John Mahoney as W.P. Mayhew

“The truth, my honey, is a tart that does not bear scrutiny.”

There are many Johns in the Coen brothers’ weird thriller Barton Fink (Turturro, Goodman, Polito), but the chameleonic Mahoney, playing a tragic caricature of William Faulkner, always stood out to me. An ostensible gentleman with a pleasing Southern accent, Mayhew is a lot like the movie’s protagonist: a celebrated writer who’s sold himself to Hollywood, he’s a bit haughty, a bit selfish, and completely incapable of listening. He’s also a raging drunk and a woman-beater, a man we’d easily hate if he didn’t seem so sad, so lost, and so lonely.

You know what? Maybe I should just stop here. As much as I love Mayhew’s character, there’s little I can say about him that could provide any unseen insights. I think you’d do better to read this little celebration of Mahoney’s great work, and assume that its views mirror my own.

The Internet Critic Conversation

Okay, here’s the premise: Daniel (D) submits image/story/cartoon to website. Random site user (C) decides to leave a comment on it. Here’s how it invariably falls out. Keep in mind that this has happened to me many times, with many different people.


C: This is bad. Just bad. Idea has been done a million times. Obviously you don’t know what you’re doing.

D: That’s a little rude, not to mention unhelpful. You’re giving me no ideas on what to improve. Every idea has been done a million times, so you might as well say this about every bit of art on the site. Finally, if I don’t know what I’m doing, perhaps you could be kind enough to enlighten me? If this is all you have to say, then just leave it alone.

C: Well, this being an ART/LITERATURE/PORTAL SITE, I don’t feel I have to hold back on what I say. You need a thick skin around here, so don’t get so butthurt. GOOD DAY SIR

I then discover that C has blocked me from further contact.


Now, I really don’t care what people like this think of my work. Obviously they don’t have any real opinion; they just want to break stuff down and feel superior to someone. As you probably already know, I get like that myself.

No, what pisses me off is the childishness of it, the lack of self-awareness. Don’t they realize that I too, am allowed to say what I want on these particular sites? Don’t they realize that just because they can say what they want, it doesn’t mean it’s going to go over well? And don’t they realize that blocking me because I called them out on their shoddy critique shows a pretty damn bad case of butthurt on their part?

I know, I know. “Just ignore them,” you say. Normally I do. The last time this happened, though, the criticism was leveled at the concept of the work, which I did not create. The idea belonged to the man who hired me for the commission. I wasn’t personally offended, but I felt compelled to stand up for my collaborator. Bear in mind that I did not use any offensive language. I simply said that it was rude to slam the idea without offering any positives. The “critic” then whipped out the tired old speech about their right to say whatever they want, and added that my art wasn’t even that good anyway (no details of course). Then I got blocked. It all fell out exactly as it did above.

The only analogy I can think of for it is that it’s like watching a grown man stick his tongue out at you and mean it. All you can do is squint incredulously.

You’d think I’d be used to this sort of behavior by now, but I’m not. My attitude toward humanity is like that toward a bad movie: I keep hoping that it’ll get better somewhere. It never does, though, and my mind is continually boggled. I mean, they can’t all be this stupid, can they? Can they??

I’d better just relax. Anyone have any Oxycontin?

Top Cartoons: Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol

magoo theater actor.png“Do you know the weight and the length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It is a ponderous chain! Oh, captive bound and double-ironed! Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one’s life opportunity misused? Yet, such was I….”

Not the sort of dialogue one might expect from a cartoon, eh? A snottier animator than myself might even say that it’s not something that belongs in some chintzy UPA production, but I’m no snot-rag.

To me, cartoons have never simply been about art and movement. They’ve always been about presentation, performance, and timing: all the things that make any drama appealing. Just ask any Pixar fan his or her opinion on the studio’s success, and you’ll realize that with animation, as with all forms of acting, motion always comes second to emotion.

This is why I consider Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol to be the best of the myriad animated “Carol” adaptations. Sure, the animation is limited. Sure, the backgrounds are wildly exaggerated. Sure, the characters rarely evince their existence in the third dimension. All these stylistic qualities are unarguable, but to fault this cartoon for them would only reveal an artistic prejudice in the viewer. Magoo is beautifully drawn, finely directed, powerfully acted, and a joy to watch.

magoo.jpgThe cartoon sets up the story as a Broadway production, in which the myopic Magoo is the star. Jim Backus does some impressive voice gymnastics here, as he successfully buries the familiar Magoo dottiness beneath a surprising veneer of cruelty, sorrow, rage, and fear.

And Scrooge has much to fear. The four ghosts of the story lose none of their malevolence in their cartoon manifestations. Christmas Present grandly admonishes and condescends, and the legless, looming form of  Christmas Future remains my all-time favorite version of the character. Even the childlike, androgynous Christmas Past exhibits an unsettling aspect in its final departure.

74c790eb3b2c850d26feaab5f619a9cf.jpg xmaspresent.jpgGhostOfChristmasFuture-Magoo.jpgBut the grooviest ghost of them all is Jacob Marley, by far. Thanks to a jaw-dropping performance by Royal Dano, Marley is sure to get the attention of everyone in the room as he laments with frightful, operatic anguish. Marley’s scene was one of the first in animation to move me to tears, but not in the way you might expect.

There is a particular moment in the scene when Marley orders Scrooge to peer through his bedroom window and behold the afterlife that awaits him. And then, several fiery threads knit themselves together: a desperate musical cue, a vision of lost souls, a horrified outcry, a somber warning, and a swelling bass tone. And it’s all constructed so well that it becomes a thing of limitless, abstract beauty: something I cannot react to except to weep. It is not Scrooge’s plight that overwhelms me, as no other adaptation of this scene has elicited such a response. No, I think that I am simply awed at a craftsman’s level — amazed and moved at this perfect achievement of effect.

marley.jpgOf course, there are moments later on that actually aim to yank out the tears, and I think they’re quite good too, considering the simple drawings we’re looking at. The talented musicians, songwriters, editors, and voice actors all deserve great credit for this accomplishment.

youngscrooge.jpg

Unknown.jpeg MrsCratchit-MagoosChristmasCarol.jpg

Still, Dickens’s timeless tale is the cradle of these emotional forces, and the truth is that any minor tweak to it can ruin the whole soup. Thankfully, UPA wisely treats the work with great reverence. While concessions understandably had to be made for time, much of the heady dialogue and darker scenes from the book were retained. No punches were pulled for the sake of offending a child viewer, and I think the results speak for themselves. Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is by turns sad, warm, funny, wondrous, and frightening, and neither Disney nor Warner Bros. were able to pull the Carol off so well as this. The simple technical skill massed within these studios is meaningless without the innate understanding of timing, heart, and power that UPA demonstrated here.

Or, to make my point more simply, “it’s not the number of frames in the life, it’s the amount of life in the frames.”

Notes on Creating

1.) I am impatient. This a path, and I can only advance on it when I’m ready.

2.) I work best at night, when there are no obligations or interruptions.

3.) I work more efficiently when I listen to an audiobook or a movie, especially if it is educational. It distracts my mind from the pain of working. I move through the drudgery of inking and painting without even thinking about it.

4.) Perhaps the secret is not the distraction itself. It is not to soften the effort of work, or to blur my vision of it, but to avoid thinking too strongly about it.

5.) Thinking brings analysis. Analysis brings doubt.

6.) Work must be balanced with rest. Recreation after work is not loafing. Recreation without work, a conscious ignorance of the muse, is a sin.

One-Eyed, One-Horned, Flying, Purple People-Pleaser

Recently, I shared an excerpt from my short story “Travis is Fired” with an English teacher at a nearby college. He gave excellent feedback, but he was also curious about the long-term stakes of the story. Where was this story going? What was Travis’s story arc? What kind of person was he, and what was he going to face?

Travis’s flaw is that he’s a people-pleaser, a man who keeps his world under control by making everyone around him happy. Or, at least, those people he deems worthy of happiness.

He also has an uncompromising sense of justice, and his expectations for others are so rigid they’re brittle. As you might guess, Travis’s personality doesn’t get along with itself.

As painful life events rain down on Travis, he devotes his energy into caging his frustration. Since he has chosen not to express his displeasure, for fear of upsetting others, his displeasure decides to express itself. It manifests as a whole other character that whispers to Travis in the dead of night.

This freakish doppelgänger, who calls himself Ralph, encourages Travis to release his rage, to say what he feels and then some. Travis realizes that this might be good for him, so he takes Ralph’s advice and lashes out at those he dislikes.

At first, this expression is therapeutic, but before long Travis is alienated. Family and friends are frightened at his transformation. Horrified that he’s hurt people he cares about, Travis becomes infuriated with himself. Ralph’s hissed suggestions turn to ceaseless berating, and Travis sinks into depression. He hits bottom in a dirt field, where he bleeds himself in the blazing summer sun.

I don’t want to go much farther into the plot. I just thought it was interesting to think about. It’s fascinating that people distort their views of the world. They need to keep it in a state that appears stable and familiar and safe, and if they can’t, they become afraid. This clamor for security, this need for comfort and steadiness, is so severe that people will go so far as to alter their behavior in irrational ways to satisfy it. They won’t even realize they’re doing it most of the time, and if they do, they won’t appreciate being called out for it.

Our minds are fragile and difficult to repair. Hopefully Travis can make it.

Support Beam Excerpt 6

And the story closes. Thanks for reading!

6

You don’t have to tell me what you’re feeling. I’ve told it to myself, and with significant amplification. I know what you really think.

I can hear you, and I understand what you’re saying, but I know it’s not honest. You speak in hope and fear and desperation, and as I’ve learned, people aren’t completely honest in that state.

More than that, though, I want you to stop speaking because I can’t tell you to shut up. Since I know what you really mean, I need to stop hearing it. All I can do is take in the veiled chiding, the hidden disappointment, with no way to quiet it or brush it aside. I know already, believe me, I know.

It’s not a lost cause, though. I’ve created a hum in my head to drown you out. I just think of the words “I love you, too” over and over now, and it seems to help. I just wish you could hear it, so you could stop blaming yourselves and go away.

I love you too, I love you too, I love you too.

Support Beam Excerpt 5

Here’s Chapter 5.

5

Icy winds slashed the house by the time I was done cleaning it up. My final task was to clear the rain gutters. Digging out slimy leaf clumps while enduring the cold front was a hell of a job, but I got through it. I still hadn’t seen any sign of Mom. I began to wonder if she’d had a heart attack and collapsed in her clay. I knew better though.

My checklist complete, I had trouble thinking of things to do. I knew that I needed to look for a job, or for classes to enroll in, but such ventures felt irrelevant. I felt like I was exiled from all that, stuck aground while the currents rushed around me. I didn’t even know if that was by choice or not.

One afternoon I sat on the living room sofa and stared at the turned-off TV set. It was a big, black, sixty-inch HDTV that loomed over all else like an Oceanic telescreen. I never cared for television programming, but staring at the blank screen felt strangely relaxing. What a spectacular waste of money. At least Aaron got some use out of it. Mom was rarely home to watch it, but she was proud to own it anyway. It was the same with our internet service: Mom didn’t even know how to double-click, but she liked knowing the internet was there.

This train of thought lifted me from the couch and carried me to the study, where we kept the family PC. The study was once Mark’s bedroom, and there was still something Mark-ish about it, and entering it gave me the sense that I was intruding. I felt like Mark was going to jump out from somewhere and tell me to quit my snooping. I even felt that way during the hours I’d spent cleaning it.

I switched on the computer and opened the browser. Mom’s home page popped up: the website of the Jesse Altadonna gallery in San Francisco. It was where most of her art was exhibited and sold. The center of the page showed a large portrait of the gallery. Plain white walls and parquet floors. Paintings hung and sculptures posed. It reminded me of the tin-shit building where I attended sculpture class. I rested my chin on my left hand and decided to drift about the site. Smirking, I went to the Artists list and clicked the link that read “Myra Levins.”

Her page drew her out in plain text. Her bio, her curriculum vitae, her exhibits. Samples of her work included a photo of her “cage” sculpture, with the smiling man and woman. I stared at it for a long time, until my eyes unfocused and I fell into a daydream. I forced myself to blink and shook my head. Then I returned to the Artists page and scrolled around before freezing up and gaping.

Near the bottom of the page, between “Jennifer Valdez” and “Richard Werner,” I found “Evelyn Acceptance Weiss.”

It took me a minute, but I clicked it. She only had one exhibit, which had taken place the previous week. The samples showed small, cream-colored sculptures, abstract shapes arranged in a ring on a black display stand. I thought they looked like warped eggs, or river-smoothed stones that were somehow softened and squashed. There was also a diorama, a wooden box painted dark blue on the inside. Set within was a plaster hand in a black lace glove, cut off just below the wrist, with its fingers elegantly curved, as though clutching an unseen cigarette.

I took my hand from the mouse and rubbed my eyes. I realized that I’d been frowning, and there was some sort of heavy rock sitting in my stomach. I took a deep breath and went for the bio. There was only one thing I wanted to see.

And there it was, beneath her date and place of birth: “Evelyn is currently an undergraduate at California State University, Sacramento.”

It’s difficult to describe what I felt. The rock in my stomach seemed to gain mass, and then it dropped further inside me, pulling some of my guts with it. I knew that I needed to fill the cold hollow that it left inside me, and I tried to do it with heavy breaths. Then something gave in my head. It was like a strap was cut, and everything it held back spilled. I rolled my chair away from the computer and tilted forward with my face in my hands. I leaned until my elbows hit my thighs.

First it was laughter. I laughed at things so grand, gangly, and absurd that I couldn’t understand them. I saw a sky filled with weird orange tendrils. They surrounded me, enclosed me, chambered me like mosquito netting. I saw the sun beyond, shooting down on me, burning the familiar blue away with a relentless, emotionless white. I was frightened to be there, but I didn’t care enough to escape.

As you’d probably expect, the laughter rose to a high, choking wheeze, and then tipped into sobs. I dropped from the chair, flopping like a boned fish, and cried on the floor. My strength had gone from me, and I was too weak to lift my hands. Tears and snot slid down my face, and I didn’t bother to wipe them. I just let them drip into the carpet. It was pathetic, and I knew it was pathetic even as it happened.

I became angry with myself. I was pissed for breaking, pissed for crying, and more than anything, pissed for even feeling anything in the first place. I had so much. Even in failing, I had so much. I wasn’t stuck in the ghetto giving blow jobs to make rent. I wasn’t on the streets of Damascus, dodging death squads and mortar fire. I wasn’t scrabbling in the dirt for scraps to eat. I was in suburbia, glowing, green, American suburbia, surrounded with every opportunity to find fortune and pursue pleasure, and I was fucking crying.

Was I suffering? Could someone like me ever understand suffering? Could I ever earn the right to hurt, or the right to express it? Did I even deserve the comforts that graced me in childhood, and that surrounded me now? Obviously I didn’t appreciate them.

Meanwhile, I acted like I knew what was best for everyone else. It was easy for me to decide where Mark and Aaron and Acceptance belonged, so long as I didn’t have to assign a position to myself. This wasn’t because I was lost, it was because I was lazy. The valleys I saw as a child rose into mountains the moment I neared them, and I chose to run instead of rough it. It was too hard.

It was true. That floundering, weeping thing on the study floor was I. This was the person my decisions had turned me into, and this was the place where they had led me to be.

Energy surged into me again. I pushed myself from the floor and stood up. I went into the garage and hit the door opener. As the door rumbled open, I got behind the wheel of the Taurus and turned the ignition. My breathing was very deep, and my vision was very distant. My heart danced a jig inside me. I didn’t know where I going; I only knew it was far away from this house, this town, this world. I was scared of the thought, but a little excited, too.

I backed the car down the driveway, still marooned in that far-off space where my heart and lungs governed. The road beckoned me to a land free from all pains and worries.

Just before my rear wheels could touch the pavement, a stumpy gray van barged up behind me, aiming for the center of the drive. Its driver must only have spotted me at the last moment. The van stopped with a jolt, and I got three angry horn honks.

I couldn’t back the car out any further; the van hadn’t left me enough room to squeeze onto the street. I had no other choice but to put the car in drive and roll back up into the garage. The van backed up a bit, adjusted its angle, and took the free side of the driveway.

I felt that heavy, sinking sensation pouring through me again, not the drop of a single rock but a whole avalanche, that yanked on my innards until they tore. There was no ignoring her now. I got out of the car and slowly stepped out to meet her.

I had to wait a few seconds while she stashed some things in her purse. I could see the top of her gray head through the driver’s side window. Then she looked out at me. I saw my droopy eyes in her face.

“Tara? What the hell are you doing here?” she said.

“I was just leaving, Mom,” I answered.

She got out of the van and shut the door. She stood in front of me, her brow wrinkled, her eyes squinted, and her mouth hanging open. She wore a yellow Snoopy T-shirt besmirched with the paint stains of years gone by, an old work shirt. Her jeans, frayed at the knees and ankles, were similarly stained. Her clothes were very loose and baggy, and I was surprised at how skinny and tiny she looked.

She didn’t hug me or make any other effort at greeting me. She had a battery of questions first, and questions were just what I couldn’t deal with. “Are you okay? Are you hurt? What’s wrong?”

“I’m fine, Mom. I’m going to be fine, but I have to get going now.” I inched back toward the garage.

“But, how long have you been here? Were you waiting to see me? Why didn’t you call the studio?”

“It’s okay. It’s not a problem.” I don’t know why, but I started to panic. I had to get away. I continued to walk backward to the car, but she followed me and maintained the distance between us.

When I got the driver’s side door, I pulled the latch with my left hand and saw my escape just inches ahead of me. I just had to get in. Then Mom seized my right hand.

“Tara, you can’t leave me wondering like this,” she said. “Can’t you stay a little longer and talk to me?”

I was too close to back down now. My mind rocketed to a state of extreme terror, and I needed to leave. Without thinking, I drew my right arm inward, and then threw it out in a swift, jerking motion. The sudden, desperate force of it threw Mom off-balance. She stumbled backwards and crashed into a pair of easels in the corner of the garage.

Terrified that I’d injured her, I hesitated to watch her recover. When I was satisfied that she’d regained her balance, I said, “Mom, I have to go. I’m sorry.” I saw my own eyes staring at me from that corner, giant and lit with fright, and they burned an afterimage in my sight that I couldn’t clear, no matter how hard I shook my head. I slumped into the driver’s seat again, started the car, backed down the drive, and shot out of the neighborhood in one long, blurry motion.

I sped out to the edges of town, weaving through traffic and shooting past red lights. I didn’t think that Mom would try to follow me, but if she did, I wanted to be sure that there was no way her van would keep up.

I realized how keen each of my sensations had become, from the dryness of my mouth and throat, to the grip of the vinyl steering wheel in my hands. All of my nerves were active and afire, and I felt alive and lifeless at the same time. I kept driving, and I didn’t stop until I was far out of town.

Stars poked out of the violet sky. I sat in my car, on the side of the north freeway, and watched them. It was a strangely clear evening. The few clouds I could see were long, thin, and faint, and they stretched across the span of the sky, from one horizon to the other. I wanted to focus on them, to rip my attention away from the fiery memories of Mark, Aaron, and Mom, but the back of my head still ran the images in an endless filmstrip. It ticked away, making cold calculations and scary realizations. I tried to stuff each thought down with a heavy sigh, but I couldn’t make it work. As the sun slid past the round black hills of the west, the conclusion announced itself to me as a question.

You know what you have to do, don’t you?

Mom’s horrified face flashed before me to cement my answer. Yeah, I knew.

I turned the car back on.

I took the next exit that came up and then reentered the freeway going south. I watched for the sign marked “Clemens Rd.” There were some odd detours on the way because of the overpass construction, but I got back to familiar territory in time. Traffic was scarce. The sky was black. The landmark I was looking for stood proudly out from a field of flattened land. Cheap sodium lamps bathed the earth orange. I pulled over to the right edge of the street and stayed put for a while. There were no homes or stores on that side, only dirt fields and weeds. I sat and mulled one last time. I thought about the chances I’d lost, the people I’d hurt, and the people I’d continue to hurt in my bent, broken state. Would they forgive me? In the place of those people, would I forgive myself? I wondered whether living like that would be bearable.

The engine thrummed, and my last doubts crumbled. I was already on the plank, a short walk left ahead of me. What was there was ponder?

I put the Taurus in reverse, and rolled it back into the fields. As I pointed the front of the car at the pale orange spire, I found that the storm in my head was easing up. My muscles were relaxing. I began to believe that this was really the only way that my tale could end.

When I was content that my aim was true, I braked and went to drive. I felt my features harden into a grim expression, and I poured my concentration into getting this done right. Keep the safety belt on, press the gas to the floor, and hold her straight. I can do that. I launched ahead.

The engine spun to a high growl. I accelerated over the two lanes of Clemens, and then shot into the dirt. The steering wheel jerked and twitched in my hands, but my grip never faltered, and I kept the beam in front of me. For several seconds it was distant, a bright spike in a black horizon, and then all at once it filled the windshield. Shocks and tremors rumbled through the glass and metal around me, and I squeezed my eyes shut as a sharp biological spark stung me and I swung the steering wheel to the right.

I thought I heard the skid, but I didn’t hear the crash.

Support Beam Excerpt 4

Here’s Chapter 4.

4

Aaron was one of the better men. At first, his unannounced visits to the house irritated me, but I came to appreciate his company. We didn’t converse much, but just having him around was pleasant. He sat in the living room and played on his phone or watched my mom’s TV while I vacuumed the rugs and washed the walls. He felt guilty after a while, though, and insisted on helping somehow. I didn’t want him getting underfoot, so I found a good job for him.

“You can move some of the junk in the garage,” I told him. “I’d like to try and get the car dug out of there.”

He took to it. Where I was intimidated, he was motivated. He opened a decent berth about the old Taurus after just two visits. Never mind that he’d simply thrown most of the old art supplies on the side of the house; it was work that I hadn’t wanted to handle myself.

“How’d I do?” he said. His face and hair were sweaty.

“Great! Thanks, Aaron! I thought I’d never get this thing free.” I hugged him. His body jolted with surprise in my arms, and then he returned the affection. His right hand found a tight spot on my back and rubbed it. This made me a little uncomfortable, and I kindly broke the embrace.

I wanted to test the car, and I got the urge to shoo Aaron off. Of course, I thought better of that.

“Do you want to go for a drive?” I asked him.

He turned into a puppy dog at that one.

I don’t know how long the car sat buried, but it didn’t have any problems starting and running. I drove randomly, just enjoying the memories that sprung up from each road. Aaron suggested that we “hit a Taco Bell or something,” and I agreed. We didn’t want to eat in the restaurant, so we used the drive-thru and picked up a couple of burritos. Then I continued the circuit I’d made up.

Aaron was already sucking down his food. “Let’s find a shady spot so you can eat too,” he said.

We turned onto Clemens Road and saw the huge mounds of earth that had been dragged around for the new overpass.

“I can’t believe they’re doing this,” said Aaron. “They’re screwing up all the roads. My mom says she can never find the actual freeway entrance now.”

“Well how about here?” I said. I pointed to the empty space that was dug out beneath the new bridge. The road was not prepared, and everywhere it was just plain old deserts of dirt. The massive concrete support beam shot up like a monolith. Above it, a web of scaffolding cast a nice cool place to park.

“Are you sure it’s okay?” said Aaron.

“There are no crews around. Why not?”

I pulled the car off the road. The bumps we hit on the graded dirt didn’t dissuade Aaron from finishing his burrito, though he took a few saucy blows to the face for his determination. I took us underneath the infant bridge and killed the engine.

“Sorry I couldn’t wait for you,” Aaron said. “I was seriously craving this.” He turned his face out the window and let out a quick belch.

“You might want to wipe your face,” I said.

He pulled down the ceiling mirror and attended to the taco sauce on his cheeks. He reached into the bag to take some napkins, and then handed me my burrito. I unwrapped it completely, lifted it, and took a bite. I must have picked the wrong end to start from, because a sizable dollop of filling squirted out from the other side and onto my lap. Some of it got on the seat too. “Oh great,” I said. “Sour cream and everything.”

“Oh crap, man,” said Aaron. “They never fold those things right.”

I put the food back in the bag. “Let me have some of those napkins,” I told Aaron. I set to work wiping off my pants. Then I unbuckled my safety belt, opened the car door, and started scrubbing at the stain on the seat. I knew it wouldn’t come out dry, though, and I gave up. I sopped up as much taco sauce and beef bits as I could and crumpled the napkin. Then I got back in the seat and slammed the door.

“Aren’t you going to eat it?” said Aaron.

“No, I’m not hungry anymore,” I answered.

I stared out the windshield at a wisp of wind-swirled dust and listened to the cars zooming by on the freeway. We sat in silence for about a minute. Then Aaron cleared his throat.

“Have you been doing okay?” he asked. His tone was cautious.

“As best as I can be,” I said, and it was true.

“I don’t know,” he said. “You seem really edgy to me.”

I sighed and decided to let a wall fall. “I guess I haven’t been adjusting well. To life, I mean. I keep having bad dreams.”

“What about?”

“Being in other places, with other people. Cities and families I’ve never seen before. Or being a different person myself. I look in the mirror and see a different face. Sometimes I like the change, but other times it scares me.” I was a little shocked at myself for saying this, but I guess I needed to.

“Why does it scare you?”

“Sometimes I find out that I’ve changed into a man, or that all of my features have been smoothed away, like an egg.”

Aaron shifted in his seat. “Wow. What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know. Dreams are weird. It probably doesn’t mean anything.”

“Where’s your necklace?”
“My what?”

“Your necklace you used to wear.” He meant the gold cross.

“Oh, I put that away. Just didn’t feel like wearing it anymore.”

Aaron looked down at his own lap for a long time. I could tell he wanted to breach a new, sensitive subject, so I waited for him to build up his courage. “Do you…feel guilty about coming back?” he asked.

I told him the truth. “Sometimes, yes.”

“What did your mom say?”

“I haven’t spoken to her yet.”

Aaron started. “You haven’t? You mean she doesn’t even know you’re back?”

“She might know, but she’s been at her studio since I returned, so I haven’t seen her.”

“Is she working on something big?”

“She’s always working on something, and it’s always big to her.”

“Are you pissed at her?”

I thought this one over for a bit. “No. She’s just doing what she does.”

Here Aaron saw his opening. “Well,” he began, and he set his right hand on mine, “I don’t want you to feel bad about coming back.”

I didn’t withdraw from his touch, but I didn’t feel like acknowledging it either. I glanced at his eyes. I saw the same goofy kid from high school, the one who dreamed only of playing Xbox and getting laid. At the same time, though, I saw someone who loved me, and who might want to show it now and then. Especially now. I quickly looked back out the windshield.

“I thought about you a lot since you left,” he said. He spoke very carefully, choosing his words like he was stepping down a steep hill. “I figured it’d be a waste of time to patch things up over the summer, when I thought you were leaving. Now that you’re back, though, I was hoping you might want to try again or something.”

I closed my eyes, sighed through my nose, and let another wall drop. I placed my left hand on top of Aaron’s right. I opened my eyes and turned my head and he was already there. His kiss felt the same as I remembered it, eager, thoughtful, shallow. Not so shallow I couldn’t swim in it, though. I swam until I got lost. Lost was good.

I was wearing a ponytail, and I felt his left hand climb to my scrunchy and pull it loose. My hair fell about my neck and shoulders. He kept his fingers on the back of my head and stroked my scalp. I found this tremendously relaxing, so my muscles slackened and my breathing slowed. His right hand joined the other, and together they tugged at my hair very gently. This felt nice too. I thought that I would fade away and appear somewhere else, in some city or with some family where I belonged and felt happy. I even moaned a little.

Then there was a sudden pressure. Allen’s – I mean, Aaron’s – lips fell away from mine, and I realized he was pushing my head forward. Forward and down. My eyes snapped open, and I saw his rigid penis, excited and curious, stabbing up at me from his thicket of black, stringy pubic hair.

“Stop!” I yelled, and pulled my head out of his grip. I drew back as far as I could from him until my shoulder blades were flat against the driver’s side window. He stared at me with enormous, guilty eyes, and after a second’s thought, rapidly pulled up and refastened his pants.

“What the fuck are you thinking?” I said.

“I’m sorry.” He repeated it again and again.

“Just get out.”

He wouldn’t stop apologizing, so I reached past him and opened his door for him. He shut up and got out. He stood there, a timid mannequin peeking in at me through the passenger’s side window. I looked at his crotch and was glad to see that his erection was stamped dead.

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said.

I slammed his door. Then I started the car and pumped the gas, which made the engine roar. I backed out from under the bridge and pulled left. I heard rocks spew up into my wheel wells. Then I threw her in drive and swept onto Clemens Road, leaving him and his penis in the dirt.

He never came by after that.

Thinking about it now, I realize that I was probably too tough on Aaron. I really shouldn’t have expected a different outcome from that situation, and to his credit, he did stop when I told him to. Besides, I’m not certain that it was Aaron I was angry at.

There was a stupidity in him, a wiry wheel of stupidity that I saw in his face, which stood as an example of everything I knew about the world, and that’s what set me off. I guess that I sometimes hope that someone I know will put their arms out and stop that wheel from taking a grip and rolling, but every time I think that might happen, I am unceremoniously let down.