from the novel THE KARAOKE SINGER'S GUIDE TO SELF-DEFENSE
Administratively, the scene was structured kind of like the anonymous blowjobs in men’s rooms triggered by a coded foot tap. A couple men meet up at a predetermined place, an isolated place, used to be a barn just outside of town. Then it moved to behind the factory-church.
A flat powder blue square, two stories tall and equally as wide, painted on the front of the abandoned factory on the West side of town–a church had salvaged exactly that much of the building. Ornate bulbs popped from the double-belted centers of the two new pillars at the big front doors. The rest of the building, the majority of its front, remained untouched. Granite shades of grit and gray, the depths of its seams in shadows and dirt behind the powder blue box, the rest of the building, a frame frozen in continuous expansion, fading into the background of the dull sky, day or night.
In the open yard behind the factory-church, late at night, early morning, men met anonymously, the meetings coordinated through scribbled code in men’s room stalls, near payphones. The keys whispered in passing in the fury of battles in bar parking lots. Will was offered the key many times before recognizing it as such, slow to realize a code to break even existed.
In the parking lots, only once a night exploded into scattered chatter and threats, tears and heat, did Will ever feel peace, hunger satiated, his mind still. Shouting men with chests puffed out pointing, many sides retelling a single event all at once. Commands and appeals cancelled each other out, became a single roar. And in these moments, Will would hear the whisper close up in his ear. A small man he never caught sight of, bumping up against him, moved on as soon as his message slipped. “The factory-church, 3 am Tuesday and Thursday.”
Repeated, the message took on the power of a dream’s command.
Giving in to his curiosity one night, Will pulled around the back of the factory-church, waited in his car, nothing to see, but this must be the place. Pulled up as far as he could drive, up to the fence, sat in the warm purr and rattle for a while. The windows began to fog. He leaned chest to steering wheel to wipe the windshield with his sleeve. Static on the radio, the reception so weak the scan function skipped over all his presets. Skipped through the whole dial again. Cracked the window and smoked, heard silence.
Finally got out. Stood next to his car under the big moon. Walked through the open gates, dragging his feet loudly through the gravel. The yard empty, a darting rodent, he sauntered, hands in pockets.
Maybe he had imagined the whole thing. The feeling of being watched was very similar to the feeling of suspecting you were being watched. The entire dark flatness of the factory’s backside, the empty stands of a stadium. Breath quickened. He hopped a few steps up to the tracks to better survey the yard, still empty.
Suspense doubled back on itself became boredom. Scraping metal to gravel, he peeked in the drawer of a cabinet on its side, nothing, turned to return to his car. From above, the plunk of metal came down on his skull, a deep grunt of muscles collapsed him. Flattened in a blur, he raised his hand over his head to stop the next blow. But no more crashes followed the first. Opening his eyes, nothing, no one anywhere. Lay on his side in the gravel under the big moon, pulled his knees up fetal. Far off, a rodent scampered eye level.
He stood, dusted himself off, dust stuck to blood clumps. Stood up straight and called out, cleared his throat and called out, “Well, come on then! You come out now!”
Whir of silence from every direction, he spun, no one. He shuffled back to his car, kicking up dust, scanned the gravel for a long pipe, a heavy car part, anything he might be able to swing. Looked back over his shoulder every few steps. Wheezing, he opened the door to his car. Turned back to the yard, threw his head back and howled to the factory’s backside, black against the night sky, howled.
Grabbing the car door, he bent at the waist, slammed the door shut on his head and bolted upright as the door bounced back. Turning, he expected applause from the dark flatness of the factory’s backside, the empty stands of a stadium, but nothing. Howled again, his nose filled with blood. Eyes burned and the scream of wind rushing in his ears forced him to concentrate on his balance. He opened the car door again, held it open, bent, held the pose, stood and looked around smiling. He sat down in his car, sat a long while stunned before heading home.
The high of the mysterious single blow lingered for days. Will had become a local celebrity in the parking lots of the various bars, people applauding when he arrived. Challengers traveled from nearby towns to find him. He thought of himself as living out the montage scene near the beginning of Conan, equally pleased to identify himself as a barbarian of pre-history and, while actually in battle, to truly experience time pass as in a montage sequence.
People recorded every fight. Posted them online and argued his technique, his intuitive strategy and passion tailored to the specific challenger he faced, on street fight message boards: “Astonishing grace,” “Awesome power,” “Relentless.” He tried not to look, but sometimes didn’t know what else to do with the computer time he’d signed up for at the library.
But the vanity of the parking lots meant nothing compared to satiating the needs of his ever deepening dependence. His tolerance increased, like anything, the body’s learned resistance, he needed greater and greater amounts of pain to yield the same rush. A drinker, after a while, might come to need three or four times the drink to feel the same drunk. Will’s tolerance, though not measurable in such terms, came to be more analogous to that of an opiate abuser, eventually requiring twenty-five or as much as a hundred times the original amount.
And this single blow at the factory-church, the shock, dropping from the sky and then nothing, maybe it was a trap. He tried to shake the thrill, distracted for days, but couldn’t. He had to return to the factory-church, try to figure out what had happened.
Sunday morning, children scampering off during the post-Mass mingle, climbed a short stack of railroad-ties, found a tooth among the gravel.
Will once thought himself solved, briefly. Tammy. Didn’t she solve him, couldn’t she? She’d easily, without effort it seemed, explained him to himself. Cornered him, daring vulnerability. But the ultimate lack, the self-absorption pulling inward toward the hollow like a drain, not possibly language enough to fill it, promises made smiling, grotesque. No codes, no destinies, empty, Will left with his silly fists.
It was a good name for him. He always liked it, free will. If he had to turn his head, if there must be a sound he couldn’t help but turn his head toward, will, it was good, free will. Funny, the only sound he had no choice but to respond to, a muscle decision. Will was a funny word.
It embarrassed him about Tammy, about how he thought he felt. Must’ve been some misunderstanding, a case of mistaken identity, projection, imagined ease, a simulation. He understood “will,” but how he had thought he felt, too abstract, stupid. He preferred hunger, the uprising to the revolution.
He had learned to allow her to touch him, but then the stakeouts, ringing a strange doorbell at four in the morning, the shame. He had only one photo of Tammy, a photo booth. On his lap, she was too far foregrounded to remain in focus, and his big, dumb smile.
In seeking to repeat their perfect harmonious ambiguity he’d mistaken dull satisfaction, manic desire, flattery, total pussy, perfect technique, the acceptance of others, drama, spit, content habit, specific conditions, awkward cohabitation, and even pity. But it was a state, passing, a passage. No possible outcome but feeling made a fool of, not good enough for his own hunches.
He could no longer accept the intuitive hunt. He needed new intuitions. Self-consciousness of the hunt insured the hunt’s failure. Commit to quiet, commit to quiet or accept the shame vulnerability inevitably opens up into.
So he got quiet, five years above The Saigon Restaurant in southeast Ohio, worth it just to say it every morning, “Saigon, shit. I’m still only in Saigon.” Especially funny those first days enduring the strange withdrawal symptoms of compulsive fighting, hardly able to crawl out of bed, but never able to stretch enough. Worked nights at the in-patient home until the temptation to fight back against the patients got to be too distracting. Found work as a hood cleaner, balancing on a stepladder above hot grills, spraying water up into the hood, it drips back down on to the grill and sizzles, the constant balancing act.
Got to town, home for one long day, walked directly from the bus station to The Shhh… to find Mel, got lost. Norman sent him away. Thought about The Carroll Motel but couldn’t face it. Walked and walked and got turned around and walked past Tammy’s. Morning rush hour by then, slept sitting up back at the bus station.
Tammy hated his hands, those disgusting hands of his, bangers nicotine yellow and dry as salt flats, crisscrossed in cuts and slashes. Shallow canyons across his palms. His hands, granite symmetrical turkeys, symmetrical turkey spider-soldiers he commanded intuitively.
After he quit the hood cleaning job, the temptation to flop down spread eagle on a hot grill too distracting–figured he could work at a convenience store. But the shame from back home, the olive-skinned blond kid, the association followed him. In the bright store, he grabbed a bag of “traditional fruit snacks,” too ashamed to ask for an application. A Native American family getting a hot dog each for dinner was so disappointed to learn there was no mayo on hand.
Tammy lived in an apartment by the highway that always smelled like a deep fryer. He would call her from a pay phone at the self-storage. Tell her to come down. The thick mustard colored skin around his nails, the blood-beat under each tip’s husk, two small smiles and a soft frown under each finger, his hands made her sick. Their smell made her sick.
It’s a long walk in the cold. Rush hour’s line of lights, they each had a place to be? Pinch me awake or just point, lost in an endless parking-garage maze, lost in the corn outside of town, just point. It’s a long walk out here in the cold.
What loving evolutionary impulse sprouted opposable thumbs if not the need to pinch one’s self awake? As many dreams as there could ever be, there must be exactly that many ways to wake up.
His fingers never asked anything of him but to be kept out of dark places, down drains, between rocks. They needed only to see where they were going. In return, they should point or pinch, not only clench.
Tammy ate pickles with her frozen pizzas. Will would help her do the dishes in the bathtub. She had a proper way to crack an egg, a recipe for ice cubes.
He was five, six years old. Nana’s backdoor slowly faded closed. He was just steps behind Mel running, running, hopped the couple stairs from the garage, turned the hall and through the kitchen. But the door clicked shut as he hit it. He shot his little claw through the pane, each digit, up past his wrist, hit with thousands of blistering hot pins.
Yeah, put through a glass door, manual sex, broke a glass–Will would no longer take this history of his American signature for granted.