Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Beach Between

The wooden stairs had been worn smooth and rounded by thousands of people tracking abrasive sand up and down them for years. A thin layer of sand made each step dubious; one misplaced foot and the trip down would be quick and bumpy. At first I felt self-conscious dressed in jeans and a black sweater, with a pair of tightly laced, shiny jogging shoes, and a ratty bag by my side. I didn’t match the rest of the beachgoers in their bathing suits, sporting a languid attitude. But then I remembered I’m not here to relax. I gripped the strap crossing over my chest and acted as natural as I could.

As I walked, I marveled that there were still people on the beach. It was January, cloudy, cold, and the playoffs were on. How is it possible that there are still people playing frisbee in the freezing cold? How is it that people still lay placidly on their towels when the sun couldn’t tan an albino? But, this is San Diego—more importantly the beach—and the people must come.

Instead of walking towards the central pier, where surfers flank the decaying and barnacle encrusted trusses, I walked north along the cliffs slowly rising parallel to the ocean, eclipsing my right field of view. Palm trees grew among houses perched just above the shore break. Surfers rode in the meager waves before jumping off to paddle out again. From the corner of my eye, beer cans flashed under blankets just as the Official City of San Diego Beach Patrol truck drove by. Beach-goers took advantage of the slender window of opportunity for a quick sup before the truck turned around and passed again.

The crowds thinned quickly as I walked down the beach, replaced by growing piles of seaweed. Pebbles supplanted the fine sand at first, then stones, and finally boulders. I imagined the patrol truck frantically driving up and down the popular section of the beach at night collecting any detritus that had washed ashore or been exposed by the waves and driving it over to this neglected portion. There the refuse is dumped and the beach maintains its entropy-free allure. Concentrated and noxious whiffs of the familiar decaying scent of the beach permeated the crisp salty air. As I walked by hulking piles of rotting seaweed, a cloud of flies lifted off in fright and I held my breath for a beat. Have the denizens of the houses on the cliff become numb to this scent, or is it reflected in lower property values?

After passing an oddly placed, small unmarked sewage treatment plant—one that I expected to be releasing its own pleasant stench, but graciously did not—placed directly on the beach, the last structure I encountered was a blue bathroom with a sawtooth roof. I considered a quick visit, but then remember that where I was going, no one would see me pee. You see, I don’t care much for this pristine beach with its shiny-black wetsuit clad surfers, and I don’t care for the equally magnificent La Jolla Shores in the direction I’m heading. I care for the beach between. I want to go to the place where no one else goes. Because in a city of over one million people, where there is no one, there is bound to be something interesting.

The sand gave way completely to stones. I struggled to keep my balance as I walked across them. Near me a couple of surfers carried their white surfboards. They walked more delicately than I; their thin wetsuit slippers designed to protect from frigid winter water offered little support or protection from the rocks. My target loomed ahead of me: a bend in the cliffs formed the boundary where most beach-goers would never think of passing. The first signs of what was to come lay camouflaged among the stones. A chunk of rock, granular and geometric, stood out prominently from the naturally smoothed stones. Concrete. It surprised me at first. Concrete on one of the most popular beaches in the county? This must have been a fluke. Another sharp corner jutted from the stones. Perhaps I had passed the official boundary where no worker bothered maintaining.

The sound of a decade old melody played on an acoustic guitar greeted me. Looking at the cliffs I saw a little alcove made from palm fronds draped over some planks. Old boogie-boards snapped in the middle formed seats on top of a delicately stacked wall constructed of flat rocks. Seated was the source of the music. A young man sang the chorus to a familiar pop song. Next to him sat a disinterested-looking woman, and next to her an older man. None of them wore bathing suits, but they weren’t dressed as tightly as I was.

The chorus ended. “Have you heard that one before?” the man asked.

“Yeah I’ve heard it,” the older man replied.

“Not you!” the guitarist snapped. The woman continued to look disinterested.

I considered plopping down on one of the boogie-boards—gently, the perch didn’t look stable—and chat, but I had a long way to walk and the sun encroached the horizon. I had to walk all the way to the Children’s Pool, the first real part of La Jolla Shores, and if I failed to make it, the lack of any way up the cliffs would force me to walk back across the beach, in the dark. Determined, I gripped my bag and rounded the bend.

Lots more concrete. Apparently I had found the official dumping ground for derelict buildings. Despite the beauty of the sun beginning its descent and the low tide exposing dark green pools, these lumps of artificial geology brought me back to the reality of human existence. Most slabs were tame, content in blending in, others shot out rusted rebar like punji sticks. A huge slab of concrete the size of a tiny car rested not far from the bend. Metal bloomed from the concrete like rust-red petals. Had this been a gear is some archaic Grecian machine?

A few surfers in the distance slowly making their way out to the low tide provided me with my only company. Combined with the crumbling architecture, I felt as if I had stumbled into a dystopian future where everyone had fled San Diego and I had resorted to roaming the beaches in search of food. Another monolithic slab of concrete loomed over the beach, five thick metal poles pointing at an angle to the sky. Viewed from a certain angle the slab looked like an antiaircraft gun from a World War II movie. The poles were rusted beyond recognition; if I were to take a picture without context, one might think they were tree branches.

I wondered how this mess got here. Did the upscale neighborhood nested on the cliffs above me care about the pile of rubble below them, or were they too intoxicated by the rotting seaweed to notice? I couldn’t imagine a plain concrete building ever having been built near such desirable real estate. I heard from a friend that Highway 1 ran by here back in the day and they had to move it, so they dumped the refuse off the cliff and hoped no one snooped around. I sifted through the rubble hoping to find a yellow road stripe.

I noticed a sense of dread building up inside of me as I lingered in the area. Beaches are not supposed to be a place of ruination, but a place of mirth, tanned skin, and of course, surfing. I had to move on. After the two slabs of concrete, the smaller bits were mundane and I ignored them. Thankfully, as I walked on, the concrete dwindled to nothing, relieving me of the thought that it would define my trip up the beach. I stopped caring about what was below me and had the opportunity to look at my surroundings.

The beach was narrow. If not for the low tide, I would be pressed against the cliffs. I had planned the perfect time to come, as the receded water exposed a rocky marsh-like strip of green. The stones had sorted themselves out to only being fist sized, but as I walked towards the marsh, the stones did not help the steep slope. At the bottom, I didn’t want to walk any closer to the water. Looking closely at the marsh revealed a microcosm of little creatures: shell-encrusted sea anemones, crabs that skittered away from my thunderous footsteps, a thin sheet of seaweed that makes the marsh almost look like someone’s well-groomed and well designed front yard. I knew that even one step could possibly upset this fragile area for years. However, I shouldn't discount the scrappy critter's resolve, considering how they retook the area stolen from them by the tire I found in the surf. The moss-like seaweed managed to grow in the rim, making for a poignant, life-affirming scene. Scrambling back up the slope gave me a good view of the cliffs transformed.

Instead of the mesmerizing layers of ancient sediment and the rain etched features, a black plastic transparent mesh draped the cliffs. What possible purpose could this unsightly material serve? Erosion prevention? Vestigial construction material? Brutalist tapestries? I doubt the purpose could ever justify nearly the entire cliff being covered. Snaking black drainage tubes emerging from the cliff face accentuated the drapes. The foreign decorations swayed in the wind coming up from the sea. Near the pier I noticed one long tube hanging from the cliffs but wrote it off as a quirk. Little did I know that instead of a quirk, they were a feature.

Lest an adventurer like me think that these would make for a great rope in which to scale the cliffs for easy access into the expensive homes above, the tenants carefully poised alarm company signs—the type most people are content to only jamming in their front lawns or plastering on their windows—on the outside of their fences, pointed towards the ocean. Or perhaps I am mistaken, perhaps commando sea lions and thieving crustaceans really plagued their homes, and they didn’t care that tell-tale signs of opulence besmirched the beautiful cliffs. I noticed a correlation between large house size and excess signage.

Tucked under the black sheeting I found what looked like a small cage clutched precariously to the cliff above my head. I had to scramble up the crumbling rocks to get a good look. Peering close, I saw two compartments separated by mesh. An inward fold of the mesh led to the first compartment, and another fold in the separation led to the second compartment. The cage seemed maze-like until I realized what it was for: lobsters crawl in searching for bait hung in the second room, chow down, and then can't find their way out again, sealing their fate. The bait keeps them fat until pick-up time. This particular model could hold two lobsters, more if they didn't mind fighting to the death. How did the cage find its way up here and manage to get stuck behind the black drapes? Had there been a tsunami I never hear about? To my dismay, I did not find a fresh lobster trapped inside. Nor did I find any in the other traps washed up along the beach. Plenty of shell fragments could be found between the rocks—mostly tails but also a couple skulls, beady white eyes still poking outward, all picked clean first by birds, then little bugs wedging between the plates for the remaining elusive morsel. I periodically found cages pushed up against the cliff, all empty even of bait, each in a unique state of collapse and rust. Just like the concrete and all of the rest of the trash I found, no one ever bothered to come back here and clean up the place. Maybe one day I can go back and collect them, maybe make a buck off of selling them back to the people who lost them at sea.

The stately houses with overhanging decks and obnoxious alarm signs, along with the drapes and drainage pipes became an ever-repeating backdrop as I walked along, the scree sound of rocks rubbing against each other under my feet my musical accompaniment. I moved at a slow pace and the sun reflecting off of the water in the horizon reminded me of the impending darkness. I thought about turning back. I didn’t want to continue if all of the interesting things were behind me. However, something in the distance caught my eye, something stacked near the cliffs, gigantic sand bags of some sort. Had I stumbled upon some secret naval base or weapons cache?

The sand bags turned out to be huge rolls of solid concrete, the diameter of a thick palm tree, layered on each other like huge stairs, perhaps acting as a wave-breaker. Rolls and ripples in the concrete made them look like gray floatation devices, or at least like an artistic rendition. A single layer of fence with a padlocked gate ran across the top of the concrete staircase. Security camera signs replaced the now rather pedestrian alarm signs. Water from rogue waves had rusted the fence and the resulting brownish liquid flowed down the concrete in places, painting the concrete with some much needed—but rather scatological—color.

Past the fence, the cliff had been completely replaced by concrete, which in places looked brittle and sure to collapse in the same fate as the cliffs it wedged between. Two competing sections leading up to separate houses above butted against each other. The left section had a staircase leading halfway up to what looked like a small room behind another locked fence—or as I like to pretend: a holding cell. Built right out of the concrete cliff, a seating area with a few benches supplied the owners of the house a wonderful view of a chain link fence, with an ocean behind it. To the right of the benches another staircase led parallel up the cliffs to the top deck. A variety of floodlights and security cameras festooned the deck. The right section had one single steep staircase leading to a ladder that ascended into what seemed like a bleached white wooden cage. On the wall of the cage a single camera gazed at me as I gawked at it.

I dared get close to the concrete rolls, half expecting a helicopter of trained paramilitary to suddenly appear above me if I so much as touched it. The lowest layer had lost its curvature to the waves and felt coarse. Someone had scrawled some surprisingly legible graffiti in places: kitsch phrases such as “The birds swim around and the fishes fly” and “The sky is the ocean and the ocean” (Signed: V), along with some curlicues that went nowhere. Instead of the leading purveyors of graffiti—the hard urban gangster—only bored upper-class teenagers have made it out this far.

In contrast to the casually minimalistic decor of a classy beach access it tried to exude, The Compound—as I called it—had the air of a prison, complete with the crumbling, rusting gray exterior, panopticon security measures, and floodlights waiting to be activated in case of a riot. The only thing The Compound lacked was a tower with a mounted machine gun and trigger-happy guard.

The cameras moved. Or, at least I thought they moved. I stepped back from the lumpy concrete staircase and shuffled left, then right. Okay, maybe they weren’t moving, but they could have, so I moved on.

Another bend in the cliffs similar to the one I followed earlier lay ahead. The same palm trees, luxurious homes, and tilted tropical colored umbrellas silhouetted against the ever-darkening blue sky, only something was amiss. The gray concrete came back with a vengeance, this time in the form of an entire cliff. Not just one section, but the entire cliff face clear around the bend. The insatiable desire to live near the coast called for the cliffs to be sliced away and replaced with a new model, only this model existed merely to prop up the houses, a pure unabashed utilitarian hack-job. And they had the gall to not even give it a coat of paint. Excess concrete formed a flat lip at the bottom of the cliff, giving me a stone-free comfortable walkway. I closed my eyes and ran my hand across the coarse concrete, fantasizing that I was back in the city, on a relaxing stroll to the DMV.

I noticed near the water’s edge a single small patch of beach with absolutely no stones, footprints, plastic toy shovels, or even seaweed on it. Two people could sunbathe comfortably, no more. Surely this is the last patch of untouched sandy beach in all of Southern California, accessible only when the tides are low.

The concrete lip sloped upward and ended at a light brown sandstone rock top. A few seagulls stared idly at me questioning if I was really moving in on their turf. The rock trapped water from old waves in unnatural crevices. Competing graffiti dug into the soft rock criss-crossed in and out of each other and formed a tangled web of old worn letters and shapes, all of which had lost their intended meaning, if any ever existed. I could barely make out LW; a triangle; a poorly thought out D. I wanted to scuff it all away and let the rock begin again.

The stones changed to large and angular boulders, reminiscent of the concrete chunks, only pleasantly natural. Although nothing shifted under my feet, I planned my footsteps carefully along the jutting corners. Loose rocks can make for a slow journey, but the amount of arm flailing, near splits, uncertain leaps, and off-balance warbling I had performed while walking across the boulders made me pine for the familiar small egg-shaped stones. I stopped to look at a narrow brick wall with smatterings of tame graffiti. Taking up the lower half in big block letters read “BIRD ROCK” (I learned later that Bird Rock Avenue dead-ended just above the brick wall, and formed the official boundary between Pacific Beach and La Jolla.). The purpose of the wall became clear when I walked past it: a couple hid behind the wall, making out. I panicked a bit—they were the first people I had seen since the surfers—then tried to act like walking across a deserted beach towards nothing was totally natural. I can offer no description of this couple, as even glancing at them would further our shared awkwardness.

I reached another solid sandstone rock, this one narrow and high above waves striking its sheer face. In the distance a hopeful staircase led up from the beach. If it could be reached, I might not need to walk back on the beach at night, provided it didn’t lead up to another house. The irregular cliff shielded the terrain and offered no preview of what I would traverse. I warily stepped over a split in the rocks, arms reaching out for support, careful not to look down at the waves breaking under me.

The beach in its classical form had morphed into a meandering, multi-layered cliff, slick with breakwater and unforgiving sloped rock. Water bubbled in and out of miniature coves below me, the bottom cleverly concealed by dark water. To continue on, I had to scoot along a very narrow ledge, room enough for my toes only. I pressed myself up against the rock, seeking any sort of hold to jam my fingers into. After a few steps and failing to find anything for my left hand, I panicked and inched my way back, then tried again, rapidly groping the side of the cliff for any support. What would happen if I slipped? Rocks jutted from the water's surface, making for a very unreliable landing zone. Even if I were to miss the rocks, I had no idea of the depth of the water, nor if anyone would hear my screams.

In a rush, I shuffled across the ledge and knelt jittery and triumphant on the other side, manually letting out my captured breath. Shortly after the ledge and past a few minor obstacles, all progress halted when the only way forward led over a sheer overhang stretching the length of the path. My first inclination was to jump; then I thought maybe I should get a better look. But then I thought, why not just jump and see what happens? Only when I looked from a different angle did I realize that looking straight down from the overhang betrayed its true height, and disguised the rough, uneven, and stony ground. If I had jumped, I would have slipped and fallen backwards and split my head open, lay dead for a few hours before the high tide carried me out to sea, get a few bites taken out of me by whatever animal bothered, and finally wash ashore at the Children’s Pool, entrails flapping in the waves. For the children’s sake, I did not jump.

That was as far north as I travelled, stopped only by the harsh realities of gravity. In my sullen state, I found the rock just traversed a few minutes ago much more difficult. My feet failed to find the holds I imagined existed on the slick rock, not even the tiniest of jutting lip on which to cling. I played the part of the snake, slithering over the rock using every bit of friction I could muster.

The split in the rock I had casually stepped over before seemed to have widened, or perhaps my dexterity had deflated from defeat. I miscalculated a foot placement and slipped into the split, bashing my shin against the rock. A wet ledge on the other side saved me from certain immersement. I pushed away the pain, as the sun had set, and the pale blue light faded at a dangerous rate. My feet were tired, and the trip only halfway completed. If I didn't get past the sandstone rock and the angular boulder field, I would stumble in the winter dark; a busted shin would be the first of many wounds. Above, seagulls and cormorants settled into invisible nests and squawked at my predatory self. I walked quickly past the couple still making out, past the concrete cliff-face, past The Compound, the old tire aquarium, twisted lobster traps, anti-aircraft guns, the Iron Flower, and finally the field of rotting seaweed.

The first patch of real rock-free sand greeted my feet like a deep tissue massage. I was free to put my feet wherever I wanted, without fear of twisted ankles or bashed shins. Ahead, the floodlights from the top of a hotel complex made night into day. Four beach-goers still walked along the ever chilling coast, their dogs sniffing around at mounds of seaweed and occasionally taking bites.

One of the dogs walked slowly up to me and I extended my hand palm down as is our custom. The black and white dog sniffed warily, twitching backward at every step I took. It skulked away until I was a good distance on, then it barked. Three other dogs followed suit. As I walked on, the dogs emboldened and followed behind me still barking. One of the dogs pranced in front of me, and the others mimicked its behavior. I walked on, thinking the dogs would tire of me. They barked louder and swirled around me. The owners caught wind of this and started to call their names, first softly, then forcefully as the dogs paid no attention.

Perhaps my inattention infuriated the dogs the most. I had to be corralled and controlled. Two dogs reversed direction and picked up speed. They moved so quickly and barked so loudly I could not distinguish one from another as they swirled around. One of the owners screamed at the dogs and tried to grab at their collars. The bag across my chest jerked back. One of the dogs must have bit at it. Things got serious.

The owner breached the ring of dogs and tried to block me from them, but she was simply one, and they were legion. A pang bolted through my left leg. They bit me! The cursed dogs actually bit me! I hopped around, groaning in pain, keeping alert for the next attack. Were they brave enough to attack from the front? Three other people entered the fray, each grabbing at a dog. At the height of the insanity, the dogs calmed down.

The owner, a middle-aged fit woman with short cropped hair, asked breathlessly if the dogs had bit me. I rolled up my left pant leg and revealed a large black welt in the shape of dog teeth right above my calf. No blood trickled down. She was quick to say it looked fine, but still asked if I needed anything. I said no. The litigious affair that would result if I had said otherwise would be much more painful than a little welt. She apologized once more and dragged her now miraculously placid dog away by the collar.

Walking back up the stairs and to my car, I couldn’t help but laugh.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Tramping the Celestial Sphere: Chapter 1; In Which I, the Protagonist, Do Travel Across Our Domain for Your Pleasure

I lay in the grass one day, counting the number of blades within a modest area, when I decided to try something. I stuck my foot out in the open air and probed a bit, and felt a precarious platform. Ah, there it is, I can walk on light. How convenient! Probing with my other foot, I found a slightly more stable hold. With a push off the ground and a warbled dance, I was airborne, suspended on a sun beam.

I have to admit, it was difficult at first. You think otherwise? Try balancing on a particle that has a surface area less than a mote of dust! With a few steps, though, I found the best photons—deep sumptuously violet-colored—in which to support my weight. My legs, having long been atrophied from only walking on the rather pedestrian terra firma, needed a little stretch, and a short jaunt to the upper atmosphere only a handful of kilometers away seemed apropos.

Simultaneously, Earth's curvature manifested as the shadow of night marched across its surface. I dipped my hand into a stream of orbiting junk and snatched out a wayward screw: small and pristine, with slowly meandering threads. There is no rust in space.

This time of year so near periapsis is perfect for walking on light. I prayed to Michelson and Morley to conjure me a cane from the aether, a nice sturdy knotted one with a worn handle speaking silently of past adventures. Of course the old codgers refused. Still bitter about your failed experiment, gentlemen? As the Earth occulted the sun leaving only the fiery corona to pave my way, I struggled to keep my footing. But, some how, some way, I kept upright by some philanthropic object. Who could it be? I scanned the heavens. What—? Is that...? Orion's Nebula! Thy haziness doth suporteth my path! Capital! To think: for hundreds of thousands of years, humans have looked at this dot and thought it to be just another star. The arrogance. Serendipitously, the first Übermensch raised His fancy polished glass and—what do you know!—it’s a big splotch of fiery gas, dust, and infant stars.

I passed by Beteigeuze and doffed my proverbial cap. Now this is a star, my friends! Bloated and boiling! Our star is but an ant, an aphid! Orion’s Nebula eventually expanded so large as to fill my field of vision. Plenty of paintings have been inspired by this tepid dust cloud, and I can safely say they got the colors all wrong; too heavy on the fuchsia, or magenta. I recognized the Horsehead by the breed, and maneuvered myself such that if any learn’d astronomer were to point their engorged tubes this way they would see a man straddling a horsey, hand raised in mid-gallop, face contorted in a yokel grin.

Having had my fill of this particularly average universe formation, I set out on a random walk, strolling across gamma rays towards whatever piqued my fancy. I passed through super-heated clouds of electrons and giggled as the nanoest of amps tickled my feet. I crawled inside the core of a neutron star and played marbles with free quarks, keeping in mind to collect three for Muster [sic] Mark. I stumbled across two merging galaxies, frozen in a chaotic dance which had torn apart their bodies but left their cells intact. A wayward chunk of Dark Matter lent itself as an ideal chair as I waited for the galaxies to make a pretty picture. They never did, not even a bunny rabbit, even after a hundred thousand years of melancholic observation.

There was little left to see in this universe. Dark Energy turned out to be a simple misunderstanding. Really, just a mistaken sign somewhere. I'll explain later. For a bit, the jet of a blazar propelled me towards The Great Void, but eventually the friction from lonely hydrogen slowed me to a stop. There I rotated, watching as the Great Black “Nothing” orbited me. Sure, fine, I’ll walk towards it and try to find this fabled Supermassive Black Hole with its postmodernist properties.

On exactly my thirty-third step, a photon beneath my left foot gave way and I tumbled downward. Despite my lightning-fast reflexes, the radio photon I nabbed—a regrettably redshifted A note from some ancient and forgotten civilization—was not enough to support my weight. I fell. My flailing arms and legs eventually quit from exhaustion, and my voice had no medium in which to send out vibrations. As the lights of even the closest galaxies blinked out, I resigned myself to an eternity of meditation towards the single-minded task of converting mass to energy. Only then would I be rid of this cursed existence.

I struck something and heard my back snap. Several decades passed as I rolled like a terrapin trying to right myself. During my frequent breaks of frustration I ran my hand over the surface below me: smooth, not chaotic like the other photons. I tried to push through the surface but found it rigid. When I righted myself and popped two vertebrae back into position, I explored a shell of colored light, stretching off to the horizon of four dimensional space.

Only when placing my eye yoctometers away from the shell did I notice a variance in the color: mostly blue and green, with a few scant islands of yellow and red. My silly Earth-centered culture resurged when I found a huge patch of blue in the shape of South America.

The sight, feel—and, why not be literary, smell!—of the shell pleased this universe-wise and weary traveler. Its gentle caress and cool temperature soothed the knowledge that I would never breach it. None of my species would. The aggregate of the joy and suffering felt beyond the wall, the thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and—oh—of course I would forget the rest of the damned quote now!

It was then I decided to take a nap. I lay back against the shell and caressed it lightly with my fingertips, trying to differentiate between the colors as I lulled to sleep.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Reginald Shuttleworld: Entropist; Baggage Clerk.

“Ma’am, will that be paper or plastic?”

“Oh, I brought my own bags.” The woman rummaged in her oversized purse and pulled out two smaller bags and handed them to Reginald.

“I like to see that,” Reginald said. “Very frugal.” He opened each and readied himself to intercept the scanned goods as they arrived. As his hands brushed over the material of the bags, his fingers began to tingle. The soft, dense fibers lightly impregnated with a plastoid material; the over-stitched, heavy duty carrying handles; the dark red hue slowly fading into a delicate sunset orange. This was no ordinary bag, like the cheap kind his own store sold; these bags were special. He looked for a tag. No label, nothing. Intriguing.

“Hey Glen, make sure to give her the five cent discount for using her own bags,” Reginald said.

“Got it, Reg,” the cashier said as he whisked the products through the scanner with a seasoned grace. “Thanks.”

The first product came down the conveyor: a small tub of pesto, the expensive kind. Such exquisite tastes, in bags and in spreads. He put it off to the side, noticing there were heavier items to put in first. He wasn’t afraid of overloading the bags, not these. He snapped on by the handles and felt the tension build and dissolve through the bag. There was something wrong, though, something—

Two cartons of almond milk came down the conveyor and he whisked them into a bag. Then he noticed it again, a thread near the carrying handles. A parcel from the deli came next. He picked it up and squeezed it slightly. Must be fish. The thread stuck out, only slightly near the top. He reached slowly towards it. Three different cleaning bottles, each for its own surface, came in succession and he put them in the bag without the fish. His finger and thumb caressed the thread, felt the sheen of plastic. Not too thick like the bags from China; tactfully done.

The cashier struggled to remember how to charge a gift card. Reginald wanted to help but had no formal training in the subject. Once, he was caught on the keyboard trying to price check and his manager chastised him. The gift card with its attractive paper backing came down, followed by a twenty-ounce bottle of iced tea. “You want this in the bag, ma’am?” Reginald asked the lady.

“No, thank you,” she responded. “I’ll take it with me.”

Reginald took one carton of almond milk out and put it in the other bag to even the weight and put the gift card in with it. His eyes flashed back to the thread, then to the lady. She was running her debit card. No time to lose. He shuffled the bag a bit, and in a flash tugged on the thread with just the right amount of force. The thread came loose, unraveled all the way to the side. An unseemly scar ran where the thread once weaved perfectly through its proper place.

He inhaled deeply. He rested his hands on the top of the bags and felt a shiver oscillate through him. The unmistakable sound of the printer interrupted him, and the lady turned with the white receipt in hand. She smiled at Reginald.

“Ma’am, looks like you have a thread loose on that one bag,” he said, pointing at it.

She looked closely at it, adjusting her bifocals. “Oh dear, these cheap things…”
“Shouldn’t be much trouble,” he said. “Just a quick snip and it shouldn’t bother you anymore.”

“Hmm.” She picked up her bags and the milk caused them to sag. They would hold up. They weren’t cheap. Cheap bags? The lady doesn’t even know what she has. Doesn’t deserve them. Reginald shook his head as she walked to the exit.


“Reg, it's almost six,” a middle aged woman with a red clip-on tie said. “Why do I always have to kick you out of here at the end of your shift?”

“What can I say Carol,” Reginald said. “This old fart's institutionalized!”

“I'm putting you on parole until Thursday at 11 AM.” Carol gave a wink and walked away. Reginald noticed that the sticker on her name-tag had peeled another millimeter.

“Welp Glen, guess I gotta go,” Reginald said to the cashier. “Make sure the next bagger gets a rag and wipes down this place. I'd do it but you know Carol's gonna run me out of here.”

“Yep Reg. You take it easy.”

It was Summer and the Northern elevation meant a few extra hours of daylight. Reginald walked slowly down the sidewalk, plodding as he does, looking up at the trees waving back and forth in the light breeze. He remarked silently how clear the sky was, and how even the sidewalk. Everything was in place because of the tireless effort of his fellow citizens.

Even the outside of his apartment looked tidier than usual. Maybe it was last week's rain, or the coat of varnish his landlady had put on a few months back. Either way, it matched the unblemished nature of it all. Inside, he found his dust bin and scraped off the top of his bookshelf and the mantle, moving each picture so they wouldn't leave unsightly outlines. The dust bin was almost full to the top. Tonight he would empty it.

He adjusted his plants so they wouldn’t bunch up and dabbed at a little pool of water forming in their saucers. The magazines said not to water them so much, but he just couldn't help it. After a quick meal of baloney, mustard, lettuce, and rye bread, he brewed some instant tea and sat down with the book he had been reading for the last few months. It was about space, or so he thought; anyway, it had been a few decades since he read it last and he didn't remember it at all. He sipped his tea. The magazines said not to drink tea so close to bed time, but like the plants, he just couldn't help it.

At a decent hour, he pulled up his blankets and found the pillow for his knees, the one that kept losing itself every night. Before he lied down he checked on the dust bin. Still there. Tomorrow he would wake up bright and early and empty it. It would be a good day.


At four a.m. he woke up naturally, and before doing anything else—even brushing his teeth and shaving—he threw on the pair of jeans that he had set next to the bookshelf and found his shirt after some trouble. He had to hurry.

The dust bin was still there. He lifted the plastic top and checked to see if it really was full. It still had a half-inch or so to go, but it would do. Next time he would find more things to dust.

Outside, he saw stars that he could only see at times like these. Some day he promised to memorize the constellations. Dust bin in hand, he walked quickly and quietly to the common room with the laundry machines. It was always unlocked, something he always said just wasn't right considering people's clothes being in there, but now he favored it. The door opened smoothly, each hinge oiled as they should be. The lights turned on automatically, meaning he had to hurry lest some busy-body come bursting in wondering why someone’s up so early. He surveyed the area.

Washers, sink counter, coffee table, coffee machine, change machine, all immaculate. He popped the top off his dust bin and sprinkled some onto the coffee table. Not too much, there has to be enough to spare. He moved to the washer and applied a small layer to each. Then to the coffee machine. Here he didn't sprinkle as much. He knew how much he hated dusty coffee. He sprinkled some into the bowl of the change machine and watched as it pooled in the bottom. Once everything was covered he did another round, moving some of it with his hands to make an even coating. The dust bin was nearly empty but he didn't want to risk something being uneven, so he dumped the rest in the trash can. When he opened the lid the layer he put on before fell to the floor and he chided himself for not putting that layer on last. He checked the clock on the wall. 4:18. Perfect timing.

After a breakfast of bran cereal, a short shower and a nap, he headed back to the common room at exactly seven a.m. His land-lady was there with a feather duster in hand.

“Mornin' Christie,” Reginald said.

“Mornin' Reggie,” Christie responded.

“How's the landlording business?” Reginald asked. “Everyone paying on time?”

“Everyone but you, Reggie.” Christie said, smiling.

“This place is full of deadbeats.”

Reginald walked to the coffee machine and opened up a tin of coffee crystals, brushing off a little dust. He could hear the swish of the duster moving over the table and he snuck a peek over his shoulder at Christie's rotund form bent over.

“I tell you, Reggie,” Christie said as she stood up and put her hands on her hips.

“This place gets dustier every other day.”

“Hmm? What's that?”

“I said it gets dustier every day.”

Reginald filled up the coffee pot with lukewarm water and dumped it into the machine. He turned around and mimicked Christie's pose. He looked around scrupulously. “You know what? It's these dryers getting old, kicking up lint that's been in there since before synthetics.”

“Maybe you're right,” Christie said with a wave of her duster. “I just can't afford new ones with the rent you deadbeats pay me.”

Reginald tottered over to her and put his hand on her shoulder. “You can raise my rent if you want. I know you work for it.”

“I'd only raise your rent because I know you've got a mattress full of cash in that place,” Christie said. The coffee machine started trickling.

“It's all tied up in T-bonds, sorry!”

“Oh Reggie, you're such a kidder.”

He chuckled as he turned to the coffee machine. Christie went back to dusting. Once the machine stopped leaking he poured some into a mug with a faded image of a crow and the words “Tombstone, Arizona, 1995. Send More Tourists. The last batch was delicious!” printed on it.

“I'll see you later, Christie,” he said as he headed for the door.

“You too, Reggie. Don't get buried in dust on me.”

“Not a chance. Not a chance.”


Another beautiful, sunny day, only a couple clouds. These were the good ones though, the ones that allowed for a little shade but still lent an air of joy. He liked not being in the sun all of the time. He swore he could see his skin wrinkle up a little more after only a few minutes in the sun. That didn't matter though. Why did he care if he was getting wrinkly now? His youth was long over; the memories of his once taut skin would last him until death. As long as those moles didn't start showing up like the doctor warned him about—the ones that aren't symmetric.

Reginald always passed by this oak tree heading to work every day. It had been growing there since he was a kid oh so many years ago. This time, a car was parked underneath. Smart thing, with the heat like this, any car not under a shade would be quite toasty inside. He ran his hands over the oak tree. Those darned overzealous gardeners had trimmed it recently—for no good reason, of course—and one of the stumps was leaking sap.

It was sticky on his fingers. Little tendrils thinned and snapped as he slowly opened his hand. He looked down on the car. He gathered a little more on his fingers. His head swiveled to see down the sidewalk. With a deft movement he smeared the sap on the roof of the car.

“Hey, what are you doing?” he heard from across the street.
Reginald's heart jumped. His head snapped up and his droopy eyes snapped open as he looked in the direction of the voice. A man in a suit—not the finest quality like those back in the day—walked towards him with a briefcase in one hand and a coffee in the other.

“Hmm? Me?” Reginald responded as his heartbeat receded.

“Yeah,” the man said over the car. “Did you touch the roof of my car?”

“Oh, hmm, maybe,” stalled Reginald. “Caught up in the nostalgia I suppose.”

“What's that?” the man asked.

“Reminds me of car I had a while back. Reliable one. Had to sell it to pay the bills.”

“This is a 2003. It's not that old.” The man still looked suspicious.

“Well, you know us old folks. We have the strangest attachments. Anyway, sorry if you don't want me touching.”

“Whatever,” the man said. “It’s okay.” He opened the driver side door and tossed the briefcase onto the passenger seat. Reginald stood there shuffling his feet.
“Everything all right, sir?” the man asked. He looked at Reginald, and then to the roof of the car. “Oh my God! There's tree sap on the roof!”

Reginald's heart quickened again. He wanted to walk away, but the thrill of possibly getting caught-

“I just had this washed! This stuff never comes off.”

“Reminds me of this one time my Uncle got a dollop on his old station wagon. Darned thing held up pretty well under sandpaper. I bet he must have went through-”

“Sorry, mister,” the man interrupted, “but I have to get going.” He dropped into his seat and without delay started the car and drove off. Reginald stood and watched. Only after the car drove around a bend did he register the man's facial features: prominent cheekbones; light brown eyes; hair still holding the bounce of youth. It wasn't just getting caught, but getting caught by him.


All throughout his shift his heart was light. The adrenalin of getting caught refused to lessen. His mind refused to forget the eyes of the man. In the midst of bagging he would gaze off to the ceiling, thinking about how the tree sap felt on his fingers—he had to wash it off of course, couldn’t have it smearing on the customers’ items—and how it glided off his fingers onto the cool metal roof. He would give anything to be caught by him again.

Reginald’s coworkers noticed his mood, how he was moving slightly slower than usual. It might be his age, they thought. But Reg was a good worker, never slowed down for anything. It might be he won the lotto. But then he would quit. But Reg loves this place, has been working here for so long. He seemed happy, though, and as long as he kept bagging, who cares. When his shift was over, he tossed his apron and started to walk to the exit without a word.

“You leaving without saying goodbye, Reg?” Glen asked.

“Oh!” Reginald stopped and turned around. “I can’t believe I forgot. You know I’ve been a little dreamy today.” He chuckled.

“I’ll say,” Glen said.

“Anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow, same time.” Reginald walked away, smiling and chuckling to himself.

As he walked by the oak tree again he looked around to see why the man had parked here. Sure, his suit wasn’t so nice, but he could still work at the bank yonder. He certainly wouldn’t be staying in the student apartments on this side of the street. Had he ever seen the car before? Tomorrow he would take the same route and pray the car and its lovely owner would return.

The next day, Reginald walked to work a little earlier, fingering something special in his pocket. He ran his finger over the coarseness, not too fine; it was the only kind he could find in his small toolbox. There was the car in the distance, right under the same oak tree. He was half an hour early—would the owner walk out on time? He bet he was punctual, smart-looking man like that.

The tree sap was still on the roof, untouched. He sighed a little. He wanted to do it again, but he knew he couldn’t repeat the magic. Instead, he took the thing out from his pocket and unfolded it. A small piece of sandpaper, slightly used from who knows when. He inspected the tires. All of them were relatively new. The front right tire seemed the least worn, probably means the owner takes too many left turns, doesn’t know about the right turn trick.

He bent down and lightly rubbed the sandpaper over the tire treads as a test run. He could feel the resistance. He pressed harder now, moving it back and forth from one side to the other. The scraping sound was quiet but pleasant. After a few strokes he checked the paper. A light black dust was impregnated in the paper. He blew on it once and avoided the cloud it sent up. He looked at the rear tire and memorized the tread. The front tire wasn’t down to that level just yet. A few more scrapes and he was done.

He stood up, waved the sandpaper to get rid of the rest of the dust, then kicked around at the small pile at the base of the tire. The tread looked just like the rest of the tires. Sure, the bottom of the tire would be less worn, but he certainly couldn’t do anything about that. He checked his watch. Seven minutes until the day anniversary of their first meeting. He walked back the way he came and loitered around the door of a convenience store, watching intently at the other side of the street for a man dressed in a suit.

There he comes—Reginald could recognize the briefcase he had in his hand. He started to walk back towards the car, staring at the ground in order to appear casual. He timed it perfectly such that they both met at the car.

“Morning!” Reginald said, perhaps a little too enthusiastically. “Long time no see!”

The man looked at him quizzically. “Morning,” the man said cautiously.

“Oh, you probably don't remember me. You had the tree sap on your car.”

“Oh, yeah, from yesterday or the day before. Something like that.” The man slowly unlocked his car and opened the door.

Reginald's heart quickened again, a bit less than their last meeting, but enough to keep him interested. “Yesterday, yes. I, uh, brought you something.” He fumbled in his pocket for the piece of sandpaper. Before he handed it over he checked quickly for specs of rubber.

The man accepted it with an even more quizzical look. He unfolded it slowly, moving it back and forth between his fingers. “Is it, sandpaper?”

“Yes!” Reginald's head bobbed in excitement. “For the tree sap.”

The man looked on the roof at the small patch of yellowy luminance on his tan paint job. He looked back at the sandpaper. “You know, I might not need this.”

“Of course, you'll have to be careful so you don't scrape a little paint away, but with a steady hand—I certainly can't help you here, heh heh—you could wear it down a little.”

“Right, I still don't think I need it. It isn't that bad.” He handed the sandpaper over the roof.

“No no, please. Hold on to it, maybe you'll change your mind. I found it in some old toolbox and I certainly won't use it again.”

The man shrugged and sighed, then threw the sandpaper in the car. “Thanks, I guess. I have to get going now.”

“Wait!” Reginald said in a panic. “What's your name?”

The man was halfway into the car already but stood back up, hand still on the door. “Jeffrey.”

“Jeffrey? Reginald. Everyone calls me Reg or Reggie.” Reginald hand jutted out and the man had to accommodate. “I figure if we keep passing each other every day we might as well get acquainted.”

“Sure, but I'm late now. Sorry to keep cutting out on you.” The door shut and the car rolled away just as it had their last meeting.

Jeff. Jeffrey. A pleasant sounding name for such a pleasant person. Reginald looked down and noticed a residual black dust. Then he thought to keep the sandpaper just in case the unsanded part were to be facing up one day. Too late. The sandpaper was probably in better hands, anyway.


The door to Reginald's apartment opened slowly and he walked in. He looked around his domain. He didn't know what to do. His book was getting harder to read. Some of the science stuff they did was hard to follow. Could he really have understood it a few decades ago? The plants were watered; there wasn't much dust—that was getting boring, too. He only wanted tomorrow morning to come.

There was a light knock on his door. He opened it slowly, peeking at first, and saw Christie smiling at him.

“Christie!” Reginald said, swinging the door open. “Come in, please!”

“Hello, Reggie.” she said. Her hands were balled up together against her chest.

“Did I forget to pay the rent again?” Reginald said wryly.

“No, Reggie. No.” She looked around his apartment. “My, this place is so tidy. How do you keep it so nice while the rest of this complex is falling apart?”

“I only have only one person to clean up after, whereas you have a small city.”
She smiled. They shared an awkward silence. “So,” Reginald said finally. “What can I do you for?”

“Oh! It was nothing really, just a silly question...” Christie paused again and looked down at the carpet. “I was just—just noticed that, well, you don't have a wedding ring, or—you're never with anyone—”

Reginald's brow furled. She went on. “And I thought, instead of us only seeing each other in the common room, maybe—maybe we could get coffee somewhere else. Oh—”

He wanted to chuckle. Reginald wasn't exactly unattractive. Other women had shown interest in him, and a few times in his youth he went on dates. Every time, though, he just wasn't interested. It had been years since a woman tried to court him. He never thought his landlady, the woman he had been on cordial terms with for as long as he lived there, would ever bother with one of her tenants.

Did he like her? Should he bother? He felt a tingle, something deep inside. He looked for it, conjured up an image. It was—a car, a suit, a fear. A pair of eyes: unwrinkled, bothered. He felt nothing for this landlady, middle-aged and yet still too young for him.

“Well, Christie,” he started to say.

“No, no, I've made a mistake,” Christie interrupted. She grasped her hands tighter in front her chest and began to turn around, but stopped and turned the other way.

“Now hold on a sec,” Reginald said as he grasped her shoulder mid-turn.
“You're, uh, uh, a great landlady, and—really friendly. And—”

“You don't have to apologize, Reggie.” Her shoulder moved from under his hand. He opened his mouth to speak but the door slowly shut before anything came out.

Tomorrow would be the day.


He woke up restless, hours before work and nothing to do in the meantime. He tried dusting but couldn't force himself to open the dust bin. The book was worthless; the cereal eaten too fast.

He gathered his stuff together and decided to go for a walk. Before he realized where he was going he wound up next to the car, parked right under the old oak tree. His hand shook as he looked at his watch. A few hours early.

He decided to walk around the block once; maybe that would take up a good chunk of time. His first loop was quick, mostly spent staring at the concrete. The second loop just as short. Had the minute hand only moved that much? He decided to go slower, take in the sights more. There was some sort of fruit-bearing tree. Not the kind you eat, he thought, considering no one ever picked them. He picked a couple of small, unripe pieces and dropped them on the sidewalk and stepped around them. Don’t want to track juice everywhere. A half-empty bottle of water lay upright in the middle on the curb. He kicked it into the middle of the street. A stop sign had a bolt loose near the bottom. He screwed off the nut and pocketed it.

All boring, little things. No one to show them off to. Why’d he wake up so early? Damned old body—used to sleep a lot more when he was young.

He sat at a bench and watched the clouds. He wished he could stretch his hand up and swish them away. Everyone would have to take out their fancy sunglasses. Time went on and more clouds moved in. It might rain, wash all the dust and juices away. The sap would still be on the roof, he was sure of that. The rain ain’t all that bad. Paint dulls, trees sag, rivers get clogged and wear away their banks.

As the time grew closer, he found himself looking at his watch more often. Seems like only the second hand was ticking. But, after so many walks around the block, he readied himself the same place as last time and watched closely for Jeffrey to come. The last time he checked his watch he noticed his hands shaking more than usual. Damn body’s breaking down.

Somehow Jeffrey got to the car without Reginald seeing. The door to the car was open and Jeffrey was sliding in. A panic set into Reginald and he started trotting towards the car.

“Hey—hey there! Jeffrey!” Reginald shouted, his hand waving in the air. Jeffrey looked for the voice.

“Jeffrey! Whew. Glad I caught you,” Reginald said, out of breath. Jeffrey put on his signature cautious look.

“Are you, uh, going or coming from work? It’s Reg, if you remember.”

“Yeah,” Jeffrey said. “I remember. I, uh, just got off of work. But—“

“So early! You work the graveyard shift?”

“Yes, and I’m very tired.”

“I’ll bet. Anyway, uh, I was wondering, we only see each other under this old oak tree, but—well, I was wondering if maybe we could get a cup of coffee somewhere else.”

Jeffrey suppressed a sigh. “Alright, but only for a half hour.”

“There’s one up the street!” Reginald said.


“Guess I tried to get other jobs, but never had the willpower. Never wanted to move up either. I guess I was content with bagging. I got simple needs.” Reginald put his wrinkled lips on the rim of a short paper cup and tried again to sip the hot tea.

“Hmm,” Jeffrey murmured as he eyed the abandoned daily paper. Would it be rude to flip through it now?

“So, you work at the bank?” Reginald asked.

“Yeah, for the moment. Installing new software on their computers. Can’t do it during the day so I have to work at night.”

“And they make you wear a suit for that?” The water cooled enough to let
Reginald take a loud sip. Jeffrey cringed.

“Banks are weird places.”

“Once you’re done you’ll move on to something else?”

“Yeah, my company ships me around to other places. Luckily, within driving distance or else I’d quit.”

“I’ve been walking to work every day for decades, seems like. Used to own a car but had to sell it, just like I told you at our first meeting.” Reginald’s heart jumped after remembering. “Minimum wage just don’t cut it like it did in my time.”

Both men looked down at the table. Jeffrey discreetly looked at his watch. Reginald’s hands grasped his cup as tightly as it could handle, trying to disguise his shaking hands. The thought that the man who caught him in the act was sitting across from him right now—goodness!

“I—I have something to tell you.” Reginald said. Ripples danced in his cup. “The tree sap. That was me. I did it.”

“You did what?” Jeffrey asked, leaning closer to Reginald.

“I wiped the tree sap on your car. On purpose. I’m so sorry…” Reginald’s head fell, partially from relief and disgrace.

“Did it get on your hands?”

“No, I did it willingly. You know how I said I have simple needs? Well, sometimes I—I do things.”

“Like wipe tree sap on other people’s cars?” Jeffrey said acerbically.

“Not just that, but other things, too. I have a demon.”

Jeffrey leaned back in the plastic chair and his expression changed to full-grimace. “What am I even supposed to say to this? You wipe tree sap on my car and then invite me to coffee?”

“Not just that, but, I used that sand paper to wear the treads down on your tire.”

It was out now. The last word escape Reginald’s throat like a bullet.

“You what?!”

“It was only a little! Just a little bit on the front right tire, I swear!”

“Why would you do that at all? Are you insane?”

“No, please, don’t call me that. I told you, I have simple needs.”

“You need to wear down my treads on the car I paid for.”

“No, no. When you caught me wiping the sap, I was transfixed. No one had ever caught me in the act of my—doings, and, I don’t know, I wanted to do it again. Please, don’t think this old codger is weird.”

“It’s way too late for that!”

Reginald walked in not knowing how he was going to confess, or what was going to happen. He had only hoped that Jeffrey would find it an old man’s quirk and forget about it. Maybe they would spend more time together, and he could confess more doings--but the look of Jeffrey’s face right now; it was over, over!

His breathing grew heavier. With each outgoing breath, a slight groan came with it. Jeffrey stared for a moment longer.

“You know what?” Jeffrey said. “Just, never talk to me again, okay? I don’t care about the tire, as long as you leave me alone, okay?”

“Sure, sure…” Reginald stood up and walked out of the door, head low. He had staked so much on this moment, and now it was over, the worst possible outcome. He still had to work, but not under these circumstances, not until he did this one thing.

The coffee shop was perched at the crest of the hill, and down the hill, down the uneven, tree root-ridden sidewalk was Jeffrey’s car. He just needed to do one thing. He looked around. Jeffrey hadn’t left the coffee shop--maybe to give the old man some space so they didn’t run into each other. Reginald got down on one knee and felt under the car. It was parked far enough from the curb that he could squeeze his body underneath to do his thing.

His old joints protested as he lay on the curb and scooted underneath the car. All he needed was one arm underneath and a good view. There it was: a lone tube. He grasped the tube—what was it for? Don’t matter—and tugged it once, twice. It wouldn’t budge. Darn mechanics always tightened things too much. He yanked it again and felt a strong resistance. He grew impatient. If Jeffrey saw him underneath the car wouldn’t be like getting caught the first time. This was different.

The car started to wobble from the yanking. Surely if someone walked by they wouldn’t care about some old man underneath a car. He felt a budge, and one good yank pulled the tube loose. A thin trickle of some fluid leaked out and stopped. It would have fallen out eventually. It was okay.

Standing up, he brushed his grey button up shirt and noticed a few splotches of something. No matter, the apron would cover them up. Time to work.


Reginald stumbled up to the cash register, his apron strings flapping with abandon.

“You're late, Reg.” Glen muttered without looking up. A younger, unfamiliar baggage clerk was idly placing goods into a bag, completely disregarding weight distribution. “Guess that proves you're human.”

“Yeah, yeah, sorry about that Glen.” Reginald fumbled to coordinate his hands behind his back. The young bag boy silently moved to register seven and Reginald succeeded in tying his strings at the same moment he realized the apron was on backwards. No time to change it; a stack of frozen dinners came down and the customer was demanded paper. His practiced whip opened the bag perfectly, but his hands guided the stack at a shallow angle and tore the bag down its center, toppling the dinners over.

“Dag nabbit,” muttered Reginald. He balled the failed sack and tossed it at the small trash can near Glen's feet. The can was full, and the momentum put on by his frenzied throw sent the bag skittering into the next register lane. “Should be recycled anyway,” he said louder.

A new bag, and a smoother placement sent the customer on his way. Reginald looked down at his apron and quickly undid the knot. He should have looked up beforehand, as another customer put down two bulk-sized packages of paper towels. With apron once again flapping, he mentally estimated if the over-sized plastic bags would be best.

As he pulled two out from the little cubby hole below him the customer spoke. “Don't worry about a bag. I got it.” Reginald looked up and nodded, over-sized bags in hand. He shoved them behind the regular plastic bags, hoping he would have a chance to use them again so he wouldn't have to deal with them later on.

Reginald succeeded in turning his apron around, but then something came down the conveyor belt. He saw it out of the corner of his eye. They were red, stalwart, familiar. He looked up at the customer. She was fiddling with her bifocals and reaching into her oversized bag for payment. It was her. It was—the bag. He looked at the bag quickly. Yes, the same plastoid material, same thickness, same fading color. But, was it there? He turned it around and saw it clear as day, that same darn thread still hanging from the side, uncut and uncared for by its irresponsible owner. Such negligence! He felt the thread between his fingers. Was it so long ago that he first pulled on it, felt the shiver as it gave way? Was he the same person now after having been rejected by the only one capable of understanding him?

The thread taunted him. It fluttered in a rogue breeze. He couldn't pull it now; it had no meaning to him anymore. But, it had to be pulled! It would be pulled! If not by him, then who? His hand gripped around the thread. Something had to the done.

“Ma'am? Ma'am?” Reginald said.

“Hmm?” the woman responded, looking up from the debit machine.

“Remember that thread I told you about? The loose one?” He held the bag up for emphasis.

“Oh yeah, that cheap thing.”

“No ma'am, they are not.” Reginald said, struggling to control the anger in his voice. “These bags are not cheap, you're just lazy!”

Glen and the woman simultaneously looked at him. “Excuse me?” she asked.

“This is what happens when you don't take care of your bag.” He twisted the thread around his finger and secured it in a fist. With the sternest face imaginable, he pulled on the thread with a force unmatched by his previous secret effort. The thread popped loose from the side and unwound towards the other, popping loose from that side, and continuing down until his arm was fully extended and no more force was possible. He let go of the thread and it fell to the counter, still attached to the now horribly scarred bag. A ribbon of discolor shone as the subterranean and undyed fabric was exposed.

Reginald held their confused gaze, and in an instant broke and bagged what little items had come down the conveyor belt, in the same bag he had just torn asunder.

The woman dropped her debit card into her purse and marched towards Reginald. She grabbed onto the of carrying handles and tugged it away from Reginald, just as he was lowering a can of sweet corn. Reginald reacted by grabbing the other carrying handle and tugging it just as hard as she had. Their gaze met again, their eyes narrowed and brows furled.

“Give it to me, you brute!” she yelled.

Reginald tugged on it once more, but a disquieting sound filled his ears. He could not hear the familiar bleeps of scanned items. He did not hear the sounds of receipted being printed and torn. There were no more cordial hellos and goodbyes. He looked around, first at Glen, then to register seven. The young bag boy, impressionable and naïve, looked at Reginald as a doe looks at her fallen mother. He let go of the handle. It had held up well, even with that little flaw.

The woman dumped the contents of the bag and stuffed it into her purse. “I will never, ever, shop here again! You hear me?” With one final defiant turn of the head, she walked proudly to the exit.

As she breached the sliding glass doors, another entered, this one’s gait less proud but animistic, angled forward. Before there was time to recover from the first altercation, another began. “Did you do something to my car, Reginald?”

A spike shot through Reginald’s heart. He knew before looking who it was. He knew what color suit the person was wearing, what many-splendored experiences they could have had. “Well, Reg? Did you do one of your things to my car?”

Reginald turned to look at him, but could not raise his eyes. “No…” he said.
“Then why did my car suddenly lose steering on the road? It was just a freak occurrence?”

“No… no…” Reginald said shaking his head. “I—I have to go.” The apron strings fluttered as he rushed towards the back of the store. The customers he raced past had no notion of the crisis in the front of the store. They only saw a disheveled old man with a trailing apron walk briskly by. He encountered two shopping carts blocking the aisle. He couldn’t risk disturbing any of the customers or the products on the shelf—he had once had to clean up after a toddler devastated the cereal aisle; cereal boxes everywhere—so he turned around and briskly walked back. The confusion up front had yet to diminish as Reginald reappeared and quickly turned down the next aisle.

The way was clear. The white strips of plastic separating the customer world and the employee world swayed lightly from the air conditioning. He plunged through them and took an immediate left into the break room. Thank goodness, no one there. He looked at the wall covered with posters. There was one for the annual fall get-together. Next to it, one explaining the rights of minimum wage. Carol, his sweet manager, had hung one of her child’s drawings of where mommy worked. All of them were held up with bits of tape, staples, thumbtacks; only time stood between them and utter neglect, as their physical bonds atrophied and failed and they fluttered to the ground.

He started with a poster reminding employees to wash their hands. Just a little tear in the bottom right corner. Then he moved to the leadership guidelines. He pulled out a thumbtack, then pulled out another. The last remaining thumbtack couldn’t hold the weight of the thick paper and it gave way. He watched as it gracefully defied gravity, skimming just above the floor before settling face up. All of these signs, soon they will all share the same fate. Why wait? Why not now? Why rely only on the forces of thermodynamics to slowly destroy the planet?

He grabbed the top of the child’s drawing and tore it off completely, then one advertising health insurance for full-time employees, then another, then another. His hands moved in a blur, his youth was returning to him. He had never felt so much energy, so much power in his old hands. The falling posters danced a dance of death and rot. He was free!

The sound of the plastic strips was muffled by loud tearing sounds. Glen stopped at the threshold and saw the growing pile of posters. “What are you doing, Reg?” he asked.

Reginald turned.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

An Identity Born of Fire

I was sitting in the lab one day, messing around with circuits and generally trying to avoid serious work, when a friend of mine said something to me. He was on my right and I couldn't hear him very well. I asked him to repeat. He asked me why I could never hear him. It was then that I decided to let him in on a side of me that rarely ever comes out.

“I was blown up by a suicide bomber in Iraq,” I said. This coming out of the mouth of a mild-mannered physics student was a little strange. He stared for a second, perhaps waiting for me to crack a smile and laugh at my own joke. I stared back.

“Are you serious?” he asked. I smiled inwardly. It happens like this every time. I let out my “secret” and people are dumbfounded.

“Yeah, that's why I can't hear in my right ear.” I responded. “I also have a bunch of scars on my leg. Wanna see?” I pulled up my left pant leg and the stare began again. My left leg, from the tips of my toe to right below the torso, is covered in scars. My right leg has a few, along with two on my left bicep and one behind my right ear. These aren't cool scars like the ones in the movies that are single straight lines; these are jagged, rough, huge patches of off-colored skin. It takes a couple minutes to comprehend that this is a real leg and not some elaborate make-up trick.

He was silent. “I was in the Marines, went to Iraq, was relatively safe until a suicide bomber killed two people and injured myself and another Marine,” I said.

It's a heavy story (you can read more about it here:, one that most college students hear about only on the news. To me, it is a fact of life. At the time, it had been five years since that fateful day and since then I married a beautiful woman and started attending school. I had learned to cope with my injury and was lucky to escape from serious psychological trauma. We talked some more. I showed him some shrapnel pieces still under my skin and used a magnet to get the full effect. He asked some pretty common questions (“Did you see him coming?” No. “Do you remember everything?” After the blast, yes. “Did you kill anyone?” Thankfully, no. “What's Iraq like?” Hot, sandy.). Then he said something that affected me deeply.

“I just can't look at you the same way anymore.” It wasn't offensive and he certainly didn't mean any harm, but it made me think hard about my whole experience.

Well, why can’t you? I'm still me, Josiah White. I like to run and jump around (when my knees can take it) and crack jokes, and I get frustrated over a hard physics problem. I'm the guy you knew a couple of hours ago who never stood out for any reason. I'm like the tens of thousands of white male twentysomethings who are secretly afraid of the future. I'm like you, only a little older than the average college student, and a lot more beat up. How does seeing my scars and knowing my past change how you see me at this moment?

Our relationship—one built on joking with each other and mutual dislike of excessive math—continued on almost as normal. The quarter ended and we reveled and/or sulked over our final grades. I went on a road trip over the summer with my wife and worked at an internship churning through mountains of data for one of my professors. My fellow students and I met back at the start of Fall quarter ready to begin again.

Still, those words stayed with me. It was the one phrase that defined my last five years of interaction with civilians. Iraq and Afghanistan are thousands of miles away and back in some half-remembered part of the zeitgeist. Someone who has been injured over there is even more uncommon. As I started school and became more comfortable with my new life, I drifted away from my fellow veterans, and away from people who understood me and my injury. All one has to say is “Purple Heart” to a vet and the story is three-quarters told. With civilians though, a whole book opens at just the mention of Iraq, and my injury and scars only add on chapters that I am obligated to tell. Gone is the group that understands me. I am now a stranger in a familiar land.

I don't mind telling my story. I don't mind showing my scars. Part of my recovery was being open about the experience. (At times, yes, I can be very self conscious about my legs. Living in Southern California, shorts are a requirement. When I wear them, I find myself subconsciously crossing my less-scarred right leg over my left. In the gym I catch people staring at my leg as I stretch.) After a while though, telling my story and showing my scars got boring—at least to me—and I started finding creative ways to truncate it, or avoid telling the story altogether. I wish I had a little book I could pull out of my back pocket and hand to the curious just so I wouldn't have to spend time telling my life story to another stunned face. What’s worse is that the longer I build a relationship with somebody without first telling them about my experience, the harder it is when I eventually have to explain everything.

That was the case with my fellow classmate. He and I got along fine before. For all he knew, I was another twenty-one year old kid going to college straight out of high school. But suddenly, within the span of an hour, I transformed from plucky student to battled-hardened Marine. How does a relationship stay the same with such an apparent character shift in one of its members?

So how do I foster a relationship with someone without first creeping them out? (“Hi, nice to meet you. I have eight pieces of shrapnel in my legs and President Bush awarded me the Purple Heart.”) When does the time come when I reveal the “rest” of who I am? Why do I have to maintain such a fractured personality? Why can't I just be Me, instead of just Mild-Mannered College Student, or just Battled-Hardened Warrior?
I don't want my war experiences to dominate my life, and I don't want them to be forgotten. I have to find a way to politely say “Yes, this is who I am. Now, can we move on to more recent things?” Perhaps it will never be easy. How can it be when less than one percent of the population serves in the military and a small percentage of them have been wounded in war? I want to be normal, but first I must accept that—in some small part—I am not. Instead of forcing people to see me in a way that I desire, I should instead strive to foster a relationship between the wounded and the curious. And not just people wounded in war, but anyone—civilian or military service-member—who has suffered some sort of trauma.

Special thank to my friend Sui Solitaire for helping me get this thing out of the door.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


The bomb went off just down and opposite the road where he momentarily stood, facing outward, rifle clutched half-heartedly, waiting for the enemy he knew would never come running over the ridge. Shrapnel struck liberally over the left side of his body. Whoever made the bomb must have been proud of the spread and devastation. He had dropped instantly, and the searing pain in his limbs and face kept him from standing back up. His hands, now free of his weapon, clawed outward reaching for a respite. Nothing went through his mind, not of the proper order of first aid, nor the three types of bleeding: venous, capillary, and arterial, nor the fact that he had all three. The hours spent in classes meant nothing to him, had no way of grounding him to this universe as the blood trickling over his clenched eyelids filtered the already diffuse yellow light into a pallid crimson darkness.

He was vaguely aware of pounding feet, jostling, rending of fabric, metallic taste, and a deep pinprick. Then he slept.

Weeks after returning to America, and days after walking without the use of crutches, he was allowed a temporary return to civilian life. His parents rolled a bag full of trinkets he had collected from the generals and important people who visited the hospital. In his pocket he kept the purple medal they had pinned on him while he lay in bed, opiates coursing though his veins. Another paper bag held two rattling yellow bottles—two pills every four hours; one in times of extreme pain. Tucked deep away were rolls of gauze, white tape, moist pads for direct placement on open wounds. The head nurse made him and his parents promise to change his last four bandages at least once a day, twice if the discharge was heavy enough. He had seen so many nurses and orderlies working over him, cleaning up his once uncontrollable defecation in the confusing days after the explosion, then later with deft hands snipping at black threads criss-crossing his skin, that he jokingly said he could be a registered nurse. In reality he never wanted to see the underside of human skin ever again.

The two weeks elapsed, much of it spent in front of the television, watching without thinking until visions of his war flashed before his eyes forcing him to mash the off button. One night he went to dinner and a movie with a few of his high school friends. They were happy to see him again and hugged him lightly, minding the noticeable bandages. They asked questions like How was it over there? They treating you all right? without ever asking the one they all wondered: Why did you go over there? Once the important parts of his story were told, all of the easily digestible and non-gory anecdotes exhausted, the conversation turned towards former classmates and their goings-on. He laughed when required, nodded to the beat of the conversation, stared into nothing during the silences, and fulfilled his social duty without ever exposing the turmoil underlying his conscious thought. During the movie, protected by darkness and singular field of vision, a few tears leaked out before he silenced them with a white pill flushed down with soda.

Every morning and night he surveyed the newly painted canvas of his body, the pits, furrows, splotches, which, only a few months ago, stood out in his mind’s eye as signs of bravery and virility. Now he was hesitant to extend his left arm and leg as the taut skin disturbed sensitive nerves, sending out alien shocks the like of which healthy bodies never experience. With quivering hands he sought out his face’s newly defining features: two perfectly rectangular bandages, one running from cheekbone to nose, the other from mid-jaw to chin, under which lay the oozing horror of his existence. He knew one day they would heal and he could no longer cover them from inquisitive eyes. From now until death, eyes will be drawn away from his blue eyes to two thick jagged lines running parallel across his face. No amount of plastic surgery, sunglasses, or baseball caps will ever truly erase the result of a brief moment of time—milliseconds—the culmination of a series of ill-thought decisions by himself and others.

At the end of the two weeks his parents left him to limp slowly towards the airplane that would spirit him back to the hospital and military life. He still had some recovery ahead, a few cosmetic procedures to endure, but one day he would be discharged and would have to make real decisions about his life. He contemplated his future and the role he would assume. Would he retain the warrior spirit which had already etched its signature upon his surface, or would he reject it and grasp outward into a world and philosophy hereto foreign to him, of which he could never interact without the scars of body and spirit forcefully altering the way he is perceived?

Pulling Teeth

Some names changed to protect the accused.

The best thing that can happen to you in boot camp besides being put on double rations, is to be sent to the dentist for a tooth pull. Yes, this sounds counterintuitive, but bear with me. Recruits go to the doctor all the time but mostly for minor complaints, like a nasty cough. If they are lucky the doctor will pity them and give them light duty, while the drill instructors wait patiently to thrash them once again. The dentist is usually for recruits with wisdom teeth poking out which need to be pulled for “combat readiness.” It's not your choice to go, meaning the drill instructors can't call you a malingerer or secretly thrash you later. I spent most waking moments of boot camp hoping to be sent to this magical land. Lo and behold, during roll call one night a few weeks before graduation, I heard the sweet words: “White: OS.”

OS? What is OS? Could it be Oral Surgery? Yes! Yes it could! The drudgery of waking up, being thrashed, yelled at, run around, booted, beaten and blistered would halt for at least half a day, perhaps even—I mustn’t get my hopes up—longer.

The next morning I was lined up and sent out with ten other lucky recruits. Never in my life would I willingly march to the dentist and actually put a spring in my step. I had to slow my pace, in case it was all in error and they sent me back full-mouthed. It was not. The technicians kindly sat me down and explained that my right lower wisdom tooth was impacted and had to be pulled out. I feigned sadness and leisurely lay back in the chair and let them go to work. The worst parts were the shots in the mouth—only a few deep needles—but I would much rather have pricks in my gums than screaming in my face.

The dentists began their work, slicing and sawing and pulling, but all I felt was the jerking of my head. One nurse gasped and said “That doesn’t look good,” but I suspect that was to try and break my cool complexion which I expertly held during the entire procedure.

Afterwards my mouth was jammed with gauze and I could not shout, or speak above a whisper. I was given a prescription (for what I did not know) and sent away. A normal recruit had to lead me back because if an overzealous drill instructor were to confuse my silence for copping an attitude someone could become upset and throw a tantrum. Having returned to my squad bay I gave my prescription to a drill instructor and went on bed rest, donning a shirt and shorts and only moving from the bed for food or the toilet. I was legally obligated to do nothing but “get better.”

The drill instructor returned from the pharmacy with a bag for me containing two rattling bottles. One bottle was Motrin, a paltry pill no better than aspirin found at any drug stone on the outside. The other though, was Vicodin, a sweet opiate which would definitely take away my ache. Granted, the dose was low, but recruits clamber for anything that will either excite or dull their senses. Our mouthwash was nonalcoholic for this very reason (why we had mouthwash when we never saw women is another story).

I am not much of a pill-popper so I mostly stuck to the Motrin, tasting the Vicodin only rarely. After a day observing my platoon go about their business from the great height of my bunk bed, I went on light duty for two days. Sadly, I had to put on my uniform instead of comfortable shorts, swapping tennis shoes for the requisite boots. But I didn't have to march or run or handle my dumb rifle. It was boot camp lite.

All of my pills were stored in my backpack, a big no-no because there was no lock separating them from other hungry recruits. One day I opened my backpack and found the Vicodin bottle was empty! No matter, I still had Motrin and I had avoided the dreaded dry-socket everyone is warned about with wisdom teeth extraction.

A few days later I was put back on full duty. I secretly hoped for them to call me back, slapping themselves for forgetting a compacted tooth. No such call came. I savored my few days of quasi-freedom as perhaps the high (or low) point of boot camp and moved on.

We had just completed marching on the “grinder” (a large slab of flat pavement meant for ceremonies) when an unfamiliar drill instructor walked up and talked to our Staff Sergeant Stahl, a burly Asian with a decided command of psychological torture. They talked quietly and the unfamiliar one took out a piece of paper and showed it to Stahl. He read it and immediately started to freak out.

“Beeman! Beeman! Get the fuck over here!” Beeman came running out of formation and stood at attention in front of Stahl. His face looked as if he knew what was coming next. The unfamiliar drill instructor grinned with recognition.

“Did you write this letter, Beeman?”

“Yes, sir,” Beeman said, his voice quivering.

“Did you write this part right here?”

“Yes, sir,” his voice quivering even more.

“Beeman here got caught writing a letter in dental today,” Stahl announced to the platoon. Writing a letter anywhere other than in your bed at night or on Sunday mornings was not allowed, especially in dental. Any time a recruit is caught the letter is snatched up and read by the drill instructor on the spot. No one ever bothered questioning the legality of such a thing.

“This is what Beeman wrote: 'I took the Vicodins I bought the day before and woke up in the morning all groggy and chink-eyed.'” emphasis Stahl’s. It was hard to decide what was the worst part: that he bought drugs or that he used a racial slur belonging to the drill instructor reading the letter. Many of the drill instructors in my company were minorities. Two of my drill instructors were black, one Latino, and Stahl was Korean. The days of racist slurs being thrown around were gone, and racism was not tolerated by recruit or instructor.

Every drill instructor in the area surrounded Beeman, the bills of their Smoky Bear hats blotting the sun, making his already beet-red face even darker.

“Who'd you buy the Vicodin from, Beeman? Who?!” Stahl screamed. Other unintelligible screams emanated from the circle of drill instructors.

Stahl was screaming in his face with an intensity much stronger than his normally subdued but strangely menacing style. Beeman started to shake and the entire platoon felt the tension build.

“W-w-w-” Beeman stuttered.

What? No! Not me! I didn't sell him anything! He stole it from me! I felt sick. This was a serious offense; I could be sent to jail, never graduate, be a felon for the rest of my life. My parents would be so disappointed. “Our son, the strong Marine, turns to selling drugs to miscreant recruits!”

“W-wiley, sir!” I sighed in relief. Wiley was a good guy, a chef-in-training back home. Our bunks were adjacent and he often tried to explain to me the science behind cooking, but I was unable to progress beyond the five basic sauces. Frankly though, I was glad it was him and not me. He wasn't present at the time, which was good for us because the tension slowly died down.

“Good...” That dreaded word was spoken whenever things were not good. Beeman was whisked away by another drill instructor, and we were all left wondering about his fate.

Wiley and Beeman seemed to have vanished; rumors flew around about their torture by the hands of other drill instructors.

The next day Beeman came into our squad bay in a run. His face was covered with sweat and dirt, so thick it seemed like he was covered with mud. His beet-red face still shone through, his eyes crying out in distress. I saw him only for a moment doing pushups, side-straddle hops (a fancy term for jumping jacks), and yelling before he ran off to another squad bay.

Some recruits said they knew what had happened. They said he was sent room-to-room to every minority drill instructor and was worked mercilessly. One popular story was spread about a particularly fiery drill instruct named Gunnery Sergeant Gonzales, someone I was blessed to not be acquainted with. He had the requisite frog voice (a by-product of near nonstop screaming), but there was something else, a demon in his throat. As Beeman was nearing his millionth pushup for the day, he let slip something in his delirium: “Oh God...” Gonzales perked up at this and bent over to Beeman's ear.

“There is no God,” whispered Gonzales, “only Satan…” Then Gonzales summoned the demon is his throat, and threw up at will right onto Beeman's back. We heard Gonzales had this unique ability and it jived with the demon motif. Anyone who was told this piece of hearsay stared into nothing and was thankful they had only heard this story.

Wiley and Beeman were gone, their things packed up and their beds empty. I saw Wiley later. He was dropped back a few weeks in training, and he declined to say anything else. Things couldn't have gone that badly. He stayed in boot camp and graduated, even after being caught for dealing drugs, which I thought would be a felony offense. During the affair I briefly considered telling my drill instructors that my Vicodin was stolen (by Wiley? Beeman? I don’t care to know) and I may have contributed to this whole mess, but then I returned to reality when I concluded it would only result in more screaming, at me in particular, and I just wasn’t willing to go through with that, especially coming off such a nice vacation.