The Upstairs Neighbor

March 31, 2020

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The night her mother died, it rained, and Caroline giggled when the warm, wet drops squeezed through the cracks in the ceiling and landed on her nose. She remembered the smell of ozone and damp cedar. She remembered the sound of leather suitcases dragging across the hardwood floor, and her mother emptying entire drawers of her clothes into them without folding. She remembered her mother saying in her Southern warm-honey drawl that they had to hurry.

 

Then her father came home, and the rain stopped.

 

The police said her mom’s death was an accident, but Caroline knew better. She didn’t fall down those stairs on her own. But no one believed a little girl who was born with no eyes. They thought she was simple. They thought she had an over-active imagination. They were right.

 

After the funeral, her father sold their house and everything in it. An estate sale. He said he wanted to start over, but that was a lie. He was haunted by what he’d done. He was running from her mother’s ghost.

 

They were halfway across the country before he felt safe again. He promised Caroline he was going to be better from then on. He would get sober and find a job. He would be a good father.

 

At first, he kept that promise. They moved into a new apartment in the city, and he purchased new furniture. He bought Caroline nice clothes and a little record player with a top that opened like a mouth. She fed it Loretta Lynn albums all day long. He started attending AA meetings. He didn’t shout at her. He didn’t hit her. He read her bedtime stories. He called her “my little angel.”

 

She knew it wouldn’t last.

 

The day he started drinking again, someone moved into the apartment above them. Caroline heard them dragging their leather suitcases across the hardwood floor. She smelled the ozone and damp cedar.

 

From then on, there was no peace. The upstairs neighbor was loud and never slept. They danced and they jumped and they laughed. Her father scowled at the ceiling and drank more. He started going out late at night. He lost his job and stopped attending meetings. He screamed at the upstairs neighbor and pounded on the ceiling with a broom. Caroline stayed in her room and played her records.

 

One night, the sky opened up and it rained so hard her father couldn’t go out. He sat on the couch staring at the ceiling while he slowly emptied a bottle of Wild Turkey. The upstairs neighbor laughed and laughed. Caroline played her records.

 

Finally, he jumped off the couch and broke the lock on Caroline’s door. He picked up her record player and smashed it against the wall. She could smell his whiskey breath and his sweat. Lightning flashed outside, and the upstairs neighbor began pounding on the ceiling so hard pieces of plaster fell off.

 

That was when her father lost his temper. He stormed out of the apartment, and Caroline heard his boots ring on the steps as he stomped upstairs. She heard him pound on the door above. She heard him scream at the occupant to show themselves. She heard the door upstairs open and her father shriek. After that, there was a single loud crunch and the sound of something new being dragged across the floor.

 

Then the rain stopped, and everything was quiet.

 

Caroline giggled when the warm, wet drops squeezed through the cracks in the ceiling and landed on her nose.

The Hands

March 28, 2020

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The night before her fifteen birthday, Amy Seagreen dreamt of trees, tall trees, beautiful trees, roots buried in fertile soil and branches reaching toward the sun. When she woke up, her hair was gone and there were hands growing out of her head. Six of them to be exact. Each one perfect. Six perfect wrists. Twenty-four perfect fingers, six perfect thumbs. Thirty perfect fingernails. The hands were not like Amy’s old hands. Two had black skin, one had brown, another was pale with red freckles, and each one had its own unique set of fingerprints. Amy marveled at them in the mirror, reaching up and touching each one, feeling the sensation in both her old fingertips and new.

 

When she went downstairs for breakfast, her mother groaned.

 

Oh, Amy. What have you done to yourself?”

 

Her mother was always saying things like that, as though Amy had nothing better to do than think of ways to annoy her. Every decision she made was a tragedy designed to destroy her mother’s life.

 

“I didn’t do anything,” said Amy. “I woke up like this. It’s not my fault.”

 

“That’s the problem with your whole generation,” her mother said, waving her spatula at Amy like a scepter. “You don’t take responsibility for anything. Global warming, college loans–I suppose you’re going to blame this on me too.”

 

“I’m not blaming anyone. It just happened. What do you want me to do? Stick my head under a lawnmower and chop them off?”

 

“Don’t be so dramatic,” she said dramatically. “Why should you pay attention to your mother? It’s only your entire future I’m concerned about. What will people say when they see you like that?”

 

“That my mother is an open-minded person who loves her daughter despite her physical appearance?”

 

“That you’re a freak! That’s what they’ll say. And who will they blame? Not you. No, of course not. You’re just an innocent child. Your mother, that’s who they’ll blame. The woman who gave you life. The woman who raised you. Are you taking drugs?”

 

“Mom!”

 

“Don’t ‘Mom’ me. I remember when you came home from that party last year with red eyes. You didn’t stop giggling for a week.”

 

“Yeah, Mom, smoking weed one time at a party causes hands to grow out of your head.”

 

“Don’t you back-sass me, young lady. Steve!”

 

Amy’s father was sitting at the table two feet away.

 

Steve! Do you see what your daughter looks like? Don’t you have anything to say?”

 

Her father cleared his throat and lowered the sports section of the newspaper. He raised an eyebrow when he saw the hands but then shrugged.

 

“A teenage girl’s body goes through changes,” he said. “You know, hormones. It’s just a phase. She’ll grow out of it. Do they hurt?”

 

Amy shook her head. Her dad shrugged and went back to his newspaper.

 

“Well, I think it’s disgusting,” her mother continued. “I just don’t understand why you can’t do normal things. All you kids these days, you’re all trying to become Youtube stars. ‘Look at me, I’ve got a ring through my nose!’ ‘Look at me, I have multi-racial hands growing out of my head!'”

 

Amy rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I wasn’t getting enough attention, so I decided to grow half a dozen appendages from my cranium.”

 

“Well, you can’t go to school like that,” her mother said, placing a plate of waffles in the middle of the table. “We’ll have to figure something out. Maybe I can make you a scarf or something.”

 

Amy grabbed two of the warm waffles and headed for the door.

 

“Sorry, no more sick days. Have to go to school. Great idea on the scarf. I like black.”

 

She slammed the front door.

 

Her mother’s muffled voice followed her outside. “At least wear a hat!”

* * *

Walden Academy was one of those artsy charter schools where they didn’t believe in homework and students called teachers by their first names. Amy liked it there, but she didn’t quite fit in. It wasn’t that the other students were mean to her exactly–they just didn’t seem to know she existed. At her old school, she’d worn black clothes and played drums in an all-girl punk band, and everyone thought she was a freak. She had an identity. At Walden, black was not freaky, it was boring, or worse (the greatest insult of all) unimaginative, and you couldn’t swing a leather jacket without hitting a punk band. Amy didn’t stand out.

 

But that all changed when she walked into class on her fifteenth birthday with six hands growing out of her bald head. The students crowded around her, asking questions, touching her scalp, shaking the hands, giving them high-fives.

 

Walden was the type of institution that prided itself on cultural sensitivity, and the teacher–a nervous young man who taught indigenous history and watercolors–didn’t want to offend anyone or risk being uncool. Therefore, when he saw Amy, he crossed his arms nonchalantly and simply said, “Amy, is there anything I can do to accommodate your…um… Do you need anything?”

 

Amy shrugged. “I guess I could use some more paintbrushes.”

 

And that was that. He gave Amy six extra brushes and they proceeded with the lesson:  South American colonialism in pastels.

 

By lunch, everyone had heard about Amy, and she was the center of attention in the cafeteria. She was like the sun and the other students orbited around her gravitational pull. She was so busy answering questions that she didn’t get a chance to finish her vegan sloppy joe. Everyone wanted to meet her and touch her. Boys she had been fantasizing about for years looked directly into her eyes for the first time and said her name. It was the best day of her life.

 

That weekend, despite the constant calls and texts, Amy chose to stay in and learn about her new appendages. They were curious hands, and they learned quickly. If Amy waved at herself in the mirror, the hands would wave back. If she gave herself the middle finger, there were eight ‘fuck yous’ staring back at her.

 

She discovered quickly that the hands were all very unique. For instance, the hand directly above her forehead was quick, nimble, and extremely athletic. It could catch any ball thrown in its vicinity and fling it back with a force that surprised Amy every time. The hand to the far right above her ear was artistic, and once Amy showed it how to use the materials, it drew a sketch of a dragon that took her breath away. The hands directly to the left of that one were musically inclined and those in the back had an affinity for sculpture. It was like discovering superpowers.

 

That afternoon, the band Amy was in, Just Die Already, had a weekly gig at a coffee shop where the lead singer worked. She’d explained the hands to her bandmates and said she thought they should cancel, but they’d told her to stop being such a loser and show up. So that’s what she did. Normally the audiences at these performances included whatever boyfriend the lead singer was dating at the time and a few homeless guys who had nothing better to do, but when Amy arrived with her drum kit, the shop was packed. It was standing room only all the way out the door.

 

“Did you do this?” asked the bass player when she saw Amy.

 

Amy shrugged. “I guess.”

 

“Who the hell cares?” said the lead singer. “This is the biggest crowd we’ve ever had. Get set up.”

 

So they played their entire catalog, which took about eighteen minutes, and then they did some Sleater-Kinney covers and finished off with Patti Smith. On the final song, Amy gave the drumsticks to her musical hands, and they pounded out an epic solo. The crowd went nuts.

* * *

The rest of the school year went by in a blur. One of Amy’s new hands painted a picture that won a state-wide competition, and her other hands created a sculpture that literally made her teacher cry because it was so beautiful. Just Die Already started booking mid-sized venues around town and developed an online cult following overnight.

 

Her mother was mortified by all the attention and made Amy promise not to talk to the media or go online. Of course, fans posted videos of the band, and despite Walden’s strict no-phones-in-school policy, several students uploaded photos of her on Instagram, but most people thought it was special effects. When Amy didn’t respond to questions, the internet lost interest.

 

Her dating life didn’t really improve. She received attention from a lot of cute boys, but mostly they were interested in the hands. They wanted to play catch or arm wrestle. When she did go out and things started getting heavy, at some point the hands would get excited and pull the boy’s hair or stick a finger in his nose, and that was a real mood killer. And the constant hand-job jokes were getting super annoying.

 

It had been an exciting year, but she was relieved when summer vacation came around. She spent the whole first week locked in her room, sleeping and reading and watching online videos. The hands were antsy and tried to get her to play, but she ignored them. To be honest, she was starting to get a little sick of them. They’d been fun at first, but now that the newness had worn off, they were starting to feel like competitive siblings who were always trying to outshine her. Sure, she’d never been the best artist or musician, but those talents had been her own. Now nothing she did seemed good enough unless it was accomplished by one of the new hands.

 

The more time she spent by herself, the more resentful she became. She hated to admit it, but her mom was right. How was she going to have a normal life? Everywhere she went, people would stare at her. Strangers would stop to take her picture without asking. Little kids would point and laugh, or even worse, start crying. That had happened with Tommy Evans, the boy she used to babysit down the street. He took one look at her and began bawling. According to his parents, he still had nightmares. She hadn’t even lost her virginity yet, and now she probably never would. Was it worth it?

 

After a week in isolation, Amy finally came downstairs in her pajamas and told her parents she wanted to have the hands removed. “I’m sick of them,” she said. “The sooner the better.”

 

Of course, her mother was overjoyed. “I knew you would come around. I just knew it. You’re a nice, normal girl, and you should have a nice, normal life. Didn’t I tell you, Steve. I told you she’d come around.”

 

Her father looked up from the sports page.

 

“Whatever you want, peaches,” he said.

 

They made an appointment with a specialist. She was a short, plump woman with long white hair and a birthmark in the shape of a moth that covered the entire right side of her face. When the doctor saw Amy for the first time, her eyes lit up. She asked Amy to sit down, and she did a thorough examination. She took every hands’ pulse and tested their blood pressure. She gently poked them with a tongue dispenser and laughed when they took it away from her. She taught the hands paddy-cake and allowed them to touch her hair.

 

When it was over, she sat in front of Amy and became very serious.

 

“I can remove the hands,” she said.

 

“Wonderful!” Amy’s mother exclaimed. “When can we do it? The sooner the better.”

 

The doctor asked her mother to leave the room, and then she sat down again.

 

“I can remove the hands without hurting you, but they will be gone forever. I won’t be able to put them back.”

 

“I don’t want them anymore,” said Amy. “They’re ruining my life.”

 

The doctor nodded. “I can see how they could get annoying. But they’re also very unique. I have never seen anything like this in my entire life, and believe me, I’ve seen a lot. I can’t tell you what to do, but I will say that I think these hands are part of you. People look at them differently because they’re unusual, but they’re still yours.”

 

“Then why can they do things my old hands can’t?”

 

“Maybe they’re connected to a different part of the brain. Maybe they have never been told they can’t do something, so they just go ahead and do it. I really don’t know, Amy. All I know is that if I remove them, they will be gone forever.”

 

“Then do it,” Amy said. “Because I just want things to be normal again.”

 

So the doctor set an appointment and a week later she removed all six hands from Amy’s head. There were no complications with the surgery, and after a few days in the hospital, Amy was allowed to go home.

 

Her head was wrapped in white gauze, and her mother changed the bandages every day. The doctor was very good at her job, and there was minimal scarring. When she went in for follow-up appointments, the doctor said there was no indication that the hands would grow back. The surgery was a success.

 

Amy’s hair did start growing back, however. It came in thick and chestnut brown, and it covered up the scarring. In a month, the stubble had become a soft, downy layer, and by the end of summer, she was able to style it into a pixie cut that looked surprisingly good.

 

Her head was lighter and she liked that. There was definitely a burden that had been lifted from her. Her life was her own again. But there was something else gone she couldn’t quite put her finger on. When she picked up a paintbrush, her hand felt sluggish and uninspired. She no longer wanted to draw or make sculptures. It was as though the sun had gone behind a cloud and now the entire world was a little less colorful than it had been before, a little more drab. She knew this feeling would fade over time, and it did. Eventually, she lost the memory of the more colorful world, and her gray existence became normal once again.

 

The kids at school were disappointed, and her bandmates immediately kicked her out. That was fine with Amy. She had decided she was done being a punk. In fact, she was done with Walden altogether, and soon enrolled in a nearby public school where teachers assigned homework and made you call them Mr. and Mrs. Some of the students at her new school had heard about her, but they figured it was probably a myth, and when they saw her normal head and her normal hair, they dismissed the rumors. She was the new girl, and she received enough attention from that.

 

Amy finished high school with good marks and enrolled at a nearby state college. By now, no one even remembered the girl with the hands growing out of her head, and Amy was completely anonymous. She majored in English, particularly enjoying the poems of e.e. cummings and William Carlos Williams. In her junior year, she met a business major, and they married six months after graduation. They found jobs and bought a nice house in the suburbs. Amy became pregnant one year after their wedding and gave birth to a beautiful daughter with the same chestnut-brown hair and worried blue eyes. Her daughter grew up healthy and loved, and on the morning of her fifteenth birthday, Amy crept into her room and sat on the side of her bed. She reached out and stroked her daughter’s hair until she woke up.

 

“Mom, what time is it?” her daughter said, stretching her arms.

 

“It’s early. Happy birthday, sweetheart.”

 

Her daughter gave her a dopey half-awake smile. “Do we have cake?”

 

“Yes, we have cake.”

 

“And will there be presents?”

 

“Yes, there will be presents.”

Her daughter rubbed her eyes and sat up. “Are you okay? You’re acting weird.”

 

“I’m fine, honey. I just can’t believe it’s been fifteen years. How do you feel? Is anything different? It’s okay if something has changed. You can tell me. I’ll always love you.”

 

“No, I feel completely normal. Everything is the same. Mom, why are you crying? Mom, everything is normal. Don’t cry.”

Signed Bukowski

September 29, 2019

p1010007I have decided to start posting some of the cool books we get at my work. I’m not doing it for promotional reasons. I don’t care if you buy these items or shop at the store where I work. It’s just a book-nerd thing.

This is the only signed Charles Bukowski book I have ever seen. It’s a collection of his letters, and it was published toward the end of his career, after he had received a bit of international attention. Black Sparrow tried to cash in his fame by issuing a limited edition signed copy of his crazy, drunken correspondence with various editors, writers, friends, etc.

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The Bear

June 27, 2017

It was 6:30 in the morning, and the bear was in the kitchen eating Jello out of the fridge. It was red Jello with chunks of pineapple in it. Ray hated red Jello with chunks of pineapple in it, but it was the last thing Sharon made before she left and he had been saving it.

He pointed his gun at the bear and said, “Get out of my house.”

The bear stood up on his hind legs and put his paws in the air. He was a black bear with a long snout and round ears that stuck out from the top of his head like a couple of satellite dishes, giving him a comically confused expression. There was a piece of pineapple on the end of his nose.

“Good morning,” said the bear.  “I didn’t know you were awake.”

“Well, I am,” said Ray. “And I want you out of my house.”

“Of course,” said the bear. His claws clicked awkwardly on the linoleum. He was small by bear standards, but he was still a large animal. Ray cocked the gun. The bear took a step backward. “Okay, okay, let’s not get carried away,” said the bear.

Ray snorted. “You break into my house and eat my food, and I’m the one getting carried away? I don’t think so. A man’s got a right to protect his family.”

The bear cocked his head. “But you don’t even like Jello with pineapple in it.”

“That’s not the point!”

“Then what is the point?”

“The point,” Ray sputtered, “is that you’re trespassing. This is my home. Do you understand that? My property. I own it and I have a right to privacy.”

The bear’s long tongue whipped out of his mouth and snatched the piece of pineapple off his nose. The bear chewed thoughtfully. “Well, to be fair, the bank owns the house. Isn’t that right, Ray? How far behind are you on the mortgage payments? Four months? Five?”

Ray clenched his jaw. “How did you know that?”

The bear looked down at his feet. “To be honest, I go through your trash. Just for table scraps, of course, but sometimes there’s mail in there and I can’t help myself. I like to read while I eat.”

“Jesus,” Ray said. “Is nothing sacred? Yeah, we’re a little behind. So what? This is still my property. I have every right to defend it. I could shoot you right now and no one would blame me. Hell, they’d probably give me a reward for stopping the killer bear.”

The bear rolled his eyes. “Killer bear? Please. At best, I’m the trespassing bear, which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. I’ll admit I’ve overstepped here, but your reaction is a little extreme. You know this is why Sharon left you, right? Your anger issues. All this toxic masculinity. It makes you difficult to live with.”

Ray’s face turned red. “Toxic what?”

“Masculinity. It’s a result of the pressure put on men by society to adhere to various masculine stereotypes, like violence and risk-taking. You’re a classic example, Ray.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

The bear chuckled. “You’re right. I’m off topic. Listen, all I’m saying is that you should learn to relax a little bit. Don’t try to solve everyone’s problems. Maybe see a therapist.”

“Right,” Ray mumbled. “Relax. Calm down. Be the cool guy who does yoga and eats kale. Maybe I’ll grow a ponytail. Meanwhile, I got some twenty-year-old kid riding my ass at work because I don’t know how to use the new computer system, I’m dipping into our 401(K) to pay the bills, my wife moved out, and a bear just ate the last thing she made for me!”

Ray began to cry. He tried to fight it, but that only made things worse. The sobs came in short bursts, accompanied by flying saliva and snot.

“Oh, man,” said the bear. “Oh, shit. I’m such a dick. I should have realized you wanted to save it. Ray, I’m sorry. I’m always doing stuff like that. Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

Ray sniffed and wiped his face with his sleeve. “Nah, don’t worry about it. I mean, you’re right. I hate  Jello with pineapple in it. I really do. The flavors don’t blend well together, and the pineapple leaves little pulpy bits in your teeth. She knows I hate that stuff. It was like her final ‘fuck you’ before she left. So in a way it’s probably good it’s gone.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t make it right.” The bear lumbered over to Ray and put his arms around him. “Come here, big guy.” Ray buried his face in the bear’s chest. It was warm and soft, and he could hear the enormous heart beating deep inside his rib cage. The bear smelled like dirt and pine. Ray wanted to stay there forever.

Finally, the bear let go. “I have an idea,” he said. “Why don’t you come live with me for a while?”

Ray laughed. “Shut up.”

“No, I’m serious. You have a ton of camping gear in the garage. It’s spring, which is like…oh, man, you should see the woods in the spring, Ray. It’s awesome out there. It’s all just foraging and swimming in the river and catching salmon. You’d love it!”

Ray looked out the patio door. The property was in a suburb next to the mountains. There was the back deck, a covered swimming pool, a hundred yards of cleared land, and then the woods. It went on for miles, dark and damp and silent.

“Are you messing with me right now?” said Ray. “Because you know I’m in a fragile state.”

“You know I wouldn’t do that to you. This will change your life. I promise.”

“Isn’t it dangerous out there?”

“Not if your best friend is a bear, stupid. Come on. What have you got to lose?”

Ray slowly turned around, taking in the whole house. There was the kitchen island with the keys to his Subaru on it. There was the stainless steel sink with the dirty cereal bowl that had precipitated his last fight with Sharon. There was the chicken-themed potholders and decorative towels. There was the IKEA furniture and the Rothko print hanging on the wall. God, how he hated that painting.

“You know what? Let’s do it. I’ll go get my tent.”

“Yes! That’s what I’m talking about. Get some beef jerky, too.”

Ray started for the garage, but the bear stopped him. He nodded toward the gun in Ray’s hand.

“You know we can’t take that with us, right?”

Ray looked down at the gun. He suddenly realized how tight he had been gripping it. The muscles in his arm were strained, and his tendons felt like they would snap. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to put it down.

“But what if we get in trouble?” Ray said.

The bear put his paw on Ray’s shoulder. “That’s always a possibility. We’ll have to take our chances.”

Ray nodded and put the gun in the sink next to the dirty cereal bowl.

Jesus Camp

May 21, 2017

When I was a kid, every summer my parents would drive four hours to Estes Park and drop me off in the middle of the mountains with a bunch of strangers.

During the day Camp Como was like most youth camps. We swam in dirty lakes, ate charred marshmallows that had been roasted over open fires, and rode tired swaybacked horses around in circles. At night, however, we gathered together in the central cabin to sing praise songs and listen to sermons. It was a summer camp for Christian fundamentalists, but for the most part it was pretty tame. We didn’t burn  witches or nail anyone to a cross.

The camp counselors were twentysomething-year-olds in bible college. They had long hair and tattoos on their muscular shoulders that said “Got Jesus?” or “John 3:16.” Several were in a band that did Jesus-themed covers of romantic pop songs. The Bryan Adams hit “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” was a popular one, as well as Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” For the most part they were just excited young adults who enjoyed working with teenagers.

However, there was one counselor who was a bit more intense. His name was Gary and you could tell he was serious because he had a mustache. Gary was a marathon runner, and every day he awoke at 5 a.m. to run ten miles and puke. He never smiled and he did not often speak. Mostly he stood in the background with his muscular arms folded in a manner that made his biceps bulge. There were several rumors about Gary. One was that he was a Vietnam vet. The fact that the year was 1988, and Gary was like twenty three made this impossible, but his demeanor suggested he was suffering from PTSD of some kind. It was also suggested that Gary grew up in one of those liberal homes where the mother smoked dope all day and the father participated in various Satanic rituals. There was no evidence of this; it was just something we read in his mustache.

One night it was Gary’s turn to give the sermon. Gary clomped up on stage in a sleeveless t-shirt and combat boots. He stood up there for a full two minutes without speaking. We shifted uncomfortably in our seats.  Finally, Gary said, “Who wants to be in the Army of God?”

We all looked at each other.

“I don’t think you heard me,” Gary barked. “Who in this room wants to be a soldier in God’s army?”

We tentatively raised our hands.

“I don’t believe you,” said Gary.

We raised our hands higher.

I happened to be sitting in the front row.  Gary pointed at me and said, “You get up here.”

I stood up stepped onto the stage. My father was a preacher, so I was familiar with religious theatrics. This was a common form of play acting. You call someone up to the front and challenge their faith in front of the congregation to demonstrate what it’s like to publicly assert your religious beliefs.

“So you want to be a soldier in God’s army?” he said.

“Yes!” I said.

He looked me over with disappointment, like I was a poorly cooked meal he planned on returning to the kitchen.

“I don’t think you’re really committed to Jesus,” said Gary. “I don’t think you have what it takes to be a soldier for Christ.”

“I’m a soldier!” I insisted.

Gary’s mustache twitched. “Nah, I don’t think you’re ready. When Satan challenges you, I think you’ll just run away.”

My face turned red. “I won’t run away! I’m a soldier!”

Gary took a step closer. “Run away!” he yelled. “Go ahead! Run! Run from Jesus!”

“No!” I yelled back. “I’m a soldier!”

That’s when Gary reached inside his jacket, pulled out a gun, and pointed it at my chest.

“I. Said. Run.”

I gulped. The crowd was silent.

“No,” I whimpered.

He cocked the gun. “Run.”

“No.”

We stood for what seemed like an hour but was probably about thirty seconds.

Finally, Gary grinned. He took out the gun clip and showed everyone it was empty. He patted me on the back and said, “You did great. I’m proud of you.”

I thanked him and excused myself to the bathroom to throw up.

Austin (Grey) Gardens

May 18, 2017

We moved into Austin Garden Apartments at the suggestion of two friends who already lived there.  “It’s cheap,” they said, quickly adding the local mantra: “Well, it’s cheap for Austin.”

It was a small, cluster of buildings set behind a steel fence, like a mansion in an old movie where some long-forgotten actress watched silent films in her living room and held funerals for pet chimpanzees in the backyard. There was a cracked swimming pool scuzzy at the edges with algae and the dumpsters were fortified by stained mattresses. On one side of the fence there was a mechanic/salvage yard and on the other a pawn shop with a handwritten sign out front reading “Cash for Guns!” Feral cats roamed free and at night you had to slow down as you drove through the parking lot or risk making a mess out of a waddling opossum.  The laundry facilities were cheap and always contained a stack of ragged romance and mystery novels for you to peruse while you waited for your underwear to dry.

It was perfect.

The lady who managed the place was a chipper fiftysomething-year-old with the requisite short permed hair and flowery frocks that covered her ample body. She fed all the feral cats, and when a new one arrived in the Austin Gardens domain, she coaxed it into a carrier, drove it to the vet, had it fixed, and then brought it home to live on the property. It was unknown whether the owners knew of her activities, but even if they had, it was doubtful that they would have questioned Sandy. She ran the facility with efficiency and aplomb, processing leases and maintenance requests so quickly you’d have thought she had a ten-person staff at her disposal. But no. It was just Sandy and her cats. Several months after we moved in, there was a big storm during the night, and the next day there was a chicken wandering around the facility. No one knew where it come from, but we figured it got blown out of someone’s backyard and into Austin Gardens. Instead of getting rid of it, Sandy bought some corn and put up a chicken-crossing sign in the parking lot. We named her Drumstick. The cats were fine with it. Everything was great.

And then it happened.

One day we received a note in our mailbox saying the property had been purchased by a new company. The mysterious writer of the note promised nothing would change. Everything was fine. Nothing to be concerned about.

The first thing to change was the name. You don’t want to get too judgmental in situations like this, but when you suddenly have to make your rent checks out to “Gold Standard Asset Management,” that’s usually a red flag. After that, it was the laundry room. Suddenly the romance novels were replaced by glossy copies of Forbes and Entrepreneur. They put up cutesy signs on the walls with stupid puns. “Laundry is LOADS of Fun!” The opossum disappeared. So did Drumstick. Another note showed up in our mailbox asking us to please not feed the stray cats and threatening a monetary penalty if we did so.

Sandy left soon after.

She was replaced by a series of pretty twentysomething-year-old women who dressed like lawyers in a bad movie and were constantly trying to get better cellphone reception. Maintenance requests were received first with confusion and then hostility. The front gate broke. The hot water was inexplicably shut off for days at a time. The pool was drained and a sign placed on the gate denying entry.

Meanwhile, the new staff spent its time putting balloons out front and repainting the office in some kind of postmodern sorority girl motif. After this, they decided it was only fair to increase the rent by thirty percent.

Most of the cats were chased off, but a stubborn black male named Jack remained. He had a crooked tail and there were ugly bald patches all over his body. His right ear had been chewed away, and he had a festering sore on his neck that was always oozing pus.

At night Jack stood outside of Sandy’s old office and yowled mournfully at the door. A door that now read “Welcome to Your New Home!”

It’s a phrase I’ve  heard repeatedly in recent weeks from conservative Christians: “I disapprove of gay marriage, but that doesn’t mean I hate gay people. Love the sinner, hate the sin.” It’s a useful rhetorical position to take because evidence of its authenticity can only be found in the heart of the person using it.

I used the phrase often when I was growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, during the heights of the AIDS scare. My father was (is) a small-town fundamentalist preacher who insisted the dreaded “Gay Disease” was a plague sent from God to punish homosexuals for their sins. When it was discovered that AIDS was not restricted to the gay community, he broadened the scope of God’s wrath to include adulterers, communists, fornicators, pornographers, feminists, and Democrats. There were enough sins in America to go around.

At the time, I had never met a gay person. Actually, let me rephrase that: at the time, I had never met an openly gay person. Surely there were men and women in my hometown who preferred their own gender, but they would never have admitted as much. I don’t believe any physical harm would have come to them, but they certainly would have been socially shunned, and in a town of 2,000, that can be personally and financially devastating. There were rumors, of course. Why did two male bachelors own the only video-rental store in town? What was up with the women’s volleyball coach? But these were questions whispered behind closed doors.

So I never had to look someone in the eye when I said that I loved them but hated their sin. I never had to explain how that dichotomy worked. It was philosophical exercise at best, and one the rest of my community agreed with. It fit perfectly with my beliefs as a Christian. Jesus loved everyone, but he did not tolerate every action. He socialized with thieves, prostitutes, and tax collectors, but he did not condone their behavior. I was following his example. Every sin was an abomination in the eyes of God.

But homosexuality was different. I would have never admitted this at the time, but it repulsed me in a way that, say, stealing or lying did not. Even murder. When I was in high school, the local newspaper reported a stabbing in a nearby town. The perpetrator was a man I’d met once, an uncle of a friend. He was sent to prison, and although it shocked me to know that he had stuck a knife in another man during a bar fight, I found it easy to pray for his forgiveness. He didn’t seem like a bad guy.

But homosexuality…that was where I drew the line. It was unforgivable. Why? I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I knew the reason had to do with sex.

Sex was a problem I struggled with, the primary source of sin in my life. I wasn’t having sex, of course–I firmly believed in abstinence until marriage–but I was thinking about it constantly, and that was the same thing. I was sinning in my heart. And not just once or twice. In school, in church, at the dinner table, during basketball practice, at the grocery store, in the shower. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew nothing about sex. My father had removed me from the only Sex Ed class our high school offered because he said he’d already given me all the education I needed on the topic: don’t do it. I didn’t consider sex a biological imperative, I didn’t know about hormones, that it was physically impossible for me to stop wanting sex. It was a test, and I kept failing. I wasn’t supposed to masturbate, so instead of actually touching myself (which would have been a conscious transgression) I humped things. All kinds of things. Pillows, couch cushions, car seats, chairs, tables. I would rub up against just about anything. It sounds funny now, but at the time it was not. I developed rashes and infections. My groin burned constantly. Still, I would not use my hand. After climax, I was devastated. Every time. I had broken God’s laws. I cried. Not crocodile tears. This the real thing: head bowed, rocking back and forth, clenched fists, snot everywhere. Sometimes I would slap myself in the face or pinch myself on the leg so hard it bruised the skin. There was something wrong with me. I needed to be punished. I knew that sex was a beautiful thing inside the confines of marriage, but it was a dirty thing inside my own fantasies. I struggled to understand how that worked. I prayed for forgiveness. I promised never to do it again. But of course, in the end I was not strong enough to uphold that promise. I let God down. I sinned. I was a sinner.

Homosexuals disgusted. me. This was a form of sex I was allowed to openly despise. They were gross. They were unnatural. I focused all of my own self-loathing on them. I called them “homos” and “faggots” and “fags” and “dykes.” Not in church, of course. Just in my head and sometimes in school. In church, I called them “sinners” and I prayed that they would be healed by God’s love. But even though everyone in the church claimed to love gay people, I could tell by the looks on their faces it took a special kind of effort. These people were disgusting. These people were an abomination. This sin was worse than the others. And somehow the idea that they could love one another was even worse than the idea of them having sex. How dare they claim to have deep, lasting, committed relationships. How dare they claim to be like us.

I have never been able to figure out why I was so repulsed by gay people–the issues are buried deep in the slippery waters of the subconscious–but I do know it had something to do with my own self-loathing and sexual dysfunctions. I feared the very idea of them. Their existence was a direct assault on my faith and my definition of self. These feelings felt right at the time. Intuitive. Natural.

I was a homophobe. There’s no justification for it. It wasn’t the totality of who I was, but it was a part of me.

Things started to change when I went to college. Not right away, but gradually. I met openly gay people for the first time, people I never would have guessed were gay, people who were so very…normal. I asked questions. I had conversations. I made friends. I discovered it was impossible to love the sinner and hate the sin. There was no sinner. There was no sin. There was a person. I could no longer reduce someone’s existence to a bumper sticker. It took a long time. I’m still dealing with the weedy roots of my homophobia today. It was planted when I was young, and it runs deep.

Not all Christians understand my experience. I have friends and family who have always supported the gay community, others who have discovered paths of acceptance within their faith. There’s hope in the younger generation.

But there are many more who still believe they can divide people into neat compartments, that they can love someone while simultaneously despising a core aspect of that person. It’s impossible. You can’t keep hate separate from love. It will find a way to get out. Despite all the pop songs, love is not as strong as we want it to be. The hate will win. For the most part, these are good people. I don’t share their faith anymore or many of their political views, but I know they are kind, caring, funny, giving, weird, happy, wonderful human beings. I have eaten pie with them. I have watched The Princess Bride with them. I have listened to Johnny Cash with them. They volunteer at homeless shelters and bake casseroles for the elderly. They go to their children’s t-ball games. They curl up under blankets on rainy days with giant bowls of popcorn. They are good.

But the thought of two men getting married fills them with anger. They see pictures of a wedding, and they cannot contain their rage. They post awful things on social media and then do incoherent philosophical somersaults to justify themselves. They cannot see the recent Supreme Court decision as a long overdue civil rights victory that upholds the core fundamentals of freedom that this country was founded upon. They probably don’t understand why they are so angry. I know I never did. It’s the hate they tried to separate from the love. It cannot be contained. It has no logic. It has no reason. It is the true sin.

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