a jingle writer with an existential crisis

He sits all day long in his room—on the days when he's not behind the fryer at the deep fried fish-n-chips shop, or at the mall, or at the gun range— while the California sun burns bright outside, there in the pitch black, behind the windows wrapped in canvas tent fabric that he got from the Army Surplus Store and cut down to size with the Rambo knife, that really was as “sharp as a motherfucker”, just like he said it was, and I was like, “Damn, son, you look like some kind of actual serial killer holding that shit”, and it was probably the first but definitely not the last time I saw his eyes light up in a way that I was never entirely sure with J if I should be worried; or if, like most of the people I knew, he just had some, what you might call, sick proclivities but was overall a stand-up dude when it came down to basic human nature. He had hung each piece of canvas from the tops of the two windows and pinned them at very short intervals into the drywall to make the perfect set of blackout curtains.

When I asked him what he would do when he wanted to open up the windows, his jaw hung open awhile and finally he told me, “That isn't going to happen,” and so I took his word for it.

Even in the sunniest of days, his room was an envelope of black. The essential trappings of the besieged, of insomniacs, of daytime video game junkies. So it was here, in this ink black crevice, that he sat, all day, like some god-king, in front of his game machine. He was not just “playing video games”—J liked to put that in air quotes himself whenever he talked about his hobby—he was doing speed runs. Game by game, level by level, over and over again, going for the most perfect run of whatever game happened to fixate him and his group of “runners” at the moment, an execution of intent so precise that you could hold it up to God themself and They would all but shower you in emojis. Junior told me they even had Sex Speed Runs, where the object was to get laid as fast as possible, and, in the case of the Fallout series, once you had completed the final sex act, in the final quadrilogy of games, you were to strike dead the underground bunker's German nightclub singer whom you've just convinced to sleep with you, strip off all your clothes, and then run out into the hallway of the old irradiated hotel, at which point the run was considered complete. In the earlier games, it was more about bypassing certain enemies by holding to the left or right of the screen so as not to trigger their routines, and then you paid the right woman in the right bar, with bottle-caps and she took you to a private room and that was that.

These speed runs fascinated me, to say the least. Part of the time that counted for your run when you were doing a multi game marathon was the loading of one game to the next, so you had to have your discs ready, and you had better hope that the console didn't have any read errors while you waited. Some of the runners took that time to pee, mostly into bottles they held nearby, or to shove a hotdog down their gullets along with some Red Surge Mountain Dew.

J only did speed runs on his off-days, which varied throughout the two years that I lived in that house. Sometimes it was Sunday and Tuesday, sometimes Monday/Wednesday, but for a summery period in 2013 it was Tuesday and Wednesday, right in a row, which gave Junior a recovery day at the table in the kitchen. This was when we really got to know each other.

You'd see him at about 14:00 shoveling home a plate of eggs doused in hot sauce, and then you'd see him still that evening around the kitchen table. These were the only nights that he ever really sat with any of us at the kitchen table, which we ringed on the regular, with cigarettes and joints and tall cans of beer.

“Hey Junior,” I would ask him. “What is it about, all these runs?”

He would smile at me through the haze of a good load of tall cans and whiskey—Junior always drank a little too much, a little to fast, but to counterbalance that he had a crazy high tolerance for the booze itself, and would regularly be one of the last up at the tables.

“So, what is it about these fucking things?” I'd reiterate, five hours later. The dust and refuse of human beings lay about our feet and arms. A fetid taste like liquid mud lacquered onto my tongue. I lit what I told myself was the final, final cigarette, and leaned back and looked at Junior in the sad light of our single, naked 100W overhead bulb.

“It's the fucking perfection of it,” he says. “And the fact that when I play these things, thousands of people are watching me do it.”

I hadn't realized that, that it was something social, that you could watch other people play; but of course you could; that J was literally something of a rock star in this small but very active community, whereas I could barely get four people to read my blog, made me stop and think.

“Okay, I get it. It's like the Olympics, you know, you keep shooting to beat the other guy, and you watch for the thrill of it, because you never really know if the next guy can go any faster or not.”

Junior smiled at me with that warm insight of high drunkenness, “But that's where you're wrong,” he grinned. “Because there are bots; people on the boards have trained them. They run the games day and night, and they learn to get better, just like humans, but instead of having good days and bad days, and days when you feel like ass because your mom called and told you some more shit about her creepy sex life that you didn't need to hear, they just keep getting better. Because they don't have to do anything but plug in the numbers as electrical signals into the controllers.”

“So what you're saying is you already know how fast is as fast as you can possibly go?”


There was a long pause. Outside the sun was shining. It was a perfect San Francisco day.

“So it's just the people chasing records that the robots have already written?” I asked.

“Yeah, I guess that pretty much sums it up, if you look at it like that.”

“Doesn't that make you feel sad, at all?”

“Not really. I mean, I could go out to the bar and find a girl and get laid, but I don't want to do that right now.”

“And why the fuck not?” I protested.

“To be honest, I've got porn, and these chat cams, you know, they're all free, and they talk to you. Even if it's just other dudes, I'm ok with that. I get off. I go back to my game. And that's just enough for me right now. I don't want the trouble of a girlfriend. They're too expensive, and they whine a lot, and in the end it would just cut too much into my speed run time, and that's not something I'm willing to do at the moment.”

I missed simplicity. I missed sex. I stumbled to the bar, and found myself judging where to sit based on how close it was to a seemingly available female with an open seat nearby.

The literary website read: “'Appealing, confident voice' no longer needed. Reading fee: $16.”

“California will break you if you don’t watch out,” the old homeless man told me, “One slip and you’ll fall right through the cracks, just like I did.”

There is such a thing as a healthy fear of certain consequences. What this guy told me that day, in that alley, in the small cavity that I’d found where I could smoke my pot outside the bracing wind and where he’d made his bed, was never far from front of mind.

excerpted from my forthcoming novel, BANG

It's been a long time since I've been to a show. I'm disoriented, vacant. This was supposed to be a night for the two of us, but we couldn't find a babysitter. The bouncer asks me, What's that in my pocket? as he's checking my ID and patting me down. My weed in a lip balm case, I realize. “Some lip balm” I tell him, not without hesitation, but with just the right amount of that and eye contact. “Alrighty, you have a good night,” this authority to ruin my night tells me, and I am in, and it is showtime.

Speak with your words, Or your fists, Or your flag, Or your dick. Speak with your cross, Or your truck, Or with your raw, white indignation, You prick. Speak jealously, Speak online, Speak out of turn, Just don't speak to us anymore with your gun. Please just go away.

When we are young, we wake up and look around, and we dream that we will be quoted well, our best phrases, our best moments, picked up and even massaged a bit—if you're asking the God's honest truth—into something more marketable. Then we get older, some faster than others, and we go to bed and we dream dark nightmares after eating bad fish or drinking strong beer and we are horrified in the morning to think that we will be quoted poorly, captured in some moment of insecurity or fear or smallness, trapped forever in a bad hair day of the mind. Finally—and this is only after some time, and not everybody gets here, but those who do wake up, and you greet the morning with a cup of strong coffee, and you breathe deeply and you come to admit that you would like only to be quoted accurately. That that will be enough.

Ad placement exercise

A well-to-do black family on vacation, exploring the countryside; I'm seeing historic homes, wide open prairies, happy things, and buffalo; and I'm thinking to myself: Is this an ad for North Dakota? Are they so brave as to advocate for whole caravans of people of color exploring the great, white North, or South, of the Dakota's? Or maybe this is for Nebraska. Come to corn country, and bring your whole black family! We are desperate for tourism. I see points on a map, a dotted line that draws their summer path. Is this Montana? The text on the TV is too far away to see. Lakes, streams, blowing grass. Do they advertise for Canada here in Minneapolis? It's been a long time since I've seen TV. And then finally comes the tagline: 'Explore Minnesota'. Did they have buffalo in Minnesota? I ask myself. Apparently, yes, they did.

What is it that renders me so angry about my neighbor's new back porch light? I have only owned this house for 32 days and I have barely been in it for 14, and for 10 of those I have had a nice, dark back yard in which to sit in. In fact, it was fantastically dark; so dark that K remarked to me in one of our odd moments of peace, I can't believe how many stars you can see here, compared to Uptown. I love this new house. I want my dark, perfect back yard back. And to get it I'm going to have to go and teach my gay neighbors a thing or two about tolerance.

There was a smell in the air like gasoline. The woman, whose hair was on fire, fingered absently through a copy of Vogue. She was inches from the pool. The fire in her hair never seemed to die down, increase, or otherwise consume her as one would expect. After some ten minutes a hotel waiter emerged with a single bottle of Coca-Cola on a silver tray. He carried the bottle over to the woman, set it on the small table to her left, and then slowly stepped away from her. He did not turn around until he was five paces back. I noticed as he made his way across the concrete back to the slim black portal that led into the hotel that he looked over his shoulder as if to confirm that he wasn't being followed. High up in the sky ran the white geometric line of an airplane carving its way across the planet. The woman turned a page in her magazine. Her hair was captivating. I couldn't look away. She laid the magazine face down upon her thigh and reached over to the bottle of Coca-Cola. She removed the straw that had been left inside the bottle and she brought the neck up to her lips and drank. The way the woman drank was unbelievable. She chugged that beverage in complete denial of every other quality of her person, she drank the dark liquor down so quick that it drizzled from the corners of her ruby red lips and ran down the sides of her cheeks, around the ridge of her chin, then down the long plane of her remarkable neck. A single thin bead of brown dribbling down. She sucked and drank until the bottle was empty, raising the end into the sky above her head and penetrating the opening with the tiny red point of her long thin tongue, after which she set the bottle down back upon the side table, wiped her chin with the back of her hand and then resumed reading her magazine. A few minutes later the attendant returned to take the bottle away, whereupon the woman inclined her neck up in his direction, which prompted him to remove the towel from his arm, and slowly rub her neck clean. In the process of doing so, the arm of his jacket caught fire, but the man took no action to extinguish it. He finished what he was doing, placed the towel back upon his arm and retreated in the same fashion that he had before, all while the flame on his arm grew bigger and hotter. I could hear the noise of the flame being put out from the dark recesses of wherever the waiter had retreated to. I looked over at the woman, but she was gone.