Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Jake had a sincere desire to avoid desperation. Avoid it at all costs. And he didn't want to look desperate, or feel desperate, or even seem desperate, in that desperation, in and of itself, involved thoughtless/careless actions that usually led to disappointment. And yet he knew so many people who were desperate, and almost all of them, inevitably, did something noteworthy. Noteworthy in its stupidity. In that, the acts of desperate men ended up defining them, with complete disregard with whoever they were before they got so desperate that they acted stupid. Emerson said, most men live lives of quiet desperation, and that was just it. Jake did not want to be "most men". But he felt desperate all the same. And he fought it.

He fought it by working hard, and being quiet. By not saying the first thing that came to mind, and by avoiding people altogether when he knew that the desperation was bubbling to the surface. When that happened, the threat was near, and he was bound to do or say something so extraordinarily stupid, that there was no back-pedaling out of it. And when the desperation showed, it came out as anger, and he knew that having anger define him was a dangerous, character-destroying thing.

So he ran. He worked hard. He tired himself out. He held his dignity to the grindstone until the machine went dull. He wanted to be too tired to be desperate. Too tired to be angry. And if he had any energy left, he drank beer, which made him momentarily happy. And only one thing came of it, and they called it depression. 

So he feigned enthusiasm about things others felt passion for, but it came off looking merely crazy. And it's what your grandparents called "moody", but your college friends called "bi-polar". And that's when people really started to worry, so he shut up, and worked harder. Because there was at least some dignity in it -providing for your family. But he also drank more beer, and things remained out of balance, His life, he pondered one night at a brewery, was like this four-legged table, and one leg was taller than the others, so the whole thing wobbled. And what he was doing, he surmised, was putting a napkin under the apparent short leg to stop the wobbling, only to find that it still wobbled. So he would prop up the other leg, to no beneficial effect. And he would continue, working on all the legs, until he found that he had propped up all the legs with napkins, and beer coasters, and whathaveyou. And the table still wobbled. He wanted to grab the whole damn table and start cutting the legs, but he knew, somewhere deep inside, that if he started doing that, he would end up with a very short table.

A very short, wobbling table. So he wasn't sure what he needed, and came to the conclusion that he should talk to someone.

So the families got together one night at Jim's, down the street. And a few bottles of wine were opened and the barbecue was eaten and the parents got to talking and the kids ran in the yard, in the darkness, and Jim lit the firepit, and they sat around it and talked.

And the men outlasted the women, who retired inside, eventually, due to the cold, or the needs of the little ones. And the men of Outlander Court were left in primal huddle around the fire, in the dark. It got quiet, as long as the cups were full, and Jake suddenly felt the urge to reveal some small part of his desperation. Here was the moment. These guys would understand. And he was going to say something, wasn't sure what, opened his mouth, when...

"This has been a really tough year for me," said Jim.

Oh? thought Jake. And he replied in the manly way. "Hhhrrmm..."

And then Jim let loose. How he just couldn't take it anymore. How he was just barely hanging on. How he loved his family but had to quit his job, before he went completely insane. How this was gonna hurt, and how he was afraid no one would understand.

And Jake just sat there, altogether stunned and pissed. And he wanted to commiserate, but knew that if he said "I know how you feel, man" it would come off so careless and condescending, that he would lose Jim, like he'd lost the others. So he shut up and looked away. Which he knew also came off as careless, but which, also, men often understand as thoughtfulness.

Jim went on for a while, and he was earnest and heartfelt about it. And when he was done talking, Jake gave him a hand on the shoulder, and told him he'd help in any way he could, That all Jim needed to do was to ask. And Jim got up and hugged him.

And in that hug, Jake felt the last life sap out of him. He'd given away the last little bit of what he had.

And he was scared that he was done for.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The old man in the walker worked in construction. He built this suburb and planted those pine trees on the median of Peacock Hills Estates. One day, it was hot, and he was young and lazy, so he instructed his men to take it easy. They didn't dig through the clay -the caliche- deep enough, only a mere foot or two. And when they planted the tree, it took to the ground okay, but the roots never went deep, they ran shallow. And after about twenty years or so, you could see the rise in the asphalt. Cars would hit it with a goodly WHABUMP, but locals knew instinctively when it was coming, and they would slow appropriately, when their brain sensed the correct amount of drive time elapsed since the last intersection. After the first few times, no one noticed anymore.

Chin had tripped over the rise in the sidewalk slab, and Mike1819 saw her do it and ran to help. She didn't recognize him, in the shirt that he'd grabbed from the debris out front of the FOR SALE house. This is how they became friends. After he cleaned himself up.

Jake was installing fake grass just up the street, and had hit one of those roots and had to dig around it and have it manually removed, one hot day, as he cursed the sun, and the man who planted that tree, who was just passing by in his walker and Jake didn't recognize him.

After Jake cut that root, the tree began to go brown, and he noticed it on his run. The fake grass, and the dying tree, in an ironic reflex, and it bothered him. And later that year, when the Santa Anas came  that October, the tree went down,and the drunk college students coming home late from a party didn't see it, and crashed. While recovering from the hospital, the Dude decided to ask his girlfriend to marry him, and kicked his frat buddies out of the house. 

Then the kid and his girl had a baby, at the same time as Jake and his wife, and the kids maybe became good friends.

Mike1819 is the old man's son. They had a falling out. Araceli Flores asked if she could pray for the old man, since she saw him in the walker. He said No, pray for his son, whom he hasn't spoken with in years, and who lives a mile away. And she did, and he met Chin, and his life was changed.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

But she prayed all the same. She prayed for the car that drove too fast, asking The Lord to reveal to them their unsafe speeds, and to call to their attention that small children lived on this street. This fast car, or that one, inevitably parked in front of the small house with the college kids living in it. A parent bought the home as an investment property, and then the twenty-somethings moved in, setting up TVs and turning their garage into a workout/party room, complete with punching bag and kegerator. Some Fridays would have all night parties, and the other neighbors scowled, as young adults would laugh and yell at midnight, going to and from their cars.

Araceli would pick up beer cans in the morning, and pray everyone made it home safe.

She prayed for the young couple with no children. The couple who often stumbled in late at night, and left for days on end. She could tell: there was no car in the driveway, and newspapers piled up, along with little baggies with pebbles and business cards in them, tossed by landscapers looking for work. She prayed for this couple because she once found an empty pharmaceutical pill bottle labeled “CANNABIS”, and she hoped that the children had not gotten into it, as it was empty.

She prayed for the woman on the street whose husband had up and left since. And though the marriage had been hard, the punishment of unwitting abandonment was something late night television had a hard time easing. 

Araceli knew. She saw the light coming from the window, late at night.

She would pray for Jake, though he didn’t know it. She saw him with his kids out front, from time to time, and could tell he was just tired. Sunburnt, unshaven, and sometimes wincing as he picked the little ones up. He usually smiled, and she appreciated the small bit of energy he spent on her being cordial, friendly, but it was clear that his desperation was too much to hide. And she prayed for him. 

Araceli was a superhero, and her super-power was that she could see right through anyone. So she made her way around the cul-de-sac, walking, praying. And to an outsider, she appeared as a harmless, unassuming woman, whose well-behaved teenagers were getting ready to leave the nest, and she was happy about it. But she didn’t pray out loud, and she didn’t move her lips, so no one knew the truth. Which was that she was saving the world.


And as we pulled into the driveway with little Landon sitting there, face-forward, with an expectant look on his face, Jake checked him in the rear-view mirror. Landon raised his little finger, pointed, and said his third word.


Friday, November 15, 2013

"Where do they go? I mean, in the daytime?" asked Christina. "You would think that you would see them all the time, but no." 

And just then, as if summoned by some heretofore unnoticed power in her simple human voice, was a coyote standing in the middle of the street, mouth open, tongue out, looking directly at them with what looked like a sly, animal smile. They took a slight step back, wondering if they should prepare for a canine attack-

But the coyote clearly determined and knew instinctively: Not a threat. And it trotted to the side of the road.

Ben and Christina just stood there, stunned. They watched the coyote non-chalantly make its way around the side of the house, and then the thing leaped -straight up- and over what must have been a six foot fence. It was impressive. And it had disappeared.

Christina whispered, "Was that it? Was that the one?"

"No. I doubt it," said Ben. "They travel in packs. It could be..." and then he realized he didn't really know what he was talking about. This coyote ran alone.

"Man. I've never seen a dog jump like that," Ben tried to change the subject line.

Christina looked at him with her BS meter red-lining, but she didn't say it. "I can't believe we were just talking about coyotes, and then BAM. A coyote."

"Well, that's the damnedest thing," said Ben,

Christina just sighed. "Yeah." 

And they moved along.


But Ben and Christina's cat had, in fact, not been killed by a coyote. Their cat, Cliche, had been intentionally driven over by Saul Indergand. He was almost drunk, or close enough, as he left the local brewery and took side roads home (to avoid the Friday night DUI checkpoints) to his 2500 square foot, high-ceilinged, fully IOS-automated home in the suburb closer to the beach. 

He'd had a few "double" IPAs, brewed by the local hop geniuses, and after that he'd decided to drive by the old house, the one he'd sold at top dollar to that nice couple with no children. The suckers went for it, he recalled fondly when asked, and it was his ticket out of there. Out and away. Away from the Naked Runner, the annoying evangelists, and away from his insufferable wife. Out of that neighborhood forever, if he could help it. "To a better suburb."

Except that's where the good beer was. So he went back, for the beer, from time to time. 

The brewery was in a non-descript, low-rise industrial park, as was the fashion in the area. Guys made beer, and they did it well. Well enough that they needed no 50 inch flatscreens over the shwanky mahogany bar, nor granite countertops in the Men's Rooms. No, they made good beer. The men would come, these brewers thought. And they did. Others came, too.

Saul was asking for another, and the bartender took personally his moving. "No! I try and get back here whenever I can! You guys know I love your IPAs more than anyone's!" and the kegworker just handed him another "large" taster. He remembered the story. Had heard the whole thing, and had had it recounted to him by other employees.

"It's just..." and Saul looked off into the distance, (though the walls were mere feet away.) 

"Ever since Roxy was killed. Taken. When that guy ran her over so intently. It was obvious that he hated her. So I had let her crap on his lawn once. Or twice. What of it?! I usually picked it up!"

The bartender drew the conclusion, at this point, that Roxy was a dog, though Saul Indergand had always spoken of her as if she was a cat. It made no sense, but neither did he care, otherwise. He had beers to pour. When he tuned in again, Saul was still talking.

"I guess everything fell to shit right after Roxy was taken. I've never really made the connection, exactly. But after I lifted her bloody, lifeless body from the street. And looked around to see who would come... Saul stopped at this point in the story. Always did. And finished the last finger in his pint.

"I just..." He trailed off.

BING BING BING BING! The bartender had rag a bell. "A NEW KEG IS BEING TAPPED! LIFT YOUR GLASS!" and everyone gathered around to see the brewmaster emerge with several odd tools. He made his way smiling, amidst applause, to a formal, ceremonial oak barrel, (though the beer had mostly come from the warehouse-sized steel fermenters standing nearby) and he popped a rubber bung out and jammed a tap into its hull. Everyone cheered, and beer was poured.

And Saul, quiet in the corner, holding back what may have been a single tear, thumbed his iPhone and pulled up a photo of "Roxy". A small Irish terrier with a simple canine grin. 

He leaned to the celebratory group next to him. "This is Roxy." He sobbed.

"TO ROXY!" the nearby boys yelled, and the entire beer hall responded.


And Saul left, somewhat insulted. He took the old roads home, and drove by the old house on Outlander Court, offended by what they'd done to the place. He'd planted that tree! And now where was it? And why'd they repaint? And those new vinyl windows were an abomination. He was especially angry that they'd torn out the driveway and had it replaced with pavers. He'd poured that driveway himself, mostly, one spring weekend. And now it was gone. So were the handprints that he and his wife, Chin, had impressed in the corner. And the dog prints. They were gone, too.

So he hit the accelerator and drove over the first pet he saw,


Araceli had a list, too, like Jake. Her list was numbered, and it was numbered on the curb of her street. 

Araceli Flores walked the cul-de-sac, praying for every house as she stroll past. It was not a habit for her, nor was it a ritual. But it could, she reasoned sometimes, be deemed a "discipline", as it wasn't easy. And she often found it difficult to justify that anyone on the street actually deserved it. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

It had been over a week since the cat was last seen, and it was time for Ben and Christina to deduce the obvious: coyotes got her. They hadn't had her for more than a few months, and were barely even committed to the name they'd given her ("Cliche") but now they were confronted with the decision on whether or not to replace her.

Christina was cleaning the litter box when she decided, No, and Ben nodded in agreement. The house was clean now, cleaner than it had ever been (at least, since the kids moved out) and neither of them could handle the responsibility of the litter box. The litter, pawed into the air and collecting in an uncleanable corner, where, set in stone -if it was possible- was the smell, unmistakeable, and unmoveable. The litter box sat in a cabinet in the guest bathroom. The door had been removed, so that the cat could wade in and out, and it seemed to suit everyone fine. Until now, where they found themselves with a completely defiled cabinet, one that must be destroyed, if not burned altogether to remove the smell. It's too bad, they thought, since the sinks were so nice. Maybe they could save the fixtures.

Then there was the matter of the poop itself, having to handle it, and move it off. Few things in life were less fun, than cleaning the litter box. So, No. No more cats. Their house would be clean again.

They had several perfectly labeled trash cans, as well as a compost bin. This was in addition to the "Yard Waste" and "Recyclables" containers they'd already had, as they separated their recyclables on their own and took them down the transfer station -the city couldn't be trusted with the pick-up. "How do they even separate them? How does a machine even know what is paper and what is plastic? I mean, seriously."

Christina just shrugged. Thought of the cat.

Their regular waste bin was never full, they recycled so much. Additionally, they had a compost bin in their back yard, where they composted old food, grass clippings, raked leaves. They saved the runoff water from the downspout on their roof. Several large barrels lined up on the side of the house collected water for the garden. Ben took great pleasure in shredding junk mail and old, useless phone books and composting those, too, when he could. And every Wednesday morning the two of them took to the neighborhood with their grabbing tools and plastic bags.

"I knew we should have kept her as an indoor cat," complained Christina. Ben just shook his head, thinking of the guest bath, as he picked up a plastic water bottle and put it in a separate bag, to recycle later.

"I heard a pack of coyotes just last night. I was up at 3AM to get a glass of water, and you could hear them yipping and howling out across the field. It was erie. I wonder why they do that. But it sounded like there were fifty of them," said Ben.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Chin had a perfectly structured life. Each morning, at dawn, she would brew a cup of green tea, don her cream jumpsuit and headset. She would listen to the same AM radio news channel, and then begin walking, at the same pace, down the block, up the street, around the corner, and back again. About 1.8 miles. Sometimes Jake would run right past her, and she wouldn't even notice. Just moves straight ahead, eyes down, arms swinging, hand in fists, listening intently to the radio.

When she'd arrive home she'd work on the garden. Her backyard, walled in from the outside world by a high fence and tall, shaped pine trees every three meters, was perfectly square. A well-manicured path of stepping stones led from the sliding door to the yard's center, where one long rectangle of perfectly raked gravel was off to the right, and three large boulders of diminishing size lay to the left. The boulders were well-placed, and half buried, cleverly arranged to look perfectly natural and, somehow, placed there with purpose. One small pagoda was erected at the far end of the gravel strip, and a bonsai'd tree stood astride it. And in a far corner was a water feature: a large basin with a gently knocking shi-shi-odoshi -a handmade Japanese contraption with a freely swinging bamboo arm that would fill slowly with water on one end, fall under its weight, empty out and lift back up, while making a soothing knock onto a sounding rock with its other end when it fell back down. The basin would intentionally overflow with water, which would drip down the sides, watering the unique grasses at its base, fomenting a nice copper patina in the basin, and frosting it with a pretty green moss.

Creeping thyme grew delicately between the stepping stones, and pine needles fell from the trees. The pine needles needed to be swept, daily, or so she was instructed by her Zen therapist.

So she did, each day. And on Thursdays she would rake the gravel in perfect lines of a different direction, according to the whims of her internal compass This was supposed to be a "therapy". And it never worked. Because managing your anger in the face of all of life's wrongs takes more than a daily raking up of pine needles and pea gravel, or a quiet 11 minutes staring at three, well-placed rocks.

Her husband had left her abruptly two years ago. But she was left to manage the donut shop a few miles down the boulevard, and so was forced to find another home in the same neighborhood. And no one had ever seen the garden, which cost her a donut-load of money to have installed. The teenagers who worked the shop provided enough of a hassle for her to never miss having children. She kept so busy managing them, that she never noticed that she had no friends.

Until one afternoon when Mike1819 was staggering back from the AM/PM and was so drunk he he'd turned down the wrong street and just decided to keep going. Halfway down the block he felt the urge to empty his bladder, and looked both ways and ducked behind a bush next to a fence. Standing there, quietly relieving himself, he was startled by a knocking sound coming from the other side of the fence. Fearing he'd been spied, he zipped up and shut up for a minute, and then the "knock" happened again. He stood still, arresting himself, and tried to not sway with the always intrusive spinning of the world. And in that moment of stillness and small fear, he saw something extraordinary between the fence pickets, and it would change everything.

The most beautiful backyard he had ever lay eyes upon. A locale so serene that the distant resonating of the Music of the Spheres could be heard, and he was drawn in. He could not resist, but, no, there was nothing to resist at all. He was plainly drawn in, and out of the suburbs, for a moment, where time stopped.

The sight of an overweight drunk man in belt-less, oversized pants in the middle of the day was enough for anyone to call the police, but to see him coming over your back fence begged you to get a firearm out of the closet. Luckily, Chin missed the ignoble maneuver, as she was in the bathroom herself, and was getting ready to change into some work clothes.

But in her backyard, Mike1819 was dumbstruck in a moment of near religious proportions. He just stood there silently, gazing at the weave of lines in the pebble bed, and quietly taking it all in. He found himself taking one small step, and then stopping. And then another step. And soon a peacefulness settled over him, unlike anything he'd felt in ages. And standing there, emptying his heart into the water basin, he was reminded of something. A distant memory floated to the surface. Something he'd not thought of in twenty-six years. It was just beginning to take form in his head, and then his eyes welled up with tears, though he hardly noticed it...

Chin came at him with a large wooden Zen rake, screaming. It was a Karate-type yell that came from deep inside. The yell itself was birthed in her youth, by her father's instruction, but the passion behind it came from something more imminent, however detached. 

Mike1819 almost fell over and out of his pants, and would've pissed himself if he hadn't already taken care of that, but the rake was on its way. He grabbed his pants, she went for his head.

With a thwack he went down, like a sack of hams, and was totally stunned, as if he were in church and a SWAT team had suddenly stormed mass. She thwacked him repeatedly, and yelled something he couldn't understand. After a second or two of the beatings, he began to apologize and try and talk her down, but nothing seemed to work.

Mike1819 got to his feet, and stumbled back onto the Zen pebbles -which pained him to do so and only exacerbated the woman. He tried to walk off the rocks, like the padawan on rice paper, trying not to break it. He failed. The woman kept screaming, and it was unintelligible, but he had a moment of clarity and recognized the part of the fence where he had jumped over, and he went back for it. She got another thwack in, which didn't hurt him, but when he got to the other side of the fence, down on all fours beneath the pine trees and very near the puddle of urine he'd made only moments earlier, he was certain she'd be phoning the police, so he started running.

A few blocks into it, huffing and sweating like never before, he remembered where he was, and he took a turn and made his way home, not wanting any more trouble.

Chin did not call the police. She stopped. Found it in herself to be calm, having seen the fear in the man's face. Clearly he was not a threat. She told herself not to be angry. She told herself to look at the stones. She saw the pebbles. The broken lines. She told herself to rake them.

And then she went back to work at the donut shop, with the teenagers who drove her nuts.

Mike, meanwhile, sat on his torn couch, with the curtains drawn. For once, he didn't feel like having a beer. He wasn't sure what he felt, but he knew one thing for certain.

He just had to get back to that garden.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Desperately insecure, with a deep-seated anger that lay dormant, one could tell. He'd often say others were angry, when they weren't, and he wore a smile that was suspicious, if only for its constant presence. Mike1811 had a terrible sense of humor, and you found yourself using a different laugh around him. The one laugh that placates and accepts, but is dishonest in its own right, for its lack of pleasure. What was scary was you could tell Mike1811 knew this, and then was insulted, but he'd keep smiling. At block parties, someone would make an honest joke, and get an honest laugh, and Mike1811 would follow with a cliche'd turnabout, the group laugh would suddenly change pitch, shuffle its feet, and eyes would cast to the side and down, until someone saved the moment, with real humor. Mike1811 resented it, clearly, every single time.

Sample joke: you are mowing the front lawn on a hot day, trying to get the task done, tired anyway from the work week. You don't really want to be mowing the grass, but it's got to get done, when a car pulls up. It's Mike, in sunglasses, rolling down the window and smiling from the interior. He calls out, "Hey! When you're done there, can you do mine?!" and you can't hear him over the mower. You try to ignore it. He honks. You shut off the mower, stop, look up, and he says it again: HEY WHEN YOU'RE DONE THERE CAN YOU COME OVER AND DO MINE?!

How would you respond? You kind of feel sorry for the guy, and you don't want to set him off. And it would be handy to have a perfect retort, and as well you should, since he used this same line on you last year. But you just stand there like a dope, sweating in the sun, trying not to take it personally. You laugh along. And then you fire up the mower as he begins to say something else, and give it a little gas to drown out any excessive blather.

Jake got the line recently: "HEY, WHEN YOU'RE DONE THERE..." and he immediately pivoted the whole mower and pushed it across the street, blades spinning. He rocked it right up the curb, and one could hear metal on concrete as the mower blades nicked the edge of the sidewalk, and the sweat beaded and fell from his nose as he just started mowing Mike1811's lawn. Back and forth, front to back, and with fervor and zeal. Mike 1811 was startled and began to shake, not knowing how to handle it. He couldn't get out of his car, and had to drive down and whip it around in the cul-de-sac, since he'd been facing the wrong way. By the time he made it to his driveway, Jake was about halfway finished with the grass. Mike1811 got out and waved his arms, "Whoa! Hold on! I was just joking!" and Jake looked up and smiled, "oh! Sorry!" and he turned and forcefully pushed his mower back across the street. Went back to mowing his own lawn, with a delicate touch, keen on the edging. And he saw Mike1811 out of the corner of his eye, standing in the middle of his half-mown lawn, shocked, and wondering who to blame, or if someone should be.

It's hard to keep the desperation at bay, sometimes, in the suburbs. And if there is a consistent trait among neighbors, its the existence of it. The difference is in how it manifests, how it presents itself, and if it can withstand the daily battle. Jake thought about his own desperation, and how he kept it in a box. And then he supposed that the other Mikes kept theirs in boxes, too. And Mike1811 looked like he was paying a steep price for it. Jake was gonna have to do something before it was too late. Something more than, say, get a bigger box. 


There was an earthquake. Water was shaking out of the aquarium, and there was nothing Jake could do about it. He felt it was about to burst, as walls in his living room clearly cracked, drywall dust shimmering down from the ceiling. The kids were screaming upstairs. No, it wasn't upstairs. They were in the 4Runner, and his wife was peeling out of the driveway and racing off with them. The asphalt was cracking, and telephone poles were swinging, back and forth, sparks flying from their wired tops.

Then Jake heard a loud noise, it was Phil in his helicopter, landing there in the middle of the cul-de-sac. Phil, calm and hidden behind his sunglasses, put the craft down and waved for Jake to come get in. Jake did, and threw on the passenger headset, though the wires hung everywhere, and he could hear nothing. Phil leaned over him and slammed the door, then lifted off and flew over the valley.

The earth was still quaking, and Jake could make out some crashed cars, a fire, and a broken fire hydrant shooting water into the air. Phil seemed to be in a hurry, and flew like a rocket over the homes, out across the suburbs. Then he said something and Jake couldn't hear him. They couldn't communicate, and Phil pointed off to the horizon. Jake didn't understand at  first, but then he saw it. It was The Sleeping Giant, and he was awakening. 

The Giant lifted its huge head, and boulders came tumbling off it, in slow motion. He lifted one knee, and then the other, and then sat up, leaning back on his right elbow, and as he did this, homes went crashing down the hillside, off of him. The aluminum lattice cover that Sean had built, undulated over the Giant's crotch like a patterned loincloth, and the Giant reached up and grabbed the corner of the nearby Guajome golf course, sliding the entire swath of greenery up and over his thigh, and then he gently lay himself back down. Slightly askew. And then, as it had started, with wonder and awe and terror, the quakes subsided, and the Giant went back to sleep. 

But Jake had woken up, and the day was gonna start early. There was no more going back to sleep after that.

At the end of the day, Jake saw the Sleeping Giant out there, from the freeway. The Giant looked different somehow. Farmland around the leg area must have been re-worked. Tilled to a new color, with varied striations in the hillside. But Jake was certain it was something else, The Sleeping Giant was uneasy.


And then there's Mike1889. No one had ever met him, and he is only discussed. He lives, or so we think, in the house at the bottom of the street, the one near the entry. The one with the perfectly manicured lawn and meticulously squared-off hedges. The shades are drawn, the exterior lights are on timers. There is rarely a trash can out front on Tuesday mornings, and no paper is ever delivered. Jim, down the way, has been asked -via email- if he didn't mind parking his car in Mike1889's driveway three nights a week. Any three nights, he said. "Want to make it look like someone is home." 

But there was never anyone home. And Mike1889 was a cypher of a neighbor. Jim, who lived across the street said he couldn't complain. No dogs, no trash. No wild parties. One time a sprinkler broke -probably sheered off by a gardener- and water shot up into the air a good eight feet, at precisely 5AM every other morning, Jim sent Mike1889 an email regarding the episode and offered to fix it, since he was a handy guy. Mike said thanks, and Jim found a blank envelope stuck in his doorjamb the next day, with a crisp $100 bill in it.

Mike1889 is a thing of discussion at every block party. He's an easy target, like the weather, or the street sweeper. Who is the guy? Where is the guy? Jim says he doesn't care, as long as the street is safe. But Jake imagines the guy is an international traveler, with properties in the suburbs on every continent. He keeps the one on Highlander court as an extreme cover, since no one would ever look here for him. You can disappear in the suburbs, Jake says. Think about it: every house looks the same.

Or perhaps there is no Mike1889, as Pleather says. Perhaps the place is owned by the NSA or DARPA or some dark government agency, and Mike is a made-up man, to draw in the bait, whatever it may be. "I've seen the black helicopters flying over his house!" exclaims Pleather, and every laughs, because it seems like a joke. But when Pleather goes to get another beer, Phil leans in to all of us. "My helicopter is black. I fly it over the cul-de-sac all the time. Just for fun." We crack up.

Just for fun, we decide to change the name of our WiFi networks, and see if anyone will notice. Jim sets his to "COUNTYSURVEILLANCE" and Jake sets his to "FBI_CUSTOMER". They spend the rest of the night laughing over other ones.


Pleather is smarter than all that, which is why no one knows his real name and we just call him Pleather, because someone called him that once. Pleather is a smart man, tall. Lives alone at the top of the street in one of the bigger 1700 square foot models. He's got a lot of computer equipment in there, which he uses to design and manage websites. We worry about him. He's a nice guy, but he works at home and never gets out. He needs a tan. Needs to exercise. He spends a lot of time in his head, unfortunately, and -though he obviously doesn't believe in them- is an authority on end-of-the-world doctrines. Give him enough beer and he'll spout out about Niburu for ten miutes (Niburu is the exo-planet that is in another dimension but is on a collision course with earth.) He'll explain why the Y2K disaster was narrowly averted by a group of outlayers in Montana, friends of his. He knows when every eclipse is coming, when every  scheduled meteor shower is, and from time to time will tell you the news at night when you're taking out the trash, even though you didn't ask, but it will be tomorrow's news. And you'll see it on your Home Page when you click on in the morning.

Pleather makes his own beer, and everyone loves it. Every third Sunday or so he is out there in the garage with the pimped out Turkey fryer, brewing a new batch. You can smell it over the lawn clippings, while you're doing yardwork, and you can't help but go across the street and ask him what's up, because you just know he'll pour you a pint of his last batch. (It's not always good, but it's always beer.)

Inevitably, other neighbors will happen by and join in. He'll be stirring the 5 gallon pot, tossing in handfuls of flowered hops, and pouring himself home brew, all the while talking us up about the latest global fears, earth-shattering revelations about an intrusive government, and the one-off Mayan revelation that disturbs (and humors) us all. He's Pleather. There's no one else like him. You've got to have one on your street. Because when the Apocalypse hits, you-know-who-is going to have the survival gear handy. Including, and especially, the beer.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

There are five Mikes on the Highlander Court. Jake  is friends with two of them, Mike Briggs and Mike Lloyd. The other three are cyphers, whom no one really knows. Jake gives them last names that correspond with their house numbers, so there’s Mike1819, Mike1811, and Mike 1889.

Mike 1819 lives alone. Two cars out front in the driveway, underneath old parachute sheets. It’s not clear what one is, an old corvette, possibly, but the other is for certain an old French Citroen. It’s missing its rear wheels and is sitting on its back axle, while it’s front is jacked up, somehow. It’s big eye teardrop headlights and its old sweeping front end curves peer out from under the sheet when the Santa Anas whip up, and the thing looks like a dead, beached sea turtle surrounded by dry grass and tall weeds, with loose plastic bags blown under, tangled in the mid-carriage.

Mike 1819 is rarely seen, but it’s thought he’s a recluse alcoholic, and that one day we will all be unsurprised to find a paramedic and the sheriff out front, asking questions. No one will have answers, except to say that he was seen making his way up the street on foot from time to time, shirtless, returning from the AM/PM mid-afternoon with a cylindrical shaped brown paper bag. About a month ago someone spied a notice taped to his front door, and spread the word that foreclosure was imminent. But then Mike1811 chatted him up one day and Mike1819 claimed that people drove slowly by his house all the time. “It’s not for sale!” he said he often yelled at them, and then stated that he would never sell. Jake commented that he would never finish painting the place either, as it had two different tones on the trim, and if one had hiked in the field out back, one would notice a completely opposite beige on the rear wall of stucco.

Mike1811 was a totally different breed. Works for the city with all the promise of a public pension, health insurance, and regular work holidays. Jake resented it, but tried not to think about it. Mike1811 was an obviously insecure man. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Coming around the slow curve revealed the view he'd been looking forward to. Between subdivisions ran this treeless street along the crest of the hill, with no houses having been built on one side, where the sidewalk disappeared and the hill dropped away. Jake could run along the edge of the asphalt and feel the dried weeds coming up between the cracks, and then crunching beneath his feet. The view filled his vision and looked out across a valley. The Guajome, named by the indigenous people a few hundred years ago. A lot of it was farmland now, and he could see the highway snaking between and around the neatly cropped green hills, off to the east. He could see the suburbs filling the valley from the sea, creating a swath of sienna stucco and burnt orange spanish roofing tile. It ended abruptly, he could see, against the wild land on one side and farmland on the other. It was a shoreline, of sorts. But we were building into the sea.

And there beyond, in the distance, lay the great Sleeping Indian, as he was known. A string of elongated hills, with a roundish, head-shaped rise of the land on one end. It was an otherwise unnoticeable featured terrain, but if someone pointed it out to you, you would see it immediately, and without mistaking it. The Sleeping Indian. There he was, on his back. He'd be miles tall, if ever he was roused, and decided to stand up. And when you thought of the suburbs drawing up to him like a blanket, you realized you knew people that lived at the foot of the Sleeping Indian. And now that he's been pointed out to you, you will never be able to un-see him.

The sight of the view always cleared Jake's head, and the breeze in his face as he ran downhill made the list in his head come to life. New words formed, and combinations of adjectives swam poetically in his head, and he knew that he was writer for sure. And he would speed up, knowing what to put down on paper when he got back to his desk.

Around the corner, and a steep downhill, trying to pick up speed without falling, and without noticing the house on the corner, the one with the fake grass. He hated that grass, laying out there, fading in the sun. There was nothing real about it, unless plastic was real, he thought. And he knew for certain every inch of it. He knew because he put it there.

Burrows Greenscape was his business. A small, "family" business. Just him and his dear wife, selling fake grass to the sun-drenched southland. Just think of the advantages of artificial turf! Why, the government was even offering rebates if you installed the stuff. Get rid of those water-sucking plants in your yard and put in this stuff. Lose the sprinklers entirely! Think of the money you'll save!

He hated it. Hated everything about it. Its soulessness, its fakeness, its inability to grow and thrive. The mere idea of it was an insult to God, he was sure. But it was a living. He came into the business on a whim, years back, when he was down on his luck. Digging ditches came easy to him, it seemed. He had worked construction while he was in college, and knew that there would always be a job in it, so he felt that he'd always have that to fall back on, if college didn't work out, that is. Years later, when he got married and walked out of that coffee show forever, he applied for his contractor's license, and went into construction full time. Someone showed him the fake lawn product, and he did it on a whim, entertained by the thought of it -it was so absurd.

But he did good work, and was semi-reliable. The mark-up on the stuff was enough to make a decent living off of, and here, years later, he found  himself laying lawn after lawn of fake, plasticene fescue. And his customers were always happy

Most of them were older, and their lawn-mowing years were over. Retirement, for them, came down to sitting under their aluminum patio cover after an afternoon of blowing the leaves off the never-growing lawn. They smiled a lot, and Jake envied them. But he got a good tan out of the work, and all the digging kept him in shape. Still, he felt deep down, somewhere in his soul, that installing fake grass was an affront to God. And here he was rolling the astroturf out over his own neighborhood.

He couldn't help but look at it, as he ran past. He saw the turf coming up on one corner. And a bump in the middle where an old root was that he couldn't (or didn't) remove during the install. He saw the sand collecting on one end, and blowing up on to the driveway. He hoped the customer didn't recognize him running past, and he tried not to notice the grasses' more than ten percent fade rate, which was contrary to the written warranty. It wasn't his fault!

And as he came past, and around and back up the hill to his house, he thought of today's job: another lawn in another part of town. The digging that needed to be done, and how tiring it as going to be in the noonday sun, and how tired he already was, from the run. And why was he out here doing it to himself, anyway?

He was about to step into the boulevard and back across when he saw him there on the other side. The Naked Runner. Little blue shorts today. Running shoes. And, again, no shirt. The man with intent, and at a good clip. Jake kind of admired the pace the guy kept, to be honest, but that clenched jaw and those squinting eyes. That furrowed brow that looked angry, it kept Jake at bay, and he moved up the opposite side of the street until he was past. And then he crossed. Avoiding the naked runner entirely. Don't mess with him, he thought. Best not to get in his way.

And he followed the sidewalk the last few blocks home. Under the pine trees and sidestepping the ankle-busting pinecones that rolled beneath his feet. Past the graffiti laced street sign that he'd been meaning to clean, and around the last corner, over the old manhole cover, up around the gutter and storm drain, and there it caught his eye, as it always does, the old rusty brake drum.

It looked like it had come off a truck a year or so ago, and the weight of it, and it's unobtrusive location away from the walk, left it undisturbed there. No one felt the need to move it, or haul it away. The brake just sat and rusted, there, at the side of the road. Jake tied to make a metaphor out of it, on nearly every run. That here was an abandoned brake, rusting away. That perhaps it was shorn off by someone in the heat of escape, racing to break out out and away from the suburbs. The brakes had come off, and it was no matter. We've got to get out of here, and we've got to go fast. And we're not gonna need that because we ain't planning on stopping.

But that was not the metaphor that stuck in Jake's head. It was quite the contrary. It was a brake, to be sure, but it was frozen in time, and not going anywhere. We'd stopped in the suburbs for repairs, and just plain rusted out. We broke down and stopped forever.

When Jake got home he walked off the sweat a bit before heading inside. And between the curb and his desk was a wash of a thousand little tasks: consider what had to be unloaded and loaded into the truck for the day, get next week's orders in, return a few phone calls and type up those all-important invoices, clean the coffee carafe, pick up the kids' toys -especially the wheeled ones at the top of the stairs- and fill his water bottle for the work day, change into his boots, figure his schedule and get out. It was another busy day, and he'd already blown an hour of it running around the neighborhood. 

As he pulled the truck out of the driveway and headed out of the cul-de-sac, he saw the Naked Runner coming in, full stride. They didn't make eye contact, but Jake remembered that he hadn't gotten around to writing any of it down that morning, and he intended to catch up on it later that night after the kids were put to bed. But he was afraid he'd know just how tired he'd be by then, after a day of digging up old dead grass, and he knew no words would get down on paper tonight either.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Past the elementary school, where his genius daughter was in the second grade. The school had boring, angled, eighties-style architecture, though it was probably built in the nineties. There was a one-way, circular driveway for drop-off and pick-up, and the front office, two doors back, with the attractive and spirited single woman who ran the show, the Principal. She was sharp as a tack, creative, and filled with new ideas, but the task of managing careless parents with high expectations and low personal family discipline always got in the way of her fulfilling the vision she had for the school. She agonized over it.

Up a short hill. Someone had put out a perfectly serviceable reclining lounge chair for the garbage man to haul off, but he never did. It had a worn leather on it, and Jake had noticed it for weeks now. So had a 6th grader. A plump little kid who sat in it every morning with a book and some headphones. He looked as if he was early for school, and just passing the time. Parents must have rushed off to work, and shoed him out of the house, Jake thought. Jake considered that the kid was a reader, and that perhaps he was a bit lonely.

Keep going, hit the first mile, and assess how tired he was. Round another corner and there’s a long, straight stretch, gaining some elevation. Inevitably, he would pass an older Asian woman, in cream pantsuit and a pair of large, old-style headphones. She would walk fast, and Jake would smile and give her a slight wave every time, but the woman never looked at him, even though they passed each other every day.

Not so for the old man making his way in the walker. Always smiling, and moving slow, the man would see Jake coming, lift his arm in greeting, and Jake would pass him before it got halfway up. Then Jake would look back over his shoulder, catching his breath up the hill, and noticed that the man was halfway through turning to greet him. Sometimes, Jake wondered when he arrived home, he worried that twenty minutes later the old man was just finishing up going through the motions of waving hello, and continuing on down the sidewalk with his walker.

Reaching the water towers at the top of the hill, was the highest point in his suburb, and the halfway point on his daily jog. On a clear November day, he could see snow on the mountains to the east, and the ocean horizon to the west. He would take a deep breath and a long look, before he rounded the corner and headed back down, he would quietly thank God for the view, and remind himself what a lucky bastard he was.

Keep running, a slow decline and past an older couple, always smiling, greeting everyone. They both had plastic sacks in one hand, and mechanical grabbing tools to pick up trash. Who knew who they were? These two kind folks picking up trash in the neighborhood, getting some exercise and fresh air. Jake didn’t see them every day, but he did every Wednesday for sure, on trash day, when the garbage truck would rumble and barrel down the avenue, stopping every 25 feet to lower its own grabbing claw, hoisting the can up and over to spill into the back of the truck. It would shake the thing violently, and then slam it back down on the curb and rumble forward, leaving a dervish of lighter-than-air trash swirling in the wind, with the couple coming slowly behind, eager to get at it with their grab-nabbers.

Down the hill some more. Dog owners pulling their leashes close, often stopping entirely until Jake passed, so has not to trip him in a lasso. A woman with two-children in a double-jogger, coming the other way. The kids, bored to death. One of them missing a sock. One of them having tossed a bottle, or a binky, or a little blanket, which Jake would inevitably see on the sidewalk a hundred feet from there.

And then, often, the Beautiful One. The hot girl, bouncing up the street with intent, and a fit, flashy stride that showed off her hips, legs, chest. Jake tried not to stare. Tried to think of his wife. Tried not to smile back, as she always did at him. Trouble, he thought. Sometimes he stayed on the opposite side of the street, to avoid the temptation.

A slow curve, with no houses on one side, so he could look out and see the suburban frontier, and the wild land beyond. His house was right there, facing the sunrise, and with its yard to the west. His was at the boundary of the Development, and he liked it that way. He saw it as a great metaphor, that he was on the fringe of this little society, the edge of this world, the verge of something unknown, and maybe mysterious. He liked living there, and he wondered what he would do when new builders came, and extended the suburban sprawl. He wondered if he would ever move. If he ever could. And where he would go if he did. Not that he’d be able to afford it.