The Simple Pleasures Of The Kazoo

hotel room destroued.jpg

text by Peyton Burgess (for Max Ross)

 

Most people don’t know this, but David Foster Wallace, under the pseudonym Vincent Impastato, published an essay titled “The Simple Pleasures of the Kazoo.” It appeared in the 2007 Italian anthology Mangiare Con Le Orecchie, a book about nontraditional instruments in Rome’s early 90s punk rock scene. 

Don’t ask me how I know this. Simply put, I used to want to be a writer, and he was one of the writers I followed intensely.

Anyway, in the essay he was able to express a genuine sentimental appreciation of the kazoo’s membranic response to a player’s subtle intonations, that is, the hum, without subjecting himself to the lofty expectations of a new, adoring but probably jealous fan base. In using the pseudonym Vincent Impastato, he relieved himself of the three-name byline, although interestingly enough, both his real name and the pseudonym are six syllables.

The thing is, I think we would have loved him for the kazoo essay. At least I hope we would have. I’m sad he didn’t feel he could trust us with it. 

I think the kazoo was the first instrument I played. My sister gave me one for my third birthday. She had wrapped it herself with a couple of pages torn from Rolling Stone, her favorite magazine at the time. It was made of dull red plastic, and I loved it. 

I thought I was supposed to blow real hard on it, but my sister showed me the importance of the hum and how to be subtle and to even roll my Rs, to use it to actually convey emotion, which was something I didn’t think you could do with a kazoo. I thought it was just a toy. 

My sister grew up to be a famous punk rock musician. You can probably guess her name. She was, still is actually, that famous.

Our relationship was always weird because of my expectations of her as my sister versus my expectations of her as a rock star. By weird I mean when we saw each other things would go well for a bit and then it would end bad. 

The last time we saw each other she invited me to three days with her in a fancy suite at the Casa Del Mar. She spent a lot of time pacing back and forth in a big, white cotton robe, smoking cigarettes in our nonsmoking room. 

I felt like I was hanging out with my sister the rock star the whole time and not my sister from, say, 1989 in Staunton, Virginia, during the old basement concert party days. 

One morning after a late night of drinking, she stood out on the balcony in bra and panties, drinking coffee and flipping off the paparazzi. Although I felt pretty uncomfortable, I donned briefs out on the balcony with her, but I didn’t see any paparazzi, maybe because I just didn’t know what to look for, but I laughed and flipped off the people on the beach anyway. 

As my laughing died down and I wiped away a happy tear, I looked at my sister, feeling closer to her and hoping to see her smile at me like the old Staunton days, but instead she was gazing out at the Pacific, her lips pressed tight against each other, and then she dropped to the floor and started shivering. I went and got her robe. 
I wrapped her in the robe and held her tight. “Just come back home,” I begged. 
“I can’t do that,” she said. 

In Wallace’s kazoo essay, he says that he mostly admired the punk musicians in Rome for embracing the kazoo because none of his favorite American musicians ever played the kazoo, none except for my sister, who he writes, “was the only musician to ever make me cry with a kazoo.”

He was referring to one of her solo tracks released posthumously. After my sister’s death, her label released a ‘home recordings’ kind of album. It features a track in which she plays the kazoo, breaking every now and then to breathe and sing a few slow verses about beating up Bobby at the bus stop when he pushed me into a storm ditch, about not being mad at me when I made her a collage from London Calling’s album jacket, and about how I wasn’t such a bad writer, but I could still use a little practice. 

I wasn’t aware of the song until I heard the album for the first time, about six months after she died. The critics claimed the album consisted of mostly nonsense and rambling. It bombed, nobody bought it, and I love her for it.


Peyton Burgess received an MFA degree in fiction from New York University. While at NYU, he taught undergraduate creative writing, curated the KBG Emerging Writers Reading Series, and worked as fiction editor for Washington Square Review. His first book, The Fry Pans Aren't Sufficing, came out in May 2016. He also works at Loyola University's Monroe Library in New Orleans as a Learning Technology Developer.


Three Short Prose Pieces By Carrie Cooperider

Empathy

         Many years ago, I attended a lecture by a man whose stroke, he warned us, had left him language-impaired. He spoke slowly and deliberately, sometimes using the wrong word. At one point, he lurched into a tragic sentence that began, “My mother, who is still dead…”

          I hated myself for it, but I cracked up. I could not stop laughing behind my hand, even as people turned to stare. I felt terrible, let me tell you! Sorry for him, and ashamed and embarrassed for myself. Yet here it is almost thirty years later, and I still find it hilarious. Sometimes, just re-hearing the words in my head, my thumbs will go numb, that’s how serious it is. My circulation is affected by how hard I am crying with laughter. Maybe there’s something neurologically squirrely going on in my brain, too.

          Nearly thirty years later.

          I wonder if the man with aphasia is still alive?

         Or if his mother is still dead?

Got A Minute

          It’s been one of those days when everybody I want to talk to is dead. Not their fault; it’s a common-enough type of busy signal to get. I figure, okay then, I’ll drive out to the Russian place, do some shopping. I don’t know any Russians, living or otherwise engaged, so that’s nothing personal. But maybe an aisle of smoked fish will cheer me up.

         I put the plastic sack with the butter, rye bread, and wrinkly-skinned mackerel on the passenger seat. “Hey, Mack,” I say as I back out of my spot, “What do you think? Get home quick, or do we got time to take the scenic route?”

Baby Shower

         Of course I didn’t want children. They can turn out so—wrong. I mean, what if they turned out like me?

         Once, when I was bathing Mother, she looked at me, dripping and steamy-eyed, and demanded, Child, does your momma know what you’re doing?


Carrie Cooperider is a writer and visual artist who lives and works in New York City. Her work has appeared in such publications as New York Tyrant, The Antioch Review, the Southampton Review, Cabinet Magazine, and Artishock.


When Angels Fall by Marc Frazier

photograph by Philip-Lorca diCorcia (from the Hustler series)

You know he’s gonna be dressed to kill.

He’s gonna find some brand-new thrills.

Whatever he’s been looking for,

they tell him there’s so much more

in Hollywood…Hollywood.

— Rufus and Chaka Khan

 

            The black whores in tight body stockings hang in doorways, prowl outside bars, snarl like wolves defensive of their territory, lip gloss glowing in the fluorescence of the city night, teeth bared. The smell of lust in the air.

            When no one calls he hits the streets, winds in and out of alleyways, hanging outside businesses watching drunks stumble past. He does some coke and hustles stoned. His body aches from a feeling of being trapped within itself. A heaviness. He has visions of being weightless, an angel, a stoned archangel in brilliantly lit stained glass. Stoned mindless. Busses whirr past. They are real. His connection. His body is real like his bottle of gin.

            He needs to remain lucid enough to make some bucks. He enters Touché’s. The smell of leather intoxicates. His mind dies in his brain and shrivels. But his body burns.

           Some know him and are blasé; others find his beefy bod extremely hot: leather jacket, curly black hair, tight Levis, practiced swagger. It takes all of ten minutes for someone to find him. In a dark corner it is all over. He is too stoned tonight to make a buck.

            Morning. Spring heavy with sap. The change of seasons doesn’t affect him much. Nothing seems to lately. As he rubs his eyes, a haze in his mind filters sunrays as he lifts the shade and sees tree branches, buds pushing themselves outward, their vulnerable tips, a phallic rising, an energy that pulses and pushes without control, despite itself, like his daily routines, his lust. He rubs his chest and flops back naked on the bed. How can it be? His body still desires as if he is apart from it but goes with its flow, like buds stretching and stirring only to lose themselves.

            Centered so in this world, he never considers how one commits unconsciously to a life, however dull or destructive. There is this feeling of something forever slipping through the spaces between his fingers. He begins to feel panic. As he smokes a joint, he realizes he hasn’t eaten in two days except for snacks at the bars. He feels weak. Sadness closes his eyes.

            Midnight. The lights of a city aglow with the energy of millions of lives, of peoples’ dramas: brilliant, miraculous, violent. He cruises into Paradise checking out the men lined up along the bar. Music pounds intensely, caught in a repeating loop like the hours of his days. Insistent. A reggae song slows things down and he proceeds to the bartender rubbing against the eager men. He stands sucking on his straw watching the men on the dance floor, the traffic to and from the men’s room, the whirling lights captivating him and he forgets.

            He hears a voice, “And another for my friend here.” A guy presses close beside him. Michael gazes at him through the smoky haze.

            “Come here much? Never seen you,” Michael asks.

            “Just got into town. Been on the road for awhile.”

            “Oh yeah, where from?”

            “L.A. Ever been?”

            The two letters enrapture him. The freedom of sun. Hollywood. Warm sand on bare skin. Foamy surf splashing shore. Sex at sunrise or on the beach in the middle of the night. No one is a prisoner there, he thinks.

            The man has a model’s well-defined features: square chin, long lashes, soft skin, and curly blond hair. His unbuttoned shirt reveals a muscular build. He presses against Michael lowering his head to his ear asking him to dance. The room pounds with vibrations like a slow electrocution. Pain and pleasure. Eyes on crotches. Hands lost in their own caresses up and down thighs. The smell of poppers.

            The man takes off his shirt. A rare slow song begins; Michael heads off the dance floor, but the man puts his arm over Michael’s shoulder and pulls him face to face. He is sweating, half-naked and insistent. They fall into and out of the rhythmic beats. Music pulses through them in waves. Michael sees the dance ball whirling, the man’s blond head, the sun on the ocean all as one. “What’s your name?” he whispers.

            He stirs to lips slowly sucking his nipples. Running his hands through Eric’s blond curls he mumbles, half-asleep. The morning has passed them by like an early bus. He hears birds. They fly like tiny angels through his mind. Traffic hums.

            “I’ll fix breakfast. Do you have eggs?” From seeing the looks of Michael’s apartment he knows the answer before finishing the question. “Well, I’ll come up with something. You never answered by the way.”

            “What?”

            “Have you been to L.A.?”

            The images reappear. The sun hangs suspended over the warm city of angels. Surf roars.

            “No, but I will.”

            “Did you grow up here?”

            “Well, we moved around a lot. My mom was always moving away from her old man. He beat the shit out of her. I moved here when I finished high school.”

            “Don’t know if I can last through a winter here, but I’m gonna try. I’m sure I’ll stay warm, right?” He kisses him on the lips wet and hard.

            It’s a slow night at Little Jim’s. Michael and Eric nurse drinks while bantering with Todd, the heavy, middle-aged queen tending bar. He is well known in New Town as a drag queen named Ida Slapdher. Michael is more comfortable than Eric with the subgenres of gay life, but after a couple of drinks, he tends to be more open-minded.

            They step outside to smoke a joint in the alley. When they come back in, they stare at Reagan on the television not listening to a word of it. Eric notices Michael eyeing a couple of men disappearing into the bathroom that is known for being “cruisy.”

            “Put on some music videos,” Eric says to Todd. “I’m sick of this shit.”

            “You okay?” Michael asks.

            “Sure, what’s not to be okay about?”

            He doesn’t even trust me not to go into the bathroom and get something started, Michael thinks. Not a great foundation for a relationship, but what did he really know about having a relationship?

            “Don’t hog the popcorn,” Michael scolds Eric as they watch All About Eve on the foldout sofa that has been made into a bed. A fire burns in the old fireplace that they are not supposed to use. This is one of their favorite rituals, watching campy movies and reciting caddy lines out loud together.

            “You're maudlin and full of self-pity. You're magnificent!” they mimic.

            “Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?”

            And there is the inevitable discussion of Davis and Monroe’s peccadilloes and, of course, historic feuds between legendary leading ladies. Eric’s cat Oscar gets wildly jealous as they touch and laugh and he jumps up and down from the bed frantic for attention. Part of the ritual is ordering pizza and eating it in bed. Eric throws bits of sausage at the cat while Michael admonishes him yet again not to give it human food.

            They watch the news and fall asleep together like an old couple, a respite from partying and having sex. But it’s something more than that too.

            Last night they had been listening to a female vocalist singing Anita Baker songs under old ceiling fans in Gentry’s on Rush. Fatigued from summer’s heat, they felt an emotional overload like a fire or riot could start at a spark’s notice. They were languid with the melding of limbs and soft touching of lips like kissing the soft spot on a baby’s head. That delicate in their approach. He had looked into Eric’s eyes and been afraid.

            One Friday after a long week on a real job, Michael comes home to a note on the kitchen table from Eric. It says simply, “Busy this weekend. We need to talk.”  Michael is a bit stunned as he didn’t know anything was up. Then begins the dragging through his conscience for his possible offenses. He knew he was doomed to continue this throughout the weekend and probably come up with nothing, for he had no idea what the problem could be.

            Boredom was dangerous for Michael. He did not feel comfortable hanging out alone for any period of time. Being with Eric had made him more social in ways he had grown to enjoy. He watched MTV, old movies, and Alice when he could find it, smoked some weed and in general felt left out and alone.

            Late in the day on Saturday he began to feel restless and he didn’t know what to do with himself. He couldn’t concentrate on anything and kept running tapes of conversations he and Eric had had over and over in his head. He ordered Chinese and fell asleep beside Oscar. He was used to napping and going out to the bars late.

            He dreams of Eric: in his own body memory—the golden down of Eric’s skin, the grip of his muscular thighs. After sex he gazes into his blue eyes as they massage one another, silent. A different kind of touch. He pours wine into his eye sockets and licks them out. The center no longer holds. He feels directionless in space, a disembodied fragment of a spaceship falling. Wheel without spokes.

            He had a few beers and chatted with old Charlie at Carol’s, hung out awhile listening to Spanish at Normandy, and headed for the Gold Coast. He didn’t want to go there and he didn’t understand why he was doing this. He didn’t understand anything including his feelings. But some part of him had had this in mind as he was wearing a leather vest and boots that he needed to get into the basement where all the action was. The bar was known internationally for its leather crowd and its no holds barred sexual activities.

            The first thing Michael witnessed when he entered the downstairs was a burly, bearded man fisting a man bent over a saddle on a sawhorse. Men were lined up along the walls giving and getting blowjobs or rimming ass. The smell of poppers and cigars was strong. Michael entered the dark orgy room and dropped his pants.

            When he didn’t hear from Eric on Monday evening, Michael tried to keep himself from appearing too needy by calling him, but he couldn’t help himself. It was a very chilly conversation during which they arranged to meet for a drink the next evening to discuss things.

            When Eric walked through the door, Michael could tell right away that he meant business. He ordered a drink and joined Michael on a stool in front of the window.

            “I just got rid of a case of the crabs,” Eric started.

            Michael was caught off guard and wasn’t sure how to respond. He was obviously being accused of giving them to him which was quite likely as Eric was not promiscuous.

           Michael had suspected he had them but had ignored the signs until now. He said something about Eric’s picking them up elsewhere and Eric had scoffed. “Next time it could be AIDS,” Eric blurted out. He looked like he regretted saying it but he had.

            “Really?” Michael responded, thinking how foolish he had been to try to make a relationship work. He didn’t deserve it.

            They sat in silence for a while and then Eric tried to make small talk. It was useless. He would never trust Michael and Michael knew this. They hugged awkwardly and walked into the night.           

            Today as he strolls along the lake he feels the same sinking feeling his stomach had felt the night before. There are small craft warnings. He stands along the pier and gazes at the lighthouse. It’s fixed like the points on a compass. This is some comfort. But he is not a lighthouse or a compass. Just a point not fixed, a grain of sand on the beach.

            People sprawl everywhere. He steps around them—mines ready to explode. Lightly. A form of prayer in his head. This delicate approach reminds him of their touching. A tentativeness like walking through a minefield. He sees waves peak and splash upon shore.

            He walks and walks, sees children playing. They’ve made a channel in the sand and diverted water to form their own tiny lake. A little girl drops stones into its center at timed intervals like a mechanized toy. He sees the concentric ripples that mesmerize. People he had loved had widened in circles like these around him and vanished. He sees everything now as suspended in time. He sees the young boy push the girl aside and splash wildly in his usurped lake. The circles gone, the spell broken.      

            Michael glances at the lighthouse over his shoulder, feels a chill even in the burning sandy heat and heads out for Halsted Street.

            After the break up with Eric some part of Michael gives in. Collapses like a building for urban renewal without the renewal. This is not the usual loss he’s known. He goes on but sleepwalking. He is depressed and doesn’t eat for days. He stares out the window, seeing and not seeing the busy street. He awakens in the night sweating and shaking. He feels bodiless, the core of his body a heavy weight apart from himself.

            Then one morning he feels better. Not the same person. He will never be him again. The part of him that had collapsed is restored, but it is hard. Made of some solid, very durable material.

___

            Michael enters the theater. As he takes a seat, he sees the familiar images of flesh upon flesh, hears the familiar sound of wet lips on flesh around him. He isn’t in the mood (active or passive) but he needs some funds. He is bored. This is part of his life like children are a part of so many adults’ lives.

            He heads into the lobby and picks up the latest issue of Gaylife. The headline reads: “Rapists Claim Fourth, Maybe Fifth, Victim.” The article is about the latest of several reported rapes of men on the North Side, in his neighborhood mostly. He has never thought of this. It takes three men and a van to do it. Why go to all the bother, Michael thinks. It is out of violence, hate. Sex is easy to get. They call the victim “faggot,” knock him over the head, drag him into a van, tell him they are going to show him what it’s like to be with real men. Afterwards, they dump him in an empty lot. Semi-conscious. If he’s lucky.

            He begins the day hanging out at a North Shore train station. Suburban men with money and a lot to hide. Fifty bucks a blowjob, often more. He tries to make eye contact, takes his cruising stance—hip thrust forward—a loitering look, but not so much so as to be noticed by an undercover cop. There are always interested men. He wonders what the rest of their lives are like to have to do this in a men’s room. For that matter what was his life like?

            Standing in the crowd he sees the woman’s open purse. An oversight. She looks wealthy. Probably usually very cautious. She probably didn’t carry much cash. He sees the sandy beaches. Feels the sun’s heat. He moves beside her. She snaps the purse shut.

            He stops by a cafeteria, eats some soup and a hot dog as he watches traffic. He doesn’t hear all the honking of horns that he hears in movies and on TV as urban realism. A grey day. He feels a tide rising in him like that at Malibu; it does not recede but continues to rise.

            Later that day he takes a trip to the suburbs. He hates them but he has a chance to make a couple hundred bucks from an old fairy with a PhD. Advertising has helped. He feigns interest. The man needs to be convinced he is somehow still appealing. He isn’t, but anything Michael can do or say will help. He wishes he had had a few drinks before this one.

            On the way back to the city a tired calm overtakes him. A beautiful, young woman in a long, grey coat sits across from him. A man of about thirty comes and sits beside her. They immediately look like a set of something. He is gorgeous. Meticulously trimmed beard. Stylish, layered hair hugs his scalp as he runs his fingers through it. His deep-set blue eyes avert easily. Both of them read books. Michael notes how the woman eyes the man, noting his beauty. The train hits some very rough track and the man pauses in his reading and raises his eyes. She smiles as she reads. Michael recognizes that look either from a lost part of himself or a movie he has seen or someone he has known. A woman will keep on reading, he thinks, but a man, well, it must be smooth sailing.

            The two of them seem to shine clean and bright like angels in a blue sky. She stands in the aisle waiting to exit. The man keeps looking at her back hoping she will turn around. She doesn’t. Even after she exits, he gazes across the aisle and out the windows to see her figure walk along the platform. He smiles in his seat alone except for his eyes. He glances back at his book. He can’t read a word and puts it in his black valise.

            Michael looks at the man as he gets off the train. For the rest of the way and all that evening he sees the man’s eyes and the woman’s smile. He thinks of Eric’s eyes and how the men at the train station had once felt about their wives. The old professor paid for such a pair of eyes, not really sex. It gives him a warm feeling to think about the couple on the train. Like a beautiful dream one thinks about all day.

            He feels anxious on the bus all the way to the Art Institute. Listless. It is the dead of winter and everyone, everything, shows it. Worn. Withdrawn. Waiting. He checks his coat and saunters through the corridors. He is early to meet him in the men’s room at 2:00 o’clock like every Thursday, no questions asked.

            Being here is like church. He looks forward to it. His life slows down. He feels serene. The echoes of high heels in huge spaces. Other sounds muffle like audio draped with heavy, velvet cloths. Everything is orderly, arranged, and clear: Renaissance, Modern, French impressionist. Some people huddle in organized groups. Others pause in thoughtful reflection, alone. He overhears the guide:              

          “The Last Judgment was painted by van Eyck, a Flemish painter of the fifteenth century.” Michael’s eyes are riveted to the painting. The background of the upper half is blue. Hands clasp in prayer. Flying angels blow trumpets. Midway down, an angel stands guard over Death’s wings, a skull with bat wings keeping those in Hell from the light of salvation above. Below unfolds a nightmare of naked, deformed bodies and writhing flesh—Hell’s concentration camp. A porcupine head on a black voodoo face. Eyes peer out of black, between bodies crisscrossing, flesh against flesh, in every direction. This bottom half haunts him.

            Above, angels rejoice. The angels he is used to seeing. He comes here to see them. They are the good in his life. His hope. But he knows buried somewhere below at the bottom of the mass of damned bodies lie the fallen angels. They will not rise triumphant; they will suffer endlessly. God didn’t make deals. Once an angel or a life falters, there is no getting over it. But they had been so holy and good, he thinks regretfully. He wishes that someone in the group will point this out, empathize with the damned, the fallen angels, buried under others who are also buried, some nearly invisible.

            No. The group sees the folded hands, the angels triumphant, the blue sky. He stares at the bottom half. He remains after the tour group departs, their sounds muffled as if receding through clouds.

            “Hello?” He stretches, yawns, collapses on the bed. “Yeah, what is it?”

            “Michael?”

            “Yeah, whatcha need? A hundred bucks a…

            “This is Tim”.

            “Tim?”

            “Where are you?”

            “At home. How about taking a trip out to the sticks?”

            Michael watches the countryside, another world, patches of green and black, as it passes by his train window. This motion is conducive to thinking. As he watches images appear and disappear, he relaxes a little, closing his eyes. The train rocks him to sleep. He dreams a city of night and perpetual darkness inside and out. Superimposed upon this sleeping vision are patches of green hills. He feels the moist, dark fields like one feels things in dreams. Is the train moving out of the darkness and into the light?

            The conductor is shaking his shoulder. He gathers his bag and walks down the aisle half awake. Tim throws his arms around Michael. His arms feel different than other men’s. This gives him the same good feeling he had in thinking of the couple on the train: warm earth, sloping green fields.

            Tim said how good it was to see him.

            “It’s nice to get away.”

            “How’ve ya been?”

            “Alright. How about you?”

            “Real good.”

            “Why don’t you move up to the city?”

            “Don’t know. Used to it here. It grows on you.”

             “Like leprosy.”

            “No, really. At first I thought I’d go out of my mind. But it’s been good for me. I’ve changed.”

            This kind of discussion made Michael nervous. What does that mean? One changed a tire. Or deodorant.

            Tim fixes dinner while Michael sits on the back porch watching the sun descend. It does not sink. Ships sink. He thinks this as he inhales. The sun is too graceful to sink. It’s a dream of harvestable fields somewhere like forgotten parts of himself. After dinner they sit and talk. The sun has warmed the room. Plants hang everywhere. Deep, dark wood surrounds them.

            They talk of old times. Michael is evasive about his life. But Tim senses immediately that Michael’s life isn’t his own. One can’t possess what one is not fully aware of. Something in Michael has been used up and not replenished. That’s why he looks older. They talk late into the night then sleep together, Tim holding him most of the night. Michael dreams, curled up, safe, the sun warm and bright in his dreams.

            Before Michael leaves, Tim asks if he needs anything. “Really, if you ever need anything, let me know. I’ve been able to save some money. I’d be glad to help.”   “Thanks, Tim.” They embrace again. Michael boards the train. The sun through the tinted window puts him to sleep. He has a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. About halfway home he awakes. It is dark. He sees a city of night in his mind’s eye. A city of perpetual dark. Inside or out. Day or night.

            It’s nearly three in the morning when he decides to give it up for the night. He shivers a bit clutching his leather jacket tightly. The surf continues to rise inside him. He will make a clean break and go to California, turn blond and wear sexy dark glasses and speedos. He is lost in thought. He has hardly had anything to drink, just a few hits off a joint. He hears a voice ask, “Hey, buddy, how about helping a fella out?”

            He turns and sees a man leaning against a building in the alleyway. Michael slinks into the alley. A voice inside tells him not to. He ignores it. “Listen, I’ll make it worth your while. How’s a hundred? Look.” The man shows him his wallet thick with bills. He must be vice Michael thinks. He is hesitant, afraid. The light from the street casts eerie shadows upon the sides of the brick buildings.

            He approaches the man grasping him by his belt. Seemingly out of nowhere appear two other men. The first hits Michael in the face. Pushes him into one of the others who knees him hard in the thigh. They drag him to a van parked in the alley and throw him inside. One of them takes off his belt and puts it around Michael’s neck. The last thing he remembers is lying on his stomach clutching the shag carpeting, riding it like a wave, grasping tufts of it like swatches of hair torn from the men’s scalp.

___

            Corridors buzz with activity as men and women in uniform scuffle. Voices on radios and scanners create a static that’s unnerving. Calls click on and off. A sense of urgency is lacking; there is a sense of efficiency, or attempts at it. He hasn’t thought out what he’s going to say. He just feels he should be here now. He is nervous and shaky. Again he has not eaten. What should he say?

            He can’t go through with it. He fumbles in his pockets for coins for the vending machines. He sits and stares at the floor. After awhile he approaches an important-looking desk with a large black woman seated behind it. What should he say?

            “Excuse me, Miss? I’d like to talk with someone.”

            “Is it regarding a crime?” She eyes his ragged appearance and asks, “Are you alright, honey?”

            “I think so.”

            “What kind of crime?”

            “Well…” He froze, hesitated.

            “Don’t be shy. I’ve heard it all. Was it a robbery?”

            “I, Uh...”

            “Honey, I can’t help you out if…”

            “Rape,” he interrupts.

            She looks puzzled. “Okay. Rape. Did you bring the victim, honey?”

            “It’s me.”

            She tries to rise above it. After all her training… She guesses him to be about 5’10”. “Rape?” She will be efficient, concerned. She calls over an officer. “What’s your name, baby?” she asks.

            “Michael.”

            “Well, Michael, Sergeant Collins is gonna get some information from you and make sure you’re alright. Okay?” She staples a couple of forms and her preliminary intake report together and heads with Michael across the huge, fluorescent room of metal desks and metal wastebaskets. He hurts as he sits among file cabinets and metal clips and miles of forms. And starched uniforms. Starched smiles. His mind begins to race. This is all a mistake. Before he realizes it, he is talking with the sergeant.

            “So, you’re reporting you were raped by three men. Sorry to hear that.” His voice betrays him ever so slightly. The starch has failed. “Tell me more.”

            “Well, I was walking along Clark Street…”

            “What time was this?”

            “I don’t know exactly—around 3 or 4.”

            “In the morning?” Michael nods. “I see.” The sergeant lowers his head to jot down a note.

            “I was walking along when a man by an alley called out to me.”

            “What did he want?”

            What should he say? A blowjob? Sex in an alley? This is a big mistake. The cop glances over the top of his glasses, waiting, a bit impatient.

            “He came on to me.”

            “I see. Go on.”

            “Well, I went into the alley…”

            “Excuse me, but what for?”

            “I… he had a lot of money.”

            “Go on.”

            “So when I got inside the alley a couple of other men came up and started to work me over.” He continues until he has told all that he recalls. The sergeant listens like he has heard it all before. The rest is routine. Descriptions of the assailants and so on. No mention of the other rapes Michael has read about. Then the cop says, “You’re aware accepting money for sexual favors is illegal?”                                                                             

           He says no more. Just goes across the room where a young officer sits working on a report. The young cop glances at Michael as the two of them have a short conversation. When the sergeant returns, he is a bit cooler. Matter-of-fact. “We need to get you to Masonic to get checked out.”

            Now the probing hands. A gentle pressing on his side and stomach. Starched people in action. The room is cold. They send him for a specimen. He overhears some officers talking… “Two-bit hustler…” The comments come in bits and spurts like an audiotape that has been erased in spots… “Bunch of fags.”

            He walks back to the examination room. He feels heavy, then light, cold and shivering. His sense of balance is off. A part of him gives in. It feels like the last part. He feels dizzy. The metal and starch all around him no longer support him. The room swirls and he loses consciousness.

            First the smell. A clean smell. His eyes open. “You must have been tired, boy.” She flattens the sheet over his chest. “Been sleepin’ longer than old van Winkle. How ya feeling?”

            “Sore. Tired.”

            “I’ll say. The doctor will be back shortly. Get your rest.”

            She bustles out. He feels odd like he has just dozed off from his life for a while. The doctor examines, lectures, and questions him.

            “Have any family or friends you’d like me to contact?”

            “No, really. There’s no need.”

            “You sure?”

            “Yeah, I’ll be fine.”                                                                                                    

            The doctor leaves. He looks around the room. White and enamel. Metal. Hard surfaces. Nothing to give way against his breathing skin.

            “There’s a reporter and policeman to see you. You up to it?”

            “A reporter?”

            “Yep. What do ya think?”

            “Send ‘em in I guess.”

            The reporter crowds in first. Harried and self important. A bag over his shoulder,

notepad in hand. “Hi, I’m Lee, from Gaylife.”

            “Hello…”

            “I’m here to make others aware that we must report these matters to the police. We have a right to be protected too. You did the right thing. I’d like to get some information.” His pedantic manner is annoying.

            The police official enters. Plain clothes. “Hey, I’m Captain Pat McCloskey. How ya feeling?” He speaks of a task force, accountability to the gay community. A good P.R. man. This could make his career. Nationwide attention. Help everyone’s image. Chicago. City of progressive, not club-happy, cops. McCloskey and the reporter get in a heated argument. Michael tunes it out. Where did he fit in? Where had he ever fit in?

            He must be stronger than the surfaces that surround him. He dozes off. The nurse peeks in and escorts the men out. He sleeps. She feels somehow solicitous toward him. One of those short-lived moments when sentiment rises high within us. She is touched as she tucks his sheet around him and shuts off the light. Doing everything softly. The kind of silence you listen to. The sound of padded-sole shoes in a quiet hallway.

            Something must matter—if not a great passion, something. After the assault he is morose, silent, even worse than in the days after Eric’s departure. The intent of his assailants is always with him and this alters something important. He knows that they viewed him as something less than themselves. Anything is then possible, he thinks.

            He goes there. He feels he has to. A kind of farewell. To himself. He presses through the crowd and stares at the painting. People bump against him, oblivious. This time he focuses on the top half, its visionary brightness. When he walks away, he is crying. It has been awhile. He goes to the bathroom and washes his face, staring at it head on. It just takes resolve, he thinks positively.

            He is glad he had told Tim he was leaving for California. Tim’s word had been good. He wouldn’t starve. He boarded the bus for the train station with his tattered luggage. He feels he has some knowledge he can use should he choose to. He had reached out. This must count for something like learning to walk again.

            He hears coins dropping. The bus is nearly full. Coins and tokens ping as people board the bus. This reminds him of someone once saying that such sounds mean another angel has gotten his wings. He would not hope against hope. He had seen. He knew.


Marc Frazier has widely published poetry in journals including The Spoon River Poetry Review, ACM, Good Men Project, f(r)iction, Slant, Permafrost, Plainsongs, Poet Lore, Rhino, and Connotation Press. He has had memoir published in Gravel, decomP, The Good Men Project and forthcoming in Evening Street Review and Cobalt. He is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Award for poetry and has been featured on Verse Daily. His book The Way Here and his chapbooks The Gods of the Grand Resort and After are available on Amazon as well as his second full-length collection titled Each Thing Touches from Glass Lyre Press. He has done readings and led workshops in the Chicago area for many years. His website is www.marcfrazier.org


Why Is It So Hard To Leave Los Angeles?

text by Keely Shinners

 

I leave the States in one week, July 3rd, the day before Independence Day. We have been joking a lot about how post-modern Americana it is, how David Foster Wallace may have used it as a first sentence in something.

When I talk or write about it, I say it differently: I leave Los Angeles in one week.

I have only lived here for a few months. I grew up in Illinois. I moved to Southern California, to a far suburb of L.A., towards San Bernardino. I have only lived in Los Angeles since May. I leave in one week. 

Still, it has become very difficult for me to leave Los Angeles. I have been crying at small things. Such as, the mention of going to Malibu. Such as, petting my editor’s cats (who actually do not like petting, but prefer spanking, the sado-maschochists).

I cry at less sentimental things as well. Such as, Billboard top 40 hip hop songs on the radio and finding a cheap cup of coffee ($1.75 at a place on Spring Street, across from the building where I have worked for more than a year).

Why is it so much harder to leave Los Angeles than anywhere else I have been?

I have a boyfriend in Los Angeles.

(I had a fiancé in Illinois.)

I have a life in California. I go to parties and I am recognized. I have writing jobs that publish my work and encourage me to keep writing.

(At one point, I believe I could have had a life at home too. A wedding in Chicago. A teaching job, like my mother. A big window overlooking Lake Michigan, with a writing desk.)

It’s warmer in L.A.

It’s warmer in L.A.? Really?

This is the one distinction between Los Angeles and other places I have been: in Los Angeles, it is easier to lie. Or at least to embellish. I have told so many lies in Los Angeles and people still believed me, respected me, loved me, even. L.A. attaches itself to a good story, whether or not the story is rooted in anything wholly true.

In L.A., I can say the words, “I am a writer,” to artists and sandwich makers and girls at bars. They nod and sip their drinks and say, “Oh, cool.”

At home, I can barely say the words, “I want to be a writer.” Let alone “I will be,” and certainly not, “I am.”

Los Angeles, city in love with good stories. And me too. I have read so much here. Didion. Bukowski. Eve Babitz.

Malibu is the most beautiful place in Los Angeles.

Malibu is at least the most beautiful-sounding place in Los Angeles because it is called Malibu, because it is attached to black and white photographs of movie actresses and screenwriters smoking cigarettes and drinking cognac on the balcony of so-and-so’s balcony overlooking the sea.

“The first time I came to Malibu, it was spring and the wildflowers had blossomed in the mountains.” I cry as I am writing this sentence. Why?

One, because it is a good sentence.

Two, because it is true. It was spring, and the wildflowers had blossomed, and it was me who was there. I plucked a white poppy flower from the canyon and tucked it in my hair, which was longer then. (I cry again at this story.)

And of course, it is reductive to say that the cats who like to be spanked are just my editor’s cats. These are the cats that posed with girls in black and white nudes, the photographs that I silently poured over when I was fifteen, sixteen, obsessed with a photographer who ran a magazine from his home in San Francisco. Now, Oliver Kupper, my editor, the man who taught me how to be a writer, in a studio apartment in Downtown Los Angeles (where you can apparently get coffee for $1.75 at a coffee place down the street).

I learned to drive here. (I tear up at this sentence too, probably at the word “here.”) I learned to stick half my body out the window when I am merging several lanes of traffic on the 10 east, to anthropomorphize my tiny silver hatchback. I learned to drive buzzed, to drive while putting on mascara, to drive at night, whipping past palm trees at eighty miles an hour. I learned to drive listening to the top 40 hip hop songs on the Billboard charts on Real 92.3, driving up and down Sunset Blvd in the middle of the night.

Sunset Blvd, a road, just a road. But a road attached to so many mysterious and fabulous stories that it has become more than itself. So much so that I remain blissful in Hollywood rush hour traffic, singing songs that I shouldn’t be singing, singing YG.

Why is it so hard to leave Los Angeles?

I will be back in six months, maybe less. Why is it still so hard to leave?

The love I have cultivated for this place permeates several layers of fiction and reality.

I fear I will come back and all of my illusions will have sunk with time, that I will have meetings and responsibilities and even more rent to pay. I will start to complain often of the ambulances and the smell of piss. And then my imagination of Los Angeles will not be so romantic anymore.

More than this, I fear the fantasy will wash over me, that I will be consumed by cognac and cigarettes on the balcony, interviews with people who are photographed often, long drives down Sunset. I am afraid that I will return to Los Angeles and there will be no time to go to the mountains or the beach, to put a white poppy in my hair, and that nothing here will feel so real anymore.

In the meantime, I will be relishing in my ability to say the word “here” until my mother drops me off at LAX and I wave all my kisses goodbye.

[Short Story] Radishes are Good for Gas by Donavan Freberg

Just yesterday, Donavan Freberg sadly announced the death of his father Stan Freberg – the legendary, revolutionary and undeniable genius man of American postwar advertising. With the premier of the final season of Mad Men – and a 1960s revivalist fever seen in every Pucci-patterned, Milton-Glaser-illustrated corner of film, television, fashion and culture – Stan Freberg’s death seems morbidly of-the-moment.  Dubbed the “Che Guevara of advertising,” Freberg had the illuminated notion of adding humor and madcap insanity to radio and television advertisements and the entire medium was changed forever. In his personal family life, things were just as insane. As his son Donavan can attest: “My childhood was a Wonka infused cross between the Osbornes and The Royal Tennenbaums…as seen through the eyes of Tim Burton, David Lynch and Woody Allen.” In the following short story, Donavan gives a brief, adept summation of life as the son of this miraculously gifted and creative, but eccentric, adman.

Radishes Are Good For Gas

by Donavan Freberg

On the eve of April 6th, 1971, my father was perusing the aisles of the “Radiant Radish” in search of a midnight snack. The Radiant Radish was one of many badly lit and open late health food stores in LA, but the only one made famous by the Beach Boys. Los Angeles is a strange planet. You really do see famous people at every turnstile. You still do, but in the 70s, they’d talk to you. Invite you over for a cuppa tea and a speedball. Break Essene bread with you before blowing you in the hot tub. Los Angeles in the 70s was cool in a way that it definitely isn’t now. It was a scene. The scene. And to grow up here in the era of Roller Skates and Helter Skelter, to hang out with those famous people, to swim in the pools of legends and sit in math class with Zappa’s and Barrymore’s and Pollock’s and other nepotists well…wow. That would be something. It was something. It is something…

It's my childhood.

So here we go.

Back to the 70s, back to the good old days, back...to the health food store.

Christ, can I ever escape them? I'd be happy to never eat granola again...

Anyhow, since this was the land before cel-phones, my mother couldn’t just text message my father: STAN…IN LABOR…COME HOME…DRIVE FAST.

Instead, just as my father was about to toss some carob raisin clusters into his mouth from the bulk bin, the manager walked up to him and said…

“Mr. Freberg, your maid is on the phone”.

Why was the maid on the phone and not my mother?

Because mom was busy chain smoking and making herself a Dubonnet on the rocks, duh!

My father ran to the phone and Frances said, as only Frances* could,

*FRANCES: (NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH SWEETIE, MY SISTER'S NANNY)

HOUSEKEEPER/COOK/NANNY TO BABY BOY/KILLER OF RATTLESNAKES/HERALD OF NEWS

“Come home Mr. Freberg, The Baby’s On Its Way”.

"OK, Frances".

CLICK

My father jumped in his 1969 Jaguar XKE and headed west on Sunset Boulevard.

When he got back to the house,*

*HOUSE

BIG (See also: Friggin Huge, Enormously Large, Castle-Like)
SPANISH
MANSION
BEVERLY
HILLS
90210

Francis had already packed him a bag and a tuna fish sandwich.

My mother was chain smoking and saying over and over, “This is just ridiculous!”.

She was, you could say, in denial.

For the majority of her pregnancy, she said that I was “just gas”.

Some eight months prior to my arrival, as my mother sat drinking her black coffee and smoking her Kents and calling the shots on the set of what was to become my fathers most famous commercial, she began to get woozy and nauseous.

The doctor (I think his name was Feelgud) was called to the set, and he announced that my mother should not blame the craft services table for her malaise. She should blame my father, for knocking her up.

“That’s impossible!”, she said.

It should have been impossible, because my mother (due to a prior ovarian cyst) was down to a sliver of one ovary. It would take the Mark Spitz of sperm to crack that egg.

I’ve always been a good swimmer.

So skip ahead 240 days or so, back to our story.

I arrived just in time to see the dawn.

When I began to cry, the doctor (whose son would later become my agent) held me up to my mother.

“Now do you believe me lady!?”, he said.

“Oh For God Sake!, I Really WAS pregnant!!!”, said my mother, a glint of morphine in her eye.

The birds tweeted in the early morning light, the sun cast its mustard rays into the maternity ward of Cedars, the doctor wiped his brow.

My mother lit a cigarette.

I’ve been a night person ever since.

Ray Bradbury in one of Stan Freberg's strange Sunsweet Prune commercials.