It was snowing this morning. I poured a cup of coffee and I sat at my counter, writing a letter to an old friend. I hadn’t seen this friend for a long time and I heard she was doing very well for herself. She had struggled for years, raising two kids and going to school at night. It must have been hard. Her work paid off and she had just gotten a job as the Nursing Supervisor at a prestigious hospital in the city. It was an important job. She was in charge of all the nurses that worked in the hospital. She had a key that unlocked every door. Only one other person in the hospital had the same key. He was an old Greek man, Stefan, who ran the maintenance department. I was proud of my friend.
But I couldn’t write the letter. The words shuttered out of my pen in a tangled mess. My z’s looked like n’s and I kept spelling things wrong. My coffee had gone cold while I was fumbling with my commas and semi-colons. I looked out the window and the snow had really started falling. I could barely see the tree in my backyard. I crumpled my paper into a ball and threw it in the trashcan. I started again. There were a lot of things I wanted to say to my friend but I couldn’t figure out how to put them into words. I kept messing up. I went outside. I sat on my back steps, barefoot and in a t-shirt, and let the snow write my letter for me. It was amazing. The words poured out of me like milk into coffee, blossoming on the paper; I wrote furiously for fifteen minutes with my hands completely numb and when I finished I didn’t even reread the letter, I just wrote Love, George at the bottom, stuffed it in an envelope, and mailed it. She will open the envelope when it arrives. She will unfold the letter and snow will fall out of it, melting into puddles on the floor. She will want to write back but by the time the Greek man, Stefan, cleans up the melted snow, she will have forgotten.
Tonight a little black girl came into the ER, dripping blood from a wound in her neck. It was tragic. She was the victim of a car accident. A piece of the windshield went right through her throat. She lost a lot of blood and she died. That wasn’t the important part, though. The important part was I was very upset that I couldn’t do anything to save her. She was basically dead when she got to my table. Maybe if I was on the scene I could have done something, but it had been almost ten minutes and some of her major blood vessels were damaged. It wasn’t my fault but I still felt guilty. I never met a surgeon that hadn’t felt guilty when a patient died on their table.
But this little death hit extra hard. I was nervous. My hands started shaking. I couldn’t hold tools steady so couldn’t perform surgeries anymore. Obviously I started drinking. Obviously I got caught and, obviously, I was barred from practicing medicine. I got a job as a nighttime security guard at the hospital. I could drink as much as I wanted and no one ever noticed. I just put some rum in a coffee cup and drove around in this little jeep, making sure all the buildings were locked. Everyone just thought I drank a lot of coffee.
One time I was pretty drunk and I was making my rounds. I turned the corner and a little dog ran out in front of me. I hit it. I heard the dog bark and I screeched to a stop. A little boy ran after the dog. He was sobbing You killed my dog, mister, you killed my dog. I tried to do something for the dog. After all, I used to be a doctor. Dogs and people aren’t that different when they’re dying. It was no use. The dog died. The boy ran away. I sat in the car for the rest of my shift, just staring it its body. I wasn’t a doctor anymore. I was normal.
going to the beach on sunday
It was Sunday night when I gave up. I was sitting at my desk when I just decided that I had enough of the world. I flushed my cell phone down the toilet. I threw my computer in the trash. I left all my money in a big pile on my living room floor. I packed one bag with three clean pairs of underwear and one bar of soap and I walked to the ocean. I stood in front of it for a little, staring at the sun, and then I just jumped in and swam.
I swam deep, deep, underwater, until I got to the ocean floor. I built house out of coral down there, way past where the waves break and people swim. I had a backyard where I grew seaweed and played with my pet clownfish. His name was Lemonade. Besides Lemonade, I was alone for years.
One day, during a storm, a boat sank not far from my coral sea house. Four fishermen were drowning in the water above me. The Coast Guard came. Their rescue operation was big and loud and of course they found me, too. They carried me back to the surface, kicking and screaming. All my friends and family were standing on the beach in the storm, tears of joy on their faces mixing with the rain, crying George, where were you, we missed you so much, and I tried to explain about my house and my Lemonade but I had spent so much time underwater that I forgot how to breathe on land. All that came from my mouth were some raspy gasps. I passed out. They filled a garbage can with water and put me in there until they could figure out what to do. My friends had a fundraiser and collected a bunch of money and bought a big glass tank at the Adventure Aquarium in New Jersey, where I lived with a bunch of grumpy sea turtles and stingrays. Twice a day, a scuba diver fed us chopped up pieces of other fish. I kept hoping that I wasn’t eating my poor Lemonade. My friends and their families came to visit me every other weekend. They were happy I was back.
our grayscale in january
I am so sleepy, she said. We’d been wide awake all night. Our neighbors were screaming at each other and the sheetrock between our houses had been crumbling. We could hear them clear as day. I rolled over and fit an arm in the soft space between her rib cage and hipbones. She yawned and closed her eyes. She slept.
That morning I made strong coffee and sat at the counter. It was snowing a little bit. The elm tree in the yard was swaying in the wind. I heard the bedroom door open. She came downstairs.
Hey, she said.
Hey, I said.
Last night sucked, I said.
I’m so tired, she said.
She sat down.
I have coffee ready, I told her.
I know, she said.
Do you want some? I asked
Please, she said.
I poured the coffee into this old cup we stole from IHOP and set it in front of her. She was staring out the window.
It’s snowing, she said.
I know, I said
We layered heavy coats on top of our bedclothes and went outside.
The sky and the houses and my bare elm tree were grey. The snow was white and the asphalt was black. It smelled like the inside of a freezer and it was quiet, so quiet, the quiet it gets only when it’s really cold outside and it’s snowing. Her pink cheeks shone against the January cold. We sat on the curb passing one cigarette back and forth. The smoke and our breath looked exactly the same. I couldn’t tell which one of us was smoking and which one was breathing. She flicked the cigarette into the road and the cherry split off into a hundred little glowing pieces that the wind picked up and scattered throughout the neighborhood and burned color into the wind and the street and the sky.
fireworks on the fourth of july
I wasn’t going to do anything on the Fourth of July but then all this stuff happened. I was eating a hamburger and some people called me. They said they were having a barbeque. They said you have to bring your own beer but we have food. They said it was going to be fun. The Fourth of July is never fun.
I walked to this deli to buy some Miller High Life. If my license wasn’t suspended this could have been a good Fourth of July. This could have been the best Fourth of July. But my license was suspended and that made this a terrible Fourth of July. It might have actually been the worst Fourth of July. I walked to the deli. I bought the Miller High Life. Then, because I was excited to go to this barbeque, I took a shortcut down these abandoned train tracks. I only had to walk on the tracks for a little bit. It was supposed to be a ten-minute walk.
I walked down the tracks, carrying my Miller High Life. I passed under a bridge. It smelled bad down there. It smelled like matches and eggs. I heard this weird noise. It was more of a drone than a noise, I think. It sounded like an air conditioner. The smell grew more intense, and so did this sound, and then I almost stepped in the rotting carcasses of two dead deer. The smell was because they were rotting under a railroad bridge. The sound was because they were covered in millions and millions of green bloat flies. When I got close enough the flies swarmed me, covering my face, jamming themselves in my nose holes and eyes and my mouth and I fell to my knees, choking on these flies, coughing, beer bottles breaking and spilling on the rocks around me. The two deer stood up. I knew one was a male because he still had an antler. Their fur was rotting off in patches and their gums had pulled back so it was just teeth clenched in a manic grin and all other kinds of little bugs were jumping around in their fur and I think I peed my pants, I don’t remember, but then they screamed: Get out! Get out of here! How dare you come down here to ruin this, how dare you! and they charged. I ran screaming out from under the bridge, chased by two rotten deer and a swarm of deathflies while fireworks burst in the sky above me. I could smell the gunpower from the fireworks that mixed with the rotten deer stench and I reflexively puked everywhere, bile flushing the flies from my nose and big chunks of hamburger rocketing from my mouth and I ran down the tracks until I hit the street and I ran into the Cheltenham Fourth of July parade on Ryerss Avenue and I fainted in the middle of it while a little girl screamed and two police officers drew their guns.
I woke up in jail and I tried to tell the police officer what happened. I don’t want to hear it, he said. He charged me with drunk and disorderly conduct, because he thought I was drunk, because I was covered in puke and maybe pee and smelled like beer. I wasn’t drunk. I was completely sober. My friends called later to ask why I never came to the barbecue. I told them I went to jail because I saw what happens to deer when they die and they said I don’t want to hear it. You ruined our Fourth of July, and when they hung up I swore I heard deathflies screaming in the dial tone: you ruined it, George, you ruined it.
When I was little I used to vacation in the Pennsylvania woods with my family. We had a big house in the mountains there. In the summer me and my parents, my brother and sister and my cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents, we would all go up there to swim in the lake, and hunt for frogs, and explore the woods. I was still little. It was perfect.
One night I was sleeping in my moms bed. The window was open and I could feel cool air blowing in and out of our room. I heard this noise from outside, the drone of hundreds and hundreds of cicadas, and I was little and I was scared. I asked my mom what was making the noise and she explained: they’re cicadas, George. They live in the ground and once every seven years they come outside and make they that noise. I was little and I thought it was terrifying and wonderful at the same time. Eventually we sold the house.
I was playing basketball in the driveway at home when I heard something weird. It sounded like someone was cleaning the pavement with a wire brush. I let the basketball bounce to a stop and I went to see what it was. There was a cicada on his back, underneath our air conditioner. The water from the air conditioner was dripping right on top of him. His big wings were buzzing against the pavement. He was scared. Dad, come quick! I called. He ran from the house, worried. I think he thought something bad happened. I asked him what the weird bug was. He said it was just a cicada and kind of kicked it a little with his shoe. The cicada rolled over and flew away, clumsy, landing on the fence that bordered our front yard. Dad went back inside. I looked at the cicada on the fence and went up to him. I got real close and looked right into his eyes. There were millions of them, iridescent, reflecting greens and purples in the summer sun. I whispered: do you ever regret coming above ground? and he buzzed his wings one time, yes, and flew away.
porch life 2012
I was drinking wine on my porch when this cat shot out from under my hedges, chasing a squirrel. It knocked over my bottle of wine. The bottle shattered and spilled down my steps. There was big chunks of glass everywhere and when I stood up to yell at the cat he had already caught the squirrel. It was thrashing in his mouth. In slow motion I watched him squeeze his jaw tight, and the squirrel kind of popped, and blood squirted out all over my steps, mixing with the wine, and I could hear screeching, agonized, raw and raspy like television static and the cat just posed there, a statue at the bottom of my steps, proud.
Get the fuck out of here! I screamed, Get out! He walked away calmly. It was no big deal.
I stood for a moment, in shock. My neighbor came out. I told her what happened with the cat and the squirrel. Oh, he does that, she said, laughing, and went back inside. I could hear her unmute the TV. She was watching Two And A Half Men. It was no big deal.
I got a big pot from my kitchen and I filled it with water from the spigot outside. I didn’t have a hose. I mixed some bleach in with the water and poured it on the steps like they do in train stations. The wine washed away easily but the blood took its time, snaking down my steps in deliberate bands, chunks of flesh and guts clinging fast to the concrete, tenacious. I tried my best to clean the porch and then I went to bed. It was hard to sleep because I kept hearing the noise that squirrel made when he died.
I woke up late the next day. The sun had already been baking squirrel guts to my porch steps. The smell of wine and bleach and blood was overwhelming. I saw the cat creeping around my hedges again. I sat down with another bottle of wine, uncorked it, and raised the bottle in a toast. Then I threw the whole thing and hit him right in the face. He yowled real loud and fell down and for the second time in twelve hours my porch was covered with wine and dead animals. My neighbor came out again and asked why her cat was laying in a puddle of wine. I said he drank too much. I said you should take better care of your cat.