Island of Bones

The fisherman thought it was a miracle, our guide and translator explained, seeing all the fish flopping about the dry ocean bed. The earthquake had pulled the water back far from the shore. Many were running around filling their baskets, others lit a fire and started cooking. Reports began to come in over the radio of a Tsunami, but many of the fisherman were not familiar with the Japanese word. By the time Sri Lankan families on the coast realized what was happening, the wave was over them.

When the earthquake happened in late 2004 I was on staff with the global non-profit Youth With A Mission, an organization dedicated to God and humanitarianism. Roughly three months after the tsunami hit I co-lead nine of us throughout the small island just below India. We encouraged the church, supplied camps, and helped other organizations with disaster relief. At times I can’t help but feel like we provided nothing more than entertainment, but poorly rehearsed dances, inexperienced musings on god and life, and sheer presence alone drew weary lips up into hopeful smiles.

Our group had just spent the past three months studying together and we worked pretty good together, but we hadn’t really grown dislike each other. “Which pill makes poop hard?” I asked the first-aid kit. “It’s the blue one,” Claire said. All the pills were blue. Claire was our first team leader. There were four of us and we took turns keeping the team on point and managing the money. We spent our last hours in America with Claire’s friend in LA. Being in LA wasn’t what had my stomach in knots. We had to raise all the money ourselves to take this trip and it took a lot of work. Most of our last week here was spent calling everyone we knew who had money to spare. Digestion aside, all was well in our tiny world. This was a completely new adventure for many, for some it was the first time they’d left their state. We glowed as we shared fantasies of a world we’d only seen through a computer.

Political turmoil split the island like the yin yang. The news had covered the civil war in Sri Lanka for years but we underestimated what it would really be like to live on the island with growing tension between the government and the Tamil Tigers. The Tigars were a liberation group fighting for an independent state in the northeast. Things weren’t so bad in the southwest where the Sinhalese were the majority, but we were later told that traveling too far north could get extremely dangerous, even if we were there to help. The whole island had unexpected surprises: student meltdowns, giant spiders marked with symbols from the ass of Hell, tree snakes that have a flavor for all that’s shiny—eyes included.

Our first contact, Linton, came to Colombo, crammed us into a couple vans, and we were off to his home in Dambulla. We drank so much tea that we stopped every half-hour to piss. On one of those stops I wandered into the jungle brush, watered a tree, and when I returned, Linton (who wasn’t really paying much attention) told me I’d returned from a minefield. They were all over the island, deadly relics of conflicts between the Tamil and Sinhalese. Most of them were marked.

We saw a lot of the island with Linton. The radical evangelical took us to illegal house churches he’d established throughout Sri Lanka. I don’t mean illegal like you get put in jail for being a Christian or any other religion (the islands boasts about 1,400 Mormons), but you could end up dead. Buddhism is usually peaceful, but in it exists a small faction of violent extremists who destroy mosques, churches, and those caught inside. The Sri Lankan government, being dominantly Buddhist, didn’t do much about it and religious violence has been on the rise since, part of which matured into the Bodu Bala Sena: a terrorist organization that hit the media last year after they began to urge violence against Muslims.

Having dealt with extremists on several occasions, Linton was always a little edgy on Sunday mornings. To me and the others, it was another dull church service in a tiny, sweaty, gray garage, with the extra bonus of not knowing half of what anyone was saying. But to Linton it meant the possibility of having another gun held to head, for the third and most likely last time. The Tigars drove him and his wife away from their home in north by threat of death. Extremists had already destroyed one of his churches, injuring several members. People came to him in secrecy when they felt compelled to follow Christ because they didn’t want their family and community to pushed them away. Linton sheltered battered wives and gave food to the hungry. He and his wife housed and fed us for almost a month and didn’t expect much for it. He had everything setup so the churches would manage without him if ever the final bullet came.

Linton’s son, Lu, lived in a boarding house in Nuwara Eliya, near a tea factory. Around the end of our first month we spent a few days with him while we prepared to head further east. Lu arranged a tour of the factory so we got to see the entire tea making process from the women hunched under tea baskets strapped to their backs, to industrial dehumidifiers. Afterward they had us taste different teas but they expected us to spit them out like liquor—I don’t spit. Tea is a giant global industry that brings considerable money to the island and provides almost a million jobs around the globe. Beautiful culture, ocean, and thrill of adventure aside—I’d fly to the island now just to savor the sweet ballet rolling over my tongue.

We spent our last week with Linton on the open coast of Batticaloa. We were in the midst of the Tamil Tigers, who patrolled the white-sand cemeteries with semiautomatic guns, and we didn’t go into the cities after sunset due to casual crossfire. We spent our days walking a near-pristine coast among human skeletal remains scattered like driftwood, and the busted brick foundations that lay like cut-out lines in the world’s most depressing coloring book. Every night the Earth stopped. There was no wind, just a lingering heat that made time snail on until dawn. Only one person in our group was smart enough to bring Deet: Jamie, who I married two years later. I stole her Deet and encouraged others to do the same. We emptied the bottle in a day and spent evenings after dinner flailing our arms at mosquito militias as we sang worship songs—Pentecostals would have been proud.

Perhaps it was constantly being set to simmer, or maybe it was the threat of a coconut falling on his head during the few minutes he slept, but around the middle of the week Ray had had enough. Ray was from Somewhere Boring, America and he joined our group with more books than clothes (not good books, just massive dictionaries and encyclopedias on unimportant details about the Bible) and he had the worst luck. There were only three guys on the trip and we all shared a room. One night I woke to Ray screaming, “It’s in my ear! Something crawled in my ear!” I followed him into the bathroom and watched his shaking hand jab a Q-tip into his ear and shovel up dead fragmented bug in between bits of yellow crust. Just days later, ants formed a long line next his body like road around a mountain, so he bought a pink bug-net and secured it to with floor with cinder blocks and sprayed a dull toxic mist around his sleeping bag every hour he was wake. “It’s a centipede,” he cried at the dark room as I woke and watched him explode out of the net. I’m can’t recall what finally got to him on the coast. He threw a few things around and started screaming and yelling. We gave him a day, and offered to send him home if he wanted to go, but to our amazement he turned down the offer and continued with us north.

Our bus was long and bright against the dawn. A Swedish pair were smuggling us, food, and supplies into a refugee camp a few hours north of Batticaloa. War and devastation cut off access to many basic things like food and soap, some of the children there hadn’t eaten in days. We only had a few hours to feed everyone, offer some entertainment, and leave. The last thing we wanted was a run-in with the Tigars or anyone other group that didn’t like what we were doing.

Our team headed back west toward Kandy and spent a few quick weeks with John, our last major contact. He liked to say things like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m blacklisted here.” Grinning bigger than his face, “If they catch me they’ll put me in prison for a long time—HAHAHAHAHAHA!” And he’d really laugh that hysterically every time, even after joking about his wife dying. The drive across the island to reach John turned parts of my shirt black from the soot that blasted out of everything with an exhaust pipe. When we arrived two young girls showed us in and made a light dinner. We got comfortable and dined on rice and slimy green flora from old alien horror flicks.

We spent a lot of time walking around the University of Peradeniya. We broke into small groups and roamed around campus. The goal was to engage people about God but it was impossible without a translator. The students who did speak English thought we were crazy God-people but it didn’t stop us from inviting them to hang out. No one bothered. We spent three days fixing up an old Anglican church nobody really attended. We sang songs and played with some kids in an orphanage. We helped sort donations: things people couldn’t really use went in one corner, trash in another, and a small pile of things people really needed in another. One of women in our team tried to hook up with one of the locals. Ray almost got into a fight at one of the biggest festivals in the country. There was a KFC in Kandy and we all thought it would be nice to cut the mounting stress by treating ourselves. We laughed and shared stories—the high calorie cure worked. Ray sat beside me and happily spun an ice-cream cone against his tongue, then his chair collapsed.

The second month of our stay was hard to get through. We spent the first month whipping around narrow mountain roads at 140kph all crushed together in a matchbox minivan the cold war coughed up just before it died. Traveling with Linton from village to village and meeting so many new people in the freshness of everything was exciting but it wasn’t as fulfilling as we did during our last weeks there, which lacked passion, but had what felt like more tangible results to me. We had nothing of real value to give the tiny house churches. Small donations aside, all we could do was pray for people. The last month we spent time doing practical things that involved feeding and fixing, but it was always hindered by the unforeseen. My then girlfriend sent me a breakup email, Ray was always ready to burst, monkeys were stealing the woman’s underwear at night as they air-dried on the line. At one point the only thing we could think of to help morale was sit in a circle and say one nice thing about each other, and some couldn’t do that.

For our last week in Sri Lanka we relaxed at a tropical resort just above the center of the country. At the end of every trip we always took whatever money we had left, found a nice place to emotionally detox, and divided the rest. It was my birthday, so Jamie and some others went and bought me cigarettes and beer. Technically, I was of legal drinking age but some of the women on this particular trip believed alcohol was evil or something and poured it down the fucking toilet. I took my smokes and sat pool-side against the sun until I burned. We skinny dipped at night and in the morning we went down to a waterfall, an inviting pond that collected under a waterfall where the caretakers and others relaxed and swam. My swim trunks looked inflated and silly amid their bright Speedos. Past the fall ran a shallow river that ran between high earthy boulders smashed against the high grass. The caretakers warned us not to go too far out because those who illegally distill high-octane liquor might try to kill us.

It’s been 11 years since we boarded the plane back. Religious turmoil aside, the island is a fully restored paradise. There are highways now so you can get across the island quickly and safely. The Sinhalese won the civil war in 2009, some estimates cap the death toll at about 100,000. I don’t know if Linton is still planting churches or if John was ever finally put in prison, I lost contact after I left the organization. I plan on going back someday, purely for tourism’s sake.


I worry when I send my drafts out to publishers that they’ll see the name Dominguez and throw it in the trash. I should blame my dad, I know it’s cliche, but when I was young he told me that he’d thought about changing my last name from Dominguez to his last name, Smith.

Have you ever opened a phone-book and looked up “Smith”? It’s endless–there are as many Smiths as there are Mohammeds–there aren’t, but it felt that way. There are, however, at least 400 Smiths (I counted them) listed in all the decaying phone-books currently working their way into Earth’s crust with the rest of the garbage from 1994.

He told me: “I thought about changing your last name to Smith, but I think you’ll get more money for college with ‘Dominguez‘”. My stepdad’s fluent in Whiskey-Spanish. When I was a child we drove to Mexico at least every other month and ate at our favorite restaurant. My mom bought pills to keep her calm and had her teeth filled, and my dad bought a barrel of Crown Royal and crate of Marlboro Reds. No taxes, or the power of the American dollar, or something like that made it cheaper to put gas in the truck, drive an hour and buy it in Matamoros.

There’s a much stronger concentration of Dominguez in Texas (which was Mexico, and largely still is), which spreads north across the map and fades out as far north as Michigan according to a “try for free” pop-up from My free trial also revealed that the Dominguez life expectancy is roughly 81 years.

My biological dad, Juan, preferred the English version “John”. Juan is much, much cooler, but I think he feared the hard hand of racism. John Juan has had a difficult life. We haven’t spoken for two years because that difficult life has turned him into an asshole few can tolerate. But the last time we talked he’d just been let go from his longtime job of cutting Wal-Mart’s grass. He was working on opening a business with his 5th wife, but it fell through–the business plan, not the marriage, yet.

He left for Michigan with my sister a few months before I learned how to shit in a mini-toilet and spell out my last name on the children’s chalkboard my mom bought me. My mom and her mother raised me until my mom remarried, just after I turned five.

“Dominguez” can conjure so many images, a lot of them are probably racist–it’s the brain attempting to simplify things to save time for other things, like what frozen dinner has non-lethal amounts of sodium–but that initial, simple thought is most likely wrong.

Two boring white women raised me in a fog of cigarette smoke. I don’t look like a typical Dominguez, mainly because I’m painfully white. My dirty blonde hair, grey splashed along the sides, and the red beard beneath really work against people’s ideas of what a Dominguez should look like. What would you think if you saw my name laying flat in Times New Uninspiring on paper so bright it turns eyes into tiny red kid-pools?

My last name has a common mis-spelling: Dominquez, quez–that’s to close to queas, like queasy. I hate it. Guez is strong, romantic, reminiscent of Gomez, Addams; you can belt it from the gut and it’s still understated–you really need the entire Domin-guez to do it justice.

Dominguez comes from two older names. The lordly sounding version is “Dominicus”, belonging to the Lord, from “dominus”, lord, master, or from “dies dominica”, “day of the Lord”. The much lamer version is “Domingo”, which reminds me of dominoes and Flamingos, or a Flamingo with dominoes for appendages. Stand on one leg now, showoffs.

After further thought, perhaps, my work won’t see the bottom of the bin. People in publishing are educated, education is supposed to cure racism. I don’t think it’s really worked out that way, but the whole idea around reading is to expand the mind, very contrary to judging someones work on the merit of one word–unless you’re judgments are positive: “DOMINGUEZ! Sounds brilliant. Publish it, immediately.” I could live with that.


Bang Bang

Some say guns aren’t the problem, that it’s mental health which needs addressing. In order to wear a badge one must pass a mental heath exam, plenty of people join the army or some other armed force every day–and they kill people. I think that makes the mental health argument completely bogus, at least in the way we currently frame the issue. Besides the mentally ill being far more likely to suffer abuse at the hands of the “sane”, anyone can become psychotic, angry, and depressed. If this didn’t happen, we wouldn’t have news. The brain changes, sometimes it deteriorates, and people will do things they wouldn’t normally do and having a gun available definitely won’t help. The real problem is that me, you and everyone else doesn’t want to believe we’re all susceptible to fault. We don’t want to believe we’re capable of picking up a gun and doing terrible things, but we are.

Wandering the Desert

People who can pop their ears are blessed. Some have told me to chew gum, but nothing really works that well so I always get off a plane with a vice crushing my head. The Las Vegas airport had all the same shit every other has: bad carpet, over-priced-microwave-meal restaurants, and bathrooms wherein diarrhea despair and cleaning agents dance unhindered. If you’re itching to lose money just off the plane, you’re in luck, because slot machines are littered across the airport, as well as the gas stations, where you’ll see the soulless cloudy eyes of addicts spending their days making the offspring of some Mafia crime boss or Mormon tons of money. But the first thing that struck me about Vegas wasn’t the airport, it was the dry desert heat slapping my teeth as I crossed the sliding-door exit.

I lived in a three bedroom apartment that at any given time held up to ten guys consisting of staff members and students. I slept on a used three-cushion tan couch in the living room, next to another that looked like it came from a discount Sears warehouse from 1989. We had a bulky black stereo, which rested on a table next to the balcony that smelled like shit. The apartment was always pre-heating because it was three floors up, directly under the sun. The general aesthetic of our place was like everything else in Vegas, beige, and littered with holes, stains, and burn marks we hid with inspirational quote posters and flags from the countries we visited. And as a bonus for us who didn’t own cars, the church we used as a base of operations was right across the street.

I finally sat my half-empty coffee mug next to a dozen others on my particle board desk, when sirens blared through the window above me. I made my usual rounds down the long dark halls of the giant old church we rented, making sure everyone was gone and checking the locks. As I came to the entrance I saw red and blue slicing through the silvery glass panes around the door. I locked up and stepped out into the ray from a helicopter directly over me. Several men near a SWAT van readied their weapons. The first time this happened I froze and finally a man in the distance brought his hand up and waved come on and I proceeded as if I were walking the plank. But these became usual happenings.

I started working with the organization a little later. All I had after I graduated high school was $900, a cheap red car, and a shit job digging holes for rich guy with whom I shared a pew. He and many others from that church paid for my entire stay in Vegas. Food, cigarettes, a gym membership, rent, a one month stay in Myanmar, Thailand, two months in Sri Lanka, and two weeks touring Italy from Tuscany down to Sicily, all for the cause of God. My small friend group really helped me through senior year. Of that group, Scott, discovered Youth With A Mission the same way everyone seemed to: through a friend who’d bragged about traveling the world. Scott was always in trouble with church leadership for smoking or listening to secular music and chose Vegas just to quietly piss in everyone’s faces while they all choked up money for his Discipleship Training School. It’s not so much a school as it is an entrance class you take to start working with the organization. It consists of three months lecture, and two months hands-on training overseas. Scott went to Egypt. He came back, helped me raise money and we both went to Las Vegas, myself as a student, him as staff.

When you fly into Vegas at night, the white phosphorus light is magnetic, like the fire that draws a moth. But the eyes adjust quickly, and if you’re in the right state of mind you might catch a glimpse of the homeless who wander the streets, the countless throngs of middle age men seeking cheap teen sex at 2 AM, and the thin husks that remain from those who only knew how to fill their wallets. It’s a tall flame. But if you’re one of lucky ones standing above it on any of the sandstone peaks that surround the city, you can look down at dusk and watch a dark cloud settle like an old testament plague.

Our base director, Dick, we’ll call him, claimed he was friends with Bono while U2 were there performing. He said he’d call him and get us all tickets. He never got back to us and we never bothered asking him about it because we’d assumed it was bullshit. Even if they did share a hallway in an apartment building 30 years ago—that doesn’t mean you can just call someone and expect free stuff. But he was just another busted bulb in a fixture of desperate superficiality. Lies and facades weren’t just accepted, they were expected. Pop-up mansions and neon glam—if you didn’t have it, then you didn’t have anything. That’s how Dick and others handled their general affairs, asking for handouts. Fund raising. Some of the staff had done this for so long they had condos, cars; cared for their kids, and had money left over to fly to abroad on a whim—much more than most people.

The organization used a strange economic model–it wasn’t quite a pyramid scheme. We couldn’t work, everything we did was funded by someone from a church who was willing to give. Only in exceptional situations could one get a normal job. Every month we all paid $110 in staff-fees, that paid for our apartment and utilities, any money made over that bought food and whatever else you wanted. Fundraising was typically a private matter.

A movie played in my head then, between all the thinking that gets a person through the day, of an unstoppable desert and a beckoning whisper from the line of the horizon. God had brought me to the wild west, and that’s how I wound up momentarily sharing a sauna with a sperm whale of a man rubbing baby oil on my back. Toward the end of my stay in Nevada money began to dry up. When this first became noticeable it was patched by letting “qualified people” help us with rent. One such fellow who stayed with us was only interested in body-building, guns, and looking professionally young. I expressed to him an interest in broadening my rail-thin body and he took me to the gym. I hated the first day, but I went back without him and began to exercise throughout the week, always ending my workout in the sauna. The giant said it was good for my muscles and I thought, sounds legit. I was very innocent then and hadn’t the slightest idea that he wanted to have sex until he insisted on rubbing oil on other parts of me. I politely declined. He started looking around the cloudy, suffocating room like things were gonna get rapey. I reached for my bag, which contained a knife that probably wasn’t even big enough to scrape him. He awkwardly paced around and finally sat, sloshing his ass into the corner as I took my stuff and burst out the door.

The porch of our apartment was a sacred space. It had two faded plastic chairs, which managed to keep their shape under a sun persistent on turning everything to dust and tumbleweeds. It’s a wonder anyone manages to stay composed. If you’re not in a building then you’re probably building up skin cancer merits. But, and despite everyone’s disapproval, we were building up lung cancer merits, sharing smokes on our porch throughout the day—burnt offerings we laughed off, with youthful irreverence to our bodies. It’s a good thing we weren’t the gambling type. We had a small green stereo we kept tucked under a chair, with an overstuffed ashtray and a vase Scott was trying to fill with cigarette ashes. We played songs from the Verve or Oasis long into the night when temperatures cooled to the mid-eighties and talked about whatever came to mind. Everyone stayed away (which is why it was so special) because smoking is evil and smells like shit.

Christmas was just after my lecture phase, two weeks before I left for Myanmar, my parents really wanted me to visit them in southern Texas, but we didn’t have much money, so I took Grey Hound. I enjoyed a warm holiday and boarded the bus for Vegas with a matching sky-blue backpack and duffel-bag stuffed with gifts. Two hours later, the engine came to grinding halt, and 26 hours later I peeled myself from the sweat of a thousand previous backs and drug myself off the bus. My luggage was lost. The unforeseen stop in Texas put us so far of schedule the we reached Vegas around 1 AM, long after my ride home had given up and gone to bed. None of us had phones, even at the apartment. I sank into a worn bench beneath a set of fluorescent bulbs, when a police officer swung around the corner. Can you help me I asked him. I explained everything that had happened and he told me he really wasn’t supposed to, but he’d give me a ride. We were speeding down a highway when a red corvette cut us off in the middle lane. He said that’s not good and ran the plate. The car came up stolen and he told me I had to get out now. I wandered around the middle of Vegas for about two hours looking for familiar signs before stopping at a gas station where I asked the attendant for help. He told me to call a cab, I told him I had no money. He said, call this cab, pointing at the number in the phone book. Minutes later a taxi driver picked me up, figured out where I lived (which wasn’t easy because I didn’t know the address, just the street name, Mohave Rd), and when we finally pulled into the church parking lot, the meter said I owed about $36. I gave him a five and he gave me three dollars change, and told me to buy myself a doughnut.

Dick put together a huge dinner to try to raise money for the base. People where starting to see we didn’t do much and bills add up. A few people did do incredibly great things, but a lot of the time we just fucked around. All we really had to do was tell our supporters we were helping the homeless and telling people about Jesus, which we did do from time to time, but there’s a lot of hours in a day. So, we decorated the entire church, bought nice food, and invited a bunch of rich, boring, god-fearing men out in hopes they would keep funding a bunch of bullshit. At the end of the night, as one of the wealthier pastors was on his way out, I pulled my pants down and swung my bright white ass at him. Scott dared me to moon him, and I wasn’t one to pass up an opportunity to make someone feel very uncomfortable. Dick called me into his office the next day to give me one of his “I love you, but…” talks he gave everyone who let him down. I agreed to refrain from exposing my ass and focused my antics toward other things.

I wasn’t trying to be lazy or rebellious, it was simply a byproduct from not doing anything. We did lose money after that dinner, but my butt was not to blame. Scott left a few months later because it was the end of this two-year term, and he was bored (everyone has the option to do another term). New staff members took over his old job running an after-school program, so he started cleaning and organizing the base—it took months, nobody really thanked him, and he went home. It’s a good thing he straightened everything up, because after he left we had to sell and store everything because we could no longer afford rent.

I wrote a letter to base leadership about what a shit job they were all doing. They didn’t care, and it wasn’t the kind of letter you could just give all your bosses and then keep on like it didn’t happen. I broke my term and left for home a few weeks after I got back from Italy in the fall of 2005. The new staff members envied my freedom, and the old ones flashed me their usual smiles and distant good-byes. We were all in the habit of letting people get just so close because of the frequency with which many of us moved in and out of each others lives. One second you might be on top, and the next you’re spiraling down to regularity—life without God’s wallet.

Hungry for the Holidays

This year, while shopping for Turkeys and Christmas gifts, wandering aimlessly down grocery isles and shopping malls, please understand, the advertisements about giving back and donating food would not have to play between songs we’ve all heard a thousand times if the companies who paid for the ads would simply pay us enough to eat and donate food that is normally thrown away.

Awkward Moments with My Dad and Other Strangers

John, my biological father, wasn’t there much when I was little. I remember just one visit he made years before I would move north to Niles, Michigan to live with him and my sister. I don’t remember much, only him standing on my grandmother’s porch, with his arm against her brick wall, beaming in his blue jeans, sunglasses, and leather jacket—in over a hundred degree heat.

I didn’t rush up north overnight or out of nowhere. I spent a previous summer with John and my sister Nicole, and the last night stood out the most: I couldn’t sleep, so I did what anyone does when they think everyone’s asleep—I jerked-off, loudly. A few minutes after I turned over to go to sleep, I heard my dad get off the couch, no more then ten feet from me, and go to bed. That’s the kind of strangeness that I could never seem to shake after I moved back for a more permanent stay.

The first night I arrived in Michigan to live with my new family, John told me going to church and youth-group were mandatory. On the positive side, I also made extra allowance money from time to time by memorizing passages of scripture.

When I inquired about my bouts of teenage sleep paralysis, John told me it was a demonic attack, and that I simply needed to pray more.

On occasion John’s brothers and various others with no job or money would stay with us for a while, bum around and paint or do yard work. One uncle spent almost an entire summer in our basement, which John had remodeled part of into a decent bedroom—he’s always been good at things like that. And my uncle stayed and painted. To make the most of his time he’d fill up empty water jugs with his piss, and let them collect in his room.

I was sitting at a small table in a typical mall with John who was sipping his coffee across from me. We drank a lot of coffee together. He was trying desperately to get to know me–and asked if I could skateboard. I told him I couldn’t do anything spectacular, but I could “pop an ollie” (basic skateboard stuff) and he made a dick-joke: “I still pop ollies.” He laughed too, like he’d really done the world a favor.

John told me Arnold Schwarzenegger was the Anti-Christ Jesus spoke of to his disciples.

One day after school, Nicole pulled me into the bathroom and pointed at the shit-streak John had left for one of us to clean up. She crumbled in laughter like a crushed soda can. It was a decent streak too. There’s no way he could have missed that while flushing.

One of John’s big goals for a week was to rid himself of his license plate. A friend of his told him that if he bought a car with gold, and filled out the proper paperwork then he was no longer obligated to have one on the back of his car.

I was rollerblading home from school, as I often did, and went down the steep hill next to a tiny grocer on a typically quiet, old road. It was too late to stop when I saw a beat-up orange Charger coming at me fast from the right. I tucked myself down hoping I could beat the car, but I did not. The corner of it clipped me and sent me rolling into the jagged cement curb. The force flung my backpack off my body, shooting it to the other side of the road, and sent my glasses in the opposite direction. I stood up and collected my things—my mouth felt like a toasted marshmallow. I was going to walk home, but an old gentleman came running out of an office building shouting at me. He’d called an ambulance, so I just sat there till they came, loaded me up, and drove me to the hospital. Besides the various splashes of road-rash across my limbs, the curb destroyed my upper right lateral and tore the corner of my lip. It was far from an homage to the Joker, but it didn’t help my confidence at the time. The doctor grabbed my nuts, stitched me up, fed me pills, and gave me back to John, who’d brought his camera to take pictures of me covered in blood and smelly orange germ killer. He didn’t enjoy paying the deductible, but he relished the photo opportunity.

I went with John and his buddy Steve to Little Rock to see an elusive member of family known as Greg. He was a beach-bum, and made odd psychedelic 3-D paintings which he sold with cheap paper 3-D glasses. He was staying with John’s mother in a messy shack outside of her house. He gave us a tour of his place, while explaining how he had gotten into glassblowing and that he was developing unbreakable glass pipes. Greg then grabbed one and hurled it across the room, shattering it into pieces. “Well, it still needs a little work,” he shrugged.

In an Irish accent I described a girl to John as, “A lovely lass.” He shot me a sour look and tried to tell me lass was slang for ass.

John’s sex education consisted of three words, “Don’t have sex.” He said that hours before my first date with a short dirty-blond, with braces and big round blue eyes. She often wore tight khakis. We went on one date which isn’t memorable in the least, and we very quickly lost interest afterwards. I saw her years later at a music festival. She walked right up to me and kissed me on lips. I don’t remember how it came up in conversation, but she disclosed to me that she shot bottle rockets out of her ass on breaks between making people Blizzards at DQ.

Sometimes I’d burn incense to make my musty basement dwelling smell tolerable. One of those days John stormed down, and accused me of smoking weed because I’d burned incense: “I know what that stuff’s for!” I told him if he was that worried he could check my room, but he declined.

He paid another visit when he heard “Come Together” through a vent, and told me to never play anything by the Beatles in his house ever again. Didn’t explain why, just said it was evil. Decent movies at Blockbuster were also evil—too much swearing.

I showed John a sizable bump on my leg I’d never seen before and asked what I should do. He told me to hope it goes away.

I made the mistake of whistling at a girl (I was very young) down the street from my home one afternoon. When I’d finished my homework I put on my roller-blades and headed to the park. As I passed her house I found myself surrounded by four people, one of which was her boyfriend, and he wanted to knock my teeth out. As the taunts began, John came cruising by on his motorcycle, we locked eyes, and he had a look on his face that said you’re fucked. He didn’t stop to help and he never asked about it.

My sister and I bailed on school on the same day, but didn’t bother telling each other. I spent all morning running around the house, screaming and making strange noises, banging shit together, repeating strange sounds—crazy shit you do when you think you’re all alone. Finally, she burst out of her room and screamed, “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” To this day I wonder what horrible secrets I revealed while chatting with myself, loudly.

I was watching a lot of old Kung Fu movies then. One morning, when I was unusually awake, my dad sleepily carried himself into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee. I started waving my arms around him like one of the ancient masters, then I drew my arm back and thrust two fingers  right under his sternum; the sweet spot that knocks all the air out of you. He keeled over, spit out his coffee and coughed out, “I’m gonna beat the shit out you.” He didn’t, but the ride to school was very awkward.

After I turned seventeen I made some great friends, who carried me through my senior year so that I didn’t have to be home much. By the time I graduated John saved a grand for me—possibly the nicest thing he’s done. I moved to Las Vegas that fall. We haven’t talked much since.

Through the Fire

A memory’s an eager spark, and mine starts early. I was standing in a crib in the middle of the night. I remember the way the blue light streaked across the room from a light outside the window, revealing a mirror, and me seeing myself crying, then the outline of my grandmother as she opened the door and stood in the gold glow of an old lamp bulb. I know it was her because she always kept the same unmistakable hair, a Platinum Bob, which she kept till the day she died.

She put me to sleep, and that’s my first memory. It was my grandmother and mom who managed to keep me alive until my mother remarried, but even after that my grandmother helped me get through much of my childhood. My mom and stepfather fought a lot so I wasn’t home much. I learned to listen for the television after I’d walk home from school, and other giveaways which meant one of them was home, so I could prep myself to be annoyed.

Constant threats of being grounded or spanked for forgetting a chore, or doing some irrelevant thing wrong tuned me into an anxious kid, so I spent extended weekends with my grandmother in her yellow little apartment—she smoked so fucking much your clothes would stick to the wall if you leaned on it.

I spent most of my time outside anyway, I’ve never been able to sit still for too long, besides the minor ADD, it’s just a deep fascination with everything. My grandmother gave me old phones to tear up and never put back together. I was always captivated by her jewelry boxes, which are now in the hands of my mom. Yellow boxes of family history: antique pens, a tiny razor, medical bracelets, currency from somewhere across the ocean—all treasure to me.

My mom is bipolar or something, and could wreak an entire room in anger. She goes from docile to dangerous, very quickly. Dangerous to herself mainly, not in a suicidal way, just in an earlier death from constant stress sort of way. But she still worked her ass off everyday, even after a short split with my stepdad, she made sure I was never hungry and made it to school.

My grandmother let me keep Playboys stashed in a fort I’d built in her apartment out of pallets I found close by when I was eleven by a Whataburger dumpster. Granted, she only agreed because I lied and told her they only had pictures of topless women. She was cool with that. Then while I was out playing she dug around, flipped through a few pages of one and saw a lot more than breasts, and threw away the magazines. Then she told my mom. It’s amazing she agreed to it at all, but in all fairness she kept her vibrator next to her bed for as long as I remember.

My stepdad had no problem with me riding my bike all over town in the high crime early ’90s, about an hour outside of Mexico, at the tip of Texas. He didn’t seem to care about killing a fifth of whiskey on the daily in tandem with a few blunts, cigarettes, or an occasional line. Perhaps those are just things good award-winning journalist do. Don’t get me wrong he loves me very much, but he grew up in a very different world, one I still have trouble grasping, and one that’s totally cool with you getting lost while mom sits around all day worrying.

My grandmother, Leona, grew up through the great depression, married an alcoholic and later divorced him, but not after giving birth to my mom and her two brothers. Leona didn’t really “parent” and Frank, her husband, was always misadventuring in a drunken stupor. Family lore has it that he slit a man’s throat (not enough to kill him, because he was too drunk), and committed many other psychically traumatizing shenanigans you’d expect from one of Bukowski’s characters.

In the midst of all this, the brothers had taken it upon themselves to torment my mother in every way possible until she lost control and beat the living shit out of both of them. The family dynamic took its toll on everyone. One brother died of cirrhosis of the liver in his late thirties. The other almost died a year ago from an unchecked infection he developed while living in his own filth. My mom remains, after a three-year fight against a rare cancer, then finally losing her lower left leg—it was just the fire she needed to start living again. Before that she wasn’t really doing anything except smoking and drinking coffee.

I can’t help but wonder why my grandmother took so much care of me while letting her own kids fade away. Questions like these are the unquenchable fires a spark can create.

My mom never visited my grandmother later in her life. Living about six hours away didn’t help, but that isn’t really the issue. I think if Leona hadn’t left my mom to the whims of her brothers they’d have a much closer relationship.

Eleven was a tough year for me. One of Leona’s favorite phrases was “screwed up”, “that’s screwed up” she say at the nightly news, or the morning paper, and a variety of other things—until I started saying it. My mother wouldn’t have it. Grounding me didn’t work, threatening to spank me didn’t work. So my mother finally went over to set my grandmother straight, and Leona just smiled at her, and said OK. As soon a my mom was out the door she turned to me, a tomato-red face that shown through the cigarette smoke that veiled her. And exclaimed her utter dismay at the amount of nerve my mother had for constantly saying fuck this, and fuck that and this that and the other, then coming down on her for something that really isn’t bad at all.

There must be more there than just the phrase. This memory always stuck out because of how petty the whole thing seemed, like displaced anger. People have quite the capacity when it comes to grudges, and my mom isn’t excluded. All I could think about then was how grateful I’d not gotten in the habit of saying fuck, yet. That and a few other choice words (and conversations) were saved for friends at school. I think my mother was bitter with Leona, and I think it was compounded by the feeling of being replaced by another mother–slowly losing your child.

But I think things run deeper still than the typical bitterness so many endure–that I endure. I think my mother has a strong fear of death. She was always pushing religion on me. After my uncle died, I had to accept Jesus into my heart and read the bible. Which I did for a long time. After anyone died, after my mom almost died, there’s a strong resurgence of faith that bubbles up inside her, and I think for her it’s more specifically the concept of heaven. The hope that after having fucked up so much of your life, getting pissed on from the very start, that you can try it all in bliss, with those you love, and wanted to love—a second chance—declawing death.

My uncle, despite his endless issues, visited Leona every week until the day he called me and told me she’d passed. I still can’t believe a women who smoked everyday of her life almost made it to ninety. My mom was floored, crushed down into her porch chair as I stood and coldly delivered the news. She held that coldness against me, she found it odd I didn’t cry. I’ve cried for absolutely no reason, but I didn’t then.

It sounds Starwarsy, but she actually became more powerful to me. She was no longer mortal, no longer bound by the flesh. People don’t remember the John Lennon who beat his wives, they remember the Lennon who fought for peace. Leona was finally absolved of all guilt, rheumatoid arthritis, and minor dementia.

The last thing my grandmother told me was that she loved me. Before that she told me all she thought about was the time we’d spent together. And that’s what I remember, that’s the glow around the women with the unforgettable hair. The icon in my head who helps me through the fire.

Summer’s End

The sun’s setting earlier, the air has a buzz, and I was 20 minutes late for class on the first day of school. Not for lack of wanting to be there, but because the bus driver didn’t feel the need to stop at my particular stop that morning.

Normally, it would have made me pretty mad, it might even of turned my whole day to shit, but this last summer was so epic I just didn’t give a fuck.

I had made plans; goals really, but even goals suck because you feel bad if you don’t end up achieving them. My goal was to start a blog on prison, and write at least one essay. I did those things then I quickly dropped them for BBQs with friends, and MusicfestNW, where I was hit on hard by a cute woman in her late thirties with torpedoes blasting out of her chest who revealed her fondness of Modest Mouse (the band we both came to see), and that she’d just been released from the hospital because she told her doctor she wanted to kill herself.

I thought Modest Mouse would be the icing on top of my summer cake, while I will say smoking weed center-crowd while one of you favorite bands closes a show is really fucking hard to trump, but an acid trip on the beach on an extended weekend camping trip will do it.

Neahkahnie Mountain is right on the coast, so you get a beach with woods and mountains. As long as there isn’t a massive earthquake it’s quite a breathtaking sight at 74 degrees partly cloudy with fronts  from ocean and surrounding mountains colliding.

I’d like to describe what I saw in detail, but it just can’t be done with any justice, and people have written about their trips since the fifties, and you should read them, then go on a hike and take the trip for yourself, the odds are good that you’ll be very happy you did. The drug is dangerous, but only to the establishment–that’s why it’s illegal.

My first professor is an older guy who talks like a bird, but with less breaths between words. And he’s assured all of us that he’s made the coarse as easy as possible. Then there’s a two-hour break, and I forgot to bring anything to read.

Rose City Comic Con was this last weekend and there was plenty to read and watch. Ground Kontrol had a video game station. I took some pictures of the infamous DeLorean time-machine from Back to the Future. I didn’t pick up any comics, I prefer graphic novels (and they’re expensive), but I did find a local hand-blown red and blue glass eye pendent to adorn my neck.

My last class is the reason I’m writing this. Creative Non-fiction. Making real life a little less boring is what we’re after, it’s not a required coarse and it’s higher level, so everyone there loves to read and write, so it should be a great class and the fire I need to start writing regularly now that fall’s here.