redshift | blues

There sat at the window a Happy Space Camper.

The therapist was a honey colored bear.

Steel and glass hummed within. Cold heat bled through.

“I burned some leaves in the yard today,” the Happy Space Camper began.

The therapist was silent. Pale flares of rocketry receded beyond the pane, where revolved in the starless black a luminous beam, thatwhen elongated on its axisspelled out with playful lettering: WELCOME TO HAPPY SPACE CAMP!

Powerline

An unspooled horizon coiled back upon itself. The utopians who built the station were quick to the name ‘Happy’ because it’s what they claimed as their birthright and ‘Space’ naturally from the coordinates of their exile. ‘Camp’ had been the subject of some spirited discussion. The proponents pushed the idea that as a concept, camp is universally understood to be a respite, an escape synonymous with recreation; evocative of primeval remembranceslong thought null or inaccessibleof dusty paths, cicadas in the summertime and folksy songs beneath the stars. The less exuberant among them pointed out that the word also connotes fundamental unseriousness. Or something more akin to an open air prison. The ascetic types meanwhile nodded their quiet consent. For if there’s only one quality the word maintains throughout, it is that ‘Camp’ is temporary.

So okay.

I burned some leaves in the yard today.

The therapist’s tufted brow dimpled ever so slightly as the Happy Space Camper went on. Here it was again. Remarkable now its ordinariness.

A case of the redshift blues.

red•shift (noun)

a shift in the spectrum

of a celestial object

toward longer wavelengths

caused by the object’s movement

away from the viewer.

blues (noun)

low spirits.

melancholy.

a song of lament.

The diagnostic material was vague for insurance reasons. The irony being that the therapist liked to tell his patients (many of them “writers”) that he valued precision of language above all else. But it’s a big spindizzy world. And he was, after all, just one bear with a Master’s degree.

The signs, in any case, were plain. Restless feet. Concave posture. Metacognitive cycling.  The true giveaway was the eyes. That flicker of subjectivity out of phase. Nowhere near as serious as other maladies like the Space Crazies, Delirium Terpsichorean, or plain old Being Born In The Wrong Place At The Wrong Time. The stowaways who remained on every rung and span of this station had seen and done dreadful things in the interstellar night. Sometimes to each other. Always to themselves. Even in the goldenest of years. All had one thing in common: their lights had begun to shift.

Folding his paws over his belly, the therapist settled in.

The Happy Space Camper confessed: He’d never bought a rake.

A rake being the sort of object that isn’t bought so much as stumbled across. So the leaves from last autumn had lain where they fell. All winterlong, enameled in frostcrunch until the station swung sunward again. Until the Happy Space Camper decided, on one pleasant morning of despair, to call in sick to work and burn them.

How strange this gentlest of thrills as he watched the white leaf smoke unfurl into the motorways. It was, he thought, how an unobstructed clock must feel. And so, with the help of a rusted rake tripped upon in the ruins of a meteor struck wood shed, he merrily set about the yard rearranging more leaves into neat little piles. He raked and burned and raked and burned. The pleasure of the task soon turned, however, to the gnaw of an inconsolable sorrow. He recited the rest to the therapist in a torrent, his hands like terror birds when a freighter pierces the fog.

Was this the most perfectly correct way to go about the burning of his leaves? Were his piles too meager, his pyre badly placed? Rather than leisurely harvest a plurality of subsidiary piles, would it not be more industrious, more efficient, to construct a single heaping mound at the precise center of the lawn and ignite them on the spot? Or better yet―if only to preserve the grass from a citation attracting blemishdevise a cunning systematic method by which every last leaf might be conveyed in an instant to the sequestered ashpit and fed to the flames as one? And was it not true that he would know the answers to all these questions (and more!) if only he’d bothered even once before this day to show the slightest interest in lawn care?

He stood there for a long time. Thinking.

A conversation with his mother came to mind. After the flood waters subsided in faraway Sector F, she’d fought her way up the magnetic North with nothing particular in mind. As always, the ansible connection was strong but weak. He caught this much: Stay away from the Black Hole. It is the sort of advice one comes to expects from a mother in Space.

This should come as no surprise. Happy Space Camp was built on the edge of a Black Hole. Right smack on the fucking edge.

Suffering makes a funny little sound. A kind of soft fizz pop. Not unlike radiation being counted. Or milk poured over rice cereal. The Happy Space Camper knew he wasn’t unique in thisbut he could hear it coming from every corner of the station. He showed his empty hands to the therapist, and said in a put upon tone, “What should I do?”

The therapist had sat silent these last few minutes while the anaglyphic field grew more and more unstable around the little man across from him. He slowly rose now from his spot on the mandala embroidered carpet and crossed the room in a single lumbering stride. The honey colored bear, towering darkly with a small smile on his lips, then raised a giant paw and smote his patient on the side of the head.

Sunflower

The Happy Space Camper dropped the rake. Somewhere.

The yard billowed out before him. A broken bowl of green shadow and light. Wind and birdsong roared in the gaps between fern, sunflower, thistle, mint and a wild profusion of poa pratensis {¿deschampsia cespitosa?} jostling from the loam, a floriferous thundercloud (!) over cool stones as all the station’s poorly imagined surfaces and extractive protuberances melted away like ice. There. All around. In every little thing. Within one stem. A riot of resonance. A blinding shaft of silence. A boy in a yard.

The Happy Space Camper gazed out thru the prism of his visor.

“Oh,” he said.

Then reached up. Unlatched his faceplate.

And filled his lungs with air.

Sing into my mouth

“Hey, hey, hey — don’t be mean. We don’t have to be mean. ‘Cause, remember: no matter where you go… there you are.”
       -Buckaroo Banzai

I have a joke about the socialist meeting:  I went to the socialist meeting to meet people, but all anyone there wanted to talk about was overthrowing capitalism.

“I’m just a lonely person looking to socialize,” I go on. “Get it?”

My younger brother James is silent on the other end of the phone. I imagine him with a scowl on his face as he lounges in the shade of his one bedroom apartment, open window letting in sea breeze and a slant of warm California sun.

“You’re a socialist now?” he asks.

James has his own joke he likes to tell: how are a frog and a joke alike?

Red-eyed_Tree_Frog_(Agalychnis_callidryas)_3[1]

“Like a frog, if you dissect a joke,” he’ll say, taking a beat before the punchline, “it dies.”

Except that’s not the punchline.

“You see,” he continues, “in much the same way that blood is the lifeforce of a frog, funniness is the stuff that makes a joke work. Now—and try to stay with me here—I want you to think in a metaphorical sense about what happens when you cut into a joke, take it apart and reduce it to its most fundamental components; how if you over explain the precise mechanism by which a humorous premise successfully arrives at its chuckle eliciting conclusion, the funniness of the joke tends to come spraying out in sticky hot jets all over the walls. And like a frog—”

There will come a day when someone points out that the kind of frog who typically gets dissected is the already dead kind of frog. When that day comes, I know what James will say.

“I don’t think you get the joke. Let me explain.”

On rare mornings I put on the frivolous leather jacket. Even though it doesn’t do much against the cold. Iowa winters can get so cold it burns.

I bought it from a thrift store after talking the price down from $50 to $45. The purchase took a major toll on me. I’d stalked like a caged animal among the racks for what felt like days, wringing it in my hands, my lower-middle class mindset rattling against the bars.

At the counter I wore a pale grimace, the debit card in my outstretched hand heavy as a kidney. Later in the parking lot, I found a faded receipt in the pocket that showed the jacket’s original sale price. It was more than $200. Frigid air escaped my lungs in a howl of ecstasy.

In my best moments, I allow myself the thought: I look cool in this leather jacket.

I didn’t wear it to the socialist meeting. It was at the library in downtown Iowa City. I wandered in late, disheveled and bleary eyed after another day at the call center. I looked around at the fifteen or so people in the room and said, “Are you the socialists?”

After receiving several mumbled assurances that yes, they were indeed the socialists—were in fact the Iowa City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, risen from the ashes of a recent and hasty dismemberment—I took a seat among them. A paper went round the room. I signed my name and email address.

The guy to my right hadn’t forgotten to wear his leather jacket. I admired its silver zippers and punk rock epaulets, John Darnielle’s falsetto quavering in my head: “I’m pretty hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore.”

The guy to my left had a giant Chapo Trap House patch on his messenger bag. Chapo Trap House is an absurdist political podcast I listen to, the vanguard of “the dirtbag left.”

I pointed at the grinning skull on the patch and said, “Nice Chapo patch.”

His face lit up. “I intend to steal so much valor,” he said in a rough impersonation of Felix Biederman, one of the show’s hosts.

I gave a slow nod. “Right on.”

“Don’t,” James says over the phone.

I pause. “Don’t what?”

“Get involved.”

My brother is an engineer in the U.S. Air Force. This hasn’t stopped him from being funnier than me.

On the phone with him over a fifteen minute break, I take a seat on one of the public benches strewn about the Old Capitol Mall. The call center where I work is on the second floor. I spend most of my days here, encased in this carpeted fortress of artificial heat. I lean back on the bench and search the frosted glass ceiling for cracks.

The city council plans to install new public benches downtown, much like the one I am resting on. These new benches will have metal armrests built into their middles. When asked about it, the city manager said the armrests are there to encourage people to sit next to each other; to preserve their bubbles of personal space.

The truth is that these benches are designed this way to keep homeless people from sleeping on them.

At the socialist meeting we discussed committee assignments. The election of officers. Personal moments of radicalization. A grey haired child of the sixties pointed out the lack of diversity in the room.

“There isn’t a single person of color here,” she said with a peevish twitch of her shawl.

The guy in the punk rock leather jacket arched an eyebrow. “Yes, there is,” he said. “Two, actually.”

A pair of Asian men suddenly appeared at the table.

“Did you know that Gandhi didn’t practice nonviolence out of some high-minded moral principle?” I said to a co-worker one day.

She’d just finished reciting for the pod an inspirational Gandhi quote from a book of other inspirational Gandhi quotes.

“He only chose to be nonviolent,” I went on, “because it was the best strategy to defeat the British.”

My co-worker looked at me like I’d just farted out of my mouth.

It turns out that this thing I’d uttered with such dead eyed Cumberbatchian certainty is not, in the strictest sense of the word, true. I learned later that my narrow statement—based on something I once read in a narrow book—has been widely denied by many of the various Gandhian sects. I didn’t clarify the record because it would be inexpedient. It would also be quite awkward.

The Hindi word for Gandhi’s concept of nonviolent resistance is satyagraha. In English, the word means “holding to the truth.”

Sometimes I do actually fart in my cubicle. Nothing elaborate. Just a quiet little toot now and then. I don’t think anyone notices. I don’t think.

I also don’t want this to be mistaken for an apology.

“We live in a culture of stupidity,” my brother says. “I look at the conversations online and I don’t see much up side to engaging. Sometimes I feel like going full hermit and moving into the woods. But I’m afraid if I do, I’ll just find a bunch more people like me arguing about what sort of sweaters to put on the trees.”

My Facebook feed is filled with newborn babies and GodArchists. All of them are Russian bots. All their memes are dank as fuck.

I post something in a serious and authoritative tone. I get into an argument with one of my best friends about centrist versus leftist Democratic politics. I win the argument. He wins the argument. Then I pick a fight with a guy who I imagine enjoys making love to his AR-15 and openly fantasizes about getting into gunfights with “the commies”.

“What commies do you speak of???” I punch into his thread, feeling the acid of every keystroke. Later, I message the other socialists in town.

“Hey,” I write, “when is our next meeting?”

I’m the scrawny guy lifting weights at the gym. There’s a bearded man with bulgy neck veins who grapples and grunts with one of the machines across from me. The kind of bearded man whose elbows have armpits. He is already one version of the person I am working so hard to become. In the tiled vastness of the locker room, someone blows their nose. It sounds like a tiny elephant in a department store.

“I just want us all to be happy,” James says in distant California. “And by us, I mean me and a few friends and family members.”

Dad calls to talk about the Falcon Heavy launch; about the genuine human emotion he witnessed on the video feed outside the Kennedy Space Center as the most powerful rocket in history climbed into the stars. The retelling moves him to tears.

Falcon_Heavy_Demo_Mission_(40126461851)_-_cropped[1]

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy takes off on the afternoon of Feb. 6, 2018 from a launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The only reaction I can muster is anxiety about how many of us will be left behind, trapped on a dying planet in a future where outer space is no longer a wondrous frontier, but a tightly controlled dominion, packaged and sold to the fortunate few by trillionaire corporatists.

“The Voyager probe carried the recorded brain waves of a human being experiencing love,” I say to my starry eyed father. “The best we can do these days is a car commercial?”

I feel faraway as I hang up the phone. I go to Sarah, who’s reading under a pile of blankets on the couch, and ask, “Am I full of shit? Am I a total drag?”

Sarah can read a whole book in a single day. I wish I knew how to do that.

I retreat into Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and watch a Jewish Texan drunkenly cajole a jaded Marxist priest into joining the fight against the thousand year Reich. Deep down in New Orleans, the Nazi killing begins in earnest. The righteous bloody destruction of each simulated body brings me closer to a bright world that is, in the alternate universe of the game, only a fantasy.

It is the world in which we all live.

wolfenstein-ii-the-new-colossus-machinegames.jpg

Screenshot from Wolfenstein II

There is a secret to the frivolous leather jacket in the cold. Underneath I wear a heavy button-up sweater. It belonged to my grandfather, who died in the summer.

Grandpa didn’t tell jokes. He told funny little stories. One night, after too much wine, he recalled for me how he once rescued a man’s ballpoint pen. He was always rescuing things in his stories. Mostly cows and horses. This time it was a ballpoint pen.

“I’d never seen one before,” he said, his voice slurring a little from the Franzia. “None of us had. They hadn’t been invented yet.”

The story takes place during the war. Grandpa was a young U.S. Navy boat pilot in the South Pacific. The kind of guy, he told me, who could get you anything you wanted. One time he stole a hundred pound bag of potatoes from the Army. Along with a bunch of their hot plates.

He was strutting down the beach on a sunny afternoon when he came across a man outside a building. The man had been writing a letter with his ballpoint pen—a precious gift from his parents—but before he could finish, the pen slipped from his fingers and somehow clattered down into the darkness between the walls of the building.

“Oh god!” the man shrieked. “I’ve lost my ballpoint pen!”

“Never fear,” grandpa rumbled. “I’ll get it for you.”

He turned. Walked into a barn. This being the type of beach where buildings and barns are. Inside the barn was a tractor. Grandpa turned it on and drove it out of the barn. He steered the tractor across the sand and came to a stop near the distressed and penless men. He dismounted the tractor and hooked it to the bottom of the building.

Grandpa then, in his words, picked up the building.

“And there was the ballpoint pen,” he said with a shrug. “The man reached in. Grabbed it. And I set the building back down.”

It was, he said, the funniest part of World War II.

He never got around to telling me the bad parts. He would sometimes tiptoe to their edges, right up to the bodies rocking in the surf off the Island of Tarawa. Then he’d stop and grow quiet.

Grandpa didn’t like Obama any more than he liked the Japanese, and he wasn’t afraid to let it be known. No matter how atonal his proclamations about race and politics became as he got older, it did little to dissipate the legendary well of kindness in his eyes. The ultimate truth about himself, which I’m convinced my grandpa sometimes tried but failed to hide from the people around him, is that he loved everybody.

It’s another frozen morning in America. I pull on grandpa’s sweater and clomp down the stairs to feed the cats. I drink too much coffee and twist myself into queasy knots trying to find an ending. I begin to wonder if the concept is inherently dishonest when one of the cats hops onto the table and spews his breakfast across my keyboard.

“This will have to do,” I say, spraying the keys with disinfectant.

THE END

Sleep drifting on Rochester Avenue

“What Eldritch did to Leo on Luna or Sigma 14-B or wherever he’s done to me, too. And eventually he’ll snare us all. Just like this. Isolated. The communal world is gone. At least for me; he began with me.” 
                 – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

One of the police officers smacks his flashlight with an open palm as we trudge across the yard.  It’s two in the morning.

“Have you ever seen the movie Seven?” he asks no one in particular. His partner is silent as we peer into a dilapidated tool shed, one of several scattered across the farm.  The broken lawnmower is a feral animal hunched in the flickering beam. There are no stars. Only darkness.

“What’s in the box?” the partner finally moans, dropping his hand from the butt of his pistol. I laugh a little too loudly.

It was the door that woke us. Not the first time an inexplicable and thunderous crash has startled us from sleep in the old farm house we rent on the fringes of Iowa City.

The door at the bottom of the stairs is made of heavy varnished wood and has to swing a full one hundred and eighty degree arc to close on its metal latch. Goddamn cats. My go to whenever something like this happens. But Remedy Wolfcat  is upstairs with us, and the only conceivable way Finn Tigerstar Antares could have managed to slam that door shut is if he was fired at it out of a cannon. Or if he was a person.

Or a ghost.

“You want to do what?” I said to Sarah, standing in my underwear with a baseball bat in my hand.  I’d just finished ninja jumping into every room, including the basement, where looms at a canted angle in one gloomy chamber, a refrigerator from the 1970s that we’d discovered tied shut when we moved in.

Halloween party activity number one: Cut open the refrigerator.

23113380_10101865190271253_949924814_n
We’d gone home to the Chicago area for a few days over Thanksgiving. This was our first night back. Wrapped in a bathrobe, Sarah stared down at me from the top of the stairs.

“Mike,” she said in a resolute voice, “I won’t be able to sleep until I know for sure this house is empty.”

I grumbled and put some pants on and dialed the non-emergency number. The men with guns came and looked for demogorgons and lollygagging Kevin Spaceys but failed to find any. They left and we climbed back into bed, nowhere nearerand I draw your attention to thisto knowing what force had acted upon the door at the bottom of the stairs.

Cats. The wind. All unsatisfying. Here’s the working theory (barring the discovery of a resident psychopath): The house was angry at us because we abandoned it over the Thanksgiving holiday. As cold winds begin to blow, at a time when other homes all around are ostensibly filled with warmth, light and laughter, ours sat empty and darkalone.

So I start hanging out with the house. Putting in some real quality time. Want to go out for drinks, Mike? No thanks, I’ve got a date with a long porch and a steep pitched roof.

After a long day at work the real work begins. When Sarah’s away at class, I’m either locked in my office or skating around the kitchen in my socks, head banging to psych-rock and 80s inspired pop music. The weekend comes and Sarah’s at her crystal shop job. It’s just me and the house again, scrubbing dishes in the sink, drinking barrels of coffee, adjusting the thermostat up or down a crazy degree or two. I sweep the floors. I pace.

The ice caps continue to melt.  Soon the internet won’t be a thing. My ears are filled with blood and sand and nuclear bombs, the meteoric decline of the laboring class, maybe a pedophile in the senate. Everything is fake news, and everything is on purpose.

My latest attempt at writing science fiction has hit a snag. Probably because reality is weirder than anything I can come up with. For hours on end the screen is empty. Space delete. Space delete.

This is a job. You have to show up. And like any job, no less than your soul is demanded.

Wandering alone through the post-war wasteland of Boston, the realization dawns on me that I’ve completely lost my mind. I begin hunting bombed out city blocks for the ghost head of Wolfgang, a raider whose corpse I ritualistically dismembered and left in a pothole a few days ago in the name of the Great God Death. Radioactive ghouls crawl in through the windows, some wearing faces I remember. I run for my miserable life. Behind the trap of my gas mask, I mutter my brother’s  mantra as I sift through heaps of garbage: Disregard x, acquire currency.

I decide to take a break from politics and Fallout 4.

When I was still in school, I wrote a paper about one of Philip K. Dick’s many brilliant novels, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. I found it in my desk the other day.TheThreeStigmataOfPalmerEldritch(1stEd)[1]

In the paper, I brashly claim to have pinpointed the ultimate dread behind Dick’s chemical fueled obsession with the tenuous—perhaps meaningless—line between what is and what is not; the true force that propels his hypnagogic imaginings, like a door slammed shut in the night, down their chilling narrative tracks: The fear of being alone.

Here’s something Dick wrote in 1966, in an essay entitled Will the Atomic Bomb Ever be Perfected? :

“Loneliness is the great curse that hangs over a writer. A while ago I wrote twelve novels in a row, plus fourteen magazine pieces. I did it out of loneliness. It constituted communication for me.”

I wake up in a strange house.  I try to write twelve novels in a row.  It doesn’t happen. I learn again what I’ve always known: you don’t have to be a writer to feel lonely.

Space delete. Space delete.

Exhausted by the effort, I drag myself into the kitchen to make a frozen pizza for dinner and discover the baking stone is split in two, as if smote by a steely fist. I look up at the cracked ceiling and wonder.

The house was built in 1900. Turn of the century, 117 years ago. The shed where the broken lawn mower prowls was added in 1935. According to the county’s online records, the home used to have a built-in intercom system. I can find no trace of it.  

In 2003, a woman named Marie Lucille Svatos died here. Probably in our bedroom, “surrounded”, her obituary says, “by her loving family.” She was born on February 4, 1930. She was a lifelong resident of the area. And an avid baker.

So there’s that.

Personally, I think it’s a little too neat to blame Marie just because we know she happened to die here. Lots of stuff probably died here. Not weird enough.

We’ve tried all the normal white people things. Calling the cops. Burning store bought sage. Winterizing.  We even got a mystic from downtown to perform a ceremonial blessing on a stone, then placed it back in the foundations to act as a positive influence on its more rough and tumble friends.

Whatever it is, Sarah thinks the best way to keep our house in good spirits is to just throw more parties. I think Marie would like that.

“What do you think, Phil?” I ask, plugging in the Christmas lights.

He’s sitting by the window in my office with a cat in his lap.

“Am I invited?” he says.

It’s my party. Philip K. Dick can want to hang out with me if I say so.

“Duh,” I reply, and begin to type like the wind.

pkdwithcat[1]

Philip K. Dick  (12/16/28 — 04/02/82)

Trade Runner: 2049

FootballRicky getting shot in the head cut my career at Yellow Cab short. That and the lies about money.

My trainer—let’s call him Frank—told me on the morning of my second day, which also turned out to be my last. Ricky, a nice guy, died behind the wheel of his taxi on a warm night this past June from more than one bullet to the brain. I listened as I buckled into the driver’s seat and lined up our first ride.

“Robbery gone wrong,” Frank explained with a regretful wag of his head.

I liked Frank. Puttering around town those two days, we talked about his favorite movies, his former life as a drug smuggler, the seafood dinner he was planning with his grandkids later that week, and a mélange of other wild stories from his years of driving cab on the streets of Iowa City.

Frank too had once felt the barrel of a gun pressed to the back of his skull. Some kid who came from behind and took all his cash. Robbery gone right. It happened to him on the redeye shift, which I was to be assigned to.

“Oh, the rivers of vomit you will clean out of this cab,” Frank said with a bark of smoky laughter, then unblinking in a low gravel, “You know how they say your life flashes before your eyes?”

Frank snapped his fingers.

A few weeks earlier I’d quit my newspaper job and moved back to Iowa City to help support my partner Sarah through grad school. Yellow Cab hired me. Many other places did not. I imagined speeding around back roads with attaché case wielding maniacs chattering into my ear from the backseat, windows rolled down, tunes cranked up and the sun blasting in. I was excited to get started.

The guy who hired me said that Uber had made only a small dent in the market. He went on to promise that if I worked hard the money was good, upwards of $18 an hour, more than I’d ever made as a college educated journalist.

The guy who hired me lied. Big surprise, I know.

Yellow Cab drivers don’t get an hourly wage. Instead, they get forty percent of their daily cab fare, which, even for an experienced driver like Frank, only amounts to about $100. That comes to less than $10 per for a twelve hour shift. Cab drivers often work twelve hour shifts.

Also, the company didn’t take out taxes or pay any benefits whatsoever. You try to set some cash aside for the feds, Frank said, but even so, he’d ended up owing $2,700 last year.

I was of course willing to go along with all this. The dismal pay, the vomit, and yes, having a gun held to my head. Because I’m just like Frank. I have bills to pay. It took my mom pleading over the phone to snap me to my senses.

The next place that hired me was the United States Postal Service.

The role I filled was essentially an understudy for a substitute to a postal carrier. If the postal carrier’s substitute couldn’t make it in, they’d call me. At best, I could expect work on the weekends. Maybe. My only guaranteed shifts would be every single holiday.

The postmaster told me not to fret, that I would soon be moved over to full-time.

“The U.S. Postal Service will never lie to you,” my trainer—let’s call him Howie—said to me one day as I watched him sort his case. “But they will misrepresent reality.”

Full time carriers like Howie work eight hours a day, six days a week. Six days.

Howie wore a backwards baseball cap and a Milk & Cheese t-shirt. Milk & Cheese are two comic book characters I recognized—Dairy Products Gone Bad—whose bread and butter are ultraviolence and drinking gin. They leered out of his chest, saying as one, “We hate what you hate. And we hate YOU!”

This made me smile.

LLV stands for “long life vehicle”. That’s what those boxy post office cars are. Long life vehicles. Most of the Grumman LLVs were built in the 1980s, and are still in use to this day. I bet you didn’t know that. The one I rode in with Howie had rusted out holes in the floor. In the back was an unnavigable sea of Amazon boxes.

“Without Amazon we’d be sunk,” Howie said.

Weeks of training went by. I quit when it became clear that I would never get more hours.

I ended up applying for more than a hundred jobs in the Iowa City area. I would set up camp at the library early in the morning and fill out applications and write cover letters all day. My years of professional experience. My expensive college degree. None of it seemed to matter.

There’s a studio in Fairfield that creates and restores intricately handcrafted stained glass windows, then sends workers out to install them in churches and schools and museums all over the world. They were hiring not too long ago.

In my letter I did my best to talk up all the set construction I’d done in high school drama club. I said that whatever I do next, I want it to be something beautiful. The owner, a woman with a kind voice, called and thanked me for my “lovely words.”

I never heard back from her.

I loved being a reporter. The crazy, beautiful people you meet, the never ending chase and slow burn of a good story. It filled up eight years of my life. The summer days and winter nights of 2016 that I spent with the brave men and women of the Oceti Sakowin resistance camp are seared forever in my mind. I have never felt as alive as I did then.

I also hated being a reporter. One day our editor’s body was found in the woods. We never found out why he took his own life, and only barely talked about it. Just as we barely talked about the constant drumbeat of corporate mandated budget cuts that regularly vanished other dear friends and coworkers from our newsrooms overnight.

Newspapers are dying. And watching powerless as something you love dies is a hard thing to do. I quit my most recent job at a newspaper. I was laid off from the one before that. I quit this time because I absolutely had to. Maybe someday I will go back. Maybe I never will.

I wrote most of this at work. During my lunches and fifteen minute breaks.

I schedule hospital appointments in a call center on the second floor of an old brick shopping mall in downtown Iowa City. The pay is better, the stress lower, and the hours more decent than what I’ve become accustomed to these last several years.

The guy in the cubicle next to mine—let’s call him Tim—spends his time between calls folding receipts into aerodynamic triangles and drawing designs on them with colored pens. He’s helpful and quick to a laugh. Before this he worked at Meals on Wheels, helping deliver food to elderly people until the day came he had to quit. Tim has a degree in microbiology.

It’s a job. That’s all it is. Something we do for money.

Trouble in downtown Gondolin

I found the lump in the shower.

It clung to the inside of my crotch like a flesh burrowing scarab from Brendan Frasier’s The Mummy. Frozen in the low pressure stream of Iowa’s nitrate rich groundwater, I gingerly pinched the robin’s egg sized knot between my fingers. Tributaries of searing pain forked through my groin.

Cancer then. I had turned thirty a couple days earlier so why not? One time I ate some magic mushrooms and glimpsed a blues singer in a vast red room, dancing slowly behind a churning curtain of hieroglyphic ice. The encounter imparted upon me a quiet moment of clarity: I was no longer afraid of death.

Psychotropics are, in my limited experience, good for those sorts of moments. As I limped around the yard after my discovery in the shower, I wondered what sorts of moments cancer drugs might be good for. I meditated on all the frozen pizzas I’d ever eaten, all the aspartame laced chewing gum my pre-adolescent self had ever swallowed. I thought about the inconvenience of dying and the awkwardness of a life without genitals. Maybe Pfizer could use the sanded off space to advertise for anti-depressants.

Baphomet knows I could use the money. I was, for the second time in three years, unemployed. My perfectly good health insurance lay abandoned in the Black Hills of South Dakota, along with the charred wreckage of a not so perfectly good eight year career in journalism. My boilerplate identity crisis was just one in a string of personal asterisks to the first long summer of our collective American nightmare.

A week after my grandfather passed away in late July, I quit my dead end newspaper job and scooched 700 miles east to be with my girlfriend in Iowa City, where we’d both graduated from college a few years earlier, and where she was now enrolled in the public health graduate program. The universe in all its terrifying glory was yawning in my face, daring me to do something interesting.

So I turned thirty and got cancer.

“Don’t be alarmed,” I said to Sarah one day in the kitchen, “but I think I have crotch cancer.”

“Marry me,” my partner of eleven years deadpanned, then on her way out the door, “Go to Planned Parenthood.”

Sarah is a sexual assault victims advocate, the kind of militant but affable feminist who punctuates her “good mornings” with dual middle fingers. She also used to work at Planned Parenthood, all of which is to say that I’m educated on the subject.

Still, I’m a cis-gender white guy of comfortable upbringing. As “woke” as I like to think I am, deep down I believed that Planned Parenthood wasn’t for me. It was for other people, mostly pregnant teenage girls and college kids who think gravity is a legit form of contraception. But Sarah told me to go, and I was fresh out of ideas.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about the hidden city of Gondolin, a secret oasis of light and hope in a world of doom and darkness, hell bent on its destruction. I didn’t know it yet, but that’s what Planned Parenthood is. Gondolin, but with Republicans instead of Orcs.

From the road there are no visible signs to mark Iowa City’s Planned Parenthood. A nondescript concrete building, its entrance is concealed from picketers and any would-be-fire-bombers behind a tall row of hedges.

In the lobby, gritting my teeth against the waves of pain emanating from between my legs, I steeled myself for the brand of economic agony unique to the US healthcare system.

It never came. Soul crushing debt wasn’t in the cards. My jobless ass would receive a 100 percent discount today, the grandmotherly woman behind the desk informed me. At Planned Parenthood, zero income means zero dollars charged.

The sheer madness of this premise didn’t sink in until later. In my mind, a 100 percent discount at Planned Parenthood wouldn’t get me far anyway. I expected only a cheap exam to identify the type and magnitude of cancer gnawing at my loins, then a curt referral to the far pricier university hospital shimmering on the hilltop, where I surely would be relieved of every penny to my name.

That’s not how it happened.

“It’s not cancer,” my doctor said in an apologetic tone. “It’s an infected abscess. And we have to drain it. Now.”

This is the part of the movie where we cut to the parking lot. Our stony faced hero hobbles to his car, his cancerless nethers feeling nonetheless looped through a fisherman’s hook and flailed all over the lake, to lure what weird quarry he cannot fathom as he twists the key in the ignition and sets his instruments couchward.

I returned to Planned Parenthood a few days later to be skewered a second time. It was a fun week. The exam, two procedures and a bottle of antibiotics; none of it cost me a dime. If I hadn’t come in when I did, the doctor told me, it would have required a costly surgery.

The lobby was packed during my second visit. Young, old, male, female, black, white, affluent looking and not so much. Some had children with them or a group of supportive friends. Others were alone. How many were here for a potentially life saving abortion procedure, to pick up affordable birth control pills, or receive treatment for a sexually transmitted disease?

And how many were just like me? Economically poor, scared and confused by their own bodies, never expecting they would end up here, yet feeling like they had nowhere else to go?

Empathy should not require such visitations.

I don’t know what caused it. I run a clean shop downstairs. But hey, apparently these things happen.

“Sometimes for no reason at all,” doc said with a glinting flourish of her scalpel hand. For her this was just another Tuesday morning.

There are people in this country who want to take this away, to see the hidden walls of Gondolin fall. As I signed out at the front desk, I thought about what a thirty year old unemployed writer could do about that.

Not much, I figured. Let’s be real. So I scraped my checking account for a meager $100 donation and staggered out the door.