Sunday, August 2, 2015


I suppose every family has a magic number; ours is two. Once a gathering grows to three or four the odds of some type of fracas increases significantly, and the holidays literally guarantee a complete Chernobyl-like meltdown. You can almost smell the dysfunction in the air when fifteen or twenty of us are cooped up for more than an hour in mama’s little rat-trap of a maze she calls a home. We love her to pieces, but when a woman misses the birth of her grandbaby because she can’t pry herself away from the QVC Lunch Special it’s time for someone to pull the batteries from the remote. The last time we ‘intervened’ I discovered two dozen unopened horse brushes hidden in the corner of the pantry. I could understand it if she ran a stable, but the closest momma ever had to a horse was that over-sized, half-breed of a mutt that sat in the corner and licked his sack 90% of the time, and split the other 10% between trying to give the babies kisses and getting tangled in everyone’s feet. When I confronted her with the brushes she said, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly get rid of those….they make the cutest stocking stuffers.” It wasn’t anything we officially announced, but after third or fourth intervention we kind of gave up trying. I guess the moral of the story is, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t do it justice if you don’t have two dozen horse brushes.

I felt bad that we dumped a lot of the responsibility on momma’s boyfriend, Hank. I did truly appreciate what he meant to my mother—she seemed happy, but Hank definitely wasn’t going to be momma’s knight in shining armor where the hoarding was concerned. He’d done a lot with the place in the last fifteen years. There was the gnarly gang of broken down lawn mowers lurking in the wilds of un-mowed grass that he optimistically referred to as ‘strategically placed yard ornaments’, and of course the Old Style can-pyramid in the living room kind of screamed ‘art  nouveau’. The thing I liked most about Hank was that he farted a lot—kind of sputtered when he walked, especially when he made trips to and from the fridge for beer. In redneck terms it was a flatulence freestyle version of the X Games…small fart, he laughed, medium fart, he laughed harder, big fart, he began the full fledged belly-laugh. The infamous explosive fart was reserved for the finale, which typically resulted in an extended visit to the bathroom and a fresh set of sweats in a darker color. I guess there comes a time when every 60 year old man feels the compulsion to grow up. After the old dog passed away, Hank was forced to take ownership of the stench floating about the room as well as the stains in his easy chair. I’m pretty certain that degree of reckoning would knock the wind out of any well-trained athlete. Hank just didn’t get tickled nearly as often anymore. It was kind of a shame for the little ones, because for years he was pretty much full-time entertainment.                 

I don’t really know how my little brother and older sister feel about our real dad. We never talked much about it, even though he’s been M.I.A for going on thirty years now. As tragic and sudden as a car accident or heart attack can be, I remember wishing for something so ordinary. I preferred to have been able to lay eyes on a crumpled pile of metal or at least have had the memories of seeing him lying in a casket. Dad rolled out of the driveway on his Harley in a beat up pair of jeans and a white tee and just disappeared into thin air. He told mom he was headed up to the T-Mart for a pack of smokes. The cashier said he’d been in that afternoon and the only thing odd about his visit was that he bought a winning scratch-off lottery ticket. Momma said the $500 would have gotten us completely caught up on rent, but assured us she’d make ends meet somehow. She didn’t talk about dad after that.      

As a ten year old boy I remember thinking that whatever his reasoning, dad’s scheduled his departure perfectly. He narrowly missed the period of time when our family began to unravel. After a particularly ugly fight with momma, Linda, fourteen at the time, moved out of the house to live with her alcoholic and abusive boyfriend. My younger brother, Wayne, started wearing girl’s clothes and insisting that everyone call him Wanda. About that time Mom decided we didn’t have to go to church on Sunday mornings anymore, and I just remember being angry about everything, especially things I couldn’t change. Before long I was subsisting on a steady diet of schoolyard brawls and suspensions. I suppose we were all too busy dealing with our own demons to notice Momma sitting in front of the television, buying things left and right. I think she got tired of the brokenness and just wanted something shiny and new.

If Linda had went to college, or even graduated from high school; she would have majored in procreation. She studied hard and always had a willing lab partner waiting in the wings when an experiment finished. No one knows for certain, but I think she produced five babies in a shade over four years. Quite an impressive streak for anyone, but especially when the first arrived two weeks before her fifteenth birthday. More like a litter of puppies than babies, Linda kept three, and the luckier two went up for adoption. At the ripe age of twenty she took a break and settled down with a boyfriend who appeared more interested in moving drugs than making babies. He moved her into what is arguably considered one of the nicer government housing apartments in Clayton County.

On his sixteenth birthday Wayne convinced my mother to take him to the court house to officially become Wanda Rene. Upon graduation, Wanda moved to the city. She never gave an official reason, but I heard through the grapevine that she went to work as a hairdresser, no doubt with like-minded folks, at a trendy salon called Transformers. Wanda made a good living, with enough disposable income to afford some quality plastic surgery in the facial region as well as a very realistic pair of torpedoes jutting skyward. Regrettably with a significantly higher trajectory and a full cup size larger than Linda. Wanda was hands down a more attractive woman than my sister and Linda knew it. Looking at the pictures hanging on the walls of my mother’s home there was a clear distinction between pre and post- conversion. Post pictures were signified by Linda standing with no less than three people between her and my former brother.          

I too had admittedly encountered a few bumps and crooks along the way. It took three failed marriages and a couple of domestic charges before discovering I was the type of person who needed to operate solo and in open spaces. I eventually dropped the drinking and learned to harness my anger and redirect it toward more positive outlets. I settled into a rather mindless factory job that allowed me to live modestly in a double-wide at the edge of town. In time I opened myself to the idea of sharing my space with a rescue from the shelter. My new best friend was a blood-hound named Rudy. I immediately connected with him because like me, he’d been dumped, and I was dead set on making his life mean something. We spent a lot of time bonding and honing his instinctive skills. Over the years he had tracked countless coons and located a multitude of poorly shot deer. He even helped locate a missing three year old once, and a couple counties over we used him to put a serial arsonist behind bars. Whereas dogs are concerned, Rudy became a rock-star not only in my mind and heart, but in the community as a whole.      

I never considered myself better than my mother or either of my siblings—at best slightly less damaged. For me, one of the hardest parts of Christmas was looking around the room, surveying all of the collateral damage, while the catalyst of the collapse had driven off into the sunset. The most unjust aspect of it all was that he never once was forced to look any of us in the eye and admit any 
culpability for the broken and wandering souls he left behind. 

Dinner went surprisingly well, aside from a few harmless, verbal barbs and sideways glances which I considered to be a vast improvement over years past. Like the pro she had become, Linda transitioned from wine to beer and was well on her way to being over-served by the time we were opening gifts. I nearly bit my lip in two each time she demanded her three year old retrieve another beer from the cooler.

“Take one to your Uncle Randy, Sweetie. He looks like someone drove a railroad spike into his 8 penny diameter asshole!”

Linda smirked as she popped the top, and didn’t seem to notice that more beer dribbled down the front of her Christmas-themed sweater than entered her mouth. In stark contrast she wiped her face with the back of her hand like a lumberjack, and then carefully flicked the stray droplets of brew from Santa’s beard.

Holding up my hand I waived the toddler off. “No thanks, Darlin’. Your mommy probably forgot that I don’t drink any longer, but her potty-mouth is like American Express—never leaves home without it. Come sit on your uncle’s lap a minute and Granny will get us a gift to open.”

Mom ran interference by stepping in the line of sight between Linda and me, while handing out similar looking and shaped gifts to all the children. After making quick work of the wrapping, my niece looked up at me with her chocolate-drop eyes and asked “What is it?”

I was unsure myself, so I rolled the objects over in my hand several times before discovering an inflation valve on each. There were three distinct components, two of them connected with a rubber strap, and a lone cone-shaped object. I worked hard at suppressing the notion I’d just wasted a good amount of breath I might regret having expended at life’s end.  

Mom jumped from around the corner, a pearlescent, cone-shaped object jutting from her forehead and the other two flapping on either side of her back, “We’re all Unicorns for the day—Yeaaahhhh!”

The suspense of this year’s mystery gift unfolded as my grown mother galloped about the living room with all the miniature unicorns trailing behind. Their eyes lit up when she revealed each and every one of them was an important part of the world’s first and most beautiful unicorn parade.

It was in that goofy moment I appreciated my mother the way I should have all along. As eccentric and frustrating as I often found her to be, her heart was always in the right place. She had done the best she could raising three less than cooperative children all on her own. Her joy came from sharing it with others, even when it came in the form of bulk purchased trinkets. Tears were pooling in the corners of my eyes when Linda’s drunken bellow stopped the parade cold.

“I wanna know whose gonna clean up all this sparkly, unicorn shit before it gets trampled into the carpet?”

Mom’s patented frown did little to suppress an inebriated giggle trickling from my sister. I followed it up by pressing the side of my index finger vertically against my lips, hurling it at her as much as a gesture’s direction can be harnessed.

Linda swiveled her head in both directions as if there was any question whom the directive had been intended.  

“Don’t you shush me, you goodie-two-shoes little shit!” Linda extended her finger in my direction, the tip of it circling, until the closing of her left eye seems to steady her aim. “Every since you stopped drinkin’ you ain’t no fun!”

I leaned around the Christmas tree and fired back, “It’s ever, and aren’t any.” She looked puzzled so I expounded. “Ever since you stopped drinkin’ you aren’t any fun. And that’s completely not true.”

She began laughing hysterically, “You damn straight it ain’t true. I ain’t quit drinkin’ yet and don’t intend to ‘til that coolers empty, and I’m a butt-load of fun.”

I was pleased to see that Wanda had matured past the point of holding silly grudges. She pulled up a folding chair near Linda and attempted to make small talk, but Linda was in rare form.

“What? The fake-tittied he-she in the crowd hears the word butt-load and heads right over!” That’s righteous ain’t it!

At that moment I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this year’s meltdown would be instigated by Linda. When she drank too much, she turned into an angry and rabid dog, more than willing to ravage anyone that wandered close enough to the cage.

I motioned for Wanda to come away from her, and lowered my voice, “Leave her be, Wanda. She’s not much right now.

My phone went off and the text message was from a friend on the emergency squad.

‘I know its Christmas Day, but need you and Rudy’s help.
Out on route 39, mile marker 48, family of four confirmed dead.
Suspected drunk driver fled the scene and headed into the woods.
K-9 handler is out of town, can’t be here for another 4 hours.
I now it’s askin’ a lot, but can you help us out, brother?’

I shook Hank’s hand, pulled on my jacket, leaned over my mother’s chair, and kissed her forehead. “Thank you for continuing to do this despite the difficulties…i.e., Linda. There’s an emergency they need my help with, and I need to go. Linda’s about ready to crash and burn; she’ll be piled up somewhere soon. I’ll plan on heading back, pouring her into my truck, and driving her home. Love you, Mom.”

As I made my way around the room saying good-byes, Linda snatched my arm.   

“Hey, Bar. That’s Boring-ass Randy—you ain’t leavin’ until you open up my gift!” She insisted.

“Alright, Sis, but this is important, so let’s make it quick.”

I plucked the bow off and peeled the wrapping back, to reveal a Christmas tree ornament with the likeness of Rudy on it.

“You don’t like it do you?” She suggested.

“No—I do like it. It looks a good bit like Rudy. I like it fine. Thank you, Linda.”

She used my arm for leverage, climbing the sleeve, as if her voice wasn’t already 50db too loud. “You don’t like it, Randy!” She insisted. “I can tell by the way you’re lookin’ at it.” She finally gave up the ill-advised attempt to stand and folded back into the chair, but continued her tirade with a renewed venomous tone. “Don’t pretend to like it if you don’t. God knows we grew up with enough pretending in this house—dad pretending he ever wanted anything to do with any of us, boys prancing around pretending to be girls, and momma, that bitch, pretending she cared about any of us and that she didn’t drive him away in the first place!”

The room became deathly still—so much that the ticking clock sounded like a bass drum. The eerie silence gave way to quiet sobs originating from opposing sides of the room, first Wanda, then my mother. The expression on Linda’s face was one of remorse, albeit significantly muddled and muted by the alcohol.

“That’s more than enough, Linda!” I roared.

My booming tone caused her to shrivel back so far into the chair it was almost as though I had to peel her from the fabric, before hoisting her over my shoulder.

“I’m taking out the trash, mom! Merry Christmas, everyone.”

Linda passed out in the passenger seat of my truck before we arrived on scene, and I figured a good rest was exactly what I needed from her. We passed the ambulance heading the other direction, presumably carrying the bodies of the family that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a spit second all of their hopes and dreams and the generations that would have come after them were crushed when their vehicle slammed into an eighteen wheeler careening out of control. According to witnesses on the scene the truck driver was not at fault, even though he had crossed the median into oncoming traffic. A motorcycle rider came flying up the on-ramp and forced his way into the lane. The truck driver swerved to avoid the immediate obstacle, his load shifted and the trailer jack-knifed, sweeping the biker into the median, before the tractor plowed through the divider and wiped out the oncoming car. The bike was certainly a mangled mess, but appeared to get pushed far enough to avoid the deadly swath of the truck. It had no license plate and had been reported stolen only an hour before the accident. A young woman said she saw the biker limp across the highway and disappear into the woods.

I allowed Rudy to sniff around the bike until he had a nose full. Then both of us slipped across the lanes and descended the steep berm. Even though it was more difficult on the dog, I didn’t want to ever influence his direction so I tended to lean back slightly and allow him to pull me along. I’d say we had traveled probably a half mile into the woods when the leash suddenly went light. Rudy had lunged and snapped the harness. I tried to keep up, but once he was free from the drag of pulling his owner he seemed to pick up pace, and was out of sight in the matter of a few minutes.
The shadows were growing thicker and starting to melt together. I estimated no more than an hour of light remaining. I was still waffling between forging onward with a tiny flashlight and going back for help and a better source of light when I heard the distinct crack of a hand gun. The shot came from deeper in the woods. A wave of relief washed over me when Rudy’s rhythmic howl picked back up again. A second discharge followed and Rudy’s cadence stopped mid yelp. I barreled headlong through the briars and the undergrowth with a renewed sense of urgency.

I emerged back on the highway well after dark, carrying the limp animal in my arms.

“He’s got a gun, Michael.” I shouted. “He shot Rudy. I’ve gotta get him to the vet!”

Without another word between us, I hopped into the truck and mashed the accelerator to the floor.

“I’m sorry—he’s hurt too badly, Randy. The best I can do is make his last few minutes comfortable.”

I know it was stupid, but I had never once imagined losing him, how difficult it would be to say goodbye, and how much more difficult it would be to get up each morning or come home in the evenings to an empty house. I guess that’s part of how we survive life—looking forward to the good times, and avoiding thinking in great detail about the crueler aspects of life. Whether you consider the bad or not, sometimes it blindsides you when you least expect it.

Ironically, it turns out that the murderer of my best friend, the renegade motorcyclist, was also my estranged father strung out on heroin. Although I tried for awhile, I came to the realization that I did not have the capacity to hate my father more than I already did. I also decided that telling my family about it would serve no purpose other than keeping the hurt alive. If I ever wanted to be a better man than my father today was the time to start.        

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Thin Air

Deep in my soul I knew that over the last seventy-two hours I’d lost significantly more that weight and inches. The shorts slipped past my hips much more easily than they should have. I settled into a squatting position and listened for the trickle splashing against the rock. The harder I concentrated the less likely a successful outcome appeared to be. I knew the process was taking too long. The confirmation came swiftly when he snatched my pony-tail and yanked me over backwards. Landing awkwardly on my tailbone, my first reaction was to reach for my shorts, but I froze when the warm breath hit the back of my neck.      

“You see this knife, Princess. Take a good, hard look at how shiny and hungry the blade is. Do whatever you need to do so the image is engrained in your head, because if you don’t quit stalling I’m going to feed it right here! Now, pick up the backpack and move”, he snarled.

A desperate part of me wanted to scream and simply take my chances when he came at me, but previously failed attempts still haunted me. He said resistance would only make things uglier. Although I couldn’t image things being worse than what I had suffered over the last few days, I also didn’t want to expose myself to another layer of madness that lurked inside of his head. There was no question he was certifiably insane, but the scarier part was that he was also very intelligent and meticulous. From the dreadful moment I let him into my hotel room he had been two steps ahead of me.

I supposed it was natural that following a traumatic event the victim would dissect every detail, questioning whether one seemingly insignificant action could have changed the entire outcome. Certainly deciding to hike the Smoky Mountain trails alone was not a perfect plan from a security standpoint, but an experienced hiker and survivalist is much more concerned about hungry bears and inclimate weather than a psychopathic encounter. I knew plenty of women whom I considered of lesser or equal abilities who had done it successfully. After twelve hours in a vehicle all I wanted was some decent pizza, a warm shower, and a good night’s rest before striking out the next morning. Even though I was exhausted I still didn’t consider my actions careless. When the knock came at my door I saw a guy holding a pizza box through the peep hole, but didn’t accept the announcement of ‘delivery’ carte blanche. I insisted he verify the order and my name before I felt justified in unlatching the chain.

Life can turn on you so very quickly. One moment I was fumbling for cash and the next I was pinned on the bed with the cold steel of a knife-blade resting against my throat. It sounds stupid, but I was less concerned with the stranger plunging a knife into my carotid than the fact that the bath towel I was wearing had spilled open. I reasoned that if he saw me naked it was a foregone conclusion he would rape me. In retrospect I wasted several precious moments flip-flopping between compliance and resistance as there was compelling evidence supporting both. I hadn’t landed squarely on a decision when he demanded silence. I nodded repeatedly up and down, until he was satisfied with my level of sincerity and withdrew the knife. He reached for the pizza box, and after lifting the lid he retrieved a red colored rag. I assumed it would serve as make-shift gag so I took the opportunity to bluff.  

“My boyfriend just went out for soda…he’ll be back any moment. If you leave right now, I swear I’ll never breathe a word about any of this.”

He laughed before lifting from over me and taking a standing position at the end of the bed. His knee-cap was out of striking distance of my foot, but I was formulating a plan to close the distance when he completely derailed my thought process.

“Put on a night shirt or something. You being completely naked makes me feel dirty.”

What type of killer/rapist was put off by seeing his victim naked? Maybe I had assumed the worst and all he wanted was cash or jewelry. After demanding clothing he turned away from me, and even stranger yet he turned again to avoid the reflection of my naked frame in the mirror. I scrambled to my suitcase and began to search. At this point my brain was swimming in a cesspool of emotions, while attempting to field and process a barrage of assumptions and possibilities. All of it was meant for internal consumption, but suddenly one of thoughts emerged out loud.  

“How does holding a knife to someone’s throat not bother you, but seeing them nude makes you feel dirty? Is that even possible?”

Once I realized the mistake, I insisted again. “My boyfriend really is on his way. He has an awful temper and a ‘conceal and carry permit’!”

I knew my expression would reveal the threat as a lie, so I maintained eye-contact with the nightshirt I had selected and took my time pulling it over my head to provide camouflage.   

“My dearest Katherine, you think I’m a fool don’t you? Let’s talk about your supposed boyfriend. As a matter of fact your only boyfriend, Jesse, died in a tragic motorcycle accident your junior year of high school. You haven’t as much as dated a single man in the last six years. Currently you make ends meet as a waitress at a small cafĂ©—very much the classical loner. You finally manage to squirrel away enough cash for a vacation and intended upon coming to the Smoky Mountains to disappear into the wilderness for a month. Note to self Katherine: leaving your social media wide open can produce dangerous circumstances. But I can help you with that”, he laughed. “Disappearing I mean.”

My skin began to crawl as he revealed every detail correctly. I grabbed my cell phone from the night stand and attempted to make it around the corner to lock myself in the bathroom and call 911, but he launched himself at me and we both tumbled onto the carpet. In one fluid motion he swept the phone under the bed, rolled me onto my back and applied the gag. He pressed his full weight against me.  

“I do rather enjoy the feisty ones; it brings out another side of me. There’s something absolutely spectacular about hungry nipples pressing against cotton—nibbling at one another. My dear Katherine, I must teach you that poor choices on your part often leave me no alternative but to counter your aggression.”

The sound of the zipper on his jeans triggered a shockwave of urgency. I summoned every bit of energy and began thrashing and bucking. Twice my size, he easily squashed the flailing when he zip tied my wrists to the furniture legs and my ankles to the bed frame.

“You have taken a piece of my trust, Katherine, and I must now take something of value from you—that’s how the game is played. But I promise to be very quick—before your ‘boyfriend’ gets back.”

He retrieved the hem of the tee, carefully pulled it away from my body, and sliced up the side. After tossing the tee open he stabbed a syringe into the fleshy part my hip. My field of vision narrowed to a small tunnel before everything faded to black.

“Wake up, princess.” Only hours old, his loathsome voice was emanating from behind me.

I blinked and stared at the floor where I last remembered lying. He had obviously moved me to the edge of the bed. I was positioned on my side with both wrists secured to a lamp that was in turn bolted to the night stand, but the gag had been removed.

“What did you do to me last night, you perverted bastard? Did you drug and rape me?”

He pressed his index finger firmly to the center of my lips, releasing the pressure as if flowed down over my chin, splitting the difference between my breasts and traveling the length of my belly.

“You really do take me for clod, don’t you Katherine? Decorating your private parts with my DNA strewn about would be pure foolishness. The mere suggestion of such a barbaric act produced the desired results. Rather uneventfully, we talked into the wee hours of the morning, but you did provide me with absolutely everything I needed.”

He reached into his rear pocket and flashed a fiendish smile before flipping an envelope down in front of me. The handwriting appeared to be mine and it was addressed to my parents.

“What’s in the envelope, you creep? If you’re asking for a ransom, they have nothing. I’m begging you not to involve my parents?”

“No ransom I promise, and quite the contrary, Princess. I am….rather you are, virtually assuring their non-involvement. The letter contains a heart-felt admission that you’ve struggled with depression since Jesse’s death. Through the years you became addicted to prescription anti-depressants, and eventually turned to whiskey and harder illegal drugs in an attempt to dull the pain. You eventually painted yourself into a corner by indulging in prostitution to support the habit. You then reveal how morbidly ashamed you are for dragging the family name through the mud, but now fear for your own, and more importantly, your parent’s safety as angry dealers and pimps have transitioned from debt collection to pure retaliation. You inform them that your debauchery has reached critical mass and you’re attempting a fresh start, but you fear many of the authorities are on the payroll of those looking to do you harm. You beg them to keep your whereabouts to themselves.”

The shock I experienced was surreal—my life was literally unraveling and dissolving into thin air, but the most frustrating aspect of it all was that this neurotic fiend would likely get away with it. Like a boiling pot of water overflows and licks at the flame, my response came in the form of a hiss.

“You’re a thoroughly disgusting human being! How can you possibly sleep at night?”

“I do pride myself on being thorough—disgusting is purely a matter of opinion and overrated. And last night I slept remarkably well, considering I shared a bed with a drug-addicted prostitute. It’s my civic duty—doing my part to clean up the streets, Princess.”

I knew I hadn’t done anything to deserve this, but I also soon realized that my captor was an extreme opportunist. My natural O.C.D inclinations made his work much easier than it should have been, and I hated myself today much more than usual for being that way. I had paid for my fuel and the hotel room in cash, leaving literally no trail. I had also foolishly mapped out the trails I intended to travel, complete with timelines, so it was easy for us to avoid those locations completely. And beyond my control was his obsessive and calculating nature; he spent the remainder of the morning wiping down the hotel room for fingerprints, and pressed my fingers to the envelope before it was mailed. This stranger was as naturally occurring as a wicked whirlpool. I was an innocent leaf caught in the undertow. At every turn he squashed or erased any glimmer of hope and as he did so I experienced another grotesque degree of suffocation.   


“As much as you’d like to, you can’t control my inner workings. I thought I needed to pee! You’re such a bad-ass—go ahead and stab me on this public trail. There are hikers less than a quarter a mile behind us!”

I purposely raised my voice just shy of a yell, but paid for my insolence on the backend when he pulled me close enough to drive his fist into my right kidney. My knees buckled and I crumpled onto the trail. In an act of defiance he stood over me, blocking out the sun long enough I had time to partially deflect the kick aimed at my ribs.     

“The punch was for directly challenging me! The boot was for dropping your driver’s license in plain view about a mile back!”

He withheld my water ration for the next several miles to prove a point. My head was spinning so severely that I barely remember leaving the main trail that first night. He provided me with enough water to survive, but never to function at one-hundred percent or to even think clearly, but I suppose that was to maintain my weakened and submissive state. To my best recollection, we spent the night off the beaten path and traveled one additional full day into the wilderness. As the sun sank low in the sky he cleared a small area, pitched a tent, and presumably felt we were far enough from civilization to allow for a small fire.

While I couldn’t compose my thoughts in a completely coherent manner they came in colorful streaks and flashes of realism. I was positive the amount of time that I remained upright and breathing was dwindling. I felt as though I’d been poured into a funnel, traveling helplessly towards an inevitable choke-point. The look in his eyes changed decidedly that night. It was as though he believed we were far enough removed from a civilized society that he no longer needed to bridle his demon-like desires.

If I could clearly identify a low point during this dismal downward spin it was in that moment when I was lying on the ground in a fetal position, racked with pain, humiliated completely with my shorts around my ankles. But even then there was a sliver of me that refused to give him the benefit of tears. Something inside me changed in that moment.

I honestly believe there is a certain type of insanity that accompanies isolation; when thoughts and actions are subjected only to an audience of one. A single person can devolve in such ways to justify almost any heinous deed. I can’t say for certain that he was under the influence of such radical impulses when he came at me in the middle of the night, but I can say with distinction that I justified many unthinkable things following the moment when I countered his attack by striking him in the forehead with blunt end of the hatchet. In my natural state I would have immediately fled once the gate of opportunity had been thrown open, but instead I verified his pulse. Once I determined he was still breathing I bound and gagged him and sat silently until he came to. I waited until he was fully aware and could appreciate his predicament before I leaned and whispered his own words back into his ear.

“You must learn that when you take something from me, then I am forced to take something of value from you—that’s how the game is played.”

One per hour, I lopped off his fingers and toes before he bled out. By nightfall I had disassembled him completely and scattered his remains about the mountain. With my nightmare finally over I enjoyed the first peaceful night’s sleep in nearly a week. I awoke to finally witness the view that had called me to these mountains. 

The valleys wandered in unison away from the rock face. Born of the same womb they were visibly troubled and anxious about traveling alone. A gentle, almost accidental separation appeared to embolden them as independent and mighty warriors, each carving a different path and direction, content to gather clusters of pines upon their backs and proudly display a diverse collection of green hues as they now sauntered along with confidence. Near the horizon one majestic peak leaned against his brother. The overarching theme of this place and the snapshot in time was seamless synchronicity—an eclectic cast of geological dancers, choreographed perfectly, gathered and scattered by a rising and setting sun. 

For most of my life I’d dreamed of standing in this very magical place, but the whole experience had become tainted in a way that could never be fully repaired.  

Sunday, June 14, 2015


“I started calling it Deja-poo—the precise moment when I realize I’ve been eye-ball deep in this exact same pile of crap before. The names and nuances vary just enough to make you believe it will be different this time, but it always hits harder than you remember—like a biker-boot to the mouth. In some indiscriminant moment he cuts out the bottom of your heart and tosses you to the curb like yesterday’s trash. You realize he’s not walking; he’s running out of your life. For months your friends tried to tell you things you didn’t want to believe, but you cut ties with them because they’re jealous—that’s what you tell yourself. You tell yourself lots of things, but then you reach a point where you no longer believe the lies you’re feeding yourself. Finally you sit back, take a hard look in the rear-view mirror, and decide there’s nothing left to do but sink both hands deep into the pile of worms.”

“Worms? Miss Jones.”

“Yep….the disgusting, tangled mess of poor decisions and regrets living inside of you that makes everyone you ever cared about run the opposite direction.”

The gentleman glanced at his watch indignantly. “Miss Jones, I feel we’re getting off topic. I truly do understand that you were distraught, but did you go looking for him that night? And if so what transpired when you found him?”

I hated jury duty, period. Call me cynical, but it seemed that somewhere along the line our justice system had been hijacked by an exclusive guild of high-paid actors posing as part-time purveyors of justice. Each side would take turns prancing before and pandering to a panel of twelve of their peers, who for the most part were moderately to severely disengaged and simply looking to end their own suffering as quickly as possible with little regard to justice.

But today there was a twist that appeared to offer the real possibility of variety. I was more than a little intrigued by the fact that the defendant insisted upon self representation. Miss Jones was an attractive brunette, middle thirties I supposed. My first inclination was that she may have saved time by slitting her own wrists rather than prolonging the inevitable by refusing representation, but as I glanced around the juror’s box I could tell that her opening words had garnered a significant amount of sympathy, while the prosecution had accomplished exactly the opposite.

From the juror’s box he was not at all what I considered to be patch-worked together; his features appeared to have been chiseled from one solid piece of granite; rather cold and unforgiving. He was well-groomed, squeaked when he walked, and had a general sheen about him—like the dark Armani suit had been painted on this morning and he rushed out the door before allowing it to dry completely. Presently, he crossed his arms high on his chest as if to disprove my theory of a painted on suit. I suspected he liked being right more than most, but the repeated tapping of his foot revealed the impatient nature that lie beneath the cool exterior he advertised. I doubt he was accustomed to delays when asking a question. He released an audible sigh. Once he exhaled fully he asked again. “Did you go looking for Mr. Mendoza, Miss Jones?”    

“Yes, I went searching for the address I’d found on his phone a week earlier. He tried making up some lame excuse about meeting a client there for a working-lunch, but that’s the thing about habitual liars—they get confused sometimes. He’d told me the previous weekend he needed a break and was taking some personal time that day. None of it added up, so I wrote the address down.”

“So would you have the court believe this was a random act of indiscretion, or are you establishing the fact that you snooped through Mr. Mendoza’s private information on a regular basis?”

For the first time the defendant fired back at the prosecutor, matching his tone. “Is looking at your boyfriend’s phone a crime, especially when it wakes you up at 2:00am, 2:15am, and then again at 2:20? His mother was sick and in the hospital.”

Seemingly rebutted and sufficiently agitated, the prosecutor attempted to propel things forward. “Proceed, Miss Jones, I believe you indicated to the jury that you’d unethically gathered an address from your boyfriend’s phone while he slept, and that you went looking for the address.”

The previously silent judge interjected himself in convincing fashion. His gavel collided with the sound block with such force that I had to check twice to make sure the percussive sound waves had not inadvertently ruptured my spleen.

“Strike the prosecutor’s last sentence from the record as it highly inflammatory and suggestive. Will the prosecuting attorney approach the bench, please?”

The ringing in my head and the discrete whispering of the judge did not allow me to hear the one-sided conversation, but the sulking manner in which the prosecutor limped from the bench led me to believe he had been reprimanded soundly.

“Miss Jones, pardon the interruption, please continue—you went looking for the address.”

“Yes, your honor, I left the apartment around 10:30pm. I found his car parked about four blocks away—trying to keep a low profile I guess. I opened the door of the bar and looked all around. Just as I was turning to leave I heard his laugh. There he was tucked back in a dark sticky corner, nearly hidden completely by the shadow of a woman sitting in his lap. She was facing him, her long legs straddling his, bouncing up and down like he was her favorite carnival ride. I don’t know…maybe he was.”

The prosecution attempted to deflect and defuse, “So what was going through your mind, Miss Jones? Give us some insight.”

“I found a seat at the bar and ordered a shot of whiskey—because it hurts and goes down like barbed-wire. How did I feel? I was immediately crushed, but the more I watched the two of them the angrier I became. After the third shot I decided I was marching over to confront him. Each step I took toward the table fueled the boiling in my gut. It wasn’t just him, but half a dozen before just like him. All those emotions whipped around inside me like a whiskey-infused tornado just looking for someplace to touch down!”

Her tone was elevated and the look in her eyes intense. I glanced at the prosecutor and he was practically drooling at the way she was eating out of his hand, but something went awry—she had stalled.

“You were swirling inside, like a tornado looking for somewhere to touch down! That’s when you physically attacked my client and cut him, right, Miss Jones?”

The defendant’s shoulders slumped noticeably. She appeared to have entered a reflective state of silence, staring through her inquisitor to the other side.           

“No, I didn’t have a knife, and I couldn’t have cut him even if I did. I knew that if I looked him in the eye I’d start making excuses for him and end up swimming circles in those milk-chocolate pools, drowning again.”

For a brief moment she’d bared her teeth and snarled like a rabid dog. Now she was a docile pile of fluff, loyal to a fault. I gathered that she was either hopelessly in love and likely had nothing to do with the crime, or significantly skilled in the art of deception and simply toying with the defense.

The prosecutor appeared to shift into a damage control mode.  “Storms of that intensity just don’t stall out, Miss Jones. You were a cyclone of emotions heading for a target and my client was sufficiently damaged. Do we look like fools to you? Do you expect this court to honestly believe you had nothing to do with the maiming of my client?”

“I said I couldn’t have cut him, even if someone had placed a knife in my hand.” She snapped. “Oh, I was still seething—enough that I helped myself to a handful of hair and yanked the woman backwards onto the floor. With the buffer removed I could see him clearly. As I stated before I needed to avoid his eyes, and in doing so immediately spotted opportunity. I used his open fly for a hand-hold, snatching him out of the chair and dragging him toward the back door. All the while he kept calling me baby, and begging me not to do anything crazy.”

The latest revelation caused the prosecutor’s eyes to twinkle with promise again. “Basically, you needed him outside in a dark alley where you could teach him a lesson. No witnesses, his word against yours! The perfect crime, isn’t it Miss Jones. Isn’t that what you were thinking?”

Her retort came hard and fast. “Actually what I was thinking is that you’re quite arrogant and manipulative for putting words in mouth, Mr. Prosecutor!” She swiveled her head. “May I continue your honor?”

With a nod of affirmation she moved forward. “Actually, I chose the back door because of the proximity of the table. Considering the circumstance it shouldn’t have mattered to me at all, but I wanted to save him the embarrassment of being dragged the full length of the bar. Even so, many of the patrons were already applauding and toasting in our direction. Once outside I turned loose of him and he immediately fell to the ground. Too drunk to stand on his own, I propped him against the wall; his knees wobbled and he slumped a bit, but remained upright. I knew at that point trying to communicate with him was a lost cause—he was a lost cause.” 

Miss Jones paused again.

“I see Miss Jones. A lost cause—hmmm.  A lost enough cause it wouldn’t really matter if you carved him up and left him in an alley to bleed out?”

She shook her head in opposition. “With all due respect, you’ve obviously not questioned your client nearly well enough, Mr. Prosecutor. I heard the door open behind us. Turns out the woman straddling him in the bar was the jealous type. She was wielding a knife and pushed me to the ground. Like a cat she was on top of me. With a wild look in her eyes she laughed and told me I wasn’t his first choice. She must have been satisfied with me knowing that because she leapt from me to him in a flash. In a fit of rage she separated your client from his manhood in one downward motion and tossed the evidence in a dumpster. She muttered something about taking out the trash before running down the alley. While waiting on the authorities’ arrival the bartender cleaned and bandages my scrapes. We had a nice conversation. As I said before Mr. Mendoza is a habitual liar. I came to understand that his assailant was also his wife of thirteen years, to whom he was still married.”       

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Touching the Sky

July 16th 1989

“The moment is as fleeting and brilliant as that of a falling star ripping through a midnight sky. For a splintered second the beleaguered mountaineer has conquered nature. His raised fist is a lightning rod. A surge of adrenaline travels through the fleshy conduit and explodes in a guttural wail. His battle cry roars down from the peak, gaining momentum as it travels. The earth shudders on its axis and even the busiest inhabitant pauses and nods in his direction. Real or imagined makes no difference; for one  luxurious moment he stands exalted, his boot weighing heavy on the throat of every obstacle that failed to turn him back.”

It sounded like something Jack London would have written, and I told him so at the time. While the ink was still wet on the page Thomas Penny read what he had written. He shared all of his journal entries with me during our journey up the mountain, but I suppose this one spoke to me more than most.

Thomas laughed when he heard his words aloud. “Doesn’t sound much like a factory worker with an eighth grade education, does it?”

I considered my reply—thinking harder than I had ever thought about words before.  

“I suspect there is something profound about touching the sky—that it will change a man forever.”

I knew Thomas Penny was different the moment I met him. He passed through the swinging stainless doors to the plant like all the others, but he had a swagger to his step, like he already knew he was going bigger places someday. I liked him plenty when he flipped off the boss behind his back. On the walk over to my machine Clarence grabbed the collar of the young man’s shirt and dragged him onto the safe side of the yellow line. The equipment wasn’t even powered up and Thomas’ boot fell only inches over the line.

Thomas told me later that he was pissed that Clarence stretched the collar of his AC/DC tee. We both laughed as the shirt had undeniably seen better days. I suspected it had more to do with Thomas’ opposition to being treated like a three-year old being yanked away from a cookie jar. Nobody liked Clarence, mostly because of nepotism. He was one of the big-wig’s sons, never worked a day on the floor, and fell comfortably into a management position. We were all just factory workers, but you have to know that sort of thing is bound to cause some bent crank-shafts.    

By first break—that’s when you can tell whether you landed a keeper or not. You were supposed to give the boss the high-sign if they’re weren’t trainable and he would pay them for a couple hours, hand them a ball cap with the company logo stamped on the front, and tell them to have a nice life. I felt rotten when that happened, but it didn’t bother Clarence. Only once did he override my recommendation and it didn’t sit well with me at all. I called him into the break room and he stuttered and stammered mostly. His only defense was a tired reminder that he wore the white hard-hat and mine was yellow. For a minute I thought we would come to blows over the disagreement, but I was smart enough to know when to cut my losses. I tugged at his bow-tie and suggested that the polka dots on one side outnumbered the other and the torque of the imbalance might be what was cutting off oxygen to his over-sized melon. The remark cost me a write-up, but some things are simply worth the price of admission. Clarence hated people touching him or his clothes—had some kind of germ phobia he claimed. That might have been at the top of his list, but in my opinion Clarence had a lot more problems than that.       

Thomas didn’t talk too much or too little; seemed capable of doing the work but not overly qualified or too highly motivated. That was important, because no one wanted to be the fool that trained his replacement. Over time I learned that you didn’t have to worry about Thomas trying to outthink or one-up you. I liked a man that would face up and punch you square in the left eye before he’d slip around the back and stick a shank in your kidney.

We both worked the graveyard shift; Thomas because he was a newbie, and me because I had a general dislike of people. I’d been there five years and managed to stay mostly to myself. I communicated when the job called for it, but never socialized outside of work. But Thomas played electric guitar and I banged on the drums a little, so from time to time we got together in my garage. There were no illusions of grandeur. We wouldn’t put the symphony orchestra out of business, but after a twelve-pack of Natty we did do justice to some Metallica and Queensryche.  

Thomas was wound tighter on the inside—more of a risk taker and an adrenaline junkie. I suppose he was naturally smarter than me too because he already knew that about himself. Thomas said he wanted to go out with a busted rib-cage, a gash across his forehead, and a few teeth missin’ instead of laying down quietly somewhere and rotting from the inside out. I guess watching the machines all those years kind of lulled my insides to sleep and Thomas Penny was the nitrous that turned this daily-driver Cavalier into a tubbed-out, Nova SS that lived to eat up pavement in quarter mile chunks.

Nobody at the factory took us seriously, said we were just two thirty-some-odds looking to re-write a chapter of decades past. It was more a recognition that life is slippery and those that sleep will wake one day staring at the tail end of days slipped past. You have to be intentional about occasionally grabbing the tail, pulling it back, and sinking your teeth into the meat of it.   

Not that I was looking for one, but Thomas was as close to a best friend as I ever had, and it was easier to step out of a corner knowing someone had your back. Within a year I trusted him completely—enough to follow him up the face of a mountain.

I don’t know exactly where the words came from; they just seemed to fit right in my mouth. The first time a man touches the sky really does change him forever. A successful climb lit a fire in both of our bellies. Over the course of a few years we completed two more challenges, upping the ante with respect to difficulty and duration.

I suppose if you’re gifted with numbers, odds can be assigned to anything. It doesn’t take a statistician to realize the numbers for a mountaineer come out in favor of the mountain, but that’s part of the reason the agony is bearable and the victories are so sweet.

In my mind’s eye I was prepared to battle against fatigue and the elements, anticipated the full frontal assault of oxygen deprivation, and was determined nothing would prevent me from placing one foot in front of the other until I reached the apex. Although it had taken fifty percent more in the tank than we had to give, if someone had been there to witness it, they would have told about two heads bobbing among the clouds.

Five days into our descent was when the wheels fell off. We should have reached a low enough elevation that the heaviest snow was behind us, but a freak squall caught us off guard. We hunkered down early and took turns throughout the night knocking the snow from the tent to prevent collapse. Despite using the rock face to our advantage the winds continued to swirl and howl like a seasoned wolf, lapping against the tent as though he could already taste our frigid flesh through the fabric. To make matters worse Thomas had aggravated an old knee injury and after days of being pinned down the joint was stiffening and swelling significantly. Once the storm passed I had my doubts about whether the knee would hold out until we reached base camp.

It is truly amazing how quickly a fatigued mind begins to unravel. Last night I woke to an awful sound I could never fully identify, but I am terribly afraid that I heard Thomas Penny’s spirit snapping in two. By morning my suspicion was all but confirmed by a notable change in his demeanor. He grumbled and moaned more often about his knee and the ugly predicament we were in. I didn’t have the heart to mention that our food supply was running low and that we had only two bottles of propane left for the heater. I was trying to conserve fuel and ration food without setting off alarms in his head, but this existence could barely be considered living. I was doing my damndest to keep the preverbal wolves at bay, but he’d already let them in.  

He cursed me for even trying to open the journal, but he needed to hear the inspirational words he’d written on that first trip—we both did. I tried for more than an hour, but my fingers were frozen nubs and over and over again refused to obey commands. You never imagine that bit by bit, piece by piece your body will betray you.

I tossed the journal aside and fell apart for a moment. I welcomed the fleeting warmth of a single tear as it left the corner of my eye. It sickened me to look at Thomas—he had lain down quietly and was rotting from the inside out.

Thomas was already asleep so it made it easier to eat his last portion of food. I placed the final bottle of propane, drew in a deep steady breath, and made preparations for our escape from this nightmarish and brutal land.   


A group of young men struggled, plodding forward up the incline.

“Looks like the remnants of an old tent ahead.”

“And look in the overhang directly above it—lodged up there between the two rocks. There’s a corner sticking out—looks like a beat up journal. Grab it and let’s check it out. We’re due for a five minute break anyhow.”

The five climbers gathered in a circle to inspect the discovery.

“This is kinda creepy, reading someone’s journal.”

The one next to him punched his arm. “They obviously left it where someone could find it.”

“Looks like a pretty detailed account of two climbing buddies that started in 1989.”

“What are you waiting on—read the last entry, will ya?”

“OK…OK, hang on a second, let me find it.”

May 15 1994

Things did not go as planned, but a mountain makes no guarantees, implied or otherwise, and she will swallow you whole if you let her. The blizzard has not let up, we are out of food and propane, but we will not leave on her terms. Please take a moment and read the entry from July 16, 1989 and marvel at my friend’s profound words.

In a few minutes I will load my friend, Thomas Penny, onto my back because I have watched him fall lower than any friend should ever witness. I will make my way to the nearest outcropping and in a final burst of energy will leap over the edge, and we will both reach out our arms and touch the sky one last time. Touching the sky will change a man forever.”

“Woah…that’s intense. From this point forward, touching the sky is our theme, fellas. Into the belly of the beast we go!”