Thursday, June 23, 2016


(originally published December 1990)

FUTURE CITY, Ill. -- First and Broadway. It sounds so uptown, so chic, a place for swank boutiques and restaurant. Especially in a place called Future City.

Someone's trash is scattered in the intersection.

Poverty, not posh, reigns in Future City, an encampment of about 100 people on the north edge of Cairo — that's CARE-oh. Most homes are ramshackle. Roads are covered with pea gravel. There are no curbs, no sidewalks. No future.

It wasn't always this way. Once upon a time, Future City was 10 times its current size, a boomer with cotton gins, stores and bars. But one by one, the stores closed and the people moved away. Now all that's left are retirees and those too poor to relocate.

"Kids grow up, they leave," says Lillian Thompson, 84. She lives in a decaying mobile home with Aaron Mohn. He's 55. He looks much older. They don't blame anyone for fleeing the squalor of Future City, a place where a white kitten, fur matted with filth, eats garbage next to a rusted sign: "$50 fine for littering."

Future City is where the New Madrid fault begins its serpentine path southward. The ground here is soft, sandy. A strong earthquake would probably turn the sand to soup; one county official says Future City would sink out of sight.

There is a sense that very few people would care. Future City is small, poor. It is also overwhelmingly black, and this is more than an insignificant aside. All along the New Madrid fault, racism is a reality.

When people worry about looting, they talk about "niggers" and "coloreds." In a New Madrid bar, a hand-lettered handbill featuring the face of Buckwheat offers bogus "Buck Beer." Asked about Future City, a sheriff's department dispatcher discourages a reporter from traveling there: "It's nothing but blacks and slums."

Ray Johnson, a resident, says no one cares. "This is the Gateway to the South, you know. I spent a couple of years on the East Coast — New Jersey — and a word I seldom heard was 'nigger.' But I hear it here."

Adds Thompson: "I don't know anyone here who doesn't want it to be better. But who's going to make it better? Not the people in Cairo. No, sir."

The chairman of the county board denies racism is the reason for the despair in Future City. Instead, Louis Maze blames high unemployment. One in every five Alexander County residents is out of work, he says. In Future City, unemployment is almost 100 percent.

"We all know the people in Future City. We get along with them well," Maze says. "And we've got a black treasurer and blacks in the sheriff's department."

Only an infusion of new businesses will save Future City, Maze says. "Factories can come in, they can give them jobs and those people can better themselves." But no one in Future City believes that will happen, and they don't seem willing to make it happen, either. The only solution, they say, is to wait -- wait and hope that attitudes change, that times get better, that white people along the New Madrid fault begin to think twice before automatically assuming an earthquake will create an army of rampaging black looters.

Aaron Mohn turns back to his black-and-white television and fiddles with the antenna wrapped in aluminum foil. Outside the mobile home, waist-high weeds sway in the wind. The kitten turns its attention to a mouldering Kentucky Fried Chicken box.

Sunday, June 19, 2016


Falling. Falling. Only instead of down I was falling up — past the treetops and scuttling clouds, above the satellites and around the moon, to a tiny house on the north pole of Mars. The sky was red against the snow.

Inside the house — it was really a rough cabin, cobbled together with rocks and wetted sand — was a chair, a table and a typewriter. A manual model, with a fresh ribbon, and 100 reams of paper were stacked on the floor next to it. On every page there was one handwritten sentence:

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them

I knew the quote but didn’t know why it was written on the paper. All I knew is that this was my home now, and my sole task was to sit here and type that sentence over and over and over again, until I ran out of paper.

I began.

The key was typing the words but not typing over what had been written. And no typos. Any mistakes needed to be covered in Wite-Out and struck over. No typos. No mistakes. It was hard at first because I wasn’t used to the keys, but soon enough I was settled and making a clatter than sounded like honest work.

It was the only sound on Mars, save for the wind, which whistled against the cabin.

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them

No spellcheck. Just the steady sound of keys to paper. Page after page, maybe 25 or 30 typed lines per pages. When I was done with one I would pull it from the roller and give it a brief once-over before squaring it with the other pages. The “a” on the typewriter was slightly offset and sat higher than the other letters, giving a jaunty look to the words “way” and “can."

The sun rose and set on Mars, but its light was feeble. On some nights I could see the small blue twinkle and knew who was there. I called out to them and spoke of my devotion, and the wind would sing their song.

Every time I finished a ream I would make a mark on the wall.

Finally I reached the end. The last page was blank. My test was over. A rocket grew large in the sky. It landed next to the cabin. The doors opened and robot arms disgorged the ship’s contents: 100 fresh reams of paper and a new ribbon. This one was red.

All of the pages were blank.

I watched the rocket take off. It was not there to take me home. This was my home. This planet, this cabin, this typewriter.

I stacked the shipment of 50,000 pages next to the typewriter and threaded the new ribbon into place. I thought about Earth and my stomach growled. Hemingway was right. Memory is hunger. My brain would not allow me to forget anything that had happened, and my hunger would never go away.

I would always remember, and there was only one thing I needed to say.

My fingers began to dance:

I love thee enough for both

I love thee enough for both

I love thee enough for both

Sunday, June 05, 2016


WAIT. The sign is flashing, yellow letters against a black background. WAIT WAIT WAIT and then it becomes

WEIGHT. In red letters. And then back and forth between the two, until the red-yellow becomes an orange blur.

The word pulses in the air. It is my voice saying it, but my lips do not move.

My grandmother Ruth Ellen appears. She has an orange in her hand. She is standing in the back yard of her home in Southern California. Her father — my great-grandfather, Jacob — is smoking a Kent cigarette.

"If you do not wait there will be weight," he says. Or is it the other way around? He shakes his head no, then nods yes. I notice his eyes are blue, like ice.

"If you wait it adds weight," my grandmother says.

It starts to rain and they both melt, like sugar figurines caught in a downpour. They become photographs on the ground.

"You should wait to put those in frames," says a voice. I look up and see a woman standing midcalf in a stream. Her jeans are rolled up and she's wearing a flannel shirt, green and purple and blue.

"They're wet now," she says, gesturing to the photos. "Too much weight. You have to wait."

How long?

"One hundred twenty-eight months. Or is it 128 lifetimes? I can't remember what the book told me," she says. "I would carry it with me for reference but it's too big. There's too much weight."

She starts to sink into the stream. Her face remains serene. Happy.

"Wait," I say, but she goes under. Her hair becomes a floating circle in the water, and then it is gone, too. I jump in and realize the stream is a sea, thousands of feet deep.

Swimming. Sinking. There is no difference. The water goes black.

The signs reappear. WAIT. WEIGHT. They are above a door on the ocean floor. I knock and she answers. Her eyes are searching for something in my face. After several long seconds she nods.

"If there is weight there should be no wait," she finally says. We enter the cavern, which opens into a valley. In the distance I see smoke curling from a chimney of a house by a lake. Between here and there are fields of wildflowers. I know the place where the fire burns is home.

Saturday, June 04, 2016


We grow up and we find heroes, and in their lives we look for motivation, for meaning.

Archie was the son of our next-door neighbors in Los Angeles. The Gutierrez family. Archie was funny, one of those guys that kids instinctively liked. He seemed like one of us, only huge. He was the best part of neighborhood birthday parties 'cause he really got into the spirit of things. Like whacking the piñata. Man, dude could split that sucker open like Willie Davis smacking one into the outfield at Chavez Ravine. All the candy spilling to the ground after a good hit and Archie was always right there, laughing at the bounty.

Then he was gone for a while.

When Archie came back from Vietnam his father let the back part of their back yard grow tall. Some days Archie would go out there wearing his jungle trousers and M1 helmet, a scabbard in one hand, a bottle in the other. On those days my father, a veteran of the conflict in Korea, would tell us to leave Archie alone. One drizzly afternoon I saw Archie's dad — Big Ed — walk into the tall grass and stand next to his son without saying a word. The radio in our kitchen was on KHJ and “Bus Stop” by The Hollies was playing. To this day I cannot hear that song without thinking of father and son, and the agonies that lingered long after Archie came home.

Ali was the boxer who did not go to Vietnam because he thought the war was wrong. In exchange for his principled stand, the government convicted Ali of dodging the draft. The business of boxing stripped him of his heavyweight title and refused to let him compete. They were also angry because Ali had converted to Islam and changed his name. No, really.

For almost four years, Muhammad Ali was not allowed to do his job. He was 25 when he was stripped of his title and his passport. He was almost 29 when he was finally able to climb back into a ring. Prime time for a Young Turk, wasted.

But he came back. He became a champion again. And he never backed down from speaking out against the wrongs of the world. Even after he lost his ability to talk his eyes still had the gleam of the righteous.

It made sense to a lot of people in the '60s to banish and condemn Ali. My father was no fan. To him Muhammad Ali would always be Cassius Clay, the loud-mouthed draft dodger who should have gone to prison. The whole Islam thing made him uneasy, too.

(It got even tougher for him when the UCLA basketball player Lew Alcindor publicly announced his conversion to Islam and became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The only thing that could have made it worse for my dad, the L.A. sports fan, would have been if USC great O.J. Simpson had joined the Nation of Islam. Instead he became a murderer.)

To my father it was simple: Ali was a coward and Archie was a hero. Never mind that Dad thought Vietnam was a mess, a no-win hellhole like Korea had been for him. He thought Ali should have gone ahead with the draft; to his way of thinking The Champ would have landed some cushy stateside post and that would have been fine. Everyone would be appeased. Be a good soldier. Go along, get along. Just keep your mouth shut.

But Archie had been the good soldier — a hero — and now he stood silent in the tall grass. Ali had been taken down in his own way, but he would not stay down. He would not go quietly. He was a hero, too.

They became the story of Vietnam in my childish mind, and as is the case in many childhood stories, this one marked me for life. The soldier. The contrarian. The defeated. The defiant. In Archie I saw how the good can be brought low, for nonsensical reasons. In Ali I saw the essential need to speak truth to power, to stop such nonsense from ever becoming reasonable.

Thursday, April 28, 2016


His last name was Name — no, seriously. I don’t know if it was some kind of mix-up with one of his ancestors, some mistake made in their immigration papers, but that’s the name on his tombstone.

His full name was Jacob Robert Name — born to a farm family in 1855 in Indiana. His father was from Germany. The Names had 11 children. Jacob came fourth.

He was 24 when he married for the first time. Her name was Alice Marie Loy and she was 24, too. They settled down and did farm work, too, and they raised a son to adulthood.

Alice died in May 1904, two weeks before her 49th birthday, and just months short of the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary. Jacob buried his wife in their hometown of Kokomo, where by now he ran a grocery store.

And then Jacob’s life took a series of sharp, strange turns.

Five months after he buried his wife, 49-year-old Jacob Name married Nettie Kelley. She had just turned 17 the week before. Her family also lived in Kokomo.

What the 11,000 people in that Indiana city might have said about the Names is unknown. Maybe not much — Kokomo back then was a booming industrial city, filled with plenty of technological firsts. Jacob Name was a grocer. His behavior probably went unnoticed by most people.

What we do know is that Jacob and Nettie had a son, Robert Jesse. He arrived a year after their marriage, on Halloween Eve 1905.

Less than two months later Nettie would be gone — a second Mrs. Name, dead in as many years. She died on Dec. 21 and was buried the next day at age 18. How she died is a mystery. There is no autopsy report, no police records. Sudden illness? Suicide? Something worse? We don’t know.

We do know another five months passed, and Jacob Name was suddenly married again.

This one was Grace Edith Monroe. She was also 17. Her mother was a Kelley and she and Nettie were cousins. Grace signed the marriage certificate; the notary noted it was “by order of her father and mother."

Jacob and Grace married on May 6, 1906.

That was a Sunday. One week and a day later, on the 14th, Jacob’s son with his second wife died. Robert Jesse Name was seven months old. Another tragedy. Another mystery. Again, no newspaper accounts of the tragedy. No autopsy, no police reports. Only speculation, especially when it comes to what Grace must have thought — newly wed, still a teen, with a husband who had just turned 51 and a dead baby in the house. That she did not turn and run, screaming, says something about her.

Grace would be Jacob’s last wife. They had four children by the time Grace was 22. Jacob was 55 by then and almost used up. Census records from 1910 reveal one more curiosity: Jacob Name could not read or write. How did he run a grocery store?

He died when he was 58. His children with Grace never really got to know him. All that is left are digital copies of marriage certificates, census records, and photos rescued from time’s ravages. In one of them — the photo at the top of this post — Jacob and Grace look into the camera. In his eyes I see traces of his daughter, a strong-willed redhead named Ruth Ellen Name. My grandmother.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016


He was the son of a banker, but he felt like a loser. While his friends were buying houses and stepping up in the world, 27-year-old Marty Strange was struggling to stay afloat. It was him, and his wife, Melanie, and their two children — boys, ages 2 and 4 — in an apartment just outside Branson.

On the Fourth of July holiday weekend in 1989, the Strange family went on a boat with Marty's father. On the water, they watched other couples, other families. Marty said something about one day maybe having a boat of their own.

"Some people are luckier in love than others," Melanie said. And Marty's vision started to narrow as the sun set.

That night, back in their apartment, they got ready for bed. Melanie turned to Marty. "I love you," she said.

"I love you, too," he replied in his mild voice. Only he wondered why he had a knife in his hand.

For the next several minutes, Marty Strange's memory was a series of photographs: the knife at Melanie's throat. A bathrobe sash around one son's neck. Marty's hands clenched around the other son's throat.

Then he heard a knife clatter in the sink. The shower was running. He was naked. And cold. Cold.

He put his family in the bed where Melanie died. He turned down the thermostat and drove away.

They caught Marty Strange a few days later, and he eventually went to trial and was convicted of murder. The jury then had to decide whether he should live or die.

In attendance at that trial in Forsyth was a man named Howard Kenyon. His body was in a wheelchair but his mind was too big to be confined. Smart guy. Good guy. We talked trial strategy and personalities and the horror of the crime, and whether Marty was insane when he killed his family.

When it came time for the jury to return with its recommended punishment it was close to deadline. There was one pay phone at the end of the corridor outside the courtroom. Every other reporter would want to use it first.

Howard and I became partners. He would sit in the courtroom and hear the jury's decision. I would stand outside the courtroom, looking through the window in the door. One finger for death, two fingers for life. That was our code.

Howard lifted one finger. I sprinted for the pay phone, snagged it, got the news back to the Factory. Other reporters had to wait. That's the way to do it.

Howard deserved a byline that day.

(Marty Strange never went to death row. The evidence of his lifelong mental illness was strong. The judge found a procedural error in the charges and convinced the prosecution to cut a deal — life in prison, no parole. Marty is still in prison.)

Howard Kenyon left his wheelchair behind today. It is too late to tell him how much I appreciated him — not just the solid on the jury verdict, but his kindnesses in the years since. He could have viewed life as a burden. He lived it with joy.

Thank you, Howie.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


This is what I imagined the future would look like. Sleek and trim and black, with hints of Tron. Just 10 years ago but that's a lifetime these days.

The future is now the present and it is uglier than I'd imagined — it is full of noise masquerading as information. People spouting off and becoming part of the angry pack of the day, because who doesn't want to be part of what's #trending?

So much uproar, and so much of it is nasty, and under it all is a current of cold.

Granted, there is elegance here. It is much easier to text someone "good morning" rather than "46666663*6666766444664" — but maybe the charm was in the clunkiness. It was hard to do it so we got to the point. We didn't text blab. We didn't feel as free to vomit our opinions into the ether. It helped that we couldn't, not unless we wanted to sit at a computer and surf Free Republic.

There was talk radio. Looking back on it I should have seen the hints ... the early symptoms of this current cancer to the collective brain. I co-hosted a show in the early part of the century and remember the gloats and moans from the right and left, respectively. The name-calling. The growing paranoia about Muslims. The Us vs. Them mentality that enveloped both liberals and conservatives. It had grown up in the '90s during the Clinton era, when Rush Limbaugh thought it funny to mock Chelsea Clinton's appearance.

By the '00s the right was back in power and the left flailed in outrage. Stolen election, Bush is a dumbass, Cheney's a crook, blah blah. And then, war. And more war. It seemed like there wasn't as much enmity against Muslims then, probably because we were bringing them democracy and free elections and blah blah.

There was fear, yes — but tamped down enough to elect a guy whose middle name is Hussein. He turned out to be chill, but he never had a chance, really. The mess we made in Iraq gave birth to the Islamic State and now there are people willing to kill and die here for the cause over there.

San Bernardino happens and it's oxygen to the smoldering fear. Whoosh — an orange fireball erupts and thousands leap to their feet in full-throated roar. Tough crowd if you're not like them (code: white). If you're not careful they might stone you to death ... no, that's barbaric and unfair. They would gun you down with their many weapons of mayhem. Because America.

We share these feelings and fears because that's what we do — share. Everything with everyone. We know more people these days than ever in the history of humans. We have friends all over the world, people we will never meet. We like their lives and they like ours and neither one of us knows the absolute truth. It's all surface with a Mayfair filter, overly bright and tinged pink.

Life is a feigned intimacy these days, especially when bad things happen and we act like we're all in it together. We indulge the heated hyperbole because we desperately need to be part of Us, a thread in the social media tapestry. It's right there in our Facebook feed, the one recently awash in profile pics tinted blue, white and red. Got it: you feel for France. Not so much for Mali, but not as many people died there and besides, where exactly is Mali, anyway?

Welcome to the brave future. Alert the authorities if you see Anything Suspicious. That would include people buying dozens of burner phones at Walmart, or men with turbans buying diesel at a gas station, or generally any sort of person who isn't one of Us and might be one of Them. It helps if they're foreigners.

That's the discourse. A friend told me she couldn't believe how many Facebook friends supported Trump.

He'll never become president, I said, hoping I believed it myself.

"I don't know what the answer is," she said. "But I know it isn't Donald Trump."


"This is what it's like to be me," I say with a grand sweep of my left hand. Behold: a spartan apartment as befits a single man. The bed is made and the dishes are clean. I may be many things but I am not a barbarian.

The cats feign interest in the tower of nom. "I know you want me to shut up," I inform them, "but I have to say this first. You guys can keep a secret, right?" Monty, the bigger one, stretches up to claw at my thigh.

"No one ever told me life would be this lonely. My mom and dad, they told me it would be hard. Jesus, they lived it. Factory work in Los Angeles. Then he upended us to Missouri so he could become a cop and she worked in a hospital kitchen. Hard life, yeah. Now they're dead." I think about how big my father's biceps looked as he got dressed to work at the adhesive factory. About how my mother's black hair sprouted filaments of white but never surrendered to the snow.

"A hard life I can handle. Now that it's winter I go to work before the sun rises and leave the office after it sets. Well, the sun doesn't rise or set, it's all an illusion, but you know what I mean. Dark going in, dark coming out. At least I have a job. 'Be grateful you have a job,' my mom used to say, and she was right. So very Asian of her.

"She told me about being alone. After dad left she dated one man a few times but she was done. She was ready to be alone. She lived another 30-some years without sharing space with another and she became ... I don't know. Ennobled, maybe. She had a dignity that came from being alone." I hear a faint echo of the last word and say it again: "Alone."

I walk into the bedroom and lie down. It's been a long day. They're all long days lately. The cats jump up and eye me with what looks like resignation.

"Almost done, I swear. And then we can eat and I'll tell you the story of the Cat Queen." I dispense dual pettings until the purrs are in stereo.

"My mom showed me alone but she never showed me lonely. Or told me about it, at least. She was a mystery. Hard to read her face, but my, she loved cats. She would have gotten the biggest kick out of you two. Especially you, Pierre. You're such a little Pistol Pete." Pierre squeaks affirmation.

"Being alone isn't bad. It's a choice, after all. It's not like I want for company. I'm just an introvert, masquerading as a raconteur. Most of the people who want my company, they're all about the storyteller, not the real story. No need to waste their time or mine on the superficial. I'd rather sleep alone, thanks.

"But when the clock's pushing 1 a.m. the silence starts to scream and it's lonely, Jesus fuck it's lonely." The pillow next to me is cold and I won't let myself think about the warmth of her back against my chest as she sleeps, or the tickle of her hair in my face.

"It's not right, being this lonely. It's like there's something's not square in my soul. Maybe that's the real reason I'm alone. People sense that twist in me and know enough to stay the hell away. Probably doesn't help that I'm a notorious no-show. I'm just ... weary. It sounds like pussy work, making paragraphs, but it's noisy on the factory floor. All those scanners and TVs, blatting out bursts of static and occasional news. All those people. And always always always that precise digit string in my head — 3:58:26 — compelling me to work harder, faster because ... just because, I guess. It's what I'm built to do.

"So tired. And when I come home to hear the echo of my own voice I feel the lonely start to smack me around, and that makes the tired settle in, just one more wave of weary."

Pierre climbs onto my chest. Golden eyes stare. I stare back.

"I guess I'm never lonely with you guys. You're here to remind me why I need to be alone right now. You're here to remind me to chill and not wander too far into the darkness."

Saturday, November 28, 2015


Every saturnalia needs entertainment — loud music, wild dancers, and bawdy humor. For the bacchanal that is the Republican presidential primary the humor comes courtesy of Donald Trump, a developer and reality-television character nicknamed the "short-fingered vulgarian" by the late (great) Spy magazine.

The moniker has never been more appropriate. In his run for the nation's highest office, Trump has shown a breathtaking ability to be vulgar.

Those who oppose him are "losers" and "idiots." Other people are "stupid," while he has "the world's best memory." He sees rapists among immigrants from Mexico; terrorists in the crowd of refugees fleeing Syria; suspicious people in mosques.

He is open to a suggestion that the government put Muslims on a special watchlist.

He says if he would have been at the rock concert in Paris, he wouldn't have been killed.

He thinks it's acceptable behavior to mock a man for a physical disability, and then lie and say he wasn't mocking anyone.

He often muses about his daughter's physical beauty and says that if she wasn't his daughter, he might date her.

He questioned the heroism of a prisoner of war.

He grimaced at an image of Carly Fiorina and sneered: "Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?"

He told a reporter who asked him pointed questions: "I've been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be based on the way you have treated me."

A protester at one of his rallies dared to heckle Trump and was pushed, hit and kicked by some of the candidate's devotees. Trump said the man was so loud that "maybe he should have been roughed up."

As performance art it is provocative. As politics it is nasty and corrosive and ugly. Not just for the odious things Trump says but because his words are junk food for the masses who are Pissed Off and Fed Up and looking to Kick Some Ass. They're gobbling the trash Trump is feeding them. It's making them sick — jacked-up heart rates and sky-high blood pressure from the fresh infusion of rage — but it's also making them stronger, bolder.

They think the man with the bluster is "telling it like it is." They don't care that his policy prescriptions are impossible (round up millions of people for deportation, build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, bomb enemies into extinction). They just like it when he stands up and calls people names. He is saying what they are thinking and feeling.

He plays up their fears and brushes off any suggestion that he is wrong — he is never wrong because he has the best memory, he is the best businessman, he is the only one who can bring the rest of the world to its knees and make America great (again). Anyone who suggests he is wrong is, in the stirring words of the candidate, "so dumb."

People think it's funny. They want more insults, more demagoguery, more enemies to hate. They are sick of politicians and tired of this complicated world. They are in Trump's cult of personality, all too happy to be just like their leader: loud and angry. Maybe they're still scared and maybe they will tire of Trump's bombast but for right now he's their superhero and they need more more more. How do you like it?

Trump is the perfect candidate for these twisted times. He is a former pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-tax businessman who is now pro-life, pro-Bible (his favorite book, he claims), pro-evangelical. He is the angry comments troll come to life. You're stupid. You're an idiot. No one should listen to you, you're a joke. You're ugly, too. I know what I'm talking about 'cause I'm the smartest man that ever lived. EVER.

I used to wonder what it would take to knock Trump from the race. That was around the time he demeaned John McCain's captivity in a prisoner of war camp. (Ah, innocence, to believe something like that could disqualify someone from the Oval Office.) Now I worry the unbelievable could happen and Trump could become the Republican Party's chosen candidate. Unlikely, sure, but still possible ... and this is the kind of thought that can set up a dangerous ricochet in the brain — if it happens the blood roar of anger could swamp the country and the Democrats would find a way to screw it up and We The People might just say "fuck it" and elect a megalomaniac to the White House, and from there ... 

Trump is scheduled to meet Monday with 100 black religious leaders "who will endorse" the candidate. That's according to a Trump news release. Many of the pastors say they don't know what Trump is talking about; they're going to the meeting but they have no intention of supporting his candidacy.

A lie like that would capsize any other candidate's campaign. With Trump it's really a minor transgression, given his history of insults and mendacities. He could probably strangle a kitten onstage and his followers would scratch their heads and murmur, "Well, people in Egypt worshipped cats and Egypt is full of Muslims, so."

It is that simple in Trumpland. Never underestimate the power of rage, especially on people who don't have the time, energy or effort to keep up with the news. They just know that Something is Wrong and no one has fixed it and by God, maybe that bigmouth can do it. He says he can and I've seen him on TV and he's rich. Good enough for me.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


Nothing weighs the most in the heart, which explains why empty hearts are so heavy. Happy people have hearts packed with hopes and dreams and plans, big plans, the best plans. Happy, airy things, so light they almost float.

In their absence the heart loses buoyancy. Full of nothing, it becomes a weight, and the blood it pumps is a dark sludge. Addicts often try to dilute the foul blood; a speed jolt or heroin wave (or a few deep belts from the bottle, or a pile of food) can mimic the happy feeling of a hopeful heart, at least for a little while.

Those days are dead ways for me now. I remind myself of the fact at the start of the strange season for me, the Thanksgiving-to-New Year's Day stretch of a year's journey. It has become tradition to work on Thanksgiving Day (the factory is largely shut down and there is turkey). I like to work the day because the last time I took it off I got dumped. But that was a long time ago, and over the course of the last four years I have come to love and not loathe this season.

It's not because of any person. It's because of every person in my life right now, and the realization that the only hope is hope — strong, enduring optimism, even when the heart is heavy. Especially when it's heavy.

Right now mine is kinda full and sorta light, so it's easy for me to have hope. But true to its numerical billing, 2015 has been an odd year. More bitter than sweet, for reasons both personal and professional. The Even Year could be more of the same.

But I don't think so. Part of it is playing the odds; after a year like this one a change is inevitable. What was bad will fall away. What was good will stay and grow. Or so I hope, and with that thought I feel myself growing lighter. For this I give thanks.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


Trigger warnings? You're not going to get them. Microaggressions? Yeah, I've got plenty of those. Zero tolerance? Precisely the amount of tolerance I have for the current atmosphere of poison masquerading as the best oxygen ever.

If we really lived in that Utopia of rich air we could all join hands and sing Lionel Richie and dance on the ceiling 'cause oh what a feeling. But we don't. So I won't. We live in a great big mess of a world and no amount of mind coddling will change that. If this fact offends you I am not sorry.

I am offended by a different truth: We are softer now for breathing the tainted air. Some people think it's better this way, being soft and everpleasant, but I think they're only doing it because they're smart and they know to keep their heads down. The air is a little fresher down there and it's better to go unnoticed anyway. It's the brash and the stupid who raise up and get their skulls shot off. Before the preceding sentence I guess I should have issued a trigger warning for people traumatized by the Zapruder film, but too late.

I should have a better filter, to keep me from acting out. I think it was shot off a long time ago, when being brash was a requirement for fiercely intelligent discourse. Provocative thoughts and questions were encouraged, and if the debate created uncomfortable moments — good. Being challenged was a good thing. It made you think.

It's easier to be provocative these days because people are easily offended and no one wants to be challenged. No one wants to think. Social media allows us the luxury of instant me-too outrage that we can share with our friends. Pretty soon everyone is pissed off at a hunter they don't know and mourning the death of a lion they never celebrated during its life. Or they're making sure all of their Facebook friends and Twitter followers know they stand for this cause, this person, that plight. Their profile pictures reflect their current fixations.

But dare question why they feel the way they do and the furies are unleashed. People are touchy, so touchy, and it's no use reasoning with them because that might cause them to think and that's not fun. Thinking is scary. It forces people to challenge themselves and others. It's better to click like and move on.

But that requires keeping your head down — figuratively, lest the furies attack, and literally because that's the only way to click like on your phone.

It requires a filter. A thick one with plenty of accordion folds to catch all the nervy things before they fly through my brain and out of my mouth. Otherwise I might find my left thumb and right index finger tapping on the glass, banging out a screed:

Fine, you're offended. By the breast or the councilman. By gay marriage or that county clerk. By the Republicans and/or the Democrats. By liberals or conservatives. By Hillary because you love Bernie. By Islam or Islamophobia. By immigrant haters or Hispanics. By Christians or atheists. By a flag, by a racist, by a joke, by a word. Got it. You. Are. Offended. Pardon me if I don't click like.

Share your status with my friends? Not just no, but hell no. Not unless it's something cool, like super slo-mo vid of cats.

Dat cat video: much cooler than someone's insistence that every cop is a racist pig. You've seen those posts, right? Cop pops caps and another one bites the dust. Because racism.

In the back of my head I think it could be fun to poke, to point out that there are plenty of good cops, that black Americans are disproportionally represented in jails and prisons, and that this doesn't necessarily mean the system is racist, but it's damn well worth talking about. It would be fun, right up to the point when the long guns come out and shoot me in the head for being a racist oppressor who clearly thinks bad things about black people.

It would be equally fun to point out to some friends that their affection for the word "hero" is sweetly stupid because the way they overuse it only dilutes the honorific. Not every cop/fireman/soldier/person in uniform is a hero. Some of them are scoundrels. But saying it only makes people think I'm a cop-hating lawbreaker who needs to be watched by the cops.

It would be enjoyable to leave a comment on a post that insists on rigid lockstep thinking when it comes to gay marriage. You know, something along the lines of okay, you think you're on the side of history and if someone disagrees with you they're bad, they're evil, they can only speak if they're properly muzzled. Please get over yourself. And stop shouting at the people who think you're wrong. They don't deserve your hate. Save your hate for Hitler.

But why bother? The time for caring has slipped past. I'm only interested in surviving this ridiculous era. It will take a cataclysm to end it — some sort of shock to the grid that destroys the 'net and forces us to look inward, and up. Once that happens we can get serious again about recognizing the humanity in other humans, and understanding that they're more than a Facebook profile.

Until then: too late. The virtual battle lines between the warring factions are dug-in, deep. We are not interested in talking with each other, only talking past each other.

We are on a sure slide into madness, where dissenting thoughts and words are seen as weapons in the hands of our enemies, the people who disagree. The swift penalty is death by digital dismemberment. Anything less won't quench the thirst of the outraged. It's mob rule. Welcome to the mob.

Saturday, September 12, 2015


Somewhere close lurked Cerberus — I couldn't see him but I felt his monster's breath on the base of my skull and I knew that if I turned around one of his heads would lunge and consign me to live here forever. This was the Third Circle of Hell, where the gluttons were sightless and facedown in the slush. But I saw:

"My other person who was supposed to work the counter was a no-call no-show," the guy in charge said. "The person working the grill, this is only his second night."

A balding round man in sweatpants cried out:

"Do you have anything like the box deal, only with two chalupas? And a chipotle?"

"A daredevil?"

"Chipotle." He recited the word like it contained a mystery.

"That was a limited-time deal."

Twelve other damned souls waited their turns. 

"Two gorditas, a bag of chips and a drink for $3.69," the round man wailed in the icy rain. "They used to advertise it for $2.99, but he said that promotion is over. So I just got the chipotle."

The daredevil box?

"The chipotle," he stressed. "They had a chalupa, but ... " His disappointment was palpable.

A thin man spoke:

"Can I talk with someone who knows what they're doing? We asked for this without cheese but with guacamole and potatoes. This is all wrong." A listless woman stood next to him but looked at the floor.

The wait for a taco spun out. From the hottest place in this Circle, someone moaned of 500 things on the menu.

A man wearing a skull t-shirt sat down and untied his cloth backpack. He pulled out a deck of cards and started shuffling.

Thursday, September 03, 2015


The Facebook message wasted no words: "Are you the same Ron Davis that hung up on Bob Barker many years ago?"

The same Ron Davis, yes — but now I am in autumn and I am frustrated because there is still so much to do and know. I have lived many years and done many things, but not nearly enough things to slake my immense thirst for living.

Living is a fine thing, a boisterous thing, and in my time I have enjoyed more living than most men. I have embraced danger with bonhomie, frolicked with it in the witching hour. The memories of my raucous times remain vivid because they do not exist only in my past. I continue to splash the canvas of life with bold colors and strong strokes of my brush, and the very few people who know me can attest to my swagger.

If these sound like boasts, it is because they are. I do not apologize.

Even in my autumn there is fire, and desire, and a willingness to romp to the edge of the cliff. There is no joy in being cautious, in mincing steps and tentative half-measures. Those things disgust me. They are for the weak of spirit.

I know this because I have known weakness myself — I have lived in those empty rooms and felt myself falter, and there have been times when I believed a headlong sprint into oblivion was preferable to staying in this world. I am not ashamed to admit it. My only shame was in believing such an outrageous lie.

There is much time before my winter sets in. My interesting life is far from complete. I still have mountains to conquer and scores to settle. I will get what I want.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015


The boat was red and it was fast, very fast. I didn't see a motor but I heard it roar as we zipped across the water, so smooth and black that it looked like we were gliding on onyx.

Neither one of us was steering the boat but it kept a true course, straight down the throat of the channel and into the broad mouth of the lake.

My hair wasn't tied back. Neither was her mane. It felt good to be unrestrained. It felt good to be free and on fire under the summer sun.

I was laughing. That was impossible because I don't laugh. As someone at work said, I don't even smile. I am untouchable and even those who've known me longest and best don't really know me at all.

But here in this red boat I wore a broad smile and it felt real. I could hear the two of us laughing at the absurdities of life and the miseries it had brought to our separate doorsteps. All of those things, far away from this boat, this lake, this moment.

"Can this be?" I asked.

"It can be, if you let it," came the reply from the voice in the water.

Ahead, the lake seemed to go on forever. I could see no distant shore — just black water in all directions, and a sun in a cloudless sky, lighting the way forward.

Saturday, June 20, 2015


Almost no one writes longhand letters anymore. That includes me — partly because my handwriting has always been an atrocious scrawl, made worse by the stroke, but mostly because of the requirements. I'm sure there is writing paper somewhere in this apartment, and if I search long enough I'll be able to track down a pen. But my phone is right here and it's easier to type and send. No ink smears on the page from this lefty. No stamp required.

But I miss the retro allure of a handwritten letter — especially when the words are expressing love and devotion. No matter how perfect the flowers, a bouquet withers. A love letter lingers. You can trace your fingers along the grooves of the words, imagine the emotions the writer felt as he pressed pen against paper.

I haven't written or received a love letter in years. The last ones I had I returned to the author, in a vain attempt to keep the relationship going. "If I can't convince you that this matters," I said, holding out the (very small) stack to her, "then maybe you can convince yourself." After she moved out I found them in the trash, alongside the letters I had written her. For a moment I thought about retrieving them and putting them in a safe place, bundled and tied with a ribbon. But there weren't that many to begin with, and the pages were already stained with the drippings from some half-eaten meal.

That never happens with emails.

They may not be as romantic, but there are advantages to digital love letters. No clumsy penmanship. They don't take up closet space. If the romance fades and the letters are tossed, they won't burden the trash man or clog the landfill. Best of all, the sender never even knows they've been trashed. In cyberspace, no one can hear a deleted email scream.

I know a guy who sends daily love letters to his beloved. One a day, at least, and sometimes more when he's inspired. He has been doing this for months now; he says being able to write to her is the highlight of his day. I leave it to you to decide if he's a hopeless romantic or a supreme goob.

They're emails but he says it doesn't matter — it's the devotion that counts. He says she has kept the letters, now numbering close to 200, and he doesn't plan to stop until he drops. Given his age and their relationship, I won't be surprised if he manages at least 10,000 more.

For their sake I hope she one day prints them out and puts them in a bundle, and ties the stack neatly with a ribbon. Twenty, 30, 50 years from now their children will stumble across those letters in the attic. They will undo the bow and start to read. They won't be able to trace the handwritten ridges on the paper. But maybe they will feel the emotions, the grooves left on the hearts of the writer and the reader. They will never think of their parents in the same way again.

Friday, June 19, 2015


The party was underway in the lobby of the hospital, and everywhere I looked there was purple — in the streamers hanging from the ceiling, in the balloons emblazoned with congratulations, in the flowers filling the vases.

She was almost eight pounds when she was born. Full head of hair. Healthy lungs, too. I've never heard such volume from such a little being.

The handshakes and backslaps were genuine. The cigars were Cuban, and fresh. Everyone was there and the few tears that were shed were ones of happiness.

She was wearing a purple dress, and a bow was in her hair. It was purple and white. It was over her right ear.

Her aunt was holding her, wearing a matching dress, right down to the bow.

Her name was Everly.

She opened her eyes and I heard myself gasp. They were big, they were hazel, and they danced with the light of a thousand constellations. They were the eyes of her mother, and she smiled when she heard my reaction. The smile was mysterious.

"Look, Ron Davis," she said, touching her daughter's cheek. "Now I have another goob in my life."

When I woke up I still saw the constellations, long after the sun had risen to burn away the dream.

Sunday, April 12, 2015


I eyeball the top of the closet door — about 80 inches. Tall enough.

The sash of my robe is blue flannel cotton. Strong enough.

I know how to make a bowline. Or maybe a double figure-of-eight loop would be sturdier. Sturdy enough, at least.

The knot should be in back for a short drop suspension. And the noose must be just under the jawline so it constricts the arteries. Anything lower on the neck and the airway gets blocked and that's when there's a lot of thrashing about. The body doesn't like it when it can't get air. It fights to stay alive.

They say you should put a towel between the noose and the neck to make sure it doesn't cut into the skin, but that seems a bit frivolous. I mean, if the only worry is leaving behind an unmarked corpse, carbon monoxide would be the way to go.

Or pills. Pills don't leave a mark. The only problem with pills is ... well, there are a couple problems. The wrong dose can leave you permanently fucked-up but alive. Not cool. And besides, pills are supposed to be about fun and frolic. It would be a shame to waste a palmful of painkillers or sedatives on something so stupid as suicide.

A stupid shame, yes ... but stupid ideas can make a lot of sense at 4 in the morning, when the rest of the world is dead and your soul feels the same way. At 4 a.m. there is no shame in holding the bathrobe sash and looking at the closet door and thinking yeah, this would work.

Because it all seems futile in the middle of the night — "it" being the push forward to another day, another challenge, another experience that usually ends in disappointment. The ocean of life is teeming with it.

And I am tired. So tired of the endless cycle of waking up, surviving, then collapsing. As the rest of the world sleeps there is an almost-irresistible urge to stop swimming against the current. To just be still. To rest. No one would notice. The ocean is huge and I am exhausted. I don't think I can swim another stroke.

Monty the cat pounces onto my chest. He is named after the Count of Monte Cristo, and as I put down the sash to pet him I hear the words of Edmond Dantès:

"Only a man who has felt ultimate despair is capable of feeling ultimate bliss. It is necessary to have wished for death in order to know how good it is to live ... the sum of all human wisdom will be contained in these two words: Wait and Hope.”

Monty stares at me with his kaleidoscope eyes. In them I see a thousand galaxies, all of them flecked with gold.

Sunday, March 29, 2015


Now we are naked, all of us, bare-assed but not embarrassed in the least. We are in the Place of No Walls, where everyone can see, everyone can move, everyone can be free.

Walls are meant to fall, after all.

The Bible says Joshua and seven priests marched seven times around Jericho on the seventh day of a siege, and when those priests put lips to their ram horns and blew the walls of the city came crumbling down.

Reagan challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall because the Gipper said the wall could not hold back faith, or truth, or freedom. Flash forward a couple years to 1989 and people were taking sledgehammers to the crude barrier, and didn't it feel good to watch the power of the people at work? No rulers, no government could defy the unified masses calling for freedom.

The Style Council sang about making walls tumble until "Governments crack and systems fall / 'Cause unity is powerful."

Powerful, and good — so much velvety goodness, like the smooth cheese product clinging to steaming Kraft macaroni, and nevermind the fact the orange goo was powder before getting it on with butter and milk — it's delicious goo now and all that counts is what's on the plate.

Bringing up the powder only ruins the beautiful illusion. It's like talking about the Israelites slaughtering every man, woman and child in Jericho; like pointing out that Reagan's speech had zero impact on Gorbachev's plans for the Berlin Wall; like observing that The Style Council is far from Paul Weller's best work, and frankly sucks balls when compared to The Jam.

No one wants to hear that negative creep. We're supposed to be grateful that the entirety of modern civilization's knowledge can be accessed from a magical black mirror that also makes phone calls. Having that knowledge knocks down all the walls of ignorance, in theory.

We're supposed to be glad that everyone's opinion is seen and heard, because that's freedom, in theory.

We're supposed to be happy that we now live in a world without walls because that means no shelter for the savages. In theory.

But we are the savages, naked and noisy. We use high tech to peddle low talk. We provoke the masses, then issue smug tutting noises when the masses post outrageous comments. Those who disagree with us are idiots.

We hurl opinions like apes fling shit. At least the chimps seem to have some purpose; we mostly preen for attention, especially when we have nothing important to say. Meaning has no meaning anymore. It's all about clicks and eyeballs. Viral trumps vital.

Now we are engaged in a great uncivil war. But there is no Lincoln to save us this time around. We are shackled — to our phones, our righteousness, our inflated sense of self-worth — and we seem to like it.

Too late to stand clear. The walls have come tumbling down. Never mind the rubble on top of us. Crawl on over and let me put my arms around you so I can feel your breath in my ear. We can even take a selfie.

Friday, February 27, 2015


"History is a wheel, for the nature of man is fundamentally unchanging."
— George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

Generations not yet born will look back on February 2015 as a month of madness. Nearly two dozen people dead across the Ozarks — many the victims of murder-suicides, almost all of them shot — and the first gut reaction is to wonder what has happened to this normally quiet area, “a place to raise a family, not a fuss,” as some locals like to say.

But none of this is new.

The fall of 1987: that’s what came to mind on Friday when the news from Texas County broke.

In September 1987 a man named Howard Franklin Stewart shot and killed three people near Conway, in Laclede County. His parents lived here and he was hitchhiking. He wound up in Corsicana, Texas, where he killed three more people, including his wife, before killing himself.

Less than a month later, the Stewart spree was eclipsed by a crime that became known for two names: Schnick-Buckner.

Kirk Buckner was 14 when police say he went on a rampage and killed six members of his family, including his parents, his three brothers and an aunt. It happened in Elkland, in rural Webster County. The teen was shot dead by his uncle, James Schnick, and for the next several days every story from Elkland was about the teen who snapped and wiped out his family.

The Buckners were poor farmers. Investigators thought the hard times broke Kirk. His best friend in school remembered the teen being strangely quiet the day before the killings.

The funeral service was agonizing — seven coffins in a row, bearing mute witness to the violence. The funeral home ran out of hearses so it had to use GMC Suburbans to transport some of the bodies to the cemetery. The youngest victim was 2; a grim-faced man carried his tiny casket to the grave site.

And then James Schnick confessed after being confronted with a simple, damning fact: Kirk Buckner had the gun in his right hand, but he was left-handed. Kirk Buckner was buried a killer but was actually a hero; he had tried to stop the rampage. Schnick was the murderer; he killed seven people and almost succeeded in framing his nephew for the crimes.

Fourteen bodies in a month. Reporters covering the mayhem were sent to counselors by their newsrooms. Everyone agreed that we would never see a similar eruption of violence — not in our lifetimes, at least. There was comfort in that agreement.

But history is a wheel. What has happened before will happen again. This is the time of again.​

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


They were murderers, sure. So I guess I could have lorded that over them and felt superior, but I never did. And not because I thought they'd kill me if I did. They were better than that.

All told there were about 40 of them, and they had managed to wipe about twice as many people off the face of the earth. They used guns and knives, poison and rope. Lift cords cut from venetian blinds. I've known a few people who went with the lift cord. It's hard to look at one and not think of murder.

A few of them had gone 'round the bend during their killings; the act had broken them and the system swept up the shards so no one else would get hurt. But that was really rare.

Almost all of them were normal. Probably more normal than you, no offense. They didn't have fangs (though one dude did have hair on the backs of his fingers near his nails). They didn't fix me with the evil eye or try to stare me down. If I had met them in ordinary circumstances — outside a courtroom or jail — we probably would have been able to hang. They were cool like that.

But you know that edge, the border between Here and the No-Go Zone? We know to stay away from that line. They stormed the border and commenced to romping. They just couldn't stop themselves from killing.

It's where many of them saw the same thing — the Red Veil. As they recounted what they did — as they got closer and closer to the deed — they remembered how the air turned hazy and red, the final moments getting more heated, voices and hands raised in anger, in rage, the color deepening, the veil descending, and then ... nothing.

A few seconds, a few minutes, a few hours later they would emerge from behind the veil and find someone dead. They knew what they had done. They just didn't have a vivid memory of doing it.

None of them made that excuse in court — the ones who saw the veil accepted their guilt and went off to prison to die, either by the needle or old age. They were lucky for the mist. It probably kept them from going insane.

The ones who snapped, they never got the curtain. They saw everything and felt in burn all the way into their centers and they became haunted.

Only a select few of my friends were neither haunted nor protected. Their eyes were calm. Sometimes at night they visit my dreams, and they do not blink.