We lived down the street from a golf club that my father used to belong to. It was that gaudy, overdone type of place that you were often to find in New Jersey in the late 80’s. Actually, forget about the 80’s, that’s the New Jersey I knew through and through. They were always re-sodding the grounds. I remember thinking they did this way more often than necessary. No wonder the décor was so unfortunate. They didn’t have enough money to pay someone with taste to weigh in. They threw it all into the ground.
It was only ever on special occasions that my father would treat us to a lunch at “the club.” Sebi, the bartender, and Tony, one of the owners, were regular fixtures at the bar. Oozing Italian brass, they’d greet my dad with “HEY!”s and “HO!”s like he was one of their own. And you know what? He fit them. I had always wondered if he had any friends. This place convinced me that even he had his own island of misfits.
There was one particular afternoon at the club that I remember very vividly. We sat in the main dining room overlooking the grounds, even more rich and green than usual. Linen napkins were unfolded into our laps and I had my usual “Virgin Shirley Temple,” ordered, of course, by my father. He never did get sick of that joke. There were mostly older patrons at the other tables, that overwhelming smell of patchouli so potent, it might very well still be nestled in the deep caverns of my nose.
Sebi sauntered over to our table with the drinks atop a round tray that he balanced like a circus performer. He was a tall, lean man. It was always surprising to me that he coiffed his hair to such great heights. It was as if he was trying to add another five inches to his already overstretched frame. I often wondered if hidden in that mop of graying strands was a key to a dungeon - a dungeon where they undoubtedly hid the bodies. My mother and I liked to muse that this club was run by the mob. It seemed to keep us entertained enough in a place that we pretended to enjoy for my father’s sake.
Per usual, Sebi would drop off the drinks with a wink and a nod. I don’t think I ever heard him speak. He could have had his tongue cut off for all I knew. As a matter of tradition, Tony would follow a few steps behind, shake my father’s hand and take a seat at the table to launch into some casual niceties. Usually they’d chat about their last game – who “killed ‘em all,” and who “took a hit.” Someone would inevitably bitch about Joe, Tony’s fallible son who worked as a caddy at the course. Joe, from what I gathered, was missing his fingers or a limb or something. He had to be. Because it seems he was the most incompetent caddy to have ever graced the turfs of Northern New Jersey. And as far as I knew then - and you know what, still now - aren’t caddy’s really only responsible for carrying things?
So on this particular account, there was no mention of past games or of Joe. Tony and my father instead got into a conversation about cars. My father had noticed a brand new Mercedes in the lot. And Tony, always happy to dive straight into a monologue about his exorbitant wealth, was rather short for once. When my father inquired about the last new Mercedes, Tony only replied with, “You know, it blew up.” I remember him saying these words much like one would talk about a recent haircut. “Ah well, they cut it too short.” Or “I decided to go darker.” You know, something of that nature.
My father did his best to chuckle it off and move on to less awkward conversation. My mother shot me a look from across the table. This was the first time I remember thinking, “I’m not nearly as naïve as I look! These guys are good fellas!” But the frustration of being a child quickly set back in. Because as much ammo as I could ever manage to gather for someone to listen, it was rare that I was ever heard.
We left that day more silently than we had ever left anywhere. But the moment the car doors shut, my mother sprang into a tirade about how my father needed to stay away from that place. My father, of course, dismissed her, I believe referring to her as “crazy.” In his defense, my mother was somewhat of a conspiracy theorist. This was one of those times where I thought, well, I must be too.
But kids and conspiracy theorists can get it right. For several years later, that golf course was bought and dug up by a developer. And wouldn’t you know it, but beneath all of that beautiful green grass they found human remains. Lots of them. Pelvic bones and tibias. Spinal columns and shoulder blades. No heads and no hands though. I myself am still convinced that they’re hidden in that dungeon. The one that Sebi holds the key to in his perfectly coiffed hair.
There’s an office building somewhere just East of the place where you used to feel whole. There are only a few floors, but you’ve got to ride the elevator up and down until it stops completely. The doors will remain closed and the power will flicker out. But when it comes back on, you’ll know you’ve arrived.
Step off the elevator and look left then right. Choose the side that appears to be in use, but somehow feels even emptier. If you’ve made the right choice, you’ll see an office at the end of the hall, sunlight streaming in from underneath the door where there should be none.
When you attempt to enter, you’ll notice the weight of the door is surprising. You’ll end up using muscles you didn’t know you had. It could take hours, possibly even days, to make enough space to wedge through. And depending on the brand of your grit, you may choose to give up entirely and head home.
Those who make it into the room will find nothing but white walls, two telephones in front of floor-to-ceiling windows, and a short, cushioned cabinet atop which you should sit. The moment you’ve decided to take your place, the phone to your left will begin to ring and ring and ring. You’ll wish it would stop. You might even pick it up. But be careful. Should you give in and choose this route, you’ll find you will never leave this room. Your skin will wither and you’ll grow old, as you watch the world beneath you float by.
Should you choose the phone to your right, this story will have an entirely different ending. The phone to your right, while eerily quiet, will call to you in a hushed whisper. It will latch itself to your core and reel you in. But like an anchor rising from the sea, it will weigh heavy and your hands will callus and perhaps even tear as you try to bring it closer. There will be anguish and anxiety. There will most certainly be blood. And sweat. Buckets, pools, oceans of sweat will overflow until the land is virtually nonexistent. But when you’re finally able to answer, the building will crumble beneath you and through the fall you’ll eventually land on the bit of dry grass that remains. The same dry grass that you once felt before. In that place where you last felt whole.
Her left leg is significantly shorter than her right, causing her to walk with a limp. Don’t ask why she doesn’t just put a lift in her shoe. She’ll tell you she doesn’t need a lift. She has a car. As if that limp weren’t enough, she also has a scar, about an inch thick, that runs the length of her left cheek, down her neck and continues under the collar of her shirt. It’s almost as if this seam were the one thing holding her entire body together. Were it to split, she might spill out completely and cease to exist.
Every afternoon, she forces herself to leave the house - only once a day and only ever for thirteen minutes at a time. No more, no less. This is exactly the amount of time it takes her to walk once around her block clockwise, then back around three consecutive times counterclockwise. She will stop at the house with the red front door at the end of the street for precisely thirteen seconds before turning to circle back and close the loop with her three counterclockwise laps.
Before leaving her house, she will put on her baseball cap and her wide-rimmed shades. Addressing the cat, she’ll tip her hat and let him know that she’s off for a “teeter.” Every time she says the word she remembers an old, rickety chair from her childhood dinner table. Broken, wobbly and completely unstable, this was the type of chair that refused to be grounded. No matter what size napkin or piece of folded up paper you tried to wedge beneath that front right leg, the damn thing would still rock. It would teeter. And that’s what she envisions every time she turns the handle of the front door – one time right, then three times left - to let the sun spill in and blanket the foyer.
She has found that the traffic in her neighborhood is lightest at about 2:17pm. At that time most professionals are back in their offices after their 1pm lunch break, most dogs have been relieved and returned to their homes, and all children are still in school. That is, until 2:30pm. At 2:30pm the first wave of parents will make their way towards the school for the afternoon pickup. By the time those parents arrive at the school to collect their children, she is already back in her house, doors locked and shades drawn. The cat will be the only one to enjoy the sunlight after 2:30pm, squeezing his way between the curtains and the glass, claws picking, one by one, at the wood of the undusted sill.
Today she’s on her first loop around the block, clockwise in case you had forgotten, and it’s 2:20pm when she realizes that something’s not right. There are entirely too many cars on the road for this time of day. And now she sees a pink three-speed bike littered on the side of the lawn. Is it a holiday? One of those damn floating ones or something? Immediately she speeds up her steps on her counterclockwise laps. Her instinct tells her to get home, but she’s got to get in those three laps. She doesn’t quite know what will happen if she skips the last two, but somewhere inside her head a voice is telling her that the consequences will be dire.
Rushing around the corner, she can see her front lawn getting closer and closer. She’s almost there when two teens turn the corner just beyond her property and begin walking in her direction. Head down, she covers the lower half of her face and feigns a cough. The kids cross the street before reaching her and she teeters on, even faster than before.
Closing the front door behind her – again, one turn right and three turns left, faster, faster now– she finally bolts the deadlock and turns around breathing heavily. “PETE!” she yells frantically. “PETE,” this time with more emphasis. Pete steps out into the foyer and walks halfway across before taking notice of her presence. With a flick of his tail, he gives her a glance that all but says, “This again? We’ll talk when you decide to calm down,” before proceeding to nonchalantly pony walk into the next room.
Slightly more collected now, she takes one deep breath in and three quick, lamaze-like breathes out. She makes her way to the back of the house, then out to the yard and finally into the detached garage where she is met by twelve additional cats. They too neglect to give her the time of day. Ironically, it is here, in the driver’s seat of her totaled car, surrounded by claws that could rip the seam open yet never do, that she feels most at home.
It’s funny how quickly we can turn things around. Like a racecar on a tight turn, within seconds brakes can lock, tires can squeal, and suddenly 180 degrees later you’re headed in the opposite direction. Some of us have better memories than others and can remember that turns can come fast. They prepare. They brace. They lean into the curve. I, on the other hand, am a fish. I have no memory to speak of. And thus prefer to drive full throttle, straight past the black warning flags, over the divider, propelling my vehicle into a fiery, tumbling glory of a death. Save for the dramatics, it’s really quite a terrible use of time.
You see, it’s not that I’m against change or that I forget that it’s possible. What I forget is the ease with which it can come. No ease here. I, along with the others in my company - I should say “we” - must self-sabotage, shred, debase, essentially destroy ourselves before we can spin the wheel and realize the turn. We’re already in it. But now we’re drifting and the smoke from the wheels is blinding. I myself usually catch it and recover. Usually…
This is essentially how my life has gone. From the beginning. And now here at the end. I suppose some might say I like to make things harder than they need to be. I wouldn’t say I “like” to. I might say I have to. Written in my DNA is the word “difficult.” Difficult. Nearly. Always. That sounds about right. And is probably how I’ve led myself here. Terrible decisions and self-hatred will get you to a place where you have been bound and left to die in Angle Inlet, Minnesota (population: 60), eating the skin off your own knees to try and survive. Yep. This is my story, and that of the company I keep: The story of The Hairpin Holding Co.
“Four, five…four, five,” he said aloud to himself reading off of his phone, which was only a small chip about the length of his finger. The bud in his ear was telling him to go back ten paces, but that couldn’t be right. “Four, five, nine…eight. Huh.” It looked different than what he had expected. In fact, the building looked to be only the width of the door itself. Tightly butted up against two other buildings, he hadn’t even noticed it. Perhaps it was just an optical illusion, he thought. Very clever. The number was right, but there was no sign. He shrugged his shoulders and entered, neglecting to notice the graffiti fish with the sly smile on the building next door.
Upon entering Ed found nothing but an unusually long stairwell. With the door shut behind him the lighting was poor and it was a bit claustrophobic. The top of the stairwell was so far up it wasn’t even visible. He proceeded, intrigued by this strange place. Feeling his heart beat a bit faster reminded him it was still there. Slowly the hall swallowed him up. Click. A light on his ear bud turned on to guide him. Now he couldn’t see the top or the bottom, just the steps within reach. Suddenly he felt sunk, as if in the belly of a massive whale. But still, cautiously he proceeded. Might as well keep going now, he thought. He had nothing else worth doing today.
Suddenly there was a door before him. He scanned the wall for a bell and found none. Tilting his head back as if about to give up and head back, he noticed a metal door knocker. It was high up and in the shadows, so much so he couldn’t see that it too was in the shape of that same stylized fish. He reached for it and gave it a clank. There was a hollow reverberation felt throughout the stairwell.
Then very suddenly the door swung open and light poured through. It was so white and sterile inside it was almost blinding. A very professional greeter appeared. She seemed more than a secretary. “Hello, Mr…?” she began.
“Welcome, Mr. Ed,” she said as she ushered him in, without even the slightest trace of humor in her voice.
Above the clouds it’s bright, as one might imagine heaven would be. The sun spills in the left side of the plane, leaving the passengers’ right sides in shadow. A young boy tilts his head upwards, eyes pulling tight like mini blinds, and smiles into the warm glow. His father responds with a soft kiss on the forehead before gently brushing the boy’s golden locks away from his eyes. They’ll spot two mushrooms and a dolphin out in the clouds before the father will tighten both their seatbelts and pull his son in close.
Across the aisle, a young twenty-something has lucked out with a row of three seats and no one to share them with. She’s flipped up the armrests and with her back to the father and son, she’s decided to put her legs straight across. She taps her toe on the wall just beneath the window. Pulling a label from a tightly packaged CD case, she manages to lift it clean all at once, achieving a certain satisfaction she reveals with the curl of her lip. There’s a pile of additional CDs on the tray table. She’ll get through three more satisfying pulls before she quickly shoves the discs into her bag, flips around so her feet are on the floor and grips the armrest, knuckles quickly losing their color.
A woman with more white hair than her face would suggest is sitting uncomfortably. Her stomach and the altitude are at odds. She’s clasping a small white bag, periodically closing her eyes and grimacing, as if trying desperately to will her unruly organs into submission. She wears a golden cross around her neck. From time to time she’ll rub it between her thumb and middle finger, more of a nervous habit than a deliberate method of prayer. The little cross will be polished quite nicely by the time the cabin pressure changes.
The captain, rather methodically, prepares his passengers for some severe turbulence. He too is unaware of what will come next. As the plane nose tilts downward, the cabin descends from elevated bliss into a dark fog. Gone are the mushrooms and dolphins. Gone is the feeling of satisfaction and curl of the young girl’s lip. Now the air is heavy with the smell of vomit. It moves throughout the cabin like a snake, sliding in and out of nostrils, making hostile attacks on one passenger after another as they close up their faces and shrink backwards, waiting for it to move on.
Fingers now rubbing her cross more vigilantly, the woman with the bag peers out her window. The fog is so thick she can no longer see the end of the wing. As her stomach fights to release itself, she tries hard to keep her eyes open. She can’t be sure, but she thinks she sees a trail of dark fluid leaking from the flap, the thought of which is enough to give her the momentary relief she’s been seeking. Releasing that foul snake, she throws her head between her legs, and now she prays.
It’s here that the boy’s curls float toward the ceiling with the grace of the clouds his father was admiring just a few minutes ago. The CDs are pinned to the top of the bag flap, fighting to escape and the woman’s cross, well it too is following the magnetic pull towards the sky, touching up. Hands in hands, eyes pinned shut, silent and not so silent wails. The seconds stretch into minutes and then what feels like hours. Eventually, the clouds break and suddenly there is the ground, much faster than anyone had anticipated. Wheels, flaps and the deafening sound of the metal whale touching down. Then, silence.
There is now a single ray spilling back in the left side of the plane and the first thing it hits are the golden locks of the young boy. His father takes a long labored breathe before opening his eyes. He takes in the sight of those golden locks, strokes them aside and plants another kiss on the boy’s delicate forehead. Angelic eyes growing wide with excitement, the boy tugs hard on his father’s shirt, pointing out into the brightness. There beyond the plane’s wing is a sea of beautiful cloud creatures, gracefully moving in the wind.
Barefoot on soft soil. That’s where you last were. In this place there is no ocean, no sand. Not even a pond for you to catch a glimpse of yourself. Just dirt and trees, with no reason and certainly no answers, but plenty of questions whistling in the wind. A canopy of dreams hangs overhead, ready to remind you at any moment that you’re still here.
You can walk for miles, days, years even – sometimes for an eternity - before you understand the path. You’ll look up often wondering where the time has gone. The game, you see, requires patience and a fabled bravery - the type of bravery that is only found when you decide you’ve had enough of the trees. And being dirty, although always fun, is no longer what you seek.
Eyes closed, you can stop, and let the curious wind fall silent. Then, roots moaning as they pull from the ground, the first tree will fall. You’ll hear hundreds, maybe thousands let go, before it’s safe, quiet, finished. Like a bud, your scales will scatter, covering the ground so that the sores on your feet can smooth over. It’s funny, because you had always hoped for it to be this easy. Lord only knows why you continued to allow it to be so hard.
When your eyes pop open, you’ll see you’re set between two mirrors, each the shape of the moon you remember from your childhood, each somehow even more soothing than the next. These mirrors are parallel and well, they mirror each other. If you look far enough down the line, you’ll expect to see you, and you and you. Which you do. But each reflection reveals another layer, another life, another soul. You’ve grown up believing you can only have one. But this is when it becomes quite clear that the game, while tedious and trying, really has no rules at all.
There are places where no mind should go.There is no reason and there is no need.But as if rooted in our genes, there is the worry.What if there is not enough?What if I’m left with nothing?The truth is, there is plenty to go around.
The feeling will gnaw at you, like a canine on a bone.Relentlessly it will scrape and pull and dig.Until there is nothing left.And then you will have lost anyways.
You can try to pretend you haven’t gone there.But these places are magnetic.They pull at you.You fight with your arms, your legs, you kick; you scream the whole way down.Your fingernails dig grooves into the pavement as they try desperately to keep you from revisiting.You learned the last time, you don’t want to go back.
But one by one, your nails are plucked off.Like bottle caps they land in the street, each in succession, each making the same dreadful sound.Your fleshy fingertips are left naked and exposed.The nerve endings throb.They too scream.At this point you can release the ground you were hoping would save you to try to cover your ears.
You will eventually find your footing.And start the work to get back.It’s a long way to go so as your trudge forward you study your hands up close and try to figure out where yours went.The nails will begin growing back, maybe faster than you thought possible.But they are thicker now.And you will never forgive how ugly they’ve become.
The news arrives while she is driving on the highway and the words hang heavy above her head.She glances up to see them looming near the visor.Within moments, the letters shift and combine, forming razor sharp weapons that offer a swift blow to the stomach.Suddenly she feels hollow as a pumpkin, hands scraping out innards - seeds, stringy lining and all.She continues driving, but where she goes in the moments after, no one will ever know.
The car continues down the road at a steady pace.Other drivers glance over.There is no one behind the wheel.There are double takes and stunned swerves, but all are too shocked to do much more than stare, wide-eyed and slack-jawed.
Ana finds herself in another space and time. It’s black and it’s empty.Her limbs are her own, but choice is not.She sits at the bottom of an earth-sized sphere, no one and nothing for miles.When the space tumbles, she moves with it.Upside down and right side up she is spun, flipped and violently maneuvered.She sees the last bits and pieces of her insides float past her.Were there walls in this place, they would be splattered with blood and bile.
When the spinning stops, Ana sits, heavy and empty.Bent over in half, she finds it almost impossible to support the cavity she must now work diligently to fill back up again.Reaching inside, fist clenched tight, she holds her heart in her hand.The tears never come, no matter how tight she squeezes.
It’s nearly seven miles down the road that Ana finds herself back in her vehicle, hands at ten and two, eyes open and suddenly aware of the world that’s settled back in around her.How did she get to this place?And where has she been?Although she can’t quite be sure, the scar remains and suddenly she understands that the only thing grounding her is the heavy body she must now find a way to hold up.
The restaurant has no sign, so you might miss it if you’re not careful.Odds are, even if you’re careful, you’ll still probably miss it.The windows will appear to be curtained by maroon drapes, candles shining faintly from within. It will look just like any other business, on any other block, on any given evening, and many a pedestrian will ramble by, taking little notice, if any at all. Those who do turn their heads, whilst talking on their cell phones or looking for a window in which to check their reflections, might mistake it for a massage parlor or a tarot card reader’s studio.
The only distinguishing mark from the exterior is a crescent moon, stretching from pavement to portico and flanked on both sides by two white orbs.Were the building to be turned on its side, you might think it was sulking.And had it flipped itself the other way around, lounging in the morning sun with its hand under its head, you’d see a smile.
Entering this place, it all seems fairly normal.There are always guests dining.It’s a relatively narrow restaurant, and none will turn to look when you arrive.Wrapped up in pleasant conversation or busy with their delicate dinnerware, they’ll hardly notice your presence.The maître d’ will request that you sidestep away from the door and you’ll bump into a wall that should be the other side of the maroon drapery. That’s where the normal will stop.
Like the emergency lighting in the aisle of an airplane, the floor will illuminate in sequence to show you the way to your table.The maître d’ will glance down the runway then back to your party, holding his hand out in that direction as if to say, “After you.”Walking past tables of other diners, who you now notice all lack eyes as well as noses, you glance behind you to find that your unhelpful host and the front door are both gone.
You take your seat, but it quickly becomes clear that you will never be comfortable in this place, no matter which way you shift.Looking down, the menu is hard to decipher – the words seem to pull in and out of focus.You flip the double-sided paper back and forth to check that it’s not your own eyes causing the problem.But each time you come back around, the items listed will have changed.Filet mignon?You were just reviewing curries.
You excuse yourself from the table to use the restroom.A mild-mannered attendant standing near the kitchen smiles and points you towards a curtain in back.You slip inside to find a dark storage room, certainly not the hall to the toilets you were expecting.Coming back through the same piece of fabric you find you’re now in the busy kitchen.Confused, you look for an exit.A door to your right appears as if it might lead you back to the dining room.You squeeze behind the line cook, give your apologies to the head chef, and butt your shoulder up against the swinging door, only to cross through to an empty employee office.Two desks with ancient computers and a wall of filing cabinets.And no other way out.
Turning back once again, you’re shocked - but mind you, certainly not dismayed - to now find another maroon curtain in place of the swinging door you just came in through.A gust of wind blows from the other side and the fabric billows gently, sunlight peaking in through the crevices each time they appear.Suddenly without shoes, you push the curtain aside and step forward onto soft soil, knowing very well you will not be finding your way home tonight.