the narrator

The most important character in any serious work of fiction is the narrator, even the lazy third-person omniscient narrator.

  • Lord Malinov, On Fiction
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the dinner party

It was 1985 when my first wife and I moved from Lawrence, Kansas to Washington DC, pulling a tiny U-Haul behind our ’78 Camaro over the Appalachian hills.  Serious jobs awaited us and we took to the frenetic lifestyle of Capital City like fish moving from a small tank to our oceanic native habitat.

We were a few months in when my wife asked me to attend a company dinner with her. She worked for a small marketing company with a dozen employees. Normally, I am loathe to attend any kind of function, particularly a dinner party, but I felt strong and took up the challenge.

The owner was a strange little man with wild hair and equally wild ideas. Six couples attended the dinner, including our host, a bit more intimate than I would prefer but I was determined to get through the ordeal, for my wife’s sake.

Drinks were poured as we stood around socializing. Easy enough. The owner began to tap his glass with a knife, to get our attention. “Tonight,” he said, “we’re going to turn the tables on conventionality. All the men, come with me. We’re going to prepare dinner for the ladies and then serve them.”

Now I’m as egalitarian as they come, but this struck me as strange, being invited to dinner and then asked to prepare and serve that self-same meal. And, to be fair, I had married my wife in the last stages of college, a few years before we headed east. Busy in our studies and jobs, we hardly ever saw each other and only rarely ate together. Never once in our three years of marriage had my wife prepared or served me a meal.

But I’m a sport, so I went to the kitchen with the men, where we were instructed to put on silly chef hats and aprons. Then we cut and chopped and sauteed and poured and dished and all that cooking stuff, new territory for a young man who subsisted primarily on chips and salsa.

One of the other men, a tall middle-aged bloke, worked for the State Department. When he  learned that I, a youth of twenty-six, was already making as much as he was, working at the Patent Office, with nine more grades of advancement ahead of me, he lost it.  The kitchen became tense. But there was no escape in sight.

So we took the meal we prepared in to serve the ladies. They ate as we stood by and watched. The owner proceeded to do a strange dance. I assume, eventually, we were allowed to join our wives and eat, but that memory is fuzzy. Perhaps we never ate. It wouldn’t surprise me.  When we left, my wife promised that would never happen again.

And it didn’t.

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Today is the day that I age. Fifty three turns over with a chunk to fifty four.

I used to understand what it meant to age. Nowadays, I really don’t know. I’m moving steadily away from youth, the delights and anguish of being nowhere, going who knows were, heading out to find something that remains undefined. Ahh, youth. I miss it and don’t all at once. If I knew then what I know now …

My studies of history, literature, philosophy and science have led me to the ultimate conclusion that life has little meaning, little purpose, little substance, little reality. Everything we are may dissolve in the next inevitable rainstorm. Our achievements will be forgotten. Our relationships will fade. Our discoveries will be lost again. We are ashes, dust in the wind. Nothing matters. Nihilism rules.

Except for joy, a transitory feeling of delight, pleasure, satisfaction, elation, peace. In joy lies life. The joy of learning. The joy of knowing. The joy of play. The joy of accomplishment. The joy of performance. The joy of relaxation. The joy of being. The joy of sex. The joy of companions. The joy of exploration. The joy of song. The joy of a well-turned phrase. The joy of thoughts and feelings and aches and sweets and sunset and fall.


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a better reading

Darkness shone within her eyes, the anti-light of deep discernment, desolate and divine. Looking within, I could hear the anger and passion of her voice unspoken. She did not express the troubles that plagued us but nevertheless I experienced her refutations, her denials, her insistence on a better reading. We moved briefly down the path before she stopped and took my weakened hand in hers. I listened to her heartbeat as it opposed the gentle spring breeze, wondering if our time had finally come. A creature stirred nearby.

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There was the time I overdosed on psilocybin mushrooms.

It was the spring of 1990, a kinder, gentler time, before the storms. The elder Bush was still president and Twin Peaks aired weekly, pervertedly haunting our dreams. My fiancee had left town, gone home to prepare for the elaborate ceremonies the last generation insisted on foisting on us. Usually, when left alone, I would lock myself in the apartment with a box of Cheez-its, two liters of Pepsi, some hot salsa, blare the blues and immerse myself in 72 hours of wrangling against my chess computer. But a friend was in town visiting, so I made my way across the Potomac to party like regular people.

High above the city, in a functional two-bedroom apartment overlooking the river and the airport, we broke out our party supplies and hunkered down to enjoy ourselves the way introverted intellectual youths did. Alcohol, drugs, music. Chess be damned.

I was sitting on a folded futon, feeling peckish, when Rob arrived with a big paper bag in his arms. He picked up the Post and began spreading newsprint on the floor before us. Then he started to pour five pounds of dried white psilocybin mushrooms into a pile on the papers.

“Take this brother, may it serve you well,” he said. We each picked some choice fungus and headed down the road to tripsville. We laughed and sang and joked and stared blankly into space. Late afternoon began to melt away.

But I was hungry and the dried mushrooms looked like a big bowl of chips. So I ate and then I ate some more. And some more. I don’t know what I was thinking because I wasn’t. So I had some more.

A standard dose of psilocybin is about an ounce. I probably consumed about eight ounces before I lost my interest in eating. That’s just a guess. I have no way of knowing how much I ate but it was a lot. Way more than ever before or since. Way more.

Dave and Jeff wanted to listen to Lamb, as we were often wont to do when tripping. The first time I heard the album was the first time I took acid, so it had a home-like quality. Rob was a music aficionado, more interested in Faster Pussycat than mid-seventies Genesis. They fought, angrily. Rob stormed off to sulk in his room. The lamb lay down. I became oblivious to everything around me.

At some point – time having no meaning by this time – the white light came. Similar to what is often described by those who have experienced a near-death, the white light appeared and consumed me. But I certainly didn’t die. All my thoughts were cleared away, all my memories, all my knowledge, all my experience, everything I was had been consumed by the light. I sat meekly on the futon and waited.

Eventually, I was comforted by the fact that the people wandering around me seemed familiar. I relaxed slightly. Then the white light came again and everything was gone.

This cycle repeated a dozen times. I would vanish into a cloud of unknowing. Slowly, familiarity resumed. Then it would vanish in a blaze of light.

Time surely passed and the flashes ceased. I remember watching airplanes dash and zip in the sky like X-file UFOs. All my boundaries were broken. I laid down on the futon and struggled through the semi-haze of unsettled pseudo-sleep. The day passed away and I took myself home. There was still chess to play.

Nothing lingered. I never suffered a flash-back or showed any sign of degradation. It went away as so many trips before, leaving only vague memories and a feeling of understanding. The hallucinations, apart from the white light, were modest, unexciting and fleeting. My fiancee returned with an armful of wedding plans. That’s when my real troubles began. Marriage to the wrong person. What a trip.

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“So you know I broke up with Shelby?”

He had been dating Shelby off and on for almost ten years. We, his friends, gave a collective sigh of relief when he finally and seriously declared that they were finished. Sometimes you don’t know why people got together and you sure as hell don’t know why they keep it up. Although I’m sure they had their good moments, it really seemed like they hardly liked each other. They’d break up. We’d sigh. And it would all start over again.

“For real, this time. I told her we were through and she seemed good with that. We laughed and said good-bye. I got on a plane and just flew away.”

He’d just returned from Vegas, full of excitement, full of stories. He’d met a girl and made some friends. He considered moving out there, taking his business to the big time. It all seemed perfect.

“I got back and do you know what she told me? She’s pregnant.”

Break-up sex does it every time. He’s still serving that life sentence.

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my evil minions

When I was eleven, just a few days after sixth grade ended, I spent a week at church camp. Nestled in the forests of the flint hills of south-eastern Kansas, Camp Wood was a rustic collection of cabins, a mess hall and a chapel that was really a theater. On Thursday night, we put on a play for the rest of the campers, a motley collection of twelve, thirteen and fourteen year olds. I was young for my age.

At that age, I was a curly-haired, mischief-making little smart-ass. One of the adults, who attended my church back home and would later be the drama teacher at my high school, selected me to play the lead of this production. I was cast as the devil. With a laugh, one of the ladies twisted some of my curls to form horns. No one objected to the decision to put me at center stage, although I was substantially younger than all the rest. It somehow seemed right to them.

I sat at a desk, stage left. Two girls of fourteen, one blonde and one redhead, easily the most beautiful girls I had ever been near, sat by me, my evil minions. The campers filled the chapel, staring silently at me as the spotlight drowned my vision of them. I began to read my script as the chorus of crickets faded from notice. The girls stared mesmerized.

On stage right, a small group representing a church meeting, sat in illustration of my speech. I explained to the girls how a kind, thoughtful, wonderfully christian church could be led easily into the sins of the world, into pettiness and jealousy, into coveting and a terrible sense of worldly pride. Scene by scene, I destroyed the tranquility of the church until they were a snarling pack of heathens. Score one for the devil.

At this point, my blonde minion objected, declared my works evil and stormed off, leaving me with the much more compliant and sinful redhead. Good would fight on. I didn’t care, caressing my crimson haired harlot. Why should I care?

Applause and accolades followed, a celebrity that only lasted an hour, until the next camp activity filled our minds, a campfire or a service, a horseback ride or canoe trip. I would act again but never to such heights.

People who know me know why I tell this tale. My whole life can be seen in the microcosm of the play we performed at Camp Wood.

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