Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Chapter One (Untitled Collaboration)

"Brother V" and I have been collaborating on a story for several years now. To my knowledge I've never posted an excerpt for feedback. This is a rough draft of Chapter One. Fire away...

The cantaloupe is the color of bruises, blue babies and death.

I wonder why Brennon went to the trouble of stealing food when all he takes is what no one else would want anyway.

Moral ambiguity about stealing, perhaps? Not me. Not with food, anyway. I rarely have to resort to stealing, though. There's enough throwaway food to go around. Canned goods, fresh fruit, nuts, vegetables, candy, choice unused portions of prime rib, veal cutlet, uneaten pizza two hours cold— it’s all about knowing which places only serve the best and throw out what the rest of us would deem edible.

There are plenty of hardships being homeless but going hungry? No way.

I debate tossing the wretched fruit in the trash but fear it will upset Brennon. In his mind, he has gone through a lot of trouble to acquire our "lunch." Poor bastard isn’t used to street life yet. He still thinks people are watching him; he doesn’t realize that no one gives a damn anymore. He’s just another vagrant like me, one more soul whose eyes would never be met by a passing stranger.

We're hit by stray bullets, killed by drunk drivers, tortured by bored adolescents.

We are cellophane.

I toss the cantaloupe aside and attempt to ignore the gnawing in my gut.

It’s said that the list of truly important people would fit easily on one page, typed and double-spaced. The rest, according to Nietzsche, are the "bungled and the botched".

For Brennon, being botched and bungled sure takes up a lot of time.

I stand and gather up my few belongings: a tattered patchwork quilt that had belonged to my grandmother, a copy of Billy Budd, my one change of clothes, and a small Gideon Bible. The latter was a gift from one of the "suited men,” the ones who walk around the street handing out little testaments as if reading them would fill our stomachs and put shelter over our heads. I actually read it once. Well, parts of it. I use pages out of it from time to time as makeshift rolling papers for when I lift a bag of pot off of a sleeping stoner in Overton Park.

I fold my blanket around these articles and stuff them in a plastic Wal-Mart bag. I step out of the alley and meander toward Union Avenue.

The heat monkeys from car exhaust and sun-baked pavement are already climbing through the air. It’s not even noon yet.

It can be exhilarating, the living energy of the continual human activity. I often watch television in doctors’ offices for a few hours before they figure out I’m not a patient and throw me out. I’m partial to the Discovery Channel. I especially love the insect specials, the swarm of manic activity that takes a termite hive from a few inches to 10 or 20 feet. Very impressive.

I wasn't always homeless. Sometimes, though, in a sick way, I wish it had happened sooner. The insight it has given me is nothing short of remarkable. Want to be a fly on the wall? Want to truly observe without being observed? Lose your job and your home and your family. Any true anthropologist studying the highest primate on the planet would give his eyeteeth to have seen what I've seen.

I move with the flow, finding the rhythm and the pace. I can tell what time it is without a watch. I can smell the midmorning coffee and the Tic-tacs. I can see the toothpicks flicking in the greasy lips of the overfed. I can feel the mild food frenzy. Lunch. Early. 11:00, maybe 11:15.

Friday. You can feel that weekend anticipation in the air.

I addle up next to a suit. Good-looking guy with a trim, lean look. Killer lawyer. I have to ask him the time since his coat sleeves come past his wrists. "It's about 11:15," he says, smiling slightly.

We stand in the warm wind of June, waiting for the crosswalk light to change. I know I smell a little like rotten apples and he’s downwind.

Killer Lawyer, Rumpled Vagrant. Leather valise, plastic bag. Armani, Salvation Army.

There is acceptance, alignment, a feeling of place.

Yeah, right. This guy is scared right down to his Ivy League bones that he is one slick deal, one bad case, one trip downtown to score some cheap ass away from smelling like rotten apples.

The light changes and he quickly manages to lose himself in the lunchtime crowd. Most likely I’m already forgotten; but knowing that for a moment, just for a moment he thought, What if? brings me a sick sense of satisfaction. I mean, it's not that I wish my life on anyone. Regardless of the insight I’ve received, spending the night on a bench sure as hell ain't no comparison to a suite at the Peabody.

See, I’m sort of a moral traffic light. I’m someone a smart parent would use to scare the hell out of his underachieving smartass kid. Look where you’re headed. Wanna end up like him? It ain’t hard to look at me and see what I was once.

Sometimes I think I have it better than all the other bums I come in contact with. They've never been able to walk into a tailor and be fitted for a suit. They've never sat down in a five-star restaurant and ordered a $200 bottle of wine. Hell, some of them haven't slept in a bed in 20 or 30 years unless they intentionally got caught lifting something so they could spend a night in a jail cell. And forget about bathing. When you're on the street, a warm shower is a luxury. Hell, sometimes a cold one feels like heaven.

No, all they've known is shelter food, hand me downs, sleeping in the rain, and the occasional charity of a passing stranger.

Then again, perhaps they have the advantage. Unlike me, they don't know what they're missing.

I get lot of grief from my fellow vagrants. I’m a bit of novelty, you could say. That bit about old habits dying hard? Completely true. Nothing big, just little things. Like when I get up off of the ground and dust my pants. Doesn't do much good when they haven't seen soap and water for two weeks but it's just the natural thing to do. And manners. Excusing myself after a burp is the equivalent of performing standup. Encore! Say that ‘excuse me’ shit again!


It’s the ghosts of my past life. An echo of the person I used to be.

Survival. That’s all these guys care about. Manners and hygiene become a much lesser priority when you’re sleeping under a newspaper.

"Hey, watch where you're going, dipshit!"

Of course it's my fault. No one would ever get close enough to accidentally run into me. I look over my shoulder in the direction of the offended party. Our eyes meet.

SUV. Black, sleek, snarling metal monster with an asshole staring out of it at me. An asshole I know. I never forget an asshole.

Old life. Lunches, trips to Vegas, this asshole and me downing Tequila sunrises and banging cocktail waitresses in the elevator.


"Move, you fucking junkie, you’re making me late!” He shakes his 11:00 cheeseburger at me with every syllable.


I suddenly don’t feel so good. Bob. Bob puking and turning all sick and blue on me in a pool at the Marriott.

I'm pointing, questioning, looking and not believing.

"Hey, Bob," I say like we're in an elevator.

He lays on the horn and I know the cops are coming. “Hey, Bob,” the blast from the horn drowns my own screaming voice just before I pass out. “Man…you’re dead…”

Warm blood. Mine. On my lips. Must have busted my nose on the asphalt.

"Where am I?" I ask. It's what you're supposed to say when you come around. It's a tradition of bad screenplays and TV scripts. Even in my state of confusion, I cringe at the cliché.

Police officer, holding my head in his hands and looking bored and pissed.

“Side of the street,” he replies. “Home sweet home, buddy.” Cliché. Cringe.

I can stand.

Am I okay? Yeah.

Get moving? Sure. Got a busy schedule.

I meet the eyes of those around me, a talent that does not come easily. It is something I have slowly acquired. They are still staring.

A woman in a blue suit purses her lips and slightly squints her left eye. Disgust, perhaps?

A young mother attempts in vain to hush her small son as he inquires as to if I’m one of those bad men who asks daddy for money.

A man close to my age stands on his toes at the back of the crowd. The red light on his digital recorder pointed at my face.

Channel Voyeur. Jerk.

I pick up my belongings and begin to make my way from the middle of the crowd. It sickens me that they have more interest in the possibility that I am dead than they ever would if they saw me walking down the street. I brush by two teenagers. One complains about the way I smell. It doesn't bother me. Can't think about that now. Like I said, schedule to keep.

Surviving on the streets is all about timing. A mere fifteen minutes can make the difference between eating good and eating shit. Hell, if you're good enough, you can score some decent fare sometimes. Like this little Russian joint not far from where I sleep. They throw out buckets of food every day, leftovers from people who ordered something that sounded cool and then ate two bites. It's just knowing when to get there and then arriving before all the other vultures. Last week I had mango pork for dinner. It wasn't warm and I had to fish it out of the dumpster, but it can't be any less sanitary than some of those Chinese places I used to eat at back when I was still a functional part of society.

My head hurts. It reminds me of the blood I tasted earlier. Probably dried on my face by now. I look around for a fountain, puddle, anything. Nothing. Suppose I’ll have to go inside somewhere. There's a burger joint not far ahead. Probably my best bet. Nothing too fancy in a place where they allow the patrons to write on the walls.

I can tell I must be in quite a state of disarray by the faces of passing pedestrians. Well,
in a worse state than usual. I quicken my step and am careful not to bump into anyone. My courtesy is unnecessary, though. People are keeping more of a distance than even I’m used to.

I walk up the two steps to the front door, carefully opening it with out touching the glass. Old habits again.

The burst of cold air and the smell of burgers frying are at the same time heavenly and sickening. I look around for the bathroom. The restaurant is busy; the pace, hurried. Only a few at the front notice my entrance. I see the sign at the back: Men. As I make my way back, a waitress taps me on the shoulder.

“Sir, smoking or…”

She stops when I glance over my shoulder. I wait for her to gasp, to scream, to possibly call for a manager. Surprisingly, she says nothing. She looks nervously around and nods her head toward the bathroom.

I have found it is the little things we must be thankful for in this life, even if it’s only a waitress who silently agrees to turn a blind eye to a blood-encrusted homeless guy.

As I make my way to the back, a four-year-old kid shoots a toothpick at me from his straw. I give him a little smirk which his mother sees. Not knowing what has prompted me, she turns him around in his seat and shoots me a scathing look.

I enter the bathroom and look around. More writing on the wall. Literally. Phone numbers. Professions of love. He was here. She was here. It seems everyone but my grandmother has been in this bathroom at some point, Jesus included.

I check out the stalls. Empty. I walk to the sink and look in the mirror. My nose is indeed busted. Blood is caked around my left nostril and has run all the way down to my upper lip and the corner of my mouth. There is also a fairly deep gash above my left eye. It has already started swelling.

I turn the knobs and adjust the water temperature until it is lukewarm. I should probably clean my hands before I touch my face. Infection is a real bitch when you have no health insurance.

I pull the lever on the soap dispenser, hoping the slippery substance will smell like the flowery stuff my wife used to buy for our bathroom. It smells like a hospital.

This is the way we wash our hands, wash our hands, wash our hands...

The song comes from nowhere, and it takes me a moment to recognize it.

...this is the way we was our hands, so early in the morning

Hannah's face flashes in my mind, her little hands engulfed by mine as we sing our silly song.

I wash the soap off and cup my hands. The water stings as it washes across the lacerations on my face. Sharply, I inhale.

I bend farther into the sink and allow the stream to run over my entire head. I pray that the water will wash away the blood and dirt. And the ghost of a little curly-haired girl..

I stand up and shake my head. I push my hair back from my eyes. For a moment, I can see the old me. Hair slicked back, my normally olive skin even darker from the sun. Bob used to say that I looked like an extra out of a Scorsese movie.


The black SUV roars back into my mind, complete with asshole. There’s no possible way it could be Bob. Bob’s been dead for—nine years? Ten? Time flies when you’re having fun.

It couldn’t have been Bob. I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the possibility. I saw him die. I went to his funeral. I consoled his wife. I visited his grave to curse the day I met him.


My buddy, my pal.

And the guy who conveniently offed himself and left me to deal with the shit storm our lives became.

There has to be an explanation. They say everyone has a twin. Maybe this guy just looked like Bob.

Maybe I’m cracking up. It’s a small wonder that I’ve held up as long as I have. Maybe I’m heading toward “crazy homeless” as opposed to “regular homeless.”

Or maybe Bob isn’t dead.

I dry my face, wiping away any lingering traces of blood and my old life.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The One Where I'm Knocked Up


I suppose I should at least address that I'm pregnant, almost 34 weeks actually. I must say the past 7 to 8 months have been... well, interesting. And by interesting I mean exciting, frustrating, fascinating, depressing, exhilarating, and about forty-five additional "ing" words. For those of you who have never been pregnant, let me tell you that no book can prepare you for the adventure of being knocked up.

When I first got pregnant, I read Jenny McCarthy's Belly Laughs since I was told that she wrote about the stuff no one tells you. And while this is true (seriously, there are a couple chapters that have proven especially valuable), her book only scraped the tip of the proverbial iceberg. No one--not even the fearmongers who produce those What to Expect books--can truly tell you what to expect. Every pregnancy is different and every woman approaches pregnancy differently.

With that said, I want to share some of my experiences and feelings about pregnancy. I'm not sharing this as a guide or as advice for other pregnant women. I mean, if someone reads this and can identify with what I have to say, BONUS! but please don't misinterpret this as any type of guide to pregnancy.

Am I Glowing Yet?

Before I got pregnant, I remember women saying things like, "I never felt more beautiful than when I was pregnant." I didn't question this because, even without being pregnant myself, part of me could understand why they felt this way. Despite the extra weight and stretch marks, these women had a life growing inside them. Their body was nurturing another life and that made them feel like a vessel, something sacred and beautiful. When I got pregnant, I fully expected to feel this way. The first few months, however, I just felt sick. Every. Single. Morning. And most afternoons, too. I also felt like I had mono, constantly exhausted. Then, as my pregnancy progressed and my body started to change, I kept waiting for the way I felt about my pregnancy to change. I wanted to feel special, to feel beautiful. I wanted to get that damned "glow" everyone talked about. I didn't. I felt increasingly more tired and bloated and UGH-ly. There were days I even felt resentful. I wondered, How on EARTH does a woman who DOESN'T want to be pregnant survive pregnancy? I found myself feeling increasingly more guilty and depressed, even questioning my ability to BE a mother. I'm now in my last trimester with only 6 1/2 weeks to go and to be honest, I still don't feel beautiful--and I've been lucky enough to NOT get stretch marks! But I feel bloated and achy and, well, kind of gross. I struggle to pull myself off the couch. I pee a little when I sneeze. My body looks soft and dumpy (well, more so than usual). Every morning is a struggle to find an outfit that makes me look pregnant and not just fat. Maybe that's shallow, but I AM still a woman and most women would be bold-face LYING if they said they didn't care if they look fat. I'll go so far to say that I don't even like being pregnant. I like the end result of pregnancy--I'm super excited about the baby arriving. But when I see a woman like Michelle Duggar, I question her sanity. There have been times I've actually become kind of angry when women tell me how much they LOVED being pregnant.

Perhaps these feelings are more normal than I think. Maybe no one just talks about feeling this way because they're afraid of the reaction they'll get from women who enjoyed pregnancy. Regardless, it's how I feel. It doesn't mean I don't love my baby. It doesn't mean I won't be a good mother. I think of it as being like someone who hates to fly but loves getting to her vacation destination. The journey is hard but the end result is going to be totally worth it.

To Poke or Not to Poke

If there's one thing I've learned to refrain from discussing (unless asked directly), it's my birthing plan. I am one of those crazy (or so I've been told) women who has decided not to have an epidural. Now, I'm not totally opposed to pain relief (paging Dr. Stadol), but if I can make it through labor with only breathing and screaming, that would be great. The reactions I get from women when they discover my plan range from "Are you effing nuts?" to "You go girl!" to actual laughing in my face and eye rolling. One person actually started soliciting bets from those around us as to how long it would take me to break down and beg for an epidural. Some women have acted downright offended, like I'm judging them for having an epidural. Other's have even been mean. One woman's reaction was to snarl, "So you think you're some sort of superwoman, huh? You just wait."

This isn't a judgement call. I don't think any woman who has an epidural is weak or "bad" or wrong. I think every woman is entitled to making her own decision, whether she chooses natural birth, an epidural or an elective C-section. I just personally don't want an epidural. Can I say 100% that I won't break down during labor and beg for one? Well, no. I've never had a baby. I can't say anything 100%. I can say, though, that I feel strongly enough about this that it's going to take a lot to get me to that point.

I don't understand the women who hate on me for making this decision or the ones who even treat me like I'm downright stupid. Look, I know I'm in for a world of pain. And I would be lying if I said I'm not scared. But I'm also excited. I don't look forward to the pain, but I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to share in the joy and strife of birth, to be a part of this experience that women around the world have been taking part in for thousands of years.

New Baby/ Old "Babies"

Many of you know that I have two "fur babies." John and I adopted our Lady right after our 1st anniversary. She was a rescue dog who had been abused. Over the years, she has presented many challenges that are typical of a dog with her background. She has also, however, been a constant source of joy and comfort for us. She has seen us through many storms, both literal and metaphorical. There have been times that no one could make me feel better, that the only solace I could find was to wrap my arms around her and cry into her furry little neck. I have always been a dog lover, but Lady has changed the way I look at every dog. It will sound ridiculous to most people, but when I see a stray, I see my Lady and it literally breaks my heart. I start and end every day with my Lady and feel so blessed that God gave her to us.

Our Abbie came to live with us in the fall of 2005. Abbie is a totally different dog. She's more independent, less concerned about having our attention or approval. She's happy-go-lucky and loves everyone. The only problems we faced with her were housebreaking and dominance (she liked to boss Lady around when she first arrived). Abbie is my "cuddle bunny." Every night, I crawl into bed, situate my pillows (I've gone from two to five by the way since I got pregnant) and call, "Babbie! Belly!" Abbie crawls under the covers, snuggles up against me and off to sleep we go. I've literally gotten to the point that I hate sleeping in hotels because I don't have my Abbie. I can't honestly say I have the same relationship with Abbie as I do with Lady. It might seem I don't love Abbie as much. I just love her in a totally different way. She's my little bouncy ball of sunshine. Where Lady can be so needy, Abbie is my mellow girl.

By this time, you may be thinking, "Amber, why are you talking about your dogs? Isn't this about your pregnancy?" Well, it turns out that pregnancy prompts other people to bring up dogs quite frequently. I have been assured by many people that (1) my dogs will "just be dogs" once the baby arrives and (2) I will cage/throw out/get rid of the dogs once the baby arrives. People don't seem to realize that just as there are different parenting styles with children, there are also people who view dogs as more than animals or "surrogate" kids you get rid of once the real kids arrive. Our dogs are not just pets. to us While John and I both know that we will love our children in a totally different way than we do our dogs, it does not mean we will love our dogs any less. Once someone told us that we'd have to get rid of Lady once we had children. Our response? We just wouldn't have kids as long as we have her.

I resent when people insist that I don't know what I'm talking about when it comes to my dogs. Sometimes I wonder if they are projecting personal guilt, that they feel bad for neglecting their own dogs when the baby arrived. Dogs and children can co-exist in the same house. It may take some extra work, but it's possible. When we decided to have a baby, we knew there would be sacrifices. That's why we waited so many years to have children. When it comes to our dogs, that doesn't mean we will give the dogs up or push them aside. We will sacrifice time, though. It means we will have to work a little harder to "blend" our family together.

I hope and pray our little girl loves animals, especially dogs, as much as her daddy and I do. I would be a little heartbroken if I couldn't share this part of my life with her.

Final Thoughts...

For nine months, be prepared for endless advice. Some of it will be good, and some of it will be frustrating. Store away the useful stuff and just nod and smile through the rest. But don't let anyone tell you how your pregnancy should go or how you should feel. Every woman is different. Our bodies react differently as do our emotions. I guess the only advice I'd give a pregnant woman or a woman planning on becoming pregnant is this: your pregnancy is your pregnancy. You're entitled to your feelings, to your birth plan and even to your dogs. This is the only advice I wish someone had given me before pregnancy. While you may share morning sickness or cravings or spontaneous fits of crying with other women, your pregnancy will be unique to you. Don't let anyone make you feel weird or wrong over how you feel. If you are excited about becoming a mommy and are taking care of yourself and the baby growing inside you, it's no one else's business as to how you feel or the decisions you make.

Six and a half weeks to go...