JJ’s Memoir- Gasping in the Dark

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So, these are going to be excerpts, okay? I can’t just write the whole memoir and post it out here for free. The truth is, I can’t write anything longer than a page at a time anyway. In fact, I’ve begun to think that way, a page at a time, which is good for some things, like blogging and making grocery lists. It’s not so good for maintaining relationships, holding down a job, or contemplating the future. A page at a time. Could be the motto for my new twelve step group, Frustrated Writers Anonymous. Will you join? The coffee is horrible. But, it’s free!

Actually the cops had my dead neighbor’s car. And, I didn’t have my license on me when I got pulled over. So, they actually had squat. I told them my name was Fred and they were more concerned with the smell of liquor to pursue my last name. My dead neighbor’s name was Fred and I had borrowed the car. Fred was dead and I was running across campus. However, my oxygen intake was limited by pack-a-day lungs and I was starting to gasp and see stars. So I ducked into a little grove of trees to catch my breath. Beyond my gasping, it was very quiet. No dorms or bars or people around. The Charles Hicks Chemistry Building (CHC) loomed close by and a pond was between me and a campus road. A police car prowled slowly on the other side of the pond but I was in the trees and very still. I knew every inch of this campus from pizza delivery and six years of tepid undergrad commitment. So, I waited in that grove and thought about my life.

One thing was clear. Beyond the exhilaration of the shenanigans and lack of responsibilities, I was heading nowhere and I was fucked. College was just the scaffold that held my life together. Officially, I was a student. In reality, I was a grubby drug-addled drunk looking for the next blast. Fun and games on the surface, dying slowly on the inside, stagnant and sad. No one was going to recognize my unique brand of devil-may-care genius and give me a job or a book deal or even a sandwich. Professors reached out to me, encouraging, wanting to mentor. I perceived them as threats. These realities, long stewing in the swampy shame at the bottom of my (now ample) gut, bubbled up and I shed tears in those trees, which may have been from exertion but, for the purposes of this story, were tears of release. As I hid from the cops and my heart rate came down and I realized I left my cigarettes in the car, (Fuck!), I knew that it was time for a change.

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JJ’s Memoir- The DUI

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Memoir?  Fiction?  Fictional memoir?   Real events, tweaked and compressed? Easier said than done, especially since it’s all fogged by time, booze, and selective remembering.  Also, I have only the loosest grasp of English grammar. There was the escape to the West, meeting the duplicitous hippy chick Lucille and six-fingered Matias. The Rocky Mountain Mafia, of course. Which led to The Incident. Then, the hideout in the mountains and a final showdown at 11,000 feet.   And, the aftermath (epilogue?). But, I suppose this IS the aftermath and that’s enough to explain why I need to write it all down. Damn that Shaboo! Damn him and bless him. I’ve been treading water for too long. Can this project bring me back to life?

Here goes nothing.

I guess it really started with delivering pizza in the mid-1990s New England on the campus of my state university. If you have a car at college, then delivering pizza is a great way to make money quick. Cash money! Great for a certain lifestyle. You can’t buy pot with a credit card (actually, you can now, but that’s a different story).   So I had a one-hitter in the ashtray and a vodka bottle in the door holder and it worked pretty good, the drinking and delivering. Until it didn’t work and I got pulled over in front of a crowd of people waiting to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the campus stadium. The cops’ favorite: tail light out. With a crowd chanting “DUI! DUI! DUI!”, I was asked to step out of the car. When the pint vodka bottle, blue label 100 proof Smirnoff, fell from the door compartment and went skittering into the street, the crowd cheered and the roadside sobriety test was kind of moot. The chants of “DUI! DUI!” were renewed with a fervor of spectacle and satisfaction and I raised my arms in triumph, basking in my defeat. I had never received so much attention before. The cop said, “Put your arms down, asshole.”

I’d like to say what I did next was ballsy or righteous or filled with the spirit of freedom. But, there was no thought whatsoever. I just made a run for it. I ran away from the crowd, across the street, and into the maze of buildings in the center of campus. The crowd roared and, once away from the cop car and street lights and stadium lights and people, it was very dark and quiet and it felt good and I was running very fast. The cops had my car and my weed but I was running and it felt really fucking good and right.

I ran all the way to the Rockies.

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Tweaked and Compressed

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JJ finished talking.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“What do you mean?”

“Let me get this straight.” Shaboo leaned back and looked hard at JJ. “You came in here to get drunk and escape two friends that make you uncomfortable and may or not be fucking with your implied consent?”

“Yeah, but…”

“And you cut you’re yearlong road trip short after two months because you couldn’t stand being around this woman you supposedly love.”

“Yeah, but we go back…”

“And you won a million bucks and bought a farm and you don’t farm but you live there and do…what? Putter around?”

“Well, at first…”

“And you moved back from Wyoming or wherever to find yourself after your real true love jerked you around for a few years?”

“We were close…”

“And that real true love, what was her name again?”

“Lucille.”

“After Lucille convinced you to live in a tent in the mountains to escape the Rocky Mountain Mafia.”

“She was trying to help. As it turns out…”

“And you were fleeing the Rocky Mountain Mafia because you stole a bunch of money from nine-fingered Miguel?”

“Matias.”

“And this Matias was some kind of Dear Leader to Lucille and she introduced you so you could sell pot for Matias?”

“Well, yeah. I mean, I was looking for pot for me. At first.”

“And you moved out there because you ran from some cops at a traffic stop in Connecticut and just kept running?”

“Yeah, well, I had been drinking. I think there’s still a warrant.”

Shaboo paused. “That explains why you disappeared from college so quick.”

“Yeah.”

“So there’s only one question here.”

“What’s that.”

“Why the hell aren’t you writing this down?”

“Well…”

“Dude, you got like three novels right there. What the fuck!?”

“That’s just my life. Those things really happened.”

Shaboo stared at JJ. “What do you think fiction is? It’s just shit that really happened, tweaked and compressed.”

“It’s as simple as that?”

“Yeah. No. The work…” Shaboo trailed off and looked away. His face became vacant and pained, like a veteran recalling the meaningless loss of comrades in headlong assaults. “The work takes a toll. If you do it right.”

They were quiet and the tavern crowd was thinning.

“But, is it worth it?”

Shaboo’s face came back. The twinkle, the head cock, the direct look. “Yeah, it’s worth it. What else you gonna do?”

The next day, JJ got to work.

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Shaboo

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JJ surveyed the room from the tavern entrance. Square bar in the middle, full tables all around. TVs showing baseball playoffs and college football. A cozy Fall buzz in the room, chilly outside, warm inside. Saturday night. A good feeling for most, but this was not what JJ had in mind. The conviviality was toxic. He turned to leave.

“Jason!”

JJ looked to his left and there in the corner was a large hairy figure with a semi-familiar sideways leaning posture and a twinkle in the eye. Holy shit, was that Shaboo? He said the name. “Shaboo?”

“As I live and fuckin’ breathe. Get over here and sit down,” Shaboo bellowed and several people turned to behold the beast and its prey.

“Quiet down, Shabby Boo,” someone yelled and several people at the bar laughed.

“They tolerate me here,” Shaboo said as he took JJ in an immense embrace. Shaboo’s flannel smelled of cut wood and mammal. He was a head taller than JJ and beamed down at him. He shepherded JJ to the corner table where books were stacked next to an open laptop. The top book was, “Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution”. Shaboo noticed JJ noticing. “I write in here sometimes,” he said. “Gets me out of my dank cave. There are actual folks in here.”

JJ had a strange feeling of interruption, of something happening of which he had not, could not, account for in his FUCK-IT! plan of self-destruction. He did not, could not, resist. Shaboo was a college friend and a force of nature. JJ knew he lived in the Berkshires but hadn’t thought of him in years. If he did think of him, it was with a smile at some old capers and a twinge of envy. Shaboo had published two pretty good novels. That twinge of envy would be full-on hatred if it was anyone but Shaboo. JJ hated earned success, especially writerly success.

“Shaboo. It’s like you appeared just for me.”

“You want anything?”

JJ thought of his original intent. The imperiousness of his urge to get completely wasted was starting to dissolve a little in the presence of Shaboo. “Just, um…Just, no. I can’t drink.”

“Well, shit, that’s alright. Mind if I get another Guinness, though?” He gestured to a waitress. “It’s so funny, I was just thinking of you.”

“Huh?”

“Yeah, that writer’s workshop we took. Remember old Fontenblach? What a piece of shit!” Shaboo laughed. The waitress appeared with a pint for Shaboo and looked at JJ.

“Just…just a ginger ale.”

“Are you still writing?”

“Not really.”

“Why the hell not?”

What was he supposed to say? That he had drifted aimlessly? That he had moved back home to find himself and had won the lottery instead? That he had taken a drunken money bath? That nothing filled the oozing hole in his soul?

“I bought a farm,” he said.

“Holy shit! So you’re a farmer?”

“It’s not that type of farm. Listen, I’m kind of in trouble here.”

“I could kind of tell that.” He took a deep foamy swallow of his pint and leaned in. “Shaboo is listening.”

JJ started talking.

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It Can Go Either Way

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Carl didn’t know what to think. The messages were all wrong but he didn’t think he was misreading them. By all indications, Lila and JJ weren’t clicking and hadn’t been for awhile. Too much time together on their road trip, too much history. Maybe they had never clicked. There were reasons why they could never stick together. But he, Carl, was clicking with Lila. He knew it. Lila knew it. And JJ knew it, but didn’t seem to care. In fact, JJ seemed strangely expansive after being shamed by the guards at the art museum. Something was amiss, but Carl would just step back and let it happen. One thing about being friends with these two- they were going to do what they were going to do and there was nothing you could do about it. So, he sat back in a comfy chair in a comfy suite in a quaint and comfy Berkshires hotel watching playoff baseball on the tube and ignoring the whispered conversation coming from the bedroom.

The game, Mets vs. Cubs, two mostly hapless teams, one with sporadic success (Mets), the other with occasional glimpses of mediocrity (Cubs). The Cubs’ stars are an intensely bearded pitcher and an ivy-covered stadium filled with frat boys and tourists. But, they were good this year and baseball geeks were all in a tizzy about the Cubs maybe getting to the World Series. Joe Buck is on the broadcast. There’s a guy, growing up, who was never told he wasn’t funny and adorable. Hence, he has grown insufferable and obnoxious, incredibly pleased with himself. Carl hated him.

The Mets had two men on and the shortstop, Flores, who looked like a sheepish teenager, was coming up to bat.

Joe Buck: “To think he was almost traded at the deadline. He cried when he thought he was traded.”

Harold Reynolds: “And he’s produced for the Mets, stepping up after Tejada was injured.”

Buck: “And here he is, with a chance to be a New York hero.”

Reynolds: “Not as good a fielder as Tejada…”

Buck: “The Mets are the only team he’s known, and now he can make the near-trade a laughable memory, turning those tears to joy.”

Reynolds: “I expect Strop to bust him inside. He’s been much too comfortable up there.”

Buck: “After being nearly traded, it’s an honor to be busted inside with a chance to go to the World Series.  The crying is in the past.”

Flores flew out to end the inning.

An inning later JJ came out of the bedroom. “I’m headed out for a bit. Do you need anything?”

“Where are you going?”

“Out.”

Carl and JJ just looked at each other and the moment hung there, something passing between them, an understanding of what might happen if JJ walked out the door. Lila was still in the bedroom, a presence unseen, the crux of the matter.

“Don’t go,” Carl said. “Watch the game with me. Or, go to a meeting.”

JJ hesitated, looking toward the TV. “That’s none of your business.”

“Please don’t drink,” Carl said.

“Please, don’t sleep with Lila,” JJ said and left.

In the end, they both did what had to be done.

(The Mets went on to the World Series, only to be destroyed by the Kansas City Royals. Flores, the shortstop, hit .059.)

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Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1

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Carl caught up with them in the Berkshires. Lila wanted to see some art and JJ, not crazy about art, just wanted a change of scenery. They went from the mountains of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to the old people and snobby New Yorkers in Williamstown. JJ watched them with growing ire.

“Yeah, we’ve been staying at JJ’s,” Carl said.

JJ tuned in to the catch-up-on-the-news chatter. “Both of you?”

“Yeah. She’s house sitting for you right now.”

“So, you’re back together?” Lila, JJ noticed, seemed less than thrilled by the news of Anne’s return into Carl’s life. Or, she was less than thrilled by Carl’s apparent happiness over this development.

“The change of scenery helps. Who knows when the novelty wears off? But the sex…” Here Carl pounded his fist into his other hand, repeatedly. “Let’s just say that my cup runneth over.”

“We can do without the visuals,” Lila said.

“Are you guys in my bed,” JJ asked.

“Speaking of visuals,” Carl said. “This Whistler’s Mother is completely overrated. It’s just a painting of his old mother. Why all the hubbub?”

Lila said, “The image has been co-opted throughout the years as an example of the good old American values of hearth and home.”

“And stern old ladies,” Carl said.

“They used it to sell war bonds! It’s a good example of, once you put it out there, it’s not yours anymore.”

“Meaning, it doesn’t matter what the artist meant, or didn’t mean. Shit, it could just be a very good painting of his mother. But, once it’s out there, it’s open season for interpretation.”

“And he insisted it meant nothing,” Lila said. “It was just a painting of his mother and should be appreciated as such.”

“Poor naïve Whistler,” Carl said.

“Right?”

JJ had slipped back into the antechamber with the painting. He wanted another look for himself and couldn’t stand art talk. Lila took one art history class years ago and she was a goddamn expert. And Carl. Carl would hold forth on any topic like he wasn’t a bagel baker with a shitty marriage. JJ stood behind some people seated on a bench and beheld Whistler’s Mother. There was a certain…dignity? Austerity? He didn’t know the word but there was a power there. What made a painting into art? Why do some paintings make the leap and some remain flat and lifeless? JJ didn’t know. But, this Whistler’s Mother felt like art. He took his phone out and got a couple pictures before a guard appeared at his elbow.

“Sir, no pictures,” she said and touched his camera arm. Simultaneously, an older guard standing near the painting added to the whole room, “No pictures allowed, folks.”

Several people glanced at JJ and looked away as if not wanting to stare at a facial deformity. They were too polite to cluck their tongues but they didn’t need to. The room was thick with the disapproval of this uncouth nincompoop. Whistler’s Mother just sat there, placidly disappointed, like a sour parent whose kid has taken up facial piercings. JJ slunk away to the hall.

“I got a picture of her,” he said to Lila and Carl.

“You can’t do that,” Lila said. “That’s like stealing.”

“I think it’s bad for the painting,” Carl said.

JJ walked past and kept going down the hall. He felt like a heel, sick with exposure to the world of nature and people. His closest friends, his girlfriend(!), were conspiring with museum guards to make him raw and frustrated. Inviting Carl had been a bad idea. The trip itself had been a bad idea. They couldn’t even get out of New England! Not even two months into his grand road trip across the USA and he felt like guzzling a quart of Jack Daniels. His mouth watered and he froze. A new determination came to life in his gut and head. He stared into the distance as people moved around him like they moved around a pillar. Then he turned back, poker-faced, to subtly speed their departure. Cooperation, for the time being, was crucial to his new plan.

“Let’s get a suite at the nicest place in town. With the lottery money,” he said, to stop the polite protests.

“I thought you were mad,” Lila said.

“Nope,” JJ said. “I just want to get out of here.”

“Agreed,” Carl said.

They all smiled and linked arms, the best of friends, and headed to the parking lot.

Whistler’s Mother? She couldn’t care less.

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Swamp or Bog?

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Lila asked, “What’s the difference between a bog and a swamp?”

“No idea. Standing water in a swamp?” JJ peered out over the cattails from beneath the brim of his cap. Early afternoon in sticky late summer.

They lounged under a tree on dry ground above a bog in New Hampshire. Or was it a swamp? It smelled like a swamp. But, everything below the mountain ridges smelled swampy and fetid in the humidity. The shade was good, especially if you stayed still. Dragonflies hovered and darted, like technicolor futuristic bi-planes. JJ thought dragonflies to be living proof of God. What a creature! Of course, God also created the mosquito, so hold the applause.

“That sounds right. Standing water. Pools of water in a swamp. Spongy ground in a bog.”

“Either way, it’s nice to be up here above it all. High and dry.”

“High and dry,” she murmured and dozed off into a boggy half-sleep. A murky continuing of a dream from the night before. A variation on the chasing dream. She is being pursued through a mazelike series of scenes from her life. A camp where she used to be a teenage counselor. She hurried through the arts and crafts cabin and overturned a bin of perfect oak leaves for tracing and art projects, and felt a surge of sadness. Then she was in Boston from her college days, pushing through tourists at the public gardens and disrupting wedding pictures on the bridge above the swan boats. The wedding party all looked at her without expression as she rushed through. She fled the gardens and emerged on a street in Paris, where she always wanted to go but had never been. She somehow found a bike and sped down the Champs Elysees like a figure in an Impressionist painting, more panicked now because she speak French at all. Weren’t they snotty if you couldn’t speak French?The-Champs-Elysees-Paris-xx-Georges-Stein

Who was the pursuer? Who wouldn’t just leave her alone? She never got a clear look. Sometimes she would turn and just get a glimpse of a figure wearing a dark hoody walking after her, unhurried and relentless, not concerned at all that she could get away, biding his time until she tired and fell or just stopped.

“Lila.”

Paris broke up, her dream bike wobbled, the image faded, the fear remaining.

“Lila,” JJ whispered and shook her shoulder.

“Hmmm?”

“Let’s get moving. We have to do another 5 miles before dark.”

Oh yeah, backpacking in the heat, in New Hampshire.

“You know,” she said. “Let’s go ahead and invite Carl for a few days.”

JJ was quiet. “I thought we decided about this.”

“I know, but he was really weird when we called the house. That tornado…a close call…”

JJ sighed. “Okay. I guess it’s the right thing to do. Especially with his marriage all messed up again.”

“We’ll call when we get back tomorrow.” Don’t seem too eager, she told herself.

“Okay. Let’s go.”

“You go ahead,” Lila said. “I’ll follow you.”

“Ha,” JJ snorted. “I’ve been following you since yesterday.”

“My turn to chase you,” she said and hoisted her pack.

“Who’s chasing anyone,” JJ said and hoisted his own.

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