Sunday, May 11, 2008

No Miracles Tonight

It's been raining for 72 hours. My yard is a quagmire, and sunshine is a myth. It will never stop raining. In the past three days, storms flooded the lower Potomac, tornadoes decimated a nearby suburban town, and a small earthquake was felt inside the Beltway. We are in northern Virginia, 12 miles from the White House, and the gods are obviously pissed off.

I am waiting for a miracle to occur. For a call. For an email. For a sign. Hope lingers. It is silly to wait, but within the recovery crowd, "don't quit before the miracle happens" is a common adage. No one knows exactly what this means, or which miracle we are referring to. The desire to stop using drugs? The wish that someone close to us stop using drugs? Perhaps an awakening, a coming to one's senses. A return to health, a fulfillment, an end to sadness. I am waiting for a miracle to occur but lack the faith to really believe it will. The truth is , miracles scare me. I don't trust them. The ones I have witnessed have never lasted, been peremptory and temporary. Often, they've done more harm than good, raised and dashed expectations and left the beneficiaries shaken.

And yet... Einstein is reputed to have said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. I think he had it wrong. People play the lottery and occasionally win, and any child will tell you that repetition sometimes leads to learning. So, like Leonard Cohen, I'm waiting for a miracle.

Here's installment 22 of Wasted Miracles.
When Josie came home she swept by her mother, but not quickly enough. Catherine saw her daughter’s puffy face, red-rimmed eyes, wasted mascara. She put a hand on Josie’s shoulder but the girl shrugged it off less in anger than in weariness. She said, “Oh, mom!” For a frozen instant Catherine saw whirlpools of sadness in her daughter’s eyes. She held on to the moment as long as she could but it was gone, she couldn’t tell what was there now. Then Josie shook her head, mumbled, “It’s not important. See you tomorrow.” And went straight up the stairs and locked herself in her bedroom.

Chapter 5

Two days later there was a massive storm and a family of five out on a picnic drowned in Rock Creek, the generally timid stream that bisects Washington’s northwest section. Trees planted up and down the major avenues snapped, sewers overflowed, power lines fell. Colin’s apartment was one of hundreds in the Virginia suburbs darkened by a blackout. He was watching sheet lightning flare across the horizon when his phone rang. It was Orin G.
“Lights are out but the phones are still working. Is this a great country or what? Listen, I’m bored, TV’s down and Marsha’s taking a nap, woman could sleep through a carpet bombing. I haven’t seen you for awhile and generally when you don’t want to see me, it means you should ‘cause you got something on your mind. So come on over. Oh, and stop at the Giant and get me some salami. Thin slice Genoa.”
Colin drove through the rain to his AA sponsor’s house. The occasional one-on-ones were something Orin G had insisted upon before taking Colin on, and Colin didn’t always look forward to them. Orin was not a friend, probably never would be, he’d been sponsoring Colin more than five years now and still their encounters were punctuated with long silences that made Colin uncomfortable, though Orin never seemed to mind. He just sat, overflowing his wheelchair, an ever-present glass of two-percent milk by his side.
Once Orin had stood more than six feet tall but not anymore. His left leg had been amputated after a motorcycle accident when he was only sixteen. His right leg had been taken off just above the knee fifteen years later when gangrene had set in after a month spent shooting speedballs in his inner thigh and between his toes with bad needles. After that, Orin started drinking. Eight years later on a bright Sunday afternoon he hit his personal bottom and wheeled his chair with himself in it onto the middle island of the Beltway just north of the Tyson’s exit. Police cars surrounded him within minutes. He had a gun, a chrome plated Smith & Wesson with which he threatened the cops. A young officer shot him twice in the chest. Orin had shown Colin the scars, two hard puckered nodes, one below each clavicle.
After he came out of the hospital he was charged with more offenses than the county judge had ever seen applied against one man at one time, and this had impressed the magistrate so much that he proposed a deal. Orin would go into a rehab. After that he would live in a sober halfway house for an indeterminate amount of time, and he would go to at least one AA or NA meeting daily. He would personally see the judge each week at the judge’s home. He would get counseling, learn to read and write properly, pass his high school equivalency, get a trade. Orin did all that and on the second anniversary of his sobriety, he married the judge’s daughter.

Friday, May 9, 2008


God damn it, it's Friday.
Friday night, to be more exact, and if you are alone, Friday nights are a very special kind of evil...
I spent almost seven years involved with a gorgeous woman and her fatal flaw: she drank. I have no idea how many times she went to the hospital to be detoxed. The police came over often enough to remember the house. She has spent time in jail, in countless rehabs; she has slept in cars and in doorways. The very fact that she is alive today is a miracle. I am afraid she will die soon, that her body will not tolerate the abuse it has taken, that something--liver, kidneys, spleen, heart--will shut down. She is losing her beauty. Her skin is tired, she trembles, her eyes water. She is a college graduate with two gorgeous sons she hardly sees. She is not allowed to drive. She has no car, no career, no money, and lives by performing odd jobs--tutoring, house-sitting, cleaning other people's homes.
She has no friends. Except me, and I lose patience when I hear the intoxication in her voice. Sometimes she can stay sober for three months and seemingly get her life back on track. But then something happens, something catches up and she drinks. She drinks for a week, a month, longer. The end is always the same--a trip to detox, three or four days in the spin-dry facility. She returns pale, shaken, the life sucked out of her.

We lived together for a fractious year amid promises of sobriety that were never honored.

There is nothing I can do. I am powerless over alcohol, no matter who its in. I see her and doubt the existence of a good god.

Here is installment 21 of Wasted Miracles.

He was an educated man whose own father had believed a proper gentleman spoke the King’s English and Moliere’s French, so as a child and adolescent the Zulu had been sent both to London and Paris to polish his language skills. In London, he had fallen in with some gamblers and in two nights lost his year’s allowance. A week later he had discovered the cocaine trade and a month after that was supplying students and gambling friends with the substance.
The money involved astounded him. The violence he dealt with quickly and with finality. He had killed four people to establish himself in London and had not enjoyed it. It was messy, dirty work and it soiled his clothes. But soon, the money he made allowed him to hire others to do the killing and he discovered to his surprise that Nigerians were generally efficient and cheap. Also superstitious, a trait he played upon by making them swear a “holy” oath that involved ritual and minor bloodletting. The ceremony made them brothers, he said, and he was the supreme brother, personally linked to the greatest African who had ever lived.
Once, in order to manifest his superiority, he had gathered his acolytes and, before their very eyes, slit the throat of a street dealer who had argued with him. The impact had been immediate; the Nigerians had fallen to their knees and sworn obedience. But the dying dealer had had the bad grace of showering great gouts of blood upon the Zulu’s shirt, which the Zulu had found disgusting.
He had been in the United States 10 years now, five of them in Washington where the demand was high and the police virtually powerless. He liked the city, enjoyed the museums, took art appreciation courses at Georgetown and George Washington Universities, had made friends who worked at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. He had a couple of customers who worked there, too. He still traded in cocaine brought back from Bolivia and Columbia by travelers bearing UN laissez passers, which were better than passports since they entitled the bearers to semi-diplomatic immunity. And he had discovered that heroin was making a comeback. Herbie had been the go-between, the liaison. He had never, in his wildest dreams, imagined being robbed by someone like Herbie, but there it was. It wasn’t even the money that mattered, he could afford a million or two, but the sheer gall of the dealer outraged him.
He turned to face the Nigerians. They both stood a bit straighter and pulled in their stomachs.
“So,” he said, “now I have to think of something else, something the two of you will be able to do without bungling.” He pulled down a short spear from a display on the wall, traced its point with a finger, smiled.
“This is just like the weapon my great great grandfather employed. Isn’t it a pretty thing?” He held up the assegai for the two men to see. The younger one leaned forward to admire it. The Zulu thrust once, wrenched up then sideways. The room was suddenly filled with a noxious smell. The Zulu held the spear at a forty-five degree angle--he was quite strong for his size--and watched as the eyes of the impaled man lost their glow. The older Nigerian reared back, made a moaning sound, the white around his own eyes like dinner plates. The Zulu gently lowered his trophy to the floor, inspected his shoes, noted with satisfaction that this time the slaying had been cleanly done.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Last Gig

Well, we had a good run. Most bands don't last this long. Eleven years, all told, with six bass players, three girl vocalists, two keyboards, and I don't remember how many drummers. Weird people, drummers, but I guess if you get your kicks hitting the skin of dead animals with sticks, then you're allowed to be a bit off. We fired our last drummer twice but took him back three times. He was a big guy, over six-four, and there always was something wrong with him. Last night, in the middle of the last set, he got cramps. In the past it's been headaches, backaches, sinus issues, bad feet, you name it.

In Idylwood's eleven years, there've been a divorce and a marriage, some downright craziness with various significant others, surgery, death, happiness and creativity and a bunch of gigs ranging from the absurd to the giddy

Last night's was a nice last gig. We filled the room, sold a lot of dinners which made the owner of the place very happy but took the wait staff by surprise. I'm told service was horrible. L, who is leaving and taking A and K to create a "power trio," managed to start two songs in the wrong key, something that has never happened before.

The general feeling among my friends is that I am well rid of them and will find something else soon. Still, it's sad... There is a lot of equipment to get rid of--mike stands, amps, miles of cable, recording equipment that five years ago was state-of-the-art but is now sadly obsolete.

I had a crazy notion that SBC might show, which would not have been a good thing. I'd have swallowed a microphone. But I'm sorry she never got to see us play.

Here's installment 20 of Wasted Miracles.

The Zulu didn’t like what he was hearing. It was his birthday, it should have been a good day, he had now lived as long as the most famous man ever to come out of Natal, 41 years, and the two fools to whom he was turning his back were ruining it.
He closed his eyes, tried to focus on the voice of his great great grandfather. Sometimes the ancestor spoke with a certain wisdom, most times his advice might have been good but was rendered useless by modern practicalities. This time the old warrior was silent.
The two Nigerians were silent as well. They knew better than to plead their case, knew also that the Zulu’s anger would quickly dissipate. They were family, kind of, and he was all in all a fair employer who on occasion would tolerate errors. They hoped this would be one of the occasions.
The Zulu said, “The van hit a bump?” He still had his back turned, refused to look at them.
The younger Nigerian nodded. “Yes, Dingane. The roads are very bad in Washington. Worse than in Lagos. It’s a very poorly run city and...”
“And because it’s a poorly run city,” the Zulu interrupted, “the thief was killed, and he did not tell you what I needed to know.” He paused. “I shall have to tell the mayor. I will tell his honor that the roads he does not fix have cost me a million-and-a-half dollars. I’m sure he will understand and hasten to reimburse me. Tell me, Akim, do you think he will reimburse me?”
Akim, the younger man, did not respond. Any minute now, Dingane would say, “My great great grandfather...” And things would be all right.
The Zulu said, “My great great grandfather, who was a warrior under Shaka, would find this hard to believe. He would have you killed. Both of you. No ceremony. Or perhaps tortured you first.”
The Zulu was a short man with a round head on which fit round features. He wore glasses and was partial to three-piece suits, one of which he had on tonight. He had extremely small feet, forty-two pairs of expensive shoes and a single piece of jewelry, a platinum and gold diamond ring on his right index finger. He was a full-fledged Zulu and his great great grandfather had indeed been one of Shaka’s lieutenants.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Shallow Shallow Shallow

I am looking at the mug shots of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World. I am not among them. I am looking at the photos and not reading the text and I am thinking that I don't care.

So and so's research has saved thousands of lives. I don't care. This pol, or that one, promises he or she will change this, that or the other, or maybe all three. I don't care. I don't care about the 26-year-old Brazilian soccer prodigy and evangelical Christian, nor about the founder of Facebook. I don't even care about Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, though a long time ago I did march near the Burmese embassy with a placard demanding she be freed.

Are Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie really heroes? Heroes? That term used to be reserved for firemen and people who jumped into icy rivers to rescue people who should not be in icy rivers. I am tired of George Clooney, who has invaded the pages of even the New Yorker. I don't know what Carinne Roitfeld does and am too tired to learn even though she, like me, is Parisian. In fact, the only thing in this week's Time that sparked my curiosity was an ad for Residence Inn Marriott showing a fire-eater. Now that's interesting. How does he do that? Doesn't that burn his tongue? What if he inhales? He is performing next to a swimming pool and I wonder if that's his safety net.

I think living in a web of lies and untruths at every possible level has jaundiced my views. When one does not know whom to trust, one simply stops trusting. And this is what has happened to me in the past couple of years. Should I believe the New York Times or the News of the World? Geraldo or 60 Minutes? Is NPR any less biased than Fox? My former SO lied to me pretty constantly, either by omission or directly. All ads lie--I will not get the girl by buying a Givenchy suit, and I will reemain a dork if I buy a Harley, except that I'll be a dork on a Harley. What was accurate last week is a baseless falsehood today. Fark, this is simply too complicated for my basic thought patterns. I get way too much bad information, all of which is useless or downright destructive. But then again, useless information is easier to deal with than the stark facts of life.

Hasn't that been scientifically proven?

Here's installment 19 of Wasted Miracles.

“But it was, like, quick?”
She could tell by the way he hunched his shoulders, shuffled his feet for a moment or two that whatever he’d answer would be a lie.
He said, “Yeah. I think so. I think it was quick.”
Josie expected to be taken to the station, that was how they did it on cop shows but Detective Robinson didn’t suggest it. Instead, she rode the elevator down, found herself in the lobby of the building and people looking as if she’d done something. All the residents seemed to be there, the word had spread quick that someone had been killed and the old lady retirees and stay-at-home wives, the janitor, guards and doorman, the Chinese take-out driver and mailman, the delivery guy from the diaper service, all of them were talking in hushed tones, darting glances at her when they thought she wasn’t looking. She was close to tears, she had to get out of there.
She left the building eyes straight ahead, not willing to give the biddies satisfaction. Out on the sidewalk, she searched through her purse for the emergency fifty she kept in the secret flap but it wasn’t there. She remembered Herbie had taken it a week before saying he’d pay it back the very next day but she hadn’t seen him until three days later and by that time they’d both forgotten. So all she had was a couple of bucks, some change, and an ATM card but there was no bank in sight. She felt a tear slide down her cheek, wiped it away.
Truth was, she’d gone to the apartment to break up with Herbie, she wasn’t willing to admit it but last night was it. She was going to bail, and now he had bailed first, most terminally, and it made her feel both cheated and sad.
She remembered an incident when she was a kid, when this woman neighbor who was mean and smelled like a musty closet had yelled at her for stepping on some flowers, and she’d wished right there and then for the old lady to die. And that night, the old lady had. Like Josie had willed it or something. And that was the way she felt right now, that perhaps in some weird strange way Herbie had been killed because she’d been so pissed off she wanted him dead.
That same night, back when she was a kid, she’d woken up yelling that it hadn’t been her fault about the old lady, and her mother had come and held her for a long time, her breath all booze and cough drops. Her mother had told her to always be careful about wishing for things--they might come true. She hadn’t thought about that for years.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Write, Right and Rite

And while we're talking about writers, I'll tell you that I know a lot of them--novelists; tech folks who put out those incredibly complex computer manuals and others who write and edit the legislation of the land. There are a screenwriter or two, a playwright specializing in children's theater, a couple of poets. I know one splendid young woman whose books are so amazing and beautiful that she should be a household name but isn't. There are Pulitzer Prize winners from the old days at The Washington Post, and a science fiction author who has won the top prizes in the genre. I even know one lady who writes dirty limericks, though the buyers' market for that is pretty slim. The most widely distributed--if not read--of them all, though, is the author of the safety warning found on every can of Duron paint manufactured and sold throughout the North American hemisphere.

Some write by the pound, others specialize in haiku-like brevity. Every writer I know follows some rite of creation. The woman whose fiction I so admire sits among orchids, wearing earplugs. A few must be hungry, one has to just have been fed. A novelist friend can only write in his bathrobe. It is old and needs replacing, but he is persuaded that his talents will vanish if the bathrobe disappears. When he washes it--twice a year--he will stand by the washing machine until the cycles are done. He dries it outside because he wants the terrycloth to benefit from the sun's Vitamin D. My friend C does a set of calistenics, running in place, followed by deep breathing and stretching exercises before hitting the keyboard. Interestingly enough, none of the writers I know smoke, though a lot drink and do other drugs.

All in all, writing is the height of self-centeredness. Wasted Miracles, the 18th installment of which is on this blog, comes in at 389 pages, and contains 79,742 words. Another novel I recently finished is set in Paris just after World War I. It is 456 pages long after editing.

I look at such numbers and think of the conceit necessary to produce a book. I am amazed by the fact that I believe, really believe, readers might spend several hours over several days wandering through a world I invented and peopled. Who the hell do I think I am?

Here's installment 18 of Wasted Miracles.

Had he? Josie couldn’t think. Probably not, and if he had it wasn’t the kind of thing she would remember. She was always forgetting the names of people she saw almost everyday, people who shared at the meetings, identified themselves and clearly remembered her. It was embarrassing, one of the reasons she didn’t often hang around with the others afterwards. She looked down at her shoes, sighed, shook her head.
“No. No names. Just people, he said. He only mentioned it once or twice, that there were some dudes who’d be happy to see him gone, that’s all, I thought he was being, you know, like, dramatic or something, trying to impress me.”
The cop nodded, looked sympathetic. She started speaking faster and he let her ramble. Then, when she seemed drained, he encouraged her. They talked generalities, what Herbie was like, how long she’d known him, what they did when they were together. Did Herbie like movies, restaurants, nightclubs? Which ones? Did she know his friends well? How well?
Afterwards, he took her name down again and asked a lot of other questions but she didn’t have much to say, which made her realize how little she knew about Herbie, even though they’d been together kind of a while. Then he inquired in a roundabout way whether she knew what Herbie did for a living. Josie said she didn’t, though she had suspected it right from the start. The cop said, “He dealt drugs. You do drugs?”
She’d wondered when the question was going to come. She shook her head, said, “No,” but there was no conviction to her voice.
She wasn’t stupid, had figured out right from the start that Herbie wasn’t in real estate like he claimed, he didn’t know the difference between a rambler and a Victorian, and his friends hardly seemed like the investor type. Herbie wasn’t into anything taxable, he was too easy with money, always sprang and bought her little gifts on a whim. He had two cellular phones and three beepers, a Platinum Amex. Secretly, she found it kind of exciting that he might be involved with drugs, she liked flirting with the dark but she’d never, not once, asked him to set her up. And Herbie, to his credit, had never used in front of her, though a couple of times at clubs he’d gone to the men’s room and come back with glazed eyes. She said, “I do NA. You know. Narcotics Anonymous. ”
The cop opened his eyes a little wider. “Yeah? How long?”
“Almost a year.”
He nodded again. “A year? Well, good. Good for you.” He paused, closed his notebook, placed it back in his pocket. “Got a brother in NA, but he never has managed more than four, five weeks. Did you do a rehab?”
She looked at him. The expression on his face had changed. Now it mirrored real interest, concern.
“Three times.”
“Three? Last one took, I guess.” He paused, smiled. “Well, good. Good for you,” he said again. Then he sighed. His voice turned flat, sad. “My brother tried it. Ran away the second day.”
Josie was tired. Her anger had vanished. There were things she hadn’t said to Herbie yet, stuff they were supposed to talk about and laugh over and now he was dead. She closed her eyes, rubbed them with her thumb and index finger, trying to change the colors in there. “Yeah. That happens. There was a girl did that the last go round. Ran away, I mean. Went straight to the Safeway, bought a gallon of burgundy and some Nyquil...”
He stood, reached out a hand for her. “I’m sorry about all this. I might have to call you, get more information. You sure you gave me the right number? I’m trusting you, now.”
Josie took the hand, pulled on it to stand up. “What happened to Herbie, was it, you know, gross?”
The cop avoided her eyes, looked somewhere over her left shoulder. After a moment, he said, “Yeah. Yeah, it was.”

Thursday, May 1, 2008

For sale: Baby shoes; never used.

Hemingway is reputed to have written that--a life in six words. Wish I were that succinct. For the past month-and-a-half I have not been able to string words together in a passable way. I read somewhere that writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair but I think there may be a bit more to it than that. Writing, in and of itself, doesn't mean much. Like almost everything, it has been devalued so that now (1) everybody can write (and read) and (2) what most writers write isn't worthy of being read. Including my stuff, for all I know.

Ah well. Here's installment 17 of Wasted Miracles.

There were cops all over the place, in the corridor, in the living room, in the bedroom and bathroom. They’d torn the place apart. The cushions from the couch were on the floor and the rugs had been pulled every which way. The kitchen was a shambles, the refrigerator door wide open and its contents spread on the counter next to the sink. She saw all this in a split second, didn’t know what to make of it and stood with her mouth open until a large black man in a tight dark blue suit came over to her and said, “Who are you?”
She didn’t say anything, looked at the black man, looked into the apartment again.
He asked, “Did you know Herbie?”
She caught the word “did.” Not “do.” “Did.”
She dropped her purse, opened her mouth in a tall oval O, covered it with her hand.
The black man seemed to slump a little, his body relaxed. He took her elbow and gently guided her back into the hallway. There was a bench next to the elevator and he sat her down. Her knees were trembling; she thought they might actually knock together. “Did you know Herbie.”
Her throat tightened, closed. She coughed, swallowed, coughed again. She felt the cushion sag as the man joined her on the bench. She looked at his face, saw nothing there she could identify save a mild curiosity maybe tinged with sadness. She said, “Herbie’s...”
The man nodded. He took a small notepad and a pen from his breast pocket. “I’m Detective Robinson. With the Metro police. Homicide. I’m sorry.”
The words hung in the air above her. She took a deep breath, ran both hands through her hair, sat silent. After awhile, Robinson said, “You obviously knew him. Any ideas?”
She shook her head no, found her voice. “You’re sure? I mean, sure it’s him? Herbie?”
“Pretty sure. He had his wallet on him. And he wasn’t exactly a stranger, you know?”
Not a stranger? That didn’t make much sense. Josie squinched her eyes shut. She hadn’t known anyone dead before and an image of Herbie in a coffin flew past her. She shuddered.
“You OK?”
She nodded, sat up straight. “Yeah, I guess. God.” She felt her entire body begin to shake, kept from trembling through an effort of will. She stole a glance through the apartment door. “I guess he was telling the truth, saying there were some people who didn’t like him.”
That struck Robinson as interesting. He made a ‘1’ on his notebook, circled it.
“People who didn’t like him?”
Josie’s mouth was dry; she licked her lips, reached for her purse, foraged in it. She found the stick of balm, ran it around her mouth, was struck by how silly it must look, quickly capped it. Robinson repeated, “People who didn’t like him? Did he mention any names?”
Now she was trembling, couldn’t control it anymore. There was a pounding between her ears like road construction. She made a conscious effort to pull herself together.