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Corrupting the Neighborhood Youth

My mother shakes the can of spray paint ticka ticka ticka as I stand off to the side in our backyard. My bike, stripped of wheels and chain, sits upside down on the patch of dirt beneath the oak tree. The leaves above us are lit up green in the warm summer sun. My mother has acquiesced to my demand for a more masculine color. I was ten when my parents bought me the bright yellow bike, but now I’m twelve and ready for a change. We are painting my bike blue. Or rather, she is painting my bike blue and because she is in a good mood I am keeping her company.

Through the thin gaps between the slats of our tall wooden fence, I see a shadow crossing our yard. It sweeps along the fence until it reaches the open gate of our backyard, and in walks Mrs. McIntyre.

Mrs. McIntyre is the closest thing our neighborhood has to a busybody. She and her husband live two doors down, and her son Johnny is my younger brother’s age. They play together all the time, but in my mother’s opinion Johnny is a spoiled brat, and because my mother rarely expresses a negative opinion on anyone, I like to agree. The McIntyres have bought Johnny every single Star Wars action figure and spaceship and trash compactor available at Target and it makes both my brother and I jealous. When the inevitable squabbles erupt between Johnny and my brother, Johnny likes to sweep all the Stars Wars toys into his lap and yell “These are mine! Get out of here!”

Last week I had stopped at their house, collecting my brother for dinner, when Mrs. McIntyre cornered me in the foyer. “Michael, I heard about your parents,” she said, using a tone of voice that she probably thought sounded concerned. “Why did they get divorced?”

Her bluntness caught me off guard. I looked away from her, down at my shoes. Nobody on our block had ever been divorced. Nobody on our block had ever declared themselves a homosexual, either, but I wasn’t about to tell Mrs. McIntyre that. “I don’t know,” I told her.

She crosses the yard, a small bundle of determination wrapped in a cardigan. She dispenses with small talk. “Michael, did you teach Johnny to say ‘asshole’?”

I stand there with my mouth open, looking at her and then at my mother, who stands with the spray paint can frozen in mid-air. My mother looks back at me.

“Uh, no,” I say. “No, I didn’t.”

“Well there’s nobody else around who could have taught him that.”

I look back at my mother, certain that her fear of confrontation will lead her to choose Mrs. McIntyre’s side, if only to be nice.

“I didn’t teach him that,” I say. “I don’t know who taught him that word, but it wasn’t me.”

“Johnny said you taught him the word,” she says, smiling as though she’s caught me in a trap.

That little lying brat, I think. “Well, I didn’t teach him to say that.”

Mrs. McIntyre turns her attention to my mother. “Susan, this makes me very unhappy.”

I look with dread at my mother, and see a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. She shakes the spray paint again ticka ticka ticka, looking Mrs. McIntyre straight in the eye. “Michael said he didn’t do it.”

My heart leaps.

“Well then, why would Johnny say that?” Mrs. McIntyre snaps.

“Maybe,” my mother says, “Johnny is lying.”

Mrs. McIntyre stands there, glaring at my mother. She opens her mouth but nothing comes out. She shakes her head in disgust, then turns and stamps across our yard, exiting through the gate, chin held high.

I look at my mother with adoration. She smiles back. “That woman,” she says, “is such a bitch.”

The Messenger

A bright spring afternoon in downtown Minneapolis, I am unlocking my bicycle outside the Norwest Center. Aesthetics have forbid the clutter of bike racks around the pale building rising 57 stories; I simply lean my bike against the limestone face, and lock the front wheel to the frame. I and the other messengers of the city weigh the odds in our favor: a two-minute delivery vs. the random thief.

The two-way radio strapped to my messenger bag comes to life, the speaker/mouthpiece crackling from its tethered position on the bag’s strap; inches from my ear.

“Seventeen?” The disembodied voice of Jeff, our dispatcher; a nasal monotone that I associate with the outer burbs. I’ve never seen him; he sits in an office twenty minutes outside the city.

I press the button on my speaker. “Seventeen here.”

“Mike, I got a dash for you.”

A dash is our fastest run; a fifteen-minute sprint between spots; several of these in the last hours of sunlight can put you past the $100 a day mark.

“Go ahead.”

“Mike, picking up from Fallon, Fifty South Sixth Street dropping at Pixel Farm on First Avenue.”

“Ten-four, seventeen out.”

I copy the run on my log sheet, fold the metal clipboard closed and slide it into my bag before swinging it around to my back in one fluid movement. My t-shirt is stained with sweat a darker shade under the shoulder strap. I straddle my bike and swing the front wheel around to face south, towards Fallon on Sixth Street.

A movement out of the corner of my eye: a woman approaching on the sidewalk; her gait slower and more awkward than the hurried mass of office workers on their lunch break streaming alongside her. She steps with deliberation and focus; her eyes flashing beneath the round frames of her glasses. Her slack jaw and unsteady gait reveal a physical or neurological difference. Suddenly her foot turns awkwardly and she falls forward; I reach towards her but miss by several inches and she lands face-first on the sidewalk a few inches from my bike. The crowd steps back from where she lays. She struggles to her feet; she has cut her lip against her teeth; the bright panic of blood against her pale chin. She stands and for a moment she is alone among this crowd. There is a terror in her eyes; a confusion of fear and pain, and it pierces me deep.

I set my bike down on the sidewalk and run across the street to Arby’s, where I steal a handful of napkins. I dodge the traffic coming back. She stands silently, but her open, bloody mouth and the shine of panic in her eyes are like a scream in my ears. I hand her the napkins.

“Here…you’ve…you’ve cut your lip.”

She takes the napkin and slowly dabs at her lips. A young couple has stopped and the man leans towards her, his hand stopping an inch from her arm.

“Are you okay?”

But the woman only looks at us with confusion. The blood, her slack jaw.

I do not know what else to do. The minutes of my dash are ticking, the business of two companies demand my attention. The couple stands awkwardly; a look passes between them. What do we do? She seems utterly alone and helpless and I am shaken by something cold and quick that has slid into me, resting alongside my heart. I feel helpless.

The couple lingers, and I let duty prevail. I slowly turn from her and mount my bike. I look back once, then push off towards Fallon.

I am haunted all day by the sight of her falling, always inches from my grasp.

Why does this image still cut? Years pass but the pain bears down hard on my heart, squeezing it between rough fingers no weaker for the passing time. In fact they are stronger; the pain unmerciful because I cannot change the course of the memory: the invulnerable, inflexible past. I could have stayed, tried to talk to her, find her destination. I could have stayed till she stopped bleeding. I could have.

The image of her, standing with her mouth open, crying without sound, her panicking eyes, her utter solitude; in her I see my mother. I see that woman on the sidewalk behind me as I glance back a final time, and then I see my mother the way she was with ALS, sitting beside me in church. Around us the congregation is singing a hymn; the music and their voices triggering her tears. She cries silently beside me, her jaw slack, mouth open, eyes confused and pained. She turns to me and her eyes meet mine and it is all fear and desolation, and I am devastated. I can wrap my arm around her. I can hand her tissue. And that is all.

I no longer see the woman on the sidewalk: I glance behind me one last time and she is my mother, mouth open, blood on her chin. I see the enormity of her fear and the anguish dragging her to a place where no one can keep her company.

Why was I not born a superhero, a Man of Steel? Why this mutant heart, so quick to absorb pain greater than its own weight? Why can’t I protect, only stand and witness?

Sometimes, God, I hate you. I hate the misery and the cruelty and the violence of this shitty world. I hate the arrogance and the bright blood. I hate what we always abandon. I hate that she is gone, and I hate that other people get their mothers.

And it seems that I will always be angry, I will never accept what happened to her, what the disease took and continues to take. My rioting heart, my staccato pulse. Pumped full of useless adrenaline propelling me to fight what I cannot touch: random pain, disease, rejection. My red-shot vision blurs, turning the world on its side. My hands reaching, longing to tear apart some one or some thing but missing; closing only around her absence.

Distracted by a Distant Man

Another bout of insomnia; the flickering blue light of the television, movies I’d already seen. At two a.m. I remember with a jolt to move the car from the museum lot at the end of the street; signs had proclaimed Saturday would be “Bug Day”, whatever that is. I drive down the hill. Below me the city is half-asleep, the lights of the bridge stretching across the bay. Quiet winding streets, an empty parking lot, the bright glow of the Safeway drawing boys and girls stumbling home from closing time like moths. I squint as I step through the door. The hand basket bouncing against my leg as I circle the store, aisles cluttered with boxes and pallets, the late night stock boys stepping politely aside. I wander the same three aisles in confusion, hopeless before the logic of beverage categories; fruit juice here, soda there, water another aisle over. I stop before the Gatorade, yellow sale signs marking decimated shelves. I had passed here three times. Now I stand, dizzy under the florescence, scanning the color-coded flavors, the quarts and the eight-packs, the confusingly clear fluid of the “Ice” series. Pink label equals Watermelon. Later a half gallon of milk, four pale bananas and a bottle of vitamins. The basket hanging heavy from my hand. At the express lane a skewed microcosm of the city’s youth, everyone here this late is under forty. We crowd around two registers, stunned silence under such brightness. A boy steps away from his group of friends and faces me. But he is not you. To look back at him would be unfair, as nobody in this city could be you, nobody could resemble the handsome monkey contained in my swooning, biased heart. I have forgotten, for an hour or two, that this was the day we were to meet. I have attempted, for once, not to dwell on all things absent from my life. I move to the next register and pay for my meager groceries with a crisp twenty.


Sunday night I tie my shoes. Everyone else is working in the morning so I take myself to a movie. I drive out to a theater near the ocean; the blinking marquee, two screens, a pimpled usher in wrinkled shirt, steaming popcorn spilling from the spinning silver bowl. Twelve of us sit in the dark theater, nuzzling, whispering couples and other solitary souls.

Afterwards I take the long way home along the wide, empty avenues. The night’s unexpected warmth, a passing dog tethered to a shadowed figure, the darkened spires of St. Ignatius pointing to the starred sky. I roll down the windows and play the song, the one that makes you think of me. I sing along off-key, slowly cruising the dark streets, and I don’t know how I can wait any longer. The pinpricks of lights over the hills, a murmuring in bed. The shower’s spray across your back. My hand on your knee in a dark theater. The white walls of a museum and the view I would show you. But I haven’t found the limits of us, and driving home tonight I feel like I could wait forever.

Go On

Sudden derailment, gravel road detour through an unfamiliar town. Or wait, I’ve been here before.

Hello, mister. Welcome back. All your doubts are waiting, just ahead. They’re having a picnic. Spread out on the artificial lawn, a patch of green in red desert. The shimmer of heat over the road, a cold rock sunk in my gut.

I thought I lost you guys. Shit.

Merely a minor vacation, they say, what did you bring, we’re starved.

Just me, I say. I look around at the desolate landscape. You might as well have at it.

They eat me alive. They down shots of whiskey and throw bottles up in the air, howling. The glass shatters and they wrestle over the shards, their blood joining mine. Why the long face? they ask. Then they laugh. As if it was the funniest goddamn thing ever.

I pull myself up. They play along the edges of my vision. They’ve thrown my keys behind a pile of rocks. I stumble over and fish the flash of silver into my palm. They walk behind me, fat and happy. They poke each other.

You’re out of gas, they say.

I slide behind the wheel anyway, focused on the hills unraveling ahead. Bug stains on the windshield. I slip the key into the ignition and turn.


Three muscle bears sitting in the open window of the Edge bar as I walk past.

“Woof,” says one.
“Hey, hey! Hey!”says another.
“I am all about THAT!” says the third.

I smile in spite of myself.


“I met your friend Ski,” Prometheus says over dinner. I look up at him, chewing.

“Oh yeah?” I say.

“Yeah. He was kind of down. Said he was seeing someone now. That he hadn’t dated anyone in a long time.”

“Thirteen years,” I say.

“Yeah, since, uh…”

“Since his boyfriend died.”

“Said it was bringing up a lot of stuff for him.”

I chew for awhile, then swallow. “Funny. I wanted to rescue him from all that. You know. Be the first one since.” Prometheus nods. He gets it. He always does.

A year ago I shared a little cabin with Ski, up in the woods near Sebastopol. We slept on twin beds a few feet apart. I pretended to be just a friend. Who can predict a year of change? I wouldn’t trade it, but there it is, the ghost of a sting. Ski’s dating again.


This letter is to confirm your acceptance into the Sarah Lawrence Summer Seminar for Writers to be held June 22 through June 27. Pay up.


Running on empty. Night sky, a haze of stars, cold wind whipping through the open window. I’m a fugitive, a loner, a Springsteen lyric. My hand cups the wind. The fluorescent signs rushing past. Motels dying by the side of the road. “Life’s a journey, not a destination” read a poster in my Sunday school classroom, many years ago. I step on the accelerator.

The lessons we’ll never learn.


Estragon: I can’t go on like this.
Vladimir: That’s what you think.

-You’ve become a really great person.
-Oh come on.
-No really

-Well, thank you.
-You’re welcome. I can say that, we’re friends now, right?
-So we can consummate our friendship, right?
-What? What are you talking about, “consummate our friendship”?
-We can do that now, right, I mean we’re over it, we’re past it, right?
-It would be fun.
-No. I…. no.
-I’m just kidding you.
-I’m kind of saving myself.
-You’re saving yourself?
-That’s cool, I respect that.
-Yeah, well.
-I had a dream about you the other night.
-You did?
-Do I want to know?
-Uh, you were really good, that’s all you need to know.

-Your laugher is infectious, I’m on a roll, aren’t I?
-You certainly are.
-No, really, you mean a lot to me, our last conversation helped.
-Your suggestion of quitting for thirty days, it’s something that I can, uh, get my head around.
-You mean the crystal…stuff.
-The Crystal Light.
-Yeah. And when you said that other thing.
-You said I had burned a hole in your heart.

-Didn’t you say that?
-Uh,well….I think I said you’ve earned a place in my heart.
-But that sounds better.
-Yeah, it does, can I use that?

Pray to My Altar

I swear, if I make it through this, I expect to be made a saint. I want people praying to my image. I don’t care if there’s already a Saint Michael, we’ll figure something out. Saint Dogpoet or something. Something easy to remember. I want my own special day and I want shrines, lots of them. I want my medallion to hang around the necks of cute Catholic boys. Dogpoet, the patron saint of endurance.

My handsome space monkey has been offered a terrific work-type opportunity that will interfere with his visit. Once again we must reschedule. We have met at a time of great transition for both of us, and I suppose it’s a testament to our connection that we keep holding on as these months pass.

I know I have been rather vague about the monkey here; I am continually torn between my desire to shelter this relationship with a little bit of wise privacy, and my need to write about my life, as I have done here since Day One. And the monkey’s slice of my life continues to grow. So I feel like I must acknowledge this, him, if I want to keep writing. My heart hurts, but I am proud of him. We will make this work. Perhaps I will Fed-ex myself to his house.

it gets kinda rough
in the back of our limousine


Considering that two co-workers had come down the stairs from the director’s office in tears, I was a little anxious when the director called and asked if I could come see her. One co-worker had been laid off, another had to take a 20% pay cut AND take on another job. As I walked up the stairs I was actually a little excited. Perhaps, I thought, this is exactly what I need. Please lay me off, I thought as I climbed the stairs.

So it was a disappointment when she told me they were going to cut my job to 32 hours a week. Which means more money cut from my paycheck for health insurance, and no holiday pay. I’ll give you the day to decide if you’ll accept the offer, she told me.

Accept your offer? That’s an offer? Uh, gee, thanks.

Oh, it’s probably all for the best, another day of the week to write and look for a better job. What drives me crazy is the gradual deterioration of the job, as beloved bosses and co-workers drop like flies, as my job absorbs other jobs. I think I’d prefer one solid blow rather than these little irritating scrapes. Yes, I will count my blessings and I will accept the offer. I have HIV, I need the health benefits. I need the paltry paycheck. It’s a big, scary, unemployable world out there right now. One hand on the vine behind, the other stretching out, seeking something to grab.