Non-Fiction Uncategorized


Or: How to Love Music When Nobody’s Listening

One night in 2013 or so, I was playing at a restaurant that was world-renowned for its food. It had been featured on food TV shows, which I had not watched, but people drove from all over the country to eat at this place. 

It was in a rough part of town, but people still came. The prices were reasonable; the food was uniquely satisfying. 

But the restaurant was not world-renowned for its live music, and for good reason; nobody was going there for the music. I played there for three hours, tucked into a corner by the entrance. The PA piped my playing into the dining room, and to most diners, I was pure wallpaper. 

grayscale photo of a wet stomach
Finding images for this was really hard, but I feel like you need images to keep reading. Here’s someone’s stomach. Photo by Anna Tarazevich on

On many nights, people would look at me dumbfounded when leaving, saying something to the effect of:

“Oh, that was live music? I thought it was the radio.”

This was an incredible compliment, and I’ll explain why a bit later. But at the time, it was the most grievous insult I could imagine. 

I played there regularly for a couple of years.

Each time, I would become more jaded. Nobody gave a damn about the music. Very few people clapped, or even acknowledged me, even when they were standing right next to me.

I felt like a little kid, pushed into the corner to do his talent show while the adults concentrated on truly great things: fine food, good company. There was no reason for me to be there, except that I needed the money ($50, plus tips, which were unpredictable) and the food. 

funky skull graffiti on locked roll down black door
Again, this photo has nothing to do with the content. But is there anything more punk rock than going the wrong way? Photo by Willo M. on

Performers were allotted one dish from the regular menu. Every time I played, I got a steak, which was the best thing there. I would take it home and split it with my partner; it was usually the only great meal we’d have that month. 

The final time I played at this place, I stumbled up to the bar after three hours of performance. My voice was raw and my fingers hurt, and I was particularly annoyed at the night’s crowd. I’d made about $10 in tips, and I had to get up early the next morning. I ordered the steak. 

“That’s not for you,” the bartender said. “Order something else.” 

“I always get that.”

“Not anymore,” he said. “We can do sandwiches, no entrees.” 

I felt like a little kid again. I angrily ordered something else and resolved to never play the joint again. 

Around that time, my musical life had pulled back.

I was in a band, brotherfather, but we’d put each other in various types of creative headlocks, and no new music was happening. I believe that the Chimps were starting, but we were in early days. And most disturbingly, to me: I hadn’t written a new song in over a year. 

This was new to me. As a teenager, I wrote a new song every week. My output had gradually slowed down, but I was always writing; at one point, to restart myself creatively, I wrote a song a day for an entire month (only two or three of the songs were any good, but who’s counting?). 

When I sat down with a guitar, nothing happened. I’d just start drinking and put the guitar down. Eventually, I stopped picking it up. 

cheerful woman with guitar in black and white
A photogenic woman who is happy to be playing an A chord, badly. Photo by Alina Rossoshanska on

My only truly fulfilling musical outlet was my semi-regular gig at John Brown’s in Marion, Illinois. Even that was becoming endangered; one night, I texted John to set up a date. This is paraphrasing his response, which I’m sure was less harsh but no less direct:

No. You’ve been jaded lately, man. You’re not making it about the music. 

That was the first time I’d been called out. John is one of the greatest friends I’ve made through music, and I value his opinion implicitly. And he was done with me — I was playing like an asshole. 

The worst part was that I wasn’t sure whether I cared.

I was checked out. Why should I care about playing music if the crowd never cared? Why not just sit at home and watch the latest Netflix 7-part documentary about a white girl who disappeared? 

Around that time, I went to an open mic in St. Louis and purposely bombed. I made fun of the Arch, the Blues, and the Cardinals. By the end, two guys wanted to fight me. I was just trying to feel something, anything, and to get any reaction from the crowd. I got the reaction, but I came in angry and left angry. Nothing changed.

I would love to tell you that I snapped out of it, several months later.

I did not. My band remained creatively deadlocked, and I started playing with the Chimps; our shows gained a steady audience, and I wrote a couple new songs. 

But I was still angry at certain crowds, and angry at myself when my music didn’t come out the way that it sounded in my head. I was unwilling to do any work to align my art with my actions; I’d already done the work. It was the audience’s fault for not recognizing the time and effort that I’d already spent. 

young man with greasepaint on face on street
Matt Basler. Photo by vikesh zen on

There were moments that started to shake off my rust. The most profound was just prior to a Chimps show, where Jesse Irwin pulled us in for a pre-game huddle. We were nervous; he was nervous. 

“There are people in that audience tonight who dream about being able to get up in front of people and sing,” he said. “There are people who would pay anything to be able to do this. And we get to do it.” 

Becoming un-jaded is a process, and no single moment shakes you out of it.

Recovery depends on the people you surround yourself with, to a great extent.

I am grateful that I’ve surrounded myself with great people. This is kind of becoming a name-drop piece, but I’ll drop a few more — Chris Turnbaugh and Dustin Sholtes, my bandmates in brotherfather (now otherfather), have a consistently wonderful worldview when it comes to music. My Chimps bandmates also lifted me up.

But it’s easy to slip back into the ether of jealousy and resentment. When my friend Nathan died, I was right back to square one. 

We grew up together and we were college roommates. The man was the greatest musician I have ever played with, and I have played, consistently, with great musicians. He was a true genius, and he’d been that way since he was a kid. 

Nathan is not pictured above; the embed pulled that image in, and I don’t know who these guys are. Maybe they played on Nathan’s record, Catch? Anyway, if you hover over that photo, you’ll get Play controls for Nathan’s album.

He took his own life for a plethora of personal reasons, but also for no reason at all. 

He wasn’t jaded about music, in my experience, but music didn’t save him. I’ve written songs about him, but he will never hear them. We played a memorial show for him, but he was not there. 

Eventually, you have to sit down with your art and ask it serious questions. What am I even doing? How much money do I spend on this bullshit? Wouldn’t it be better to just stop, and do something more productive with my time and energy? 

Who is this for? 

My friend, Dana Anderson, struggled with these questions.

The last time I spoke to him, it seemed to me that he’d answered them. He had quit drinking and written songs that were more complex than anything he’d written in years. They were very, very good — but also a lot darker than his earlier stuff, and that was saying something. 

Then, he killed himself. When you do that, you take all the pain that’s building up inside you and pass it along to everyone who loves you. You also mess up your art, in a lot of ways; now, every Dana song sounds like a warning sign. All of his magnificent poetry is colored by his last moments. 

Dana was frequently jaded. A lot of his bad energy rubbed off on me. But he was also the opposite, as is frequently the case with great artists. We’d play shows where he’d switch from his set of glorious originals to tried-and-true hokum like Wagon Wheel and Folsom Prison Blues. When the crowd was listening, he’d gradually switch back to his own stuff, and keep them on his side. Even if he wasn’t always successful, he knew how to work a crowd. 

On many nights, he understood that he was there for the audience, and that the inverse was not necessarily true. 

I went back and added this embed of a Dana Michael Anderson song. If you haven’t listened to him, please dig into his stuff.

When Dana died, I was playing at John Brown’s the next night.

We put a few of his songs into our set. The crowd did not know his story, but they threw themselves into his songs. 

That place consistently has the best audience in the world. They truly love the music, thanks to the owner and staff, who have cultivated that love. I often describe it as an oasis of music in Southern Illinois, a small-town joint that feels quite a bit bigger. 

They appreciated us that night. But I would bet that most people drove home thinking about how much they’d spent, or how the baseball game on the TVs had turned out. What they’d do tomorrow, what they had to do next week. The music was at the back of their minds, if it was there at all.

And I absolutely love that. 

Nobody needs to care about your music for it to mean something.

A few months ago, I went to see my friend Michael Ahlvers (Lefty Daytona) play a show in Alton with my newest musical friend, Troy Brenningmeyer. Here’s what Mike sounds like. 

As you might have gathered, Mike is tremendous. When I played with him for the first time, I remember thinking, this guy sings well, plays well, writes well, and he’s good looking. What the hell am I bringing to the table, again? 

Troy is a world-class musician. I was watching his music lessons on YouTube before I figured out that he was local, and I’m still shocked that I’m playing with him. He’s also a fundamentally kind person, and he’ll play shows if he likes the music — I often assume that great players will only play for a certain minimum amount of money, but that’s simply not true. They play music because they love playing.

At this show, there were a few people, but not many. Mike and Troy played like the room was packed. I played a few tunes and truly enjoyed myself. 

“I don’t care if people show up,” Mike told me, between sets. “It’s nice if they do, though.” 

Becoming unjaded is a journey, but there it is, distilled perfectly into a couple of sentences. If he’d said that to me five years ago, it would have rolled right past me. 

But that’s how you become an artist. That’s how you make something that truly matters. That’s the mindset that leads to songs like this: 

“Autumn Bird,” by Michael Ahlvers.

You can’t write like that when you’re jaded. You write like that when you love something deeply and you need to share it with the world.

Let me engage with those Big Questions that I mentioned earlier. 

What am I even doing? 

Playing music, you idiot. 

How much money do I spend on this bullshit? 

Money comes and goes, John. When you were right out of college, you spent a thousand bucks on a hot tub that you used for three months. You got your guitar second-hand from a Brazilian priest (true story) and it cost a lot less. Next question.

Wouldn’t it be better to just stop, and do something more productive with my time and energy?

Maybe, but what? I’m not building any houses for the houseless, and I’m not effecting any great social change. I am a songwriter, and more generally, a writer.

I am good at that. I have spent the time necessary to become good. And it’s vitally important for me.

And the biggest question: Who is this for? 

Me. I need to get my thoughts into the world, even if they just bounce off the walls and right back to me. If people listen, that’s tremendous. If the songs connect with them, that’s the greatest thing that can happen. I value every single one of those moments.

Here’s a recent one. I played in Copenhagen, Denmark, and I got the bartender to stop tending bar and come and listen. Every musician knows that’s a big compliment.

It was a great night. The crowd was tremendous and I connected with them in a way that made me profoundly satisfied.

But if I just play for myself and for the other people on stage with me, that’s almost just as good. In fact, it’s essential for making those other moments happen: If I focus on whether people like my music, there’s too much of my ego in this. It’s easy to become disappointed when they ignore a punchline or talk over a Big, Great Lyric. 

If I play for myself, I have one person to impress.

And if I have no expectations, I can have more gratitude when a show goes really well. Ironically, I have to play for myself to get rid of my ego as a performer. 

That extends to shows where I’m not the focus. Where I’m wallpaper. If someone says, “I thought you were the radio,” that means that they think I’m good enough to be on the radio. It also means that they were able to focus on the great food and company that made them drive out to a sketchy street in Dogtown. I did my job.

Music has infinite utility. That’s why venues pay musicians. It can help people make connections with the people around them (“say, this guy sucks shit, don’t you think?”), it can help people enjoy a meal, it can help set the mood in an art gallery. And most of the time, it’s in the background. Wallpaper. But it can be really good wallpaper.

And yes, occasionally, someone will hear a lyric or listen to a guitar solo and have a profound revelation that changes how they think about life. But if that happened every night, it’d be pretty goddamn exhausting. 

If you’re feeling jaded about art, I can tell you confidently that you’re thinking too much about it. Don’t play for those incredible moments of connection; play for yourself.

Art is the most important thing you do, other than maybe spending time with your family.

It’s rarely what pays you the most, and it’s often difficult to do consistently. But money isn’t a great measure of humanity, and “easy” stuff is often the most worthless.

When I meet people, I describe myself as a songwriter, not as a content writer (my day job) or anything else. It is the most interesting thing about me, regardless of whether I play well or not. It’s how I meet new people, and it’s how I stay engaged with the world.

This weekend, we celebrated Dana Anderson’s life. A dozen or so talented musicians played his stuff. The place was completely packed. Everyone was there for Dana’s music. 

Halfway through an incredible performance of one of his songs (Bad Tattoo), I looked around the room. Well over half the people were talking. They were probably telling stories about Dana, or just talking about the long drive to Granite from wherever-the-hell they’re from. They were missing some of the best lyrics in his enormous catalog of genius songs, and that was perfectly fine. They were under no pressure to listen, and the fact that they were talking to their friends and family did not mean that they were grieving any less, or that they appreciated our friend any differently from those who were listening actively.

To my left, there was a couple holding onto each other, transfixed. They were silently mouthing every word, hugging one another during the choruses. 

I went back to the green room and got ready to sing.


Yelling Into the Abyss About Abortion

I am going to start writing stuff where I just scream a bunch of thoughts and make poop jokes. You know, lighthearted rambling. So, logically, I want to kick off by talking about abortion.

Specifically, I want to talk to my pro-life friends. Hey, how you doing? What have you been up to?

Me? Well, lately, I’ve been truly amazed at the artisanal craftsmanship of A.I.-generated art.

If you believe that life begins at conception, I will never try to talk you out of that. It is a sincere and deeply held belief. If you believe that it is a sin, I can’t argue with you — I certainly can’t speak for God.

But hopefully, I can explain how you can balance those views with what happened in Ohio last night. A red state. A state filled with people who believe what you believe, and no less sincerely than you.

Why should we care about Ohio, anyway?

Well, normally, we shouldn’t care about Ohio, but right now, it’s important.

Sure, Ohio isn’t perfect. It’s the state where a woman stabbed her boyfriend for eating all of her salsa (totally justifiable). It’s also where this guy tried to have sex with a van:

man accused of having sex with a van. it's a mugshot. His face looks bruised and he's sketchy as hell.

“Officers who questioned him said he appeared to be intoxicated.”

But besides that, Ohio is what you might call a good, Christian state. 73% of the population identifies as Christian, and they’re staunchly Republican: Trump beat Biden by about 8% in 2020.

And as we all know, Christians voted for Trump because of his sound moral character, a part of which was his opposition to abortion.

Two guys who have never, ever paid for an abortion.

So if you’re going to pass pro-life laws, Ohio seems to be your place. But it isn’t.

Last night, voters approved a constitutional amendment ensuring access to abortion and other forms of reproductive health care. And they passed it pretty resoundingly, too.

56.6% to 43.3% — you don’t get numbers like that in modern politics. To some pro-life folks, the result was shocking.

So if you’re on that side, you might feel like you just got home from a long shift, only to realize that your boyfriend ate every last bit of your On The Border Chunky Picante. Put down the knife; the Democrats didn’t do this alone.

In Ohio, about 20% of Republicans and 66% of independents supported abortion rights.

Why? According to exit polls, it’s because they’re deeply concerned about van-human hybrids.

If a van has a baby, what do you even call it? There’s no good portmanteau. It’s not as funny as a human cow or humonkey. It’s just an abomination that leaks oil all over the place, and that guy up there is clearly working on it. That is why he is smiling.

We need abortions for vans, if nothing else. And by the way, we also need AI models that can more accurately respond to the prompt, “minivan receiving surgical procedure.”

A.I.-generated painting of a minivan receiving surgery. It's not very good.

Okay, the real reason is that bodily autonomy is a cornerstone of our society.

Do not handwave this away. I know you’ve heard this before, and it’s probably not too compelling if you’ve listened to pastors and priests talk about dead babies for the last 30+ years of your life.

But I promise, we’ll get to the babies. For now, actually think about bodily autonomy for a minute.

This is how some people have remained pro-life while supporting, or at least acknowledging, the right to an abortion.

Bodily autonomy is not a biblical value; it is a social contract. It establishes that, in our nation, we own our bodies, even if the state can take everything else. We can be forced to work, forced to sit in a prison cell, or forced to die, but we will always control our own bodies.

We even extend that consideration to the worst people we have; you couldn’t force a mass murderer to be an organ donor, for example.

Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger, mass murderer, probably not an organ donor.

If you did force convicts to give up their kidneys, livers — hell, just a bit of bone marrow — it could save lives. You could structure a law so that it only took effect after the convict has died. The murderer loses nothing, and good people would live who would otherwise die.

Sounds great, right? Except that it would open up a thousand avenues for abuse and horror.

You’d quickly see judges giving harsher sentences, reasoning that the dregs of society would be better as meat-pools for the fine upstanding citizens of This Great Country.

And given that 44% (holy shit, really?! 44%?) of our prisoners are there for drug offenses, you’d have people losing their skin, literally, because they got caught with a bit of pot. That would probably lead to some interesting names for marijuana strains, but it certainly wouldn’t be good for society.

A.I. generated man holding marijuana

“Gimme that Organ-Oregano No-Rejection Purple Bart Simpson Kushy Cow,” or some dumb shit like that.

Bodily autonomy is so important, the government can’t even offer to buy it.

This is not a hypothetical. This year, Massachusetts proposed a program that would reduce prison sentences for prisoners who donate organs. You’re in jail for 20 years, but you can knock off a couple of months if you match with a bone marrow recipient. Reasonable, right?

Well, absolutely not. The plan was criticized, rightfully, as dystopian and dehumanizing. Once you’ve got people selling their bodies to get out of jail, you’re on the fast track to putting people in jail to get their organs, and that would be demonic.

More pertinently, the program violates our understanding of bodily autonomy. We believe that bodily autonomy is so important, it should not be the subject to societal or legal influences, period.

You control your body. Nobody else does. Nobody else can. It’s yours. There are many like it, but this one is yours.

We acknowledge the right to bodily autonomy for murderers; we even extend it to dead bodies.

You cannot even force a corpse to donate organs. They (or their family) must make that decision.

And while there’s a really reasonable argument that organ donation programs should be opt-out rather than opt-in, that’s not how we currently do it here. We’re an opt-in, first-person consent system. And even in European countries that have opt-out systems, in practice, they don’t work that way — the systems use family authorization, so families can override the presumption of consent.

But we’re talking about the U.S., so let’s leave Sweden out of it (as usual). Here’s how Donate Life Colorado describes our country’s resistance to opt-out donation:

Presumed consent is not in alignment with American legal principles: Generally, laws in our country are built heavily on the core concepts of individual rights and liberties. Presumed consent may be contrary to these fundamental legal principles.

– Donate Life Colorado (linked above)

Fundamental, they say. Legal, they say. Principles, they say. There were also some other words in there.

Sounds pretty reasonable to me.

You don’t have to be pro-abortion to be pro-choice.

You can still care about babies while respecting the importance of bodily autonomy. In fact, I think you should probably care about babies no matter what.

Yes. I said it: I’m pro-baby, even when they’re generated by A.I.

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Pro-life doesn’t mean anti-choice. That’s what Ohio told us last night. The people — who are, again, deeply religious, outside of the Salsa Slasher and the Minivan Molester — were confronted with a simple question. They answered that they value women’s ability to make decisions about their own bodies.

That was the correct decision from a societal standpoint, full stop. You cannot force me to donate an organ, and you cannot force women to donate theirs to another being.

You can recognize that right without supporting abortion. It requires nuance, which Americans are terrible at. But if you’ve made it this far, I trust that you can understand that there’s a middle ground.

If you are against abortion, you can support adoption charities. You can support access to birth control, or welfare programs; if you don’t like those things, you can support mutual aid. Give people viable options and support them as they raise their children. Be pro-life.

I have many friends that do this. They are great people, and they put more energy into this than I’ve put into anything (including the energy I just spent trying to get DALL-E to create a photo of a mouse with human hands smoking a joint while tapdancing on the moon).

No, dammit, the MOUSE should HAVE human hands, and it should be ON the moon, and the joint needs to be IN his CUTE LITTLE MOUTH.

My friends have found a way to fight for what they believe within a shared society, which has ethical structures that conflict with their moral convictions. I want everyone to do that. Every Christian, Muslim, atheist, and theological noncognitivist out there.

So to be clear, if you are against abortion, I have a place for you at my table. Your belief does not make me love you any less or differently. I respect people with principles, even when I don’t share the same principles. That’s what a society is.

And last night, my “side” didn’t “win,” and your “side” didn’t “lose.” Democracy simply spoke. It said that fighting against bodily autonomy is the wrong path.


Fiction Horror


April 17, 1968.

First they lined us all up and made us get on our knees with our hands behind our heads. 

Momma asked if she could keep her hands out in front to pray and the big man said no, so she put her hands behind her head too and she tried not to look over at us, but I was looking at her real hard when the little man fired the gun at her. Then I closed my eyes tight and I heard two more bangs and I fell over after the third one.

They shot Momma right in the head, and that’s where they shot Daddy and my brother, too. When the little man aimed at me he must’ve looked away because it just hit the side of my cheek and ripped it open. I wanted to holler, but instead I fell down like Momma did and tried my best not to move. 

The big man came over and took Momma’s necklace that Daddy gave her last Christmas. He used his shotgun to lift up her skirt, then put it back down. 

The little man walked over to Daddy and took off his shirt and his wristwatch. They didn’t come near me or my brother, which was good because I was pretending to be as dead as the rest of them, and I’m no good at pretending. I should have waited real long after they left before I got up, but my cheek was smarting something fierce and I figured they might come back. 

I walk over to Momma to check that she was really dead and she really was dead. I didn’t have to check Daddy or my brother ’cause I could tell.

They’d taken us to the woods, but not far from the road where they’d found us. By the time I got up, the little man and big man had walked back out there to our car where the thin man was waiting. Then the three of them started going through our stuff and I turned away.

I was crying and I was going to start running as hard as I could when this funny-looking kid grabs my arm.

“You be quiet now,” the kid says. “Lemme get a look at you.”

He brings out a handkerchief and licks it and starts dabbing at my face with it and it smarts. While he’s doing that I look into his eyes to try to see if he’s friendly. I can’t tell right away. His eyes are green and they stand out from the rest of his face. His cheekbones are real big and they’re up high like Frank Sinatra’s, except he doesn’t look much like Frank Sinatra otherwise. His hair is a rusty color and his skin is dusty and yellow. He looks strong but a little too thin for his age. He reminds me of a stray dog that followed me home (back when I still went to school). Momma said it was a pitbull and Daddy said it had worms, and neither one of them wanted it in the house.

The boy has got overalls on and no shirt underneath, and he concentrates real hard when he’s batting at you with his handkerchief. You can tell right away he don’t touch girls much, not because he’s rough but because he’s way too careful like I’m gonna break apart in his hands. 

I don’t break and he gets done batting at me. He looks out at the road and I can tell he’s scared, and that makes me think that maybe he’s friendly.

“You stay quiet,” he says. “Come this way.” 

I turn to follow him and I watch my step to stay quiet like he told me. He ain’t as quiet as me. He steps on sticks and they crack under him but he doesn’t pay it much mind. 

He looks down at Momma when we pass by her and his face looks cold, and I start to wonder again if he’s friendly, and I start making plans for what I could do if he ain’t friendly. I notice he’s carrying an old rifle in his big dusty hands and I wonder if he’d had it out the whole time. He uses it like a walking stick or a machete, pushing back the branches of the prickly bushes or putting it against the ground when he needs some extra help climbing. A few times he puts the barrel-end right into the ground and I wonder if the gun even shoots anymore. 

We walk through the woods for a long time before he talks again.

It feels like hours but that’s mostly cause my cheek is smarting bad. I wipe it with my sleeve and there’s a lot of blood. A few bugs start following me and landing on my cheek and I have to shoo them away, which bothers me worse than the smarting or the blood.

“Where are we going?” I finally ask, and he turns to me and I think he’s gonna shush me like Daddy would. Instead he just gives me a look like you’re still here? We’re deeper in the woods now, and in this light, his eyes seem more hazel than green. They still look odd. They’re deep in his head and they dart around like flies caught in a mason jar.

“I ain’t decided yet.”

“Then who are you, then?”


“That ain’t a name. What’s your name?”

A bug lands on his face and he screws up his nose a bit to get it off. When he scrunches his nose, he looks even more like that old dog with the worms. 

“A lot of power in a name,” he says. “Don’t think I’m telling you mine ‘til I know yours.”

“I’m Julie,” I say. I’m lying, because what Somebody said about names seemed true enough to me and I don’t have a lot of cards left to hold onto. 

“How old are you?”

“11,” I lie. I’m actually 12 and a half, almost 13, but I figure if he thinks I’m still a little girl he might be nicer to me.

“Ain’t safe on these roads, ‘specially if you got a car. What were you all doing out here?”

“We was going somewhere else,” I tell him. “Mighty good reason to be on the road, I’d say.”

That shuts Somebody up, which makes me uneasy because I want him talking. We keep moving, and I keep feeling uneasy, so I try to get on his nerves the way I can with my brother.

“You ask a lot of questions,” I say. “You fancy yourself an Ark Linkletter or something?”

“Art,” he says and he smiles big and I see that his teeth are a little too small. “Not Ark.” 

“Well, you’re neither one of ‘em.”

He smiles more but he doesn’t say nothing else, so I don’t press him. The ground is dry but the air is humid, and I have to breathe hard to keep up with Somebody’s pace. Pretty soon, we get to the edge of the woods and there’s a big open field out in front of us. He starts walking into it, so I do too. 

“You decide where we’re going?” I ask. I try not to let him hear that I’m nervous but I’m bad at pretending. 

“I got an idea,” he says, and I can tell he’s not keen on saying much else. My forehead’s sweaty and my hair falls down in front of my eyes, so I push it back up. I notice he’s looking at me so I try to keep him talking.

“Did you know those men?”

“I don’t know their names,” he says. “I wish I did. But they’s always out here.”

He looks at his gun and his Adam’s apple moves like he’s swallowing air, then he looks back at me. 

“They did my folks like they did yours, ‘cept they didn’t try to shoot me. If they did, I would’ve…”

His voice is uneven and I feel like I just heard something come off-kilter inside him. Something that was loose and wobbly to begin with. But when he talks again, he’s back together and sounds like he did before.

“Well, I probably would’ve died, if I’m honest. He only missed you because he’s weak. He didn’t want to look you in the eyes when he did it. He hasn’t been with the other two for long.” 

All of what he says goes in one ear and out the other, because I’m starting to feel like my head is on fire, and I’m most thankful that we’ve stopped moving so I can catch my breath. I decide I don’t care too much about the three men and why they did what they did, provided I can get away from them and stay away. 

“So where are we going?” I say.

“Middle of this field,” Somebody says, and I get uneasy at the way he says it. He starts walking again and I follow him.

We get to the middle of the field and he turns toward me and he points the gun at me, except now he’s holding it like a real gun and not like a walking stick or a machete. 

“What did you say your name was?” he says.

“Julie,” I say again. 

“Julie,” he says, “You got anything of value on you?”

“No,” I says, and my heart is beating so hard I can feel it in my head. 

“That’s a shame,” he says. He lowers the gun a little. “You gotta learn, Julie, that there ain’t nice people in this world.”

“You seem nice,” I say, and I mean it to be sarcastic, and he takes it that way and laughs. 

“There ain’t nice people, and Jesus don’t protect you when things go wrong.”

“Okay,” I say. I don’t know what else to say. I don’t really care about Jesus.

“You believe in kindness, Julie? After what you seen today?”

“I don’t give it much thought.” I say, and it’s the truth.

He tips the barrel of the gun up towards the sky. 

“You start thinking on it,” he says, and he keeps walking into the field. I don’t know what else to do so I follow him. 

We come to an old two-story house.

These days all houses are old, but this one’s real old. It looks like something I saw in a Vincent Price film. There’s a rickety porch and all the windows are broken. Some scraps of blue paint are hanging onto the wood and part of the roof has caved in.

When we’re close, Somebody tells me to get down on the ground, and I do, and so does he. We lay there for a few minutes and he just stares at it. Then he gets up and he opens the door and we walk inside. 

The house has big, high ceilings and there’s a chain where a chandelier used to hang. I know that ‘cause there’s some broken glass on the floor, and the metal part of the chandelier is sitting up against a big staircase with three or four missing stairs. 

We’re standing in what Momma would call a living room, but it don’t seem like much of a place for living. A big blue chair sits in one corner but it has orange stains on it and I don’t want to sit on it. 

There’s a little bookshelf with no books. There’s a little fireplace with no fire. There’s a coffee table, and plenty of open cans of food laying all around it. I wonder if there’s more food somewhere, cause I’m starting to get hungry in spite of myself, but Somebody speaks up before I could ask.

“We ain’t got girl clothes,” he says, “and you can’t wear none of mine.”

His eyes are darting around again. He looks at me, and I don’t feel any kindness coming from him. 

“It looks like you ain’t even wearing none of yours,” I say, on account of how he’s got no shirt under his overalls. He either doesn’t get the joke or he doesn’t think it’s funny. I think about that old dog that followed me home, and I think to myself that I got it wrong in the first place — I’m more like that old dog than he is, and I’m just hoping he doesn’t send me away.

“The sink works. Wash your face and don’t leave any blood in the sink. Be quick because we don’t got too much time. They’ll be back soon.”

I feel like I’m cold all of the sudden and I think about asking who’s gonna be back soon, but I already know and it don’t make much sense to ask dumb questions. So I go to the sink and I wash my face like he said to, and I walk back to the not-so-much-a-living room.

“Turn around,” he says. I do. 

“Turn back around,” he says. I do, and the bookshelf is gone, and instead there’s a little narrow place big enough for a person to fit through. 

“My poppa built it,” he says, and he seems proud. 

“It’s nice,” I lie.

He gestures for me to get in, so I do. I always read books about secret passageways hidden in bookshelves, but this isn’t like the ones I read about. Some plaster gets in my hair as I crawl in, and the floor is concrete which hurts my knees. Halfway through, my skirt catches on a nail and tears a little and I curse, and I hear Somebody laugh from behind me. 

The passage opens up after a few twists and turns and I can finally stand up.

It’s pitch black, but Somebody has a kerosene lamp that he lights up, and it gives off enough light to get by on. I look around. We’re in a room that almost isn’t a room — there’s a sleeping bag and a few adventure books on the floor, and not much else. A lightbulb is hanging from the ceiling, which confuses me because Daddy said that houses in the country don’t have electric. In any case, the lightbulb doesn’t seem to work, because Somebody doesn’t even fiddle with it. 

“We’re behind the staircase,” he says. I nod as if that means something to me.

He looks at me hard and I get uncomfortable. His eyes aren’t darting around as much, and they seem bright and green again. 

“Julie,” he says, like he’s trying his lips out for the first time. “It’s a good name.”

“Thank you,” I say. My voice sounds unsteady. 

“You remember what I told you,” he says, real soft. “There ain’t nice people in this world, and Jesus don’t protect you.” 

“I don’t care about Jesus,” I say. My Momma would have hit me for saying that, ‘cept she’s dead, and I mean it. 

He doesn’t look away from me and I feel worried. I’ve read about the things men do to women and little girls. Ravishment, my books called it. 

I look at his face and decide that Somebody isn’t a man. He’s older than me and I’m practically a woman, but he just doesn’t look grown, even though he acts like he is. That doesn’t give me much comfort. One time, I read in the newspaper about some boys who did something bad and it made me cry. I don’t remember what they did, but I remember that I asked Daddy about it and he told me that boys can be the worst parts of men at times. I expect that’s especially the case when they’re playing like they’re already men when they ain’t. 

When I talk again, I talk slow and try to sound strong.

“So, you ain’t nice. You’re gonna hurt me, then?”

He just looks at me for a second, and it occurs to me that he likes that he can make me uncomfortable. 

“No,” he says, finally. “But that don’t make me nice.”

I didn’t like that, so I decided to let him have it. 

“You try anything, you won’t like what happens,” I say. My voice is shaking a little. “You lay a finger on me, I’ll —”

He put his hand over my mouth and I thought for a second that I should bite him, but then I hear other voices from the other side of the wall.

And suddenly, ravishment seems not so bad in the grand scheme of things, because I knew for certain that the three men were in this house with us, and that Somebody expected to do something to them, then probably something to me afterwards. He was playing like a grown-up, and he was good enough at pretending that I’d followed him back to this house and gone along with it. I felt foolish.

“We’re gonna murder ‘em,” Somebody whispered. His face was close to mine, and his breath was hot and made my skin itch. “You hate ‘em as much as I do, I know that. You’re gonna get their attention, and I’m gonna come up behind them and blow off their heads.”

He mimed like he was shooting them, but his hand was shaking and his eyes were buzzing around again. I just nodded. I didn’t want to talk because I thought Somebody was whispering too loud and I was scared that they was gonna hear us. 

I took a long look at Somebody’s gun. I don’t know guns much, but I watched Bonanza way back when the TVs were still playing shows, and I’d never seen a gun like that one. It seemed too thin to put a big hole in someone, and even when you’ve got a proper people-killing gun, they don’t always do the job. I was living proof of that.

So I decide I’m gonna run, first chance I get, and try to find somewhere else to lay low. Probably I’ll die in the woods or the fat man will catch me, but I aim to try.

We wait there for at least an hour and listen to the three men carrying on.

They must have been drinking because they were laughing loud, and after a while they sounded like they were fighting, and I know from reading books that laughing and fighting go along with drinking. I’m keen to let them go on drinking and fighting and laughing, but Somebody gets antsy and he starts motioning to me to go through the secret passageway. 

“Let’s wait for them to go to sleep,” I whisper at him, and he looks at me like I’m the school dunce.

“They each sleep in a different room,” he says, “and they lock their doors, ‘cause they don’t trust one another.” He shakes his head and grinds his teeth together and his temples pop out like boiled eggs. “It has to be now, while they’re in the kitchen. That’s where the booze is. That’s where they’ll stay.”

I try to think of another good reason to let them keep drinking and carrying on, but Somebody’s face gets real hard and his big cheekbones turn to steel. His face seems longer and meaner, and he juts at me with the barrel of the gun, and I know he’s playing serious. 

I start crawling through the passage and I hear him behind me. He put out the kerosene lamp and it’s pitch black. Even though it makes no sense in the dark, I’m worried about him trying to see up my skirt, so I move slower than before. 

I get to the end of the passage and it’s a hard wall ‘cause the bookcase is back in place. I crouch up in a ball and I feel Somebody’s hand on my shoulder. He leans in and whispers at me. 

“Feel for a latch on the upper left side.”

I find the latch and work with it for a minute. It finally opens up and I push against the plaster and the secret passageway is open. I crawl out, but Somebody doesn’t crawl after me right away. 

I look back at him as I stand up. My skirt had bunched up a little and he’s looking at my legs. That makes me mad, so I kick at the bookshelf and it slams him in the face. That’s dumb of me, because it makes a big noise, and the men in the kitchen shout curse words.

I hear them moving, but I’m already flying towards the front door as fast as I can.

I let myself look back and I see that the secret passageway is opening up again. 

The men had left the front door open and I run out it and then I run to the right. I figure I’ll take a wide route back towards the woods and lay down in the tall grass if they get too close.

But I’m not as fast as I think, and the three men are out of the house right away. I lay down in the grass, not 100 feet from the house, my stomach tumbling and tumbling. I try to make myself small.

They don’t see me, but they know I’m close. The little man has a rifle and he shoots into the grass. The shot is nowhere near me, and I don’t jump or holler, which is what I expect he was hoping I’d do.

“Who’s out here?” he yells. His voice is bigger than it should be, but he sounds nervous. 

The thin man walks out to the left of the little man and starts looking at the grass. 

“Don’t fire again,” the thin man says. “Waste of ammunition.”

“It was the little girl,” the fat man says. “The girl from today. I saw her skirt when she ran out. White and blue.” 

“Do you think,” the little man starts to say, but then Somebody runs right up to him and shoots him in the head. 

The gun isn’t as loud as the little man’s gun, but it does the job. The little man falls to the ground and his arm moves in and out like he’s trying to make a snow angel. His mouth opens and shuts slowly, and at some point he dies, but I don’t see that because I’m watching what happens next.

Somebody is screaming. His voice is high and thin and it cuts through the air. It probably buys him a few seconds, because it confuses the fat man. Somebody already shot his gun, so he dives down towards the little man’s gun and grabs it and fires at the fat man, once, twice. The fat man falls down and his body doesn’t move at all. Then Somebody aims towards the thin man, but the thin man shoots him first, right in the stomach. 

The thin man looks down at Somebody. I’m close enough to see the expression on the thin man’s face, except he doesn’t really have much of an expression. He just looks at Somebody, who’s thrashing around and holding his guts in place. The two of them look at each other, and Somebody’s mouth is moving like the little man’s mouth was moving, except different, because Somebody is trying to say something. It doesn’t matter because the thin man puts his shoe on Somebody’s mouth and presses his head to the side. He presses down until Somebody stops moving. 

The thin man wipes his shoe off on the porch and looks out towards the grass, straight at where I’m hiding. I try to push myself deep into the grass, and I grip the cool dirt with my fingers and I breathe as slow as I can and try to pretend that I’m just part of the land. But I’m no good at pretending.

“We killed your family today,” the thin man says. He doesn’t say it like it’s a question and he doesn’t say it like he’s proud of it. 

The wind whips up for a second and dies down. I say nothing. I still don’t think he knows where I am, and I decide that if I’m going to die, at least I’m going to make him look for me.

“Killing isn’t what you think it is,” he continues. “It’s not good or bad. If it were, I expect that God would get involved, in one way or another.”

He looks out slightly to my right, now, and I know he doesn’t see me.

“If you’re going to survive out there, you’re going to have to get used to the facts of it,” he says. “And you’d better get started right away.” 

He looks to the left and the right a bit more, then sits down on the porch. He rubs his chin.

“Why don’t you come out and tell me your name,” he says. I don’t say anything. “Mine’s Jim.” He motions at the fat man. “This was Mike.” At the little man. “This was Rick.” 

I feel a horsefly bite my leg, but I just stay where I am and stay quiet. 

The thin man keeps looking out at the grass for a while. I expect him to keep talking, but he doesn’t. After a long time, he goes inside the house and closes the door. I can hear him turn the lock and I wonder whether he’s worried that I’ll try to get in there and kill him. 

I wait for as long as I can. Eventually, I start to fall asleep, and that’s when I decide to move. I push up onto my hands and knees and crawl backwards for a while, then I stand up and turn around and start running. I run for a while and then I walk until I find a road, and I pick a direction and start following it. 

The sun comes up and I hear the scattered cries of a few birds. My legs are aching and I want to sleep, but I realize that I haven’t been up to see a sunrise in a long time. Not since my brother was real little, which was when we all got up early, me and Daddy and Momma. I don’t think that I’ve heard the birds since then, and the birds near our house didn’t sound like these birds.

I keep walking until I see a small house with a scarecrow outside. There’s a big NO TRESPASSING sign and windchimes on the front porch. 

I walk up to it and knock on the door, and I hear someone rustling around inside. I move my hair out of my face.

“Who is it?” a man shouts.

“My name is Mary,” I shout back. “What’s yours?”

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The Sergeant

three medals in glass enclosure
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

The sergeant took a breath, mucus rattling through his broad chest, and looked at his back lawn. The grass was too long. The trees caught most of the morning light, and a walnut from one of them fell onto the Gambrel roof of his shed, clattering down the sides and glazing off the indented steel into the yard.

Squinting, he nearly missed it — through his cataracts, it was just a brown blur, but he recognized it immediately. 

Groundhog. The same one that had taunted him all summer as he made his morning rounds. 

The groundhogs came every year to dig their burrows and ruin his perfect yard. They were cowards, content to live in their trenches, peeking their heads out tentatively and clucking their big teeth. He had killed many of them over the years, and for the most part, they had learned to stay away. But each summer, at least one of the big ones would take a chance; the yard was too perfect to be ignored entirely.

In his younger days, he would follow the big groundhog and root it out from under the shed at the back of the yard. That was where it expected to live — where they all had lived — and that’s where it was heading now. 

He walked out in the yard, his joints cracking, and inspected the hole under the shed where the brown blur had disappeared. Too late now. Even if he managed to dig it out, it had likely built a half-dozen escape routes. Cowards can be resourceful.

When the Sergeant first came to the house, he had destroyed a half-dozen of the things in one month.

He had not caught a single one this year. Part of it was his hips, which seemed to give out from under him at random — though they usually waited until he was having an especially good day otherwise — but part of it was because he didn’t care as much as once did. 

When he first came to the house, the backyard had become his mission. He spent days walking along the fence, back and forth, until the grass became stubborn and refused to grow. He still walked along the fence most mornings, but a few brave blades had begun sprouting up to recover their territory.

When he first came to the house, he would gladly spend hours out here. Now, it was mostly routine. He took less pleasure in it. It was only 9:00, but he was ready to go back to bed.

“Sarge!” He heard Emily’s voice from behind him. “I’ve made breakfast!” 

His face lifted at the sound of her voice. He turned, slowly, and walked to the door. She was waiting for him.

“I’ve made bacon, eggs, and…and toast.” 

Her voice was not right. Something had changed. He looked at her quizzically, but remained quiet. She’d prepared a plate for him, and he began eating, expecting that she would keep talking. She always did.

But today, she was quiet for a long time.

“We have a visitor,” she said eventually, gently. 

He stopped eating. He blinked his eyes, tried to focus, but Emily remained a white-and-pink blur. It was then that he noticed another white-and-pink blur sitting in the living room. 

Who is sitting on my couch?

“This is Thomas. He’s a vet. He wants to help you.”

This was not on the schedule for today. The sergeant growled his disapproval, then coughed, then focused on Thomas’s figure.

“Sergeant, nice to meet you.” Thomas turned to Emily. “I’m sorry, I’m early. I didn’t mean to interrupt his breakfast.” 

“It’s okay, he doesn’t eat much anyway.” She turned to the sergeant. “Sarge, let’s go sit on the couch.”

The sergeant did not budge.

He stared at the interloper, trying to make out the features of his face.

 “Come on,” Emily insisted. The sergeant grumbled and followed her. They sat across from Thomas, who moved over to them. He had something in his hand.

“Are you ready?” Thomas said. He was talking to Emily. Confused, the sergeant looked at her; her blurred head nodded. 

“Okay. Remember, you don’t have to be here if it’s too difficult.”

“Yes, I do,” she said. She was crying. The sergeant moved to comfort her, to ask her what was happening, but he felt a sudden sting in his leg. He wheeled towards Thomas, who was extracting a needle from the sergeant’s thigh. 

Suddenly, Emily’s hands were around his neck, hugging him. She stroked his head, and he felt a warmth moving up his body. He was tired.

He turned to Emily; she was close enough that he could make out her eyes. Her mouth. Her tears.

He licked one off of her face, and she laughed. 

He would take his nap now. Right here, right in front of damned Thomas and his needles. 

“We’ll wait until he’s asleep. He won’t feel the second one. He’s feeling tired now, and he’ll sink into a deep nap — like that feeling when you can’t keep your eyes open. He’ll…”

Thomas kept talking, and the sergeant growled a bit. Emily kept stroking his fur, and he tried to stay awake to comfort her.

The warmth kept spreading, and he closed his eyes. His leg kicked, and he had a brief but satisfying dream. 

His eyes were clear. The grass had been trimmed. He was outside on the first day of spring. His body remained old, but his joints flexed easily without pain. 

The groundhog sat unaware in front of him, a good 20 yards from its burrow. It would be close, but Sarge believed that he could close the distance. He moved quickly towards the coward, his paws flexing against the dirt. 

The groundhog heard him and broke for its home under the shed. Sarge exploded into a sprint. As the rodent hurdled towards its burrow, Sarge could feel its desperation, and he threw himself towards it, his mouth open wide.

– To King, Simon, and other dogs who lived in yards.

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Non-Fiction Uncategorized

Goodbye, Dave Werner.

I am going to write a bunch of stories about my friend, Dave Werner, with the full knowledge that he would tell me to shut the fuck up. 

The year is 2010, or maybe 2011, and I am playing music with Fred Friction. We “practice” at his house every week, which usually means fumbling through tunes for an hour or so and then listening to music while shooting pool. 

“Dave Werner would like to invite you over to play some songs,” Fred says, or something to that effect. “I think you should do it.”

“Dave Werner? Fuck that guy.”

And that’s how I never met Dave Werner.

But here’s what really happened.

A few weeks earlier, I was at the Chippewa Chapel open mic night debuting a song. Dave, who I did not know well at the time, flagged me down at the bar.

“You look healthy,” Dave says.

“Thanks,” I said. There’s a long pause. I’m not sure how to take that comment.

“I mean, you clearly haven’t been missing too many meals,” he says, glancing down at my gut. 

And now, weeks later, he was inviting me over to play music — through a mutual friend. 

I think that Dave made barbecue chicken that night. I could be confusing that with another night because Dave made a lot of barbecue chicken. 

But he made some sort of food, and we awkwardly played songs for each other. Dave told me which songs he liked and which ones he didn’t care for. 

And when I left, I had agreed to play a show with at a venue called the Focal Point. I didn’t know why I agreed, except that it seemed too awkward to say no. 

The Griner Brothers Band’s album is on YouTube, and has great tracks from The Honorable Daves Werner and Hagerty.

That show went okay. The guitarist had feedback issues all night, which was common at the Focal Point. At the end of the night, the guitarist revealed that he had a pedal in his car that could have fixed the issue, but he didn’t feel like going to get it.

So that guitarist was out of the band, and I never saw him again.

We played a few other shows as Shovelbutt, a folk-rock quartet that was doomed from the start.

Eventually, the drummer, Matt, got into an argument with Dave and the band just kind of fell apart (I don’t remember what the argument was about, but I don’t think it had anything to do with music. I’m pretty sure they made up at some point).

Around this time, I start getting phone calls from Dave.

“Hey, Kraniac, I’ve got a new song. You up for recording it at your place on Saturday?”

I generally said yes, because Dave would give me $40 and a couple of Red Bulls. I’d throw up a few microphones and track him, occasionally adding keys or guitar or whatever else the tune needed. 

Most of those recordings went nowhere. Dave kept them to himself, sometimes passing the best songs to Fred Friction, who’d play them on his radio show. But one December, Dave left me a different kind of voicemail. 

“Hey, buddy, I’ve got an idea. Christmas Caroling. Call me back.”

Dave’s idea: Our friend Jesse Irwin had welcomed his first child that year. Dave, Fred Friction, and I would head to Jesse’s house dressed as three wise men, bringing gifts to anoint the child — a package of hot dogs (a stand-in for frankincense), Stag beer (gold), and Merb’s candy (myrrh). 

three grown men dressed like the three wise men from the bible, handing beer to a baby
We were not giving beer to the baby. I don’t think.

I didn’t know Jesse well at the time, but I went along with it. Jesse was delighted, of course.

I realized around this time — or maybe a few weeks later, when Dave brought me homemade cookies — that I had become friends with a gruff, sarcastic, 60-something window installer. It was a gradual process, and it had happened under my nose.

Dave Werner did not drink alcohol.

Dave the Family Man.

Not in the time I knew him. He told me why, once, and here, I’ll note that I’m recalling this from memory and some of the details may be wrong.

It was years earlier, after a birthday party for his daughter, Julia. He’d bought a case of beer for the occasion. He was aware that he was an alcoholic, so he made a deal with himself: He could drink the beers, but only after the party was over.

Minutes after the last guest left, his hands were shaking, and he sat down and pounded the beers, one after the other. When the case was empty, he made a different deal with himself: He would never drink again, but in exchange, if he was ever in a social situation that he thought was bullshit, he would leave immediately. Irish exit. 

He claimed that he chained himself to a radiator while shaking on the floor during the withdrawals. I’m not sure how much of that is a metaphor.

Dave kept both halves of that promise.

One summer, we were both invited to be members of the Focal Point’s board. At the first meeting, Dave heard something he didn’t like, so he got up and walked out. The woman who was speaking was in the middle of a sentence, and there were only about 10 people at the table.

Everyone stared as he left, waiting for him to say something. He didn’t. The door slammed shut, and nobody knew how to continue. I couldn’t stop laughing, and I quietly followed him (after excusing myself, of course).

We’d go to shows — comedy, music, open mics, whatever — and Dave would simply leave when he had enough. That might be 5 minutes into the show or in the middle of the second encore. Sometimes, he’d grumble something insulting on his way out. 

His attitude didn’t win him a lot of fans.

When I told a local artist that I played music with Dave Werner, I’d often get bad reactions:

“Well, you need to stop.”

“He told me I was too fat for my voice.”

“He told me none of my songs make sense.”

“He’s an asshole.”

To put it in charitable terms, Dave was committed to honesty. To put it less charitably, he seemed to have no filter whatsoever, and he’d tell people exactly what he thought about them at any time without considering the context of the situation. 

This didn’t change. There was no come-to-God moment where Dave suddenly started watching his behavior; if anything, his rough edges became rougher over time. 

The people close to him were not spared. Every one of Dave’s friends and family members has a story of how he would offend you in ways you’d never considered possible — then ask you why you were getting so upset.

But that’s only part of the story. Dave Werner might also arrange a Christmas Carol for your newborn daughter on a cold December night, or drop by your house unannounced so that you could take pictures with his new puppy, or  unsarcastically offer to take you on a picnic. 

All of these things happened, by the way.

Those are Dave’s work boots and pug.

And Dave’s commitment to honesty carried forward through every part of his life. Once, Jesse asked Dave about his work life: When he gave his clients a bid, what percentage of them approved it?

“100%,” Dave said.

Jesse was dumbfounded.

“That means you’re not charging enough, Dave.”

“Fuck! Well, that’s what it costs. I’ll make out alright.”

One night, I had a blockage in my sewer line.

I didn’t think I could afford a plumber, so I rented a sewer snake from the hardware store. 

I had no idea what I was doing, and after feeding about 40 feet of the snake into the line, I realized that I couldn’t get it out. I panicked. I couldn’t pay for a broken auger, and I didn’t know what I could do. I called Dave, but he didn’t pick up.

Hours later, I’d calmed down. I called a local plumber, who agreed to come out at 10 a.m. the next day for a flat rate. After I got off the phone with the plumber, Dave called, and I explained the situation to him.

The next morning, Dave was at my house before the plumber with a pair of knee pads, ready to help.

Dave’s kindness didn’t excuse his bad behavior, but frequently, it outweighed it.

I gave up trying to explain this to people who’d had bad experiences with him. 

But even when people had problems with Dave as a person, they usually saw the greatness of his art. Dave spoke in a rough, low baritone, and he was capable of singing in that range; he could also hit a high falsetto, which rang with a wide, perfect vibrato that he claimed he couldn’t control. 

When Jesse, Dave and I formed a band — the Chimps — we likened ourselves to the Traveling Wilburys of St. Louis. Dave was our Roy Orbison. I was happy to be Jeff Lynne (I’ll share Dave’s thoughts on ELO later). 

John and Jesse sit on a swingset eating bananas while Dave stands behind them.
We really leaned into the “Chimps eat bananas” thing.

Our first goal was to play at wineries for cash, but we dropped that quickly. We didn’t want to work out three-part harmonies to waste on drunk people who couldn’t care less. 

Instead, we’d play semi-annual shows at the Focal Point, which is a listening room. The Focal Point forces audiences to pay attention, so we had to come up with a setlist that rewarded that attention. 

Those first practices were electrifying. Jesse, who is by far the most engaging entertainer I’ve ever known, would grin broadly when Dave found a high harmony, or nod his head when he heard an excellent lyric. I’d noodle on the guitar, trying to pretend I was a lead guitarist, and Dave would grumble about how much better I sounded on the previous song.

We’d pitch songs at each other and get honest feedback. I think we all brought in fantastic material, but Dave was the showrunner, and he was also the least predictable. One week, he might bring in a fragile ballad about a waitress he’d fallen in love with decades ago; the next, he might sing about his mother’s farts, or who might find him if he died masturbating (“What If They Found Me Like This” went over remarkably well with the Focal Point crowd, by the way). 

But most of his songs were sad.

“Hagerty,” written for his late bandmate Dave Hagerty, contains a perfect stanza that sums up the unspoken wish of everyone who’s ever felt grief:

If Hagerty comes while we’re playing this song,
We’ll buy him a whiskey, and he’ll play along
And we’ll never mention the time he was gone
And we’ll sing and we’ll play ‘til the morning

My favorite is probably “Past It,” a tune about growing old and wondering what’s left. It’s funny, heartbreaking, and genuine. Some key lines:

I tried to find me a woman
My God, but they’re old and gray!
Maybe it’s time I put little David away.

And the chorus:

Cause it feels like a lifetime
I guess that’s just what it’s been
I don’t mind if I miss out on the next big thing.

As is true of the artist himself, Dave Werner’s songs were an acquired taste.

Unlike many St. Louis songwriters (present company included), he rarely wrote songs without at least one curveball, which might be a key change, a time signature change, an unexpected chord choice, or (most often) all three. 

He had strong opinions on everything, but especially music. He couldn’t stand any artists with “affected” voices — his term for folks like Tom Waits or Bob Dylan — with the exception of Tom Petty (and not the Jeff Lynne-produced Petty albums; Dave once noted that “everything Jeff Lynne touches just ends up sounding like fuckin’ ELO,” which is hard to argue with).

He also hated hip hop, which led to a heated discussion one night.

“Dave, just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean that there aren’t good rap songs,” I said.

“Bullshit! There’s one good song, and they keep remaking it.”

“I mean, that’s not true. The music changes every year, you’re just not listening to it.”

“Well, tell me what the good shit is, then, and I’ll listen to it.”

“No, because you’re not going to like it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s still good.”


Around that point, Jesse gently guided us back to the song that we were practicing, and I forgot about the exchange until the next morning when Dave left me a voicemail:

Hey, Kraniac. Just wanted to say…Snoop Dogg…”Gin and Juice”…that’s another good one. [Long pause] Okay, see you Thursday. Don’t eat. I’m making spaghetti.

When Dave sensed that he went too far, he’d try to correct it. His friends learned to deal with him when he was difficult and to call him out when he was being unreasonable. 

He was worth that effort, because I have never known a person with more kindness in their heart. I don’t think that Dave was rude because he hated the world; I think he was disappointed that it wasn’t as good as he thought it could be. 

For our final Chimps shows, we pulled out all of the stops.

A Valentine’s Day show featured a setlist packed with love songs — and a few depressing Dave songs about people dying, because hey, they were good songs. 

The Chimps decided to give the audience chocolate-covered bananas. That was going to be my job. About a week before the show, Dave asked how I was going to do it.

“I don’t know, probably cut up some bananas, put toothpicks in the slices, and stick them in chocolate.”

He scowled immediately.

“No, no, fucking no! If it’s not full bananas, it’s bullshit!”

So the day of the show, Dave spent the morning dipping full bananas into a tub of chocolate, then putting them on a clothesline to dry. The audience wouldn’t have cared if we half-assed those bananas — but Dave cared.

Dave presents a line of chocolate-covered bananas hanging on a clothesline in his house.

The show was a success.

We had added Katie Jones to our band, a violinist with a fantastic voice and tremendous songs. That changed our dynamic a bit, and with four singers, we had to work harder to get everything on our setlist up to speed. We also added strings to half of our set, and the string section couldn’t practice with us, so we had to play everything perfectly.

That final show — February 15, 2019 — probably should have been a disaster. A snowstorm hit St. Louis, cutting our audience significantly, and various minor mistakes were amplified by the new complexity of our setup. When we got offstage, I felt like we’d failed.

But listening back to the recordings from that night, we nailed it. And Dave had the brightest moments, including a cover of “Someday Jane,” which was written by Roland Norton, a local artist who’d died that year. 

Dave wasn’t a fan of all of Norton’s stuff, but Jesse insisted on playing him “Someday Jane” at one of our practices. By the end of the song, Dave had tears in his eyes. 

“I’m doing this one,” he said. 

His performance is tender, starting at the lowest part of Dave’s register; as the bridge crescendos, his voice rises up, his tremolo widening to cut through the strings and guitars before suddenly cutting back for the last verse:

I can’t promise the sun, the stars, or the moon
But I made up this name, and I made up this tune
And I make this promise: I will wait for you,
And I’ll finally find, Someday Jane

Playing that song, on that stage, was one of the greatest musical moments of my life. A half-dozen of the other greatest moments also happened that night.

Dave had health problems.

His hip and back pain often left him completely crippled and unable to work, and he’d take Percocet, valium, and whatever else he could get prescribed to struggle through his days. 

“I got an x-ray, finally,” Dave told me one day. “The doctor looked at it, and — I swear to God — turned to me and said, ‘You’re fucked.’”

Before his hip replacement, I took him to a doctor’s appointment. He struggled to sit, breathing heavily, and I grabbed the admittance form to help him fill it out.

“What is your pain goal?” I asked. 

Dave was quiet for a moment.

No pain,” he said. “What the fuck else would my pain goal be?”

“And how would you rate your pain on a scale of 1-10?”

“10! Who the fuck wouldn’t say 10?”

In that visit, he also compared the doctor to one of the villains from Hostel. The nurses loved him.

The hip pain was constant and debilitating, and unfortunately, it wasn’t the only problem. While we were in the early stages of preparing a show one year, Dave had a stroke. He recovered, but his voice acquired a raspiness — the falsetto was still there, but rougher now. It wasn’t perfect anymore.

Months later, we were at the studio, trying to record a follow-up to our debut album. Dave brought a rock number, which leaned into the changes in his voice. He barked out the lyrics over a distorted bassline, each word sounding like it could break him. It was incredible.

I’ve still got the tracks from those sessions, but we haven’t completed them. We will. I promised Dave a few months ago, and I’ll stick to that.

When someone you love has a stroke, or gets a hip replacement, or gets treatment for depression, there’s a tendency to assume that the problem is solved.

Otherwise, we’d be worrying all the time, right?

But over the pandemic, I worried about Dave. His history made him a prime target for COVID-19 — and for vaccine disinformation. Dave would follow conspiracy theories regularly, though he never landed squarely on one side of them. I did not expect him to get vaccinated, but he did; not because he believed in the vaccine, but because his family asked him to. His love outweighed his stubbornness, as it usually did.

That was a weight off my shoulders, and it gave me hope for another Chimps project. We’d grown distant from Dave during the lockdowns, and the isolation hadn’t made him any friendlier. 

A few months back, I called him on my way to work. I left a message asking how things were going. He didn’t call back for a few weeks. Then, one day, I had a voicemail waiting when I woke up.

“Hey, buddy. Got your message, just wanted to make sure my head was on straight before I called you back. We’re having a get-together for Julia’s birthday, wanted you to come. Invite Lucy. Tell her I’m making chicken. Call me. Alright.”

I called him and we talked for a bit, and I told him I’d be there. The party was a family gathering — I was the only person there who wasn’t part of the family, I believe. That might have been awkward, but it wasn’t. If the best thing you can do for a person is make them feel welcome, the Werner clan has that covered.

We ate and discussed the Chimps tracks we’d recorded years earlier and how we should finish them. I told Dave I’d get him a copy of the recordings, warning him that they were rough. 

Then, he nonchalantly announced to the table that he was going to dig up his dead dog and put the bones on display.

Again, this would have been awkward at any other table. They were used to this sort of thing, and we discussed — with remarkable scientific rigor — how long you’d have to wait after burying a dog to make sure that it was just bones when you dug it up.

I left after dessert, satisfied in every way. 

“Bye, Krane,” Dave said. “Don’t forget about those tracks.”

I thought about calling Dave this week, but I didn’t.

I was planning on having drinks with Jesse next week, so I figured I’d call Dave after that, and maybe we’d be enroute to another Chimps show. Possibly another Valentine’s Day special, if we could figure out a way to escalate the chocolate banana gag.

But Dave passed away on Friday. I’m still in shock, and I’ll be heartbroken for a good long while.

Dave was the gentlest and most honest person I’ve known. Often, we refer to people as “complicated.” Dave was not. He showed you exactly what you were getting from the moment he saw you, and that was incredibly refreshing. 

Do not try this at home: Dave supported his honesty with genuine kindness. He was loyal to close friends and family, even when he was skeptical of just about everything else. He would ignore hip pain to lay on some knee pads and pull a snake out of your drain, just to save you a few hundred bucks. He would dip bananas into chocolate for hours, just so the people who came to his show would feel like they got their money’s worth. He’d give you a sly smile when you said something funny and gently correct you if you said something bad about yourself — or call you out if you were fishing for compliments.

There is value in honesty, and Dave practiced it, more often for better than for worse. I loved him, and he was my friend. 

And along the way, he said some really funny shit.

Below, I’ve listed a few of my favorites, because I didn’t know where else to put them.

“The guy’s got one trick, he kills the fuckin’ kid in everything he writes.”

– On Stephen King.

“How dare you say that to me? I’m a friend of the queers!”

– On being accused of homophobia.

“I can’t stand that piece of shit.”

– On Gordon Ramsay.

“I can’t stand that piece of shit.”

– On Jay-Z.

“What are you talking about? We’ve seen you naked!”

– On me, when I refused to play a song because I hadn’t finished it.

“When they start talking about their kids, all of ‘em just suck. I can’t explain it.”

– On comedians.

“How come you get better looking, and I just look like an old ballsack?”

– To my mother.

“Fuck, I could get you a hundred of those.”

– After I told him that my new dog was a good dog.

“I got vaccinated, so shut up.”

– On getting vaccinated (unprompted).

“Hey, sorry for not calling you back, my head was in the oven for a few weeks.”

– On dealing with depression.

“I went over to a guy with a puppy, and started petting it and saying, ‘Aw, isn’t he so cute?,” and I was just thinking, what the fuck is wrong with me?”

– On using antidepressants. 

“If we were any better, we’d be good.”

– On the Chimps.

“If it was any better, it’d be good.”

On my writing.

“Bah, I’ll shut up.”

At the end of any conversation.

I don’t exactly know how to end this. Dave always had the last word, so I might as well give it to him here. He wrote “Another Chance” for a friend of his who died of cancer, and was very proud that he got to sing it to the friend in the hospital. 

Funny standing here without you next to me,

Somewhere down the road, I hope we find that harmony.

Gather up the ones you love, and give them all a kiss

I only wish we all could have another chance at this.

– Dave Werner, “Another Chance”
Fiction Humor

My Experience Quitting Facebook

Towards the beginning of 2022, I made the decision to leave Facebook. This was not a decision that I took lightly. I engaged in long, emotional discussions with friends, family, and clergymen before telling Meta to delete my account.

“Can’t you just deactivate?” my niece asked me, tears welling in her eyes. She didn’t understand. How could she? She was only 2. 

“Perhaps,” I said, stroking her long, white beard, “In another life.”

I gathered my supplies — Clif bars, Powerade, prayer beads — and set out on my journey. In only a few days, I managed to click the “delete my account” button. Now, the hard part would begin.

The Facebook account deletion process

Warning: This essay contains graphic depictions of data sanitization.

Most people don’t know that when you delete Facebook, the site begs you to stop. 

You have so many friends, it says. Without you, suicide. Plague. 

grayscale photography of crying woman
Photo by Kat Smith on

You must take these words seriously; they are not entirely without merit. In my case, I had assembled enough analytics to prove to myself, with statistical near-certainty, that I was making the right decision. I fed my spreadsheets into the Facebook deletion page, typing each line and column by hand. When the website disabled my keyboard, I drew the numbers with my mouse. 

Fine, the website told me, Your reasoning is acceptable. Faulted, yes, but acceptable. Look at this picture of your dog from eight years ago. If you cannot be convinced, you may take the final step. 

The sweat on my brow stung as it worked its way through the deep gashes on my forehead incurred during the final identity verification process. I took a bite of a Clif bar and called my dog into the room. His suffering was brief; mine was just beginning.

I had deleted Facebook.

The first days were difficult.

I had some fantastic ideas for posts — my neighbor cut down a tree, and I recorded the whole event. The footage synced perfectly with Genesis’s “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” (the live ‘73 performance). Several times, I had quirky encounters with restaurant waitstaff. I gave a bottle of water to my mailman and recorded the interaction with my door camera. 

None of these moments would be preserved. None would be my legacy.

My God, I thought, What have I done? I wrote the words in a Microsoft Word document, then placed the thumbs up emoji next to it. 

The diarrhea began almost immediately and did not end for five days. They had told me about the diarrhea, and I was prepared with Pedialyte and damp hand towels — but Meta had not warned me about the tooth loss, which began five days after deletion and lasted for a full 32 days.

The skin loss and bone fragmentation were probably the worst parts of the whole experience. Also, I realized that I was no longer able to find the location of my neighborhood’s Little Library Book Exchanges.

My condition began improving in mid-April. I wish that I could tell you that I turned a corner thanks to my own constitution, but this was not the case. I joined Twitter — only briefly — to stave off the worst symptoms. When the abscesses were severe, or when my body hair began self-bleaching, I would write a quick tweet to restore my reserves.

We need to talk about antisexual representation (or lack thereof) on Friends.

Hey, guys, it’s actually possible to use a public bathroom without being ableist. @ChelseaHandler @AimeeMann 

Oh, now we’re talking about Iraq again? #BoycottYoplait #TeamUpForExcellence

But my goal was not to switch from one platform to another; it was to draw attention to myself by quitting social media entirely. After a brief weaning period, I deleted Twitter (I think).

It gets better.

I have become quite skillful with my walking cane, and while my days rarely start before noon, I have learned to take joy in the “little things” in life: Beekeeping, home improvement, day trading, and water polo. Mainly beekeeping.

My life is better without Facebook. I mean this truly. While I’ve lost a tool for communicating with my friends, colleagues, and neighbors, it turns out that none of those people really wanted to talk to me anyway. 

If you’re thinking about deleting Facebook, I would not recommend it — unless you’re as strong and interesting as I am. In that case, embark upon the journey. You will darken one corner of your digital world, but the light will live on; you will find new worlds to explore, new sensations, new ways to love, and a fourth new thing. 

I will remember my time on Facebook fondly, but I will not return. I do not think my body could withstand the Account Generation; even if this were not the case, I’ve gained too much. 

Thank you for reading. Please like, share, and subscribe.

Fiction Humor

A series of YouTube comments on Henry Mancini’s Baby Elephant Walk

I recommend listening to the song while reading these comments.

Terry G.

Love this tune. Dad used to play this. He’s gone, but I still have the memories. miss you dad and those long nights in the tugboat in mississipi


they don’t make songs like this anymore…brings me back to a different time. better in a lot of ways!

Geoff Richards

you’ve titled this video “baby elephant stomp.” it’s “baby elephant walk.” please re-upload with correct title


where were u the first time u heard this???? bet you don’t remember

Terry G.

I’ll nver forget where i was. An old tugboat with a couple of leaks and a proud man looking at me in the moonlight. miss you dad

Randy Fripps

anyone else listening in 2021

Terrance Riggle

I always loved this tune. Simple, yes, but sort of profound, maybe? You hear it and you really picture a baby elephant walking. It transcends cultures. No matter where you come from or who you are, you picture a baby elephant. World would be a better place with more universal music. 🙂  – Terrance Riggle


i don’t picture bby elephant

Terrance Riggle

What do you picture, then? I can’t imagine hearing this song and picturing anything else!  – Terrance Riggle


ur mom

Terrance Riggle

Typical — I bet you’re Gen Z 🙂


no i’m probably older than u 

Terrance Riggle

I doubt that very much by your failure to use the English language. And if you truly don’t picture a baby elephant when listening to Mancini, I feel sad for you 🙂  – Terrance Riggle


i don’t care, i don’t picture an elephant 

Terrance Riggle

Without resorting to tired jokes, what do you picture, then? Genuine question. Not a “gotcha.” – Terrance Riggle


i picture an older gentleman trying to walk down the street on a snowy day  and his feets r failin him

Terrance Riggle

Preposterous. The lilting flutes, the simple beat — it’s an elephant, my friend. Right there in the name of the tune 🙂 Take care. – Terrance Riggle


hope y’all love this song about the old man on street in snow tryin to get to the bank an the wind’s blowin him over

Terrance Riggle

What are you “smoking”??? Mancini himself named the song for what he saw — and what we all see in our mind’s eye when we hear Baby Elephant Walk. It is as canonized as any image in any song could be. Listen again.

Okay? Now listen again as you read this: If the song was intended to show an old man walking on a snowy day, it would have horns, bluster. Something to symbolize the snow, perhaps timpani to build a powerful sense of foreboding (see “Autumn Leaves,” another classic). It would not be as lighthearted because Mancini’s generation wouldn’t find humor in the pain of elders. It would not have a carefree, lackadaisical quality. That much is clear. 

But that’s not the case, clearly. This is the sound of an elephant, a baby, learning to walk. Taking its first steps to join its mother, perhaps in a circus (I am opposed to animal exploitation, but we must understand that it was a different time). Perhaps it is enjoying a brief rest from the savage nature of the Serengeti — the sense of innocence is certainly there, if you listen hard enough, and I would venture to say that Mancini hides some elements of sadness in the gorgeous arrangement. It is, sir (or madam, or they, or whatever your generation wants to be called) a baby elephant. 😐  – Terrance Riggle


no its not, old man on the strteet 

Terrance Riggle

Are you calling me an old man, or are you retaining your asinine premise? I genuinely can’t tell, because you can’t even write in complete sentences. What in God’s name is a “strteet?” You can’t tell me, because you don’t know. Your typing skills show your limited cognitive capacity — I have an IQ of 150, verified by three psychiatric professionals, and I can identify an idiot when confronted with one.

THIS. SONG. IS. ABOUT. AN. ELEPHANT. Maybe the capitalization will help you understand, because this is really not up for debate. 🙁  – Terrance Riggle


lyrics: man on da street and he is walking, boy there sure be a lot of snow, it’s snooowing 

Terrance Riggle

In case anyone else happens upon this idiot’s comments, those are NOT THE LYRICS. Mancini added lyrics after the instrumental was a hit, and in my opinion, they degrade the piece. Even so, a quick perusal of the lyrical themes should end our argument (if you have brains to read them):

Make believe you’re in a jungle movie / Watch the BABY ELEPHANTS go by

Emphasis mine. I really don’t know what else I could say. Idiots abound. 

 – Terrance Riggle


sounds like manchini knew your mom

Terrance Riggle

FUCK. YOU. THIS IS A SONG ABOUT ELEPHANTS. And I have better things to do with my time than explain them to a half-wit fucking zoomer with no fucking better thing to do than type bullshit about a great song. Have a good day. Fuck you. :((  – Terrance Riggle


i listen to this song every time it snows. gotta avoid tripping lke the old man from ths ong! snow 2 big for you ol timer, but ur gonna be fine :0

Terrance Riggle

I am done with all of this bullshit. Your fuckstick generation will never fucking understand what we went through to give you all your fucking iphones and shitty fucking video games. Fucking assholes grew up with trophies and think the whole world is a fucking joke. Nothing better to do than jerk off all fucking day like the cocksucking cowards you are and blaming everyone else because you can’t hold down a fucking job at a burger joint.

Meanwhile I drive a Lexus and fuck my beautiful heterosexual wife and then log on to YouTube once a day to hear Baby Elephant Stomp with a glass of scotch (not whiskey, SCOTCH) and I never fucking have to worry about Gen Z because you dumb shits don’t buy insurance so you’re never in my insurance office. Fine by me, I’ve got the music. You’ve got shit because you are shit.

My generation wins because we have the music. We ARE the music. And Baby Elephant Stomp is proof of that. The music fucking sings and you’re too shit to even hear it. It’s sad, really. I won’t be addressing this further.

Geoff Richards

it’s baby elephant walk not baby elephant stomp


Who’s listening in 2022

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Fiction Non-Fiction

The Escalator of Hate

Merry Christmas, everyone. I come from the future with a message of hope. Here’s the message:

“Fucking hell, fucking stop it, already.”

-People from the future, to you.

Okay, I know that doesn’t sound especially hopeful or Christmas-y — but in the future, this is about as nice as messages get. For the past 10 years, we’ve stayed on the Escalator of Anger, which, unlike a normal escalator, runs at a reasonable speed and never breaks down.

stairs dark station underground
This is the metaphor we’ll be using today. Photo by Pixabay on

Otherwise, it’s pretty similar to other escalators: It’s so commonplace that you don’t really think about how it works. It makes life easier. And, ultimately, it will tear your shoes apart if you’re not paying attention. 

The Escalator of Anger is everywhere, and because it’s convenient, most people use it — very few of us would take the stairs when given the option. 

I’m asking you to take the stairs.

We’ll call them the “stairs of love.”

Actually, never mind. We’ll just call them the stairs, because I don’t want to accidentally write a Michael Bolton song.

At an extremely basic level, most of you realize that you’re too angry right now. You understand that the world sucks and it’s starting to suck more and more, and you can probably point to “anger” and “hatred” as prime reasons for that sinking feeling you get when you read the news. Importantly, you believe that the other side has more responsibility to lower the temperature.

“Gosh,” you say, probably licking a lollipop or something, “why can’t people just be nicer to each other? Especially those assholes over there?

Well, for starters, it’s difficult. It’s unrewarding. It doesn’t give you results. You can think of a thousand reasons not to do it, and all of them are perfectly valid.

To go back to our strained metaphor, you know that you’d be slightly healthier if you took the stairs instead of the escalator. But really, how much healthier would you be? Would you suddenly turn into an Adonis or a Venus or a Third Greek God With Less Gender-Specificity once you reached the top? 

Of course not. You’d be the same schlubby mess. The escalator is easy, and it’s right there. You can even look at your phone while standing on it. So today, just this time, you’ll take the escalator. You’ll take the stairs tomorrow. 

And every once in a while, you do take the stairs. You feel the strain in your muscles with every step, and when you get to the top, you’re out of breath; you wonder what the hell you were thinking 20 or 30 seconds ago. Then, hopefully, you’ll feel a little better about yourself — but tomorrow, you’ll go back to the escalator, just this time. 

Being nicer to people isn’t easy. 

That’s why Jesus Christ talked about it so much; he implored people to love thy neighbor as thyself. Emphasis mine, but also his, cause, y’know, Jesus. Loving yourself is easy (I perfected it during puberty), but loving others as much as yourself — without conditions — takes a lot of work.

A similar imploration came from Siddhartha Guatama in the Metta Sutta, who told his followers:

“Radiate boundless love towards the entire world, above, below, and across, unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.”

-The Buddha, but not the fat one.

I attended a Buddhist sangha for several years, but honestly, as a writer, I think Buddha could learn from Christ’s ability to edit Himself. Still, the message is practically identical.


An alien looking at Earth would find both of these commandments simplistic. Of course you must love other people, and of course you must be consistent. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” might as well be “Imagine all the people living life in peace.” Easy money.

As humans, we recognize that these ideas, while beautiful, are impractical, especially when sung over piano chords in an all-white room in New York, or by tone-deaf celebrities in a misguided PSA.

Great fuckin’ idea, Lennon. Gosh, why haven’t we just tried being peaceful? We should have just told the Nazis to chill out and played them a song about a walrus, you genius Beatle. 

Setting Lennon aside: The greatest spiritual guides consistently spoke of love — not romantic love, but love towards all others, without conditions, without exceptions — because they were human, and they understood the difficulties of living in the material world.

man inside vehicle
“Get over. GET OVER.” Photo by on

They were not immune to them. If the Buddha was alive today and a person cut him off in traffic, his first thought wouldn’t be “go in peace,” it’d be something like, “motherfucker doesn’t know how lanes work.”

The thing that we have to practice is immediately tamping down that first impulse and allowing the better expressions of our humanity to take over. 

And for consistency’s sake, that applies to anti-vaxxers. 

Weren’t expecting that, were you?

I’m writing this under the assumption that most readers (all 20 of you, according to my website’s analytic tools) are vaccinated. I have seen many of you express antipathy towards anti-vaxxers for being selfish and willfully ignorant. I’ve expressed that antipathy, too.

man in pink dress shirt
This photo is auto-titled “man in pink shirt,” but I think it should be “GODDAMN GRANDMA GET THE SHOT.”
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

There’s something to be said for the intentional application of antipathy, and I’m already bloviating, so I’ll say it: You certainly don’t have to accept the positions of someone who’s hurting society and endangering your loved ones (and to be clear, that’s what they’re doing). But you can’t get through to them by mocking them, and when you’re dunking on them at every opportunity, you lose the high ground.

There’s a subreddit I’ve followed for a while called /r/hermancainaward (I’m not linking it here). In this community, people post pictures of folks that they know who were rabidly anti-vax who eventually got COVID and got sick. Many of them have died.

I look at the posts, and part of me wants to join in the celebration of the death of another Part Of The Problem. Occasionally, there’s a post from someone who says that the subreddit convinced them to get vaccinated. That’s a good thing.

But I just can’t get behind the concept. These dead people aren’t Herman Cain — who had plenty of access to the resources he needed to do better, and who continues to deny the impact of COVID-19 from the grave via Twitter.


But look, these people aren’t that guy. They’re neighbors, friends, and family members. Sometimes, their posts allude to their interests: bowling, football, TV shows. Sometimes, all of that information is cut out, but the person’s profile picture shows them smiling with their daughters, sons, or spouses.

People are multifaceted. If you can’t love part of them, find some other part to love. 

“But what about Herman Cain himself? What about Hitler?

Oh, man, I didn’t think you were going there. You’re really coming into this hot, Person From The Past.

Okay. Well, Hitler did some nice things, too. Yes, he actually did; he financially supported his sister when she was extremely ill, an act of selfless love that is undeniably, objectively human. 

And then, y’know, he annexed the Sudetenland, and then became the most enduring symbol of hate in history. Fuck Hitler, obviously.

Fuck this guy.

And I’m sorry, but your neighbor with the Trump flag isn’t Hitler. Not yet. Mine regularly brings me vegetables, and Hitler never brings me vegetables.

My neighbor and I have argued a bit about politics and I don’t back down from my positions, but I still let her dog out when she’s working late, and she still asks how our herb garden is doing. In my experience with her, she’s a good person.

You can be consistent with your beliefs while still extending empathy and love to the people you disagree with. When their views start affecting others, this becomes difficult, and at a certain point, there’s a line; if your geriatric neighbor heads to the local trailer park to terrorize immigrants with his AR-15, the fact that he helped you build a canoe shouldn’t stop you from telling him to fuck right off.

Most of the people that frustrate us aren’t at that point yet. No, really. I know you feel that they’re irredeemable — they’re not.

People who oppose vaccinations can change their minds. People who hoist the Trump flag might change their opinions when they realize that their antifa neighbor is helping the community more than they are. 

“But what if it doesn’t work? What if being empathetic does nothing?”

That’s a possibility, I suppose, but if empathy is ineffective, I don’t like our odds. If people can’t change, we must kill everyone who has passed the point of irredeemability. 

I’m totally serious. If they’re hurting people, we don’t want them in society, and we have an ethical obligation to eliminate them. We must gather guns and go into the street and kill them, or at the very least, put them into prisons.

I’m not going to do that. Sounds pretty Hitler-y.

And anyway, I think that history does show that a practical application of empathy can be extremely powerful. Governments tend to fall when they stop helping their people; cultures disintegrate when they become self-obsessed. Empathy is fundamental to us for a reason.

I could be wrong. Maybe, on a macro scale, empathy isn’t important. All I know is that the people who study this stuff believe that the United States has an empathy deficit, and things aren’t great in your time (or here in the future, for that matter). Maybe it’s worth a shot. Might as well try it.

Now, on an individual level, I am more confident in the benefits.

I believe in empathy. When I have successfully applied it, I have seen things improve. Gradually, I think I’ve become a (slightly) better person. I’ve convinced a couple of folks to get vaccinated (and if you’re reading this on the other side of the fence, please, deeply consider your biases and read this). I have a fine relationship with my neighbor, and I’ve successfully convinced her to stop calling our Guatemalan friend “my favorite Mexican.”

Practically, you won’t notice the gains right away, so temper your expectations. After all, you’re just taking the stairs.

woman in red dress climbing the stairs
Pexels didn’t have anything for “love stairs” that wasn’t porn. Photo by Sasha Kim on

You might see more results by joining a local mutual aid organization or taking the day off work to help someone prepare their resume, or setting up a food drive, or spending your Christmas money on a friend’s medical bills. 

You can’t do that type of stuff every day, but you can take the stairs. 

Today — in the future — we’re all near the top of the escalator. None of us are paying attention, and we’ve all lost our shoes. There’s a lot of pushing and quite a bit of fighting.

I don’t know what’s at the top, but I know it isn’t good. The escalator runs in one direction, and I imagine we’re going to struggle with each other trying to find a way back down. 

You’re not at the bottom, but you’re not anywhere close to the top.

So please, please: Do whatever you can to get back down to the ground.

– With love, the Surprisingly Talkative Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come.

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Fiction Horror

Delivery Notification

Note: This story was featured on the No Sleep Podcast. Hear it by clicking here. The cover art belongs to No Sleep; it was created by Krys Hookuh, and I strongly recommend checking out her other work. Find her on Instagram here and on Facebook here.

“Delivery Notification,” Krys Hookuh.

Delivery notifications are convenient, but they’re disturbing when you receive them by mistake.

Carl is on the way!

That was the message I received at 12:33 a.m. yesterday. I was playing Playstation while my girlfriend cooked bacon in the kitchen.

Yes, we were eating bacon in the middle of the night. She was singing a song about it, too, set to the tune of Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” The lyrics:

Late night, bacon parttayyy! (Come on, fire it up)

Late night, bacon parttayyy! (You gotta flip it up)

Bacon’s hot, sticky sweet / Oh my pig, my piggy meat! Yeahh!

She was always writing mundane parody songs that ended at one verse or one chorus — sometimes after one line. This one was set to the tune of a single lyric in Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird”:

I don’t knowww where my phone is

Stupid, I know, but it always cracked me up. 

My stomach was already rumbling when my phone dinged. We have a really small house out in a St. Louis suburb, and we have no oven fan, so the smell of bacon was everywhere. My mouth was watering.

I looked back down at the message.

Carl is on the way!

I was confused for a moment, but I came to the logical conclusion.

“Amy, you ordered pizza, too? Are you trying to make me fat so I can’t cheat on you?”

She poked her head into the living room.

“Pfft, like you could ever get another woman. But no, no pizza, just bacon. Why do you ask?”

“I just got a text from some pizza place or something. ‘Carl is on the way.'”

“Well, Carl is going to have to bring a pizza if he’s hungry, because we only have, like, five pieces of bacon, and I’m eating at least four.”

She turned back into the kitchen. I was confused, but part of that was due to the copious amounts of cannabis I’d smoked while waiting for my game to download.

I knew that the message was a simple mistake. I knew that things like this happened all the time, probably. But something was…off. I order a lot of delivery food — hey, I smoke a lot of pot — and most corporations sent texts from a five-digit number. This one was eight digits long: 8543268, and then a final digit that I didn’t recognize. It was a 9, but with a vertical line through it, the sort of digit you’d see in one of those online creepy text generators.

You could chalk that up to an issue with the restaurant’s delivery system, I guess, but that wasn’t doing anything for my anxiety.

“Alright, bacon’s done,” Amy yelled from the kitchen. “You want toast? Eggs? I’m already cooking, lemme know.”

I turned to respond.

“Yeah, I’ll — “

My phone dinged again.

Carl is in your neighborhood and will arrive shortly!

Now I was annoyed.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” I said. “I’m going to be getting these notifications until Carl drops off that damned pizza. And now I want pizza.”

Amy laughed. “Well, no pizza, only bacon. And you’ll only get, like, two more messages at most. Settle down, dude, you’re not really appreciating the Late Night Bacon Party experience.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Well, you’re right, but you’re also annoying, so — “

Another ding.

Carl is at your door!

“Man, Carl’s fast,” I said. “What delivery place texts you when the guy is there? Wouldn’t he just knock?”

“Probably a COVID thing,” Amy said.

The knocking started as soon as the words were out of her mouth. Three hard, almost mechanical knocks.

“Hey,” Amy said, “You got your wish. There’s pizza, too. Just don’t let it ruin your bacon appetite. Oh, maybe the pizza will have bacon on it?”

Again, I was quite stoned, and I am the type of person who gets paranoid easily, but something in me wanted to lock the door, barricade myself in the bedroom, and keep the lights on until morning. Granted, part of me always feels that way, but something was not right. 

I shook off that feeling. I wish I hadn’t.

I got up, dusting crumbs off my shirt and preparing to interact with another human being, something I definitely didn’t want to do that night. I looked through the window, expecting to see a middle-aged, underpaid man in a Domino’s shirt. 

“There’s…no one here.”

“Yes, there is, pothead, the fucker just knocked.” Amy walked over from the kitchen, wiping her hands on an old apron she used to wear when she cooked. It didn’t matter whether she was cooking something that actually required an apron — bacon isn’t rocket science — she always wore it and never washed it. That always drove me crazy.

She tried to peer through the top of the door, where I was looking out at our empty porch, but she was too short.

“Oh, come on,” she said, exasperated. “He’s probably standing right up against the door. The poor bastard is working at midnight, don’t make him stand around.”

Her hand reached towards the doorknob.

“No, don’t —,” I sputtered, but the door was already open. Nobody was there.

“Huh,” Amy said, “I guess you’re not a lying idiot. You’re still a regular idiot, though. Do you think he realized that —”

Another ding from my phone. I didn’t look right away. Instead, I slammed the door and turned to my girlfriend.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” I said. 

“Why?” she said, crossing her arms. “Is there a gang of satanic Domino rapists I don’t know about, or are you just worried about talking to a stranger?”

“Well, the second one,” I said, “But this isn’t right. The number in the phone, it’s, just, not normal, and the messages are too frequent. And why would a delivery driver with the wrong phone number go to the right address?”

“Okay, no more medical-grade pot for you,” Amy said, rolling her eyes. “You’re going back to ditch weed with me.”

“Look at the numbers,” I said, thrusting my phone towards her, feeling like some sort of conspiracy theorist.

She rolled her eyes again as she unlocked my phone. Then her face dropped.

“Oh, okay,” she said. “Now that is freaky.”

“The number’s all wrong,” I said, strangely excited that she was finally taking this seriously. “Like, where do you enter a 9 with a line through it on a normal phone? I have never seen that character before. It’s, like, bad mojo…number. I hate that number.”

“I don’t give a shit about that,” Amy said softly. “Look.” She handed back the phone.

Carl is in your house and will arrive shortly!

My stomach dropped, but Amy was starting to laugh.

“Oh, man, someone is getting fired for this shit,” she said. “I’ve worked in databases before — it’s a database error, or a text entry error, or —”

“You didn’t work with databases.”

“I worked at that florist shop, and they had…spreadsheets, which are a type of database,” she said sheepishly. “Anyway, dude, Carl is not in the house right now. This is just what happens when big, faceless corporations try to interact with real humans. They fuck up, scare us, and disappoint us by not bringing us surprise pizzas. So chill. Eat bacon. Drink a beer. Play your game. You are freaking out way too hard right now.”


Carl is in the kitchen and will arrive shortly!

Amy grabbed the phone out of my hands, the veneer of her calmness disappearing instantaneously. Her eyes darted over the text, then to the kitchen, then back to the phone. She definitely wasn’t laughing now.

We slowly walked to the kitchen together. I didn’t feel great about that. I really wanted to do the whole hide-in-the-bedroom thing, but I knew that’d be a hard sell, and I definitely didn’t want to leave Amy alone. As wew turned into the room, I felt a wave of relief — then panic.

There was nothing in the kitchen. I don’t mean to write, “nobody was in the kitchen,” I mean nothing was in the kitchen. The bacon, bread, and eggs that Amy had laid out for the late night bacon party had vanished. No sign of them whatsoever. No crumbs, nothing. 

Amy looked at me with wide eyes.

“I swear, if this is one of your fucking friends trying to — “

“It’s not,” I said, looking slowly around the room. “I have no idea what the hell is happening right now.”


This time, I didn’t look at my phone. I had a pretty good idea of what the text said; Carl is in your refrigerator. If not Carl, something was in there. We heard a screeching sound, slightly muddled and contained by the fridge, then frenetic clawing, like a raccoon going through trash, but much, much faster. It was angry. Violent.

Then, almost as suddenly as it started, it stopped. Before I could grab her, Amy ran over to the fridge and threw open the door.

Nothing there. No food, no food wrappers. Not even the three-year-old box of baking soda we kept in the side door.

“We’re getting the fuck out of here,” Amy said. She didn’t wait for me to respond; she didn’t have to. I grabbed my keys from the kitchen table as we ran to the front door. As we made our way to my car, I noted how cold it was. I can’t say for sure whether or not it was unseasonably cold — I rarely go outdoors at midnight in November — but it felt like I was breathing broken glass.

And maybe I was focusing too much on my breath, because I didn’t notice what had happened to my keys until I tried to put them into the ignition .The key was bent at a right angle; not snapped off, which would have made more sense. It was playing with us. 

I held the key up to Amy.

“What’s plan B?”

“Jesus. Fuck. Okay…let me think…”

But there wasn’t time for that.


Carl has arrived.

I read it. My hands were shaking, and I imagine my face was pale. Amy knew immediately. Then — and this happened so, so quickly — she doubled over, letting out an anguished shriek. 

She felt it before I saw it. Her stomach — something in her stomach — was moving. Her face was pure fear, but she contorted the edges of her lips to attempt a calm smile. That was Amy. She was always the strong one.

“Honey,” she said, “I love—”

And then she was screaming. The tearing sounds were animal, yet mechanical, vicious and sadistic. Blood covered my face, the dashboard, the roof. Organs and viscera. And the panic set in, ramped up, kept ramping up, until I was screaming with a cracked, inhuman voice. I kept screaming as her screams stopped, as she slumped over in the seat, as it crawled out of her. Jet black skin glistening and wet, black teeth, sharp hands. It moved quickly, jutting out a long purple tongue to lick the blood off its razor-fingers.

I didn’t see any eyes, but it turned its head towards me and I knew it saw me. Its sneered a wide smile, a macabre mockery of Amy’s last moments.

The panic became all-encompassing until, mercifully, everything stopped.

I woke the next morning.

Well, not woke; I was suddenly there, in my car, my eyes wide open and my muscles tense. The seat next to me was ripped to shreds, but there wasn’t a drop of blood anywhere. Not even on me. Later, I wondered whether the thing had crawled on me during the night, sucking each drop out of my clothes and licking my skin. 

I walked inside in a daze, hoping to see Amy standing there with bed-hair and sleep in her eyes, ready to lecture me about the dangers of medical cannabis. She wasn’t there, of course, but I looked everywhere, under the bed and in every closet, hoping dumbly for anything concrete that would stop the snarling sense of dread that was slowly spreading through my body like a warm cancer.

That was yesterday. Amy is not here. I know where she is, or at least where she was. And I am out of food. 

I need to eat, then call the police, then call her family, then, probably, go to prison. I don’t care much about any of that. Whatever happens now is unimportant. I may have gone insane and killed my girlfriend, or maybe everything happened exactly as I remembered it, but either way, I simply cannot live here anymore. 

In fact, I probably can’t live anywhere. I know it’ll come back. I hope that it comes back for me — it’s already taken everything I had — but I suspect it will wait until it sees an opportunity to twist the knife further. It likes to play with its food.

I have kept my phone off until today. I knew I couldn’t put off the things I had to do forever. I powered it on to call the police, and read the single unread text message:

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Fiction Humor

Mr. Fix-It

I was thinking that maybe today I will finally get around to screwing in that piece of drywall that has been sitting against the bare studs in the downstairs bathroom. I did not intend to let the task get away from me, but things have a way of piling up to the point where a person does not want to do them, even if they are minor things that only take a few minutes.  

I know where the screws are, and I think that they are the correct size for the job. It doesn’t matter if they’re a bit long, because there’s nothing behind those studs, just air, and it doesn’t matter if they are short, either. I don’t suspect either of us will be pulling on the drywall, trying to unseat it (can you imagine?). 

Eventually, we will sell this tiny house, and it will be up to the next person to figure out whether the drywall screws are the correct size. Fuck ‘em.

I haven’t wanted to run the drill during the day because you have been working late nights or going to the hospital, which leaves me alone. You are here, but I am still alone. You sleep endlessly, and while you are only unconscious for a normal number of hours (5-6), those are the hours when I am most capable of doing things like screwing in a piece of drywall that has been sitting against the bare studs in the downstairs bathroom for six months.

Last year, we bought this house, and we were not excited about it.

We looked at a half-dozen houses, the real estate agent preening about the laidback nature of the HOAs in the northern part of town or drawing our attention to the brand-new outlets that indicated that a particular home was move-in ready. 

“Look at this tuck pointing!” she said, and you asked me what tuck pointing was, and I shrugged and felt a little embarrassed because the real estate agent heard you. Then she explained it (and I still don’t really understand). 

Those homes were not for us. Not yet, anyway. We chose a semi-dilapidated house on the southern part of town that, in my overly ambitious estimation, was on the correct side of semi-dilapidated and capable of making us a quick buck. I would fix the home, and you would help when you could. You would work your nights, and we would be close to the hospital, which would be good for you and good for Julie. 

Is it clean enough, you asked. The doctor said… 

We’ll make it clean, is what I said. Cleaning is easy. Fixing walls is easy. What we’re going through, well, it isn’t easy, and some days I think that it’s harder for us than it is for her. I say that to myself, and it feels right, but I don’t know if it really is right. I can only speak from my own experience and sometimes it gets in the way.

For a few months, I think I did pretty well.

I did tile the bathroom like I said I would, even though I bought three separate tile cutters to get the job done. The first one was a piece of shit. It broke every single tile we fed through it. You blamed the tile I bought, but that tile wasn’t cheap — not like you said. And you gave up when the second tile cutter didn’t do any better, and you stopped helping, which was probably better for both of us.

I finally bought a wet saw and looked up videos online of people using it. They are all smiling people in nice houses that don’t really need new tiles. I pulled off each greasy piece of pull-and-stick laminate from our plywood floor, and I wondered whether I should put down some cement board, but then I looked at the clock and I heard Julie crying upstairs and I said fuck it, and I started laying down those tile. You came in and asked me if I had enough tile spacers. Yes, I said. Go see what she wants. 

She just wants more apple juice, but she can’t keep it down. 

I looked at the tile and I kept putting it down. It looks pretty good now, though I still need to seal it. And I replaced a few of the cabinets, enough of them for a functional kitchen. You’re embarrassed to have people over, but I keep telling you that they’ll understand. They’re unfinished, yes, but they don’t look that bad. They’re temporary. And shit, they hold the plates, don’t they? What else do we expect of our cabinets?

What about the office, you ask me, every time. Do they want you back yet.

The truth is (and I haven’t told you this) yes, they do want me back. They don’t need me, and I don’t really do much when I’m there. I didn’t do much before. I don’t think they know that, but they sure as hell aren’t looking over my shoulder now. 

When I do go in, once a month, I think I get more done than I used to get done all year. I just don’t like it anymore. Betty is always stopping by my desk and trying to talk about anything but that and it’s obvious what she’s doing, but I can’t tell her that. How would that even go? So we just talk about the house, because that’s what’s on my mind, and I just want to get back and start doing stuff. There’s so much to do.

I just need to get around to it.

I’m getting better about that. You should have seen the inside of that galvanized steel pipe I took out of the downstairs bathroom — I know you don’t want to look in it, I won’t make you — but the crud was so bad, it might explain the water pressure issue. I am going to put in the copper pipe to replace it. It’s just tough because I need to use a blowtorch to do it and I haven’t done that before. Fucking up is one thing, fucking up with fire seems a bit bigger.

You said it yourself, I am better at tearing things out than putting them together. Look at all of the rolls of carpet downstairs. That took weeks to pull out, and we found those wonderful hardwood floors hiding underneath the vomit-stained paisley prints. True, they’re not in the best condition, but clean them up, refinish them, and that should help the resale value. 

I also tore down that wall in the kitchen. It will be a nice, big, open space — you will be able to see right into the living room — I just need someone (cheap) to come in and tell me if I can take those studs down. They don’t look load-bearing. 

I know what you’re going to say, you don’t know what load-bearing looks like, I can hear you saying it. But the guy on YouTube explained that it’s just looking at the cross sections, seeing where the big boards are. That’s not hard. I’m pretty confident it’s fine, I just need someone to tell me for sure.

Here, I will say that I am sorry about the bedroom. I went overboard there. There was nothing wrong with the wall, and the ceiling probably could have been fixed, and — well, look, I didn’t know that the insulation gets everywhere when it drops down like that. Now I know, though, don’t I? Won’t make that mistake again. Not that I’ll be ripping out ceilings anytime soon, I learned my lesson.

The bedroom gets really hot now. I guess I don’t need to say that, but it’ll go back to normal when we get some drywall up. I really need my own truck. I’m sick of borrowing the neighbor’s F-150, and I think he’s sick of me borrowing it, too. 

Did we ever even figure out that guy’s name? It’s too late to ask, I probably drive his truck more than he does. Maybe you could invite your sister over (she’ll understand about the kitchen, I’m telling you) and I’ll introduce her to him and then he’ll have to say his name and we’ll know it, and I’ll write it down this time.

At least we don’t have much of a lawn to worry about.

I really think that our house has curb appeal. Don’t laugh, it does. Granted, that big window in the front needs to be replaced. I found a video that says it’s easier than you think, and after I get that wall up downstairs, I might take a hack at it. 

I’m sure I could at least get it out today, and then get the new one tomorrow. I’ll be committed to it this time, I know we can’t have a big open space where a window used to be. Although we could just put plastic sheeting in front of it — people do that. It doesn’t take much time to put up, obviously, and it actually insulates pretty well. Better than that shitty window, I’d bet.

How much do windows cost, do you thinky? I bet they’re more expensive than doors.I bet they’re easier to put in, though. The only reason I haven’t put the door back on the bathroom is that I think I’d fuck it up. I watched about six videos about putting a new frame on, and I’m almost ready to try it, but Jesus, there’s a lot of math involved. Not fun. Not that any of this is fun, but it needs to be done.

And I’ll do it, starting with the wall downstairs. The screws are down there, too. I just need to find the drill and that’ll be one more thing off the list. So I am sorry I don’t go with you to see her more but there’s a lot of stuff to do around here.

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