Chapter 1 Cat in a Box

Bryce was a confirmed bachelor and he enjoyed living alone, but his family kept trying to hook him up with women in the church. “Honestly Bryce, she has the sweetest personality and a strong relationship with God,” his mother said.

“Uh huh,” Bryce mumbled.

“Why don’t you meet her for coffee?”

He had a thousand reasons not to, but he couldn’t think of one that could cause his mother to stop asking.

“Okay.”

“Wonderful. I’ll let her know. You can meet her after church next Sunday.”

Bryce wondered when people would stop treating singleness like a sickness that needed to be cured with their own remedies. They found women for him everywhere. One liked knitting. The other believed she could raise the dead. This may have been true, as she hadn’t showered in three days. She was vegan and totally opposed to modern living.  The last one talked about Satan incessantly. She got louder and louder until her sermon reached full crescendo. People began to stare at her in the coffee shop and then she whispered, “They’re actively cursing me.” In these situations, there was no escape. Bryce’s mother would find out if he left any of them abruptly and she would guilt him for months, telling him he deserved to be single.

His brother-in-law seemed to be the only one who understood. “Honestly, marriage is not that great. When you’re single, you can be selfish; but when you get married, you have to share everything. Have you tried online dating?”

“Yeah; but the women on there just want attention or a one-night-stand.”

“It’s difficult out there, I know. But it only takes one.”

“Thanks Jon.”

“Don’t mention it. Say, in the interim, have you thought about getting a pet. Your sister and I found this cool website that matches animals with your personality and ships them to you. There wasn’t a single animal in the United States that matched my personality.” Jon said this with pride. “The only place that has what I’m looking for is Madagascar and the Congo. I’m getting a monkey named Ralph next week. I hope he’s Ebola free. Don’t tell your mother.”

I thought about how my mother would take the news. She wanted grandchildren and her son-in-law insisted that his three dogs would do. Now Jon was getting a monkey. It would be her fourth grandchild.

“What’s the name of this site?” Bryce asked.

“PERSONALITIES AND PETS.”

“Okay, I’ll give it a look. Thanks Jon.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Bryce went online that evening and put his personality into the computer: unsociable, introspective, adventurous within limits, kind, intelligent, and the list went on. Three hours later, he was half-asleep. He pushed the MATCH button. It began a super search. Nothing in Washington State. Nothing in the United States. “Jon will be disappointed that he’s not the only one,” Bryce chuckled. Nothing in North America. Nothing in Asia, Australia, or South America. “Wait, the data is doing something different now. Egypt; my pet is in Egypt. A cat; I don’t like cats. Oh well, how much do they want for it?” The price was listed at the bottom. “FREE; an exotic animal for free. How come? It does say I need to pay shipping and handling. I’ll do it. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll hand it off to my mother. She’s been wanting a cat.”

Bryce was excited all week. His co-workers noticed. “Did you get a raise?”

“No.”

“Is it a new girlfriend?”

“No.”

“What’s different about you?”

“I’m getting a cat.”

“Man, you’re going to be single forever.”

Bryce shrugged his shoulders and continued checking his email. Not much in his life was different. His own publishing house wouldn’t read the scripts he sent them. He was out of shape and he couldn’t get a normal date. He listened to self-help on the way to work and the way from work, but he just couldn’t get a break. When he got home, there was an enormous crate in front of his apartment door. It read THIS SIDE UP. Bryce entered and then lugged the box over the threshold. It was heavy and he could hear breathing inside.

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Voodoo and the Vice Principal

Belief in a higher power will not always protect you against the forces of darkness. -Intellectual Shaman

The vice principal leaned back in his leather armchair, eating his cobb salad. He proudly advertised his cross to the terrified boys who awaited their punishment. He was doing God’s work. Mr. Burt thought that listening and eating made him seem unconcerned with the fate of the guilty. It was important to maintain an aura of intimidation. He was a big man with a gentle soul, but his desire for advancement kept getting him into trouble. He wanted to rule with an iron fist, but the more he tried, the less the children respected him. One of the teachers, and also the worship leader at his church, sent a well-behaved boy to his office.

“What did you do?” He asked.

“Nothing,” said Doohani.

They always said the same thing Mr. Burt thought. He swore he would pardon the next kid who confessed.

“Why do you think you got sent down here?”

“I brought a doll to show and tell.”

“That’s strange for a boy to do. Did the other kids laugh?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, you won’t do it again, will you?”

“I guess not.”

“Let me see the doll.”

Doohani handed Mr. Burt a female teacher. It looked familiar.

“That’s Miss John,” the vice principal said. “Where did you buy it?”

“I made it.”

“No, really?”

“Yeah.”

“What for?”

Doohani held out his hand for the doll and pulled a pin from his pocket with the other. Before the vice principal knew what was happening, the pin went into the head.

An all call came from the intercom. “Miss John has a splitting headache. She just fainted.”

The vice principal looked horrified. “Give me that!” He said. He pulled the needle out of the doll and immediately a voice came over the intercom. “Never mind. Miss John is alright.”

Mr. Burt realized he had real power in his hands. It is very tempting for a man who feels like he doesn’t have enough. He put the doll in a temperature-controlled drawer in his desk. He didn’t want Miss John to get heat stroke on the way home from work.

“Does your dad know about this?” Mr. Burt asked.

“No, he’s on a business trip in Haiti. He’s never around.”

“What about your mom?”

“She works three jobs as a seamstress.”

“I guess she taught you about sowing?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, who taught you about voodoo?”

“My older brother.”

“I need to speak with him the first chance I get,” Mr. Burt said. “Now you can go back to class.”

The vice principal could not stop thinking about the conversation he had had all day. Miss John was a Christian. Maybe she wasn’t in right with the Lord. He would go to confession; that’s what he would do. Technically he was Presbyterian, but he was raised Catholic.

“Father, I want your blessing and protection from the forces of darkness.”

The holy father absolved him of his sins and the vice principal went on his way.

The next day was one of those really bad days everybody has at least once in their career.

“Mr. Burt, get in here!” The vice principal knew he was in trouble. Despite years of being “good”, every time the principal called him into his office, it felt like he was back in middle school again.

“You’ve mismanaged athletic funds. Either you embezzled money or you’re incompetent. I’ll need to bring this to the next board meeting and you’ll probably be fired. Now get out of my office.”

“But I have house payments, car payments, and three boys to put through college,” the vice principal cried.

“You should have thought about that before mismanaging funds.”

Mr. Burt began to sob. Taco Time always made him feel better, so he decided to make a run through the drive-through. What was he to do? His wife might leave him. Then the voodoo doll entered his mind. The next board meeting wasn’t for another three weeks. He still had time.

Mr. Burt went back to his office and looked at his phone. Did he dare? He dialed Miss John’s room. “Send Doohani to my office please.”

The boy showed up with a smile on his face.

“You’re not in trouble,” the vice principal said. “I need a favor.”

The next week went very slowly. Mr. Burt ate Taco Time twice a day and gained ten pounds. On Friday, he found a neatly wrapped rectangular box in his bin. He grabbed it and walked into his office. His fingers shook while tearing the brown paper off. He lifted the lid. It was a perfect likeness of the principal. Did he have the guts? Well, he didn’t have a choice and he walked next door and knocked.

“Yes,” came a curt voice.

“I need you to retire.”

“What did you say? Have you lost your mind?”

The vice principal held up the doll in his right hand. He pulled the needle out of his left pocket.

The principal thought his associate had gone crazy.

“You will retire and never speak about what happened to the athletic funds.”

“To hell I will.”

“Then you leave me no choice.”

The pin pierced the principal’s heart. It felt like a never-ending heart attack.

The vice principal yanked it out and the principal caught his breath.

“You will recommend me to be the next principal.”

“Whatever you say.”

The next school year, Principal Burt greeted Bridgewater Middle School. “We are starting a new tradition in our arts department. Along with picture day, I require each member of staff to sit for one hour in the arts and crafts room. You will soon know why. It might come up in your end of year evaluations.

Later that month, Principal Burt entered his office and closed the door. Bridgewater was the top performing middle school in the State, thanks to his leadership. He looked at his shelf that skirted the ceiling and admired his staff. The dolls stared back at him with fear on their faces while he nervously fingered a needle in his pocket.

Maintaining My Mistress

I remember driving to my art class in Bellevue after working 8 hours on a maintenance crew. My work pants were covered with weed pulp from 20 different kinds of grass. “You don’t get hay fever, do you?” My boss asked.

“Not that I know of,” I said.

“Good; then grab a weed eater and start whacking the tall grass on number 9. I felt like every job I had was a test of my endurance. They afflicted my body and mind until I had to quit and hide from the boss. The golf course was like a woman with every type of body hair and nail growth. Someone had to keep her beautiful; and if she went for just a week without maintenance, things started to happen. Roots grew under the sidewalks, trash filled up in the parking lot, bushes climbed chain-link fences, and the grass grew too tall in the wrong places.

I welcomed the long drive to Bellevue. I’d listen to classical music on the radio and try to get the job out of my bones. My hands were still vibrating from the weed eater and I could hear the boss’s voice in my ear. College life was a welcome change of pace. My art history class was taught in a damp dungeon by a skinny man in his mid-forties. I think he was gay, but he didn’t advertise. I liked him because he pronounced words in French with an air of superiority and he liked to talk art. His mother kept calling him in the middle of instruction and he had to step out to reassure her. He’d come back like nothing happened and begin talking about the Native Americans.

Everyone in class wore pristine clothes. Their shoes were without marks. It took effort to be that clean. My clothes looked like a seeded grass lot, watered with sprinklers and mowed by a machine that puked oil. My mother was worried that I was going to choose maintenance as a career. My boss hoped I would. It was difficult to find guys who would wake up at 3 AM to cut grass in the dark.

That morning, Dave instructed me on my career goals. “Join the fuckin military,” he said.

“Don’t listen to him Andy. The closest he got to combat was basic training. He’s just a wannabe jarhead. Hurt his back in a routine training exercise and has been taking disability ever since.” Pete spoke sense and didn’t tell the young guys what to do.

I looked over at Bill. He didn’t say anything. He was 75 years old and reading the National Inquirer with one good eye.

Canary in a Cage

Joe walked the prison grounds like the walls couldn’t hold him. It annoyed the other inmates and made the guards anxious. But he kept counting; he was pacing out the yard.

“Hey you, canary, snitch on this.” A monster of a man grabbed himself and glared at Joe, but the absent-minded accountant just kept walking like he didn’t see him.

“Are you a snitch?”

“No.”

“We kill snitches in here.”

“I know.”

Satisfied, the inmate walked away. Joe knew it didn’t help that he had a canary tattooed on the back of his neck. The moment word got out that he actually had ratted on the mafia, he was done. It would probably be gasoline in his cell or twenty stab wounds with a toothbrush. He tried not to think about it and he walked over to the bench press to pump iron. He needed to get stronger.

There was a basketball game in the gym. Maybe he could spot the right prisoner for an escape. It would be someone who could jump high and hang on the rim. This left out most of the white guys, which made things more complicated. Prison is mostly segregated by race, but social rules can be bent by a smooth talker.

Joe noticed the sunroof. There was chicken wire stretched across it. He shimmied up the basketball hoop and started to climb the rafters. The brothers saw what he was doing and kept playing. There are some things that bring prisoners together; escape is one of them. Joe grabbed the chicken wire and the staples pulled out. He ran the length of the roof, stopped to grab an old hammer, and looked for the cable that stretched across the razor wire. Joe put the teeth on it and let gravity do the rest. Sparks flew into his eyes.

CRACK. There was the first shot.

CRACK. And the second.

He cleared the fence and dropped to the ground. The trees were only twenty feet away.

He ran ten.

CRACK. CRACK. CRACK.

Blood blotched the front of his striped uniform. Joe was only two steps away from freedom and he willed himself to take them. He looked up at the green canopy and smiled. This canary had flown the cage.

Revolutionary Fireworks

It was the 4th of July and the heat was so intense that the birds didn’t sing and the crickets didn’t chirp. I didn’t realize that I was living in a small town until last year and I only learned this fact when my friend and I both got bikes. We turned a right, then we turned a left, and eventually we found the interstate. When your world is small and you don’t step outside of it, you don’t know how small it is.

My friend knocked on my window.

“Andy, I’ve got something to show you.”

I put my clothes on and left without telling my mother goodbye.

“Do you have any cash?” David asked.

“Yeah! I have five dollars.”

“Good.”

David pedaled towards the interstate, but before we got there, we saw a wooden wagon harnessed to a tired looking horse.

A figure had his back to us. He was leaning over until he suddenly stood upright. Then he turned around and my heart nearly jumped out of my chest. His face was gaunt. He smiled at us through wooden teeth. It would have been easier to look at a skeleton.

“Good morning boys. I haven’t quite setup shop yet, but you are welcome to buy any of my fireworks.”

I looked at the sunburnt sign next to the tent. REVOLUTIONARY FIREWORKS was written in drippy blood red.

“Do you have anything for sale under five dollars?” I asked.

“Oh, that isn’t much. Let me see if I have something in the cheap cannon fodder variety. A soldier in the colonial militia is only one dollar.”

I gave him a bill and he handed me the firework. “When you light his head, just be sure to run.”

I didn’t like how he said that.

In the evening, a fog rolled in. We went down to the creek with the rest of the town to escape the heat and avoid setting a fire. David pulled out his lighter and lit the head of the colonial. We waited but nothing happened. The soldier smoked and his uniformed singed down to his boots, but he was empty on the inside.

“I want my money back,” I said. But no sooner had I spoken, than a volley of gunfire rattled through the bushes. Revolutionary soldiers rushed upon us with bayonets fixed. They stab whomever they could. Perry Nelson, a WWII veteran pulled out his German Luger and began shooting the colonial militia like he was back in Normandy. It was impressive to watch, but his bullets didn’t do anything, despite striking the enemy several times. One of the ghosts snuck up behind him and got him through the back. Nobody was safe and the only thing I could think of was to hustle back to the man who sold me the firework. The gaunt pyromaniac was reclining in his rocking chair when I found him again.

“What did you put in that firework?” I asked.

“Souls,” he replied.

“Well, we need something that can kill souls,” I said.

“Okay, I have just the firework for you.” And he handed me another soldier, but this one was British.

“These souls don’t like the colonialists.”

I gave him a skeptical look.

“That will be one thousand dollars,” he said.

“This is extortion!” I cried.

“No, it’s good business.”

“Where am I going to get that type of money?”

“Steal it.”

David and I walked away from the firework stand without hope. Nobody had that type of money in town. But I did have one thought; it went against my moral judgement.

“The church,” I said.

“If we steal from God we are going to hell,” David replied.

“Well, we will be using it to fight the forces of evil. I think God might approve.”

I knew where Father Nelson kept the offering. It was in a pink piggy bank above his desk. He had to buy a new one every year. I broke it open and there was just enough money.

I got the firework from the stand and David lit it. From far away I heard the sounds of the British Grenadiers. Flutes were playing in response to periodic gunshots. Then a volley interrupted the noise and there was silence.

“I think the British wiped out the colonials,” I said.

But then the British army started marching through town. We ran back to the firework stand.

“Now you need something that will get rid of the British. Harry will do the trick,” the seller said. “You will owe me big on this one.”

He gave us an enormous brown firework. “It will only come out during the full moon. You lucked out tonight.” I looked up at the sky and the moon was big and bright.

I lit the firework and heard horrible howling. The night was filled with screams.

The next day, not a single soul was alive, except perhaps the owner of Revolutionary Fireworks, but he wasn’t quite human.

“What do we owe you?” I asked.

“Your lives and every day after it,” he said.

“Bullshit!”  I yelled. And I grabbed a handful of sparklers and lit them, throwing them into the firework stand. The noises of hell and damnation erupted. It went up in flames and the revolutionary war began all over again.

We lost our family and friends that day, not to mention a never-ending lack of peace because of the full moon. But that is the price for battling the forces of evil.

A Lonely Life

A Lonely Life

can be yours

if you choose it

but there will always be those

who know a solitary man when they see him

and they will make it their duty to ensure he is not alone.

I’ve been watching the street from my apartment window

trying to make sense of the traffic down there

It takes great effort to do anything

and most inspiration dies before it is born.

Still, the idea of doing something beyond doing and undoing

captivates me

I’m waiting…

Just waiting

And not avoiding the waiting place

Time runs slow here

I’ve gotten rid of clocks

I listen to the silence and watch the natural light go down

I sleep

I wake

I wait

And the silence is like a symphony

My soul waits for the right sound

And soon I will get things done

But I’m just going to listen a bit longer…

The Best Years of My Life

I was living with my parents, brother-in-law, sister, and their three dogs, one of which was incontinent. It was my childhood home that I’d lived in for over 21 years. I worked a job on a maintenance crew across the street and I didn’t have a car, so I had to wake up at 3:30 in the morning, chug coffee, change, and run to the job before the boss pronounced me “late.” The guys there were all crazy. I didn’t realize it then, but the more they were paid, the less desperate they seemed. Most of the bosses were simply sadistic. Why do guys like me put up with bad situations like this? There is only one answer I can think of that is honest, despite several explanations that sound more plausible. The truth is, I was used to taking shit and change has always been difficult for me. I’d enter the clubhouse and punch in. Then I’d go have some jockstrap coffee. My first three weeks on the job, I was running to the restroom. Then my stomach learned how to handle it. My taste buds have never been the same and to this day, people can’t drink the coffee I make.

I was taking night classes at junior college. They were filled with 40 and 50-year-old women who wanted to get their degree. Psychology was my major because I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me and what was wrong with the world. This was an exercise in futility, but at the time, I thought I was finding the answers to life’s biggest problems in my liberal textbooks. One of the benefits from taking night classes was that my teacher did it for me. She taught human sexuality. Sometimes I fantasized about her having other jobs. She actually really liked me. I paid attention in her class like it was a religion. Consequently, I got grades that nobody else did. I’m talking A’s in statistics, tests and measurements, and those classes that are impossible to pay attention to for any length of time.

The problem was that class ended at 10:30 PM and then I’d have to drive home. I was using my dad’s pickup truck with the broken taillights. Cars constantly honked at me on the freeway. I drank coffee all day to stay alert, but this only worked until Wednesday; the reason being that I slept in on Sunday to catch up on sleep and then burned the candle at both ends until there wasn’t anything left to burn. Strange things happen when you endure forced insomnia for 3 1/2 years. I’d stop at green lights and go at red lights. Strangely enough, I never got a ticket, but I came close to being beaten in the city by angry drivers who thought I was just an asshole.

I was doing well, but every week I was becoming more tired. I’d rake the sand traps on the golf course and think about how soft they felt. I fell asleep in one until I was jerked awake by a sympathetic golfer. “Are you okay son. You must’ve been partying late into the night. God, I remember those days. I envy your youth.” And then the man in his forties continued with his golf game. I quickly learned that golfers have similar thoughts that are as far away from reality as fantasy writers who think they will change the world with the perfect line. In the end, I valued my bed more than anything. Living without is the best way to appreciate what you don’t have. Just ask the starving artist or the love-sick romantic.

I got home and decided to take a shower. It had been three days. Paint chips kept flaking off the ceiling and landing in my hair. I applied some shampoo and started to smell something foul. I sniffed the bottle; that was okay. I looked at the drain. Brown water was back-washing into the tub. Then a pocket of methane gas bubbled up from god knows where and shit began to fountain out of the drain. I was standing in it. “Dad!” I screamed. I rarely asked him for anything. “The septic tank is backed up again.”

“Well, shower on the front lawn,” he said. I wiped my feet and walked into the 100-degree heat. I applied the shampoo a second time in full view of the neighbors and hosed off.

We’ve never found such a perfect specimen

After my accident, it is difficult to keep things in order. Dr. Walters is a nice enough man. He specializes in Traumatic Brain Injury and he always tells me, “You are lucky.”

I’m not so sure how lucky it is to be hit by a car while reading a book, but Dr. Walters always says, “You could’ve died. You need to be more careful. Don’t go wandering off.”

I’ve always done what I wanted to do, so I cut through the cornfield on my way home from school. Walking through the stalks gave me a warm feeling. The sun was above me. The dirt squashed between my toes. And I could only see green in every direction. Suddenly I reached a clearing. It was a round circle and the corn was squashed down. A light shone above me and a metallic disk sliced through the air to land at my feet.

A green alien with a long neck and an oval head opened a door and stepped out. He addressed me without speaking. “You’ve hurt your head. Let me fix that.” He pointed his thumb in my direction and it felt like my brain was squeezed into a vice. The headache I didn’t realize I had disappeared and my vision cleared, like when the ears pop after descending from high elevation. 

“Until next time,” the alien said. And I walked home from the field wondering if my brain was better or worse since my recent hallucination. Should I bring this up to Dr. Walters in my next visit?

At school the next day, I had my SATs. They’ve been doing computer scoring so you know your results when you finish. I got a perfect score and was called into the principal’s office. Dr. Walters was there.

“Henry, I’ve been speaking to your Doctor. We know you want to live a normal life, but cheating isn’t the way to do it. Tell us what prompted you to steal the answers. Who helped you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. And no matter what explanation I tried to give; they didn’t believe me. When I was about to leave, Dr. Walters shook my hand with a friendly smile. It was his usual patronizing manner, like he was on my side because nobody else was. But something was different this time. He no longer seemed like a harmless arrogant charlatan. I saw into his mind and the young girls he had taken advantage of. They were patients and I wondered what I should do.

The next day I was in Dr. Walters’ office. It was full of smart games and I didn’t know if these were used to test patients or frustrate them. You could look at Dr. Walters and tell that he thought he was very intelligent.

“Aside from your recent scandal, how was your week?” The doctor asked.

“I walked through a cornfield yesterday,” I admitted.

“I told you not to go wandering off.”

“I know, but I found a crop circle and met an alien.”

The doctor swallowed a breath of air and became very excited. How much medication have you been taking? Your condition may be worse.”

“I’m telling you; the circle and the alien are real.”

“Well, there is only one way to find out,” the good doctor said.

We got into his car and drove into the country. I could hear screaming from the back seat, but nobody was there. It was like dozens of girls were calling for help. We reached the cornfield and got out.

“It shouldn’t be more than 100 yards in,” I said. And there was the clearing.

“This is something,” Doctor Walters murmured. “Did the same person who helped you cheat on the SATs help you make this circle?”

“I told you that I met an alien. Now what have you been doing to young girls?”

The doctor’s face turned to stone. “How could you possibly know?”

“It’s because of him,” I pointed. “He healed my brain and did some other things to me. I’m not sure that he meant to.”

The doctor turned around and his mouth could have swallowed a watermelon, it was so wide.

“We have some experiments we’ve been wanting to do,” the alien said. “They are of a sexual nature and we have been looking for the right specimen. Will you step aboard?”

“I most certainly will not,” Dr. Walters complained. But the good doctor was beamed into the spaceship anyway. There were screams and yells coming from inside.

And I heard one of the alien scientists talking. “We’ve never seen one that was only an inch long.”

There is a place that feels like more than just a place

There is a place that feels like more than just a place

It is the golf course

on a lonely summer evening

I always remember stories that happen there

as I walk down fairways in the setting sun

Now, too much time passes between summers

and my fondest memories seem farther away

If there is a world beyond this one

you can feel it when you sit still for hours

The golf course is that way

The woods are filled with lost balls

and the wind whispers through the trees

The pond is still

until my ball interrupts it

I’m playing golf with my friend

whom I’ve known for years

We talk about the usual things…

high school

mutual friends

and women

moving from hole to hole

like a dream

We get lucky several times

and the evening stretches on for hours

during the longest day of the year.

When you know you are the shit…

When you know you are the shit…

the world falls away

You really see yourself

I’ve felt the skin of a beautiful woman

and I’ve looked into her brown eyes

It gives me an uncomfortable feeling

like I can’t get away.

I’m flying at 40,000 feet

while I write these words

wearing my sunglasses

drinking coffee

and feeling like a Rock-star.

During my tour of Europe

I heard the self-help guru say, “Real men don’t feel.”

“Instead, they get things done.”

but if you can’t love the moment

What do you have?

I’ve gone through airport hell

They detained me at every checkpoint

I got strip-searched

I misunderstood the German’s directions and started to take off my pants

“Nien…Nien!” He screamed, but this only caused me to panic

and the poor bastard saw my boxer shorts

Before I left Switzerland, I asked my friend how people mature

“Experience.” He said

“But what about a guy who lives with himself for twenty years and doesn’t do anything? Would he mature?

That’s a good question. I think he would.”

My trip was filled with these types of conundrums.

There weren’t a lot of answers

and I’m glad for that.