Author Archives: philip

Impossible Dreams

[Originally written in May of 2010 then promptly forgotten as my life got very busy playing in a new band. An inauspicious move from LA to Portland in 2012 kept my writing on the backburner for a while, and only today did I rediscover this piece. After four years it’s still pretty darn spot on!]

As I stand in line at the drug store, the blond supermodel on the cover of this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue looks out at me from some perfect beach and makes the same impossible promise Elle MacPherson did many years ago, when as an eight-year-old sports card collecting SI subscriber I came home from school one day to find not a baseball or football star on the cover, but the ravishing Aussie absently trying to rip off her one-piece navy bathing suit as she stared into the camera.

That profound moment of sexual awareness was not the first time my young mind had been infiltrated by a powerful outside force, because I was just one of the millions of media crack babies growing up in the early 80s held captive by what the entertainment industry’s best minds cooked up. From the glamorous party lifestyle in MTV rock videos to know-it-all brats who sanctioned rebellion in sitcoms, our worldview has been so manipulated and poisoned that it is no wonder many of us now find ourselves at thirty infantilized, holding unrealistic expectations, and overly excited about the latest Predator movie sequel.

We’ve tried playing at being adult, maybe got a master’s degree or worked for a non-profit organization, some of us even got married for a few years. But for our generation the simple routine of keeping a town functioning is not enough because we bought into the media-driven vision for what life should be, of beautiful people on the go having it all and things just working out in the end. But it’s a hard fox to chase, and sometimes all it takes is a speed bump rather than a fall to knock you out of the race—and then every game-winning touchdown on TV makes you sick with longing for what should have been your own moment in the spotlight.

I think of my own entrapment now with a bitterness I barely dare let myself indulge considering how much it may have cost me. Once at age six while on a family shopping outing I had put an important Star Wars figure into the shopping cart, but my three-year-old sister, who was sitting in the cart’s child seat and not even knowing what she was doing, threw it onto the floor. None of us saw her do it and when we got home I discovered that the toy wasn’t there, then made my dad drive all the way back to the store but he couldn’t find the exact one and bought me another instead. I was furious and resented my sister for it forever…because already I had cast my lot with Star Wars over my own family.

But it’s not a two-way street, you must give of yourself more and more, and when I see grown men dressed up in costumes at Star Wars conventions I thank God that even though I was not the son and brother I should have been, I’m not too far gone, I can still make an effort now.

In my own flaws I see a societal sickness, and with this small bit of lucidity I must take on the sacred role of witness and see the tragedy for what it is: a nation of incomplete souls, unworthy of their affluence and unable to pull themselves away from the buffet long enough even to procreate to keep the country alive. How can the beautiful girls I knew at age 14, the ones who had the boyfriends and wouldn’t give me a second thought, when I see them now on Facebook at age 31 still unmarried and childless, I wonder how after all these years of dating and vacations and fun, they still haven’t had enough? What a reflection of the state of our nation that its young women find their most natural and important role undesirable.

Meanwhile two other girls I knew, one of Arab descent and the other Greek, both married in their early twenties and now have several kids. I’ve seen photos of their beautiful families and even in my DNA I felt the righteous truth. But it seems that for most white Americans, our European ancestors gave up their entire cultural heritage in trade for the materialistic American Dream, but nothing exists to fill the spiritual void.

It’s as if we’ve substituted obsessions for spirituality and intimacy—obsession for sports, for politics, for celebrities—and now with the internet and a thousand TV channels there’s much more involved than when it was just about watching the game and the presidential debates. Now we watch the NFL draft, we wheel and deal the players on our own fantasy team, we watch celebrity poker, we watch pundits argue about a governor’s infidelities, on and on, anything to keep us from ever finding ourselves sitting in silence with our thoughts—because then we would hear our souls screaming in despair, “For all the human suffering throughout the ages, you’re lucky enough to live in a place with all this opportunity, yet you spend your time reading a website about what clothes a singer wore to a party you weren’t even invited to?!”

I see this all as a confession of my own guilt as well. I too have indulged in the orgy of distraction even when I was old enough to know better. The dawning realization of how empty we all are is sickening. This addiction to media and its filtered worldview, be it the soon-forgotten news of the day to even my craving for great books and films, ultimately it is escapism from real life with its mundane tasks and flawed people. We’ve got to find a balance between pursuing this desire to get distilled experience through art and being present for your own life, however painful it may be to accept that doing the dishes at home in sweatpants is more in touch with reality than the androgynous people dancing all over each other in your favorite pop music video.

It’s hard to resist the pull of that other kind of life, which is so easy to turn on and off without consequences whereas raising kids to be real humans demands patience, endurance, standards, being judgmental. And our generation doesn’t want to judge, we grew up watching “We are the World,” we were taught that we’re all the same, that we can help all the poor people far away, not that it’s human nature to scheme and invade and take care of your own. Yet in cloaking our selfishness in self-righteousness we actually prove the point—when tsunamis and earthquakes ravage Third World countries, we buy plastic wristbands and say we helped with the recovery.

I think now of my own entrapment by the media fantasy world, how as a very young child this sealed my fate of not connecting with people and in the end it drew me to the heart of the dream factory, Los Angeles. It’s as if because the comedy shows and CDs and porno magazines got me through the loneliness and confusion of the high school years, I had to come to LA to find tangible fulfillment of the promises or at least to repay the debt by working for the machine.

But something in me revolted against the plan, it wasn’t enough for me to be an extra on the sitcoms, I balked when I started doing stand-up comedy and later found myself writing a script “perfect” for Will Farrell and Andy Dick. Every time I entered the gates of a castle I thought I wanted to inhabit my stomach tightened and I made a move toward self-destruction to get out of there.

Each of these episodes was followed by many months of aimless isolation at the shock of discovering that yet another dream come true had left me empty. The feelings of doubt and failure were paralyzing, and as has always been the case I was unable to communicate this frustration to anyone—and Star Wars wasn’t listening. In the back of my mind I have always thought of myself as a seeker of wisdom and truth destined for great things, and now I look upon these moments of defeat as part of the necessary cleansing to rid me of my pop culture conditioning.

Several years ago my friend worked for Playboy Radio and I accompanied him to Las Vegas when they went to broadcast at the porn convention. Having come of age before the internet made porn easily accessible and you got your kicks from magazines and the occasional VHS tape, this world still held some mystique for me and I was curious to see what it would be like to actually meet one of these performers. While I did speak to one mindless petite blond the memory that stays with me the most is when I saw a middle-aged man running down the aisle with his camera bag—in a flash my mind said, “What are you doing here? You should be back home chasing your son down the soccer field sidelines with that camera!”

But is he really any different from all of us with our fantasy baseball teams and tabloid subscriptions and Sundays spent watching golf on the couch? And what about all the purposeless travel, flying halfway around the world to pose for a photo op in front of a piece of architecture whose history and meaning we are completely ignorant about? And the hedonistic indulgence, the plastic surgeries, vanity waving a scalpel in defiance of aging gracefully—all of us evading the necessity of living local, at a slow pace, without dishonesty or fear.

I’ve wondered if we affluent ones are somehow the vanguard of a transcendent new level of man or if the rich of every era rationalize their sick arrogance in this way. This new breed we have become, is it the proof of a nothing culture or are we striving for the crowning creative achievement in order to leave some sort of digital pyramid in our wake instead of just perpetuating the species? When I think about how we finally conquered the oceans and use this triumph to load cargo ships full of Barbie dolls made in Chinese factories because it’s cheaper, I think I know the answer.

Back in 2006 I was in Virginia for a friend’s wedding and one day as I was driving through a park I saw a young Indian couple—the man in checked shirt tucked into blue jeans, the woman with Hindu shawl over her head—playing badminton with each other, and it struck me how most of us savvy Americans would scoff at this beautiful scene, so afraid we are of being vulnerable while having fun playing a silly game.

We are a dying breed, we who have tasted the fruits of comfortable modern life and are bored—that which has always sustained men no longer interests us. We eschew the imperfections of a real life community for the virtual worlds online, we zone out with headphones at the gym and on the train, each the little king of his own mental island.

And for the few of us who try to break free, the cost is eternal vigilance. Recently even I got all wrapped up watching my hometown hockey team, they’d had the best record all season and were favored to win the Stanley Cup. But they lost in the first round of the playoffs and at the end of that awful game 7 I sat in a drunken stupor, my heart sick for a team I hadn’t even followed in ten years…when bounding out of the bedroom came my two cats, purring with love and ready to play.

We must find the strength to not let the sight of a team logo on football helmet elicit a too-deep emotional response. We must not fall in love with the air-brushed and Botoxed celebrity-model-actress creatures that litter our airwaves and newsstands. We must stop chasing all of the meticulously engineered dreams that leave us exhausted, broke, and unsatisfied. Somehow we’ve got to be happy with who we are and what we have, otherwise we’re going to lose the last of what little humanity we still have left.

My Family’s Last Meal

We arrived at Vittorio’s estate sometime before seven o’clock on a clear December night many years ago. One must be completely still if he is to notice the cold at all on nights such as this, and my family was in such a flurry of motion as we stepped from the carriages and into the manor house as not to feel the passage from nature’s vacant chill to the warm embrace of a home.

Entering first were my grandpapa Gregor, wise and proud patriarch bearing a full head of striking silver hair and neat pointed beard, and my grandmother Silvia, so elegant and graceful in my every memory of her. Following them were others from the gray generation, widowed cousins and siblings all wearing fine furs and jewels that shone. Then came my father and mother, he with black hair parted down the center and slicked flat, she tall and thin and made up like an ageless beauty. She carried my youngest brother Theo, age two, on her arm. Behind them streamed their generation’s cast of married couples as well as its bachelors and spinsters, about sixteen in all, followed by the youngest generation, which included myself, age seventeen at the time, my sister and two other brothers, and a handful of children ranging in age from six to thirteen. I was by far the oldest and Theo, a surprise to both my parents and the entire family, by far the youngest.

We wiped our damp feet before stepping onto the red carpeting that lined the entire floor of the ornate manor, an establishment renowned for the overwhelming hospitality it bestowed on its wealthy guests. Vittorio had befriended my grandfather upon coming to Austria as a young merchant and later became so wealthy that he transformed a portion of his home into a private restaurant in order to pursue his true passion, cooking. Among his properties were the twenty acres that surrounded this manor and here he forbade any farming or other development so as to provide his guests complete tranquility.

Vittorio greeted us heartily, embracing my grandfather and leading us through halls adorned with fine artwork and lit softly by low-standing candles. He took us into a long dining room that even few guests had seen, the private banquet hall usually reserved for such luminaries as visiting composers and royalty. Thus in such caring hands, among such opulence, and dining upon the most magnificent cuisine did my family partake of its last meal.

“With pleasure,” the Italian bowed before us, “I open this room to your family that I love so much. Gregor, dear friend, my home is your home. And tonight I am honored to personally lead those who will serve you in this celebration. My blessings to you all!”

Applause greeted this rousing tribute, followed by an enthusiastic bustle around the long table as each of us searched amongst the place cards for his assigned seat. Wine was immediately served, a light red of twenty-five years’ vintage.

My grandfather rose at the head of the table.

“Such a wonderful family I have had the privilege to lead,” he began. “So many beautiful faces, so much elegance, the beacons of our once glorious age. Thus I raise this glass of the finest wine bottled in the year 1874, drinking to you and the dearly departed not here with us tonight.”

“Cheers!” many called.

“Oh, sweet Gregor!” the ladies fawned.

“And I drink to you,” I said in rising from my seat at the middle of the table, tilting my glass toward the great old man.

This gesture the family lauded with a wave of spirited calls, and my grandfather winked at me, smiling softly.

In total there were thirty-four of us, the entire blood family. Since Gregor and Silvia had married over forty-five years before both the family and its wealth had grown, and as everyone had remained in our native province so too did the loyalty and love grow. For decades we were icons of class and culture, the local embodiments of an aristocratic way of life that was now coming to an end. I, of the generation born too late to have experienced the glories firsthand, was nonetheless educated in the ways of polite society even as the world around us seemed eager to bring everyone alike down into the muck.

Yet I must admit that as I developed into a young man with my own thoughts, their obsessive romanticizing of the past began to conflict with my natural interest in the happenings of my own time—and with the year 1900 approaching, bearing both the symbolic change as well as my own eighteenth birthday, I occasionally found myself feeling quite cheery about my future prospects. In the face of a new century, however, the rest of my family felt only a deep dread that infected every facet of their existence, and slowly an unshakeable depression cloaked us all.

“Here is the soup!” Vittorio shouted, bearing two bowls and followed by five servants who pushed carts of tomato soup and bread.

The family chattered noisily as the first course was served, the sound of spoons clattering against the china bowls mingling with our voices and the occasional shake of the salt or pepper.

One of the servants paused in placing a bowl. He, like all employed here, was a relative of the proprietor, and after removing the bowl approached Vittorio with a bow, then angled his body in the direction of his concern.

Vittorio approached one of the great old aunts who had never married and now sat still as a stone. The rest of us were oblivious and continued dipping our bread as he bent low and inspected her face.

Looking gravely around the room he brought his arms out and down to hush us.

“Ladies and gentlemen, your Aunt Rosa has passed. What shall be done?”

A very fat Auntie Zoë exclaimed happily, “Give her soup to baby Theo, he’s spilt his!”

The family was quite pleased with this suggestion and so the servant, who had held Rosa’s bowl patiently, placed it onto the tray of my baby bother’s wooden highchair, removing the toppled one and avoiding the splash as Theo slapped his palms into the fresh broth.

The soup really was delicious and I exchanged pleasantries about it with my neighbors at the table. I happened to notice at the same time that a nine-year-old cousin of mine who was seated next to the deceased Rosa had taken her wine glass and was finishing the contents. I smiled at his mother, who watched approvingly.

“Cammy’s died,” a voice from the far end of the table called. And indeed my sister had.

My father shook his head at the unblinking girl, thirteen and on the doorstep of womanhood. “She could have waited for the main course at least.”

Then, just as the white wine was being brought in, which caused no small degree of excitement, at the head of the table my mother grabbed my grandfather’s arm to gain his attention. Across from her sat her brother and his wife, hand in hand, dead. His head was slumped forward while hers had rolled back as if to admire the chandelier.

Cousin Edgar, third from the end and sitting to the couple’s right, politely asked, “Now what do we do?”

“Simple,” Gregor replied. “You take my son’s glass and I’ll take hers. Their remaining soup and bread are available to the first takers.”

And with that my grandfather held up both his own and his dead daughter-in-law’s glasses for the servant who was pouring the white wine; the latter glass still contained a dash of the red, and the resulting hazy mixture suggested a hint of the melancholy.

At that very moment I the felt slightest twinge of uncertainty or perhaps sadness in my heart. Without question the wine and soup had been delicious to no end, and this gathering of the entire family in the breast of Vittorio’s estate was more spectacular than any of our imaginings during the months of expectation—yet I found myself strangely detached, and when I searched the faces of those around me I sensed this same apprehension, if lighter and more vaguely, also within those of my parents’ generation. I closed my eyes and took a sip of water, then slowly exhaled.

Meanwhile three of my young cousins and my grandmother’s brother were found to have died between the clearing of the soup bowls and the main course’s arrival. Everyone had simply been so enthralled by my baby brother’s lively performance with Rosa’s soup as not to have noticed when someone adjacent or across the table died. Little Theo held the family rapt in attention as he took the large soup spoon in his fist, gathered up some soup, and then banged it onto his tray like a drummer. As bits of vegetable and red drops splattered him, the table, and nearby spectators, all burst out with great laughter and cheer. To see him so joyful and animated reminded us of happier times, a whisper hinting that there might indeed be hope for the future.

Vittorio himself presented my grandfather with his main course dishes, squeezing him on the shoulder with affection as the old man surveyed his last meal. Truly it was a great feast, with seasoned corned beef flanked by scallions, a generous portion of sautéed vegetables not easily obtainable this time of year, and a large bowl of Vittorio’s famous sauce drenching luscious green tortellini. My grandfather brought a bite of the pasta to his mouth, closed his eyes to savor the moment, looked up at his trusted friend, then died.

His portions were redistributed down my side of the table, with the glass of his murky wine coming to me. I had never mixed red and white wines before but could not deny that at least in this instance it made for a not unpleasant experience.

One or two more relatives passed away as we gobbled down the main course amidst much chatter and revelry. I dare to say that never before had Vittorio put so much love or care into his preparation than on this occasion. I and the other twenty living relatives lost ourselves in rapture with each morsel.

Then in a wave the room slowly hushed except for a handful of whispers.

“Theo’s gone,” my mother said, just barely loud enough to be heard. Now even the whispers ceased. No one chewed, not a single glass clinked. Each of us just stared at the motionless little body in the highchair. Theo’s eyes were closed as if maybe he were only asleep. The tiny hand that clasped the spoon was stained red with soup, and a curl of tortellini peeked out from between his frozen lips.

Auntie Zoë burst out laughing and clasped her hands. “By God, the baby’s gone and we didn’t even notice!”

A moment passed in silence, then the gray old man sitting across the table from her shouted, “Here, here! A toast to Theo!”

“A toast!” someone echoed.

“To Theo!” came the response.

“A toast!”

“To Theo!”

And it gained momentum around the room until all, especially I who loved my brother deeply, toasted him with drink and laughter and ate to his good name.

They began to die quickly after that. All the elderly and young died. My mother and two men her age died as the main course was being cleared.

Now there was only my father, two married couples, and me. I was the youngest left. Each of us sat silently, avoiding eye contact, flanked by corpses. Two of Vittorio’s servants entered with the dessert plates of truffle cake and ice cream. One man died as his dessert was set before him. His wife lifted her fork but died before touching the cake.

My father seemed very far away from me. I watched him take several bites of his dessert, gently wipe his mustache with a napkin, and then die quietly. The last couple were not long in dying after him. I finished the dessert and sat back into my chair. The room was completely still. All of the servants were waiting expectantly in the next room for the last of us to die. But I could not die. Whatever will in me there had been to go the way of my family had been trumped by that seed of doubt in my breast.

After five minutes of silence Vittorio and his servants entered the dining hall. I rose from my chair. We approached and he took my hand in his, saying, “I understand.” I then slipped out into the cold night as he and his men dragged the bodies of my dead relatives into the cellar for burial preparation. Walking away, I was torn by the impulse that I could still go back and die too, but knowing there was a reason I had chosen to live each time one of the others had not. Later I stood motionless in one of the pitch black fields some distance from the manor, feeling the chill of the night creep into my bones and constrict my every thought. What had I just done?

It has not been easy these last sixty years. In exchange for his hospitality and final arrangements Vittorio was willed my family’s entire estate, and thus I began life anew far away and without a penny. And while I made my way and built another family, around the world there have indeed come to pass many great changes that would have terrified my deceased loved ones—as man grappled with new ideas and inventions that upset the old order, man staggering and tumbling blindly and making a mess every step of the way, but still striving ever forward.

The Walk

Even after the workday rush slowly fades and night descends, one can never feel calm in the heart of the city. In darkness and stillness it becomes a disconcerting void, the choking specter of empty sports stadiums after the last fan has gone home, of ashen skyscraper columns and corners framing a ghost town where down below obsolete morning newspapers skip along the sidewalks until finally wedging against one of the sleeping homeless.

But a few miles out, in the suburbs, that elusive calm seems possible if one can tear himself away from the TV, the headphones, the online rabbit holes. And so on this November night, after years of city living have run ragged what was once an earnest young man full of dreams, I shut off my own gadgets and step out for a walk in search of a few clear thoughts.

Outside my apartment the brisk still air perks me up and I take in the sounds of insects chirping and the highway in the distance. A few blocks on and the cold has rooted out all the warmth of home, so I pull the sleeves of my fleece over my hands and stuff my clenched fists into the pockets. Mysterious cooking smells from people’s kitchens waft by my nostrils, then mix with the general aroma of leaves and burnt wood as I walk on.

Cars blaring loud music rush past so I move to the quieter side streets as I begin the slow incline toward the hills ahead, their dark silhouette dotted by the yellow lights of houses that blink now and again, and up top a lonely red beacon pulses occasionally to tell the airplanes, “I’m here.” And above it all the brightest stars peer down through the city’s night glare—how wonderful, this rare moment of tranquility to remind me what is real after so much frantic clawing in the pursuit of success.

I begin to take in all the small details of these neighborhoods in a way one never can while driving past—the unique design of each house, the bark on the trees, the feel of pine needles and crunching of leaves under one’s feet. Two old women across the street speak in a strange foreign language but when they quietly laugh the feeling needs no translation. Men and women walking their dogs pass with a friendly “Good evening” as their critters sniff about.

Further up the incline is a park sitting mostly in darkness except for a few lighted buildings further on, but just as I begin to cross the street I see a cat sitting on the curb. Quietly I approach, making affectionate sounds and rubbing my fingers together. I extend my hand to offer him my scent, and a few tentative sniffs are enough to coax him close. He warms up to the soft strokes upon his coat, and after I sit down on the curb he walks in circles around me, brushing against my back and legs and purring loudly, then flopping onto his back and rolling from side to side with wild eyes. After several minutes I bid him farewell and enter the park through its white arching gate.

A few street lamps lead the way toward the library up ahead, and as I approach an old Volkswagen Bug with clicking engine coasts down past me and away. Coyotes up in the hills yelp and howl, yet I continue onward though one could be stalking in the shadows.

The library appears to be an old converted house and the warm yellow chandeliers make it seem inviting—but I decide not go in and walk on. Angling left across the park I come to a gated building that sits in complete darkness. A distant street lamp casts enough light on a sign for me to read that it is a preserved local landmark that gives tours only during the day. Soon reaching the far corner of the property, I head downhill to leave the park through a different gate.

But just out of the corner of my eye—or is it by the bristles of my ears?—something draws my attention to an adjacent tea garden. Here about fifty feet from the fence is another small converted house, and inside I see a group of women…and they are dancing! About two dozen of them ranging in age from mid-twenties to mid-thirties wearing modest leotards are broadcast out to me in glorious bright colors through the large front window, and I duck into the shadows to watch. As their hips rock and sway slowly in unison with a hypnotic rhythm, I feel my hardened heart begin to melt in the warmth of their wholesome sensuality. Their laughter is crisp yet soft, the sound of women who have put their guard down safe in the knowledge that there are no men around. Though I burn to keep watching I feel it would be unfair to them, so I take a final glance through the bars of the fence and turn away.

I stand frozen in the darkness, haunted. I feel limitless hope, burning desire, crushing futility. Over and over I see the slight rise and fall of their bodies, see them gliding in a ballet of angelic grace that holds every mystery and promise of joy. My mind’s eye zooms in onto one woman with fair skin in a black leotard whose dark hair is pulled back into a ponytail. Her head is angled downward to her right and I cannot see her eyes. She holds her arms out with hands together, bent slightly at the elbow as if holding a wicker basket. I see her soft curving waist and then lose myself in a vision of falling into her embrace, feeling her warm breath on my cheek, and though she is but a hundred feet away from me it is simply impossible here, now, like this.

I have striven and struggled out here for many long years, having denied myself immeasurably to keep alive those ambitions which were so easy to believe in when I was young. But one day when I have either conquered or been exhausted I will leave this place. I will find a woman to raise my family in a big bright house, and then I will never again have to be that man smelling other people’s home-cooked meals from afar while living on cheap pasta in solitude.

The Pawned Ring

There once was a black teenager from South Florida named Darnell who got into a little bind with money, so he asked his girlfriend Denise if he could pawn the ring he had given her with the promise to return it as soon as he’d earned enough money to buy it back. She agreed and he took a job after school at a fast food restaurant, and two months later he had earned enough to fulfill his promise.

But when he arrived at her apartment with the ring Denise’s sister said she was at his friend Edward’s house, so Darnell walked over there and Edward answered the door in his underwear. Moments later Denise came up beside him, her shoulders bare and her body wrapped in a sheet. “I brought you your ring,” Darnell choked.

Denise said that he could keep it since she didn’t want it anymore, but he protested and explained how hard he had worked to get it back because he thought that they loved each other. She told him guys gave her stuff all the time and that he acted like a little boy, which is one of the reasons why she had never slept with him.

Darnell had always been rather passive and not one to fight, and now, after Denise and Edward had gone back into the bedroom, he stood quietly on the stoop as his heart broke. At last he shuffled away, clenching the ring in his fist as the hot Florida sun bore down on his drooping head.

On the way home some local tough guys who had seen him earlier at the check cashing store surrounded him and demanded the money. When he told them he didn’t have it anymore they grabbed him and searched his pockets, and finding nothing, began to punch and kick him until he fell down and dropped the ring. After pocketing it they yanked off his shoes, tied the laces together, and threw them over a power line. “Now you ain’t got no shoes!” they laughed and sauntered away.

Bruised, bloodied, and his nicest polo shirt soiled, Darnell crawled to the curb and sat there in despair. “What am I gonna do now?”

After a while he glanced up at his shoes dangling in the breeze, then looked over at the corner shopping center and the people bustling in and out of the liquor store, the Chinese BBQ, the payday advance, the barber shop. Discarded lottery tickets danced up and away as passing cars swept them in their wake. A grisly homeless man leaned against a pay phone muttered to himself between sips from a paper bag, and nearby a deal was going down in a parked car.

A sick feeling of futility burst up from his stomach. He saw the ugly scene so clearly—with himself stuck right in the middle—and it was a pitiful sight. “What am I gonna do? How am I gonna get out of here?”

He eyed the army recruiter’s office next to the BBQ and shook his head. Enough local guys had come back wounded or messed up in the head that Darnell knew better than to sign up for that. A quick way out with too many strings attached. Some other kids from around town went off to college on football and basketball scholarships each year, but a lot of them flunked out and fell right back into the soup. Darnell couldn’t shoot a free throw to save his life anyway. A lot of people were in jail, too many, but that was no way out either.

He thought back on those weeks spent flipping burgers to pay for the ring, how he hadn’t even minded the work because at the time he still thought Denise loved him. It was maybe the only time in his life when he had been able to focus on something and not worry about what was going on outside. Life felt good—it made sense—when you knew what you had to do to get something accomplished.

But in one afternoon he had lost it all and come crashing back to earth. And standing tall above him now were all the lies, violence, and ugliness that no tropical rainstorm could wash away from his world. “Oh no, no, no, no. What am I gonna do?”

That evening as the sun slowly made its way down in orange majesty, and the birds fluttered playfully amongst the treetops in a ritual millions of years old, young Darnell dragged himself home in sock feet feeling in his heart that same ache all sensitive souls have felt throughout the ages, men too simple and pure to stomach the lawless daily scrum that plays out from the mean streets and trailer parks to the gated communities and mansions beyond. Yet at the end of this sad day, despite it all, Darnell finally cracked a small smile when he figured that his mama would probably give him a few dollars to buy a pair of used shoes from the thrift store in the morning.