Detoxing in the Mountain Air


Withdrawing from alcohol. A mesh of electricity humming just under the skin, complete with unpredictable twitches, some lunatic doctor behind the one-way glass delivering voltage. Also, the feeling (the certainty!) of impending doom and imminent threat. Shadows behind rocks are crouching gargoyles, vigilant and silent. There is a lurking monster behind that tree right over there, some stick figure, an upright mantis keeping very still. And this woman, Tess, next to JJ in a sleeping bag under the mountain stars. They are camped on his land apparently, JJ’s land, in this valley in northern Colorado.

JJ lays on his side, shaky and alert, watching the trees and rocks, and wonders how the hell this happened. He knows the what, where and when. With the last of his lottery money, he bought this old mountain ranch that had once been in Tess’s family. But how? Why? Whither?

Next to him, Tess shifts in her sleeping bag, the nylon rustle amplified in the deep quiet. Is she asleep? JJ can’t get comfortable in his sleeping bag. He’s warm, he’s cold, he’s hot. Clammy nylon sticks to his cheek. His breath is fetid and there is a weird smell coming from his body, like the smell of an examining room in a hospital, some antiseptic cleaner trying hard to cover up the smell of human excreta- sweat, blood, urine, etc.  Also, there’s this rubber glove smell coming from God knows where. He must be getting better if he can catalogue these smells and place them in a hospital. Though, of course, he does feel more like a patient than a healthy human. He is detoxing.

This woman, Tess. Something is off but he can’t put his finger on it. She certainly smiles a lot. That’s never a good sign. She’s attractive, at least physically. Fit and glowing and endowed with…endowments. But, there’s an aura of disaster and chaos around her, an untethered feeling that infects JJ. He feels the same way when watching news footage from the scene of some explosion- whirling police lights and silhouettes moving and milling in a smoky background. You kind of want to be there, to see it, to have a part in it. To help out. That can’t be good. What did Dr. Shays once say to him? “Your attraction to a certain kind of person is automatic. It is machinery that you can’t see working. It chooses what it needs and by the time you catch up, it’s too late. You’re being ground up.”

JJ’s machine likes chaos. That’s why he could never stick with Lila. She’s crazy, but not crazy enough, too grounded to feed the beast.

But this Tess. She’s not right but she’s also very…very…alluring. Mysterious. Unpredictable?  More like erratic.

A voice, muffled coming from inside the horizontal lump of sleeping bag next to him. “Are you thinking about me?”

JJ shifts onto his back and looks into the vast mountain sky. Stars and stars and stars.

“Yes,” he says.

Tess sighs and again the voice muffled, coming from somewhere hidden, beneath the surface.

“That’s good,” the voice says. “That’s really good.”

Unease in Maine


JJ watched the fire, the pulsating red coals down in there, below the wood. Camping in Maine on the road trip with Lila. A beautiful night, high fifties, perfect weather for this perfect campfire after a sun soaked day. Stars out, not a cloud in the sky.

JJ was uneasy.

In fact he was downright irritable. Earlier, he had watched Lila as she ate a lobster. (Not Lobstah! JJ saw the t-shirts. People who bought a t-shirt with the word “Lobstah” on it? Morons.) JJ looked at Lila as Lila gazed at the picturesque Maine harbor. Revulsion at her chewing. He noticed the age in her face, the lines around her eyes, and the way her throat moved when she swallowed. He watched her crack the shell of the poor little prehistoric monster on her plate, her fingers dripping with butter. She was really enjoying herself! All that moist ripping and relishing of juices. Brutal! Who the hell was this woman?

“Eat it, JJ,” she said. “Just do it.”

He had started to. And the tail meat was good. Except there was this brown goop that clung where the tail met the body, soiling the nice white meat. It was persistent, the clinging of this brown goop. It wouldn’t rinse away and it just smeared when he tried to flick it off. He couldn’t ignore that. Shit? Guts? Brown effluvium from any body; crustacean, mammal, or other; should never be eaten. Seriously.

“It’s okay,” she said. “It all tastes like the sea.”

But he couldn’t eat any more of it and she shook her head as if he had left his cap on during the national anthem.

And now in front of their perfect campfire on this perfect evening he couldn’t shake that peevish feeling. What’s the big deal? Except that Lila had moved on and was toasting a marshmallow with the focus of a chef working some delicate morsel over the flame. The tip of her tongue stuck out in concentration and the light gave her face a glow and god, yes, she was beautiful. It just annoyed and shamed him all over again.

He got his own stick, impaled a marshmallow, and shoved it into the flames. The mallow caught fire and sizzled as the flame worked around it, leaving a black flaky shell.

“JJ!” she said.

“That’s the way I like it.”

“Okay,” she said. “Look at mine.” She showed him the golden swollen orb on the stick. She put her head back and dramatically lowered the mallow into her open mouth like an eager fire eater. She closed her mouth and removed the stick, molten white mallow coating the point, and she moaned with delight. She savored, smiled, and then said, “You’re going to have a hard time matching up with that tonight.”

To JJ, she looked grotesque in the firelight, like some ravenous wood goddess devouring bits of men as they were forced to watch. “I’m going for a walk,” JJ said and started away into the dark.

“That’s my last try tonight,” Lila said and threw the stick toward the fire. It clattered on the fire ring and bounced away. “Come back when you’re done being a dick.”

“It might be awhile.”

“That’s fine.”

He walked away from the firelight and was fully wrapped in the dark.

That’s That


“This is perfect,” Carl said. “A door closes and God opens a window.”

“So,” JJ said. “She’s serious this time.”  They spoke of Anne, Carl’s lukewarm wife.

“Who knows, who knows? She’s seriously fed up. The usual shit. No ambition, no money, look what those people have, why can’t we have that. Same old shit. It’ll blow over.”

They were in JJ’s farm house, in the midst of camping gear strewn all over the living room and kitchen. Tents, sleeping bags, pots and pans, spatula, propane, clothes, boots, lantern, flashlight, batteries, rope, Cracker Jacks, toilet paper…

“Well, you can stay here until we get back. Or she takes you back.”

“I could come with you,” Carl said. “I mean, can I come?”


“Can I meet you somewhere? Like for a weekend?”

JJ thought of the three of them, Carl, JJ, and Lila, all in a tent together, and disgust rose in his gut, unlatching an old trap door to a cellar in his mind. Cobwebs of jealousy and resentment. He suspected Carl and Lila had been together once or twice. In fact, he knew it. It didn’t bother him day-to-day, but still, it was there like a blemish on an otherwise jolly photo of three amigos. The eye was drawn to that blemish and it could never not be seen. “I don’t think so,” he said. “We’ll see.”

Carl took that in. “Y’know, I know a few things about life. I wouldn’t be a friend if I didn’t bring this up.”

There was a hardening in JJ’s chest, familiar and automatic since his parents or teachers called him out on something. Stealing his sister’s babysitting money or breaking a school window with a thrown apple, it didn’t matter if it was justified or not. His jaw tightened. You’re not the boss of me.

“It seems to me like you’re running from something,” Carl started. “You can’t escape yourself. You can’t outrun yourself. Wherever you go, you’ll be sure to find yourself there. You can run all your life, but not go anywhere…”

Carl droned on. Deep down, under the growing layers of resistance and resentment, the swamp of guilt bubbled. Down there, JJ knew Carl was trying to help him, that maybe he was right. But, this was Carl, kicked out by his wife, still an overnight bagel baker. Carl, the fucking philosopher. Nobody tells me what to do.

“Enough!” JJ said, louder than he intended. “Just, enough.”

“All right, all right.”

“I’m sorry, but just stop with all that. I’m not some invalid. I need to live.”

“I’m just worried about you, man. You’re like my brother.”

The guilt swamp bubbled and the anger was swallowed in the morass. How can you hate and love someone in the same moment? JJ sighed. “I know, me too. I feel the same way. But, I have to move, man. I have to get moving.”

“But, that restlessness. It’s not a good thing. That’s all I’m saying.”

Why wouldn’t he just let it go?

You think you’re better than me?

“Thanks, I guess,” JJ said through clenched teeth. “But I’m going away with Lila. You can’t come. But, you’re welcome to stay here while your marriage is broken.”

“And that’s that?”

“That’s that.”