boxes, one possible answer.  That’s all he’d ever given her, and that’s all she’d ever needed.

He’d been the boy who waited, because she told him she wanted to wait.  He’d been the boy who never protested, never pleaded.  Never tried to snake his hand where it didn’t belong.  He’d been that rare kind of boy who was too bashful to even let his eyes drop anywhere south of the hollow of her neck, even when she was wearing a swimsuit or a snugly-fitted top.

“Wait…not even once?” one of the bridesmaids had exclaimed that morning as she was helping the girl primp her hair.  “You two have been together since, like, forever, and you’ve never…?”

The girl’s responding smile had been one of both gleeful pride and diffident innocence.  She looked at the bridesmaid’s reflection in the big vanity mirror, curled eyelashes batting bashfully, and said, “Not even once.”

Hip cocked, holding the hair curler out to one side like a magic wand, the bridesmaid said, “But you guys, like, did other stuff, right?”

The girl shrugged.  “I mean, yeah, we French kiss all the time.  And once I let him put his hand on my chest…over my shirt, of course…but that was just because I’d drank half of Alyssa’s beer at Jessica Tomlin’s party in tenth grade.  Everyone had gone outside, and it was just me and him in the basement, and we started kissing and obviously it got a little out of hand.”  She giggled at the unintentionally turned phrase.  “But we stopped after a few minutes and went outside with the others.”

“Oh my god, honey,” the bridesmaid said, her eyes wide, “How can you marry a guy you’ve never slept with?  I mean, fuck, you don’t even know if he has a nice dick.”

The girl blushed, and shrugged again.  “I don’t know the difference between a nice dick and a bad one, so whatever he has will be just fine.”

The bridesmaid rolled her eyes theatrically and said, “Darling, you’ll know.”  She set the hair curler down, indicated a distance with two raised index fingers, and said, “If he’s not at least this long…”  She paused appraisingly, then decreased the distance by an inch or so, amending, “Okay, this long, just to be safe…if he’s not at least this long, you’re going to have serious problems.  Of course, girth is really important, too, and…”

The girl put her hands over her ears and said, “Lalalalalalala, stop, I’m putting on my earmuffs.”

Now, the girl looks over at her sleeping husband, thinks about the space between the bridesmaid’s fingers, and sighs.  She holds the cigarette up to her face, glances once more over at the man in the bed, and feels fresh tears burn her eyes.

How different it had been, just one day previous.  How different he had been.  He’d been her boy.  In her mind, she sees that roguishly handsome prince, hair blowing in the wind, bouncing between the broad shoulders of a galloping white stallion.

But that boy is not in that bed tonight.  That boy is nowhere to be found.

Now, it’s just the man.

The great, oafish man, sprawled across the tousled sheets, the pallor of his flesh reminding the girl of long-curdled milk.  Dense tufts of curled, wiry hairs erupt from the oddest and most unseemly places on his body.  His toenails are jagged and untrimmed, and the heels of his feet are scaly and cracked with dead skin.  The glossy sheen of oily perspiration in which his body is encased carries with it a pungent odor of overused athletic gear.  A grumbling, sputtering snore-like noise emits periodically from deep within his nasal passages.

“Do you even know how, like, um…how everything works?” the bridesmaid had asked, regarding the girl’s mirror-reflected face with troubled concern.  “Do I need to give you the, uh…the talk?”

It was the girl’s turn to roll her eyes.  “Oh, stop, I know enough.  I’m not worried.  It’s going to be special and beautiful and perfect.  This is how it’s supposed to be.  It’s how Jesus intended.”

“Please, spare me the Jesus freak shit.  Let’s get real, here.  There are things you need to know.  You can’t just go bounding blindly into your bridal bed and expect everything to go as you imagine it will.”

“I won’t be blind,” the girl said, “for the Lord is my shepherd.”

Swiping at her eyes once more with the back of her hand, the girl looks out at the starless night sky, and she does not see God.

She had indeed bounded blindly into her bridal bed, and things had not gone as she’d imagined they would.  She did not feel shepherded.

It had been inelegant, clumsy, and disjointed.  Their clammy, naked limbs had tangled together like knotted seaweed.  Her breath came out in nervous gasps, his in loud, heaving grunts.  They fumbled about, twisting and groping awkwardly as they attempted to align themselves in the most logistically sound position for the task at hand.  Each time he went to clutch some part of her, his grip was too tight, too cold.  It was like being prodded and probed with kitchen tongs.

And then, all at once…the metamorphosis.

As soon as he entered her, he changed.

Lying on her back, struggling for breath and squeezing her eyes closed in a vain attempt to shut out the revulsion twisting within her stomach, she felt her husband morph into a man.

Gone was the sweet boy of her dreams.  He’d been replaced by this maladroit mass of tectonically shifting flesh that ground atop her and pushed the air from her lungs.  His face, prickly with stubble, was buried in the side of her neck, his breath bursting out in hot plumes like smoke from a steam engine.  She could hear gurgling digestive noises bubbling within his stomach.  She imagined all of his internal fluids, all that blood and bile, mucus and pus and diluted, befouled water…all of it jostling around inside of him as he fucked her.

In that moment, the girl considered the possibility that she’d made a mistake.

In this moment, watching him sleep while contemplatively dragging from the cigarette with awkward, unpracticed motions, she thinks to herself, No.  No, I’ve definitely made a mistake.

She looks back out the window, peering down to the ground just two stories beneath her, and finds herself wishing they’d taken the hotel concierge up on his offer to upgrade them to the bridal suite on the fifteenth floor.

“That’s okay,” she’d said in declination, smiling up at her new husband.  “We don’t need anything fancy.”

He turns over in his sleep, snorts, and then lets out a protracted expulsion of gas.  The girl cringes.  She feels nauseated, and she can’t tell if the cigarette is making it better or worse.

“You know I’d never touch one of those,” she’d told the bridesmaid when she’d held the pack out to her after she’d finished with her hair.

Rolling her eyes, the bridesmaid thrust the pack into her hand.  “Trust me,” she’d said.  “There’s nothing like cigarettes after sex.”

The girl doesn’t think this is what the bridesmaid had in mind.

Trying to ignore the pain throbbing between her temples, she takes another dejected drag and holds the smoke in her lungs until her eyes burn and tear up again.  When she exhales, she finds herself wondering, with increasing despondence, what else she may have been wrong about.  She’s been married for a matter of mere hours and has only just lost her virginity less than thirty minutes ago, and already life is revealing itself to be a disappointment of seismic proportions.  She wants to be angry…that, she feels, would be the appropriate response…but she’s unable to find anything at which she can direct said anger.  Her parents, for not preparing her for what was in store?  The boy, for not living up to her expectations?  Walt Disney and Nicholas Sparks, for creating those expectations?  Or herself, for allowing that omnipresent torrent of mystical hopes and dreams to sweep her off her feet and drop her down into that wretched, sweat soaked marriage bed?

She suspects all of them had something to do with it, but the lattermost one guiltily hangs its head the lowest when standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the others in the lineup.

Deciding it isn’t helping, she flicks the cigarette out the window.  Her eyes trail after the yellow ember as it makes its descent before crashing onto the asphalt in a muted explosion of sparks.

Then, her eyes flick over to the phone on the nightstand.  It rests languidly in its cradle like a sleeping dog.

Biting her lip, she thinks about her future.

She doesn’t have to think for very long.

Advancing on tip-toe, she creeps over to sit down on the edge of the bed, and then she lifts the phone and dials the front desk.

“Yes, um, hello,” she whispers into the receiver, looking over her shoulder to make sure the man hasn’t been startled out of his slumber.  “Yes, my…um, my…my husband and I…”  She pauses, her mouth dry.  She licks her lips, eyeing the open window.  “Well, I’ve changed my mind.  I would like to have that bridal suite, after all.”

 


 

01/28/2019 – Statement on the BizarroCon Controversy

Let’s talk about pizza.

In light of recent events, the time has come for me to directly address the controversial performance that has now brought about the pulling of my book, Dead Inside, and the subsequent termination of Jeff Burk, head editor of Deadite Press. Up until now, I’ve been clinging to the admittedly pretentious hope that someone was going to “figure out” the message I was trying to convey with the skit in question. As I watched hundreds of people…some of whom had been at BizarroCon, most of whom had not…take me to task in dozens of various social media threads, I ping-ponged back and forth in my head about whether or not I should respond. It was tempting for me to jump in and say, “Wait, no, you didn’t get the allegory, what I meant was…” Whenever I started to type, though, I would think to myself, “No, dammit. I’m a capital-A Artist. I shouldn’t have to explain myself. I will not explain myself. If they didn’t get it, that’s not on me.”

What I’ve now realized, however, is that the fact that nobody seemed to get it…even the ones who weren’t actually offended by it…means that I failed in my attempt at creating capital-A Art. The audience isn’t the problem. I am. I was trying to make a statement about a very specific cultural phenomenon, but the statement was so obscure and mired by my own affectations that it failed to resonate. I demanded too much from my audience. Because of that, the hidden meaning (the fact that I didn’t think it was all that hidden is a sign of my own arrogance) of my “statement piece” flew right over everyone’s head like a comet on a cloudy night.

Before we go further, please note that this is not an apology. I already did that, much to the dubiety of my detractors, and I’m not going to do it again.

No, this is an explanation.

I acknowledge, of course, that this could potentially come across like your unfunny, hotdog-loving drunkle attempting to explain a joke in which he garbled the correct punchline. That’s okay. It might make me sound like a fool, but that’s okay, too. A lot of people are affected by today’s announcement, and they deserve to know all of the specifics no matter how it makes me sound.

Even if it’s at the expense of capital-A Art.

This was my first BizarroCon…it was actually my first “con” of any nature, for that matter…and I didn’t know what to expect. From talking with countless people who’d been to previous BizarroCons, I was of the understanding that the Ultimate Bizarro Showdown was a safe place to enact performance art that wouldn’t fly in most other circles. This led me to believe that I would be in the company of like-minded, left-leaning fringe artists such as myself, and thus I figured it would be the perfect place for me to perform a contemporary piece that touches (please forgive the icky pun) on a consistently prevalent theme in Dead Inside. That’s another reason I was reluctant to Explain Myself; I didn’t want to give away one of my book’s precious “hidden meanings.”

Alas, the tide has shifted, and it’s time I shed my high-brow snobbery and just come out with it.

Something I’m very passionate about is how much our country’s political landscape is being torn apart by right-wing conspiracy propaganda, and there’s one in particular that’s so absurd and cheesy (forgive that one, too; I think I’m allowed three off-color puns before it’s considered problematic) that it seemed to me like obvious subject matter for a satirist like myself.

Yes, I’m talking about #Pizzagate.

As a storyteller, I saw the ridiculousness of Pizzagate’s hole-ridden narrative as an immediate affront to my sensibilities and a shameful representation of America’s integrity. Corrupt politicians swapping kiddie porn and child prostitutes with the Hollywood elite in underground murder-sex cults? It sounds like an idea for an abandoned collaborative project between Dan Brown and Edward Lee. I was certain it wouldn’t catch on, but then again, I was also certain Donald Trump’s campaign proclamation was a hoax. And now here we are, with Trump serving 1,000 hamberders in the White House while the alt-right continues their witch hunt for child rapists in the nonexistent basements of pizza parlors.

Obviously, I’ve been wrong about things before.

The point is, I should have been more transparent with the message I was trying to convey through my contest performance instead of going for the obscure, too-cool-for-school hipster approach. Maybe I should have eaten a piece of cheese pizza during the performance, or used tomato sauce instead of corn syrup for the blood. Most of all, maybe I should stop hitting the imaginary “Shift” key in my head whenever I think of my art. Because if my art is getting good men like Jeff fired, then the “a” is decidedly lowercase.

 

P.S. Please take note that I’m not even going to acknowledge the claims that the baby prop wasn’t painted red (to make it look like an aborted fetus) but was actually walnut-colored, because that conspiracy theory is almost as ludicrous as the very one that I was satirizing.

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