The Paddling Linebacker

Looking back, it’s pretty obvious that all of my summer camp “counselors” were stoned out of their gourds. It’s the perfect job for that type if you think about it. And I’m not looking down on “that type” either because if I did it’d be a study in hypocrisy. It’s a seasonal job mostly spent outdoors where an affinity for granola is almost a prerequisite. The ones I can remember all had bandanas and Birkenstocks, except for Robert. He was a massive ex-jock that had left his division one collegiate career with a leg injury instead of a place in the draft. His decisions almost killed me, but his strength saved me, so we’re even.

Camp Peggy Lake is a secluded Alaskan Paradise, and as far as I know, only two tragic things have ever happened there, although I suppose the second could be considered more of a calamity. The first involves a kid that was eaten by a grizzly bear, and I was smack dab in the middle of the second (which is exactly how I’d have it given the choice). I have two children now and I don’t want to make light of the former instance because such a thing would be crippling. It was approaching autumn and bears have a cycle to which they’re indentured servants. Bears gorge, hibernate, awaken, and repeat. The older ones that can’t store up enough fat go rogue because they know the winter will be deadly. Bears adhere to echelons almost as devoutly as we do, and when a younger bear challenges for that prime place on the river, the outcome is inevitable. Those rotting and rubicund salmon that fight the current and predation aren’t fodder for the old. An old bear that’s bested by youth can either die in peace or give in to desperation, which usually translates into hunting that which normally isn’t, and that’s exactly what happened. A little boy lagged from a pack of hiking children and suffered a fate we all fear on a visceral level. There’s not much more to the telling. A posse of counselors headed out armed with sobriety and shotguns to track down the bear and kill it. They did, and they recovered the remains to be shipped back to Anchorage. Despite their best efforts to keep it a secret from the remaining children until the week was out, their deception was discovered by process of elimination. Empty bunk beds don’t keep secrets. Knowing all of this, my parents sent me the following year for a nine day experience in survival.

The self-discovery cliché is played out but it fits right? If everything is taken from you and you’re put in a place void of distraction, where else do you look but within? I had a counselor who smoked himself silly one night and then found those of us that were dubbed as “trouble makers” still awake. I still remember him silhouetted in the doorway in a halo of mosquitoes with war paint all over his face that turned out to be sharpie. Instead of punishing us, he took the five of us outside in the midnight dusk that can only be found in Alaska with its skewed view of the sun. He devised a plan wherein he’d give us all badges of honor by way of crude symbols drawn in our forearms in sharpie. If we broke into the girls’ cabin and stole a bra, for instance, he’d draw some boobs on our wrist. If we could finish a box of Lucky Charms while standing in a rocking canoe he’d draw a clover; you get the idea. His creativity ran out and the last stamp was to be of the proverbial “twig and berries” which would only be awarded after a skinny dip in Peggy Lake.

One of my friends at the time had always been reticent when it came to locker rooms and the like, and we all considered him to be somewhat of a spoiled prude because his parents bought him whatever he wanted, but when it came time to skinny dip, he got this profound look of determination on his face and stripped down right there in front of us. He didn’t have a penis. As it turns out, he had lost it as a baby due to a botched circumcision and his parents had been spoiling him with the settlement ever since to compensate for something that’s frankly impossible to compensate for. He turned from us and walked slowly out into the lake and then back and then quietly dressed. A few other guys took the plunge, but it took more courage to do it ill equipped and our counselor recognized that so he drew the largest set of cock-and-balls on the forearm of the kid that had his cut short. It’s a simple irony that permanent marker gave back that which was taken.

On a different trip completely, without the sharpie wielding counselor (who as it turns out was the same one to kill the bear) we loaded an armada of aluminum canoes on top of an old school bus and drove out for a leisurely two day trip down a river with a name you couldn’t pronounce so I’ll leave out the cumbersome spelling. We had a nature loving female counselor with us and the aforementioned ex-linebacker. He came across as a cro-magnon type that could weather anything which instilled all sorts of misplaced confidence. He chose to load all of the food into one canoe and trust his outdated river maps despite the fact that our particular river had been feasting on unusually healthy rainfalls.

We took the wrong turn at a fork. It’s as simple as that. For the first few hours, we were navigating perfect waters and then for the next, we were battling class four rapids in metal canoes. That river was a fucking grey tempest swollen with glacial silt and hate. A glacier erodes the land under it as it slowly slides towards its death and the land that’s washed away is ground to fine grey silt that floats through the river. If you fall out of your canoe, the silt weighs down your clothing and you’re swept under to a death that’s only merciful because of the paralyzing cold.

I had the linebacker in the back of my canoe and his powerful oar strokes kept us out of the worst. His weight in the back made our canoe look as if it were on step like a speed boat so I had a great view. I was looking back when I saw a canoe, the one with all the food and drinking water, flip over. The two boys that went overboard made it to a large spruce tree that had been swept from the bank and anchored in the middle of the river. And no, they couldn’t swim to shore because the river was at least a half mile wide at this point. They clung to that tree for more than 48 hours before being rescued by Mahay’s Riverboat Service knowing that if they fell asleep and let go, they’d die. One of the boys, who was originally from Poland, came close to attempting suicide by drinking a bottle of aerosol bug repellant but the other talked him out of it. Those two guys became friends on that tree and the rest of us abstained from Pollock jokes for life. A screen door on a submarine isn’t that funny to begin with.

Those of us still afloat, fifteen I think, made it to a large sandbar in the middle of the river. We could see land to either side, but we knew there was no chance of making it off that little island because only three of our remaining seven canoes would still float. The others had been scarred beyond buoyancy in the mêlée of rocks and drift wood. And there we were; unbridgeable water to both sides and miles of ridiculous rapids ahead. No food, three water bottles, one tent, six sleeping bags, and a bottle of vitamin C. It’d be at least twenty years before a camp counselor could afford a cell phone, and even if we had one, I doubt that there will ever be cell service on that un-pronounceable river.

Christina was beautiful at sixteen; I think I was thirteen. The first thing she did when she made it to land was to strip right in front of me thanks to a justified fear of hypothermia. I can still remember those grey Jockey underwear she was wearing. She got a little embarrassed when I started laughing hysterically; here I was, finally stranded on an island with a gorgeous half naked woman but we didn’t have enough food to sustain the fantasy because the linebacker had chosen to put it all in a canoe with a Pollock. I gave her my dry denim jacket (that said Hard Rock Café Maui on the back) and turned away in disappointment.

We set up our eight-man tent and all crammed inside after a few failed attempts to make fire like a caveman with wet drift wood. I gave my sleeping bag to a girl from the lower forty-eight but I left it on that sandbar because she peed in it. She took me aside the next day and confessed to being too afraid to leave the presence of other humans because she was sure she’d die without it. It was an old mummy bag from my stepfather’s army days. The thing probably has more stories than I do but it’s lost to Alaska now.

Somewhere in the middle of that night, a girl whose name I can’t remember started telling a joke. I can still picture her sitting there in the muted glow of the tent with her shoulder length brown hair and coke-bottle glasses. It had to do with a string that walked into a bar that didn’t serve strings. The string tied itself into a knot and then frayed out its ends, and when the bartender asked it if it was a string, it answered, “no, I’m afraid not”. Homonyms had never been so funny and we all started laughing. It’s still my favorite joke despite its pedestrian quality because it’s a testament to what humor can do. A moment before, we were teenagers literally pissing ourselves with fear and a simple joke made us all laugh and forget about mortality for a moment.

We made an enormous SOS on the sand the next morning out of driftwood and orange life jackets, and late the following afternoon, after only 48 hours, one of those enormous double propped helicopters that was about to be shipped off for the first gulf war flew over and spotted us. It landed, and we all ran over asking for food. I got a can of tuna that I opened with a rock. At that point, it tasted better than the raw version you over pay for in Americanized sushi bars. Those airmen must’ve thought they had landed in the middle of a “Lord of the Flies” reenactment because we were all dirty as shit and brandishing spears that we had fashioned to use for fishing.

They radioed in for permission, and let us all climb in once it was granted. We all got those cool headsets complete with the movable microphones, and at my request, they left the huge door on the side of the helicopter open so I could get the whole “Vietnam experience.” We were over silt and spruce as opposed to the lush vegetation from the movie, but I started humming Ride of the Valkyries from Apocalypse Now because it seemed appropriate. No one noticed over the chop of the blades.

I vividly remember sitting across from that open door on the helicopter as the deafening white noise washed over me.  We were all smiling as we sat in our filth with our headphones as if we were enjoying a carnival ride. They dropped us off at an airfield near Camp Peggy Lake where we met up with the two kids from the log and we finished out the week with hotdogs and campfire circles as if nothing had happened. There was never any lawsuit or compensation, but at that age I didn’t really want anything other than fajitas after the ordeal. We made it into the Anchorage Daily News and the linebacker lost his job, but none of that really mattered and I knew it. I wasn’t shipped home as remains, and I never had to worry that my friends might make a gruesome discovery in the locker room. I was whole.

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Sorry ‘Bout That

I know I looked ridiculous when I was sixteen; the sides of my head were shaved and the hair on top (that I could freeze into a rather rad mohawk with half a carton of egg whites) came down to my waist. I was a punk (or a douche depending on your perspective) and my friends weren’t much better. I did some asinine things, and I wanted to quickly apologize for one of them.

 

A friend of mine had a rich dad so his first car (that he inherited when said rich dad bought a Land Rover) was a two door Cadillac from the late 80’s complete with the faux-leather roof and a hood that was bigger than most Hondas. We’d drive around town with the windows down with something obnoxious blaring like Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. And yes, two punkish white kids in a pimp-mobile with gangster rap for theme music  rolling around an Alaskan suburb was our approximation of “badass”. Anyway, we decided to get a few cartons of eggs and a couple bottles of whip cream for the nitrous oxide before doing some drive by egging. It’s Bone’s fault really. There are all sorts of references to drive-bys in their music and we were impressionable.

 

The two of us went from neighborhood to neighborhood unleashing a fury of yoke and laughing hysterically with whip-it induced blue lips, and then we headed home. We had originally called it quits because we were out of baby chickens, but halfway down Dowling, I rechecked the cartons and found one more. And that’s when I saw the two gothic kids walking west as we were driving east. They were on the sidewalk and my window was down so I didn’t really have much of a choice. I guess they’re calling the gothic look “emo” nowadays but I don’t agree with it; there’s really no need to rebrand style. I didn’t really aim or think but I threw that egg as hard as I could and as soon as I let go I felt the trajectory click somehow and I knew where the egg was going to hit before it did. It’s like the perfection of that toss threw the universe into slow motion and I was watching it all from some sort of omniscient perspective.

 

I don’t remember all the equations I encountered in freshman physics back in college, but I know this: we were driving at about fifty miles per hour, I threw as hard as I could, and the kid I connected with was walking towards us so the impact of my egg against his forehead was incredible. The crack sounded like a miniature sonic boom and he was on his back on the sidewalk before I could finish my “oh my god!” The second goth started laughing hysterically and pointing down at his friend as we drove away and I started feeling bad almost immediately despite how accurate my arm was. Is it mass times velocity squared? I don’t know.

 

Ten years later I was driving my black BMW on Bogard Road in Wasilla when I spotted a gothic kid walking on a small path that was a good twenty-five yards separated from the main road. It was twilight and there was a sparse copse of trees in between us, but he didn’t care. As I was driving by at sixty or so, I watched him pick up a rock, take aim, and throw for all he was worth before running away. The guy was good. He led me in his aim like a hunter would with running prey and he even took the trees in to account. I watched the rock ark towards me but I still flinched as it shattered my passenger window. Actually, I’m pretty sure it is mass times velocity squared but I don’t remember how to factor in the fact that the guy was walking towards my egg or that I was driving away from the rock but it really doesn’t matter in either instance. I do know that I’m sorry, and that gothic karma caught up to me. I smiled when my window broke and my debt broke even; the coincidence was far too perfect to overlook.

A Cadillac and Calligraphy

My grandfather worked for a movie production company, and right before he retired, he bought a ’64 Cadillac that had been used as a prop. Goldfinger came out the same year, but that has nothing to do with the car. He rebuilt it from the frame up and then drove it 4000 miles from Kentucky to Alaska to give to me on my tenth birthday. I wasn’t really in to cars at the time, but I remember being impressed with all the little golden ducks in the Cadillac emblem. I should’ve cherished that thing though; it was plum red with fins and rockets for tail lights and all sorts of street cred. It was a cross between the bat mobile and something Shaft would drive, but at fourteen years old, I agreed when my mom asked if we could sell it to help finance my end of a month long trip to Taiwan.

My stepfather was going over to represent the United States in some sort of labor conference and we were going to make a family trip out of it. I had a love seat to myself on the top level of one of those freakishly large airplanes and I drank wine coolers after my parents passed out because the international waters were on my side. Actually, I drank a lot on that trip. Plum wine with sunken prunes was served with every dinner and I had to drink it or risk offending all the dignitaries that were constantly with us. We ate pickled squid and shark fin soup and washed it all down with booze because drinking came with a height requirement instead of an age limit, and at five foot nineish, I towered above most of our hosts. It was like treading water in an ocean of bobbing black haired heads when I was out in public.

Everything revolved around plums. The Taiwanese rate their hotels in plums instead of stars and ours had five of them. Their government paid for that portion of our trip, and as a result, I had a badass suite all to myself on the top floor with my parents in a room to one side and Steven Segal in one on the other. And this was when he was a skinny ninja as opposed to the bulbous reality star he is now. I was fourteen and a huge fan so I started stalking him trying to get an autograph, but all the notes I taped to his door and all the calls I put in with the front desk were ignored. The fucker wouldn’t even look at me in the lobby when I yelled his name. He’d just say something to his body guards and they’d swarm around him like a grist of bees to protect him from some teenage white kid. So I was naturally in a rather peevish mood when he checked out and my parents came to retrieve me and tell me that we were going to spend the day with some emissaries in the downtown shop of one of the last living calligraphy artists that was still fluent in ancient Chinese.

I was a bit awestruck when we walked into his studio, and in hindsight, so was he. His lair was more like a dojo with rice paper partitions and floor mats and I was an American youth with hydrogen peroxide dyed hair being ushered around by four or five emissaries from his government. He was an odd little man sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the floor in white silk robes. He had an enormous mole on his left cheek that was sprouting a crop of black hairs that jarred violently against the paper white hair on his head hanging down in lanky waves against his shoulders. It was as if Yoda decided to disguise himself as human, and that’s why I couldn’t stop staring. I have no idea why the guy wouldn’t stop staring at me.

He stood slowly and walked over to me. Everything got really quiet and I could hear the smooth cadence of his slippers against the matted floor. Speaking through a translator, he told me that I would have “great power” one day, and that he would like to give me a gift if I would accept it. I nodded, and he walked over to a cabinet and pulled out a large piece of parchment that turned out to be from a long dead dynasty. It was browned with age and impregnated with flakes of beaten gold; the old man held it as if it might combust if rubbed the wrong way. He brought it over to where he had been sitting and spread it out in front of him after resuming his monk-like position on the floor. His movements were precise as he started making ink in a small well by mixing black paste in a pool of water. He chose his brush, asked me my name, and then held his right sleeve in his left hand before he started writing. His penmanship was like a martial art. It was beautiful. All the Taiwanese men behind me started gasping and making noises of satisfaction that are usually associated with really good apple pie or sex. His entire torso followed his brush strokes as he created his art. He finished it off with a set of personal chops, which are little orange stamps that I’d equate to a signet ring, and then smiled. He stood and walked back to me and proffered his gift with a bow. I bowed and took it, and everyone else started clapping. Strangest thing.

I brought that piece of art back to the states with me and framed it; I’ve hung it in every bedroom I’ve ever owned and as ludicrous as it might sound, I feel as if I came out on top vis-a-vis the trade I made with that ’64 Cadillac. That someday distant wherein I’ll fall in to “great power” hasn’t dawned, but I’ve got time. Stephan Segal is now trying to cling to validity by training UFC fighters and wearing yellow sunglasses. Neither is doing the trick. I sat on the floor for UFC 135 in Denver and he walked past me, fat as hell and wrapped in black leather, so of course I yelled out that he was a “raging cock monster”. It was loud in the arena so he only turned and smiled, but I felt as if I could finally put the grudge I’ve been nurturing for twenty years to rest. I guess I’d be doing Yoda a disservice if I didn’t.

Bloody Kismet

My obsession with the mail has never hurt me. I suppose it’s one of those slightly compulsive behaviors that doesn’t have any ill effect. All my bills are paid in a timely manner as a result and I’m doing my part to keep the USPS afloat even though no one else is. I like getting more than getting, even junk mail makes me smile, and that’s why I decided to drive to my mailbox at 11pm Halloween before last. I use one of those private mailbox places for reasons my wife scoffs at, but I find them valid so whatever. There’s an exterior door to the room with all the mailboxes that’s locked afterhours, but for a ten dollar deposit, they’ll give you a VIP key. And no, they don’t call it a “VIP” key because they’re not absolute weirdos that feel special when they’re checking their mail near midnight in a cozy room lined floor to ceiling with little boxes bedecked with black filigree that hold all sorts of unknown treasures. The end result will be the same, but please wait until the end of this little dissertation before you judge me.

As I said, I went to check my mail at about 11pm. I was dressed in active wear because I had just finished a workout but it didn’t matter; I wasn’t going to have any interpersonal dealings because after all, the mail is a private matter. It was dark, and thanks to an October rain, the asphalt around the strip mall where I get my mail was reflecting the sickly yellow glow coming from all the sodium streetlights on Main. I was about to put my VIP key in that exterior door when I heard the most pathetic little hiss of warning. I looked to my left, and there, skulking in the faded light of a flood lamp, was a brindled kitten that looked as if it was just coughed up from a garbage disposal. Moths were defining insanity by repetitively ramming their heads into the flood light and their odd little shadows were distracting which caused me to look away and give the little kitten a chance to escape. It made it about three feet and fell over still pawing the air as if running. Its little claws couldn’t find purchase so it just lay there on its side on the darkly reflective asphalt slowly losing strength. That’s when I saw the blood.

I went back to my truck and sat in the driver seat so I could talk myself out of what I knew I was about to do. I should’ve just left, especially with the clarity that hindsight provides, but I kept picturing a little murder scene complete with a tiny chalk outline in the shape of a kitty. I had a cardboard box in my truck so my folly was inevitable. Besides, I hadn’t officially checked the mail yet and leaving without doing so surely would’ve led to one of those OCD induced periods of dysfunction when you curl up in the fetal position on the floor and hum to yourself. Come on, you know what I’m talking about.

Anyway, I got the box and put on a pair of gloves so I’d be protected from rabies or feline AIDS or whatever that feral little creature might try to infect me with. It was pretty easy to catch the thing because it was closer to death than it was willing to admit. I let it ride shotgun on the way home so it could be closer to the heater and I called my wife from my cell so I could preemptively warn her of my stupidity. I think her hands were literally on her hips when I walked through the front door and she was slowly shaking her head back and forth with pursed lips. She had one of those “what the shit are you doing you’re supposed to be a grown man not a crazy cat lady but I guess I shouldn’t expect anything different because you’re half retarded” expressions painted on her face.

I kept the kitten in the box and put it on the counter to keep it quarantined from our four other animals, and as I watched it from above, I realized it wasn’t going to live much longer. So I did the only rational thing I could think of. I called the emergency number listed in the yellow pages for our local veterinary hospital around midnight knowing full well that I was about to blow all sorts of cash on this bloody little shit covered stray kitten. I went right back to my truck with my gloves and cardboard box and drove to the vet’s office and waited for the on-call physician. She ended up to be a grandmotherly Mary Poppins type with perfectly parted hair and two thick braids draped over her shoulders. She led me into the reception area before reaching into the box and pulling out the kitten. The harsh light from all the fluorescents gave me my first really good look at the thing and I remember shaking my head in disbelief. Seriously, what type of person would invest any sort of time or hope into something that was obviously a lost cause? Actually, let’s not psychoanalyze that. It’d probably highlight some sort of rescue based dysfunction in my psyche that stems from one of those cliché childhood scars that we all ignore as adults. The vet looked at me with her best concerned mother look and told me that the kitten probably wouldn’t make it through the night, and that we could either euthanize the thing, which would cost sixty bucks, or we could “give it a chance.” If Mary Poppins looks at you and asks if you’d like to kill a kitten or “give it a chance”, you’d do the same damn thing I did. Looking back, I now realize that I had a third chance, but for some reason, the vet never mentioned that I could’ve easily out run her and made it back to my truck before she got my credit card number (especially since I was still wearing my workout gear).

As it turns out, a “chance” translates into kitty ICU and antibiotics via IV and heart monitoring and all sorts of things traditionally reserved for humans. We all thought it was going to die, but three days later, I picked it up during regular business hours. As it turns out, the kitten had been mauled by a considerably larger animal of some sort, and the story of my late-night rescue had spread throughout the vet’s office. The receptionist gave me a simpering “you’re my hero” look as I checked out, but it did little to dull the pain radiating from the bill she slid across the counter.

I’m not the religious type, but I’m pretty sure that there was some sort of higher power that wasn’t done trying to prove that Jesse Anderson is an idiot because the kitten had stick fleas that the vet missed and were subsequently passed on to my other pets. If you don’t know what a stick flea is, google it. They’re creepy little aliens posing as terrestrial parasites that burrow into an animal’s flesh and breed like crack smoking rabbits. The vet gave me a discount on all the poison I had to buy to eradicate the little bastards from my house which was the least that she could do. I could’ve gotten it for free by throwing a tantrum where everyone could see but I didn’t want to ruin my “hero” image because frankly, it was all I had left.

We ended up giving the kitten to my mother-in-law because after you spend that much money on something it becomes family. She named it Kismet. Not many of my friends agree with what I did that night; most of my guy friends say that I should’ve put it out of its misery the cheap way (a boot to the head) which makes me shiver, and even my female friends think it was cute but stupid. Hell, considering the fact that Kismet was never spayed and it took her a whole six months to get knocked up by an orange tomcat, PETA would probably disagree with what I did judging by their “spay and neuter your animals” campaign. My mother-in-law is keeping one of the kittens (she plans on naming it Karma) but the rest will be given away so they can breed and breed and spread the proof of my idiocy all over this shitty little town in the form of stray cats. You’re welcome Farmington.

I’m not going to say that lots of people ask me where I get the ideas for my short stories, because if I did, I’d be pretending that lots of people know I’m an author. But a few do ask, and believe it or not, some of them are complete strangers that have bought my book. The bloody little kitten I just told you about was the basis for the short story “Kismet” that comes somewhere in the middle of Trailer Park Juggernauts. There’s no landlocked angel or murderous midget in the real life version of events, but you get the idea.

Soft in Birth and Death

I lay there swaddled and laughing at the fact that I knew full well that pooping in my pants wouldn’t be accepted later in life. I’m a boy again. Maybe I’ll always be a boy. My brain is still soft; the synaptic paths that would trap my conscious and alienate the memories from my past lives hadn’t hardened yet. I feel my recollection slipping. Most recently, the way I died had something to do with a disease but I can’t remember which one. The way I lived had something to do with medicine but I can’t remember exactly which specialty I practiced.

My stroller is bright and distracting, but I can see past it to another one. There’s a baby in it too; she has a bewildered look on her face, as if she’s trying to hold onto what she’s sure to forget. We turn our heads and lock blue eyes.

“It’s hard holding still. I guess muscle control will come with time.” I find it amusing that we can communicate with our minds. I’m frustrated that we’ll both lose the ability.

“It sure is. Do you remember your birth? Your time in your mother’s womb? I do. It was dark and aquatic. The sounds were all bass and no treble,” says the baby girl.

“I remember it well, and everything before it.”

“Ha! Me too. I guess the Buddhists are right.”

“Not quite,” I say. “I think I might have been an ass in my last life. And from what I’ve seen so far, karma isn’t punishing me at all.”

The baby girl’s mother mumbles something to mine and she is taken away. There’s no way we’ll know to pick up where we left off if we see each other again. I can feel my thoughts slipping. The new me is taking hold and a nap is coming on. I need to eat.  A cry comes through my lips like someone else is pushing it. I stop fighting.

***

Sandra tried to wait patiently at the crosswalk. Her nursing bra was soaking through and she didn’t have the serenity to wait for the red hand to turn into a little walking green man. An older mother, maybe in her early forties, walked up and parked her stroller right next to Sandra’s. They were both top-end and expensive with all sorts of gadgets that babies didn’t really need.

“Isn’t this great?”

“What?” asked Sandra.

“Motherhood. We tried forever and finally went to the clinic. They gave Jim a set of tightie-whities with an attached ice bag but it didn’t do anything for his sperm count. We had to go the artificial route, if you know what I mean.”

Jesus, thought Sandra, this bitch has no boundaries. She went back to staring across the street in front of her. The noon sun baked the asphalt and heat waves distorted the white blocks of the crosswalk.

“How old is he?” asked the woman.

“Eight months. And your little girl?”

“The same. Isn’t it weird how babies seem to be so interested by other babies? I swear they would be content to just stare at each other for hours.”

Sandra and the woman looked at their children as the babies locked blue eyes and both women smiled with love. The woman mumbled something salutary and pushed her stroller onto the crosswalk as the green man appeared. Sandra waited a few seconds so she could walk alone despite her hurry. She had no intention of picking up where they left off if she ever met the woman again.

***

The nuns in the St. Clair Hospice preached faith above all else, but sterility ranked higher on the chore charts. Everything was white, the tile the walls the ceiling the noise. The color was chosen so dirt couldn’t hide. It was mind-numbing, though. James didn’t believe in heaven like the nuns wanted him to, but he sure as hell believed in purgatory thanks to his whitewashed hallway. He sat in an electric scooter outside the door to his room. It was the fastest that could be bought, but the governor still kicked in at seven miles per hour. He wore loud plaid. Reds and greens from bald head to toe, he fought back against the nuns’ monochrome.

Jessie’s chair hummed from down the hall. She was fat and familiar as always in her pink jumpsuit. She had lost a leg to diabetes a while back and had an empty pant leg tucked under her enormous butt. Her pink hood was up to cover her blue hair.

“We look ridiculous!” James shouted down the hallway. “Maybe that’s the only luxury that comes with extreme old age. We just don’t give a damn.”

Jessie backed in next to James and clicked her scooter into “park.”

“If that was true I’d still smoke. I miss my smokes.” Her voice was dry and jovial.

“You probably would if the nuns didn’t steal them from you.”

Something gave way in James’s head. The pop was warm and wet. He lost control of his bowels. It wasn’t painful really, but he knew what it meant. He looked over at Jessie and laughed.

“Holy shit, I know you. You’re the girl in the stroller. Jesus. That was almost ninety years ago!”

The pain in Jessie’s chest was epic. One more smoke would’ve been nice, but she clutched the pink velour over her left breast instead of calling out for one.

“I remember. I remember it all! You mom’s shirt was stained with milk and you smelled like shit! Hell, you smell like shit right now!”

“Thanks! Wow, are we talking telepathically?”

Both man and woman laughed aloud as the static hold of gray matter over their souls disintegrated. They both stopped fighting. Memories lost came back in a flood as they both died. As they both left. Their bodies slumped in their scooters. Two corpses painted in pink and plaid against a white hospice canvas.

***

It’s so weird breathing fluid.  It’s calming and solid.  I know it’s amniotic, but the salty taste reminds me of the sea.  Maybe if someone were to remember their time in their mother’s womb, like I’m experiencing it now, and they had boatloads of courage, they could do it again.  I’ll hold on to this one memory, this one idea, as hard as I can and try to breathe underwater when I’m old enough.  Why not?  If we’re smart enough as a species to recreate the taste of strawberries through chemicals, why couldn’t we brew amniotic fluid that adults can breathe?  I’ll be a scientist or a doctor again so I can get it done; being a bum sucked and I should know that by now.

I look down but can’t see.  I reach with my little, ineffective hands.  Yep, I’m a boy as I’ve always been.  That settles it.

I feel the fluid drain and my mother start to panic.  I can’t breathe for a moment as flesh collapses around my face.  I know it’ll pass.  Everything starts to constrict.  There are those bright lights.  There’s the cold.  It’s the first time either sensation has slapped me in nine months.  Or I guess it’s possible that it’s been longer.  There’s really no way to know how much time passes between death and conception because I always forget to check after my brain hardens.  Not this time.  This time I’ll remember being a bum and see how long ago I died.  This time I’ll do better in life.  This time, I’ll breathe under water when I grow up.

I need milk.

Sorry, I mistook you for a Selkie.

I wouldn’t say that I attended University of Oregon, but I definitely went there for about a year. Eugene has to be one of the better places on earth to spend “about a year”. The city is perfect in climate and culture and Hendricks Park, which looks like a scene out of Fern Gully with verdant vegetation clinging to everything, is walking distance from campus. Eugene’s got rivers and bike trails and Rastafarian recruits that milk trust funds in secret; it’s perfect. I remember learning to play cribbage in a “quad”. I remember two great friends, one with a weird last name and one that’s lawfully classified as a dwarf. I remember living in a ten bedroom rundown mansion on Pine Street and a riot which we supposedly incited that led to our eviction. But one of my most crystalline memories involves a seal that I falsely accused of being a mythological creature.

 

If you drive west from Eugene towards the coast, it’s like a cross continental trip in fast-forward. In five hours, you’ll pass through mountains and forests and sand dunes before ending up at the ocean. It’s an odd smattering of every geological feature earth has to offer. Four of us took that trip in a beat-to-shit Toyota pickup shortly before I dropped out, but the two events have nothing to do with each other. We hit the coast somewhere around the Devil’s Punchbowl (which has a Spanish name that I can’t remember; something something Diablo). It’s a blowhole washed out of the bedrock by the surf that’s simply spectacular. If you ignore the “you’re about to die” signs, you can sit on the rim and look down on a frothing cauldron of death that was aptly named. I don’t necessarily condone drug use, but I need to be honest, so here it is. I don’t know how many mushrooms the four of us ate while sitting on the rim of that blowhole, but at five bucks a bag, I’m sure it was way too many. Anyway, we left and checked into a shitty motel in a badass little town with a Moe’s and a bridge spanning a small inlet. If you’ve never eaten at a Moe’s, put it on your bucket list. The clam chowder is served in a big black crucible that the waitress puts in the middle of your table. There’s a pool of melted butter on the surface swimming with saffron and lemon juice; the stuff smells like liquid perfection (or at least it does when you’re hallucinating).

 

We left and found a little trail to the beach that was carved through a hedge of something with thorns and sat smoking on driftwood for three or four hours. At one point, there was a nightscape over the water with stars and comets in front of us and a sunset behind. I remember wanting to hold really still because I wasn’t quite sure where land ended and water started; the two elements melted together in a weird star spangled carnival mirror that looked enticing and dangerous at the same time.

 

The bridge I mentioned earlier wasn’t one of those simply utilitarian bridges that just spans from point A to point B. The one in this little town is an architectural masterpiece with stylized balustrades and magnanimous gargoyles guarding both ends. I got the sudden urge to go off on my own after the four of us crossed it on our way back to the motel, so I made my way underneath it (looking out for trolls, of course) and then slid down to the water on my ass. I was sitting on the shore letting the surf soak my sweatpants when I heard something barking at me from the water.  What I initially thought was a thoroughly confused dog turned out to be an enormous seal that swam right up to me and started talking. And no, I don’t mean that it was speaking English nor do I claim to be fluent in seal, but the thing was sure as shit trying to communicate. So I did the logical thing and started talking back. As I just mentioned, I don’t speak seal, so in English, I asked if it “was a lost Selkie” and then I said that if in fact it was, she was “a really long way from Ireland.” If you haven’t seen “The Secret of Roan Inish” I highly recommend it. I watched it in a little smoke filled theater back in Anchorage Alaska that served espresso and catered to the artsy type but it has to be one of my favorite foreign films. The seal looked at me like I had offended it and swam back out to sea without barking goodbye. I sat there for a few more minutes trying to separate real from fake and then climbed back up the slope to find my friends and my motel. We played cribbage until it was safe to drive back to Eugene but I didn’t tell any of my friends about that seal until months later. I guess it’s just one of those things that I didn’t want to be met with disbelief. Oddly enough, when I did share the experience, the three that came with me on that trip felt that maybe the thing really would’ve turned into a beautiful Irish woman if I had only waited longer before offending it. Birds of a feather I guess.

 

I saw the guy that drove that beat-to-shit Toyota walk past me in a hotel lobby in Albuquerque a while back. He still had his long hair and a French horn. I smiled as he strolled past because he had obviously fulfilled his dream and become a professional musician. He didn’t recognize me or even make eye contact in passing because, wearing a tucked in polo and slacks, there was no way I could’ve been that guy from ten years ago that falsely accused a seal of being a Selkie.