Little neighbor girl
Waving to a cardinal:
"Parrot! Hi, parrot!"
Little neighbor girl
This poem debuted live at Tuesday Funk #48 in Chicago on September 4, 2012, the same day it was written. I've submitted it to a few editors since then, but since they (probably sensibly) turned it down, my birthday present to myself is to publish it here.
It was the early 23rd and I was just the latest turd
Of a miner to get dumped on Harkin's Moon.
I had finished my first shift and took the slow repulsor lift
Up to a weightless bar called Betsy's Grand Saloon.
We were sipping bulbs of beer in artificial atmosphere
And watching servers flit around that hollow space.
My hair still caked with sand, I said the place it sure was grand,
And my new buddies smirked and pointed 'cross the place.
"You see that mope sitting alone like some sad king up on his throne?"
They said. "That bastard is the grandest of the grand.
And if you go and ask him why and make it back, why, then we'll buy
Your drinks all night, and we'll know you're a real man."
But they said, they said, "You have to ask him, sucker,
How he ever got to be such a grand motherfucker."
And then they shoved me in the chest and I was drifting past the rest
Of all the patrons, and the place grew deathly silent.
And I could only stop my flight by grabbing on and holding tight
To that guy's table, and the look he flashed was violent.
Well, I was barely hanging on, my heart was banging like a gong,
And that guy said, "You got a question? Well, then ask it."
Before those hundred pairs of eyes, I had no witty, quick replies,
And though I knew it just might mean an early casket,
I said, "Sir, I don't mean to push my luck, uh...
But how'd you get to be such a grand muthafucka?"
The whole bar's sharp intake of breath was like a harbinger of death,
And I was ready for that mope to grab his blaster.
And though his eyes were filled with rage, I saw the clues to his true age,
The biomods that smoothed his skin to alabaster.
He said, "No one has asked in years, which makes you braver than your peers."
He raised a jeweled fist as if to call my bluff.
"What can you tell about this ring?" It was a massive, gleaming thing.
I said, "That's rhodium? I only mine the stuff."
He snapped his fingers, called for drinks. Amidst the hubbub and the clinks
Of glassware, flunkies Velcro'd me into a chair.
And he took his sad Manhattan from a server clad in satin,
And said, "I'm the one who pays for all this air.
"So if you came here for a kiss, it's time to pucker,
'Cause this is how I got to be this grand motherfucker."
And this is what he said. He said:
I was second in my class,
Ph.D. in physics just within my grasp.
Trying to unravel time travel,
Testing theories in my lab.
Could I grab all the glory, Nobel Prize?
Built a model down to size, miniaturized,
Fusion-powered on my finger.
At the zero hour, fired up the power.
Blinding flash, blinked my eyes.
Where was I?
Found a paper and I found to my surprise
It was the late 21st.
I was the first to jump through time,
But the bubble shortly burst.
I pressed the button on my ring
To go back. Not a thing. All alone,
Stranded sixty years from home.
How to get back, back on track?
Hack a passage to the future,
Stitch a suture in the spacetime fabric.
Found my way to my old college,
Newer now, seeking knowledge
From the sages of the time.
Showed up during office hours
Of a prof named Dr. Powers,
Told my tale to his assistant,
Was insistent that she listen,
Saw her eyes glisten. Frisson
Of familiarity came over me,
there and gone, she was on the intercom.
She shook her head.
She said, "Professor regrets he
Can't see you, but I'm Betsy.
I'm on my way to lunch, but I've a hunch
A bunch of stuff I know could help,
If you let me."
So we talked. Physics.
Noon turned to evening,
Thoughts of leaving fled.
21st century's not so dead,
I was thinking in my head.
But Betsy was believing in my story.
Took the ring apart in her lab,
Put it back together
With some parts from inventory.
She touched my hand,
Said, "Let's test it in the morning."
And she took me home.
But not to sleep.
What more is there to tell? Hurt like hell
To say goodbye, but it worked well, the ring.
She really was a genius.
Safe but aching back at home,
22nd, my time, my apartment,
Walked in. I saw the photos on the wall.
There was my mother as a small girl.
A photo I had seen my whole life,
Like a knife stabbing, shook my head.
My hands were grabbing at the frame,
One name on my tongue,
'Cause holding my mom's hand
Was my brilliant Betsy.
Do you get the point yet?
But I'd known her best as Liz, see?
Grandma Liz. I grew dizzy,
And it hit me like a mountain,
Like a fountain of my DNA,
Circling recursively through time,
Cursèd strands that recombine
In a loop I can't escape, no extraction,
And it's real, it's no abstraction.
The bar was deathly still. There were still some gaps to fill,
Like how he'd traded patents for this lonely moon.
And all the rhodium we mined to fuel forays back in time
Went to the government. What they did no one knew.
He said, "I'll never leave this place 'cause I can never show my face
On the rock of my conception and my birth.
Five years, your contract expires and you'll head home to the spires
Of the place I'll never see againthe Earth!"
And he waved his jeweled hand, just a bitter, broken man,
And my pals they dragged me off to rent some tail.
But the girls in the brothel all wore 21st century costumes,
And I realized this moon was just a jail.
We're inmates trapped without the hope of succor
In the prison that's the mind of the Grand Motherfucker.
I've told this story many times, in many ways. This particular version was written for The First Time: First Crime, an evening of readings at Second City's Up Comedy Club in Chicago on April 17, 2013. I read it again at Tuesday Funk #61 on September 3, 2013, and later posted it as an answer on Quora (to the question "What are you banned from? Why?") and as an essay on Medium (where it became an Editor's Pick). As long as it was available for free in those places, I figured it ought to have a home here too. So here it is. Happy Canada Day.
They caught up with me in the men's room of a bus station in Great Falls, Montana.
Now, the fact that "they" were after me might lead you to presume that I was running from the law, that the cops or other authorities were hot on my trail, but that's not the case. My felony was still two months in the future at that point, though I was on the lam.
I was on the lam from the Mormon Church.
It was the last week of 1986. I was nineteen years old, and I'd spent the past three months in the dreary oil town of Brooks, Alberta, Canada, the first posting of my two-year assignment as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I never wanted to serve a mission, but I grew up in Utah, in a devout family, and to not do so would have meant admitting to my parents and my community and my church leaders that I just wasn't that into Mormonism. I had college to finish. I had novels I was burning to write.
But I also had shame, so like a good boy I put in my mission application papers, hoping for a plum assignment like Brazil or Sweden or Japan, someplace I could at least learn a foreign language and rack up some cool life points. Instead, Canada--and not even the part where they spoke French. Western Canada. For a bright Mormon kid from Utah, this was almost as humiliating an assignment as Idaho. But that's where the grayhairs in Salt Lake City said God needed me.
Missionary life, if you're curious, was horrible. Knocking on doors for twelve hours a day in miserable weather. No television, no movies, no newspapers, no books but the Bible and the Book of Mormon. No dating. No phone calls home. The constant presence of your assigned partner, your so-called "companion," with whom you spend every waking moment of every single day, lest one or the other of you should fall into temptation. Oh, and always referring to each other by your title, "Elder," instead of by your names.
After three months of this, I'd had it. I was stir-crazy and depressed, and I'd figured out that they call it "serving" a mission because it's a lot like "serving" a prison sentence. I wanted to go home, but I knew if I brought it up with our mission president in Calgary, President Tuttle, he'd just find a way to talk me into staying. So, a few days after Christmas, I snuck off to the bus station in the wee hours of the morning and made my escape.
That bus ride--west to Calgary and then south to the border, running for my freedom, running from my duty to God--was one of the most thrilling days of my life. Once my absence became known, the Church activated its remarkable emergency communications network--invaluable in times of natural disaster--to put out an A.P.B. on a fugitive missionary whose only crimes were wanting to read science fiction novels and make out with his girlfriend.
At the border crossing, I managed to avoid the two missionaries they sent to intercept me as I transferred from one bus to the next. I felt like a real super-spy. I felt like James Bond.
But that evening in Great Falls--well, I had a bad feeling as the gray-haired man in the black leather jacket trailed me through the bus station toward the men's room. To show you how useless I am in stressful situations, I went into the men's room anyway, because while James Bond never seems to need to pee, I really did, and I didn't see an alternative.
Sure enough, as I was taking care of business at the urinal, this man in his black leather jacket came in, leaned against the wall, and said, "Elder Shunn?"
To make a long story short, this man was the local Mormon stake president--roughly comparable to a Catholic bishop--and he was there to convince me, if not to resume my mission service, then at least to go back to Calgary and request an honorable discharge from my mission.
Look, it's hard for a Mormon kid to say no to authority figures, which is why I didn't want to talk to my mission president in the first place. Which is all by way of saying that I did go back to Calgary, with delusions of that honorable discharge dancing in my head. To my credit, I managed to hold out against President Tuttle's onslaught of compassionate brainwashing--and that of the people like my parents whom he put me on the phone with--for all of about five hours.
"Oh, Elder Shunn," he exclaimed after I'd caved, "I'm overjoyed at how the Spirit has touched your heart! Oh, and I want you to know that you are in no way on probation or in trouble with me for going AWOL. No, the one who's in trouble is that lazy companion of yours in Brooks who failed to do everything in his power to keep you from getting on that bus in the first place."
Now let's fast-forward two months. I've been reassigned to Calgary, where I'm doing pretty well, with plenty of other missionaries around to keep the loneliness and depression at bay. I'm actually starting to have a reasonably okay time.
It's late February. I'm on temporary assignment with a missionary I'll call Elder Finn. Both our regular companions are district leaders, and they're off somewhere at a mission leadership conference with President Tuttle and thirty or forty other district and zone leaders.
(If this sounds like sales terminology, by the way, that's probably not an accident.)
It's nearly evening, and I'm at Calgary International Airport, where Elder Finn has forced me to accompany him. He's been planning this excursion for weeks, planning for the day when all the mission's most diligent elders are tied up at a conference, and when he's partnered with the infamous Elder Shunn--that one who tried to run away.
Elder Finn, who's only been out on his mission for four months, is planning to fly home, to Sacramento. He's done.
But there's one thing Finn hasn't counted on. He thought I was the kind of missionary who'd help him. He thought, based on my past behavior, that I'd stand by and give him time to get away before calling President Tuttle.
I spent the entire drive out to the airport trying to talk Elder Finn into staying on his mission. He wasn't having any of it, so now I've slipped away from him in the crowded terminal, and I'm desperately dialing numbers at a pay phone. President Tuttle is not at his office, of course, and none of the missionaries whose numbers I can dredge up from memory are home either. The clock is ticking down to Finn's departure. I have this crazy, half-formed backup plan--but am I willing to do everything in my power to keep my companion from leaving?
I rip open the phone book before I can talk myself out of my scheme. I look up Western Airlines and find what I recognize as a local number. I plug my quarter into the slot. My hand shakes as I dial.
The line picks up on the first ring. "Western Air Cargo," says a young man. "How can I help you?"
I take a deep breath. Slowly, clearly, and distinctly, I say, "There's a bomb in a suitcase on Flight Seven-eighty-nine."
And I hang up.
I wish I had time to tell you what happened next--how I watched airport security quietly mobilize, how the plane in question was grounded, evacuated, and searched, how the Royal Canadian Mounted Police--yes, the fucking Mounties--caught up with me, how I was convicted of felony public mischief and sentenced to jail, and how to this day I'm forbidden to set foot in Canada. Oh, right, and how Elder Finn was one of the few passengers that night who actually managed to reach his final destination. That's all a story for a different day.
What I will tell you is what still unsettles me at night and keeps me awake, which is how easily faith and circumstance can warp a rash impulse into an act of terror. Any of us could be standing on that brink without suspecting it, as I well know.
"What the hell are you doing?" the old man yelled into my window. "You can't park here! What's wrong with you?"
I had just backed very carefully into a space barely wide enough for the car. My friend Kevin was riding shotgun, my dog Ella in a nest in the back seat. Funny, I thought as the man angrily waved me back into the alley, we only missed our target by about twelve feet.
That was exactly one year ago this eveningWednesday, June 26, 2013. It was the tail end of a twenty-four-hour odyssey that already felt like a dream.
In reality, though, the odyssey went back much farther. For months, Laura and I had been planning a move from Chicago back to New York City. The company she worked for had offered her a job in its New York office, and in fact she was already spending much of her time there, transitioning into her new role. It fell to me to make all the arrangements for moving, to get everything packed, and to find us a new place to live.
That last task turned out to be the easiest. On a trip to New York in May, I looked at exactly two places before I found our new home. It was a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house in Astoria, Queens, our former neighborhood. The landlord was so eager to have us, in fact, that he knocked $200 off the rent. The only catch was, we had to take it for the first of June. This moved our timetable ahead by a month, and meant that during June we were renting both an apartment in Chicago and a house in Queens, on top of having to pay for a move.Kevin Swallow, and we would race through the rest of the day and the night to beat the movers to New York City. We would likely arrive in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, and we'd be ready for the movers to unpack that day. Wednesday night, instead of the hotel where she'd been staying, Laura would come home from work for the first time to our new house in Queens.
We made one last check through the empty apartment and finished packing the car as quickly as we could. I built something of a nest for Ella in the back seat, with her dog bed snuggled in next to the cooler and other supplies filling up the space on the floor behind the front seats. Of course, by the time we hit the road, rush hour was in full swing, putting us even farther behind schedule. By the time we hit the Chicago Skyway and were racing into Indiana, the sun was losing itself in the ominous clouds behind us.
Ella usually does very well on car trips, but she's terrified of storms. As thunder shook the car, she repeatedly tried to climb into my lap from the back seat. Fortunately, Kevin was driving at that point, not me, but I still had to keep shoving Ella back where she belonged, and that was a hazard to him. And not long after the lightning and thunder started, the skies opened up with a rain of Biblical proportions. It was such a heavy downpour that the windshield wipers could barely keep up with it. We had to slow way down because the road was barely visible, and, even so, huge semis with their yellow running lights kept shooting past us and making the road even more dangerous. Kevin was hunched over the wheel, gripping it so tightly I thought it might break.
Finally, we saw an exit and had to pull off the interstate. We sat in the parking lot of a shopping center for a while, waiting for a break in the storm. After about half an hour, the rain slackened enough that we thought it was safe to keep going, but pretty much as soon as we pulled back onto the interstate it started pouring even harder than before. According to my weather app, the situation wasn't likely to change for hours. While Kevin grimly kept us on course, I searched Google Maps for a nearby pet-friendly hotel where we could hole up for the night and wait for the storms to pass.
We were near Elkhart, Indiana. My app showed a Holiday Inn just off the interstate a few miles away. The exit sign hove faintly into view after what seemed like an eternity, and I directed Kevin along a winding access road to where Google promised our hotel awaited. I kept my eyes peeled as we crept along the road through the downpour, but I couldn't spot the hotel. When according to Google Maps we'd gone well past it, we turned around and crept back the way we'd come. We did this two or three more times, in increasing panic, until finally a well-timed lightning strike showed us the hotel. Which was entirely dark.
"Shit, the power's out!" I said.
But the parking lot was full of cars, so we pulled up to the front and I ran inside. Two young women were working the front desk by portable lantern light, taking down credit card numbers to run later as several groups of storm refugees checked in for the night. Because of the storm, the hotel kindly waived the pet deposit, on top of which they offered a pretty big discount on the room itself.
It took Kevin and me several trips to ferry all the necessary supplies from the car up to our second story room, including our suitcases, Ella's food and bed, and Ella herself, who was very fearful and jumpy. It was a hot night, despite the storm, and extremely humid, and the air-conditioning of course was not working. We had to open the window some to get some air, but that only made Ella more terrified of the storm. I went out into the hall to try to find the hotel's ice machine by iPhone light. It was an eerie thing in those long hallways to encounter other people navigating by phone light. You could see the tiny glow bobbing toward you from far off, until you and they passed like wraiths in the darkness, not speaking a word one to another.
Ella loves nothing more on a hot day or night than a bowl of ice cubes, with which the ice machine was fortunately still well stocked. We suffered through an hour or two of the stifling, noisy darkness in that room, the three of us, as Kevin and I texted our wives to tell them where we were and why. Sometime before midnight the power came back on, and we were all able to get a few hours of sleep, with Ella panting near me on top of my twin bed.
We made good time across the rest of Indiana and into Ohio. I wasn't sure where the moving truck was, but I figured it had probably been stopped by the storm same as us. We did manage to stay under clear skies the rest of that day, which was punctuated every couple of hours by stops at rest areas for coffee and for Ella to do her business. Periodically I would take a picture or video of Ella panting in the back seat and send it to Laura, so she could see that we were all still fine. I labeled these messages BEAR CAM.
I couldn't really fault him for feeling that way. After all, he'd gone above and beyond the call of friendship just by volunteering to tag along with me on this long, crazy drive. So I drove us from there on, with the windows down and the air-conditioning off on the uphills so we neither overtaxed the fragile battery nor overheated the furry animal in the back seat. We made it across New Jersey and the George Washington Bridge without incident, and from there it was a comfortingly familiar tangle of narrow expressways and harrowing interchanges all the way to the Triborough Bridge, and the borough of Queens.
I found our new street easily enough, and I pulled into the alley behind our new house. Our landlord had told me that his SUV would be parked behind our house, but that there was plenty of room for two cars to park there. It was early evening. I spotted an SUV parked behind a house, but it didn't look like there was very much room left for me to park next to it. It took me a couple of minutes to back my way into the parking space, with the SUV to one side of me and a pole to the other side, but I made it, with only a couple of inches to spare on either side.
"I live here," I insisted. "I'm moving into this place, and we just drove here from Chicago."
"You don't live here," the man snarled, clearly with the certainty that I was a knave and a rogue of the lowest order, concocting some scam that boded ill for western civilization.
Eventually the fellow and I both realized that I had parked one house down from where I was supposed to be. Right next door, behind the next house, was another parking space with another SUV. That's where we were supposed to be.
For a while there, I thought the guy was going to either have a heart attack or pull me bodily from my own car and lay an apocalyptic beatdown on my ass. How dare I park behind the wrong house? But I couldn't quite wrap my head around his anger because, from my point of view, my companions and I had just traveled over eight hundred miles through storm and calamity, and we had only missed our target by about twelve feet.
Kevin slept in the basement that night on a sectional hide-a-bed the previous renters had sold us so they didn't have to move it. Ella came to realize over the next few weeks that we were back in the same neighborhood where she'd lived from the age of six months until she was almost four, and that many of her old friends and haunts were once again nearby. And she really came to love that nice cold tile floor there in the basement.
As it turned out, the moving truck didn't arrive until a day or two after we did. Which was perfectly fine by me. And that's the story of how Kevin and Ella and I drove from Chicago to New York City and survived to tell the tale.
This happened back on Sunday, April 6. That morning, like we do most Sunday mornings, we took the dog out for a walk for a couple of hours. On our way back to the house, Laura developed a hankering for a donut. We stopped by a couple of neighborhood bakeries that were on our way but none had donuts, and no other type of pastry would do.
A few blocks from home, I pointed across the street. "How about we stop over there at Dunkin."
"No," she said resignedly, "I don't want a donut from Dunkin."
That evening we went into Manhattan to see Lady Gaga's next-to-last concert on the next-to-last night of Roseland Ballroom's existence. I didn't consider myself a Lady Gaga fan, but the spectacle was pretty great.
As we were walking back to the subway after the show, I spotted a Dunkin Donuts not far from the Ed Sullivan Theater.
"I want a cup of coffee," I said.
"It's too late for caffeine," Laura said.
She conceded the point and we went inside. The place was empty but for two smiling men behind the counter. I ordered a coffee. The conversation proceeded like this:
Dunkin Donuts Guy #1: How do you like your coffee?
Bill: Milk, no sugar.
Dunkin Donuts Guy #2: How is it out?
Laura: It's nice out.
Bill: We're very happy. We just saw Lady Gaga.
Dunkin Donuts Guy #2: Really? [to DDG1] Give them free donuts.
And we walked out of Dunkin Donuts agog, with two free donuts in a paper bag. By which I can only conclude that Lady Gaga is magic.
Homeless man feeding
his McDonald's French fries to
pigeons. Share the wealth.
The other morning I truly thought for a moment that Ella had at long last caught a squirrel.
We were walking in Astoria Park in Queens, as we often do, where dogs are allowed to roam off-leash before 9:00 a.m. There's a lightly wooded section of the park near the big swimming pool that I call Squirrel Alley, because all the trees and undergrowth ensure a robust population of arboreal rodents for Ella to chase.
I nudged Ella's shoulder and whispered, "Right there!"
Ella turned and spotted the squirrel. Often she'll stare at a squirrel, transfixed, before trying to catch it, but this time she burst immediately into a run. Her muzzle touched the squirrel's back before it even reacted. My stomach knotted. Here it comes! I thought, bracing for it.
But Ella's mouth wasn't open. The squirrel bolted straight up the tree. Ella looked up curiously ("But dogs can look up!"), then continued on her patrol.
It's possible I was more disappointed than she was. I don't wish most animals harm, but I do desperately want Ella to catch a squirrel. She's been trying her whole life without success. She did once catch a young rat, which I made her drop, and the look she gave me afterward was one of withering scorn. Ever since, I've been determined to help her live her dream, just once.
Look, I know it's a horrible thing when a dog catches a squirrel. I've seen it happen at that same park. I've heard the ungodly screams (not shrieks or cries but screams) when one is being shaken and chewed to death. And still I want my dog to be the one doing the shaking and chewing. It's her function. It's what she was bred for.
She's ten and a half years old. She's still pretty fast, but she's not as fast as she used to be. I'm not sure she'll manage it on her own. The clock is running down. Which is why I'm out here on the front patio every afternoon with this bag of peanuts.
Think of me as the Canine Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Here, Ella stalks some other squirrels earlier this year.
Just a quick reminder about tonight's Boundless Tales reading in Queens. The listed time is 7:30 pm, but if you're making the trip out I happen to know that the event won't actually start until 8:00 pm, and that I'm the last of the five readers in the lineup. That's not to give you an excuse for showing up late, but, you know, it's a bit of a trek from the city so you don't have to kill yourself to make it there on the dot.
Thursday, April 17th, 7:30pmBoundless Tales features themed personal essays, the theme this month being "I Dominated/I Was Dominated." My fellow readers include Michelle Augello-Page, Sarah Bonifacio, Danny Herrera and Joan Willette. See you there!
23-14 Ditmars Blvd.
Astoria, Queens, NY 11105
(N/Q train at Astoria-Ditmars Blvd)
I keep forgetting to mention this, but I'll be reading with the Boundless Tales reading series this coming Thursday evening in Queens. Boundless Tales features themed personal essays, the theme this month being "I Dominated/I Was Dominated."
Thursday, April 17th, 7:30pmMy fellow readers include Michelle Augello-Page, Sarah Bonifacio, Danny Herrera and Joan Willette. This is my first public reading since moving back to NYC from Chicago, so I hope you'll make the trek and check it out.
23-14 Ditmars Blvd.
Astoria, Queens, NY 11105
(N/Q train at Astoria-Ditmars Blvd)
It may seem a tad late to be posting a mix for January, but I sort of got busy and failed to do so last month. Yes, the CD Mix of the Month Club reconvened a few weeks ago to throw a going-away party for our member Josh McCuen, who's off now on an epic New Zealand adventure. A couple of us made mixes. Most of us didn't. I guess now we're more like the Used to Make a CD Mix of the Month Club, which makes perfect sense now that there are easier ways to share music than burning data onto aluminum discs.
Anyway, my contribution to January's shindig was called Difference Engines. This rather churlish and cheeky mix comprises mostly female vocalists, and the most if not all of the tracks are available on Spotify. Take a listen below.