Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ginger Brandy

I keep a fair amount of alcohol around the house, but I don't actually drink much. It's not the taste, but the loss of control that comes with it, the loss of inhibitions and filters and things that make me able to be around other people, that keeps me from drinking too much too often.

I can be an awful drunk. I will say things I mean, but never mean to say. I will do things I want to, but should never actually put the will to power. I can make an ass of myself --worse than usual.

On the shelf in the kitchen, I keep a couple of bottles. I have a bottle of Henry McKenna, which was cheap and seemed like a good idea at the time. I bought it to get through the first broadcast of my little radio show. I drank shots every couple of minutes of the broadcast and barely felt them hit me at all.

There's still a couple of swallows left. I've used it for cooking, and I think the kid has been nipping in it.

I have a bottle of Fighting Cock bourbon. I bought it because the name sounds vulgar. It's 104 proof, but is kinder than a more expensive bourbon called Bullitt I tried, which feels like getting hit upside the head with a sock full of nickels.

I like Fighting Cock, but I drink it sparingly.

There's also a bottle of Black Seal rum. I got that a month ago, right before I had some friends over for a post-Thanksgiving meal. I thought it would be something people could mix with their soda, but nobody drank it and I've only had a couple of sips here and there.

I'm not a rum drinker. It seems like something only pirates would drink.

Last, there's a bottle of Joaquin's Ginger brandy, a cordial made in the city of brotherly love and a value buy at around nine bucks.

I have a history with the stuff.

Long, long ago, my friend Tim and I used to buy this stuff back when it was six dollars a bottle. We drank it in college, loved it because it was cheap and the stuff mixed so well with soda. With a healthy dose of Sprite, you didn't know you were hammered until suddenly you were.

We drank it a lot.

I think about Tim when I drink it now. I can't help but think about him.

Tim was a friend, older than me. We met in college, his last semester. We were fast friends, hung out a lot, smoked cigarettes, drank, and watched shitty horror films.

A couple of years after he graduated from college, he put a bullet in his head --entirely accidental, his mother told me.

The story goes:

After a year or so of working at the local Wal-mart, he got a job as a statistician for the state. He moved from Beckley to Charleston, rented an apartment with a couple of childhood friends and everything seemed to be going great. One night, they had a small party, invited some girls over, were drinking and Tim got it in his head to spook one of them. He pulled out a pistol, slammed an empty clip into the butt of it and pointed it at his head.

What happened next was an unfortunate cliche.


But it didn't kill him. He survived, in a manner, though the story of what happened the night he shot himself is one that still knots my stomach.

His friends called for help and then called his parents, who met Tim at the hospital.

In the E.R. the nurse kept trying to convince his parents to sign over his organs, though he was clearly still breathing and even moving on the stretcher. His parents refused. His mother, indignant and upset, screamed, "He's still alive! He's alive!"

The nurse told her to calm down. She was upsetting Tim.

That still makes me feel ill.

My friend spent over a month in a coma, when he came to, only about 2/3 of him made it back. He'd been a mathematician, a statistician for some unremembered state agency. He was a lot less than that after and on some level, he knew it.

That was the real horror. He was sometimes aware of what he'd become.

After I heard about what happened, I visited him a couple of times. I saw him in the hospital, a couple of months after his accident, and the visit haunted me for years. I dreamed of him as a zombie, crawling up the foot of my bed.

The nightmares kept me away for three years.

I went to visit him again, when he was in a daycare/rehab, where he sat with thirty others in a room that stank of piss.He had a wild beard then and he was pale as corpse. His teeth looked mossy and yellow and his eyes looked frightened, dazed and stupid.

It was hard to look at him.

I'd loved the man, been impressed by him. Tim had been crazy smart and we'd bonded over bad movies, Pink Floyd and Mexican food. We'd read some of the same books and had philosophical debates that went on for weeks.

He was also the only man I knew who'd actually had sex with two women at once. In college, somehow, he'd conned two women at the same time to have sex with him in his dorm room and no one understood how he'd managed that --because he was a nerd, because he was a geek, because he was a scrawny, little weirdo --but he'd somehow, pulled it off.

There were actual witnesses (of a sort) and for that alone, Tim had earned a certain amount of respect. Hell, the fucking quarterback for the damned football team hadn't pulled that off and by even my rough assessment, he should have been able to.

He's also managed to have sex with a smoking hot redhead who was clearly out of his league.

No one understood that either --including the redhead in question, who later seemed embarrassed by the fact that it had happened. 

That first visit after the hospital (and after my first divorce) was hard. I remember I pushed him in his wheelchair, along Mercer Street in Princeton, past the pawn shop and the dusty, evacuated storefronts. I don't remember what we'd talked about, but it made me hurt all the way down to my bones.

I didn't see him again for at least a year.

The guilt of his condition gnawed at me. He was my friend.

Finally, somehow, he got my phone number and started calling me. We talked on the phone. The conversations were non-sensical. We had nothing to talk about. His days were spent creeping through shopping malls, harassing young mothers with children, eating sweets and haunting his mother.

I started going up every other weekend. I took him out to the mall, to the movies, to a local stable where we could watch the horses. The people at the mall knew him. They'd seen him a thousand times already, but the manager of the theater pulled me aside.

He said, "Hey, I don't know if you can, but you need to keep him on a leash. If you can't, you're going to have to leave."

Tim adored children. In the hospital, he'd tried to put my girl friend's fingers in his mouth. He'd talked about how they'd had sex, though she laughed it off, denied it ever happened.

He told me they'd cut him, taken away his ability to have children. I don't know what they did exactly, but his libido was gone. What was left was just a horrible craving for fatherhood, for family, that he'd never be able to satisfy.

He stopped women with small children to tell them they had beautiful babies, they had handsome sons and lovely daughters. He told the women they themselves were beautiful. He wanted to shake everyone's hand.

He frightened everyone. They assumed he was a pervert.

His mother was glad to see me. We only spent a couple of hours together every other Saturday or so --usually on weekends when I didn't see me kids. Back then, I didn't have much of a life. Going to see Tim wasn't something I looked forward to, but it gave me someplace to be.

I stopped going to visit, shortly after I changed jobs, got involved with a woman whose daughter was autistic, and eventually moved away. I disappeared out of his life and in well over last ten years have never gone back. I've scarcely looked back.

But tonight I started drinking. I'm pretty God damned drunk at the moment and I picked up that bottle of ginger brandy. It was a comfort when I felt alone or abandoned and I feel that way tonight, and I've had just enough to make me wonder what became of Tim, what has become of him and whether I should seek him out one more time.

I can't fix him, but everybody deserves at least one person who won't leave them. Maybe I can try again to be that person or maybe I'm just drunk and lonesome.

Friday, December 19, 2014


Chestnuts roasting on an open fire and nobody likes the damned office holiday party. These days, we don't even call it a holiday party. Parties suggest music and fun and good cheer. We don't have that. We barely refer to the holiday party as a holiday feast.

The spread declines a little every year. Usually, the company provides some meat, a little bread and some drinks. We were encouraged to bring side dishes and desserts.

Some years, what everyone else brought was the best part and while we tended to sit at our desks, we clustered together socially.

Most of the people who liked to cook and liked to bring their cooking to things like an office luncheon either retired, quit or stopped giving a damn.

I would be in the latter category.

I used to bring an apple walnut cake I made from scratch. I used to bring a lot of apple walnut cakes, but this was back when I had free and easy access to black walnuts, back when the expense of a few Granny Smith apples and a little bit of flour seemed like a nice way to give back to the people I worked for and with.

One year, I gave out over a dozen at the job. I wrapped them in aluminum foil, stacked the loafs like bricks and carried them into the building inside of a heavy cardboard box.

I handed them out to people I liked and even to people I barely spoke to. 

I started cutting back last year. This year, I haven't baked a single cake yet and so I brought nothing to the meal. Nobody else brought much either. The receptionist did some baking. Someone baked a pie and maybe someone else bought a couple of boxes of cookies.

It was a tiny contribution from the ranks. 

We made our plates and I went back to my desk. Everyone else seemed to be doing the same thing. We ate while staring at Facebook or while finishing up the dregs of one more story.

When I first joined the paper, I felt so lonesome there. I didn't know anyone, didn't think anyone took me seriously and felt so out of place.

It felt the same way again.

I finished my plate, then gathered my things and went home unhappy and unsatisfied. The company ham and turkey sank to the bottom of my stomach like a discarded hubcap.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Two socks

The girl nodded perfunctorily as I passed, but she didn't smile. We both had large baskets of laundry in our arms. She was being polite, acknowledging that our paths were crossing, that we shared a similar struggle, but nothing more.

She wore a yellow flannel shirt and the lower third of her jeans disappeared under the seem of heavy, black boots. A cigarette was tucked behind her ear.

Her face was plain: no lipstick, no powder and no earrings. She'd clipped her hair short and it was growing back unevenly --a home job. She'd probably done it herself in front of a bathroom mirror with a pair of twelve dollar clippers.

Almost every man I know has tried that same look one time or another. You argue that a pair of clippers from the drugstore, the big box chain store, the little box chain store costs the same as a haircut from the mall and you don't have to pay for parking or tip anybody.

How hard can it be to cut hair, especially if you're not going for anything fancy? Just take your time, keep your hand steady, start with the larger combs and work your way down. No problem.

The math is easy. After one haircut, the clippers pay for themselves, but unless you've got some kind of skill at cutting hair or are particularly desperate, by the sixth or seventh cut, you get tired of looking like an ex-con or a prisoner of war. You find a new barber, lie and blame your hair on the last guy or slink back to the salon at the mall.

If they don't ask any questions about what you've done to your head, you tip them better than they deserve. If they do, you still tip, but you never come back.

I wonder what it's like with women?

With 40 minutes to kill and only a book to keep me company, I watched the woman with the bad haircut and the work boots. She wasn't alone. Another woman was with her and the two of them shuffled wet clothes into the dryers, talked in short, awkward bursts, but never laughed.

The other woman was older, but blond and pretty. She wore officially licensed college football team sweats. They were clean and, like most sweats meant for lounging or doing mild chores, made her look vaguely shapeless.

I more or less had on the same outfit, though my sweats had seen better days. Most of my clothes have seen better days.

Still, there was a contrast here. Where the one woman seemed to have ditched the fashion magazine ideal of femininity, the other wore makeup to come to the grubby laundromat. She'd put some work into her hair --something I could not also cop to. A baseball cap covered the grubby nest of frayed wire on my head. I looked like someone who worked parking lots to be paid in spare change.

For the briefest of moments I thought they might be lovers, but then I watched the older, prettier woman fold a pair of boxer shorts. She looked up from her work, looked across the room, through the glass door to the parking lot.

The cigarette had been plucked from behind the younger woman's ear and she stood outside, watching traffic and smoking.

The older woman scowled, but went on folding cheap, sleeveless cotton undershirts, bleached the color of bones; white, athletic socks with red stripes; old t-shirts and a rainbow of flannel, work shirts.

All of it looked just shy of new, but well-kept, and she resented having to put her hands on it.

When the girl with the bad haircut came back, the laundry was folded and neatly stacked in plastic baskets. She grabbed the largest and led the way to their car.

We nodded again, as they passed. We all had our hands full. I tried to smile at her mother, too, a sympathetic gesture, but she didn't look up.  

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


I started at the newspaper almost eight years ago, though I'd been writing for them for a couple of years before that. The story is kind of well-known. I lied my way into the gig and then kept at it until it more or less became the truth.

This blog was started because another blog the Gazette paid me to write for wasn't any good, didn't have any readers and the paper wanted real value for their measly $35 a month. I lost my slot on the company blog roster to Hippie Killer and Raging Red, who'd been brought on to write about food. Through the early creation of their blog, that was how I learned their real names --back when any of us believed in anonymity.

I failed at one blog, but wasn't ready to quit blogging and started this one. The title was created around the idea that it would be subjects I wanted to write about, but would either get me in trouble or was considered too personal for the paper.

Also I could say fuck as much as I wanted and be as mercilessly honest as I could stand without weeping.

The newspaper job came later. I got it because I was writing one or two stories a week for the entertainment section and one or two a month for the Sunday section. They had an opening. I seemed like someone the editors thought they could bring along and train up, even though I lacked a journalism degree and hadn't attended even a respected state college.

I hadn't gone to even WVU and, honestly, had only been to Morgantown three times since I'd come to West Virginia, but it hardly mattered. They didn't want me to do anything important, just write little stories that seemed to be more about occupying space than telling anyone THE TRUTH. I could do that and talk to whatever stray musicians happened to amble into town.   

For weeks, maybe months, I was out of my depth in the newsroom. I didn't write nearly enough and everyone seemed to know so much more about everything than I did. As little good as it did me, I took a copy of Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" with me when I went to the bathroom. I tried to read the work of the writers in the room everyone talked about and had no clue what made one better than the other.

I sucked. I was awful. I knew I was awful, and any second they were going to pack my things up in a box and tell me to go. 

I hung in there. The people in my little corner of the second floor basement were kind. I got good advice from the old, Jewish guy who wore gardening gloves to type sometimes. The two ladies with grown or almost grown children listened to my fears. They encouraged me.

I was lucky. My editors were good ones. They were patient. They were teachers. I learned to write for them. They taught me to focus more, write responsibly, and I learned to tell different kinds of stories than I thought I ever could.

I felt like a kid there for a long time. I relished that. I loved it. It felt like I'd somehow slept very late the night after I'd graduated from college, woke up, and ten years had passed like an unsettling dream. The paper was a new start, a new beginning, a new life, and I have never regretted going into work. I never dreaded having to be there or wished Monday morning was suddenly Friday at five.

People left from time to time. At first, I didn't think much of it. Some of the newer reporters, out of school for a year or two, they moved on, which was sad sometimes, but understandable. They weren't from Charleston or West Virginia and never meant to stay in the first place. They took better jobs in bigger cities and I wished them well when they left.

A few people retired. They put in 20 or 30 or however many years and decided they'd had enough. We had a cake or else met at somebody's house, drank wine and ate cheese and then said good-bye.

One guy left because he was a raging drunk. To this day, he's the only person I've ever witnessed being fired in that newsroom.

A few years ago, things started getting darker or maybe I just began to notice it. People began to leave, not necessarily because they'd found a better job, but because they were fed up. They felt poorly used, underpaid and over-stressed for what they'd signed on for.

A little over a year ago, I stopped being the kid. As unlikely as it seemed to me, I became the veteran, sharing space with others who were wide-eyed and hopeful. I've tried to help them as others helped me and tried to be encouraging as others encouraged me.

It has never been enough and all of the people who came to replace the people who were my friends have been replaced by other people and are now, themselves, in the process of packing up and moving on.

Others will come.

But now, I feel very alone. Soon, the last person connecting me to my first days at the paper will be gone, the victim of people who maybe should have been a little more curious as to why she was so angry all the time.

And now, I have hard days, too. I still don't come in on Monday and dream of Friday, but I often wonder why I feel like I am treated so shabbily. I wonder what it is the people I work for think of me and consider that they must think very little indeed. My pay, which has scarcely changed in eight years, does not encourage me to believe otherwise.

Sometimes, I wonder if I've stayed too long. Other times I wonder if I've stayed too long to leave.

Monday, December 8, 2014


For a while there, I used to post a list of resolutions for the new year. Most of the time, the usual ideas were listed in some shape of form: lose weight/get in shape, get a better job/get published, travel, etc...

Most of the time, I failed and then 12 months came crawling back, making a new list. Call it misplaced optimism or lunacy, but either way I gave up and stopped making lists or following lists a while back.

So, this year I went in with no goals and got pretty much what I asked for.

This last year was pretty miserable --just one bad thing after another. Take your pick: there were personal disappointments and setbacks. My garden failed, my workload increased dramatically, and I didn't get a pay raise. There was no vacation, no cool music festivals and I was sick when my dad came to visit.

Professionally, I was at a standstill. The one bright spot was the radio show. After too many years of hammering away, occasionally begging for a chance to do something on the air, I was given it --and then promptly ignored by management.

I have no idea who really listens. I have no clue.

The weather was against me (and everyone else). Winter arrived early, stayed too long and took a dump on the front porch just because.

There was a water crisis and living in the little town of Pinch or in the great state of West Virginia just sort of sucked in general. Crime, politics or anxiety brought on by criminal politicians. It was a hard year. Almost nobody was happy. Nobody wanted to be happy either. We all just wanted to leave.

But the year is coming over and it feels like the bad voodoo, bad vibes and bad luck is kind of flickering and guttering out like the last inch of a cheap, pillar candle. Change is coming. I can feel it in my bones and the next year, this next year, is going to be a good one, maybe a great one.

Call it misplaced optimism, but here I am blogging here again (which has become so uncool that it's kind of cool) --and I'm thinking about what I want 2015 to be.

So, we start with another list and this isn't necessarily a collection of action items. The things I want to do never change: travel, get in shape, sell a novel, do better work, be a better boyfriend, friend, father, brother and son. Read good books. Make more money. See cool things and grow happier and wiser.

No, it's more of a statement of intent, a mantra to reflect and meditate upon. It is the needle pointing north for when I invariably lose my way.

1-Don't quit.
The most important thing to remember. Just keep trying. Don't give up.

2-Make plans.
Spur of the moment is great. Improvisation is great. Improvise from the plan. It's ok to have a plan B and do something else, but have a plan A first.

3-Follow through.
Just get it done.

4-Take it easy on yourself.
Easy to say. Hard to do.

That's my list. Not really all that impressive, but it's easy to remember.

So, here we go again...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

ghosts of Christmas past

One of my co-workers turns 30 next month. I can't tell if she's fretting over the age or not. Thirty isn't the milestone it used to be (if it ever was), but she joked about having a month to get to Africa and run a marathon. She was looking for an adventure.

I offered to take her shoplifting. 

Across the aisle, another of  my co-workers, who is a good five years from 30, said she could get the 29-year-old to Africa for about three grand. All she had to do was harvest some of the eggs from her ovaries.

That sounded good, except, of course, it sucked. There's pain, weirdness, loss of eggs...

The 25-year-old told the 29-year-old she could sell plasma.

"It's a waste of time," I said. "I did that."


"Yeah," I said and then spent five minutes fielding questions about the process, explaining what was done, showing the scar in the crook of my arm and fending off disinterest and disbelief.

"I could never do that then," the 25-year-old said. "I've been to Africa."

I nodded and pressed down the sad envy boiling through my guts.

I tried to tell her that didn't really matter. There were rules. You couldn't use drugs, show up drunk, have a criminal record or be a gay man (lesbians, however, were apparently welcome), but nobody was really checking. I'd see plenty of guys come in who were either clearly drunk, high or were sporting the kind of tattoos you only get from a guy who gets paid in candy bars and postage stamps.

Plasma donation is on the honor system, which is absolutely nuts.

I told her they'd take her as long as she could prove she had an official residence. They don't let you "donate" if you're homeless.

In the end, she wasn't all that interested in the subject and I was maybe a little too interested. I don't know why I wanted to talk about it, why I wanted to prove that I had done this --maybe because she said she'd been to Africa, maybe because my girlfriend has been to Germany, and I've only been to Ohio a few times.

Finally, I sort of shrugged and said it was something I could write about next year. Maybe.

I don't want to go back there again. I still dream about the plasma center sometimes: the needle in my arm, the clinical, contemptuous way some of the drones looked at me as they harvested my dark, red blood to make rich, golden plasma.

Sometimes, I think about what I did with the money I made there. I converted it into gas for the car, spent it on cat food, bought Christmas presents nobody gave two shits about, and paid phone bills, water bills, gas bills, daycare.

Just remembering makes me feel so cold and alone all over again.   

I don't know what to give the 29-year-old for her birthday, to acknowledge this milestone that may or may not signify anything, but it ain't going to be much.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


It was just a couple of bored cub scout dads sitting off in a corner while their kids played some game only amusing to children under 10 or drunks on their fourth or fifth double.

Nobody was paying attention, though the scoutmaster was all smiles, encouraging the kids to try harder, work together or some such.

To be truthful, I don't recall the game. It didn't hold my attention, but that's nothing new. Most nights in that church basement, I find myself compulsively looking to my phone, hoping for a message from just about anyone and willing to invent one of my own to send to someone else, if it comes to that.

My best friend in Virginia believes my son's cub scout troop is populated by the children of strippers, meth addicts, and circus freaks, and he believes this because I have described it that way in loving detail.

These are all mostly tall tales --mostly.

The fathers in the corner, talking in low voices, had my attention. I couldn't turn away or tune them out.

"They said the whole building was full of ATVS," one of them said. "It was an Quonset hut. I'd like to know how they even got that thing up there."

Nobody seemed to know who "They" were, but they had a vague idea of who owned the property --some woman who owned the land, maybe even had a house somewhere on it, but lived in Florida and never came around. Whoever owned the hut never bothered to buy or rent the land, but had counted on the lingering absence of people with enough sense to move away, but not enough luck to sell what they had. 

The ATVs were, of course, all stolen, but they didn't know by who or even who the ATVs belonged to.

One of the other fathers talked about the rash of break-ins in the area.

"I spoke to a deputy," he said. "He told me 200 houses had been broken into over the summer."

Aghast, I wondered how many houses there were in my little corner of the county. Two hundred sounded like a lot. Two hundred sounded like maybe a third of the houses that could be found.

A third man had heard about the break-ins. He knew someone who'd been hit.

"They went in, took the gun safe and then went into the bedroom and found the box where he kept the serial numbers for his guns." He looked around and like he was giving away great secrets, said, "That was an inside job."

"They're looking for guns, I hear."

Who, I wanted to know, who?

"If this keeps up, somebody is gonna get hurt," the second man said. "They're gonna come up on somebody who ain't supposed to be there."

Bullets would fly.

While the kids played on, they talked about meth labs in the trailer park --I didn't know we had a trailer park --and shadowy figures seen at night, up to God knows what.

Everybody knew something, but nobody really knew anything. It all seemed like chatter.

Coming home, for the hundredth time I counted the "For Sale" signs in the yards until it became too depressing and drove past the "For Rent" sign that's been in the same place now for six  months. I wondered why I hadn't heard from my realtor in a while.