A Collision of Amphetamines and Insomnia (#fiction)

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Jan hadn’t slept much. Like, for the past three days she hadn’t slept, but she was about to crash. Like hitting a wall or something. She was coming down because the speed was just about done, and she was sort of looking forward to the crash. How could you blame her? This is how she planned her weeks, you know. Speed on test days. Pot on weekends. Beer for dancing, mostly. Or just because boys like it.

The problem was that Bobby was sort of revved up, because that’s just how he is. He just gets all this nervous energy and then just talks and talks and talks. Philosophy, politics, music, love and loss. Bobby wasn’t into drugs and really had no clue about drug etiquette or even just the parameters around what drug users might be going through. Some people found him rather inconsiderate.

And Jan kept telling him she was really tired, but he really didn’t feel like being alone at that particular moment, and he didn’t want to stop talking. She thought sex might have done the trick, because guys notoriously fall asleep right after, but Bobby was a hard-core insomniac, even if sex was calming, it wasn’t enough to settle his nerves.

So this went on awhile—until she passed out, and Bobby was left staring through the screen on the window and counting the moths on the outside. He was thinking of Carson McCullers and Frankie in “Member of the Wedding.”

Somehow Bobby related to Frankie, though it would seem unlikely that he would. He just liked the way this little butch girl looked out the window and pondered the “irony of fate” for the insects out there. And he thought a lot about the irony of fate, and sometimes he felt like a little butch girl stuck out in the country just wanting to fit in at a wedding or something.

Jan was dead to the world, but Bobby checked to be sure she was alive in her drug-enforced slumber before he stepped out into the steaming evening air. After a moment of regret for forgetting mosquito spray, he set off toward Old Main, hoping Mary might be up there again, because she never slept well either.

Randall Horton

Deaf and Dirty in Public (#fiction)

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XII

Being deaf isolates you from people. From hearing people, anyway. That’s true, obviously, but sometimes deaf people forget they aren’t actually alone. A deaf couple was chatting amiably, well, maybe amorously is the better term, as Doug was eating lunch in a Luby’s Restaurant.

If you’ve ever eaten in a Luby’s, you’d be surprised to learn of anyone feeling amorous or frisky there, because it just isn’t that kind of place. Something about standing in line and holding a tray with a bunch of retirees quells any rising sap, if you know what I mean.

Still this couple was chatting away and working up a bit of lather. Sometimes even a Luby’s can’t dampen the heat of young love, or lust or whatever. So these two were talking about each other’s bodies and what they planned to do with various body parts when then got home or maybe even to the car.

To be perfectly honest, many sexual signs in American Sign Language (ASL) are graphic enough that even most hearing folks can make them out with a little effort, but Doug didn’t need to make any effort. He was deaf and quite fluent in both sexuality and ASL. He was alone and bored in a Luby’s, so watching an erotic conversation a couple of tables away didn’t seem like too bad a way to spend a few minutes.

Now, hearing people tend to stare at deaf people in public. Some are being rude. Some are being judgmental. Some are trying to see if they can understand any signs. Some are just confused. And some probably don’t even realize they are staring. Anyway, this deaf couple wasn’t surprised to see someone watching them talk.

They decided to check it out and signed a couple of questions to Doug to see if he understood anything. For his part, he thought the prudent thing to do would be to pretend to be hearing. When they signed to him, he just looked confused and shrugged his shoulders. Feeling relieved, they sort of waved him off and went back to their conversation. He gave them the hearing sign for “OK,” and all seemed well.

And it would have been fine, too, except a hearing acquaintance of Doug’s happened in at about that time. It wasn’t an amazing coincidence or anything—this acquaintance just worked across the street. Anyway, he knew that he and Doug would be at an event later in the week and signed, “Hey, how are you? I’ll see you Thursday, right?”

Doug blushed. The couple blushed. And for reasons he didn’t understand, the acquaintance blushed.

Randall Horton

Sociology of Stress in Office Settings (#fiction)

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XI

The FedEx delivery driver was a little aggressive. I mean she acted like delivering our packages was keeping her from the really important tasks on her list, but we all sort of thought delivering our packages should be the important task on her list, but most of us were too timid to actually say so. In fact, we were pretty deferent.

Except Imogen.

Imogen said, “She might talk to you that way, but she’s not going to try it with me, because I know where she stays. I know where her Daddy goes to church, and I know where she went to school. No sir, she’s not going to come in here talking to me about being stressed.

“Stressed? Black people may have worries that put them in the ground, but they don’t talk about being stressed. ‘Stressed’ is how white people talk, and Black people only talk about stress when they’re talking to white people.

“Make nothing of it. She’ll do what she has to do, and I’ll do what I have to do, and we’ll get our documents on time every day, and everybody will get along just fine.”

And Imogen was right, more or less, as we didn’t have any more big problems in our office. We developed a mutual if grudging respect with our delivery driver, until she was suddenly replaced by a young man that the ladies in office obviously found preferable for reasons I won’t go into.

We heard something about our former driver leaving some pretty important boxes on a loading dock over at the law school without getting any signatures. Someone seemed to think it wasn’t a good idea to leave legal documents unaccounted for, so we got this nice new young man who looked like he knew how to handle all kinds of boxes, or at least that’s what the ladies said.

Randall Horton

First Impressions That Last (#fiction)

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X

People overstate the importance of first impressions. It’s possible to change your impressions of someone, for better or worse, on second or third impressions. It is even possible to change your mind about someone after 25 years. I’m sure of all that, but some people sure do make memorable first impressions.

Sharon pretty much introduced herself to me by saying, “Well, I’m a Black bisexual woman who just wants to make trouble and maybe help make a better world.” Some people would say that for shock effect, but I don’t think she really cared about that. She just liked to vet new friends. It’s sort of like those signs that say, “You must be this tall to get on this ride.” If you were bothered by her introduction, then she didn’t need to waste any more time on you.

As far as I could tell, she loved life. She loved men and women. She loved humanity. Somehow, the world can’t accommodate people like that, though. Some of us just never find a safe place. One day she would talk about all the drama women cause. The next day she would lament all the baggage Black men bring on dates with them. What’s the difference between anger, fear, grief, or love?

Blame the structure of the world. Blame biology. Blame the devil. Do what you want, but it is hard for some of us to feel connected to anything. It’s like that Jimmy Cliff line about how loneliness would never leave him alone. You know, we’re all in this together—it’s just that we seem unable to share the burden of that, so we’re all seekers.

So, anyway, at her funeral, her aunt gets up and tells all the family and other busy bodies that no one knows where Sharon is now but Sharon and God, and no one else even needs to worry about it, so just shut your mouth and show a little respect. I guess some people think Heaven is a hotel that rejects people who couldn’t find safe shelter on Earth. Some people believe in a God that locks the door for his most sensitive children.

I guess that’s just our nature. We all want to feel we’re blessed. We want to feel protected in the end. We’re not like the others, somehow. Flannery O’Connor’s Mrs. Turpin had this vision of good Christian folks like herself having their virtue “being burned away” as they descended into Hell while her inferiors sang and praised their way into Heaven. Some of us find out we are like the others before it is too late. Some of us don’t.

Randall Horton

How Cancer Complicates Relationships (#fiction)

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IX

Cancer complicates things. By things I guess I mean relationships, though I’m sure it complicates many other things as well. Still, it does a number on relationships. People are just going along planning their lives with certain expectations, and—bam!—cancer throws everything out of whack.

It’s like how people thought Johnny Ramone should visit Joey on his deathbed, but Johnny thought he was the last person on earth Joey would want to see as he drew his last breaths. Would Joey be more of a monster for not visiting or for showing up? I don’t have to figure it out, so I’ll leave it to you decide.

I just know there are some people I would never want to come to me as I lay dying, but others would be forgiven and welcomed on sight without a second thought, because I miss them so much. I don’t think Joey was missing Johnny, though, so maybe Johnny made the right decision. I know I wasn’t going to choose sides, but I never know what I’m doing from minute to minute, so it’s something we have to get used to.

Anyway, Kat knew her husband was wanting a divorce when she got the diagnosis. Just his damned luck she got sick and people would think he was a real heel to leave her in the lurch. Kat was not one of the people who thought that. In all honesty, she wanted him to get out of the way so she could at least have enjoyable sex once or twice before she got too sick, so she wasn’t wanting him to hang around.

Family and friends are sure to have an opinion about whatever choice he made, though, and it wasn’t easy to negotiate everything. How do you explain to your grown daughters that you are happier for their father to leave so you can enjoy getting laid once or twice before you are laid to rest? It can be done, sure, but let’s face it—it’s not a fun conversation.

She managed the whole thing somehow, though. She had an amicable divorce, was happy with how the property was divided, and managed to sleep with her divorce attorney. Not a bad trick, really.

I’m not one to say whether there’s such a thing as a happy death, but some seem much worse than others. I guess death is always traumatic for the living. Even if you don’t know a soul in the world and die anonymously in the street, someone has to find your body. Someone has to report it. Someone has to pick it up. Some find it more traumatic than others, but you are sure to leave some pain in your wake, no matter how hard you try to avoid it.

So that’s something we have to live with. As we die.

The Treachery of Unspecified Cancers (#fiction)

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VIII

He was fun. He was a lot of fun. That’s what everyone said. He was funny and jovial and he just loved to be around people, and people loved to be around him. I swear he could make a joke out of just about anything. And he was cute, so he collected plenty of phone numbers, if you know what I mean.

It’s just that right when everyone would be getting into things and really enjoying themselves, Mike would call. And when Mike called, he always went to him, because Mike was experiencing hellish pain from cancer and needed help and support. That’s what he told us. Mike had horrible pain because he was dying from cancer of the leg.

Now, I’m not saying Mike wasn’t sick or anything like that, but I always thought cancer of the leg sounded a bit generic. I mean, I think Bob Marley’s cancer started with a melanoma on his toe, but I never heard anyone call it cancer of the toe. That would sound weird to me.

I guess people do what they have to do, and Mike didn’t leave the house much. He just kept to himself, taking medicines and things, and just trying to get through each day, hour after hellish hour. He didn’t seem to want visitors, as no one I knew was ever invited over to their place. Because I didn’t see him much, I never gave him much thought. I felt a little sorry for him, of course, and I was glad he had someone to take care of him. But I didn’t really know him—there was no connection to him, see?

So that’s why I didn’t think of inviting Mike when we decided to go to the movies. I didn’t think Mike would be interested in going out late, hobbling around town, and getting home in the wee hours.

To be honest, that’s a lie. I simply didn’t think of Mike at all when we made our plans. But I was surprised when Mike was outside the theater when we showed up. And I was surprised when Mike got a ticket and went inside with us. I was relieved, of course!, to see that he walked with no signs of pain or a limp or anything, and he seemed to be handling the cancer treatments quite well. Really, he seemed strong and healthy. I think he could have taken me in a fight, if it came to that.

And I kind of got the feeling Mike wanted me to know that.

Don’t Advertise Your Man (#fiction)

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VII

You have to be careful. I mean, you have to watch what you say. It’s easy to think everyone will see things your way, but you never know how they’re going to take things.

That’s what happened when she went to talk to Valerie. She wanted to get some things off her chest, and she just knew Valerie would be sympathetic.

Valerie was sympathetic. Of course she was sympathetic. What kind of friend wouldn’t be? And Valerie enjoyed, maybe enjoyed isn’t the exact right word, listening to other people talk about their sexual problems, so she was bound to be a good listener.

So she unloaded on Val. She talked about how her husband was supportive and everything, but the sex was too burdensome. She told Val how he had a slow fuse and could never just “get to business.” She liked a sort of “stick and go” approach, but he always made a big production out of everything with lots of cuddling, kissing, and holding before ever getting around to the good stuff. By the time he was ready, she had lost interest. You know how it is?

Valerie certainly knew how it was. Valerie understood the dynamics all too well because her husband, too, was a “stick and go” kind of person. He never cuddled her or kissed her or stroked her at all. He just went at it, had his orgasm, and fell asleep.

So, as Val listened to her friend sort of just describing her frustration with the burdens of too much kissing and cuddling, Val got a little turned on. Her fantasies were racing through her mind. She’d been lost in a kissing desert, and now her friend was describing a sort of sexual oasis, and, man, she’d like a good long drink.

So Val was a good friend, and a good listener, like I said. She shared stuff about her life, her sexual past, which had a bit of trauma, too, and her frustrations with marital difficulties. She listened intently. She made herself vulnerable. She offered warm hugs and encouragement.

Once she’d set her friend off in a cloud of mutual support, her own needs and fantasies drove her straight to the telephone. She was tentative and nervous, but desire is sometimes greater than fear. “Hi, I was just talking to your wife. She said you really enjoy long, deep kisses, just like I do.”

Love and Factitious Fascinations (#fiction)

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VI

I’ll tell you, when he came out of that waiting room, he sure did look rough. I mean, you’d say he’d really been through the wringer. His friend Bailey was waiting—as patient as she was solicitous. Fighting brain cancer takes courage, of course, but so does supporting someone with brain cancer.

But Bailey was a saint, and it was nothing to her to go round to get her car (they had to use her car, because he’d loaned his Lexus to another friend), meet him at the patient pick-up, gingerly pack him into the car, and drive him for more than an hour to his home in the suburbs. It was another hour drive back to her place, but she didn’t mind, because she was one of those kind-hearted people like they tell you to be at church. Of course she made sure he was comfortable and had plenty of fluids and snacks before she left him.

Bailey was a saint, like I said, and she would have done all this even if he hadn’t told her he struck it rich as an inventor, although she was mighty impressed by those drawings of the roller coaster he designed. Just touching the Mylar gave her a little rush. She’d never known anyone who’d made it big, and of course she was excited he wanted to invest in her bagel shop.

I mean, it really was nice of him to take her to that furniture auction and bid on the front bar for the shop. A lot of people wanted that old bar, as it was in good shape and was old enough to be considered an antique by American standards, but he just kept upping his bid till it was his, or hers, you know. She almost couldn’t believe it. No one had ever written a check that big on her behalf before. No one had ever invested anything in her, if you want to know the truth, but he really seemed to believe in her. If you’ve ever had anyone who really believed in you, then you can understand what she was going through.

She was sad for her friend, of course, but she’d also never been happier. She’d never felt this appreciated. She’d never had this much confidence. She would be happier a little longer, because it’d be another week before she learned the check bounced.

And it would be two more months before anyone asked if she knew what Munchausen syndrome was.

On an Emergent Awareness of Impending Death (#fiction #prose #essay)

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Sometimes life just smacks you in the face. You’re just minding your own business and out of nowhere comes a big punch to the gut, or, yeah, a slap to the face or whatever. This mostly happens when you’re young. By the time you reach a certain age, if you are so lucky to live that long, you’ll be punch drunk enough, trust me.

Anyway, that’s why she couldn’t believe her rabbit was dying. No, she wasn’t pregnant or anything—her pet rabbit was riddled with tumors and needed to be put down. She’d never lost anyone that close before, and the tears came in waves. She was inconsolable, as you are when you lose something precious.

So she called her mother for comfort, which is a pretty reasonable thing to do, even for someone who is technically grown up and fully adult. Relying on mothers for comfort is a habit many of us never break until fate forces our hand on the matter. She called her mother and told her the devastating news, but her mother wasn’t really as sympathetic as she had expected, so she was a little crestfallen for a minute.

Her mother listened for a minute or two to the tears and lamentations before saying, “You go on like this for your rabbit when you know I have cancer, too?”

It was true that her mother had cancer and she definitely knew about it, but she was still naïve enough to believe doctors could save lives. She had heard of people surviving cancer, so she assumed her mother would be one of those, not one of the unlucky people you hear about in other families. We’re always pretty sure the worst things won’t happen to us, aren’t we?

She would be sadder and wiser soon enough, and maybe the rabbit served as a kind of omen or preparation for what was to come. Maybe it would help her get through the days, months, and years ahead. When you look back on things, it’s hard to say what helped or didn’t as you can’t imagine how bad things might have been otherwise. Trauma and grief can be pretty all consuming, you know, and your imagination for other possible worlds disappears.

You’re just sort of stuck, boxed in, and frozen.

Anyway, that’s how it all started. Tests, promising results, surgeries, promising outcomes, more tests, different doctors, different hospitals, different promises, and different prognoses were all to follow. Sure, the best of us indulge in magical thinking or just wishful thinking, anything to not indulge in despair, even when despair is rationally the correct choice. You pretend that rabbit cancer is categorically different from human cancer. You pretend doctors are magicians. You just get on with it.

Or sometimes you don’t. You decompensate. You look for comfort in anonymous sex, “mood altering” substances, or purely defiant denial. And you’re done for. Death keeps coming, and you find out you’re strong enough to face it down. I know, some people aren’t strong enough to face it down, but anyone reading this has been strong enough so far, so you’ve been strong for a long time.

Keep it up.

The Sad Solipsism of Suicide by Cop (#fiction #prose)

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IV

It’s not like I was his confidante or anything. It’s just that I did know him and talk to him from time to time, and I didn’t expect to hear anything about him on the news. But there he was.

A white teenager with reasonable grades from a “good” (meaning middle class, of course) family and neighborhood goes off the rails and does something crazy. And there were people on the TV saying how they were completely shocked. They never expected anything like that. It was totally out of character.

I mean this was way before “normcore” was a thing, but he was one of those guys with plenty of money and everything who just wanted to blend in and not bring any attention to himself. If he had any interest in fashion or trends, you couldn’t prove it by looking at him.

So I never gave him much thought until out of the blue they’re on TV saying some fool robbed a McDonald’s with a sawed-off shotgun and then kept pointing the rifle at the cops. They shot him in the leg and he fell and sort of slithered backwards into a cleaning closet all the while keeping that gun pointed at the cops. Anyone other than a middle-class white kid never would have made it that far, but couldn’t have lasted much longer. Texas cops run out of patience with guns pointed in their direction in short order, even when racism and classism aren’t factors.

So he died a bloody death in a hail of bullets, which must have been what he wanted. I couldn’t ask him, but it sounded just like what this other guy I met later said. Little Joey, the boxer, was always going on about how he’d show ’em some day. Joey would often wax poetic about dying on his front porch, surrounded by well-armed cops, shooting indiscriminately at them until he got blown to smithereens from all directions.

I lost touch with Joey, so I don’t know if he ever fulfilled his dream, but I did see a picture of him kneeling down with his fist in the air in front of a regiment of cops in LA. He made it into the LA newspaper and he didn’t even have to die for the privilege. I think his tri-colored Mohawk and metal spikes caught the attention of the photographer, but I can only guess, because I wasn’t there.

Some people just want to die impressively, but I never saw the point. Do they think they’ll be looking up from Hell, nudging their buddies, and saying, “Yeah, I really showed those cops a thing or two”?

On the other hand, I guess it’s better than how many of us die—in a hospital with no loved ones around, no control of bodily functions, and with little awareness of who anyone even is. But how does that matter, either? You go and then you’re gone. It’s simple and I decided a long time ago to stop fussing around about it.