Tricks

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First, a bit of old business:  I suppose I ought to say that you can hurt yourself doing yoga.  It’s just that you aren’t nearly as likely to as in any other discipline or sport.  There are always accidents.  Be sure, when you’re practicing, that there’s nothing you can fall on but floor and mat.  And simply do not yield to the pressure to push until you hurt yourself.  It’s a lot better to wimp out and do a less strenuous asana that leads in the right direction than to keep trying one you just can’t do yet.  There is no penalty for staying safe.  Take it e-easy.

Yes, you should push yourself a little.  But only a little.

Secondly, I’m digressing today.  Instead of what I told you I would talk about, watsonasana, I’m planning to tell you a little true story.

I was watching a food show with Alex, my El Salvadoran son-in-law.  I was basically watching because there was nothing else I wanted to do.  Alex himself has turned into quite the cook and gourmet—somehow it doesn’t seem right to call him a “foodie,” the way they do nowadays.  Seems to trivialize his passion.

Anyway, we were watching this food show, maybe Anthony Bourdain, since that one involves a lot of traveling, a lot of folk byways.

This was India, at the market.  Hot, brilliant sun, and dusty.  There seem to be a presence of glistening dust in the very air, and all the street performers and many of the vendors and buyers wore a dirty coat of it.

This particular street performer specialized in incredible limberness.  He did some sort of wrapped-around-himself knot I can’t even visualize in my memory, but as I remember he was standing on his hands with his head dangling loosely and his legs folded in the lotus.

He was a tall skinny fellow, grimy with dust, and he wore only a tiny covering over his genitals.

His next performance was even more amazing.

First he cinched his balls and scotum with a cord.  Then he pulled the cord between his buttocks, pulling his genitia between and through his legs.  Then he cinched the cord around his waste.

Then he started a series of rapid deep-bends, literally bouncing up and down.  This showed how limber he was, because other wise, he would have torn his business from his body.

I still smile to remember Alex’s reaction.  Every time the fellow did one of those deep knee-bends—and remember he was doing at least two or three per second, Alex emitted a loud burst that somehow combined violent alarm and incredulous laughter—Alex laughs when he gets hurt.  It’s his way of coping with the pain.  In fact, my daughter, who has learned to tell the pain laugh from his many other laughs, worries when she hears the sound.

It was easy to tell that Alex has loads of empathy.  He couldn’t help thinking what would have happened to him—or to most men—if they had tried it.

The man was smiling insanely, but completely relaxed.  Bouncing.

I do love Alex and the genuineness of his responses.

Anyhow, the performance caused me several days of confusion.  This fellow was a master far beyond anything I would ever be able to do.  Surely such a master—he must have done yoga since he was a child, to develop such loosenes and flexibility—had reached enlightenment?  Surely he merely appeared to be a dust-covered street performer because such a master didn’t care about appearances, didn’t care what others thought of him?

Gradually my opinion changed.  I came to realize that no, despite his mastery, no doubt enabled by having done yoga since he was a small child, he was not a master—he was a street performer.

He had absolutely mastered yoga, yes.  To a level that’s incredible unless you see it, and then it’s still hard to believe your eyes.

But the best thing he could think of to do with it was use it for his act as a street performer.

There’s a yogic lesson to be learned here.  Mastery of the body does not imply mastery of the spirit.  No surprise.  I’ve met a number of people who could practice yoga at an extremely advanced level, who even taught the science, but who were horrible humans, rude and competitive.

The point of yoga is within its name:  The name means “yoking,” uniting that which is unnecessarily divided.  In our country it’s typical to be almost entirely unconscious of the body (unless of course it’s in such bad condition it causes you pain).  In my view, that means being unconscious of the “spirit,” too, since what we divide into “body” and “spirit” is not two things, but one.  We walk around, as I noted in my first column, thinking of our bodies as “machines” into which a spirit, or “soul” has somehow been decanted.

But if we approach yoga in a competitive and purely physical sense only—how many “tricks” we can do as compared to how many others around us can do—then we’re in exactly the situation of that street performer.

At some point, if yoga is to continue making a difference to your life, you will have to begin to think of its application to spirit.

Think of it otherwise, and you will eventually become a mere performer, using one of the more helpful and wonderful disciplines there is as a mere trick, a way to get what you want, a mere ploy in your plans, like someone writing a blog who chooses his or her content according to how many clicks it will generate, not according to how much good it will do.

Our desire is less than yoga.  It’s better to let yoga gradually influence your perception of desire, helping yourself to become more sane and more gentle.

It’s getting the cart before the horse to think of yoga as a means to go after what you want, as a way to be healthier, a way to impress your friends, a way to look better in the mirror.  Oh, you can get what you want that way—yoga works, and if that’s what you want from it that’s what you can get.

At the price of showing what you desire to be vapid and common and completely mistaken.

I don’t know what that street performer wanted—to make enough to live on, I would imagine—but it was a shame to see such mastery dedicated to so mere and so ignominious an end.

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Breaking Pierpont

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We heard about the storm a few days before. A hurricane coming in from down south off the coast of Mexico. The remnants were heading up the coast. Each gust was whiplash from that southern storm. Travis was stoked about the high surf advisory. The city wasn’t. They were closing off all the beaches. I told him if he went, I would go.

Travis threw his can into the fire. Tony took his pocketknife and punched a hole in the bottom of his own. He chugged and covered his chin with foam.

“This fucker’s not going, Trav. Doesn’t matter what he said last week, he won’t be there tomorrow.”

“He said he’d go, Tony.”

Waves pounded the shore. Even here in the Cove, where jetties cut the surf, they were getting serious. I drank my beer. Sand floated in with the swill and I felt it on the back of my tongue. The bonfire lit up the sand that surrounded it, and the three of us faced our fire. Tony burped. Our eyes squinted from the heat while our backs felt the cold bite from the foggy marine layer that crept up onto the beach. A waxing moon shone through the clouds every once in a while. Out on the horizon, faint in the fog, the oil platforms’ emergency lights looked like Christmas bulbs. I shivered and drank my beer. The wind was getting stronger.

“That fancy fucking school doesn’t leave Nick any time to surf.”

“Nick can handle himself,” Travis shot back. “Right?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I’m going.”

I stared at Travis’s beer can in the fire. The color faded off the aluminum.

“Fuckin’ right,” Tony said. “See you cocksuckers at five.”

Tony got up, stumbling for a few wobbly seconds. The beer can curled in the heat. Wind swept the flames.

…………

It was four-thirty in the morning. I hadn’t slept. Cheap beer churned in my stomach. Dad was asleep in his room. Not wanting to wake him, I grabbed my wet suit and climbed out of my bedroom window. The rain was coming down hard and the wind blew it into my face. Sneaking around to the front of the house, I waited on the porch. In a few minutes, I saw Travis’s pick-up. I strapped my board down on top of his, and then ran through the rain and climbed in the passenger side.

Water slid down the inside of the window, down the door, puddling at my feet. The clouds had eaten up every last star in the sky.

We drove straight through Pierpont. As we passed Tony’s street, I asked Travis where he was.

“Fuck Tony,” Travis said. He didn’t look at me. Cones shone out from his headlights. He stared into the storm. “If Tony tries to get out there he’ll fucking kill himself.”

I couldn’t get past what Travis said. Tony had always been the better surfer, had in fact taught Travis when we were just groms surfing beach breaks at Mondo’s. Just three shits splashing on hand-me-down boards. If Tony couldn’t handle what we were about to do. . .

“What makes you think we won’t?” I asked.

Travis picked up a Red Bull he had stashed away in the glove compartment. He cracked it and drank half in a quick gulp.

“Travis?”

“Look, if you don’t want to do this then get the fuck out at the next light. We need to get onto that pier before daylight breaks.”

The wind blew and the engine revved high and then low as Travis shifted gears. Our surfboards rattled in the bed. I tasted vomit in the back of my mouth.

The road curved along the beach, unlit by a sun that wouldn’t peak over the coastal mountain range for another hour, but the sky was turning blue-grey. It was that pre-dawn hour when the grizzly older surfers show up on the promenade with cups of hot coffee. They’re almost always there, like the sea gulls and the squirrels and the morning cold. But they probably hadn’t been there that morning. They wouldn’t stay to see the sea like liquid mountains rising, cresting and crashing.

We parked under the freeway, no other cars around, and Travis stared out to the beach. He looked passed the uninhabited bike lane and beyond the gulls trying to make headway against the storm, and into the breaks, tirelessly pounding the pier and the shore. He raised the Red Bull and finished the can. His face was tense, angular. He turned to me, and he said, “The fuck you looking at, fag?”

I couldn’t stop. My bottom lip dropped, and I tried to either answer him or look away, but I couldn’t decide what to do, so I didn’t do anything but stare.

“You’re either doing this with me today, or you can just stay the fuck away from me, okay?”

“Travis, I don’t–”

“I’m serious.”

“I’m just saying, Tony probably had a good reason for not coming, you know?”

“I don’t give two shits about Tony. He didn’t want to come. That’s his fucking deal. But you said you’d do it. You can’t just take off and come back every once in a while for a couple drinks just because you feel guilty. I know you’ve got your own shit to deal with at that new school, or whatever the fuck ever, but it was us first. OK?”

Neither of us spoke for a moment. The freeway hung above us. We normally heard more traffic, but that morning it was still. I didn’t know if it was the storm muffling out the cars, or whether we were just as alone as it felt.Travis was so focused on getting out there. No matter what. And he was right. I told him I’d be there. So I sat in his truck,and listened to the rain pour. Travis had kept every promise he’d ever made to me.

“I said I’d do it, Travis.”

“I know you did. Get your fucking board.”

…………

The pier was raised up above the promenade, and it funneled the wind, which blew cold stinging rain in our faces. The wood stairs up to the pier were slick, and our boards nearly flew out of our hands the whole way up. Travis’s board was 6’8, Creamy white. Mine was 7’0 and yellow. Travis had shaped both of them in the shed behind my place out of a couple Clark Foam blanks that my dad got in trade for an H-VAC job. They were both a little heavy from older, thicker polyurethane, but Travis spent weeks sanding down the blanks, getting the rocker to match an Al Merrick board he’s always liked, mixing the resin, glassing the boards. They came out gorgeous, even though the fiberglass and the foam were starting to separate on mine, and air bubbles had formed on the deck. At the top of the pier, there was a chain-link fence rocking back and forth, a bold DO NOT ENTER sign slapping the links. From up on the pier, the wind was almost unbearable.

Travis went first. His toes gripped the fence. I tossed his leash up over, and he used it to pull his board while I lifted it. The wind caught the board and it rocked in my hand. Still hanging on the other side with one hand, Travis slid it over the top. The chain link scratched the glass. He jumped and landed, board in hand, flat-footed on the other side. He helped me get my board over before I started climbing.

I pulled myself up the fence. But it shook back and forth more violently the higher I made it. From the top I could see out to the end of the pier. The flag had been taken down from the flagpole. Familiar smells wafted: dead fish, bird shit. The ocean grumbled beneath us, telling me to go the fuck home.

I’d never surfed waves like this—ones that could bash your head into the pilings of the pier, hold you under and drag you out to sea. Tony was right. I hadn’t been surfing much. Not since school started. Foothill wasn’t the type of place you could sneak away from during third period. Campus security actually cared whether or not you were there. My teachers noticed if I was gone, and the work was hard enough that I couldn’t afford to miss class. Besides that, there were different social pressures. While my teachers had some faith in me, the other students placed bets on how long I would last. Travis and Tony and me were from De Anza middle school. Not that middle school should determine your whole life, but it usually does. Kids like us didn’t get accepted to Foothill. We weren’t supposed to have futures. Except that I had gotten in to Foothill. I threw my name into the lottery and got accepted into that fucking magnet school. Travis and Tony ended up at Ventura High. They surfed every morning, usually without me.

I climbed down and grabbed my board.

As we walked, I watched the whitecaps spray through the planks of the pier. Rainfall battered us and the boards. The ocean surged and plunged between the beams.

“When you jump, don’t land on top of it. Just toss the board away from you,” Travis yelled.

“Yeah, okay. But what if it snaps.”

“Swim like hell.”

We were three quarters of the way down the pier, the beach behind us and the ocean roiling below. I turned to look and saw what I could make out of Ventura. The hazy coastal range soaked up the rain. Porch lights and a few neon signs. Everyone I knew was asleep except for my dad. He was probably just getting into his truck to drive up over the Grade. Then he’d put in his eight union hours fixing H-VAC units and come back home to sleep. He must have half expected me to be in school that day. The sky was turning a brighter shade of morning grey, merging into the grey of the sea. The surf rolled, rabid with foam.

A squall rose and my board shot out of my hand and smacked into a bench. I chased it down and knelt beside it to check for dings. The ocean surged and I felt it—felt the water wallop the pier—felt it rise between the slats—felt the pier tremble. I slipped. My board smashed against the side rail.

Travis strode to my board and grabbed it with his free hand. It was still in one piece. I stood up. He handed it back to me. The Channel Islands were washed out and so were the oil platforms that bore into the ocean between the islands and where we were on the pier. From just off the left side, at the end of the pier, Travis told me to hold his board. Then, he gripped the banister with his two rough hands and he leapt over the side, landing on the outer edge of the pier. He took his board from me without saying anything.

I looked over the railing, scared shitless. Travis shouted at me, instructing me to put my board by him so he could try to keep it in one place. I did as I was told. Then I made my way over the railing. My feet stuck on every slat along the way. But once I stood on the other side, I felt like at least I knew what I was going to do next. The wind was dying down. The rain was more of a mist. Travis looked out to where the waves were coming in. He said, “Just remember to paddle. Stand up as quick as you can. It’s nothing but a gnarly fucking wave.”

Maybe I was numbed to the experience by then. There was this monstrous thing rolling toward us. It was foamy, but not yet starting to break. That’s what’s really scary about a large wave: it has almost no shape far out to see, and it’s almost impossible to tell what it will finally end up being until it hits the shelf and stumbles, rising ten, twenty feet and collapsing with the sound of thunder. So we watched this hill, large but not yet ominous, until it reached the shallow water and raised up. Travis didn’t move, so I didn’t move. It wasn’t until it was under us, when the peak of the wave nearly touched our feet,that reality set in. Because just as unexpectedly as the water had risen, it receded, leaving a twenty foot drop below my feet and the thrashing beast crashed, and the railing seemed like it would shake free of the pier.

“Set’s coming in.” Travis looked at a succession of ripples off in the distance and handed me my surfboard. They were about to hit the land-shelf and build on themselves. Travis just gripped his board in one hand and leapt off the pier. His body receded beneath me and he threw his board out in front of him; it spun like a white leaf in the wind until it stopped short, caught on the leash. They both landed in the water, and sank. The board popped up first, then Travis’s head. He paddled away from the pier. I couldn’t let go of the railing. Travis set up on the wave, paddled into position and got under what had become a monster, and I watched, not yet realizing that another wave was coming my way, breaking high enough to thrash over the top of the pier.

I gripped the rail tightly when that second wave hit, and felt wood cut into my arms. It was like hugging a serrated knife. My board went over, a quick drop stopped by the leash. It’s weight, or maybe just shock, kept me from pulling myself up and over, or from reaching down to undo the leash. I knew that if I let go I would be a piece of seaweed slapped against pilings, or just another mussel drowned in the brine, except that mussels don’t drown.

I hated Travis for everything that was happening. He knew I couldn’t do it, and he sure as shit knew Tony couldn’t. This was stubborn suicide. As I tasted the salty brine in the back of my throat I thought about Tony, probably checking the surf report as we spoke. Travis knew Tony wouldn’t come. But he also knew that I would. He expected me to be here, just like he expected both of us to either graduate or drop out of school together. Maybe, since he knew that wasn’t going to happen, he wanted the two of us to go out at the same time. He didn’t care if the storm crested into a wave that sucked up the whole city. He needed me and him on the same side.

The rocky basin of the shore became visible as the tide sucked back the sea. When I looked down, I could see the pilings clear to the sea floor. I clung to the railing and tried to get back over, but I couldn’t get a good footing. As I turned to the horizon and saw the growing blue-green wall of water blend with the grey of the sky, my knees gave out again. Heavy rain battered the face of the wave.

With the surfboard velcroed around my ankle I couldn’t climb back over the railing. The wave barreled toward me, alive and unstoppable, a howling wall. I followed the line of the wave and saw a speck rising into the curl. Travis was paddling. He wasn’t setting himself up on the wave. He was hauling heavy ass trying to make his way beyond it before he went over the falls.

I squeezed the railing and fumbled to undo my leash, but my fingers were numb and the velcro strap kept slipping in my grip. My leg blurred when I shifted focus to Travis, who was completely upside down, his body contorting to the curl of the wave, his hands releasing his board’s rails. That was it. He’d go over the falls and disappear into the sea, a busted ear drum denying him even the ability to know up from down. That’s what had happened to even the best surfers who pushed their luck. But more often it seemed to happen to guys like Travis, for whom surfing was it. It was either die a brutal death on one last ride, or live long enough to become one of the grizzly old men drinking AM-PM coffee during the dawn patrol, remembering the times you didn’t go out, when you should have, when you might have died the right way. It could’ve happened to Tony, and it was about to happen to me. I thought back to all those mornings the three of us paddled out by the Pierpont schoolhouse, practicing cutbacks on mushy waves, lighting bonfires. It was hard to think back to when it started, but I remember that sickening knowledge that it would end, a knowing that I fully understood when I got that “Congratulations, You’ve been” letter from Foothill. I wanted to jump into the water right then and go through the wash with Travis. Who cared where our corpses washed up?

Travis vanished, and the massive wake of the wave came down. The white-water exploded into the air, catching my board and snapping my leash. The pier shook. The rail came loose and I fell into the ocean, rolling towards the shore. It was like being hit by a car, that sudden unexpected impact knocking your head against everything near you. It was like being swallowed. It was like being chewed up. It was a feeling that all those fucking kids at Foothill wouldn’t know. Even the ones who did surf wouldn’t understand. If we died, nobody would mourn our futures. This would be our legacy, as stupid and shitty and futile as it was, it was as good as Travis figured things might get. A story his friends, those future grizzly old men, would talk about until they died their unexciting deaths.

The wave slammed me against a rock jutting out of the sand. All that was left of my board was the leash around my ankle. When I rubbed my hand through my hair I saw the long streak of red across my palm. I was close to the entrance of the pier. Travis was lying motionless on a stretch of pebbles about fifty yards away. The rain pelted our bodies, and the tide kept rising up, tugging at Travis’s body.

The ocean still churned up deadly waves as I struggled to my feet. Even if I wanted to help Travis, I couldn’t move fast, or easily.  Each rumbling crash made me nauseous. Every muscle ached.

A piece of my surfboard washed up near him. Two feet of nose, where his signature was preserved under the glass. The three of us were in my dad’s shed when Travis wrote that signature with a carpenter’s pencil. “You’re a fucking artist,” Tony said. And in fact, Tony was the first person to surf both the boards. Travis said he wanted to make sure they weren’t shit. The first time Tony stood up on one of Travis’s boards, it was a type of precision none of us had seen before. Tony dropped in and the wave barreled over him, one of those forever tubes that you remember for the rest of your life. Travis wanted to give Tony that board, but Tony thought I should have it. “It’s perfect,” he said. “But it’s an inch too short for me.”

I started walking toward Travis’s body, but then he stirred. His arms quivered as he put his palms down and lifted his torso. Travis looked at the piece of my board, then down the beach, at me. He picked up the fragment and chucked it into the sea. His own board was intact further up the beach. He lifted it over his head and walked back to his truck.

I walked along the side of the bike path, rain beating down and the wind slapping my face. When I got up to the parking lot, Travis had driven home without me, but Tony was there with his Corolla. “You guys are fucking retarded,” he said and drove me home.

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The Yoga Bug

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I do yoga on my own, not being terribly motivated by classes. I’m one of those characters who prefers unnarrated discovery. There are, however, a lot of good reasons to start out with a teacher.

One is you can waste a lot of time doing things wrong.

Another is it’s harder to put together an entire yoga session unless you’ve had a knowledgeable teacher who started you off with a basic routine that you could manage, if just barely, and that leads you through suites of related asanas in a directed and helpful fashion.

I’ve become convinced that you don’t know yoga, you practice yoga, in the same way as all those action heroes who supposedly “know” karate but can never be seen to practice it. “Know” is just the wrong verb. I prefer “practice,” in both its senses: keeping a regular workout schedule, and as a way of life, a practice.

THE PRACTICE

(As Wallace Stevens meant the word in Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu)

You do not ask for heaven;
you take the love you’re given.
You eat your daily bread.
You’re glad you’re not the head
of a nation, bank, or church,
especially since research
would indicate that you’re
corruptible, impure,
and made of passing stuff.
The practice is enough.

 That’s how I mean “practice.”

As I was saying, it helps to have a teacher to guide you. I have a sequence I follow three days a week (along with some free-wheeling work on my off days), and although it has gone through many modifications and revisions, it derives from the basic sequence my original teacher, Kirsten Mustain, taught me in a beginning class. She was always careful to think through the session beforehand, arranging a sequence that would both feel natural flow and be helpful.

I average between eight and ten hours a week, I’d guess, which means I get pretty used to the activity. Time is not the point, though. Doing yoga to the greatest purpose is the point. I suspect the masters would look askance at someone who required so much time to get the benefits of the practice. I expect they can drop into a given asana or come out of it with hardly any hestitation. Me, I shake and tremble and strain. Got a lot to learn.

My sequence for some time involved preliminary chants and asanas, and then a series of warm-up asanas. In my head I grouped these sets together.

The next batch consisted of standing asanas, sitting concave stretches, and sitting convex stretches. (By “concave” and “convex,” I mean whether the torso is curved forward or curved backward. It’s not a pure distinction, because some of the asanas in that batch involved twists.

I would conclude with a set of three reps of what I call “hip-openers.”

So my yoga session divided, at the time, into three distinct sessions. Not sure why my visual imagination went that way, but I imagined the three groups together as an insect—head, thorax, abdomen.

That, by the way, is why I call this paricular column The Yoga Bug. Probably not what you saw coming.

I have no idea what the legs were or the antennae or anything like that. I got no further than drawing the bug in one of my many and various journals.

I was trying to describe it analytically, fit all its “parts” together in my mind. (I have a near-compulsion to put what I know in some sort of order.) But trying to analyze my yoga session, I always lost my place, wandered off into other notions.  I recognized all the parts, and when they might come.

I began to wonder just what an asana was. Some of the poses had left and right versions, mirror-symmetrical. Was I doing two asanas, or just two halves of a single asana? Sometimes I did reps, usually three. Was each rep an asana, even though I held each for much less time than I held the single pose when I wasn’t doing reps? Or were the three together considered one asana.

Questions like that.

Asanas are the very basis of hatha yoga, and I was clearly gaining flexibility and resilience, but it was becoming less and less clear to me exactly what an asana was. How could I be doing asanas without knowing what they are?

And that’s my subject for next time: Wotsa nossana?

What, that is to say, is an asana?

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Aviary

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I killed The Teenager. That was a mistake. I’m a thief, not a killer. You rob a house, and a dead body is the last thing you want to leave behind. That’s why people I know refuse to carry a gun. It’s not like it’s against some robber’s code or anything – it just makes things easier. Why give the cops a reason to look harder. If everything goes smoothly, fine. The cops look around a few hours and let it go. But a gun? Cops get paranoid, thinking you’re out there waiting. If not that night, then some other night. Why make them worry? Skip it.

The Teenager’s house was a two-story brick mansion. I stepped through a bedroom window in the back. The bed was made. The closet doors and dresser drawers were closed. There weren’t any dirty clothes lying around. This wasn’t like my house or any other house I’d ever seen. I kept walking.

The interior spaces were wide and quiet and soft and filled with cool clean air and sunlight. There was leather and silk and mahogany and velvet and oak and all kinds of other solid, comforting things I didn’t know what to call. No one was home – perfect. Then I started wondering why anyone would ever leave such a place. Its perfection was hypnotizing. There were lights in the ceiling!

I remembered I had a job to do. I went through the motions of burglary and gathered artifacts for my return to the hot cramped world. I suppose a gun was there in the middle of everything, and I guess I picked it up.

Turning the corner I met the staircase.

As kids we didn’t have stairs. Not even to the front door. My father made a short step stool so my sister and I could reach the sink. It was white, with my name in blue on the bottom step and my sister’s in pink on the top. We started banging our shins on it one day, so it ended up under the sink. Don’t know where it is now.

The Teenager startled me. She appeared on the stairs in a long black shirt, and we stared at each other for a minute. The buttons on her shirt were made to look like the planets. Mercury at the top and Pluto all the way down there.

“Oh,” I said. “That’s a great shirt.”

“Who are you?”

“The shirt guy.”

“You’ve got a gun.”

“Actually, I have your gun. I found it with the shirts.”

She stepped onto the floor and backed up toward the kitchen. “You have my father’s watch. All my mother’s jewelry.”

“Right. It’s for an insurance appraisal. Every couple of years the value of the household items needs to be updated in order to keep the policy updated and so prices of the insured items can by synchronized with the market value of the same items in case they were to be stolen. And since we insure the home, we also have a key, and your parents said it was okay to just let myself in.”

The Teenager looked at the front door and we could both see the chain still hooked from the inside.

“They wanted me to make sure I came in through the side door so as not to arouse suspicion from the neighbors. So I came to the bedroom straight through. I’m sure you heard me.”

“What’s in your backpack?”

“Credentials. Shirts. A business card. Sheets of paper…with business estimates…technical stuff.” I tried to act nonchalant by waving my hand in the air, exhaling, and looking off into the upper right corner of the room. When my eyes returned to The Teenager, she had her phone out.

“What are you doing?”

“Calling my parents.”

“They know I’m here.”

“Okay.”

“So don’t bother them.”

“They won’t mind.” She put the phone to her ear.

I grabbed her wrist and pulled the phone away from her head. “Don’t make trouble.”

She writhed and with her entire 120 pounds tried to pull away. But I held tighter and pulled her close and mouthed the words “drop the phone.” Instead of following instructions, however, she managed to bring her right foot straight up into my crotch before running into the kitchen.

Doubled over and gasping for air, I managed to stumble after her. I heard The Teenager behind the beveled pantry door, planning my incarceration.

I flung it open and pointed the gun at her. She yelped, turned, got lower to the ground and stuck her arms straight out in front of her, locking her elbows so hard it looked like they were about to pop out their socket. And she started screaming.

I told her to shut up.

She just closed her eyes tight and yelled louder about the police. One of her outstretched hands still held that phone, like it had superpowers that would stop a bullet. It didn’t.

She fell back under the shelves along the back wall, then stopped moving. A couple of cans rolled my way. I put them and the gun in my backpack and left through the side door. I walked slowly, changing streets a few times until I found a nice path that led into a thicket overlooking an embankment leading down to the boulevard. I stopped there and dumped my backpack. That’s what happens when you use a gun. You end up losing everything. I couldn’t keep the backpack or anything in it. I had to take off my shirt, too. All that stuff tied me to the crime. Now I had less than when I went into that damned house. I left it all right there in a thicket and then slid down the embankment and landed on the sidewalk beside four lanes of traffic.

All the way home I kept thinking about that pantry, and the way The Teenager sat hunched up in the back. As a kid, I would sit in the back of my grandmother’s pantry reading the dates on the preserves on the back shelves, wishing there were a trap door to the crawl space under the floor. I don’t know why I did that. A trap door sure would have helped The Teenager, though.

Years went by and I put The Teenager behind me. I try not to dwell on the past. Eventually I got a job unloading trucks at a freight company. Those long kinds of trucks you see going by you all the time on the highway. The ones with tires as big as your car. Sometimes they have a lot of lights on them at night, like the circus has come to town. Or is on the way out.

I had this foreman I called Hitler. Hitler came up to me with this box one afternoon and asked to see the bottom of my boot. He wanted to see if the tread on my boot matched the tread mark on the box. It did, of course, because everyone in the warehouse wore company-issue boots. I guess they were thinking ahead.

Hitler fired me in front of my co-workers. He did it this way: me powerful, you weak. It rubbed me the wrong way, and I’m trying to let it go. The job was hot and boring, and I was getting some backaches and shoulder pains that were starting to get on my nerves. I didn’t look for a new job straight off. That’s not really my style. I relaxed. I took a few days off and sat by the pool at the center of my apartment complex.

I met a girl there. I’m handsome. We hung out that afternoon then got drunk. That night we had a good time and after that I slept okay. Not great. Something made me uneasy. It was this girl I was next to. She slept like she was dead. She didn’t move all night. A couple of times I put a mirror in front of her nose to see if she was breathing.

To wake her up I had to pour a glass of water in her face, and she wasn’t even upset about it. Like it happened all the time. I don’t know how she gets up when she’s alone. Maybe she’s never alone. After that everything was fine. I guess that’s just the way she is. She walked out onto the balcony, took a deep breath and said, “the birthing of the new day heralded via the gigantic yellow star.” She actually said ‘via.’ She was really out there. And she wasn’t about to let me get any more sleep, either. She jumped right on it like nobody’s business.

Next stop, two coffees served on oversized bongos in front of a hip guitar store. Last night’s entertainment sprinkled in a fourth pack of sweet and low then banged the spoon against the cup like she was calling in the ranch hands for chow. Me? I’m a gentleman. After touching the coffee to my lips, I tucked my pinky back into my fist, tried not to think about Hitler, and asked Eva about her plans for the day.

Yep, you heard me right. Eva. The image of her and Hitler bursting into flames while lying next to each other on the cold concrete floor of a bunker somewhere over there flashed through my head. But then the bunker filled with smoke and the excitement was over. What was left? Eva. Leaning over her cup. Scooping chunks of curdled cream out of her coffee with the curved underside of one of those overlong nails of hers. I tried to make it sexy somehow. It didn’t work.

She told me her plans, but I was thinking of her smoldering remains, so she had to repeat them. Work. City aviary. I didn’t know what an aviary was, but she said it was near the ocean so I was all for it.

When we got out of the car, I found out what an aviary was all about. Bird prison. I told her I didn’t want anything to do with it and left in a hurry. She said something behind me but I didn’t turn around. I didn’t ever want to see her again. I wished she didn’t know where I lived, and, as I turned the corner of the building, I started thinking of ways to make that wish come true. Why had I taken her to my room? Now there’s an extra person who knows me. What can she find out? What am I going to let slip? I had to get rid of her.

But I was getting all worked up. I had been lucky once, so forget it. She was just a woman. I was going to forget about her, like she was going to forget about me. That was the way the normal world worked. I was well on the way to talking myself down, so I tried to notice the little things around me. Focus on the ‘be here now’ idea one of my hippie girlfriends used to talk about.

Weeds along the side of the aviary on my right. An electric meter. A crushed green water pistol. Short yellow poles on my left, strung through with cable to keep cars from hitting daydreamers.

The sidewalk continued past the aviary and emptied into a parking lot. Steel cables and dandelions poked through crumbling concrete tire barriers and buckled asphalt. The wind picked up and when the traffic died down, I could hear breaking surf and seagulls. Beyond the line of condominiums, restaurants, and gift shops there was undoubtedly an ocean, which is what made me want to come with Eva in the first place, though I couldn’t remember why anymore.

The only way to reach the beach was to go through one of the bars or restaurants separating me from the beach. I picked one called SandyBoys. SandyBoys was having an identity crisis, trying to be both a family restaurant and bar at the same time. There were a few arcade games in one corner, with some oversized booths for families of six nearby. A sports bar in the middle with eight TV screens, undersized beer mugs, and wicker baskets filled with peanuts every five feet. The bar was a long, glass-topped pine structure that stretched about forty feet before it made a sharp, ninety-degree turn into a darker, windowless section with its own restrooms, low music, and late-afternoon desperation.

I ordered a double bourbon and water from Nicholas. He wore a nametag. Over to my left, on the other side of the small array of arcades, was a glass door and a wall of windows, through which I could see a patio filled with customers and a wooden walkway – or boardwalk or pier, whatever the right word might be.

Nicholas placed another double bourbon in front of me. There was a woman sitting alone in the swanky section with her back against the wall moving her wine glass around in a circle with her fingertips. She wasn’t waiting for anyone, but she wanted to give that impression by looking at her phone once in a while. There was a father in the arcade having a lot of luck on the Le Mans game, his son tugging at his sleeve and the man shaking him off. The other dads gathered around the machine and stared into the screen, cheering driver dad on.

To make SandyBoys more interesting, there was a small section behind the bar dedicated to sailing. On a four foot square piece of blue velvet atop a small refrigerator rested a framed photo of a schooner, a brass lantern, and three brass contraptions I had never seen before.

“Nicholas.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Could I see one of those thingamajigs down there?” I pointed to the brass thingamajigs.

“No sir, I’m afraid that’s against company policy. Can I get you another bourbon?”

“Sure.”

Nicholas refilled my glass without having to move, or so it seemed. I inquired about the brass instruments, this time regarding their purpose.

“I’m not really sure, sir. I know they’re called sextants. I think they tell you where you are, or align the planets, or help you position yourself by spotting planets at night. But I’m not really sure.” Nicholas glided away to another patron.

I thought if I ever stole anything again it would be a sextant, even if I wasn’t sure how it worked. There was some kind of mystery about it that attracted me. It looked too sophisticated to be just a glorified compass. Could you use it on land somehow? Could it locate a portal?

A little girl began singing behind me. She sat in a booth with her family and she was singing a catchy little tune in the voice of a cat. I turned and listened. The only words were “meow.” When it was over the little girl said, “And that’s how a cat sings.”

I added, “In the shower!” I also clapped. I thought I was being nice. The girl smiled. The father wasn’t so appreciative.

“This is a private conversation, buddy.”

I moved closer to the door leading to the beach. I could still hear the little girl, talking about her new gymnastics mat and all the moves she could do, a lot more than Mary Ellen and how no one will believe her that Mary Ellen is a liar. I couldn’t help but laugh, thinking what fine talk that was for a bar.

I glanced over and the father was coming out of the booth and heading my way. I stepped out the back door and onto the deck. There was a patio with tables and umbrellas and customers and that long boardwalk stretching way out. I kept walking.

There were seagulls all over and they made that seagull sound. They don’t chirp or tweet like a normal bird. It’s more like the noise of a crow. Not as mean sounding, maybe. As I kept going, I noticed that the boards on the walk were laid end to end, instead of side to side. I thought that was unusual. It seemed to be at the time anyway. It’s the kind of pattern that would give the illusion of greater distance. I wondered why somebody would do that. I was going to look it up one day.

The gulls kept swinging around, sounding like monkeys now. Monkeys flying from branch to branch, in wide arcs and sharp dips, from one imaginary vine to another. Flying over the beach, in an aviary with sand. Monkey prison. When I reached the end of the boardwalk I grabbed the railing. The tide was out. Twenty feet below was wet sand the color of coffee the way I like it. The wind hit my face as I looked toward the horizon, where the gray of the sky matched the color of the water in a long wide flat line which my eyes followed and then my head tried to catch up with and then I don’t know what happened, but I suspect it had something to do with the bourbon.

I landed on my side in front of the rail with a good view up the boardwalk toward Sandyboy’s. The Meow Girl came out. The wooden door closed and she stood in front of it, calling the birds, arms stretched out in front of her as the birds whirled and screamed above.

I got up and walked toward Meow Girl. The door opened, hitting Meow Girl in the back. She stumbled and fell on the ground. My instinct was to run toward her, but I didn’t. Her mother picked her up and the two of them and the father walked back through the door. I watched it close behind them.

I stumbled through the backdoor of SandyBoys, past the kids in the arcade and landed on the nearest barstool. Nicholas remembered me and what I preferred. A few sips later I remembered all that brass. I moved a whole gulp down the bar, in front of the sextants. A child’s plaything, maybe? No. Maybe it was in Peter Pan. On his boat in the sky, where I saw one once. Sure. After Peter comes through the window and takes the children away from their toys.

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