The Rose

A stranger walked into the woods and away from his life. He had given up on the world of the living. He walked with an empty heart, deeper and deeper into the forest, paying no attention to any compass; there was no reason to go back the way he had come. He walked until the sounds of the city fell away; until the sun faded and the moon shone with a fierce white light. Wolves howled and night birds screeched. The sounds of water could be heard, madness descended on the land and into the stranger’s mind. He found a place to sit and wait for the forces of nature to take him to another plane.

He sat on the damp ground with the tendrils of a vining weed curling around his boots.  Footsteps of nocturnal predators surrounded him and bats flew silently overhead. He sat and waited, knowing that the claws and teeth of a hungry beast would be upon him soon enough. A tri-colored snake sat coiled on a branch above his head. He beckoned to it with his broken thoughts. A lightening fast strike from the serpent would be followed by an eternity of peace. He waited.

The stranger waited for death to find to him but on this night he would not be found. He laid down and did not object when spiders crawled onto his face. Sleep came over him and when the first rays of morning sun touched his eyes he was startled by the presence of a tiny rose. An unlikely plant to be growing there, it was barely alive from being choked by the vines but, even so, had managed to send up one tiny bloom that glowed red in the sunlight.

The stranger stared at the tiny flower, his face reflected in a single dew drop clinging to it’s petals. He sat up and cleared away the vines so that the little plant could get more light and air. It rained often in the forest and all green things grew very rapidly, especially the vining weeds. By the time the sun was setting in the west, the tiny rose had become more robust and vines were once again curled around it’s base.

The next morning, and for countless mornings, the stranger awoke on the ground next to the rose. He would tear the vines away to give it room to grow. With the help of the stranger, the rose flourished; turning it’s velvet blossoms towards the warm rays of sun.

The stranger no longer waited for death to find him and he became intent on serving the rose. Though it never thanked him, the stranger desired only to sleep under the stars looking forward to watching the rose unfold in the morning light.

The rose did only as it’s nature intended it to do. It fed on the sun and the rain; growing stalks of deep green leaves and razor sharp thorns, topped by silky red flowers. The rose never knew the perilous nature of it’s existence nor did it give any thought to the assistance that made it’s life possible. It did not feel for other living things, it knew only warmth and growth, it did what roses do.

Seasons passed and the stranger grew old. But even in the autumn of his life, with gnarled hands and bent knees, he fought the strangling vines; tearing them from the ground so that the rose may live.

One morning the sun burst over the horizon, illuminating the rose and filling all the dew drops with rainbows of refracted light. The forest shone like a cathedral but the stranger did not stir. Light fell on his face but his eyes did not open. His chest did not rise and fall. He did not wake from his slumber and clear away the vines.

As the sun moved across the sky, the vining weeds wrapped their tendrils around anything they could reach. By noon the stranger’s face was obscured and his arms bound securely to the ground. Carnivorous insects marched to him in straight lines. The rose continued to flourish and bloom even as the vines began to curl around it’s thorny stalks. It did not know to be afraid or to mourn for what had been lost to it. It knew only to grow in the sunlight and so it carried on. By the following day the strangling vines had wrapped themselves through every stalk of the beautiful bush yet the rose felt no sadness. The great stalks began to wither, leaves turning brown and perfect red flowers falling to the ground as the vines choked the life from the rose.

The rose did not grow angry at it’s fate. It simply was and then it was not. It did what roses do; returning to the forest floor with all the living things that had gone before.

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Pactiser Avec Le Diable

Look it up if you don’t know what it means. I would also like to point out that French is the language of skunks. No joke, it really is. I once knew a skunk and, while many people mistook it for a kitten, a brief interaction, and a translator with a keen nose, is all that was required to pick up on a refined sensibility and impeccable manners.

Hello Tribe.

I thought I would dish up something nice, something to get you inspired to go bleed some ink; to splash your thoughts across a page that, in an unnamed time frame, will be retrieved from a landfill and cataloged as evidence of our great demise.

Is it working?

I don’t write in notebooks because I live with people who can read! Think about that.

The truth is; I don’t have a method, I don’t write a certain number of words per day and I certainly don’t write them on paper. I did, however, take English in high school, so there’s that at least.

I type with three fingers and, whatever gibber jabber comes out, it doesn’t come from me. I consult the tarot, commune with the dead and channel ideas from other dimensions.

I once recounted the details of a horrific murder to which there were no witnesses. I knew the victim and, after her ghost scared the shit out of me in the middle of the night, I spent three days asking her what she wanted me to say. At the end of the 3rd day she started talking and I tapped out 3471 words on the screen of my iPhone while laying in bed. You can read that story here if you like.

I am of the opinion that practice makes proficiency but it doesn’t make art. Genius can be facilitated but not taught. Don’t take my word for it. I’m just a smart ass with a sinister gift, after all. Try it for yourself. Forget all that brain-space wasting shit that you know and let a dragonfly alight on your finger.

The Way Down

   There is a painting of us somewhere. We just don’t know where. And it’s not really of us. Well, it sort of is. You’ll see.

     During the spring of another era, I bled to death in a cabin east of the Mississippi. My unborn daughter drowned in my womb and an owl flew down from it’s tree in the middle of the day. I never knew the person my child might have been. Apparently, she wasn’t anyone at all. A midwife was there but rags with ointment and hot water were no match for a breech birth. Dean looked on but there was nothing he could do. Finally the nurse turned to him and said “it’s no use.” She packed her things and left him with the mess. It wasn’t fair. Across the way, a young girl lived alone. She was crazy and blind, both her parents were taken with the fever. Her name was Unfortunate and she would sit in the dirt singing songs to herself. As the midwife walked away sad words floated in the air “that’s the way it goes, that’s the way…” Some endeavors just aren’t meant to be. It’s not true what they say about catching a cold. It’s children that’ll be the death of you.

     Dean, I don’t know what his name was then, turned to booze and whores to calm his despair. Five years later a woman with no last name woke up next to a man who had died in the night. She took his wallet on her way out the door. There was nothing in it.

     My car is little and efficient. It has front wheel drive and I like to take it places where it shouldn’t go. I snapped out of my visions and realized I was driving too fast down a steep mountain, on a winding dirt road, in the rain. Willow trees slapped the windshield. The voice from the stereo was mine but coming from someone else entirely. Her name is Gillian and, like me, she is the spawn of a midnight pact between a young woman and a drummer. “Some girls are bright as the morning” she sang “and some girls are blessed with a dark turn of mind.” The wipers swiped at the rain and then snagged a wisp of willow, smearing green across the glass.

     In Oregon the ocean washes jellyfish up on the beach. They are nature’s gooey land mines. Even the dead ones will sting you and the stringy fuckers are see-through. The crabs aren’t afraid of them though. Tiny hermit crabs, swimming in puddles around starfish, are not even the slightest bit concerned for the watery Christmas-light tentacles of the jelly. You can walk on the beach, down the line where the water meets the sand and see any given metaphor. I was walking and came upon a shell. The idea that one can hear the ocean in a shell is rhetorical. With the tide splashing salt water in your hair, what else would you hear? I picked it up anyway and, to my surprise, didn’t hear the ocean at all. I heard rain and wheels on dirt. A tired voice told me “Step into the light, poor Lazarus. Don’t lie alone behind the window shade” It may have just been my own thoughts but, in any case, the ocean had nothing to say about it.

     No matter how much rain falls, you can’t drive your car off the mountain until you get to the bottom. In the meantime, cars full of lonely guitars and dissonant thoughts only go down the mountain.

     Deserts are places where oceans used to be. They no longer have a line where the water meets the sand because the water left, leaving the sand to it’s own devices. When the moon shines on the desert, scorpions grow restless and break into a sweaty panic, often stinging themselves to death for no good reason. A scorpion is equipped with an arsenal sufficient to win any war, even if it’s grossly outnumbered. It’s a shame then how many scorpions fall victim to their own poison. My car rested on a sand dune, parked in the desert for so long the paint had turned to rust and the seats were wire skeletons. Once I had slept in the back but now a wild dog licked her wounds in my stead. A coral snake slid down from inside the bumper and caught itself a scorpion. Headless and squirming, the scorpion’s tail flew up and stung the snake in it’s eye. Two of god’s creatures died there under the rusty car on a moonlit night. From the dashboard came a tiny glow, static crackled and the voice of someone who wasn’t theremused “of all the little ways I’ve found to hurt myself, well you might be my favorite one of all.”

     I thought I should really pay more attention to the road. Being perilously close to the soggy shoulder, one false move could send me cartwheeling over the edge. I would still be going down the mountain, technically, just not the way I had planned. It was all so hypnotizing: the rain and the wipers with the songs and willow trees. Perhaps it was the altitude or maybe the Indian cigarettes. Someone else probably should have been driving, but who? I hummed along with the music “sunshine and sorrow, yesterday, tomorrow…” The car drove itself home.

     A southern woman I’ve never met keeps a painting in her attic. She keeps it because it was there when she moved in. The painting depicts a man and a woman sitting on a bench by a window. The new resident of the home believes this scene takes place in what is now her breakfast nook and that the people in the painting used to live in the original part of the house. Once, when the woman’s father came to visit he asked her “whatcha hanging on to that ol’ picture of them niggers for?” “Hush now”, she told him, “it’s not right to call them that and besides they look like half breeds to me.” The old man clacked his dentures with his tongue “sure are a lot of clouds in here. I think it’s gonna rain”. “Dad!” she knew he would never change but still… “can’t you see the woman has green eyes?”

** song lyrics in italics by Gillian Welch

Reckoning

Dear Google Sniper,
There is only one thing more chickenshit than writing a blog incognito and that is leaving anonymous and false negative reviews for a business, my business to be precise, in a public forum. Here’s the thing though, I’ve figured out who you are and, since you clearly enjoy making good use of the Internet, I thought you would appreciate my latest endeavor. I’ve been conducting a little research project, you see. Doing a little Googling, if you will. It’s a fact finding mission of epic proportions! And this here’s the best part, you’ll dig it; not surprisingly, Internet searches for the key words “Hobo Flea Circus” predictably trigger your Adwords campaign to display prominently right up there in that yellow box. Over and over again, same search, same results. Rumor has it that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing, repeatedly, and expecting different results. I, however, expect exactly what I get, every time. It’s a minor variance but one that means the difference between being crazy or just plain evil. I gotta say, while the work on your website is not quite as bad as I’d like it to be, it’s probably not quite as good as you’d like it to be. I’ve heard that particularly agile fleas can fetch upwards of 25 cents per show but, despite that river of cash, you must be working those little fuckers to the bone just to keep up with your overhead. Even so, I’m sure the fleas’ sign language rendition of Joe Cocker’s “A Little Help From My Friends” must generate numerous phone calls from perspective clients. Anyway, I know you gotta be an all or nothing, balls to the wall gambler to wager the bids required to keep your campaign at the top of the Googles and I hope whoever you’re bangin’ can spot you some gas money next month cause this shit is about to get expensive.
Clicky click motherfucker.

Life Coach

This post originally written as a gift to the star character. Leo Rabbits have all the fun.

******************

I was sitting in the very last row of seats at the back of the plane.  Sandwiched between two people so that my hands were relegated strictly to the space above my lap, I held my nag chompa scented copy of Trout Fishing In America, a book that is not really about fishing, and pretended to read it while contemplating how to explain myself.  I am the author known as The Devil You Know which means, of course, that you probably don’t know me at all.

One of the people I was stuck between was my mom. We had gone on a mother and daughter vacation, apparently.  The plane ride from Salem to Magdalena was approximately three hours and, while I had assumed she had run out of irritating and embarrassing shit to say either to or in front of me, respectively, I had thought wrong.  I was concentrating hard on my book that was not really about fishing when my mom leaned over and asked me “did you read What the Dog Saw yet?” “Not yet” I told her.  Knowing I was a Malcolm Gladwell fan, she had picked up a copy for each of us when she saw it on 2 for 1 sale at a bookstore that is now defunct.  “Well”, she replied, ” I didn’t think it was as good as his other books so I only read part of it but I did like the one story that was actually called ‘What The Dog Saw’.  It was about that guy who is good with dogs.”  “Caesar Milan” I told her. “Yeah that’s him. He has, like, 30 dogs that he is rehabilitating at any given time and they (the dogs) just fall all over themselves to please him. It’s because he’s the dog whisperer.”  Dog Whisperer indeed, I thought.  While she continued talking about dogs and books I shifted in my seat and the bruises on my ass mumbled something about how it would be nice to stand up and walk around.  Less than 24 hours ago the world was so different.

My screaming and crying could no doubt be heard all through the three story house and probably all the way down the block.  I had been forced to undress and was pushed onto my hands and knees atop a hardwood coffee table.  A man who was easily twice my size had a handful of my hair and was making me look straight ahead while he was spanking my ass with his other hand.  The continuous stinging blows were merciless and growing in intensity.  When he saw I was fighting back tears, he hit me particularly hard and demanded to know “am I hurting you?”. “Yes” I whimpered “Then say you’re hurting me!”  When I said it, he hit me again and continued to do so until I was choking on the words, “you’re hurting me...”

Eventually my mom tired of dogs and books and went back to examining her souvenir brochure from the world famous Chinese Gardens.  I didn’t think I should tell her about my flashbacks so I returned to my book that was not really about fishing.

When I was young and in college, I met a cute boy.  He had brown skin and long hair. He played bass guitar with savant-like mastery.  Unlike your average savant, he could also tie his shoes and juggle oranges. He was cool and sweet and funny. Naturally, I loved him though I was quite sure he didn’t notice me at all.  One evening, when I had given up hope of accidentally attracting his attention, I set him up on a blind date with one of my friends.  At the time I only had two friends and, since everyone knows that girls travel the plains in roving bands, all three of us climbed in the car and made the journey from Pie Town to his apartment.  I would love to claim that this was my evil genius master plan, concocted to win him for myself but, sadly for my intellect, it was pure dumb luck that he didn’t like my friend nor did she like him and, somehow or other, I found myself naked in his bed at the end of the night.

“The supposition that it is necessary to feed the Cobra Lily a piece of hamburger or an insect daily is erroneous.” -excerpt from Trout Fishing In America.  The more I didn’t read this book, while sitting sandwiched between two people in the last row of seats at the very back of the plane, the more I began to wonder how I would ever explain all that had happened.  He had asked me to write about it but there is no straight forward way to tell this story because I, for one, am crooked as a stick in water.  In my life, everything has to do with everything else so how do I tell the tale of one thread in a tapestry without unraveling the whole image?

The plane was yesterday and I acquired all these bruises the day before. Tonight I laid on my bed, tapping this story out on my phone, until Carl also came to bed. I switched programs and was scanning my Twitter feed by the time he made it across the room.  Though he hasn’t done anything wrong, I am annoyed by his presence and because he has interrupted my train of thought. I lay on my back, tolerating his hand on my stomach which also bugs the crap out of me.  I have a plan though so I keep reading my tweets and waiting for him to fall asleep. He is just drifting off when a black furry face with huge eyes pokes up over the edge of the bed.  My cat doesn’t like to jump anymore so she reaches her arms out, digs in with her claws and drags herself up where she wants to be. Then she lays down on top of me, purring like a race car.  With the invasion of the cat, Carl removes his hand and eventually dozes off again.  When I’m sure he’s asleep I turn off my reading lamp, gather up cat and iPhone, and exit the room with them both.

Many painful things occurred on and around the coffee table in the basement of the three story house.  Next to the table I stood on the floor, bent over grabbing my ankles and he beat me with a riding crop while demanding that I thank him for each stroke and then request another; a request that was always granted. Realizing that there was nothing I could do to alter the course of events, I did as I was told.

After the blind date that did not go as planned, I spent a lot of time with my new boyfriend.  One night when I had the stomach flu we went with my friend, Monique, to meet some other people I didn’t know at the hot springs.  After an hour of bouncing up the mountain in the back seat, we finally arrived and I fell out of the car and threw up on the ground.  While sitting in the springs one of the other men there asked my boyfriend if I was in middle school which, evidently, was commentary that meant I appeared to be twelve yrs old. Sixteen years later, I now appear to be at least thirteen. During the night we laid on the ground and listened to the rise and fall of Monique’s voice as she sat on the edge of the hot spring smoking a cigarette and shaking her foot; charming some guy’s dick into fucking her. She didn’t drive all that way for nothing after all.

While I sat naked on the coffee table, he made me thank him for stripping me of all power and control.  He was very strong and I learned to obey him. He made me sit on my knees, which was hard on both my knees and ankles.  When I saw him pick up the nipple clamps, I knew better than to raise my hands in self defense. They were a viscous and biting device but I sat there, with my hands down, as he applied them and the pain shot through me.  The clamps were connected by a short chain which he placed in my mouth and then told me to raise my head and look at him. This was painful and nearly impossible due to the short length of the chain. He hit me extra hard with the crop and told me that if the chain fell from my mouth he would give me ten more. He then used his hands to force an orgasm from me.  When he touched my pussy, it was wet.  An orgasm, when taken by force, is not in any way the same as when it occurs naturally.

On the morning I left Salem I saw a zombie walking through the airport.  It was my reflection in some glass doors.  When it saw me staring, the zombie reached out and grabbed the front of my shirt, drawing my face to it’s black teeth. “Cada profeta en su casa” it said, rank breath stinging my eyes. Fucking zombie.  Having spent the night cursing and puking into the toilet, I was in no mood for bilingualism.  My dinner at the Chapel Pub the previous evening was served with a side of malicious intent, which was disappointing because I had ordered french fries.  Can’t say I was surprised though.  My mom was horrifyingly rude to the bartender and I had wanted to sit across the room from her so he wouldn’t think we were together. Too late though, he already knew.  I stumbled through the airport, stomach churning, mom in tow, zombie trailing behind.

My college boyfriend was a short affair, lasting only a few months. We didn’t break up but rather we moved on.  While we were together we took a road trip to Las Vegas to see the Grateful Dead. I don’t think either of us was actually a fan of the Dead. We were not Dead Heads, as it were, but while we were there we did have sex in the same bed where a different boy I had been involved with was also sleeping. He was snoring so I guess we figured he wouldn’t hear us.

He made me lay on my back on the table while he poured the molten contents of two candles all over me.  The searing hot wax burned my skin and I expected there would be marks but it didn’t leave any.  He sat between my legs and I was vulnerable to him. This was clear to both of us. I heard him plug something in and turn it on; a brief buzzing sound before my pussy was rocked by an intense vibration. I was not able to choose whether or not to cum anymore than you can choose to keep your leg still when the doctor tests your reflexes. While I was consumed by involuntary spasms, he held me down and continued with his work.

After we parted ways I did not see my college boyfriend for many years.  A psychic medium had told me we would meet again but so long had passed that I was sure he was lost to me.  Then one day, many years later and a year or so before today, I was in a sad place.  Not knowing what else to do, I reached out to him and, to my surprise, he reached back.  We discovered that we still liked each other.  He told me of his life and he told me things about himself that I never knew.  I told him how I had accidentally hypnotized myself into an emotional prison and he said something like “well, that’s dumb” and I was like “yeah, it is”.

Now that I’m home, I’m going to have to keep my ass hidden for awhile as it looks like a badly painted mural.  Little dots and squares and big circles, ruptured capillaries snaking like blue streams down a mountain; all of which would be tough to explain.  I’m sure Carl was expecting to get laid but, as it turns out, he’ll have to wait.

When he finished disciplining me on the table, he pushed me on to the floor and dragged me across the room. Then he tied me up in a steeresque fashion, hands to feet.  During these sessions, when he taught me about submission, he would explain his rules to me and, should I ever not follow them precisely enough, his punishment would be swift and harsh.  At times, when my head would rock back from being slapped in the face, I would think at him ” you know I’m trying to do as you said!” but as he consistently reinforced his authority I noticed a deeper part of myself responding; not with any kind of malice or resentment, but with acceptance.  He stood over me with the riding crop, hitting me when he felt like it. The way I was tied made it difficult to squirm around much or roll away.  I didn’t want to show him resistance but my body responds to pain.  He was right to restrain me.

My college boyfriend, now pen pal, and I wrote many letters back and forth; each of us sharing the bizarre stories that are the fabric of our lives.  One day about 6 months ago he told me of a new endeavor; a passion for the domineering arts, commonly referred to as BDSM.  He was very excited about it.  I don’t believe I had ever seen him so excited about anything!  He told me of the overwhelmingly positive response he was receiving from his various female companions.  “Really?” I asked him, secretly feeling a little excited about it myself.  In his fervor he asked me in a letter how I would respond to being tied up and spanked.  My first response was “I don’t know, I’ve never been tied up and spanked”.  He didn’t realize it but he let loose a wild seed in my mind that started to take root.  I was tired. Tired of calling the shots, tired of making the decisions, tired of being the aggressor.  All of it was so draining and I was exhausted.  I felt resentful of the relentless pressure that I was under.  I wanted to put down the reins but, with no one to pick them up, it wasn’t an option.

I was still tied up on the floor when he slid his cock into my ass, unapologetic and without hesitation.   I had brought myself to him as an offering and, by doing so, had agreed to accept him as master.

I wrote a follow up letter to my pen pal with a new response to his question.  I explained my exhaustion to him and asked him for help.  I told him there was no one else I would consider turning to and I begged him to relieve me.  I acknowledged him as a dominant male and said I would respect his decision, whatever it was.  For what it’s worth, it’s not very often that a scorpion will lay down in front of a lion.  It defies the laws of nature. Despite having to dip his feet in the sea of moral ambiguity that is my world, he agreed.  He explained to me that he required my complete and voluntary surrender and that I would have to accept whatever came next, which was for him to decide.  I agreed and thanked him.  I promised I would submit to him in any way he deemed necessary.

He had me face down on the floor, hands and feet bound.  He was in my ass and, with his weight on top of me, I couldn’t move. His method of penetration was very forceful.  He was using one elbow to support himself and had his other hand clamped over my nose and mouth.  Silent, helpless and choking; I was subdued.  Never did it occur to me to be afraid nor did I feel any anger or aggression.  I was at peace with all that was happening and felt my trust in him deepen.  When he did allow me to breathe I told him to use me to please himself.  In my mind, he had won my respect. I loved him and wanted to turn myself inside out for him.  That was not a literally possible thing to do but what I could do was accept him fully, which I did.  The pain he had inflicted on me was necessary and appreciated.  It was a gratifying wave of relief.

Once we had made our agreement, there remained one little issue and that was how I was going to bend the laws of inertia to pull off a scheme of this magnitude. I had to find a legitimate reason to travel across the country without raising any suspicions regarding the nature of the trip.  While I command a certain wizardry over such things, this was no small feat.  Months were passing and I was having no luck.  Then one day, about eight weeks ago, my mom invited me to go to breakfast with her.  While we chewed our pancakes, she told me that she understood the cramped feelings I had since Carl and I were always together.  We live and work together and I had complained to her on many occasions about my lack of privacy and of not having any “me time”. She said she had thought of a solution.  Her idea was that she and I would take a trip together but go our own ways once we arrived at the destination. That way, I could frolic about all by myself and no one would be suspicious of my intent.  At first, I blew it off, thinking “yeah right, like I have time to do that.”  Fortunately, before I said anything too negative, a brilliant vision flashed before me.  I told her it was a lovely plan and that we would go to Salem.

When he had finished with me, we cleaned ourselves up and I cried on him for awhile. Then we went to get some Thai food.  I ordered chicken soup and what they brought me was a bowl of beaks and crow’s feet.  While I sipped my witchcraft with a giant spoon, we discussed what had happened and some of the ways in which it’s effect might be felt in the future. “Watch out”, he told me, “two other women I’ve been with have left their husbands.” “You know”, I grinned, “some people would call that being a home-wrecker.”  “No, no” he said, looking up and pointing his spoon at me, “I’m a life coach.”

Compassion

glos·so·la·li·a – noun
incomprehensible speech, sometimes occurring in a trance state, an episode of religious ecstasy, or schizophrenia.

In short, this word is used to describe all types of gibberish. Come to think of it, I should probably change the name of this blog to Glossolalia, but for now I’ll dish up this reference: Some venomous snakes are pacified by glossolalia but the ones that aren’t will bite you in the face.

I was on the phone with a miserable woman named Marnie Anderson. She was demanding that I tell her when Mr. Kline would be available to come to her house to take her album order from her daughter’s wedding. “Well…, never” was my reply. Even if he had time, which he didn’t, there was no way in hell he was voluntarily going to this woman’s house. Marnie was a repeat customer which, under normal circumstances, would have been considered a good thing. Mr. Kline had photographed her eldest daughter’s wedding a couple years prior and they were very pleased with the results so, when it came time to unload daughter #2, they knew who to call. Unfortunately, some tragic events had unfolded during the interim so, when we got the call from Marnie about Maria’s wedding, the conversation was heavy with “oh that’s terrible” and “we’re so sorry to hear that.”

Having been dealt an extraordinarily bad hand, it seemed that both Marnie and Maria were stricken with some type of inoperable cancer and they needed to get this wedding done pronto because no one was sure how much longer Maria was going to live. Naturally, they wanted Mr. Kline to do the honors but, due to the short notice, he was already booked. Carl was still available and we all assured the dying Andersons that Carl was an excellent photographer and that everything would be fine. During the initial consultation, while we sat around the table looking at photo albums and discussing logistics, Marnie hugged her arms around herself, coughed, hacked, rocked back and forth in her chair and got teary eyed. We all felt terrible about her situation and Mr. Kline tried to be as helpful as he could by offering her a very nice package, complete with bride’s album and two parent’s albums, all at half price. This pretty much meant that the studio was taking a hit in the name of good karma and barely breaking even.

“I just need to know when Mr. Kline can come to my house so I can tell him what pictures I want in my album” Marnie groaned at me. I’m not sure if her condition also rendered her hard of hearing so I repeated myself, again. “I’m sorry but he is not able to come to your house. You can either send your order in with someone else or you can tell it to me now over the phone.” “Well”, she continued, “I need to talk to him about these photos so you find out when he can come to my house!” I see, too sick to visit to the studio but not too sick to talk to me like her bitch. I was beginning to wonder if I had a speech impediment and that maybe she had I thought I said “if you make vague implications while raising your voice, I’ll find a time when he can swing by.” Mr. Kline, by the way, was sitting right in front of me refusing to take the phone and making it quite clear he wasn’t going to her house. I decided to try a different tactic. “Ok”, I said, “Mr. Kline can come by your house at 1:00 in the afternoon on November 15th”, a date that was approximately eight weeks in the future. As expected, she didn’t like that so she said “you tell me when Mr. Kline will be in the office so I can call back and talk to him directly!” Yeah right, like he was ever going to speak to her directly. “He’ll be in tomorrow” I told her and hung up the phone.

All three of us; Mr. Kline, myself and Carl, had gone through the photos prior to sending them out and we all knew they were fine, or at least as good as they could be. There was nothing spectacular about them but that wasn’t Carl’s fault because, as he explained to us, there were a number of obstacles he had to overcome just to get any shots at all and a lesser photographer probably would have hidden in the bathroom and cried. Upon arriving at the Anderson residence, where the photos were slated to begin, it was obvious that it was going to be a bad day. The house was in total chaos with all kinds of people running around yelling at each other and no one even close to being ready. Carl was told to wait in the living room. After clearing a pizza box and some empty soda cans off the couch, he made himself at home and spent a few minutes admiring the Christmas tree. It was July. After awhile a diapered, but otherwise naked, toddler came and sat down on the floor to watch TV. By the time the girls were actually ready there was no time left to shoot at the house, which was a downright shame with the trash and Christmas decor and all, and so they went on to the church and spent the rest of the day playing catch up.

There is only one customer service policy at Kline’s Photography and that is : unfounded complaints are not tolerated.

Eventually Marnie gave up on her mission to coerce Mr. Kline in to making a house call so she agreed to make the the trip across town to place her album order and talk about the photos. Despite being the newest, smallest and weakest member of the team, I was left to deal with the Andersons by myself, a slight that motivated me to set my sights on Carl’s position in the company which I acquired a couple months later. I mean, the way I look at it, if I have to do his job then I should have the title and the paycheck to go with it. Right? I refuse to take orders from anyone who would hide behind me.

I sat across the table from both Marnie and Maria. Marnie sat at the edge of the leather couch while Maria huddled with a blanket in the corner. Both of them looked rough but Maria was in especially bad shape: emaciated, completely bald from the chemo, black circles under her eyes and a catheter taped to each arm. Clearly, she had gone downhill since the wedding and I don’t understand why Marnie even brought her to this appointment in the first place. Maria never said a word but I could hear her labored breathing over the gravelly drone of Marnie’s griping. Marnie didn’t look too hot either but she did still have hair and, as far as I could see, only one catheter. She opened with “I wish we had hired a different photographer. I should’ve known what would happen if Mr. Kline didn’t take the pictures himself.” Honestly, given the circumstances, I don’t see how anyone could have done any better. When I didn’t respond, she followed with “I can’t believe we paid all that money and this”, pointing at the proof book, “is what we get. When Mr. Kline shot my other daughter’s wedding, the photos were soooo beautiful.” “Actually”, I said looking up and making eye contact, “you only paid half.”

Freeze frame right here. So what is this? Some kind of sick cosmic joke? A moral test of compassion? Have I become the proverbial Job while God and the Devil are making bets as to how long I can tolerate this trash talking corpse? Can I look past her rough exterior and see through to her inner pain, thereby cutting her some slack, or will I reach across the table, yank that catheter out of her arm and stab her in the fucking eye with it?

I decided to try, key word being try, to be compassionate. I can hardly imagine the horror the two of them, mother and daughter, must feel while watching each other die of the same disease. I have no problems that could even be called problems when viewed in comparison to something like that. The thing was though, like a blood sniffing jackal, Marnie could smell my sympathy, was turned on by it, and evidently felt compelled to use it against me; prying at my conscious like a lever, until something gave. I then said the stupidest thing ever. I said “What is it about the photos you don’t like?” Que flood gates at stage left. I may as well have given her a sack of hammers and said “here, throw these at me.” What followed was a deranged critique of every single image in a 30 page proof book. A mind blowing shit storm of ridiculous nonsense which was only made worse by my calm explanations for why certain photos were shot the way they were. I had lost my respect for Carl when he left me with this bone crushing hyena but I still wouldn’t throw him under the bus for Marnie because she was wrong and that’s all there was to it. Like a two year old that asks “why?” all day, Marnie’s interrogation went on like a broken record. “Why is this picture so close? It cuts off Maria’s hair.” Maria’s “hair” that day was an ill fitting brunette wig of the Marge Simpson beehive variety. It sat askew on Maria’s head and the bangs were too long. There was no way to get a close up portrait of Maria’s face and not crop out part of her hair which, given how bad the wig was, should have been interpreted as a favor. “Well, why is that one so far away, you can’t even see Maria’s face.” Yes you could. “Why is this photo slightly crooked, why is that one in front of that ugly wall, why is this one so far from the building, why this, why that, why why why???” She just wouldn’t stop, or listen, demanding explanations for nearly every single image in her proof book and accusing me of unjustly defending the quality of the pictures. Somewhere around page 6 was a whole set of very nice portraits of Maria with an old guy in a tux. In an attempt to create a pause in the bitter machine gun fire spilling from Marnie’s mouth, I said “Aww, look at all these great shots of Maria with her dad.” “Maria doesn’t have a dad”, Marnie spat at me, “that is the groom.” Stifling a chuckle I said only “oh”. Right then I heard a rustle and a thump as Maria slid into a coma and her head bounced off the arm of the couch. Marnie didn’t seem to notice. “why is this one in the sun, why is that one in the shade? I thought you said Carl was a good photographer? Well let me tell you these are the worst pictures I have ever seen! Why is this one vertical, why is that one horizontal, why does this one have square corners?” She was relentless in her attack of rhetorical questions and never once did it seem to occur to her that most of the things she was upset about were her own fault for completely disregarding the time line on the day of the wedding.

I tried hard to hold on to my compassion, to remember that she was hurting and angry, but god damn, this situation was getting out of hand. Is it possible that being a psychotic, irrational bitch actually causes cancer? Because that would explain a lot.

Marnie continued turning pages and berating me. For awhile I stopped listening, tuning in to the sound of Lydia’s raspy breathing and wondering if she was going to die on my couch. Marnie talked a blue streak, barely pausing to breathe. Having shifted her voice into the background, she sounded like the teacher in a Peanuts cartoon, wonk wonk wonk. This was probably the only time in my life I actually thought to myself “what would Jesus do?” Oh, I dunno, maybe swoop down from the sky on a magical dragon and smack her in the face with his sandal. I don’t know if that’s what Jesus would do but that is definitely what I would do if I were him. I didn’t hear anything at all from pages 15-19 and focused instead on the transformation of Marnie Anderson into a talking donkey pinata; beaten by a child with a stick and a Kool Aid mustache until her side split open and candy rained down, delighting both kids and parents alike. Somewhere on page 20 I felt my seal start to slip. Like a pressure cooker, it only takes a small breach in the seal for pinto beans to spray 30 feet across the room thus coating the whole house with a mutilated version of your dinner. She was going on about why, and how much they paid, and being disappointed when I surfaced from my trance and said “look, if you don’t like that picture then don’t pick it!!! You have over 900 images here and your album only includes 48 so figure out which ones you want and write them down! You can mail this form back when you’re done.” I snapped the book closed, signaling a premature end to this little convo, and pushed it, along with the paper work into Marnie’s lap. Then I locked eyes with her and folded my arms until she started gathering up her things, including Maria, muttering something about how she was going to tell Mr. Kline about the way I had treated her. “Yeah”, I told her, ” you can tell him all about it when he comes to your house.”

I guess everyone has a breaking point.

A few weeks later, Marnie mailed in her album order. Maria died before the albums were complete. Marnie passed away 3 months after receiving her order.

Empathy

“Kline’s Photography”

That was always how I answered the phone and no number of staff meetings or memos would make me bend to include my name in the introduction. The last thing I wanted was to identify myself prior to finding out the nature of the call.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Kline is not available at this time but perhaps there is something I can help you with?”

Uh-oh….

“I would be happy to take a message for him, can you please tell me what this is in reference too?”

No, of course not, she just really needed to talk to Mr. Kline. Somewhere along the way, a rumor got started that Mr. Kline actually gives a fuck. Let’s clear that up right now. He doesn’t.

“I’m sorry ma’am, but due to the high number of solicitation calls, Mr. Kline will not return phone messages unless he knows what they are about.”

Special code for: He will not call you back just so you can chew his ass.

“Uh huh, yes, so you want me to tell him that the photographer at your daughter’s wedding did not get all the pictures you had envisioned?”

She had uttered the magic word, “disappointed” and also threw in another inflammatory phrase, “your photographer”, as if the person in question were a rabid dog that had jumped the fence and eaten the neighbor’s cat. “Your photographer took a dump right in the middle of the church and we’re a little disappointed.” Well now, them’s fightin’ words.

“Excuse me m’am, he’s not actually my photographer. I just work here.”

That was not the answer she was expecting but I said it so nicely that it threw her off balance. I spoke slowly, in my best cheerful monotone, a technique that had come to be known in the office as “the calm voice”. My co-workers knew, when they heard the calm voice, to put down what they were doing and gather around for the show.

“Can you tell me specifically what it is that you’re displeased about?”

By all means, please, do tell me the way in which my photographer made the unholy union of an unfortunate young man to your truffle snacking, biscuit kneed, cow faced daughter somehow less momentous.

“Oh I see, so what you’re telling me is that my photographer failed to “snap” a close up photo of the flower girl’s shoes that you personally spent hours gluing red sequins and silk carnations to and that this was the only photo you really wanted from the whole day. Is that correct?”

No, apparently there was more.

“So you’re also mad that there are more photos of the groom’s family than of your own? Yes…, yes, I understand, you’re not mad, you’re disappointed because the day was just so special and, I’m sorry, what else? Oh, it also pains you that the photos do not in any way resemble the samples you were shown in our studio and you thought you were hiring a professional. I would really like to help you get to the bottom of this issue, but since the photographer is not actually here, do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions, just so I can try to understand what may have happened?”

I am not a musician, per se, I can’t tune a guitar by ear but I have perfect fucking pitch when it comes to voice diagnostics. While her accusatory tone gains momentum, reaching a frantic pitch, I can see her, clear as day; a heavy set cyclone of a woman who spends most afternoons watching court TV with a diet coke in one hand and a skinny menthol cigarette in the other. She has eye liner tattoos. Sunspots on her face and smoke lines circling her painted-on red lips, her personal motto is “flaunt it if you got it” and by that she thinks her mammoth tits are sexy enough to overshadow her back fat and she’s sporting a tube top to prove it. Aside from the time she spends flogging her husband like a trash digging chihuahua she rarely gets an opportunity to feel important. She’s got me on the line and now is her time to shine like the power tripping bovine that she is. By this point I have retrieved the file from the wedding and am reviewing the photographer’s notes.

“Ok, on the day of the wedding, was the bride ready on time?”

Photographer’s notes: Bride 45 min late, arrives with dress in bag, takes another 20 minutes to put it on. Flower girl’s parents do not deliver her to the church until 5 minutes before the ceremony. She is crying and says her feet hurt.

“No…, no, of course I’m not implying that anyone other than my photographer is at fault here. I just have to ask so I can have a accurate understanding of what happened. So, tell me, was the groom ready on time?”

Photographer’s notes: While waiting for the bride to arrive, shot all of groom’s photos, including extended family and friends from grade school.

“I understand that you paid for this and, by doing so, have elevated your family’s status to that of the utmost importance. If it would make you feel better, we could delete some photos of the groom’s family so that the distribution of images will be more equal. I would be more than happy to personally take care of this for you, just tell me which ones you would like me to remove…. Hello? Are you still there? I’m sorry, my phone cut out for a minute and I thought we got disconnected…. Oh ok, so you don’t want me to delete any images? Are you sure because I really think it would make it seem like there were more of photos of your family if there were less photos of the groom’s family…. I’m so sorry ma’am, apparently I’ve misunderstood you. Can you please tell me again what it is that you’re upset about? Oh, so what you’re really upset about is that you can see a parking lot in all the outdoor photos of the bride and groom together. Right, of course that would be upsetting and especially since the venue was so picturesque, what with mountains being right there and all.”

Photographer’s notes: Church is a brown corrugated steel building with NO landscaping and surrounded on all sides by power lines and parked cars. The minister has to yell to be heard over the drone of a window mount AC unit in the sanctuary. I can barely see the tops of the mountains over the apartment building across the street. Bride is complaining that it is too hot and that she wants me to hurry up. She is also sweating profusely and it is staining her dress.

“I certainly understand that you are heartbroken over the missing photos of the mountains. I’m not sure that I have personally ever been to your church. Is it housed in a portable building? Yes, I understand that this church is your “home” and that you married your 3rd husband there five dreadful years ago but what I’m getting at is does it have a trailer hitch??? Yes, I’ll hold.”

I hear her lighting a cigarette.

“Yes m’am, I understand that your soiree of failed marriages makes you an expert on weddings and I am certain that Mr. Kline would gladly fire the photographer who ruined your daughter’s special day… Oh, so that’s not what you had in mind? Tell me, how I can make this up to you then? You want a… a what now, a free album upgrade? But ma’am, you hate the photos so much I am afraid that if we give you more of them it will only cause you further distress…. No, I’m sorry, Mr. Kline is still not available to take your call. Listen, I feel so bad about how much the photos are upsetting you that I will just cut you a check for a full refund and you’ll never have to see them again. How’s that sound?”

This game of verbal badminton went on for quite a while. When I did finally hang up, being totally pleased with myself for having accomplished nothing but to further enrage the troll on the other end of the phone, my co-worker, Thomas, was staring at me. There is something wrong with Thomas. Anyone who gets creeped out by big foreheads could tell you that. Mr. Kline had hired him two weeks prior, without consulting me, in an attempt to impress his mistress who was a devout Christian woman and who also did not realize she was fucking a married man. Thomas, it seemed, had graduated from some bible college and this, Mr. Kline decided, qualified him to wrestle the lions. Being the new kid, Thomas did not yet understand the level of depravity that people will sink to in an attempt to get some free shit so it didn’t surprise me when he said “you’re not a very nice person, are you?” “That all depends on how you look at it.” I replied curtly. He was constantly on my nerves and that, coupled with being immune to sarcasm, meant that we did not communicate well. “All that lady wanted was for you to listen to her” he told me. “Fuck that” was my response. Then he said something I’ll never forget, he said exactly these words “the reason you don’t empathize with people is because you have no feelings.” Leave it to Thomas to completely misdiagnose the issue, like completing a jigsaw puzzle, image side down. I sat back in my chair and looked at him, not knowing what to say. While it was clearly to my benefit for him to think that, I couldn’t help but feel a little horrified. “Is that what you think of me?” I asked. He shrugged and went back to his usual routine of making avant garde sculptures out of paper clips and tape. I never told him it was empathy that killed my feelings in the first place.