memoir

How I Accidentally Killed Benny’s Hedgehog

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by O. Langer

In a recent study by psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, one hundred ten-year-old boys and a hundred ten-year-old girls were sat at tables with a pencil and sheet of paper and asked draw a mouse.

The results confirmed the scientists’ suspicions. Of the 200 children, 180 had drawn not the rodent but a computer mouse. These were millennials. They may not have had pets but they’d always had a PC in the house.

*

I used to play video games on sunny days. I’d draw the curtains to keep out the sun’s glare. It seems so wasteful now. I should have been outside.

One summer my brother and I got guinea pigs. Sisters. An exotic-sounding breed, they were Abyssinian. Abbys are the loyal opposition to the typical show pony strain in that their coat is rough and tufty with cowlicks. One was cappuccino brown, the other granite grey. We spent the weekend handling and stroking them and overseeing as they explored.

They were a weekend wonder – we didn’t play with them again. I reverted to spending all my time in my bedroom alone playing on my Sega Megadrive (Genesis in North America). Dad built a large pen where they lived freely day and night each summer. In winter they slept in the garage. I used to see him from my window cleaning out their hutch or with one in his hands.

We had a dog too – a German shepherd who’d failed as a police dog. We got her when she was two. The police couldn’t train her to bark or bite, so were giving her away. We paid £10 – for the leash. Her name was Sadie.

Before Sadie we’d had Merlin, a border collie my parents had gotten as a puppy, before they’d had kids and bought their first house. I’ve never seen my dad cry, but the first time I knew he’d shed tears was the Sunday morning Merlin died upstairs in my parents’ bedroom as my brother, sister and I were downstairs, watching cartoons. Mum came down first to tell us what had happened and not to go up there. When eventually Dad came down he was puffy-eyed. His best friend was gone.

Sadie was a different story. He hated how she’d loyally follow him around the house. Merlin hadn’t done that.

My grandparents had suggested Sadie to us. Dad’s heart hadn’t been in it this time. One summer’s evening, I paused playing Megadrive to go downstairs for something. Passing my brother’s room, I saw Mum sat alone at the end of on his bed, looking forlornly out the window at the street out front.

I stopped, surprised, and asked her what was wrong. She asked me: “Do you want us to give Sadie back?”

Having Sadie wasn’t like raising a puppy. Sadie didn’t play. But I liked having a dog around. Besides, you didn’t give dogs back.

“But you don’t walk her.”

Just then Sadie walked in and up to Mum, who stroked her apologetically. I escaped back to my room. My world. An uncomplicated world. I had entered my teens and cherished solitude. Mum didn’t broach the subject with me again and we kept Sadie.

*

Every summer Sadie was tormented by the guinea pigs in their pen. She would run to wherever they ran and just fixate on them grazing. They were oblivious to her. The larger, brown sister even gnawed the wires persistently, irritated by its confines. Occasionally it made a hole, which Dad would patch up before it could be nibbled big enough to escape through.

One afternoon my parents were out and my brother and I were downstairs, him watching TV and me at the PC. Then, a sound I hadn’t heard before, from the back yard: a siren, rising sharply then held. I went to look and saw Sadie with the brown guinea pig in her mouth. The bolder sister had finally broken free. But its freedom had only lasted a few seconds.

I screamed “No!” and she put it down. The useless police dog could have shaken it to death but hadn’t wanted to.

It was uninjured, but splayed flat on its front, too shocked and shaking to stand. My brother held and stroked her, but she kept shaking. We took both guinea pigs inside and made them a cozy temporary home in a shoe box upstairs. When the shaking stopped she was tense to touch. Normally she purred when stroked, but not now. Waking early the next morning I checked in on her. She’d died in the night.

Her sister died within a year, from loneliness. I remember not being surprised. And relieved. She needed company. But I wanted to play at the PC over playing with her.

*

Video games rendered me a poorer academic. They’re chiefly why I’m absent-minded and impractical, lousy at sports, utterly unable to multi-task or make quick decisions and awkward socially – too inside my own head. Then I went and killed my friend’s hedgehog.

It was my first year in Korea. My school had two foreign teachers: me, and Benny, from America. Not long after arriving in Korea, Benny got a hedgehog from a department store, which he named Ine. Soon after that he got a puppy. He left the puppy alone too long too often, but he never bored of playing with her and trained her well.

One Wednesday, Benny fell deeply ill. A doctor told him told he’d been drinking too much soda (!) and advised a two-night hospital stay. He complied, arranging for his closest friend Amy to take in the puppy and go by his apartment after work both nights to feed Ine.

Come Friday Benny’s condition was just the same and he was counselled to remain for the weekend – to which he said “ok”. But that weekend Amy had Christian camp to attend which put her in a dilemma: should she stay or should she go? In the end her calling to please Jesus was so great that she opted to go rather than stay and help the sick, and lo and behold, the puppy came to stay with me.

It was also up to me to look in on the hedgehog. Ine spent most of his time in his house, in his tray-box quarters. When he ventured out it was to eat, drink or play with the cardboard tube from a tissue roll by sticking his snout deep inside it then parading around with it in the air. He’d then discover it was stuck and appreciated if you pulled it off for him. It went “pop” when you did. I don’t know how he ever got it off with no-one around to help him.

I poured Ine his food for the day and filled his water bottle, which had a spout with a ball that emitted water when licked. Bottle in stand, I put it back beside his tray.

But it wasn’t his water bottle. It was the puppy’s, and once in the stand, it stopped just above the critter’s head.

A hedgehog can’t crank its neck to reach its mouth up. It isn’t able. Hedgehogs can barely look up at all. Pet hedgehogs either drink from a dish or a bottle hung much lower.

On the Sunday as I entered Benny’s apartment Ine came running out of his house. That was odd. Then I noticed the bottle was still full. He’d barely touched his food either. But I figured he didn’t eat and drink every day. I could leave. I had a puppy to tend to. As I left he was shuffling about his tray frantically.

When Benny came home the next morning, pale and thin, he opened the door to find Ine curled up in a ball at the front door. It was winter and he wondered if Ine hadn’t gone into hibernation. No, Ine had gone on a critical search for water. Who knows how much of the apartment he’d scoured, but at the front door he’d admitted defeat, curled up and died.

Benny chose not to disturb Ine at the door that night, hopeful a warm floor might rouse him from his dormancy. Meanwhile, I was praying. All praying is is pleading: “Please don’t let two and two equal four!” You don’t have to be religious to pray.

The next morning Benny posted on Facebook that he’d just buried his hedgehog. As I walked into the office we shared with Amy he looked up from his desk and said: “So Ine died.”

“Yeah, I saw…”

“Died when I was in the hospital.”

He knew I was sorry and never brought it up again, even the time he ran into his apartment to get something and my girlfriend, noticing no tray in the kitchen, called to him in the bedroom:

“Hey, where’s your hedgehog?”

“Died.”

*

I’m trying to be a better employee and friend; to pay attention, earn trust and anticipate my next big mistake. I don’t want to think like those kids, the guinea pigs in the experiment at UC Berkeley. I don’t want to always be staring at screens (he says, typing). Like an Abyssinian gnawing at wire, I want to break out and go explore. Like Benny’s hedgehog too, I’m meant to forage. Isn’t that an expat, after all? A forager?

Tomorrow we’re getting a puppy – my first pet since I had a Tamagotchi that’ll rely on me. It was my idea. Give me something real.

I’m ready.

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Beef and Cheddar, Utah

by Eli Toast

Last summer I drove to Bryce Canyon in Southern Utah to visit an old friend of mine. It was a long drive and on the way back home I stopped for gas at a Texaco in Snowville, Utah, halfway between Salt Lake City and Boise, Idaho. I was hungry as a wolf-bitch so I decided to eat at the Arby’s that was conveniently attached. Coupling restaurants to gasoline stations is a relatively new trend that was just beginning as I was exiting America some 10 years back. Used to be a guy could go into a Stinker, Texaco, Chevron etc… and walk out with a station-sourced plate of nachos, couple corn dogs, some kind of burrito, a few hot dogs, a pickled egg, a Hot Mama sausage, some jo-jo’s, maybe a burger, half dozen pieces of fried chicken, and 20 or 30 packets of mustard and taco sauce. Heat lamp food and hot dog rolling machines (equipped with an expertly located bun drawer just beneath the rollers that stayed nice and steamy for optimal bun moistness) were normal. I miss those halcyon days of tasty, American, lamp-irradiated food that gave you heartburn and made your body leak.

In-store heated food merchandisers are a relic of the past; you almost never find them in gas stations anymore. Hot-dog rolling machines, however, have managed to stubbornly remain (God bless). Nowadays, seems everything comes equipped with a fast food restaurant. I’d honestly rather eat heat lamp food than Arby’s so I was a bit bummed-out as I filled-up and listened to the wind whistle through the gas pumps there in Box Elder County, Utah, United States, population 167. Blue sky bigger than anything you ever saw and sagebrush for miles around.

Inside, the place was heroically Republican. Freedom was everywhere, loaded with all manner of camouflage Don’t-Fuck-With-My-Guns-Wolf-Eagle-Barbecue propaganda. A galvanizing mixture of liberty porn and brave sloganeering steeped in the tears of 9/11 firefighters.

I paid for my fuel then drifted over to the counter at Arby’s to place an order for a Beef and Cheddar combo meal. The girl who served me was the quintessential poster child for the harmful side effects of Utah. Sporting a meaningless blade inspired tribal tat; small enough to hide from her family, too small to be daring, but just big enough to be indiscreet: right in the lame sweet spot. Straight up home-cookin, nose-pierced Mountain-Dew addled teenager, with a boyfriend who doesn’t brush his teeth enough, smokes synthetic marijuana, and owns a stolen switchblade.

She was incredibly friendly. The whole outfit was lousy with friendliness. If you spend enough time away from America when you come back you think people are joking. It’s approaches parody. Like, is this some kind of joke? You don’t know me. What have I done to deserve this kind of treatment?

Anyway, I received my Beef and Cheddar combo meal with curly fries and then loaded up at Arby’s free sauce bar. I like to dip my curly fries in plain mustard, like the guy from Slingblade.

There was another couple there. Octogenarians was my guess. Good, salt of the earth folks. Planned on stopping at Arby’s over last night’s steak dinner. The old man needed a new tow-ball installed on his rig so the timing was right. They loped out as I sat down in the empty and bright dining room, the mid-day sun baking the hell out of everything.

I unwrapped my sandwich and beheld it as if it were a glistening ambassador of life sent to me straight from the top of Barbecue Mountain.

As I’m eating the manager busied himself by washing the dust off the fake plants that separated the tables. Mid thirties, dishwater blonde guy with a mustache. Into dirt bikes and Satanism. Tells everyone he loves elk hunting, but he really doesn’t, he just says so to fulfill a vague sense of obligation to what he perceives as his personality. He doesn’t dislike hunting because of the killing, that’s his favorite part: he dislikes it because he finds walking around in woods totally boring.

He turned to me, and asked with real enthusiasm: “How’s your sandwich today?”

And for a second I really wanted to say something snide and nasty. Not to be a dick, but to liberate these modest sandwich peddlers from the unctuous snare of corporate smarm that shackled them so. Then again they’d probably been calling me a lib-tard faggot since the moment they saw me step out of my parents’ Toyota.

I answered his question politely, “It was great, really good actually. I love that Arby’s Sauce. What is it? Horseradish? Mayo? And what else?”

“Definitely horseradish…” he said. “And mayo. The other ingredients are actually a secret proprietary blend… But between you and me.. It’s white vinegar, a little granulated sugar, pinch of salt, and Xanthan gum.”

“Really?”

“Yep.”

“Nice, thanks, maybe I’ll whip some up someday,” I said as I stood to leave.

“You, have a good day, sir.”

“You too.”

I figured I ought to buy a soda pop for the road so I grabbed a Fresca on my way out. The older, ostensibly down-and-out cashier (with darker, edgier tattoos: the portrait of a dead child lost in a car accident, the name of an asshole ex-husband who’s out on parole now, whom she still spends weekends with getting drunk together down at the reservoir, barbecuing, and having swampy hog-fart-sex that would give a grown man nightmares) wanted to share her Fresca memories with me.

“Fresca, interesting, not many people drinking Fresca these days… Me and my cousin used to drink Fresca all the time. We loved it.”

I couldn’t give a meaningful reply, and she knew that, so whatever I said was fine with her.

“Nice,” I said. “It’s crisp.”

“He lived in Wendell. Drove truck for Jacklin Seed. But whenever he came by we made sure to have a Fresca together… But… He’s dead now, sooooooo.”

“Oh. Sorry to hear that.”

“Don’t be,” she said, pursing her lips, “ because I ain’t.”

And with that refreshing bit of candor I turned my back on Snowville and set out for the oblivion of the open road. I Made one more stop along the way outside Mountain Home. Filled up my tank, went inside, grabbed a bag of salt and vinegar chips and a roll of extra-strength Tums because I had terrible heartburn.

“Someone got heartburn?” Asked the guy at the cash register (overweight, beard, lapsed bass fisherman with a rusty boat disintegrating in his driveway.)

“Too much Arby’s in Snowville.” I said.

“Mmm… Love that sauce they do.”

“Well, I can tell you how it’s made.”

“Shit, that’s the last thing I need,” he said.

Fair enough.

Suppose that’s the last thing any of us need.

Picture us, driving down highways knowing how all the secret sauces are made, all the wonder of life sucked out because one loosed-lipped poindexter thought he had things figured out.

Bloody Monday

by Chris Tharp

I blame it on Valium. I had popped one the night before to put me down, to guarantee a full night’s rest before a busy work week, and it performed with aplomb. I was lowered into the depths of a gelatinous envelope of sleep. This was a soothing black slumber, embracing me softly while massaging the hardened flesh of my inner brain. The Valium plied its magic with chemical tendrils that, while delivering on the sleep front, stubbornly fought release come morning time. That’s right, that magic little pill will knock you the hell out, but with that comes a price: your bones become leaden, your eyes balls of cotton, and your head a cloud of steam. A proper Valium hangover can drag on for hours and hours. It’s a tough thing to shake.

Even though I am now solidly trudging down the trail of middle age, I’m still not really a morning person. I don’t suppose I ever will be. I’ve gotten better, but it just seems, at a genetic level, that I’m designed to work best at night. So, that morning, Monday, March 17th, 2014–St. Patrick’s Day–I stumble out of bed near-blind from both my natural aversion to early hours and the fog of the pill. I have gotten my sleep, but am now positively zombified. Still, I have work to do. Carpe diem and all of that shit.  My phone buzzes. It’s the station. Are you coming now?  Yes, I clumsily type back. Coming now. I slide into my black Levis, throw on my green sweater and black jacket, grab my helmet and shoot out the door to do my weekly morning radio gig. I jump onto my motorcycle–a Hyosung Troy 125– turn the key and give the engine a couple of revs before zipping off to make my first fifty bucks of the day.

The station is located in Centum City–just a ten minute ride away in the sparse early-morning traffic. Centum is a spanky new part of town featuring glass and aluminum rises which jut from the bank of the Suyeong River. City PR pimps tried to christen it “The Manhattan of Busan,” to some eye-rolls and snickers among the Westerner set; such labeling may be a bit much, but that morning the place lives up to its hype: the sun sparkles off the surface of the river and lights up the side of the gleaming buildings, creating a brilliant scene. For a moment all seems right in the world

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I arrive at the station at 7:10, ride the elevator to the 4th floor, scan my fingerprint, enter the studio, greet the producer and host, slither behind the mic and sleepwalk through the bit (a ten minute weekly sports round up). Afterwards I fly out the door, stumble down the stairs, and mount my bike once again to head back home where I plan to shower, eat, change into my work clothes, and most importantly, take down multiple cups of inky coffee to help blast me out of my haze. My first class is at 9 am at my school, again just a couple minutes’ ride from my front door.

I cruise through the nearly-empty streets of Centum, eager to get home as soon as I can. The air is still frigid from the night and slices through my coat, causing me to shiver beneath my sweater. This helps to keep me awake as I press on. I turn left onto a larger road that that spans the slow moving river as a bridge. To my right is the massive sewage treatment plant. The dank sweet smell of human waste mixed with soil radiates from the huge concrete fertilizer silo, on which is painted an unfinished marine-themed mural featuring the phantom silhouettes of fish. I then come to a much bigger intersection and stop. The light is red. Across the way I observe the slow lurch of a construction crane putting up an apartment block. It’s now around 7:40 and traffic is just beginning to pick up. It’s no longer a ghost town out here, but things are still empty enough. I sigh and fight the urge to close my heavy lids. I need to get home and caffeinate, now. The light is still red. I see a car blasting down the right lane. After him, I think. This is Korea, after all, where traffic lights are merely suggestions. I wait for the car to pass. I then figure the way is now clear, twist the throttle and go…

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Honnnnnnnnnnnnk!

It’s coming from the left. My left side. The direction where somehow, inexplicably, I had neglected to look. The scream of braking rubber on asphalt. Oh shit. My veins turn to ice. My stomach opens into sick black pit as I realize that I have just pulled out directly into the path of a speeding car.

CRACK!

I come to on the ground. It’s rough and ice cold. I feel cars whizzing by. A man stands over me bellowing in Korean: “Are you okay? Why didn’t you see me? Why didn’t you look???” My shoulder is on fire. My left leg screams. I try to move. Agony. Nausea.

“Don’t! Stay still!”

I look down and see that my left leg, about halfway down below the knee, is sticking out at a 90 degree angle. The jagged end of the shin bone sticks out through black denim. There is blood. “My leg… my leg,” I manage in Korean. A siren in the distance. Then I pass out.

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There are now several men around me. Uniforms. They crouch down and take hold: “One, two, three.” A supernova of pain explodes up my leg while I’m shifted onto a stretcher. I lift into the air and am loaded in the back of the ambulance. The door slams shut and the paramedic speaks to me in English: “You are going to be okay.” Decent English. The vehicle engages into gear and we’re off, siren crying outside. “This will help with the pain.” A pinprick as he finds a vein. Again, I pass out.

I come to in the hospital. I’m on a gurney. I see white walls, the lurid lights of the E.R. I’m afraid to look at my leg because I’m sure it looks like I stepped on a land mine. The pain has largely vanished, though. Hooray for drugs! There are three doctors milling about, consulting. One of them hands me my phone and tells me to call someone close. I try Minhee. She doesn’t pick up. It’s early. Still asleep. I hand it back to the doctor, so smart in his lab coat. He looks like a kid. I’m surely his hyung. In a restaurant he’d be pouring my drinks. He starts working down the list of  people on my call log. I begin to fade out until he hands me the phone once again.

“Hello, Chris? What’s happening?” It’s my co-worker Cheryl.

A while later the doctors wheel me into another room under brighter lights. “We will now set your fracture,” the young one says in well-pronounced English. “You will feel…” he searches for the word, “…intense pain.”

Just then my boss, Professor Park, appears. She’s a tall, refugee-skinny woman of about sixty. She greets the doctors with an “Annyeonghaseo?” followed by a tiny bow. They return the greeting and and have a short exchange. She takes one look at my leg and the color drains from her face. “Uh, Chris… you’re classes are covered… it is okay. Don’t worry. No problem.”

She looks again to the carnage.

“Fighting!” she says for encouragement, making a bony fist to emphasize the point. She smiles a nervous smile then disappears. The doctors grab my leg. I can feel the bones freely floating as they begin to wrestle with it in an attempt at a set. I scream through the veil of painkiller coursing through my veins until the manhandling stops. They apply a splint and wheel me back out to the E.R., and inform me that I’ll require surgery right away.

In the meantime I’m wheeled into several other rooms for X-rays and a scan to make sure my head is okay. Thankfully my helmet did its job and everything is fine upstairs. Also, there is no neck/spinal injury. It seems my mangled leg is the worst of it, which at this point doesn’t seem so bad, since I now know that, even though I have a long road to recovery, I’ll be okay. A warm wave of relief mixes with the drugs as I am wheeled back into the E.R.

As I sit in the E.R., afloat on the gurney, Minhee finally arrives, rushing in in a panic. She is crying. She tells me that her battery was dead and she missed the flood of phone calls that deluged her device for three hours after the wreck. She describes her exchange with my boss, Professor Park, how when she finally reached her, Professor Park (a constantly proselytizing born-again Christian) only told Minhee that she “must pray.”

“But how is he?” Minhee pleaded. “Will he be okay?”

“Do you know how to pray?” Professor Park continued, oblivious to Minhee’s desperate query. “I will teach to you pray.” Unable to get a straight answer out of the woman, Minhee hung up the phone and jumped a taxi, fearing the worst.

When she finally kisses me I am on my phone, letting the Facebook universe know what has happened, that I’ve suffered a motorcycle wreck and broken my leg, but that I’ve avoided the worst and will likely come out largely unscathed in the end.

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In the late afternoon I’m taken into surgery. They inject me with a spinal anaesthetic which not only numbs, but paralyzes the bottom half of my body. I can’t move a thing. Freaky. They then give me something to put me out, which doesn’t entirely do the job. I keep coming to, listening to them bang and clang around my leg. It sounds like a construction zone. I notice that throughout the procedure several doctors and nurses repeatedly check their smart phones. Even they’re addicted to the things. I hope it’s just Kakao and Facebook. Part of me dreads that the main surgeon is getting his instructions from the Korean version of Wikipedia.

The surgery goes by without any hitches, and I come out the proud owner of a metal rod and pins holding together my fractured tibia. The fibula, which was also broken, is a bone which bears no weight, and will be left alone. This, evidently, is very common among orthopedic surgeries these days. I choose to take the doctor’s word on it.

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I spend the next two nights in a group room: Five patients stuffed into a small space. But it’s not just five people: In Korea, you are expected to bring your own caretaker. The nurses change your IV’s and take your blood pressure, but the nuts and bolts of looking after someone–emptying your pee pitcher, getting you water, basic cleaning, assisting with eating–this all rests on the shoulders of your personal caregiver, which, in most cases, is a family member. Each big bed has a mini-bed that rolls underneath it for storage, so five people in the room becomes ten. Add the fact that several of the “patients” don’t seem to be really hurt at all (staying in the hospital for insurance claims, I’m told), and all day the room becomes a coffee-klatch for middle aged Korean ajummas and ajeoshis to sit and yap at crazy volumes. I’m in severe pain with a painkiller that isn’t even coming CLOSE to dealing with the discomfort I got going on, and all I can do between bouts of moaning is to fantasize about defenestrating my roommates from the 9th story window.

The next day Minhee has me moved into a private room, where I am given peace and quiet, along with a big bag of self-dosing fentanyl that finally allows me to recoup with a modicum of serenity. I stay in that hospital for a week and a half before transferring to a cheaper and more convenient location, where I pass the remainder of my stay. My Facebook and email is abuzz with messages from both Korea and around the world. A steady stream of friends and well-wishers visits me daily. At times my room resembles a small party. I’m presented with plates of food, envelopes of cash to help offset the expense and books. Books are delivered en mass and I chew through them, particularly charmed by an account of Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition and the hilarious/bleak graphic novels of Daniel Clowes. I am well rested, happy, and above all, thankful. I feel calmer and more positive than I have in years. I’m released on the 18th day and start back at work the following Monday.

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Today is the one year anniversary of that nasty wreck, that day where, if the dice would have come up a bit differently, I may not even be here typing today. The whole time I was laid up I kept telling myself: It could be worse. And it could have. I could have ended up dead or eating jello for a living. I got fucked up. I got hurt but bounced back quickly, and trip around the sun later I’m back in action. My leg is 95% there. I walk miles daily and hike several times a week. When hobbling around last spring, unable to partake of any of the physical joys that we associate with warming weather, I promised myself that once my leg was healed I was use it with a vengeance, that I would make walking even more of a priority in my life and so far I have delivered on that. This summer I’ll go on a massive hike either here in Asia or that States (haven’t decided yet), and I’m planning to do an epic jaunt here in Korea in the future, one that could take me up the entire spine of the country on foot.

My motorcycle was destroyed in the wreck and sold off for parts to a garage. I haven’t been on a bike since, though I haven’t forsworn riding again in the future. I rode for nearly ten  years without a serious incident, and may have hit eleven had I been a bit more awake that morning. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t thinking. I had gotten absolutely placid on a route that I had ridden a hundred times before, and it nearly cost me my life. I broke the first rule of crossing the road, taught to us all by our mothers when we’re just beginning to totter along on our feet:

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I believe I will ride again, but only for open-road travel. I won’t ride a motorcycle for my daily transportation in a city such as Busan where so many people drive like crackheads. Sure, this crash was my fault, but next time it may be someone else asleep at the wheel, and they may not even brake.

Of course it was my wife Minhee who really carried the weight while I was hurt. She dealt with the doctors, the insurance, the police, our home, our animals, the bills, my work, and most importantly, me. At one point she literally wiped my butt. This actually happened, and no, I’m not proud. She was hoping to avoid such a chore until well into our elderly years, but we don’t always get to choose the whens and where’s, now do we?  I am thankful to have married such a terrific woman. It took getting maimed to really appreciate tying the knot. In sickness and in health…

Korea proved its mettle, at least as far as its health system goes. I was delivered to a state-of-the-art hospital within thirty minutes of my wreck and patched up by doctors who knew what the hell they were doing, even if they felt the need to chat on their phones in the operating room. Sure, they do a few things different than the west, but in the end I was taken care of and not left with staggering debt, even given the fact that the national insurance made me reimburse them since the crash was my fault. This was something that I was ignorant of going in: Korean national health insurance doesn’t cover some things deemed too risky or negligent on behalf of the claimant. They’ll pay the bill but come to collect it later. Luckily, my friends in Busan passed the hat and raised a lot of money to help take the sting out of that, but all said and done a full surgery and two and a half week stay in a private hospital room clocked in less than eight thousand dollars. Add another zero to those digits and we just may be approaching the bill in America, sans insurance.

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So here I am, scarred but alive. I’m not able to sprint yet and my shoulder is a bit sore at times, but I can’t complain. As I lay there in that hospital bed with my leg jacked up, I often thought, I wonder how I’ll feel in a year’s time? Well today I got the answer: pretty damned good, and if you want to know, I’ve now switched to Xanax. It’s much easier on the system the next day.

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An Amari Christmas (or The Pablito Who Stole Christmas)

by Pablo Harris

I.

“Hey T, how’s it going?”

“Hutty! What up man?”

“Oh, just dealing with all this shit that’s about to go down.”

“Yeah, you all right with all this? You ready for it?”

“Yeah, sure, but got a question for you.”

“Shoot.”

“So, what’s up with Pablo? We got this Vegas bachelor party comin’ up and then there’s the big day. You know, my fiance’s getting nervous. She really wants to get a final headcount on this. Last time we talked he was all like ‘yeah, I’ll be there’ but that was two months ago and hasn’t responded since.”

“Yeah? Isn’t he a groomsman?”

“Yeah, s’posed to be. I even convinced Annie to have her friend Lena, Pablo’s favorite UCD Alpha Phi, be his wedding partner.”

“Leee-nnaaa. Shit, that guy owes you.”

“No shit he owes me. He still hasn’t paid me back for a couple of O-Zs of Humboldt’s finest.”

“No shit?”

“Yeah, whatever, it’s not about the money. He owes me, owes Annie, owes you for sure, for giving that guy a roof over his head and getting him laid! Last new year’s, remember how he was all moping around because he had to catch his flight back to work in Tibet.”

“Ha! Korea, man.”

“Korea, Tibet, same thing. He was all sad because what, he was leaving that tall, skinny, super-nerdy white girl who spoke Spanish?”

“Yeah, Brooke. But in his defense, she was alright if you’re into that bookworm librarian thing.”

“Yes, we all know he’s got strange taste in strange. I mean, ‘with the first overall pick in the Great Texas Bush League College Porn Draft of 2000, Pablo selects: Women Over 40′. Not even that chicken-licker Elsa was going to touch it with a ten foot dildo. Then traded his second, third, and fourth round picks to move up in the draft to make sure he got Joy of Spexxx?  Who the fuck does that?”

“The worst, real or fantasy, general manager ever.”

“Right. Anyway, you gave him a bottle of Fernet Branca. Annie and I introduced Lena to him. You know the rest.”

“I know, that lucky bastard. And what is it with ‘Frisco, restaurant industry people, and that vile liquor? Fernet to Pablo is like spinach to Popeye. In one shot he went from Dopey the goat to some drunk ass kid on Christmas. Like he just got all the Star Wars cantina scene figures and a Millenium Falcon tambien.”

“So, have you talked to that asshole lately?”

“Yeah, talked with him last weekend but I don’t know what’s up with him. He told me his contract ends at the end of the month but is considering extending his contract there at that, what do you call it, hogwash job he’s got. So, I don’t know, man. He told me some bullshit about how he needs to save some money, wants to move to the Bay but not sure when. So I called him out on this and how his life out there is bullshit and should be back to teaching in Cali. Hell, even his restaurant jobs got to better than what he’s doing now. So, after calling him on that shit he’s shoveling, he admitted: he’s scared of Vegas.”

“What the? Since when?”

“Since the last time he was there for that Christmas. And Heidi.”

*   *   *

December 2009. The last Christmas I spent in the States with my family while I was still bartending in Northern California and about to enroll for my final semester at Cal State. When my maternal grandmother passed before Thanksgiving it was a difficult time for the Herez family.  Especially tough for my mother.

After the plates were cleared, another disappointing trio of Turkey Day NFL games were in the books, and we were approaching the dregs of vintage Graham’s Port, my mom requested the boys turn off the SportsCenter. Even my father and brother were quick to oblige. The TV is never turned off in the Herez house. That’s when I knew what was coming. “Aw shit, here it comes, the intervention, fuck. Now? Not now,” I thought.

She surprised me with an unexpected tack.

“Look, Paul, I know you don’t like Vegas but I don’t want to be here without my mom this year so we’ve decided we’re going to Vegas for Christmas this year. I need the distraction. I don’t want to be here without her.”

“I think this is the worst idea ever.”

“I knew you would say that. But I want this distraction. Your grandmother not being here, I don’t want to be here. And because I know you hate Vegas, I used my Platinum Points to book you a suite at Harrahs. So, if you’ll join us, your room’s already booked. You can take the train down on the 24th to Hanford and Dad and I will pick you up there and you can ride with us.”

“Or I can bring him,” my brother offered. “I’ll pick you up at the Bakersfield Amtrak, bro, and you can catch a ride with me.”

“Does that work for you, mijo,” my mom asked directed at me.

“Not really. I haven’t been home in a while -”

“That’s your own fault,” my brother interrupted.

“Fine. Sure. But I just want to lay on the living room floor next to a Christmas tree, watch some movies, eat some tamales, and be home. And for a family, especially for this family to go to Vegas for Christmas, this is a terrible idea.”

My mom began sobbing so my dad interjected, “Can you just think of someone other than yourself right now.”

Mom continued crying, “ I don’t want to be here at home for Christmas. And now, not only with your grandmother being gone, now one of my boys might not be here to spend Christmas with the family.”

I yielded, “You know, I’m sure it’s not easy letting go of your mother, my grandma, especially at this time of year. But there must be better ways to grieve. But . . . fine. Let me see what flights are available out of Sacto. You’re right. You know I hate this idea, but yeah, I’ll be there.”

“Thank you, mijo.”

The afternoon of Christmas Eve at SMF, waiting to board the plane, I read this brief article in an abandoned Time magazine: Best Opening Fiction Lines of All Time. Number one was awarded to Anna Karenina’s first line,

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I don’t know anything about happy families but I do believe Tolstoy was onto something. “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Each unhappy  family is unhappy in the grips of its own grief and its vices. For my mom, its Vegas, bingo, and slot machines. For my dad, it’s golf and horse racing. For my brother, its prostitutes. For me, it’s drink.

Three hours later, I touched down at McCarron, grabbed the shuttle to the strip, immediately checked in through the Platinum reception, tossed my backpack and a small duffle of presents on the sofa, and took inventory of the mini fridge and wet bar. Eight dollars for a bottle of Heineken. Twelve dollars for a can of cashews. I’m not a gambler but time to hit the casino.

*  *  *

“What can I get for you?” she asked.

Eyes transfixed by the electronic spinning reels and entranced by the incessant pprrdlulululu-boo, pprrdlulululu-boo and the occasional cha-chinging sound to imitate coins hitting the payout tray, I didn’t even bother to look up to see who‘s taking the order.

Campari soda lime,” I curtly demanded.

“Campari soda lime,” she slowly repeated, logging the order and noting his manner.

While slow playing nickels trying to drink as many as I can with the least damage accrued, she returned a good five minutes later.

“Campari soda lime,” she reiterated while setting a cocktail napkin next to the ashtray and the slot machine.

First I glanced at the just placed high ball glass and followed the trail of a pale dainty retreating hand up a well-toned arm. Over to fleshy mango-shaped breasts stuffing a burgundy spaghetti strapped corset top. Up to sparkling blue eyes that pierced the second-hand smoke framed by curly golden tresses. I was instantly sprung. We locked eyes as she meekly smiled then slightly bobbed her head a few times before averting my gaze as if she just dropped something on the floor.

“Oh, here, this is for you,” putting a fiver on her tray.”                                                                                                                

“Thanks.”

“Thank you.”

Then an audible sigh before she opened with, “So, I got to tell you, my bartender told me ‘look out for that guy’.”

“Look out for that guy? Interesting. Why?”

“He said watch out for that guy because he might be a ‘made man’.”

“Made man, huh?”

“Well, only a ‘made man’ orders a Campari soda lime so you must be in the mafia. Sorry if you’re Italian. Are you Italian?”

“No. Just a fan of the amari, the bitters, and in need of an aperitif.”

“Isn’t Campari a digestif?”

“Actually it’s both. I make my own rules. And if I really was a made man I’d be drinking Averna. Campari’s from Milan, Averna is Sicily.”

“You sound like a made man to me.”

“Would a made man be plugging nickels into a machine at Harrah’s? I mean, if I were ‘made’ I’d be at the high end tables across the strip at Caesar’s, up at The Wynn, or downtown at The Plaza. No offense.”

“None taken. I’d rather be there, too, I guess. But you certainly are bitter.”

“Perhaps.”

“Well then, if you’re not a ‘made man’ then let me guess, you’re in the industry.”

“Yep.”

“So, you a chef, sous, on the line, garde manger?”

“Nah, I’m front-of-the house. I serve, bartend, stuff like that.”

“I see. Cool. Oh, I’m Heidi from San Diego. As you can see,” pointing to the name tag above her perfect left b-cup. “What’s your name? Where you from?”

“I’m Paul. I live, work, go to school in Sacramento.”

“And what brings you here Paul?”

“Well, my family wanted to do something different this year. So here I am, just killing some time before the Christmas Eve family dinner thing in need of a Campari,” before proceeding to drain my glass in three gulps.

“Oh, would you like another?

“Yes please.”

“Alright, I’ll be back.”

This time she promptly returned with a cocktail brandishing a vibrant, deeper hue and continued the inquiry.

“So, where you going for dinner tonight, Paul?”

“Upstairs at The Range.”

“Cool. The Range is really good.”

“Right on. Never been.”

“And Oscar’s working tonight. You should ask for a table in his section. Tell him you’re a friend of Heidi.”

We chatted about California, working in the industry, this and that for a few minutes.

“What’s your plan after dinner?”

“More of the same.”

“Drinking Campari for nickels?”

“Pretty much. I’ll be in need of a digestif.”

“Well, I’ll be around here until one. Come by and say hello when you’re done.”

I slammed another. “Alright then. But hey, Heidi, one for the road.”

“You got it.”

*  *  *

 

I returned around a quarter to one. Waiting for her to return. Preparing for an after dinner nightcap. Heidi sneaked up behind me.

“Any luck tonight?”

“Nuh. Not yet.”

“Well, let me help you change that. My fiance’s bartending at Rio tonight so we’ll meet him around four. So, like I said, I have a fiance but I do have a friend that I think you should meet. My friend Kat just moved here from Hesperia – ”

“You mean Hysteria.”                                                                                                                                                                          

“Oh, you know it then.”

“Yeah, I dated a girl from there once. That place is just a dump in the desert. The locals look like Joshua trees, arms full of spikes.”

Heidi, shaking her head, “Well, yeah, but anyway, you’d like her. She’s cocktailing at Deju Vu but is starting at UNLV this semester in hospitality/restaurant management. She’s at my place now so I can give her a call. And a bunch of us are finishing work here soon. We’re meeting next door for some Christmas cheer at the Imperial Palace then to The Fireside.” She smiled coyly and leaned into my ear teasingly, “And you know, Christmas only happens once a year.” She erected her posture and playfully asked, “So . . . should I call her? Want to come?”

Of course she knew the answer. Of course, I should’ve known better. But after all the preprandial drinks, the Dom, the Rochioli, the Opus, and internally repeating her maxim, all commitments to Christmas Day family obligations were long forgotten.

“Of course,” I answered.

“Great! I’m almost done so let me get you a drink before I clock off and go change real quick. Another Campari, Paul?”

“Nah, J-Dub Black and water, please.”

“Alright then. Now that’s a drink.”

II.

Christmas Day. 2pm. I woke up on the floor of a hotel room that was not mine. Then I saw her sitting there on an angry chair. My mother glaring through moist eyes.

“My God, Paul, I don’t know what to do with you.”

“What do you mean what to do with me? I’m fine.”

“No you’re not! You were supposed to go golfing with your dad and your brother this morning. They couldn’t find you so you’re dad went looking for you. He found you with two, two prostitutes, and a security guard trying to get you in the elevator back to your room. Your dad brought you here. You could barely walk. Your eyes rolling in the back of your head, slurring about Heidi this and Kat that.”

“Prostitutes? No, those are my friends.”

“Those are not your friends. Your friends do not leave you so messed up like this. So you missed golf, we were supposed to have brunch here and open presents and . . . I just don’t know what to do with you. So, you need to sober up and then we’re going to have a talk later. And you need to apologize to your dad when you see him for missing his tee time and for calling him a cock-blocking fag in your drunken stupor.”

“I said that?”

“Uh, yes, and you said worse to me.”

“Really? What did I say?”

“You know, maybe I will remind you sometime but not now. I don’t want to talk to you right now. Why don’t you get up, go back to your room, take a shower, go back to sleep if you need to sleep it off, and maybe we’ll meet up with you later.”

“So where are dad and Vince now?”

“They said they were going to Caesar’s to watch the Lakers game. If you clean yourself up perhaps you can catch them there later.”

“Ok.”

*  *  *

“Hey this is Tim, leave me a message and I’ll call you back.”

BEEP

“Hey, Big T, what up, it’s Paul. I am at the Caesar’s just off the Sportsbook, just pacing around by the elevators, trying to figure out my next move. So . . . maybe you can give me some advice. Answer your phone, damnit! I just need someone to talk to. My parents aren’t talking to me. My brother hates me. So there’s that. Oh yeah, merry Christmas.

Click

With holidaze fading, no family to tend to, I wandered around the Forum and back to the Palace before staggering into Nero’s. I needed a quiet place to just sit and reflect on all that transpired. The lounge was helmed by a friendly, immaculately manicured yet masculine barkeep.

“Hey there, what can I get for you?”

“Hey, I need a glass of white wine, for now. You got a list?”

“Sure. What do you like? Something crisp and lean like a sauvignon blanc or something fuller, richer like a chardonnay? Or perhaps you like something in between like our house white, the Sokol Blosser Evolution from Oregon. It offers a little bit of everything,” slightly lisping but it went undetected since my gay-dar was debilitated from last night’s furious assault to the cranium.

“I see you have Sea Smoke pinot by the glass. Wow, that’s highly allocated and never seen offered by the glass. And for $18 a glass; that’s a deal!”

“Well, I guess you know your stuff then.”                                                                                                                                         

“I love that wine. I say, if California was ever to do what France did and ranked all the towns and vineyards in Burgundy, Sea Smoke vineyard would certainly be a Grand Cru.”

“Oh, for sure. Well would you like a glass of that now?”

“I’ll wait on that. But please, a glass of the house white. I prefer white wine for breakfast. Works better than coffee.”

“Uh, you know it’s almost 5:30pm now.”

“Well, that’s breakfast for me today.”

“Long night, huh?”

“Long night. Long morning.”

“Ooohh, tell me about it.”

I spent the next couple of hours chatting with Gary about the fallout with our nuclear families and our love for our intimate, incestuous work families while I killed a bottle of white before Gary generously poured me a couple of glasses of premium Santa Barbara red, “on me”. Once again, I should’ve known better. Should’ve learned my lesson from the night before. Should’ve known that I was no longer a ‘made man’ to have one’s eye on, to watch out for, but a ‘marked man’, a mark, a target. Like a lost tourist to a pickpocket on Las Ramblas. Like a single straight who had wandered unbeknownst of what happens to a stray at The Asphalt, Flaming Saddles Saloon, or the EndUp: I was the mark.

“Hey Gary, it’s been great talking to you. Thanks for the wine but I should settle up. I got to get to dinner.”

“Alright, here you go.”

On the check was two house whites and one house red. $24. I put $40 in the book and handed it to him.

“Thanks again.”

“Sure. And hey, after dinner, come back for a nightcap. I’ll be here until eleven. Or better yet, meet me hear then and I’ll take you to some bars where only the locals and industry know.”

The service trap was set and felt myself descending into the depths of another bar well.

*  *  *

“So Hutty, sorry to report but I don’t think Pablo’s going to be making this one.”

“Well, fuck him then. Speaking of gay ass Paul, do you think he went out with that guy and did some dirty deeds?”

“I don’t know. And there’s nothing that I can’t get out of him if you give him enough blue agave and smoking greens but he’s been standing pat for years with that fucking cliche; what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Also, he has some gay tendencies like all that Top Chef, art history, wine, Oscar Wilde. And what’s that dirty Spaniard’s name, that director, Pedro Almodovar? Pretty queer. But, you know, I’ve known him since seventh grade. I’ve seen nearly twenty years of his porn collecting habits, there’s some strange shit in there. But it’s all straight. He’s a vagitarian.”

“Ok , but I still wouldn’t put it past him. You know him. You never know what kind of depressing drunken depravity he could get into on a holiday bender.”

“True.”

“Alright, but he’s kind of a faggot for not making it at least to Vegas for the Bachelor Party. And I don’t get he’s still living there with those kimchi-culos. So, what, he’s got a one-way on the yellow bus like all those other losers out there? Is that his thing now?”

“Not that I’m aware of. If he mentions any trim out there its either Kiwis, Canadians, or midwestern girls.”

“Well still, Paul’s cut. I guess you’ll slide into his spot and you just won the bridesmaid sweepstakes.”

“Yeah? Alright then! Thank you, Tibet.”