dontbrittathis:

This is the best photo that has ever happened

Despite having pressed the button to take this picture myself, the flash still surprised me.

dontbrittathis:

This is the best photo that has ever happened

Despite having pressed the button to take this picture myself, the flash still surprised me.

w/r/t this living nightmare unfolding in MO

For a while now, I’ve believed that policemen are like servicepeople in the armed forces, teachers and politicians in that some of them are decent people just trying to do their best and some of them are mammoth failures who regularly abuse their power and deserve to stand fucking trial

maybe that’s true

but right now, attention must be paid to the bad ones. It’s good to keep in mind that not every police officer is a bloodthirsty little boy (to quote Mark Wahlberg in The Departed) “just looking to smash a nigger’s head through a plate glass window”. But let none of us allow that notion to derail the criticisms of the bad ones. Not for one second. This is some shameful shit of the highest order and all brutal parties must be brought to a swift and uncompromising justice in a timely-ass fashion.

I’ve begun writing a novel for a class I’m taking in the fall. My working title is “The Flesh Failures”. Here’s the second chapter.

II.

A Hellhole Named Desire

Later on in life, Malik Fullerton would attend a number of cocktail parties, receptions, various functions well-stocked with balding men in bow ties and serious-faced women. Malik felt out of place at these events; he had little in common with those people, he got no lasting pleasure from small-talk, and the prospect of meeting new people didn’t appeal to him. He’d hear a lot about securing funding for research, shakeups of board personnel, who got published where doing what — in Malik’s estimation, one big drag. On the off chance that a strange soul would approach him and strike up a conversation, the chatter invariably drifted toward a handful of basic topics. Malik had no trouble going on about his research, and remarking on the weather was tiresome, but easy. Often as a gesture of good manners, folks would ask Malik about his background, and that was where he got the urge to hit the eject button. He found that vagueness was the best course of action to pre-empt any unwelcome conversational turns. Malik would go as broad as he could without arousing suspicions, telling inquiring parties that he “grew up in New Orleans.” Unfortunately, many out-of-towners regarded the city with a fascination both vicarious (“Didja get sloshed at Mardi Gras when you were little?”) and anthropological (“Have you found that attitudes towards frankness shifted once you left the city?”, to which Malik simply replied, “Yep.”), all of which led to further, more specified questioning. Those poor bastards who knew no better would ask Malik if he lived in the French Quarter, a question that Malik felt was akin to asking a Seattle native if he lived in the Space Needle. Malik told them that no, but that he lived nearby in a planned community called Desire.

Since the ground was first recklessly broken back in ’56, the Desire Projects were New Orleans’ bastard child, mistreated at every turn, left to fend for themselves when not actively fucked. The feds granted a three-hundred-million-dollar payday to housing authorities in New Orleans back in the day, in the hopes that local forces could clear out the gaping, crime-stricken shithole that roiled between Higgins-to-Florida boulevards and Alvar to Pleasure and Piety streets. The idea was that the slums could be cleared out and demolished, to be replaced with cleaner housing that would naturally give way to a crime-free atmosphere. The money came through in ’49, and it wasn’t long before the sagging derelict structures, along with the legendary Hideaway Club where Fats Domino cut his teeth, were ash in the wind. Those ushered out of the neighborhood were understandably frustrated, but not opposed to the idea of a higher-quality living arrangement (and besides, everyone knew well enough that there was little that could actually be done to stop the wheels once they had begun turning). Six weeks before the Desire Projects were scheduled to welcome inhabitants, however, the Tenants Association issued a report declaring the structures “undesirable for many reasons” and “unsafe for human habitation.” It turns out that the high-rises had not been built on a cement foundation, as many lasting structures are, but were instead sitting nakedly on top of wet soil. Within the first year of operation, porches were breaking off the faces of houses like Kit-Kat Bars. The buildings had no support system, and were consequently being swallowed up by the earth beneath them. As omens go, it was a pretty fucking bad one.

By 1970, the Desire had grown into the largest housing project in New Orleans and the most impoverished sector of the city’s notorious Ninth Ward. The neighborhood was a sort of farm system for the Ninth’s robust drug trade, as three-quarters of Desire’s denizens were under 21 years of age. For a while in the seventies, the Black Panther Party had set up shop in the neighborhood, headquartering themselves on Piety and Desire streets. Malik’s mother spoke fondly of the Panthers’ residency in Desire. She said that the neighborhood had a sense of purpose back then, that everyone respected the Panthers and that they did what little they could to make the area a better place to live. In awed tones, Cilvia Fullerton recounted to little Malik the story of one police raid on a Panther stronghold down the block.

“Baby, there was hundreds of police stomping down the street, a helicopter too, all for six or seven people. But we had the jump on them, ‘cause we knew they were on their way. What I did with the other kids in the neighborhood, we all got together and stood around the apartment we knew the police were after. Must’ve been me and sixty other kids. I think I was around your age. We held onto each other and didn’t move an inch when the cops told us to. We knew they wouldn’t do anything to hurt children — imagine how that woulda looked in the paper! — so we weren’t afraid. We stood for a couple hours, even though that feels like much, much longer when you’re that young. Eventually, the police’s boss called everyone back and they left! It was like something out of a movie, but I swear, Malik, baby, it was real.”

A week after the standoff, cops disguised as postal workers and religious officials stormed that same apartment. Six arrests, all acquitted, and one woman shot in the shoulder while resisting a man with a club. The year after, both Panther headquarters burned to the ground. Nobody knew how, but everybody knew why.

By the time Cilvia gave birth to a bouncing baby boy a week before Christmas in ’92, things had not gotten better, but had gotten slightly less awful. The powers that be around New Orleans had finally recognized the way they handled the Desire Projects as a failure of the highest order, a colossal fuck-up with an embarrassingly high body count. As the nineties rolled on, a new plan came together: tear everything down one last time, and build fewer houses, so that everything wouldn’t become overcrowded. The folks calling the shots (who, not insignificantly, did not view their family heritages of palatial plantations as a mark of ignominy) decided that population was the key to the puzzle. Yep, the shards from shattered vials that studded the ground to form a lethal Milky Way when catching the streetlights; the nightly gunshot tarantellas; the weeping mothers; the houses cracking open down the middle like a gate straight into hell; the undulating oceans of roaches that blanketed entire walls in burned-out homes; the reek of excrement and putrified food that wafted into family living rooms; all of it a simple matter of personal space. 

Cilvia had hoped that she’d be able to push out Malik into a stronger loving world. The night Malik hit fifteen weeks, three bodies with four extra holes between them painted an alley the next block over. The cops who rolled up a couple hours later announced it had been the result of a coke deal gone contentious. Cilvia, looking on, pulled little Malik real close and whispered: “The police weren’t holding the gear and they didn’t pull the trigger, but they did it, baby. It was them.” Malik squealed in delight, as he always did when his mother spoke quietly to him. The sirens’ light danced on Malik’s guileless face, epileptic red-white-blue.

Malik was the second of what would end up being a five-child posse, and Cilvia raised them all, mathematical logic be damned, with 100% of her being. Before Malik came Jamal, after him came Josie, with the twins Sherane and Laetitia bringing up the rear. Cilvia always kept the understanding that Malik was himself a child in the back of her mind, but out of necessity, she eased him into the duties of co-parent as soon as he had proven that he was ready. Jamal spent most of his hefty reserves of spare time scowling around the house or making mischief with neighborhood boys, so Malik grew into a preternatural self-sufficiency. He and Cilvia tag-teamed the majority of all duties, cutting down daily challenges in record time. The girls’ lunches  were made in a flash every morning, the kids dressed and fed and out the door with Malik leading the way. He would not have looked out of place waving a flag, his pint-size battalion of sisters behind him. On some mornings, Cilvia would get a little teary-eyed, watching them march down the street to school. 

On a Tuesday morning, Malik and his nattering retinue turned up on Cilvia’s doorstep a few hours before she expected them.

“Why aren’t y’all in class? Don’t you tell me there’s a half-a-day, I checked.”

“Miss Angela told us we could all go home. She said to walk straight home and to tell you to turn on the news right now. She said something bad happened. Mattie from Miss Beverly’s class said they’re not gonna play baseball games today, neither.”

Cilvia turned a dial on her modest TV and a warped image settled into focus. She clasped her hand to her mouth, but her breath had already fled her.

“Baby, take your sisters outside. Stand outside and just wait there. See if you can’t track down your brother’s hide, too. I bet he’s out with Allen. Just get him back here, baby, okay?”

“Yes, mama.”

Cilvia let the voice from the television go on for another minute, then smashed the dial into the ‘off’ position. She took a quivering breath, closed her eyes, and sat down on the part of the couch that was technically broken, but objectively comfier than the other parts of the couch.

“Malik, come back in here,” she hollered.

“Yes, mama?”

“A bad thing happened. Someone flew a couple big airplanes into a skyscraper in New York City. The skyscraper’s wrecked now, you understand?”

“Why would someone do that?”

“I don’t know.” Cilvia’s voice shook with anger. “I don’t know, baby, all I know’s that a lot of folks died up there and even more got hurt.”

“Why’s it a bad thing, mama? Why’d I get school off?” Cilvia looked at Malik, the boy picking up on his mother’s confusion. “I just mean that folks are dying every day and I haven’t got school off until just now. I didn’t get school off last month when those two boys got shot up the next block over. And this is all the way up north, right? It doesn’t have anything to do with you and me, doesn’t it?” Cilvia had never let her son see her cry.

“Dammit, Malik. Just be a good boy, go outside and tell your sisters.”

“Yes, mama.”

———

Malik Fullerton’s first great love was for a web-slinger. As soon as he was capable of doing so, he’d toddle down the street to the Alvar Library and tunnel through the stacks of books, leaving ant-farm paths in his wake. He’d run his eyes over anything he could get his uncreased little hands on. He graduated out from chapter books pretty promptly, sinking his fangs into Lord of the Flies by age 10. But all along, nothing captivated Malik quite like comic books. The colorful, glossy exploits of spandex-clad crimefighters enchanted him in a way that Robinson Crusoe (Malik: “If they’re both on the same island, why Friday’s still gotta be Robinson’s slave?” Cilvia: “Cause that book was wrote by a white man.”) and Johnny Tremain failed to. Malik’s first and most cherished obsession was Peter Parker, the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Malik was taken first and foremost with Parker the boy, moreso than his wise-cracking costumed alter ago. Malik had never latched onto the adventures of Superman or Batman with the enthusiasm he brought to Spidey. Superman comics soon bored him; homeboy’s an invincible alien who can move the goddamn Earth if he’s running out of options for besting a foe. Bruce Wayne was a kajillionaire with a big-ass mansion and a butler and probably, Malik assumed, all the Calypso Lemonades he could ever care to drink. Malik figured: at that point, why even bother being a superhero? They clearly had equally cool stuff going on in everyday life, so putting on a costume and beating up supervillains hardly seemed like a departure. Leave some of the awesome stuff to the regular people, Malik thought.

Peter Parker, though. He was a kid who lived with his wrinkly old aunt and had to worry about sewing his costume and didn’t know how to talk to Gwen Stacy. This, this was a life Malik intuitively understood. The Alvar Library stocked omnibus compendiums of Amazing Spider-Man reproductions, the original books from the 60’s, and Malik burned through them like Sherman to the sea. Malik marveled at how real the superpowers might look in the real world of the page. Over the course of a single issue, Peter Parker would expend equal efforts besting the nefarious Scorpion and working to pay the bills for that month. Malik could easily imagine Spider-Man slinging his webs in the Ninth, hopping from rooftop to rooftop, clogging a corner boy’s gun with webs with milliseconds to spare. In one issue, a mysterious masked figure begins to take control of the crime syndicates around New York, running afoul of the Green Goblin in the process. The no-goodnik adopts the moniker of the Crime-Master and cooperates with the Goblin to capture Spidey, bind him in chains, and unmask him. Of course, (Malik loved the certainty that Peter Parker would always wriggle free at the last possible opportunity) Spider-Man breaks through the chains and bests the flunkies, the Goblin, and the Crime-Master. But what fascinated Malik was the big reveal of the Crime-Master’s identity. It was Lucky Lewis, a low-level gang boss previously unintroduced in the comics; in other words, just some guy. That clicked with pipsqueak Malik. It made sense. Why should all of the bad guys just so happen to be someone we’ve met before? It was cool, the way it played out with no reason.

But it wasn’t long before Spider-Man was supplanted in Malik’s eyes. The boy was rifling through the library’s catalogue of softcover comics collections when one uncreased volume gave him pause. This omnibus contained the various exploits of T’Challa, a super-strong, super-fast, keenly aware crimefighter who spent the daylight hours ruling over the isolated jungle paradise of Wakanda. Malik took it home that day and returned to the library three hours later for the second volume. His obsession was twofold:

1. Malik felt a strange recognition towards Wakanda. As the site of the world’s lone stash of Vibranium, Wakanda had long since closed its borders for fear of political encroachers, hungry for mining capital. It was a land outside of time and space. The outside world ticked on and Wakanda abided by its own set of rules. Its seclusion from the rest of the world resonated with Malik.

2. T’Challa was the first black superhero Malik had ever laid eyes on. Until that fateful day, Malik had fostered a creeping suspicion that black people weren’t allowed to be superheroes on their own. The X-Men had Storm, but everyone knew that Cyclops and Professor X were the brains of the operation and Wolverine was the real star. The Falcon existed solely to be a flunky to Captain America, the whitest hero of all. Likewise, War Machine was little more than a cheap Iron Man knockoff. But T’Challa not only wrestled silverback gorillas into submission with minimal effort, his day job was ruling a goddamn nation. Seeing him wield so much power activated something in Malik’s brain that had long lain dormant. Though it might’ve also had something to do with T’Challa’s moniker. The cover’s splashy title page trumpeting the adventures of THE BLACK PANTHER felt important and right to Malik. He knew in his heart of hearts that he, too, would one day realize a superpower of his own.

It was around this same time that Malik’s coin fixation took hold. When Malik was six, the U.S. Mint launched its Fifty State Quarters Program, in which each state in the blessed union would commission an artist to create a small design that would adorn the back of a twenty-five-cent piece. As more and more designs trickled into public circulation, Malik became obsessed with the coins’ intricacy and uniformity. Malik would keep one quarter in his pocket at all times, to scrutinize and memorize in spare moments. When he’d find a newly-released coin, he’d switch the previous quarter out and run his thumb over the tail-side of the new addition, marveling at the laborious detail expended on something so matter-of-factly commonplace. The tiny space shuttle lifting off in Florida’s design, the individual cornhusk leaves on Wisconsin’s, the beckoning condor of California — they amazed Malik.

After spending the better portion of a hot summer afternoon drinking in the wonder of Georgia’s minuscule peach, Malik went to his mother with a question. “Mama,” he said, “how do they get the tiny pictures on the back of the quarters all the same every time?”

Cilvia squinted in thought. “Your auntie Syleena used to date a man who worked at the Mint, where they make all the quarters. She said they used to pour the quarter metal into a mold, like when you and me make muffins. But now, they use little lasers to etch up the coins.”

Malik picked his jaw up off the ground and hightailed it to the library, bursting through the door, heaving breaths. The government could use a laser gun to make a hundred works of identical art small enough to keep between your thumb and index finger, all in a minute? Malik had no idea how such a miracle was made possible. Somewhere, an inconceivable feat was being effortlessly pulled off through means Malik couldn’t possibly comprehend. He knew exactly what was going on here: This was a superpower if he had ever seen one. Plain and simple. Malik had to learn its secrets.

He accosted the librarian: “Do y’all have any books about the lasers they use to make the pictures on the tail side of quarters?”

She peered down at him over a copy of something thick and leather-bound. “Coin lasers? Hmm. Lemme take a look in the computer for you, Malik.” Her long fingernails sounded out a loud clacking on the dusty keyboard, an irritating noise Malik tried his hardest to ignore. “Good news is that we do have a book like that. Bad news is, we don’t have it.”

Malik was ready to combust. “Do you have it or don’t you?”

“You can take home the book, but it’s at one of our sister libraries, uptown. We’ll ask them to send us the book and you can come back and take it out next week. How’s that?”

“But I need it today! Right now! Where’s the other library? I’ll go there and get it myself. I can’t wait a whole week, I just can’t do it.” The librarian gave him a glance of acquiescence, writing down specific directions delineating streetcar lines and numbered busses for Malik to hop on. The instant the librarian had removed her pencil from the slip of paper, Malik snatched it up, looked it over once, and was out the door, darting down the street at a pace damn near close to superhuman.

As Malik stood, itching his elbow, a nauseating feeling crept into his bowels. He looked up at the sign denoting the 88 bus down St. Claude, and realized that this would be the first time he had left the Lower Ninth. He had spent every day of eleven years treading the same swelling, cracking cement in Desire and its adjacent neighborhoods. But he knew the Black Panther eventually had no choice but to leave Wakanda to meet with foreign dignitaries, which led to his brief stint in the Avengers — in other words, as Malik saw it, a hot date with destiny. Samwise broke out of the Shire, Harry left Privet Drive; Malik knew that, likewise, there was nothing he couldn’t do, especially once he had harnessed the power of the art-making laser. The 88 bus lurched up to the stop and the doors parted for Malik. He rumpled around in his pocket for fare, fishing out a dollar he had originally intended for a Calypso Lemonade later the afternoon. That doesn’t matter, thought Malik, we’re talking about destiny. He silently nodded to himself and slipped the dollar into the automated fare slot.

The driver looked over at Malik. “It’s a buck twenty-five, little man.” Malik extricated Georgia’s millimeter peach from his pocket and looked it over. A smile crept over his face and he slapped the coin into the bus driver’s hand, striding down the bus’ center aisle.

As Malik aged into teenagerdom, he affected a mild air of surliness. But the only real, rip-snorting showdown between Malik and his mother came way back on the eve of the great flood. Malik had been tracking Katrina’s movements on the library’s sorry excuse for a PC, and he feared the worst. The constant stream of doomsaying news articles had impressed upon him the situation’s grim gravity. He came home like a madman warning of an impending apocalypse, raving to his mother about the end of days in Desire. Cilvia, however, remained unconvinced that a bit of rain could pose any sort of real threat.

“You’re getting up in your ages now. You’re thirteen, you think you know everything. Hell, I used to be thirteen and I was the same way, baby. But I know better now. It’s gonna rain, but I’ve lived through much worse. We’ve lived through much worse. Besides, look around. What’s some water gonna do to this shitbox? Maybe this’ll give the city the kick in the ass it needs to fix things up around here. We’re staying, baby.”

“You don’t get it mama, there’s not going to be any place to stay. It’s not like we can put up the windows and sit it out. The way the city’s set up, we’re gonna be in real danger. We’ll get picked up by the police if we don’t die first. It’s gonna be bad, mama, really bad. Just call auntie Syleena in Houston, ask if we can stay with her for a week. That’s all we need, then we can come home and figure out what to do next.”

The Fullerton family stayed with Syleena in Houston for a month and a half. Quarters were cramped, but Malik got a lot of reading done.

The following years saw Malik carefully honing his superpowers, maintaining top marks in school while spending every free hour neck-deep in physics textbooks. The librarian uptown knew Malik’s name after a week and a half, even going so far as to introduce him to an old friend who gave the occasional physics lecture at Delgado. As vast as physics’ purview may have been, Malik saw it as a simple, single pursuit: the mastery of the natural world. With every paper Malik devoured, he came another step closer to bending the very fabric of reality to his will. When he fully developed his superpowers, Malik knew he’d be able to escape Wakanda. He had already begun receiving aggressive letters of courtship from top-tier universities hailing from far-off lands such as Connecticut (bare-limbed tree), North Carolina (Wright brothers, attempting their first flight at Kittyhawk) and Pennsylvania (female statue grasping staff, state outline in background). Malik was old enough to know that his family could never afford to send him so far away for school, but his mother gave him a reassuring message after a woman in an uncreased suit came to the house one day to discuss Malik’s future.

“Baby, that lady said she was a career counselor, working with kids getting ready for college. She says that it doesn’t matter if we don’t have the money. She says it’s almost better that way, because if you’re smart enough, college will let you go to class and put you up and feed you for free. She says we’d only be in trouble if we had a little money. She says it turns out being flat-ass broke all this time was a blessing in disguise. I told her it didn’t feel much like a blessing when you were a baby crying for food I couldn’t get from the store. But that’s not what I’m saying right now, baby, because you’re going to school!”

“Are you for sure, mama? Who’s gonna help out around the house and look after the girls? The twins still need to be walked to school.”

“That’s what Josie’s for. She can give me a hand, and by the time she’s out of school, the twins will be old enough to care for themselves.”

“But what about you, mama?”

“I made it this long, baby, I’m indestructible. Call that my superpower. You’ll go on to school, you’ll graduate, come home and I’ll be right here. All you worry about is keeping your grades up and impressing those schools, and you’ll be just fine. I’m so damn proud of you, baby.”

So he did. Malik buried himself in his studies. He had cultivated a handy skill of walking and reading a book at the same time, which made it somewhat easier to ignore the furtive offers to smoke sherm that teens in undershirts and Timberlands would hiss at Malik when he passed by. Malik made a few friends at school, but they were hardly the sort to come over for sleepovers or to play stickball until it got too dark to see. Malik would sometimes join them for fried gator po’boys at the corner grocer or chat with them about everyone’s new favorite hip-hop record (hometown hero Lil Wayne’s Da Drought 2 mixtape could be heard rattling the trunks of any cars rolling through the neighborhood), but he mostly kept to himself. He divvied his spare time between the library, cobbling together meager meals for his younger sister, and keeping his mother company. He dreamt tirelessly of the day that he’d have the full resources of an actual lab at his disposal, where he’d be able to play out all the experiments he’d pored over and committed to memory. He imagined himself in a clean white lab coat, clear plastic goggles, a pencil tucked behind his ear. No, Dr. Fullerton, they’d say. Yes, Dr. Fullerton. That life was within his grasp. Malik knew it.

About a week before his eighteenth birthday, Malik was — shock of shocks — at the library, reading about the chemical properties of gold foil. He was so absorbed in his textbook that it took the librarian three times to get his attention.

“Malik! Phone for you.” He went over and picked up the receiver, confused. He had never gotten a phone call at the library before. It could only be very good or very bad news.

Malik was in tears before he even got to the hospital. The surgeon’s phrasing only made matters worse; saying Cilvia had “caught a bullet” positioned her as the subject of the sentence where Malik knew she was an object. It wasn’t bad luck. This was not like getting caught in the rain without an umbrella. Someone else had actively done this, put his finger around a trigger and squeezed. It was probably an accident (who would possibly have reason to hurt a quiet mother of five, sitting out on her sagging porch?) but that only made matters worse. She wasn’t getting robbed, she wasn’t getting attacked. A couple fuckboys had no idea what direction they were pointing their guns and that was that. This played out for no reason. Malik convulsed with sobs through gritted teeth. They hadn’t subsided by the time he was allowed to speak to his convalescent mother. 

“I’m okay, baby. I’m gonna be okay. The doctors said they can’t fully heal my back, but they said that it’s a blessing I’m not dead and gone. A half-inch over, they said, and I’d have been cold by the time the ambulance came around. They’re even going to give me my own wheelchair.

“Mama, I’m gonna—”

“Hush. You’re not gonna do anything. You’re a good boy, so you’re just gonna stay smart and let the police work this out in their own way.”

“They’re already out getting coffee.”

“Just keep your nose down. Stay smart. You’re still gonna go to school in the fall, I swear it. But I just have one thing to ask you, baby.”

“I’m yours, mama.”

“I need you around. With the wheelchair, I won’t be able to do much and I’m gonna need more help than ever with the girls, but also with me. I’m not saying you can’t go to school, but I need you in the city. Go uptown. Go anywhere, so long as I can still get at you if I need you. I’m sorry, baby.”

“It’s okay, mama.”

“I’m so sorry.” Cilvia began to tear up. “Get out of here. Go wait in the hall.”

Tulane had offered Malik a full ride a month before. Malik knew it was not a bad school.

http://moviemezzanine.com/documentarians-and-their-subjects/

You guys, I wrote this thing and I’m really proud of it because if you squint really hard, I almost look like a real film critic

STOP GAUGING YOUR SUCCESS IN TERMS OF THE SUCCESS OF THOSE AROUND YOU

self-loathing has always fueled any fires of productivity that have burned within me but the tricky thing is that after long enough, it will literally kill you

don’t forget

smoking weed and crying might make you feel a little better in the moment but every problem you have will still be there and probably worse once you’re all done

I’ve begun writing a novel for a class I’m taking in the fall. My working title is “The Flesh Failures”. Here’s the first chapter.

I.

Two Inheritances

Looking back, Jeanie Boucher fully recognized that 1975 was an ideal time to be a sophomore in college. Worcester, MA wasn’t exactly a cultural hub, and she did retrospectively wish that she had made more sojourns into Boston to dick around in front of the Newbury Street head shops and leave fingerprints all over the freshly-pressed vinyl at Cheapo on Mass. Ave. and badger the taco vendors in Jamaica Plain while she chain-smoked whatever the lowest-priced cigarettes might have been. But Holy Cross still felt like an incubator for a pre-punk cleverness and all the stuff about being young of which old people get jealous. Walking through a quad on an afternoon that barely verged on clemency (in Massachusetts, any day above fifty-five was declared wicked nice, and a cause for shorts-clad outdoor celebration), she would hear glorious discordant symphonies pouring out of open dorm-room windows. Every other student would heave his speakers into any available opening and treat the outside world to that week’s favorite record. Led Zeppelin tangled with Bowie’s last great work (this was on the eve of his Berlin trilogy with Brian Eno, which Jeanie would defiantly brand ‘overblown claptrap’), Quicksilver Messenger Service melted into Springsteen’s crushed-gravel growl, all of this combining to form a medley that switched movements depending on where a fresh-faced student chose to stand. 

Midnight movies played to hooting hordes of stogna-bologna intellectual types. Jeanie looked back fondly on an evening when she and her big-mouthed roommate Jenny (yes, it was great fun at parties, Jeanie and Jenny, an observation that every starched-collar frat boy genuinely believed he had been the first to make) sucked down a joint apiece and secured front-row seats for Eraserhead, gaping at one another and bursting into delirious laughter in response to the big reveal of the deformed mutant baby. In Jeanie’s imagination, college in 1975 slapped every right-thinking American Adult in the stony face. She treated every 1 a.m. vodka shot like a slight against her parents. Their vague racism, the way they warned her against becoming a ‘fruit fly’ after meeting her preening best friend Donald, her father the IRS worker’s firmly-rooted love of God, country and industry — Jeanie rejected them all with the blithe verve that collegiate types speak like a native language. Her acid-tongued mother and authoritarian father had cast their lot with Vietnam and Nixon and the riot police and they had all fully and totally blown it. They had frittered away their chance to make America somewhere worth living, Jeanie knew, and now it was on her and her contemporaries. She could feel herself making steps, too. Her introductory literature course had pulled her second-wave eyes wide open; Professor Sveinsdottir began the first day of class with a screed that increased in volume as it did in vitriol, denouncing the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Salinger as misogynist adolescents and asserting in no uncertain terms that this would be a program of mental expansion, that the vocabulary defining the oppressor from the oppressed was the first and greatest lesson, far trumping explorations of ‘pettily existential themes.’ The professor’s lectures straddled the continental gap between hellfire sermons and elegantly reasoned Socratic dialogues. Hulga Sveinsdottir proselytized on the corrosive effects of patriarchal literature, that the very notion of the Great American Novelist was designed specifically to marginalize female authors and elevate young white men. Jeanie entertained avenues of thought she never knew existed, and it was not infrequently that she would take a mental step back and marvel at how much intellectual progress she had made since her small-minded days in her provincial fishery of a hometown. 

It was around this time in her life that Jeanie made her debut in what would be a long and illustrious career in self-disappointment. As Jeanie’s fledgling feminism approached a fever pitch, she fell in love with a young man in spite of her most progressive intentions. Jenny had dragged Jeanie to the Bullfrog, a bar located deep in the knotted intestinal tract of the South End’s most Irish neighborhoods. Jenny was dating Curtis, who played drums for the Clamdiggers, a pub-rock outfit with a standing reservation for a forty-minute set every Thursday night (this had been the source of the anecdote that won Curtis a first date with Jenny, in which Curtis swear-to-god-no-bullshit-strike-me-down-if-you-doubt spotted Whitey Bulger flanked by four hulking man-boulders in the back of the bar, nodding his head along to “If 6 Was 9”). Jeanie had met guitarist and lead vocalist Matthew at a party a couple weeks back and was, truth be told, a bit taken with his sharp, angular facial layout. But by the time the girls had gotten their Narragansett tallboys and swayed noncommittally to the first few numbers, Jeanie’s eyes were plastered elsewhere. The bassist must have exuded some chemical mojo on Jeanie, an erotic dogwhistle to which only she was privy, because his tight brown curls (“It’s the Jewish response to the Afro. I call it the Isro,” he would joke), coke-bottle glasses and robust mustache commanded her gaze for all two-thousand-four-hundred seconds the Clamdiggers inoffensively occupied the stage. When he played, he evinced a disciplined focus that Jeanie couldn’t ignore. She drifted off, imagined herself thinned out and coiled into the shape of his bass strings, her entire body vibrating as he plucked out a rhythm on her spine. In the coming months, she would grow cartoon-eyes enamored of his aloof sense of self-deprecating humor, the quiet dignity with which he owned his status as a 21-year-old orphan, and his unflagging affability. But for now:

“Hey, I’m Seth. My last name is Urbanski. I’m Seth Urbanski. Hey.”

Twenty years later, Jeanie Urbanski was folding laundry. It was a graphite-grey Saturday afternoon and Seth was in Newark on work, leaving Jeanie to tend their home in a tidy suburb twenty minutes north of Boston called Fairmont and to look after their kids: brassy and confrontational four-year-old Vanessa and gurgling, phlegm-spewing Jack, coming up on his first birthday. Jeanie had spent most of the morning gently convincing Nessa that the best course of action for the afternoon would not be to draw a hopscotch on the pavement outside with a fat pale-green rod of chalk because baby, it’s going to be raining soon and you don’t want to come in drippy, so it’d make Mommy very happy if you could sit in the next room and read your Magic Tree House books while these chores get done, and make sure to come get Mommy if your brother starts crying. With available space in the house becoming a calculably more precious commodity due to Jack’s arrival, and a bit of extra money never unwelcome, Seth and Jeanie had agreed that a game-changing yard sale was in the cards. One of the most loathsome tasks would be to cull their vast shared vinyl collection. Some of the rarer stuff would probably fetch a princely sum from people invested in the burgeoning market of obsolescence fetishism, and so Seth had entrusted Jeanie to take the weekend to divide their towering library of records into manageable “Keep” and “Sell” piles. Jeanie had moved the turntable into the laundry room so that she could make her way through the massive undertaking while she folded Jack’s tight cotton onesies and scrubbed Nessa’s grass-stained dresses. Her system was tough, but fair: An album had its first three tracks to prove its own staying power, its worthiness of becoming a fixture in the Urbanski Family Music Collection. If a record failed to elicit some reaction from Jeanie within three songs, whether that be a tapped toe, bobbed head, or trigger of a gold-hued specific recollection, then out it went. 

For some, it only took a minute or two of sustained listening to sway her one way or the other. Throwing away After the Gold Rush wouldn’t have just been dumb; it would’ve been an act of lesser heresy to Jeanie, treason against good taste — back on the shelf it went. Sleeves from Grace Jones, Helen Reddy and Archie Bell & the Drells didn’t meet with such luck, and were solemnly placed into a brown paper bag saved from Jeanie’s most recent outing to the neighborhood Stop and Shop. Jeanie made every effort to silence the slight twinges of regret she felt when she discarded any of the albums, reminding herself that they’re just pieces of wax that could be easily transmuted into money, which could then be alchemized one more time into baby formula, mini-saddle shoes, light bulbs, loaves of wheat bread, or one of the other million things she and Seth miraculously managed to afford every month. 

Deciding that The Electric Prunes were hardly worth keeping around in the coming years, Jeanie moved the record off of the turntable, back into its sleeve and into the paper bag. She reached for the next album in the to-listen pile and smiled with recognition when she saw the four painted-over portraits forming the cover art for Remain In Light. The Talking Heads had been a staple of Jeanie’s musical diet throughout the early 80’s. She knew instantly that this was a keeper, but carefully fitted the record onto the turntable for old time’s sake. When the glittering synths and tribal drumbeat of  “Once In A Lifetime” spilled out of the speaker, Jeanie realized that she had mistakenly started on Side B. She had always considered this the album’s highlight, however, and let it spin. As she folded socks, David Byrne’s words burrowed into a part of her brain she didn’t much like prodded. Her stomach began to tie itself into a nauseating snarl. All of the notes sounded slightly-off key, not in the darling organic way that comes from a warped record, but in a jeering funhouse way that Jeanie had not anticipated in the slightest:

And you may ask yourself: what is that beautiful house? And you may ask yourself: where does that highway go? And you may ask yourself: am I right or am I wrong? And you may say to yourself: my god, what have I done?

Jeanie started to choke back tears. She ripped the needle off of the record in a swift single motion, shoved the record back into the sleeve, and chucked it into the on-the-way-out bag with the others. She whipped Jack’s baby sock back into the dryer from whence it came and cradled her head in her hands for a moment, collecting herself. In the next room, Jack slumbered with the sweet clean malleability of infancy.

———

Jack Urbanski got his first peek at the hole at the tender age of eight. In a kitchen whose Easter-pale yellow walls framed a vista of the lush yet well-manicured back yard, little Jack tugged on his mother’s skirt as she massacred a bagful of green bell peppers. Something in him understood that asking this question didn’t make sense, but Jack couldn’t ignore the the question’s mere presence, that by virtue of the question materializing at all it deserved to be asked. Jack pulled at the hem of his mother’s long black skirt once more, jolting her from the highway hypnosis into which her task had lured her.

“Mom, what am I going to do with my life?” Jack’s mother looked down at him like he had just confessed to murder.

“Who told you to say that? Why are you asking that?”

“I dunno.” He didn’t know. Even at this point, he had seen enough movies to know that that was a question people rarely asked other people, usually to themselves in pivotal moments — following breakups, graduations, firings. Jack understood that at age eight, he probably wasn’t expected to have this crazy adventure called life all figured out, but the thing that creeped him out was the blank screen that wouldn’t take shape when Jack tried to imagine a future in which he did do something. A couple years at school had successfully ingrained in him the notion that that stuff he did now, stuff like getting good grades and picking yourself back up when you got tired and had to sit down during pickup football games, would directly determine which future would lay in wait for him. Jack had a handle on the basic principle that hard work = success = a good life and maybe even a pretty girl would like you back. 

Baseball superstar was Jack’s loftiest inspiration during those salad days. He could see that all so clearly: his uniform starched and creaseless and white. Smears of black underlining each of his eyes like war paint. The classic bottom-of-the-ninth, bases-loaded, two-men-out fantasy struck Jack as too unlikely and fanciful by half (Jack, to himself: “I only ever saw that happen once out of all the baseball games I’ve seen. Of all the players on all the teams in all the games, many times would I ever be the guy?”) and so he instead cast himself as taking the plate maybe in the bottom of the top of the seventh, a solitary man on second. He’d send one aloft, nice and easy, and it’d just sneak over the wall back in left field. Little camera flashes would blink in a galaxy of admirers all through the crowd, with a faithful few even going so far as to start up a mild but earnest chant of JACK JACK JACK JACK. Jack would spruce this scenario up with a new coat of paint as he moved into different phases of his life — crowd-surfing while his band played the House of Blues awkwardly shoehorned into the neighborhood surrounding Fenway, managing his thank-yous and acknowledgements during a halved speech time when he and his writing partner accept the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Though the dramatis personae and setting consistently rotated out, constant were the components. Tempered aspiring, success, and praise. He needed to be something, maybe not fabulously famous, but he was set on being great at something.

Back in the kitchen, Jack’s pruny undercooked brain was still scrambling to give his mother a more satisfactory explanation for what he was increasingly regarding as a dumb question. He supposed his best bet was keeping it simple and being straightforward.

“I’m scared I’m not gonna do well at school and then I won’t be able to do anything to get a job and I won’t have money and I won’t be able to have a house.”

“Look, you’re not going to have to worry about that for a long time. As long as you stay smart and get good grades, you’ll be fine. You’ll figure it all out eventually.”

Jack did not believe her. How could she possibly know whether he was capable of piecing together a life for himself? Over the following few years, throughout his elementary education, he’d frequently entertain alternating waking nightmares. One vision adhered to the same reined-in reality of his aspirational fantasies. He went to work at a boring job in a boring office every day and lived in a boring town and was married to someone boring, who he didn’t know that well, and he didn’t have friends to see after work or on the weekends. The difference here being that Jack also welcomed the more cinematic vision as well, complete with cardboard domiciles and pigeons for friends. An unextraordinary life would be the ultimate failure, to go through everything without making your life worth something.

Accordingly, Jack appended a sense of crucial significance to his every move. Everything was high-stakes. Every missed foul ball, every poor mark on his handwriting evaluations (cursive k’s ranked up there with bunting and hornets on Jack’s running list of childhood nemeses) was a portent of doom. A bad grade meant that he was falling behind in the material, which foretold worse grade, a subpar college education, etc. etc. It didn’t matter that his report card boasted thick strips of gold stars down the Language Arts, History, Math and Science columns. It was never the four A’s, but the one B. Such relatively acceptable gaffes felt like irrefutable indicators of some shortcoming in character. Praise, which didn’t come infrequently, practically acted as nourishment. His reputation as a ‘smart kid’ gradually solidified around school, but only compounded the feelings of inadequacy in times of error. He wasn’t just a disappointment to himself; he could feel everyone realizing that they were mistaken every time he gave a wrong answer.

All of this business, the collected terrors of an uncertain future and the heavy toll of minor missteps, it all weighed down on the center of Jack’s chest. His class had taken a field trip to Salem on one sunny April afternoon to learn about the darkest and most shameful chapter in his state’s history. A bubbly tour guide walked the children through the Salem Witch Trials in a sugary soprano, detailing the frenzied lynching of various innocent townspeople in a tone usually reserved for pre-Disneyland briefings. She recounted the sad tale of Giles Corey, a humble farm-owner at whom hysteria extended a bony, putrid finger. The town officials somehow had arrived at the conclusion that Corey was in covert cahoots with Satan, and the Salem lawkeeping force snatched Corey from his bed in the dead of a cold night for an interrogation. Corey refused to cop to the charges of dark magic, leaving his captors no choice but to extort a confession from him. When day broke, they laid Corey flat out on the ground in the town square, placed a wooden board on his chest, and began piling rocks on top of it. Every five grapefruit-sized stones or so, some hooded torturer would demand that Corey own up to his dealings with the devil, but Corey would only grit his teeth and challenge them to add more weight. Of course he died, but the anecdote stuck with Jack. He imagined that the weight of the board must’ve left a sunken-in hole in Giles Corey. He felt sick like that sometimes, a big hole right in the middle. 

All this is not to say that Jack was a morose young man, sauntering into his mini-desk in Mrs. McLaughlin’s fourth-grade class every morning with dark rings around his eyes, moaning about futility and inevitability. Like many kids, Jack was often a vibrating bundle of energy. He talked too loudly and ate what could objectively be ruled as too much macaroni and cheese. It brought him great satisfaction to make other people laugh. Except for scowling Mrs. Lancaster in second-grade, Jack was well-liked by the teachers and he liked his teachers in return. Not quite clown and not quite bookworm, Jack was the kid at the front of the class cracking the occasional joke. One comment facetiously suggesting that the letter Z came last in the alphabet because it was “weakest” coaxed a laugh out of third-grade Mr. Mazzaro, only for him to quickly compose himself and smilingly remind Jack that he’d need to raise his hand if he wanted to speak in the class. The in-house music teacher took a shine to Jack while watching him take a shine to musical notation. Seeing tangible representations of singing, the piano he’d often hear his father play, it all delighted Jack. The music teacher staged a Broadway revue with her most musically-inclined students the summer after Jack completed second grade. Mrs. Bellerue had entrusted Jack with a big solo number, in which he’d slap on a boater hat and do an almost entirely on-key rendition of “Put On A Happy Face.” After the curtain closed on opening night, Mrs. Bellerue took him aside and let him know how proud she was, how much bravery it must’ve taken to go up on stage and do all that all by yourself. Jack beamed, but internally felt slightly undeserving of such glowing praise; he had, after all, just done all the things she had painstakingly taught him over the past seven weeks. It was more of a recitation than anything.

No, Jack’s most formative moment during the production of “Treasures of the Stage” took place behind the scenes. Still jittery from the adrenaline rush tied to performance, Jack scurried offstage and down the hall to the meager cell stuffed with clothing racks, empty hairspray cans and one grime-encrusted mirror that Mrs. Bellevue had generously called the green room. Jack had had his movements carefully laid out for him countless times over the week directly preceding the show: show up in civilian clothes, change into your costume while the “Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Dead” played out for the crowd, get up on stage and just try to do your best, go to the green room and change into your official show t-shirt for the curtain call. Jack had only cracked the heavy door open an inch when he saw that the room was already occupied. Who to Jack’s widening eyes should appear but Nessie Rosen, gawky and tall with long tight curly ringlets of dark brown hair, an unimaginable and untouchable thirteen. Jack’s breath fled him as he watched Nessie in reverent silence. In preparation for her upcoming duet of “Sixteen Going On Seventeen,” Nessie was sitting pantsless at the vanity, scrutinizing an unseen blemish in the mirror while lamenting the state of her crudely-stitched skirt. Through the barely-there opening in the door, trembling Jack drank in the sight of Nessie’s ghastly white leg and malformed buttock. He looked at her the way fathers of three look at the Grand Canyon; he instantly felt full of some lukewarm significance, that what he was seeing was rare and majestic and monumentally important to the very fabric of his own existence on the planet. This feeling was short-lived, however; within a few seconds, Jack snapped out of it and remembered that this peeping was what his mother would describe as pervy and that if Nessie saw — or if anyone found out, maybe someone walking down the hall — he’d be an outcast forever. He snapped his eyes shut and made off down the hall to the boys’ bathroom. Within the cozy confines of a vacant toilet stall, Jack changed into his t-shirt. He caught his breath and wondered to himself if this is what bank robbers feel like.

By age sixteen, Jack had amassed a considerable number of unrequited crushes on assorted classmates, but his limb-dominated body remained cruelly untouched. He had shared furtive kisses with various girls (most of whom, curiously, would come out as lesbians in the following years) in ranch-house basements or the wings of community stages, sure, but nothing that matched Jack’s imagined world-shattering sexual ideal. He had seen enough pixelated skin flicks to know what intercourse was capable of being at its best: punk rock and opera, a glass of cold water or an atomic bomb. As a game to run out the clock on duller lectures, Jack would pick something, anything — how a person dressed, why a certain style of music might be popular, specific phrasings to express broad and simple ideas — and trace its intention’s roots back to the sexual impulse. Halfway through his teens, and Jack was convinced he had it all figured out. Sex was everything and everything was sex. 

Perhaps surprisingly, masturbation never overtook ‘computer games’ and ‘AOL Instant Messenger’ on the hierarchy of Jack’s leisure activities. He brought himself to a furious paranoid orgasm a handful of times over the course of his high school years, dividing his consciousness in half, attentive both towards the task at hand and also the noises that any family member creeping around the house might make. Jack, however, couldn’t ignore what was developing into a rather nasty case of anhedonia. Masturbation failed to provide Jack with the wash of relief he expected it to, the sense of carnal actualization he’d heard in awed whispers from schoolmates. Each ejaculation left him feeling drained in a sense far too literal for his liking: He felt hollow, wasted, his hole wider than ever. He couldn’t tear his mind away from the general squandered potential of masturbation as a practice. Every orgasm seemed to him like one he’d selfishly failed to share with a grateful, unseen partner. In the seconds after his orgasms, Jack would often get lost in the sight of his semen. He’d feel like the architect of a split-second holocaust, looking down at the millions of lives he had just uprooted. Jack’s habit of climaxing into the open bowl of his toilet lent this tableau an otherworldly elegance; when suspended in the water, the semen had the intricate stillness of a castle on an alien world. Jack would stare into it, realize that he’d been staring for a much longer time than could be considered normal, and would hastily flush it away.

During an unusually dull chemistry lecture about free radicals (which, bizarrely, coincided with a history lecture about radical Chilean revolutionaries, a calculus lecture on radical equations including imaginary numbers, and an english lecture in which Jack’s instructor, a native of San Jose, described the works of Zora Neale Hurston as “radical”), Jack’s classmate Pat relayed a game-changing news bulletin.

“You know how Chelsea had a thing at her house on Saturday night? Her parents were down the Cape?”

“Yeah, I heard about that.” Jack had not heard about that, but figured that whether he had or had not wouldn’t deter Pat from moving forward with the conversation.

“I heard Steve Conroy and Erin actually did it.”

This roused the attentions of Melissa, who sat adjacent to Pat. “I heard that too. Can you believe it? And in Chelsea’s mom’s bed, of all places. Like, okay.”

“Erin’s not even in school today. I can’t believe Pat showed up. He must know that everyone knows by now.”

“I know, right?”

Jack sat by in an inconspicuous silence. Exchanges like these weren’t uncommon in the halls and classrooms of Fairmont H.S. An anonymous contributor submitted a poem to the school’s slightly disreputable literary magazine in which she described the feeling of harsh lips upon her breast; the editor decided not to run it, but saw fit to make photocopies. It was rumored that four members of the loosely-connected posse that spent lunchtimes idling in the art studio and trying to hand-roll cigarettes with Bali Shag pilfered from someone’s older brother had joined in one tangle of sexual congress; the item dominated sharp conversation for the following months, and was only usurped when it was revealed that Danny McWilliams had had sex with the area in between a girl’s breasts.

These sideways glances and pointed comments made no sense to Jack. Was not sex something messy and glorious and organic? Did his classmates not similarly spend sweaty hours envisioning in crystal-clear resolution the moment when they would finally cross the threshold into their own sexual maturity? And even if the idea didn’t especially appeal to them, did they all have to be so involved? Hot words traveled through a complicated network of vocal pneumatic tubes at F.H.S., each stopping point harsher than the next. So what if Morgan Leiderman had been fingered in the cemetery behind the Stop & Shop by her out-of-town boyfriend? Good for you, Jack thought, go get it. Picturing the social scorn that could be earned by any deviant act turned Jack’s insides to flan, and so he frequently reassured himself that his intact virginity was a consequence of his fear of pariah status, and not a dearth of interested parties.

With attention paid to the radicals still flagging, Jack pondered on the possibility of a place different than this. There were parts of the world — shit, parts of America — where tongues weren’t covered in a thin sheet of ice. He wanted so badly for this place to be real, not some Edenic figment, and so he gave himself a modestly-paying job, an apartment in condition that could be charitably called ‘tidy,’ etc. etc. But the place, a place which was coming into focus as a city, would be a freer haven. Friendly depravity would pour forth from every open orifice, with indulgences of every sense coming cheap and high-quality. Best of all, the people wouldn’t bat an eye at thick, vigorous human sexual expression. What was the expression Jack’s teacher had used when droning on about the French government pre-Revolution? Laissez-faire. Do as you will, Jack recalled. Jack liked that idea. Do your thing, and do it well. This place was looking better every second. Jack saw himself living as he pleased, and flourishing. This was a place where he could be happy, where he could be great, where there were no holes. A place where he’d make good on every jerk-off’s broken promise.

About a year later, Jack perused the bloated slab of a Princeton Review of Colleges that his mother had purchased for him, and then insisted he read. Maybe going to school in New Orleans could be cool. 

Anonymous said: I've been reading through your blog for more than an hour, and I did not mean to do this. Mostly looking at your album reviews, listening to songs from those albums, and then going back. Your writing is fantastic and engaging, please keep posting stuff on here

You are the wind beneath my wings. I’ll do my best to appease you, beautiful sunglasses-wearing grey circle.

tonight’s revelation

loneliness is poetic and nice when you’ve got an apartment in a big foreign city all to yourself and you think of the outside as a sexy inky wet blackness and you’re holed up with the smoke and Steve Reich

I’m writing fiction again

I’m going to try to post a chapter here every couple weeks or so. Hoping to finish the one I’m currently six pages into some time next week.

Six pages and a character has already had an existential crisis while listening to the Talking Heads