Here was a man whose bald scalp was permanently and symmetrically dimpled. But he was a big man, and when he laughed hard his head went back and the scalp dimples were hidden from the view of most. We met every Wednesday for voice lessons and when I sang he said “You harmonize with an inaudible chorus who sings a different song”. His voice was way down in the bass range and when he sang The Messiah with the community orchestra the Episcopalians met to draft a formal offer. The Episcopalians offered him a salary and a per diem for missionary ski trips to West Virginia, where he would sing in Super 8 conference rooms while all the snow melted outside. The Lutherans caught wind of the offer and threw their hands up. And the Baptist deacons would fold their hands in front of them after tithing and before the prayer and regard with discomfort and insecurity the Juilliard-trained cellist with the overbite who last year broke off her engagement to the youth pastor, and whose market value had, in light of the Episcopalian offer, suddenly increased in ways unforeseen and unwelcome.
February 5, 1996
Today we went to Church and I got to sit up in the balcony. After Church we did a Toy Audit. When I was 6 I let a little black boy down the street borrow a motorcycle and when I was playing army I said Darius had my motorcycle. Dad called Darius’s dad and made Darius bring it back and Darius hasn’t come over to play since then. He acts like a bully at school and dad keeps telling me to fight him but that’s crazy since he’s got like seven friends in high school. After he decided Darius stole my motorcycle was when dad made me write down all my toys and every Sunday we do a Toy Audit. We’ve done it every Sunday for four years. I’m basically on the honor system to add things because mom does all the shopping so dad sees little of the Acquisitions. If dad sees me with something he doesn’t recognize he’ll ask if I added it but half the time it’s something I’ve had well over 6 months and he never checks anyway. One time I added one twice because he kept accusing me of not adding new Acquisitions to the Inventory. Later during Toy Audit I couldn’t come up with two of the GI Joe dudes with camo on their faces and he made me look through my chest of drawers until I had a knot in my throat and mom eventually yelled For god’s sake he’s a little boy and Why would he have two camo face GI Joes anyway he probably just wrote it down wrong and dad went out to start the blackened chicken but said not to make anymore Accounting Errors. A lot of the toys on the original Inventory I don’t even play with anymore since I’m in freaking middle school but sometimes dad still wants to see those toys. I don’t know where half of them went but I told him they had all been given away to the people in West Virginia that the youth group visited. If he ever went through all the boxes in my closet he’d probably find them and I’d get a spanking for lying and making Egregious Accounting Errors but he never goes in there and mom says we’ll actually give them to the youth group soon anyway, maybe when dad’s gone for a few days, because the youth group is going on a trip again in the summer because of Hurricane Fran.
May 29, 1996
James is coming home tomorrow. I put my CDs in alphabetical order. He didn’t know I got Mother Love Bone. He said his roommate has it. I made him a copy on a tape. I taped over Bobby Brown. There was extra space at the end and I put “Killing in the Name” on there. We listened to that in the car at the Factory Outlet Christmas buffet party last year. It is probably my favorite song. James hates to be around dad and all the guys from the company and I don’t half blame him so we went out to the car. I remember mom chewing her gum mad that night. James is home for the whole summer which I hope means no YMCA day camp.
May 30, 1996
James came home today and dad said a bunch of stuff about his sideburns while we played HORSE. James forgot to send his transcripts home so him and dad had a negative exchange and mom started crying. Dad kept saying stuff about how gorillas are the only ones who play basketball when he’d walk by coiling up the hose and James wouldn’t call out the letters after he missed a shot. I didn’t make him because I think he was not talking so he wouldn’t cry. I made a gorilla face while I did a layup and that cracked James up. When dad went behind the house to mow the lawn mom came to talk to James and she was rubbing his back and while James talked to mom I kept trying to bounce the ball off James’s butt. James did a fake smile and pretended to box me but looked sad so I stopped and went inside and laid down on the ping pong table till he stopped talking to mom and came downstairs to the play room.
June 7, 1996
Dad found James’s copy of “In Utero” on Sunday during Toy Audit and said the girl on the CD itself was a boy and guess what it went on top of the fridge. I didn’t say it was James’s. Mom mentioned “In Utero” to Brent before the service on Wednesday and said Pastor Taylor had found the same CD on the youth group couch back in December and had to have a one-on-one with Brent. I wonder how often Pastor Taylor looks for stuff on the youth group couch? Brent says “In Utero” has been a bigtime problem for really quite some time. I asked forgiveness but I still listen to “Dumb” when it comes on on the radio in the car because the message in that one isn’t so negative. Mom doesn’t know that’s Nirvana but she still gets ill and cuts off the radio at the end because she can’t stand it when they sing I think I’m dumb over and over again.
June 11, 1996
Martin still has my copy of “Don’t Censor Me” but he says he’s gonna bring it back on Friday for Sega. I don’t give a care about that CD but if he doesn’t bring it back dad is gonna kick my butt when we do Toy Audit after church on Sunday. That’s also the only CD Brent mentioned by name to my mom so all the other ones went on top of the fridge pronto until further notice.
June 13, 1996
Martin didn’t bring the Audio Adrenaline CD today but mom says she’ll drive me over to his dad’s house tomorrow after she drops off some magazines at Church. Martin will be back at his mom’s house so I’ll have to go in and get it from his dad. His dad is weird but he knows a lot about electronics. I’ve basically been scared of him ever since he yelled at Martin for leaving the subwoofer on when I was in the backseat of the van after Phillip’s laser tag party.
He better not take it to his mom’s house or I am going to be dead because CDs are going to be a big deal during the upcoming Toy Audit.
June 15, 1996
I mowed my grandma’s yard today. Dad always pays me $10 because he says he doesn’t want to hear about unfair child labor practices in his house and besides that was like the one good thing the liberals did probably, reforming all that. He told me and grandma all about the little girls in Massachusetts who got scalped when their hair got caught in the looms before I mowed the yard and Grandma was like Oh my lord. I kept thinking about my hand getting caught in the blade of the mower, maybe if I had to reach in there to remove a piece of twine from the hay-baler or something, and I’d just come back up with a bloody stub for a hand and I’d have to be driven to the hospital and do some kind of Alternative Activity during PE from now on with Eric who for whatever reason had no legs and mostly just caused trouble and got by with saying really bad cuss words while the rest of us played basketball.
James re-painted the side of Grandma’s house while I mowed and when I rode by on the mower I gave James the finger like the guy in Easy Rider as long as dad wasn’t out there watching James and James shook his head like Dude what has gotten into you. James and I watched Easy Rider when he came home for Christmas and I pretty much constantly gave him the middle finger during Christmas. I still have grass on my arms.
June 21, 1996
I mowed my parents’ yard today and did weedeating for a total of $20. I am saving my money for a guitar. James says his roommate is going to visit and he can help me pick one out at the pawn shop. Dad says when I get one I should take lessons from my cousin Jacob who plays pretty good. On the other hand Jacob breathes loud and pronounces it “acYOUstic” and only plays the blues which I think is pretty gay. James says in private not to take lessons from Jacob because I’ll wind up with backne and barbecue sauce all over the strings and Jacob will just use the money to make out with fat girls and it’s better not to encourage him. Sounds like something dad would say about welfare queens but I did not point this out to James. James and Jacob are about the same age and James is nice to Jacob but thinks he’s a dumb A.
June 22, 1996
Today was dad’s day off which meant I had to play tennis with him. Dad is very bad at tennis and gets very frustrated on account of being so bad. Mom says he just wants to spend time with me and it is a Christian Behavior to play tennis with him. They made me take tennis lessons a while back and honestly I am very crappy compared to the kids who live out at Swan’s Waye but I get it over the net and know how to keep score which basically makes me Pete Sampras compared to dad. I beat the crap out of dad but try not to since the last thing I need is him throwing his racket and carrying on in front of people I know. Why he gives a care about the outcome of these games I do not know. I don’t like to shower at the Y but my dad always does. I don’t need the negativity of seeing his feet and all that baby powder and possibly Mr. Hinson’s butt so I just waited in the lobby and read an article in Sports Illustrated about Latrell Sprewell. I tore it out to give it to Darius since he has a Latrell Sprewell jersey and maybe this will help us get off on the right foot in the seventh grade. I put the article in my racket cover because I knew dad would probably make me buy the YMCA a new Sports Illustrated subscription or mow their yard at my Yard Rate minus the cost of one issue of Sports Illustrated if he saw me defacing their property that way. When we got home James was playing basketball and I ran up to him and started pretend-hitting him in the ribs and he screamed out in fake pain and I fake-beat him to death with the basketball and when he fell down in a pool of his own imaginary blood I laughed my butt off and then he beat me in a game of “PHOTOSYNTHESIS”, which is like “HORSE” but it takes for freaking ever. I invented this game to avoid having to do homework several months ago when James was home from college for a long weekend. Mom said stop procrastinating and then guess what James and I played a game of “PROCRASTINATION”. During supper dad said playing a game of “PROCRASTINATION” was pretty slick ceteris paribus but it was once you looked at it kind of disrespectful as far as something you do to your mother goes and I asked for forgiveness from God in private even though James just looked at dad like What is your freaking deal?
June 30, 1996
Adam had a campout for his birthday yesterday and I went to that. James and his college roommate chaperoned and told a bunch of ghost stories and I’m pretty sure they were smoking cigarettes every now and then. When we got up we went for a hike and Jay found a turtle. It was a boxer turtle. We were all looking at it and Jay picked it up and threw it as hard as he could against a tree and pieces of the turtle’s shell went flying everywhere. James grabbed Jay by his shirt and said a bunch of mean stuff to Jay essentially threatening to kick his butt the way Jay had kicked the turtle’s butt. If I’m not mistaken mom is on the phone with Jay’s mom right now and dad seems pretty certain Jay’s parents will thank James one day and in a few years James will attend our high school graduation and Jay will be valedictorian and Jay will go up to James and be like hey man I really appreciate you helping me get my head and A wired together back then.
Text: Alex B. Fine
Read by: Ilham Belkady & Alex B. Fine
Guitar: Ben Ellis
A: I found your hair in my stew.
E: How did you know it was mine?
A: I could just tell.
E: What did it look like?
A: It was long.
E: Did you eat it?
A: Most of it.
E: Do you have the rest still?
E: With you?
E: Can I see?
E: Yeah that is mine.
E: What else was in the stew?
A: One of the chickens died.
A: Mr. Smithers.
E: The rooster?
A: No, Smithers is a hen.
E: Was a hen.
A: Smithers was a hen.
E: Do you know where he is?
E: Do you know where she is?
E: Weren’t you wearing a condom.
E: Just now.
A: Oh, maybe.
E: Well where did it go?
A: I don’t know.
E: But you were wearing it.
E: Maybe it went under the bed.
A: Yeah, it could’ve.
E: Wanna look?
E: Is it down there?
A: Yeah, it’s down here.
E: This book is missing a page.
A: Which one?
E: Page three hundred and eighty-six.
A: What happens on that one?
E: I don’t know.
A: Here, take this one.
E: From your book?
E: You don’t need it?
E: Thank you.
E: Did you get the cat from the vet?
A: Why was the cat at the vet?
E: She had a cough.
A: What did it sound like?
E: I’m not good at coughing.
A: No, I mean the cat.
E: Oh, she just went meow.
A: Is this her?
E: The candidate’s name you wrote on the ballot is misspelled.
A: Dad quit drinking.
E: What made him stop?
A: He died.
A: Do you have my Latrell Sprewell jersey?
A: The one that says Sprewell on the back.
E: I have the whole uniform, I think.
A: Can I have it back?
A: I need it.
E: What for?
A: Youth group.
E: I’m wearing it.
E: Underneath my black outfit.
E: Did you remember my chewing tobacco?
A: It’s by the mousepad.
E: This isn’t the kind I asked for.
A: They were out of Levi Garrett.
E: I’m gonna break your fucking jaw.
E: I found your celery in my stew.
A: What’d it look like?
A: Did you eat it all?
E: No, I saved you some.
A: Is it done?
E: Not yet.
Your manner of articulation makes me feel weird. I kept looking down and your hair framed your face. That never changed. You smiled and I didn’t always see it coming.
I fell in love when you expressed skepticism about whether or not bergamot is a word.
For the record, I tried to get closer. I would’ve pushed you into me if I knew no one would get hurt. I would put your foot inside my knee, with your thigh intersecting my hip, in case anyone wants to know. I would graft my forearm to your thigh if it would make you feel good too, if we could still move around and eat breakfast and use cell phones. Your face looked different from different angles. It got more serious as I moved down. It did not feel weird to have your hair in my teeth.
I laughed at everything after I left. I flirted with the receptionist who was not pretty because I felt so full of love, and I wanted her to have a good day. I wanted to hug the cab driver and tell him his dreams would come true. I didn’t worry about my coffee getting cold and having to throw it away. I knew there’d be more.
“If you knew no beagles would get hurt, wouldn’t you love to have a coat made of beagle ears?”
Almost no one knows that Jonah Lehrer and I had coffee together last week. He was passing through Rochester attending to certain details of his father’s estate and wondered if I could break free from the massage clinic at around 3:00 for a latte. I did.
What’s new at the massage clinic?
Very little. I got some new Peruvian woodwind recordings.
Cool. You always use woodwinds?
Yeah. Brass doesn’t work too well. I tried.
Jonah laughed at this.
How are things in New York? I asked.
Pretty good. They’re doing a lot of construction where I live in Prospect Heights. Kinda sucks.
Do they have a dog park in Prospect Park?
Off-leash areas, I think.
Yeah, my friends with dogs love it.
So did you drive here?
That a rental car?
Dad’s car. He’s not using it anymore.
I was relieved we could joke this way.
Jonah and I made several seconds of eye contact and the milk in my latte developed a skin. I broke it with my spoon and raised my eyebrows, looking up at Jonah.
I guess if you leave it sitting there long enough, he said.
Yeah, I said, smiling.
Jonah went to the airport at around 5pm and the sun set behind him as he flew back to New York, watching, as he did, patches of snow-covered farmland give way to cul-de-sacs, ribbons of concrete, and tall buildings underneath the airplane.
Written and read by Alex B. Fine
Guitar by Ben Ellis
* apologies for bad recording
When I woke up he was staring at me calmly.
“Pierre,” I said, looking into his eyes, “You deserve the very best; a long walk on a cool autumn morning. I know that’s what you want and I’m going to give it to you. I’m the man for the job.”
I stood up. I was naked. I walked to the window and pulled back the curtains and the room filled with light. Pierre watched me. I put on a pair of black skivvies with blue piping.
“Pierre, as you know, these are my favorites”, I said, chuckling wisely. He stared at me.
“Listen”, I said, “what is mine is also yours. Now with that in mind, today I will fry four rather than the usual two eggs (I will, it’s fine), and the side of ham–you know the one I mean–shall be cleft in twain, just as the single-serve peach yogurt shall be divided once, equally.”
I opened the door and when I did Pierre lifted his head. He got up when I left the room and followed me down the dark hall and into the kitchen. As I walked in my skivvies I could feel my calves rattling anchored firmly to my shins and I felt strong; I felt like walking for years, like Thomas Jefferson strolling through Philadelphia, detached from the customs of that city but still feeling strong in a pair of colonial skivvies perhaps not unlike these.
I lifted the spoon out of the jar of bacon grease by the stove.
“Now,” I said, waving the spoon, “my little rabbit, haha, let’s see if we can’t put something together, no?” His left eye seemed to close a little.
The skillet heated and the lump of gray bacon residue turned clear and spread across the black surface. As I cracked open the second egg and poured its contents into the skillet I turned around and saw Pierre sprawled on the kitchen floor, asleep.
“Pierre, my man, don’t even think about taking a nap at this juncture.” I laughed as I turned both eggs over with the spatula, and the broken yolk of one leaked through albumen and out into the center of the black frying pan, hardening as it did.
This was a boy people liked. He had a good feel and you liked the look of him. Standing in the garden of a man he just met he could say nothing and the man would be buoyed. Or he might say I like your garden and the man would be buoyed. He would say this or that to whomever and get his point across without needing to, even to old people. Dogs approached him unsolicited and he had a calm and worldly nanny’s way with children who showed him their toys. When he helped some local Mexicans erect their home no one felt weird and the Mexicans one time picked him up at the U-Haul place; no big deal, have you eaten, and so forth, no guilt experienced by anyone. He stayed up late with his neighbors watching a documentary about gas chambers but no one felt weird or sad because he would say don’t sweat it and would help them keep it at arm’s length and all that and they would think in the bathroom alone that it is what it is and I think a Bodhisattva could experience a bad feeling but still think hey this is beautiful and smile inwardly. And they would think a Bodhisattva is a good compromise given everything I have going on and they would smile inwardly in the bathroom, into the mirror but inwardly.
I went for a drink at the Old Toad tonight after seeing Midnight in Paris. I was sitting outside with Melissa when a man walking by with a bike stopped at our table and asked me if we would be there a while, intimating that he wanted someone to watch his bike. I said I would watch it. He asked what I wanted to drink and I told him I didn’t need anything. He said I did. I told him to surprise me.
Several minutes later he came back with a drink and I introduced myself. He had a Scottish accent that sounded fake and he said his name was Daniel. I told him my name was Alex and he said, “You already said that”. Melissa went inside to go to the bathroom, brushing my shoulder as she passed, and he still had not let go of my hand. He told me to squeeze as hard as I could and I said no and he said right answer. This was the first of many bad signs.
Daniel told me I was failing and wanted to know what at. I tried to think of something and I told him that everyone fails at something. He told me not to be coy and I said I wasn’t. He insisted I was failing at something and at one point stood up off the chair and leaned across the table and close to my face to tell me again. He confronted me with a barrage of related accusations and told me not to look down and not to be coy, that we were not in the movies, which was funny because I had just seen a movie that I imagined during my conversation with Daniel to have been full of such moments.
He asked me to tell him a riddle and I said I couldn’t think of one. He said of course not and then told me one. Who can remember these things? But it went something like this:
“You’re trying to find something, trying to find meaning. You keep looking and every time you look you go deeper into the rabbit hole.” When he said this he pointed down into the hole in the center of the metal table where an umbrella could go but there was no umbrella.
“You go deeper into the rabbit hole”, he said, pushing the forefinger on his right hand down into the umbrella hole, “and then the universe pushes you back out”, using his left forefinger, now up underneath the table, to push the right finger back up.
“Then, one morning you wake up in a room full of your friends and you’ve turned into a pink elephant balloon. And you’re there with all your friends and there’s no way out. And you despair because there’s no way out of the room. Finally one of your friends finds a way out. It’s the slightest pinprick of a hole. And your friend leaves. And then one by one the rest of your friends leave. They’re all gone and what do you do? Do you follow your friends?”
I considered answering at this point but took a sip of beer to buy time. Then Daniel continued describing the scenario.
“Because if you follow your friends through the pinprick hole you know you’ll be turned inside out and your insides will be on your outside.”
Eventually the riddle ended, I never answered, doubting whether what he told me really counted as a riddle, and the conversation turned to Daniel’s life history, which included, among other things, having gone to Cooper Union and holding his mother in his arms as she died from injuries sustained in a car accident. I tried to respond and all of my responses he ridiculed as lies. When someone feigns access to the otherworldly and the transcendant, the safest thing to do is to take them at their word and listen. I listened to Daniel and I felt scared but reassured by all the people on the terrace at nearby tables and on the sidewalk walking by.
Eventually Daniel called his girlfriend with his phone. I noticed that he had an iPhone, which convinced me that Daniel was not schizophrenic and homeless, as I had originally assumed, inexplicably spending his money, stolen from the group home slush fund, buying beer for strangers and then possibly poisoning those beers before most certainly murdering those who drank them.
He got his girlfriend on the phone and I could hear her voice.
“Should I sleep in the back room or crawl into bed with you?
“You’re not gonna tell me where to sleep? Well so then I should continue doing whatever the fuck I wanna do?
“I’m at the Old Toad. Talking to a young guy I’m trying to get into a fight with.”
Then he handed me the phone.
Her name was Lauren.
“Hey man, you should just put down the phone and walk away”, said Lauren.
I handed him the phone and without saying another word to Lauren he pressed “End”.
I swallowed the last bit of my beer and thanked him.
“Thank you for the beer, Daniel. I appreciate it. I don’t want to fight.”
“There won’t be any fight.”
We shook hands and I went inside.
Here’s a very short story I wrote about me and Barack Obama, the President of America.
Barack Obama called me on a Thursday evening. It was around 9 pm and traffic was still settling and the sun had not yet set. I was not expecting the call.
“Hey. Who’s this?”
“Hey. This is Barack Obama.”
It turned out the president was passing through Syracuse, attending to certain matters, and needed a place to stay. My roommate was out of town so it was not inconvenient.
“She won’t mind me sleeping in her room?”
“Oh, not at all.”
“I appreciate it, man.”
Obama got in fairly late that Sunday and had a little trouble finding parking on the street. I went down to meet him and teased him about his crooked parallel parking.
I had some leftover stir-fry which I offered to Barack Obama. He said he was fine because he had eaten a big bag of almonds on the road.
We sat up late, chatting and smoking. Barack Obama would come in from the balcony and go to the bathroom to wash his hands after each cigarette, which I also do a lot of the time. Finally, we got ready for bed.
“’Night. Oh, Alex?”
“I was gonna take a shower. Where can I find a towel?”
“Closet behind you.”
He picked one of my roommate’s nice white towels and went into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. I heard the bathroom fan start up and I didn’t see him again until the next morning.
When I came out of my room, Barack Obama was already up, doing crunches on a towel in the living room. This was not the same towel he had used the night before, since that one was still wet. He had already made coffee.
“I didn’t know whether you guys compost so I put the old grounds in the filter in the sink.”
“We just toss them out.”
“Cool”, said Barack Obama, and then he did a few more crunches before going to take a shower and then joining me in the kitchen.
We both had cereal and read the paper. I gave Barack Obama the Arts section because I thought he’d like the article about Steve Reich, which I read while Barack showered.
“What was the name of the journalist he did the tribute to?”, he asked.
“Yep”, said Barack Obama, nodding and glancing back down at the paper.
After breakfast, Barack Obama thanked me for putting him up and said he’d text to see if I wanted to get lunch before he headed back to Washington, D. C., where he lived.
We both left the apartment at around 9:15 and I went to work. At around 2pm I went to get a coffee and discovered I’d missed Barack Obama’s text because I don’t always get reception in the building where I work.
“Sry I missed this! Dive safd and let me know if yr back this way soon!”