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Story embryo: The Homeless Youth of the Silver Line

You can see a million miles tonight, but you can’t get very far. -Counting Crows

**

This is a story about a morning where I sacrificed nothing.

“Thank you so much for coming with me, honey.” Even at five in the morning, she’s bushy-tailed, light-hearted. She’s a morning person, my sweet buoyant Ashley.

“It’s nothing, honey. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Then I smiled and said, “You know, unless I had only got three hours of sleep last night.”

She stuffed clothes quickly into her bag. “That’s not funny. I was very disappointed that morning.”

“I know, honey.” I rubbed my dry eyes again, hoping to moisten the sandy sleep away.

“It’s amazing how many more clothes you can fit in a bag when you fold them,” she stated. I laughed, but only in the back of my mind so she wouldn’t hear. She said, still folded over her red rolling backpack, “You’d better start getting ready. Are you going to take a shower?”

I rubbed at my eyes again before answering, “No.” I looked at her then and said, “I love you.”

“I love you, too. Now come on!”

I pulled some jeans out of my dirty clothes pile and put them on. I put on the first green shirt I pulled out of my dresser, but it had some crusty white filth around the waist so I took it off even though it smelled clean and through it in the dirty clothes bin. The next green shirt was just fine.

She asked, “Will you bring the suitcase downstairs and call the dog up for me?” I nodded, and she leashed Kalli and left.

I stumbled around the house for the next minute trying to get everything in order: I pulled my passport and keys out of my work khakis in the dirty clothes bin and then went out to the living room to grab my wallet and iPod. I shoved everything roughly into their corresponding pockets and then went to the kitchen to grab a glass of water. The difference between the living room and kitchen in this 420 sq. ft. apartment is floor type: most of the apartment is hardwood–the norm in Boston–but the kitchen is cheap, thin linoleum. But no wall separates the room, and I scan the coffee table and small dining table in the living room from the kitchen counter where I’m drinking the water to make sure I haven’t left anything behind.

The door buzzes and I press the buttons that open the front door for Ashley. I walk out into the staircase and whistle down the four flights so that Kalli can hear me and will come up. I hear Ashley shooing her and shake my head: she should know by now that Kalli won’t come upstairs unless whoever walked her leaves. Kalli likes to be chased.

As Kalli starts to come up, Finny boldly sticks his nose over the threshold of our apartment’s door. The tiger cat is generally scared of me, especially when the front door is open, but last night and today he’s been especially bold about his intention to escape. When Kalli rounds the third floor landing, Finny bolts for the staircase up to the roof. He usually bolts downstairs, so I’m a little tickled by the change.

I reach for him, but he skitters further up and away from me. I mutter, “Come on, man, really?” and pursue him. When I reach for him, his claws dig into the thin rough carpet, so I scoop him forward a little bit to loosen him. I can feel his little heart through his ribs beating frantically, and he starts to turn this way and that, desperate to escape. The reaction is also strange for him, usually so calm even when he’s in trouble and scared, but I just shrug it off and set him down gently in our front hall, where he looks up at me as if he’s confused, perhaps having expected something worse.

“It’s okay, Finny,” I say before moving to the closet to grab my coat, which I unhook from its hangar and put on. The hangar is the one that came with the coat and itself stands out from the rest of the apartment: I bought it when I was working at Fidelity, when I was living high on the hog, and the polished wood and gold-plated wiring represents a financial status not otherwise shown in our impoverished home: a bed without a frame, books still in boxes because we can afford bookshelves, even our furniture which is not even from Ikea but rather from the Goodwill or found for free through Craigslist. The home is almost entirely patchworked, ghetto-rigged; the hangar is singular, hiding in the closet only to hold my coat.

Which itself is as singular. I feel awkward telling people about my financial situation when I’m wearing it, a black wool Calvin Klien three-quarters length coat with silk and cashmere lining. I bought it at Macy’s on a whim because I had the extra money and a maternal coworker had urged me. Now the lining in ripped at both places where the coat rests against my pants pockets and one place in the back, perhaps where I sat on it awkwardly once. I can’t dream of getting it relined anytime soon; I haven’t even looked into the cost.

“Aw, thanks, honey!” Ashley cooes when she sees me round the last landing with her suitcase. I walk down the last flight of stairs and answer, “No problem. How cold is it outside?”

“Not so bad,” she says.

“Should I put on my scarf and hat?”

“No, it’s not so bad,” she says again.

But when we walk outside it feels like it’s less than ten degrees, cold for December even in Boston, and I don’t get a block before I put on my silk scarf and hat, accessory purchases to the coat. We chitchat idly on our way to the Charles/MGH T station. Even when the train comes and we board, sitting next to each other, the talk is much the same: two weeks until we see each other again, and it’s too bad about her grandmother, and remember that time we walked all the way to Government Center instead of just getting on at MGH, and I’ll be fine and don’t worry about me. Ashley is a caregiver; she likes to dote.

When we get to South Station I point out the entry to the Silver Line buses and follow her towards them. The top of the stairs is slightly clouded, and when we get there the smell of burnt rubber offends us. The air is thick with white smoke. She coughs and I hold my scarf to my nose, but nothing avails us. As we move off to the left towards the SL1-Logan part of the station, the cloud dissipates quickly, and when we turn around we can see it in its entirety: a fifteen-foot obstructed sphere of nastiness. I shake my head to clear away the smell, and we cluster around her suitcase, hugging and kissing our goodbyes.

“Excuse me,” a young male voice calls out loudly enough that we know he’s talking to everyone on the platform. I turn my head to see a hooded youth in a thin red vest with a long sleeve shirt and pants. His red eyes and the gray hollows around them show that he’s tired, exhausted. “I was wondering if I could get a dollar from any of you so I could get a coat from the Goodwill. See, they handed out coats last night, but they ran out and I was one of a few that couldn’t get one. But they’re selling them, and I just need fifteen dollars, and I just need a coat. It’s so cold out there I can’t stand it; I can’t even leave the station.”

He had whiskers around his face, probably five days of growth. And he did look tired and cold. Ashley said that she didn’t have any cash on her, but I had two dollars that she had given me the day before in my wallet.

“I’m not going to get drugs,” he said. Nobody had responded, though a handful of the thirty or so people around watched him idly. “It’s just so cold, I just want a coat. And I’m so tired, I haven’t slept in days–”

I thought of Rich and how he couldn’t sleep when he had been homeless

“–and it’s just so cold. Just fifteen dollars and I can get a coat,” he mumbled. His voice began to crack, and his eyes turned even more red, and tears beaded inside them. He didn’t cry, though, and he regained his composure.

“Do you want to?” I asked Ashley.

“I don’t have any money,” she said. I pulled out the two dollars and gave them to her, and she gave them to him, and he thanked us briefly and quietly and moved along the crowd to see if there were any others who might give. We heard him mumble as he shuffled his feet, “It’s just so hard, and I’m so cold, and I need some help. It’s shit like this that makes me border-line suicidal,” at which point I saw fear flash through Ashley’s eyes, but I just held her close and pressed my cheek against her forehead. “I’m getting Section 8 housing on the twenty-eighth,” he continued, “but I can’t wait that long. I can’t wait that long. And it’s so cold.”

“It’s a good thing he’s getting Section 8,” Ashley said.

“But the twenty-eighth is so far away,” I answered.

“You’re not thinking of inviting him back to our place, are you?” she asked. We had done it before, once, with Rich, but I said “No, that’s just when Kiran’s coming in.”

About three minutes later the SL1 showed up and nobody had given him any more money. He grumbled about people with so much that couldn’t even give him a dollar to help him get a coat. “I can’t ask one person for fifteen dollars,” he said, “but I can ask fifteen for one. But I’m not even getting that,” he said, and he looked at me as I boarded the bus. “It’s one out of sixty, and always someone like you that gives me more than what I’m asking for. Thank you,” he said, and I nodded, boarded the bus, and left him there. He didn’t try to hussle me or get anything else from me, and I didn’t see where he went off to.

A young woman in a white half-coat, maybe in her early thirties, ran onto the bus after me. “Oh, was he begging for money?” she asked. I said yeah. “He should get a job. Everywhere is hiring.” I said yeah again and sat down with Ashley. The woman sat down across the aisle.

I told Ashley, “I almost gave my hat to a woman at Harvard yesterday.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Some homeless woman who was selling Spare Change. She looked so sad and cold. I wanted to give her my hat, but I couldn’t’ve replaced it.”

Ashley said, “I should’ve told him that I bought my coat at the Goodwill for fourteen dollars. That might’ve made him feel better.”

“Yes, it might have. You know, he’s the sort of character I should be searching out. He would’ve made a good article.”

“Yeah!” Ashley exclaimed, suddenly animated. “You could do like a collage of portraits of homeless people, like a years worth of people, where they go and what they do and why they’re there. That would be so interesting.”

“A similar article in The New Yorker back in the fifties helped launch them to national prominence,” I mentioned. “I can’t remember the name of the journalist, but he wrote about a homeless man named Joe Gould. And there was another at the turn of the century, I can’t remember that journalist’s name, either, who dressed himself up in rags and wrote about New York’s homeless population and how they get by.”

“Oh, so it’s not really new?” she asked, disappointed.

“Well, not sparkling new, but that doesn’t mean I can’t bring something to the table those authors didn’t.”

“What do you mean?”

“In each of those cases, homelessness was treated as something novel; it was exoticized, like it’s a foreign state that nobody knows anything about. But that’s not really the case today, people just treat it so flippantly, with stereotypes, you know? I could address that.”

“Yeah, people just don’t think that without a family to catch them in hard times they could be there. I mean, just think if we didn’t have our parents, or at least if we didn’t have yours.”

“Yours wouldn’t let you slip into homelessness, either. They may not pay to keep you in Boston, but they wouldn’t let you fall so far,” I said.

“But not everyone has that safety net,” she said.

“No, not everyone. Not most,” I answered.

“It’s good he got Section 8 housing,” she reiterated. “And then you could use the proceeds from the writing to go to like Wal-mart or something and buy coats in bulk, because the big charities can take care of food banks and stuff but obviously at least someone needs some help to get a coat.”

“That probably not the best way to go about it, but I like the idea,” I said. Then we quieted down since the bus had reached the airport, and we listened to the speaker list off the airlines at Terminal A and then Terminal B stop 1, where we got off. I walked her into the airport.

“Did you hear what that woman said to me, when she got on the bus?” I asked.

“No, what did she say?”

“That if he was homeless he should just get a job. ‘Everyone is hiring,'” I mocked.

“Yeah, that’s why you’re struggling to get a job,” Ashley scoffed. “God, that’s something my sister would’ve said.” She shook her head as we boarded the up escalator to the US Airways ticket counters.

“I would’ve given him the coat off my back if I could’ve afforded to replace it,” I said.

“I know, honey. I could see it in the way you watched him.” She put her hand on my shoulder.

“And that’s the extent of my generosity: I’ll give as long as it doesn’t inconvenience me. God, what a dick I am.”

“No, honey,” she cooed. “We just don’t have anything to give.”

So here I was at the airport with my girlfriend early in the morning to say goodbye, having given two dollars so that a young out-of-luck man who happened to cross my path could buy a coat, critical of myself. The story needs work, like what problems my parents had bailed me out of and how recently and the job change I was going through at the time, from an overnight concierge position to a cashier position at The Coop, where I’d work later that day for the third 9-hour shift in a row my third day on the job. But still, it’s a start.

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So it’s time to get this train back on the road

Er… wait. Yeah, I mean what I said. Trains go on road sometimes. You know, like at intersections. Whatever, don’t judge me.

In the mode of our modern frilly psuedo-philosophy, I’m going to make an attempt to make this blog sustainable. (I’m 0 and 2 for metaphors tonight, or is that 0 and 3? Damn, maybe I should’ve waited another week… ;-p)

Here’s the deal:

1) Less Twitter and Facebook updates. The energy to properly market this blog was KILLING me. No more of that silly shit.

2) A whole list of theme days to make generation easier on me and community building through content contribution more compelling for you! 🙂
a) Microstory Mondays
b) Trackback Tuesdays
c) Guest Wednesdays
d) Theme Thursdays
e) Greg Fridays

This is all still up for consideration, of course. But I had to make a choice. I had to either decide to try and monetize this thing, what with the independent server and the ads and maybe some Quarterly Reviews and other well-thought-out concepts, or I had to back WAY off. I made the latter choice.

In that mode, welcome to your first Microstory Monday.

The challenge

Write a full story in less than three sentences. Fact, fiction, whatever.

The prize!

I’ll ask for your permission to rewrite the story to be posted next week. HOLY COW BEST PRIZE EVAR ZOMG!?!?

No stories? No problem. I’ll keep doing this until I get something or get tired of it. I’m hoping that at least a few of you out there like this sort of thing as much as I do, and I’m hoping that you decide to do it here instead of somewhere else for no particular reason. Now let’s see how this goes!

Guidelines

The only right I assume from you posting a comment is that I am able to host your work on this blog for non-commercial purposes with attribution. You keep all other rights.

I do have plans to attempt to monetize this site once the boulder rolls a little further down hill, but at this point there are NO ASSUMPTIONS OF COMMERCIAL RIGHTS. I will contact authors on an individual basis for any and all commercial purposes.

Make the entries as short or as long as you want, and any genre is fair game: fiction, non-, and poetry. Publish in comments stories, no matter how polished or raw, according to the game of the week. If I like your story, I’ll contact you and ask for permission to remix your work, which I’ll post with the next week’s contest.

You have one week to submit your story, and please, please do. I don’t want this site to be my literary masturbation. Join me, and perhaps get some free editing and mentoring along the way!

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A Break-up Story: Vanessa

This guest post brought to you by Mani Afsari. Don’t forget to write for the Theme Thursday tonight! 🙂

**

I cringed when my phone went off, knowing full well who it was and what she wanted.  Somehow she had gotten the idea that we were a couple and therefore requested my attention and my company on a regular basis.  Such requests had never bothered me before, but with an inability to commit even an ounce of my freedom toward somebody else, I felt chained down.

“You should come over tonight for dinner, I’ll make us pasta.”

Hesitantly I looked at the text message like an obstacle to overcome.  I had already avoided her “I got laid off today” party the previous night, by telling her that I was busy.  I felt that I couldn’t use that excuse again.

I started to think of reasons.  Medical issues I’ve always thought were the dumbest excuses.  If I were sick, I’d like to see my girlfriend more than anyone.  I couldn’t use family emergencies either since I am not willing to lie about family problems to further my own agenda.  All I had left was that I was busy, which I wasn’t.  Back at square one.

I flipped open my phone, making sure to look up at the busy road, shift gears, and still type the message.  It was a fool’s idea of multitasking and had gotten me into near misses more than once.  I wish I had had something better to say.  I wished that I could’ve liked her more, that I didn’t pick her apart like I did.  I wish I didn’t have all these emotional issues.  In the end all I could come up with was “I’m busy tonight.”

Vanessa was no idiot.  She knew what was happening but still tried to fix it.  I had to make sure that she couldn’t.

I had already lined up another date for the following night with a tall, dark haired, incredibly skinny, full breasted girl.  I already felt bad enough about having planned this date while Vanessa was in the room next to me, after which I followed her back to her apartment to spend the night.  I could not bear the thought of continuing this “fling” that we had and having a date on the side as well.  I had known from the first date that Vanessa and I were not going to work out, but the idea of having someone with whom to share moments, sexual gratification, and alleviated loneliness seemed reason enough for me to indulge the relationship that we had.

I was looking to sabotage whatever it was that Vanessa and I had.  In order to do that, I had convinced myself that we had irreconcilable differences and that I was acting rationally.  I had blamed her for having too high of a sex drive, a problem which most men laugh at when mentioned.  Almost the whole of the time that Vanessa and I shared together was spent with me inside of her.  She thought she was showing me affection, but I wanted more than that. I blamed her.  Her hair was always a mess. I couldn’t stand the way she laughed.  She was not a good kisser.  (She wasn’t bad, but I found her style of kissing to be intense and therefore undesirable.)

“I think we moved too fast” was the only explanation I gave her.  My emotions were torn. I did not personally care for this girl.  I had no connection to her, and I did not even want to keep her as a friend.  The guilt came from knowing what the receiving end of that kind of apathetic behavior felt like.  Having been in her position and knowing full well the emotional damage that rejection of this kind can have, I could feel her pain as I drove on to work.  Surprisingly, the one benefit that these wounds have accomplished for me is complete disinterest in the feelings of other people, which made it easier to just walk away from Vanessa rather than confront the situation head on.

She sent me two more messages, neither of which I responded to, not because I had nothing to say but because I was afraid of the repercussions of continuing the conversation.  I knew that it could only end in her telling me how terrible a person I was.  In the first message she reminded me that it was my idea to go to the bedroom on the second date.  True as the statement was, at the time I was only voicing what Vanessa, straddling my lap, subconsciously grinding on me, was too embarrassed to say.  Regardless, she had at that time managed to keep her mouth shut, and I had not.

I hoped that it would be her final words, but I was wrong.  She left the conversation open ended.  She asked me to call her whenever I got my “shit together.”  From any other girl this statement would have been sarcastic, but with Vanessa meant it.

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A Highschool Story: Ms. Young

I don’t often couch stories with extraneous information, but here it seems relevant. If you’re not interested, please continue on to the story, which I feel is just as good without.

My friends know (my family may not) that I loathed Plano with every inch of my being while I was there. It started with the classroom and moved further out to the manicured lawns and streets. My entire sentient life there I spent attempting to leave in one form or another. Not the least reason for my frustration was my consistent poor performance in school.

That’s not to say that I tried really hard and failed. I hardly tried and rarely failed, but I was always looking for something that just didn’t seem to be there. Who knows at this point what it might have been, but as my life has progressed, I think the desire has morphed into a search for a mentor, for somebody to believe in me or perhaps just see me for my potential. Teachers, for all their intentions, seem to me incapable of fulfilling this role. I discuss this more in an article on Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti’s Tant Mieux, but suffice to say that teachers have to concern themselves more with your test scores than your potential out of mere practicality.

Some have argued with me, saying that my English teachers’ collective challenge to my ability could have been applied reverse psychology, hoping to make me shape up by telling me that half-assing it wouldn’t cut it. Perhaps if the fact of my performance in the classroom had been limited to one or two teachers, or even to five, I might agree that it’s possible. However, I nearly failed every English course I ever took in high school, I actually failed the only English course I took in college, and the closest course to an English course in my post-grad work is the closest one in which I came close to receiving less than an A.

Another theory, posed by no one who knows me but one I have to pose just to prove the example, is that I can’t think critically. Since I don’t cover all of the angles to any given topic, I deserve my low grade because it’s symptomatic of half-assed work. Well, my work history in addition to standardized test scores disagree with this theory, and hopefully there’s ample proof on this blog alone that such is not the case.

I posit, therefore, that English teachers simply didn’t understand. They didn’t see the promise in my essays not because it didn’t exist but because their academic dogmatism kept them tied to more traditional approaches (those things very near plagiarism that was call “essays,” as much a violation of intellectual property–even if the owner is long dead–as any basic example of unsolicited remix). Call me arrogant if you want, sure, and empty of promise, but in my opinion, English rooms are sterile and stifling environments that squelch creativity and independent thought. I have no love for them at all and, as soon as I had the choice in my academic career, avoided them to what I consider my benefit.

Of course, what’s happened here is that I’ve moved from loathing Plano and it’s English departments to loathing English teachers in general. Baylor had nothing to do with the PISD, and Emerson College in Boston, MA certainly bears no connection. So what do I do with this leftover rage towards Plano, most of which was tied up in my inability to make my peers there understand either my frustration with them or merely my simplest thoughts, a basic communication dilemma that continues to exist to this day? Well–and fuck you, Mani–I still hate Plano, even if I can forgive it this slight little bit.

**

Though in the English hall and an English classroom or Jasper High School, I chose Creative Writing because Ms. Young sold me its distinct image. Her classroom buzzed with energy because of her youth and zeal; unmarried and unburdened by the relentless years of classroom experience that weather away the beautiful composite face comprised of the students who supply her reason for having chosen education as a career, she’s decided to teach a course no other teacher felt willing to shoulder but which helped Plano appear more well-rounded. I’ve never found diversity (especially of thought) in an English classroom, but I decided to give her new course a shot.

Fifteen minutes before the bell rings, Ms. Young asks everyone to stop writing and requests that someone read the work they had accomplished that day. I look around at all the other students, a few of whom keep their eyes down while others look around like I do; white faces all around. No one looks at Ms. Young while she scans the room, afraid to volunteer by eye contact. She really is quite pretty with her long, thick brown hair and her pale but hopeful eyes. Her mouth hangs slightly open as her head turns from side to side, and her body, red sweater, and brown skirt are motionless. When I look away from her, my eyes land on the inspirational poster on the door about walking in footprints on the beach; I roll my eyes, keep my head down.

Marissa leans over and puts her hand on my shoulder so she can whisper, “You shouldn’t be afraid.”

I don’t turn my head to look at her, but I smirk. “Neither should you.”

“I’m not. I didn’t write anything.” I can imagine her crafty smile, resting lightly upon her pretty but slightly scarred face. She’s allergic to her own sweat, which causes her face to constantly break out. I look over my shoulder to make sure it’s there, pleading with me like I expect.

We chuckle quietly together, and I resign to volunteer. I can’t quite claim an alpha personality, and my decision doesn’t really stem from a desire to save Marissa from potential embarrassment. I feel compelled to end inefficiency in how my class spends its time when the silence drags on vulgarly.

Ms. Young smiles at me while I tremble in front of the class, my nerves suffering under a weird mix of terror and excitement. There’s only twelve students scattered amongst the tables in the classroom. I know everyone in here by name. I shouldn’t feel scared of them.

A wizard stands on a cliff ledge overlooking a village that trusted him for protection. (Already the shaking has subsided.) The flames from the village are strong enough to light his face, scarred more than wrinkled, experienced more than wise. (I forget the classroom; only the page and my scrawl exist.) He has failed them; he wants to shoulder their burden, the weight of his failure measured out by the ashes of burnt homes and the bodies of murdered victims, but finds himself unable. (I am the wizard; no, I am his sorrow and his guilt. No, I am the world he wants to bear. No.) His arms reach towards the stars as he screams out a long, undulating cry to the heavens: “I’m sorry!” (I’d never make it as an actor; I’m suddenly conscious of the other students again.) He leans forwards, finds himself capable after all.

I beam with pride. Students applaud lightly and nervously, not really sure about what they’ve just heard. Marissa smiles, the vain Catholic. The bell rings, and she and the other students bolt. I return to my seat and shove the paper in haphazardly.

“I don’t get it,” says Ms. Young.

I answer her quietly: “I know.” I’m not sure she hears me.

I leave the classroom without discussing the story with her. It wasn’t complicated, or maybe it was, but at any rate my mind had rushed to other subjects than my creation. Ms. Young had implied a request for me to breakdown the story; she had asked for me to treat it like literature and explain it to her. She claimed that she didn’t understand, but could she really not have? I wonder briefly, Can my incomprehensibility cover my life to such an extent as to umbrella every instance of  communication, both the fantastic and the academic?

I leave the carpeted English corridor and emerge over the polished tile of the hallway. In front of me, a metal banister splits the stairway in half. I approach it and rest my right hand on it, looking at the reflection of a florescent light obscured by my head and shoulders, the floor too opaque to show my reflection in detail. The bell rings for class to begin, but I’m lost in thought and not the type of student who frets over punctuality anyway.

English teachers pose literature as my nemesis with their superficial questions and their polite challenges and impolite grading, but I know truth doesn’t reside in rebellion. I don’t want to feel the weight of the world of ideas in my mind or to criticize anyone’s arrangement of words in an educated manner, but not because I don’t enjoy reading or thinking. Actively engaging a story takes away the passive pleasure of reading it, and I’m content with the passive pleasure, aren’t I, the satisfaction of writing, of reading, of thinking abstractly without criticizing specifically? I would have to submit to my formally recognized enemy, my teachers, if I engaged a work actively, wouldn’t I?

I’ve been told that by imposing academic structure on my mind, I will broaden my understanding of the world and multiply the number of subjects I can ponder. But the fact of the matter is—as I prove when I sit in the reigning creative silence of Ms. Young’s room—that I can hardly get my mind to shut up. The last thing I need from it is coherent categorical thoughts.

I utter words and phrases that apparently only I can understand. I formulate ideas that only I can stomach, only my tongue decipher. I’m not convinced that educating myself in the manner my teachers have suggested will help them understand me. Not only do I doubt their conjectures, I feel almost certain they are wrong.

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Author: Greg Freed

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A Societal Yearning: Masculine friendship and community

Your first reaction, depending on who you are, may be feminist outrage. I urge you to recognize your disagreement, put it away, and then take a deeper look. That said, Amos gets even the introductory exposition to this blog post. Take it away, Amos:

I’ve spent a good deal of time in the last four years considering the value of, and the fragility of, simple male friendship.

I say “simple” friendship because family and partners can maintain a separate and vital status in a person’s life. We’re stuck with the family we’re born into or bear; and divorce, while easy, is not as easy as it could be.

I say “male” friendship because it seems to me that women are, in ways, built more readily for deep bonding with their peers. My sense is that it’s more of an inherent thing, something genetic, but as always with the nature versus nurture question, the answer ends up being “well, some of both.” I haven’t lived as both a man and a woman though, so I can’t be sure. The general roles that evolution has put men and women into (which can be broken or tweaked just fine by a careful society, when needed) lean men at least slightly away from the deep bonding that women seem wired for through.

Male relationships often seem to drift toward (and prefer proximity to) superficiality, fun, and beer. Special people can be special exceptions, but beyond small grace periods, those precepts are broken at the masculine peril of expendability. And stray from the precepts knowing that, in order to call attention to your rule breaking and rescue the friendship, many men would have to become rule breakers too.

And that, rarely, are they willing to do.

Primal hunting and the life-or-death dependence of the military are some things that seem to break this tendency. They seem to tie men together on a deep and emotional level forbidden by our time-constrained lifestyles that offer a million fun replacements for things that displease. What more naturally binds women together seems to more readily remain in the lives we’ve all fallen into.

I always think of the scene in Moby Dick in which one attack of many is mounted on a pod of whales. The males flee individually while the females huddle together, standing by each other even though it may be the germ of their destruction.

I also think of the following passage from “Letters to a Young Poet,” a collection of correspondence doled out by the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately, more fruitfully, and more confidently, must surely have become riper and more human in their depths than light, easygoing man, who is not pulled down beneath the surface of life by the weight of any bodily fruit and who, arrogant and hasty, undervalues what he thinks he loves. This humanity of woman, carried in her womb through all her suffering and humiliation, will come to light when she has stripped off the conventions of mere femaleness in the transformations of her outward status, and those men who do not yet feel it approaching will be astonished by it.

In our everyday American world, bonds with other human beings seem less vital than they might have been at other times, or might be in other places. It’s not generally close bonds with other people that support us, not the fidelity of a tightly-knit community that bails us out when we face a difficult or even dangerous situation. Instead, the money we earn supports and bails. It gives us our food, our shelter, our health care, our transportation, and our entertainment.

In that way, the jobs we hold come to be our most vital companion in life. In that way, the jobs we hold become the important starter for almost any conversation with someone we’re just meeting: “So… what do you do?”

How can simple male friendship compete with this?

Recently, when using Facebook to ponder the significance of my name, a friend replied to me. I was considering how my first name means “Burdened” in Hebrew, and how my last name means “Gamekeeper of a Park” in English. The friend told me that I was wrong in my definitions. He said that Amos Parker actually means “He Who Overanalyzes.”

In pondering the nature of male friendships and overanalysis, I feel as I often do: underanalysis is overrated. Searching for the wellspring of existential loneliness is a worthwhile pastime.

**

“Hey Devon,” I said. “Good to see you.”

I shook his hand once he’d closed the door.

“Good day at work?” I asked.

“Busy,” Devon said.

“Yeah?”

“Cancer center’s a great place to work. Life causes cancer.  I don’t think I’ll be fired anytime soon.”

I nodded, smiling like a cynic.

“Care for a beer?”

Devon brightened. I already had mine open.

“Hell yeah. Choices?”

“Check the fridge,” I said.

Devon nodded, going to the mini-fridge in the basement where the beer could stay cold without taking up prime real estate.

“What do you feel like doing tonight?” I asked as Devon popped the top and took a swig. He swished it around in his mouth, wondering if he should’ve taken a seasonal brew. He swallowed.

“Oh, I’m ok with anything.”

“You sure?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“We can do anything. We can play a videogame, a long board game, a short board game, sit and chat, watch a movie….”

“Anything’s fine, really, just so I can relax. We’re friends. It’s all good.”

“You really don’t care?” I asked.

“No,” Devon said. “It’s up to you.”

“Ok. Well… how about War of the Ring?”

“Oh… yeah…” Devon replied, his facial features twitching like an old building in a strong wind. “I guess. We… might have time, and… I think I remember the rules.”

“Let’s go then,” I said. “Women like to talk about things and men like to do things.”

Devon managed a smile and raised his beer to me. I made a show of ignoring him and clanking mine up against the toaster.

“What are we going to do?”

The man stood outside the house, shivering. His wife’s teeth had chattered as she’d spoken. The man looked at the boards that covered the walls. He didn’t know when he might get another job. Winter was coming, and he worried there’d be no money to keep his family warm.

“I’m looking every day,” the man said. “I’ll find something. I’ll find work.”

His wife shivered. The man put his arm around her.

“We have… enough food in the basement… from the garden…” she said. “But we can’t burn the food. How are we going to keep from freezing this winter?”

The man blew hot breath on his free hand. His wife took the hand from him and tried to warm it herself.

“I’ll think of something,” he replied. “Don’t worry your pretty little head.”

“Hey Devon,” I said. “Can you do me a favor?”

“Sure buddy. What’s up?”

“Great,” I replied, relieved. “You know I’ve got too many board games, right?”

He nodded, half smiling.

“You’ve got a lot of space at your place, right?”

He nodded.

“Can you help me store some of them?”

“Sure!” he said. “I love board games. You know that.”

I smiled and continued. I felt like justifying myself: “I’ve told you why I have so many, right? It’s all I can do to tread water with my job. I don’t feel like I’m gonna mean anything to anyone with work. Sometimes I’m worried I’m gonna die a mediocre failure.”

I trailed off, smiling like I was joking. Devon was silent, waiting.

“Someday I wanna be able to use them to give something back. They bring people together, or they can. You’ve seen that with the guys, right? They’re nothing like what everyone thinks about when they hear the term board games.”

Devon nodded.

“Someday I want to create a big program, maybe with the library. It’ll be something fun, something that gets people out of the house, away from the TV so they can do something together. It could be a major town thing. I just don’t know how to do it yet, how to pull it off.”

“Sounds great,” Devon replied. “You’ll make it happen.”

“My girlfriend may not be comfortable with the money I’ve spent on them,” I continued. “That’s one of the problems. I have to keep trying though, somehow.

I have to feel like I’m working for something, to have some kind of life raft. And, with the cancer she’s been through, it’s even harder to justify the cost.”

Devon nodded, his expression cooling.

“I feel bad hiding it, but I have to feel like I’m at least trying to do something for people, to give something back. Michele can be so intolerant with things she doesn’t agree with. I have to feel like I’m trying hard, trying my best. Part of that is having a real collection. I’ll come up with something. This’ll buy me time.”

“I’d love to help,” Devon replied. “That’d be sweet to have all that stuff at my place. Mi casa es su casa. Can I paw through it whenever I feel like it?”

“It wouldn’t be a problem?” I asked, tentative in the way I raised my pitch at the end of the question.

“No no no. That’d be awesome. My pleasure.”

“Great!” I said, knocking him playfully on the shoulder.

He jumped a little.

“You’re a good friend,” I added. “If it’s ever a problem, let me know. I don’t want to be a bother, and it’s hard to come by good friends out here in the middle of nowhere. Sure, Saint Johnsbury is a town, but it isn’t much of one, right? All this cold. Everyone hides away, and the one’s who wouldn’t have already run away.”

“You’ve got that right,” Devon replied.

“You feel that too, don’t you?” I was glad to hear that he agreed with me. “I really don’t want to be a problem. I can’t afford to lose any friends.”

“Problem?” Devon replied, laughing just a little too loudly. “Why would you ever be a problem?”

“I’m cold, Dad.”

“Me too, Dad. I can’t stop shivering.”

Both the boy and the girl were doing their best. They tried to be tough. They wore the extra clothes that their parents had found, but layers weren’t enough.

“Let me bring you some food,” their mother said. “It’ll give you some energy, and it’ll warm you up too.”

Their father knew it had to be cooked to really warm them up.

He went outside and looked at all the other houses where they lived. Snow had fallen all over. Icicles were dangling from the homes of some of their neighbors. They were the neighbors who were lucky enough to have the wood to burn, and the heat their fires made escaped up through the roofs and melted the snow there, making the icicles possible.

The man didn’t have any icicles on his house.

Here and there, because he had to, the man began taking boards from the outside of his home. It was only a few, and the house could handle it. The man even convinced himself that it made the house look tougher, more lean and mean.

He took the armloads of boards inside and kept his family warm.

“Hey Devon,” I said.

I stepped in through his door and closed it. I was uncomfortable. I felt out of place, like it was one of those days. My sensitivity was acting up, my low-level autistic fragility. I couldn’t control the feeling. I knew it’d poison things if I couldn’t at least hide it. I tried to figure out where it would stash.

“Amos!” Devon replied. “Now the party can start. Flames of War is on the table. Beer?”

“Sorry I’m late,” I said.

He handed me an ale from the fridge, the top already off. I took a long swallow and hoped for magic.

“Ken’s been working on his bike,” Devon said. “He got some extra oomph for the engine. And there’s a new gun he’s been eyeing. You want a gun for Christmas?”

He jabbed me playfully in the ribs. I almost dropped my beer.

“No thanks. I don’t feel like one.”

“Oh. Well come play with us then.”

“I’ll just watch…” I said.

I was starting to sweat. I felt like I was between a rock and a hard place.

“Thanks though,” I continued. “I don’t really like that game. It’s… painful. It’s like having salt rubbed in my eyes.”

“Oh,” Devon replied. “Ok.”

“Actually, I don’t feel well. I need to go home and write too. I can’t make sure Michele’s taken care of if I don’t make a career of it. I get panic attacks if I have to go more than a day without writing some, and… my windows of time are tiny.”

I wiped at my brow and finished my beer, knowing it wasn’t enough to harm my driving. But I wanted at least that much in me when I thought about having bailed.

“Oh. Ok. Say hi to Michele for me.”

I felt bad about bailing, but it could’ve been worse.

The winter wore on, and it was a cold one.

The food ran low ahead of schedule. The man was more and more worried about his wife and kids. He scoured town up and down for both jobs and wood to keep them warm, but there was nothing to be found that other men hadn’t found already.

Lying in bed one night, holding his wife close, she tried to comfort him.

“You’ll find something honey. Keep your chin up.”

“I can’t,” the man replied. “I can’t keep my chin up. It takes dignity to do that.”

“You have dignity. You have us.”

The man held his wife tightly, trying to keep warm with what she’d said. He could feel the cold all around, and he was worried about the children in the next room. He looked out the window and saw snow falling in the moonlight.

“I’ll be back,” he told her, getting up.

He went out the bedroom door, down the stairs, and outside. There were already holes showing here and there in certain less important walls. One of them kept a closet protected from the winter. Another kept the living room insulated, and they stayed mostly in the bedrooms anyway.

Working quietly with the crowbar, he took off some more boards. By the time he was done, he could see into the kitchen.

He went inside and lit a fire in the stove. He stood by it, warming his hands. He went upstairs, feeling the heat follow him toward the bedrooms. He left the doors to the bedrooms open a little, so that the heat could follow.

“I just can’t deal with it anymore,” Devon emailed me, as part of a long, hard email. “I don’t think we can be friends. I didn’t know what to say when you called me. I really was busy. I think it started during Michele’s treatment. I can’t believe you kept all these board games when the money could have been used to help Michele. She had cancer, man. It’s been making me angry for almost two years now.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I wrote back in desperate reply. “Why’d you send me emails every once in a while saying you’d just been busy when just ignoring me would finally have given me the cowardly hint? Couldn’t you man up instead?”

“I helped you and Michele through her cancer,” Devon wrote, “bringing food and everything. You owe us so much. How selfish are you? When Ali and I moved into the new house a year ago, you didn’t move the games out quickly. I asked you twice. I even had to take your punching bag back to you myself. That was a really hard time for me. I just threw up my hands.”

“You’ve made almost no effort to communicate with me for almost two years,” I wrote back. “And I thought I had the games out by the deadline you gave me. I didn’t even know there were problems between us. How was I supposed to? Do you think I’m psychic? How can I just know that someone has totally changed his mind? Why didn’t anyone tell me? Don’t I deserve at least that respect?”

“I’m sure we both did the best we could,” Devon emailed me. “Have a nice life.”

“The best we could? The best we fucking could? If that was the best you could do,” I emailed back, “you need to polish your best. And the best I could? How could I give my best when I didn’t even know what the work was?”

There was almost nothing left of the house. It couldn’t even hold the heat from the fire long enough to be worth it.

The man, his wife, their daughter, and their son were all near to freezing. There was no work, and there was no wood. Everyone else in the neighborhood was either in the same trouble or unwilling to make their lives harder still by helping.

“Dad?” the daughter said one day. “I hear the house creaking.”

Wind blew in from every wall. The man had tried to ignore it, but he could tell that the house was giving way. He started to cry, even in front of them all. He couldn’t help it. He wasn’t even a man. He knew he had no choice.

“Dad?” the son said. “Where are you going?”

“Are we going somewhere, dear?” his wife asked.

“Take… what you can,” the man said. “We’re going to live with my parents.”

They left the house just in time. Turning around in the snow, the four of them watched as the house collapsed. It happened in a great cracking rumble. Some neighbors poked their heads out of their windows to see what had happened. They wondered if the wood might be available to them.

When they reached his parents’ house, the man knocked on the door.

“Can we… stay with you… mom?”

The man’s mother gave him a big hug. He was much larger than her, but he seemed much smaller.

“Of course you can, dear. Let me fix you all something hot to eat.”

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Author: Amos Parker

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Filed under Creative nonfiction, Features, Fiction, Guest author, Writing