Turpentine

It has not flowed like this for a while. A bumper crop. A hundred year harvest. Not riding fast for 46. Not riding fast for a working guy. Not riding fast for a fat guy. Not riding fast for a weekend warrior. I’m just riding faster than I have ever ridden ever. I’m not sure how to explain it, and I don’t really care. As soon as you try to remember your dreams they just go away. Better just to live them as though they are real, because they are, and not question how you can fly, or why you are in class naked on exam day. Just walk your naked ass to your locker and put your Earth Science book away and check for notes from your sweetheart that she crammed through the vents. Never question dreams, just live in them.

You want to roll right now? Let’s go.

Damocles

I’m lucky to have this hit man follow me around telling me he will take me out if I ain’t careful. I don’t know his true identity as I hired him on the internet, but I imagine he is from Walker County, AL as everyone knows that is where you go if you want to contract a killer. One too many steps in the wrong direction and POW, I won’t ever know what hit me. Go ahead and act natural, walk like everything is fine, but know I will be right behind you the whole time so don’t try to run or make any sudden moves he says. At first it bugged me that he was back there watching me, listening to all of my private thoughts and conversations, staring over my shoulder when I check my blood sugar. The number comes in- 96- and I hear him un-cock the pistol and sigh, relieved or disappointed who can tell?

Saturday morning I felt the urgency more than usual, like if Hit Man was going to follow me I should make him work for it. I am the one paying his retainer after all. I met the Hard Man at the park and we tried to scrape that son of a bitch off on every tree in the woods. We plowed through lush carpets of poison ivy and rode the downhills as uphills and the uphills as side hills. We wore his ass out, and even when I bounced my face off the trail and rode out the inertia in a skittering spin down a splintered ramp, the hit man was nowhere in sight. Blood ran out of my arm, but it was well within a healthy range. I tasted it. Nothing but savory.

Juancho

Bikes

All I used to write about was riding bikes. Riding bikes fast. Riding bikes slow. Riding bikes alone. Riding bikes with people. Bikes, bikes, bikes.

I got married. I started a new job where I wear pants and go to a building with other people in it. These two significant events both impacted my understanding of what was fair game to write for the internet at large. If I posted one of my Juancho brand-certified rants would my sweet wife take that as a sign of unhappiness in our relationship? Would the job be concerned about being associated with terms like “sweat-soaked chamois see-through ass-crack window?”

I chickened out. I pulled in my talons.

But that was a long time, and no matter how I tried, these years just flow by like a broken down dam.*

I also started experimenting with fiction, which is really the most truthful of all writing forms, except for maybe poetry which, when good, is so truthful I can’t look it directly in the eye. Writing stories is tough, and it comes to me in pieces and parts without any instruction manual. I would throw away the manual with the packaging anyway.

I look up to a lot of writers and artists. Practical advice is hard to come by, and harder to take. Even when I admire someone’s art that doesn’t mean I can do much with it to further my own. One key exception is a quote I always attribute to Bob Dylan, but that likely has far more ancient roots.

“All it takes to write a good song is 3 chords and the truth.” So, with that advice in mind. Here we go. The truth.

I got the shit scared out of me a few months ago at the Doctor with a diagnosis of Type 2 Diabetes, which isn’t so much a disease, as a state of dis-ease. There is no bug crawling through your body agitating white blood cells. It is actually a checklist, a set of qualifying factors that permit you beyond the velvet rope into an exclusive club of 29,000,000 Americans. How about that? Pretty swank right? Bigger than Costco. The thing about it is that it is a self-inflicted wound, especially for someone like myself who can get any groceries I want and move my body as frequently as I wish. For other of my esteemed fellow club members they get it because they can’t buy hardly anything in their grocery store without corn syrup in it.

I lost almost 40 lbs, I cleaned up my act. Now the blood tests show nothing out of the ordinary. Its like yesterday there was a terrible crash on I-75 and today you can’t even find the skid marks. But you remember the carnage, and it happens to someone every day. It can happen to me again. All I have to do is take my eyes off the road.

So there it is, the truth in all of its freeing and humiliating glory. I’m going to keep writing this story, for Manny’s sake, and Duane’s, and June’s. I’m going to tell you all about my bike rides, every single one. That part is easy because I am a mutant again, basically two giant thighs with eyes on top. At least one thing here at the Big Ring Circus hasn’t changed in 10 years. Bikes are still magical, and they can save your life.

Juancho

*Thanks to John Prine for the lyrical assist

10th Avenue

In 1999 I moved to a place on the corner of 10th Avenue and Yancey Street here in Tallahassee.  This would be the 8th or 9th house I shared with my  buddy Taco, born on this day in 1969.  Both of us were turning 30 that year and it was intended to be a move away from the squalid living of our twenties and to take a step towards adulthood.  The place had a tin roof, white paint worn to the wood, and a kitchen you might find on a very fast sailboat.  In the summer Palmetto bugs treated inside as outside until stomping or ignoring them became equal and fine choices by 4th of July. The landlord’s name was George, but the vacating tenant told us knowingly that he went by “Dick.”  Everyone called him Big Dick because he was a huge man.  Years later, while in his 60’s I saw him carry a full-sized refrigerator out of a house with nothing but a bear hug.

Big Dick owned four houses and a dollhouse-sized cottage on or near the corner of 10th and Yancey.  Within two seasons all were filled by friends and friends of friends, which is what Taco and I were as well.  Instead of taking that affirming step towards adulthood we took more of a lurching step sideways and for 10 years we lived as a family wandering from house to house as easy as room to room.  Vicious competition was our common language.  Darts, 8-ball, 9-ball, ping pong, Dungeons and Dragons (kind of a sub-cult within our greater body host) bicycles, basketball, croquet,horseshoes, bocce ball, mini-bowling and Poker–with strange variations like Boo-ray and Shmoolie– every Thursday night and holiday for about a decade.   The house hosting Poker installed a PVC chute mounted in plywood from the table through the window to the recycling bin.  Whoever got the seat closest to the beer chute would struggle to follow the action on the table while firing an endless line of bottles and cans into the bin.

Within the very nucleus of our compound lived a couple, born in the 1930’s or 40’s  I think.  With a tidy little yard and a small chain-link fence around the property their house was a respectable eyesore among our repudiating hovels. They were from Chicago and retired to town to be near two of their three children, and enjoy life.  Marvin played jazz piano and we would hear him playing through the open windows as we criss-crossed the street following the action from house to house.  Ada would link her arm through yours and pull you in close to tell you about a piece of jewelry she was wearing or to tell you she was really upset about how our government was treating the mentally ill.  For some reason they never thought to say, “Hey guys, maybe you should all get serious about your lives and quit living like a bunch of pirates returned to port after 6 months at sea. Quit wasting time!”

We lived more with and among them, than next to them.  Either would have been welcomed at the poker table, or to throw the dice with the Riders of Rohan, but I doubt they cared for the thick blue cigarette smog in the room .  Good lord, we were animals, which is an insult to animals.

One day Ada came knocking on my door.  I opened it to her holding a tiny kitten cradled against her chest and small bags of food and litter hanging from her elbow.  She offers me this tail-less, black and white weeks-born kitten–“Here is your new cat.” She tells me.  ” Ada, I can’t take care of a cat.  I can’t even take care of myself!”

Ada was not one to moralize. The  irreverently empathetic Ada, who before all things was funny, an absolute riot. But-I will say- and I am free to draw my own saccharin homilies.  I believe Ada saw a good guy, a fiddler watching Rome burn,  who could really use a cat in his life.  

Marvin died a year ago last September, and Ada died yesterday morning.

I sit here now in this new home under this immense Live Oak tree, where I live with my girlfriend from 9th grade, who moved away to Alabama, but came back to get me 2 years after I left 10th Avenue.  After two soggy days of rain the sun is coming out. There is a dog on the couch and that cat is looking out the window in this room.

 

Juancho

 

A Sense of Urgency

The other 4 riders all drank hard and late the night before, while I went to bed early, slept well, and ate a hearty breakfast of oatmeal.  Still I bounced on and off the back for most of the three hours we were out.  My own rule echoed back to me, if you are already suffering there is nothing else to lose, so I knew better than to expect any advantage. Damn though, I thought I’d be in the mix.

It doesn’t bother me.  I have a sense of urgency.  I rode into my own driveway, alone, moaning to myself or so I thought until my smiling wife straightened up to stretch her back in the yard and asked, “Who were you talking to?”

“The devil,”  I whispered, “and god too.”

Juancho

 

 

A Return to Form

rp_munson.jpg

Just write about bikes dude and riding them, says me to myself.  Michael Jackson don’t want to be in your little story.  He just wants to be the King of Pop resting in peace, and if nobody cares about his vitiligous hand and his first sequined glove then so be it, just tell your own damn story and leave him out of it.

Fine then, I WILL says the pouting inner child to a furiously reasonable adult ego state.  I WILL! he screams his little tantrum brains out.  And that is how we find ourselves now in the national forest, as though no time at all has passed since we last took a bike ride through the woods then plopped down at the computer to tell the world how it went.

I don’t really know many plant names so I can only say that the stuff that grows just over knee high and then bolts into spores of fuzz like tiny white fireworks is blooming, or more likely just finished blooming, and now it sends its hopeful seeds into the air, brushed off by our legs dipping into the penumbric edge of the turns, a passing shadow scouring the trails’ edge.  Riding a bike is just like riding a bike, you never forget how to do it, but you do forget how good it feels.  You sit pissed off, bullied by dubious priorities, letting the filing of your flexible spending account claims forms thump you on the back of the ear and it stings through lunch and into 4th period Earth Science.  Minding your own business walking to class on the edge of the hall then shoved- SLAM- into the combination lock on 242 by “Be sure to file your homestead exemption.” A frog sets up under the skin and you rub it all through Pre-Alegbra, thinking of a way to get even.  When the final bell rings you are already in position outside 3rd hall and you catch I need the final agenda by Friday standing slack in its flip flops and before it knows what hit it you have bowled it head first down into the garbage can and taken off running as fast as you can go for your bike, then out to the woods where it is safe.

 

Juancho

Sweaty Duane, a story continued.

Sweaty Duane, a story continued.

Sweaty Duane did not consider himself to be a brave person. He got his nickname the first day of 9th grade at Roosevelt High. Duane had not been a high school student for five minutes when he realized everything his uncle told him about a fresh start was wrong. That August morning in 1972, it was a muggy 82 degrees, but that was not the only reason Duane was sweating. He sweat all the time. He would pull his shirts from the clothesline and see the faint demarcations of pit stains like the concentric, waving rings inside the geodes for sale at the flea market. He was a husky kid, as his uncle called him, and he was nervous in general, which did not help at all. So that morning, after waking himself up in time to walk the three miles to school, rummaging his Uncle’s dresser top for 70 cents in lunch money, brushing his teeth and getting to his seat on time, Duane was- to be fair about it- a sloppy mess.

Behind him, teeth full of braces and bread, Tony Laux said, “Whoa! Look at Sweaty Duane! P.E. isn’t until after lunch!” The other kids didn’t need to pile on or even say the word after that. In Duane’s mind, when they spoke his name, the Sweaty was implied. The Sweaty was silent.

Even all these years later, on the corner of 25th and Taft, right in front of Truck City, He thought of himself as Sweaty Duane, and despite the cold wind of the Chicago hawk crawling through his jacket collar Duane was damp as a sweat-sock. He could tell by the posture of the two people ahead on the sidewalk, that one person was not enjoying the conversation. The wind was so strong and cold, that the figure with his back to Duane, could not hear anything with his wool cap pulled down over his ears.

Just as Duane was closing on the pair, a half a dozen strides away still, Wool Cap Guy raised his hand above his head and feigned a punch at the woman. Duane could now clearly see the rounded heft of bosom on the other figure.  She flinched and cowered as Cap Guy laughed, then he raised his hand again.  Sweaty Duane could tell he was going to hit her this time,  something in how the man twisted his back foot as though squishing a bee, and to Duane’s surprise he found himself running towards the man with his back to him, Sweaty Duane’s first hurried steps since his last P.E. class.   Then, as though watching himself from the broken streetlight above the scene, he lunged at the man, ramming his shoulder into the small of the other man’s back causing him to bow and warp until his feet separated from the icy sidewalk and he collapsed in pain and bewilderment.  The woman, now standing in shock before Duane, her eyes unblinking moons of confusion was a girl Duane knew from childhood by her own unwanted nickname, Black June.  In that moment of mutual recognition Black June spoke the only word she had ever said to Sweaty Duane despite their shared decades in Roosevelt Park, “RUN!” And with that, their slow and chafing getaway commenced.

Back at his apartment, the shades pulled, and the door bolted, they hid. When Duane asked who the man was, and why he was going to hit June, she looked him right in the eye and shook her head slowly to say, No, we aren’t talking about that now. She just said she was tired, and asked to use the rest room. She did say, ” I know your name Duane.” He only replied, “You can stay here tonight if you need to” and she then nodded okay, and said, “Thanks, I do.”

Duane knew this did not qualify as a sexual encounter, but nonetheless he felt a tingling emanating from the point of contact between his backside and June’s as she slept deeply beside him as he stared into the darkness. He eased off the bed, jostling, but not waking June and he settled down in the one other room.

He woke, before sunrise. He moved quietly to to the refrigerator, standing before the door to block the light. A half-empty two liter of flat soda, hemorrhoid suppositories in the egg tray, and a jar of syrupy fruit cocktail- together these items were a memorial to his uncle, now gone. He took out the fruit cocktail and checked the sell-by date, July 31, 1983. Going on four years past its prime.

Mango made the roof of his mouth itch like crazy, but he ate it anyway, quietly watching the snow fall outside the grimy window. He knew he was allergic, but he liked the itching. His tongue rasping on the back of his teeth helped him concentrate– two raw welts on either side and his palate tingled. He unconsciously worked his tongue against the itch in time to the chuffing rhythm of the gas furnace.

His uncle spoke exclusively in parable and observation, never addressing Duane directly or speaking in the second person. Dead three years now, of an ill-defined cause his uncle called in his final days; “too many cures, not enough disease,” in reference to all of the medications piling up in the plastic container that sat on the floor alongside his vinyl recliner. Abiraterone Acetate Abitrexate (Methotrexate), Cabazitaxel, Ifosfamide, and a full alphabet of vitamins and Chinese herbs mingled with the pharmaceuticals. Duane watched his uncle wash them down every night with orange soda.

“Do you think any of that stuff is working?” Duane would ask. “A man should always finish what he starts” was his uncle’s reply.

June still slept on his formless bed, the foam mattress pillowing around her edges as she slept on her side, his Green Bay Packers coat wadded around her hands as a pillow and his uncle’s army blanket from Korea draped neatly over her. June insisted on sleeping in the recliner, until Duane gave up and went to bed, and there she fell asleep. He awoke in the night to her squishing around on his mattress trying to get comfortable, but not awaken him. Duane knew neither of them would sleep at all on his spring-less, childhood bed so he spent the night in his uncle’s recliner, just as his uncle slept every night since Duane showed up in that Packer’s coat. His uncle opened the door to him that night and made the statement, “Success is ninety percent perspiration” and stood aside to allow Duane to squeeze past and into his home. After his uncle was gone, and he was by himself, he began sitting in the recliner, the humble thrown now his, the small apartment his kingdom to rule alone.

June was the first woman to ever enter this apartment, let alone spend the night, as far as Duane had ever known.

Less Better

I want to do less stuff better.  Life is so busy on so many fronts I feel like the Swedish Chef on the Muppet Show, furiously chopping away with glee, and most of the lettuce ending up on the floor.  I want to do less stuff better.  I made it back to the yoga mat last night after a long and meandering detour.  You step outside the comfort of routine for just a moment, and the door swings shut behind you.  Like standing in a hotel hallway in your underwear you cringe in apology to passers by, “I only stepped out to grab the paper and the door locked behind me.”  They harrumph in disgust and judgement as they give you wide berth passing with their backs dragging the opposite hallway and their children’s eyes covered by a protective hand.  “I’m a good and decent person” you assure them with the USA Today covering your humiliation.  I want to do less things better.  I suspect people who are truly brilliant at something are absolutely terrible at so many other things.  I bet Aretha Franklin can’t throw a baseball, because she does so much less so much better.

Juancho

and…breathe!

In all this time I have waited for the King of Pop to finish telling me his story. He whispers it to me in his high falsetto and I nod like a worried mother, his confidante, the only one who understands.

And meanwhile, in another world entirely, my own unworried mother contemplates the road. The long, unfolding route of U.S. Highways, marked by the shield. That shield known for protecting who? From what? Maybe a traveler is safer on the county roads, denoted only by circles and alpha-numeric combinations known only to a group of wheezing delegates from the regional municipal council of working groups for the purpose of transportation distinguification. They met every other Thursday for the better part of a year and by God it made sense to them, and it still does- if anyone would listen.

So there go the words, like blobs of pollenated snot blasted out of the left nostril then the right by means of the farmer’s handkerchief. Slung out the window of the car onto the shoulder of Marion County 318 or 25A, or Athens County 550 that runs out to The Plains. No matter what route you take it is going to be tough to get there from here because these Interstate Highways, they sure did unite us, but they divided some of us too, and some of us know better than to cross them.

Michael Jackson’s glove

Michael Jackson wore one glove and the kids all thought one glove man that’s crazy, I’m going to do my thing too so they tied bandanas on their wrists and wore them to school or put on a jacket inside out.

So there Michael Jackson was, at the top of the charts with his one sequined glove hiding himself, ashamed in his mottling skin.

Too scared to dare let his voice speak for itself, to be the baddest dancer on the planet, UH! Up on those toes putting it in your face and grabbing it just in case you still needed some help getting with the program. Not a chance man, better to improve the disguise and make his whole thing be about a sequined glove.  All glove man, white and sparkling to hide that creeping blemish.

One day though, he took that glove off and walked around his old neighborhood.  He stopped at a Deli on 23rd Ave and bought a knish, potato. Nobody recognized him, although one elderly neighbor asked, ain’t you that kid? Michael braced for the recognition, but then- who pulled that dog out of the lake last Christmas?

Man, that was all right.  Good for you kid.

Michael wished he pulled that dog out of the lake, but he hadn’t been around the old district for a long, long time.

Two and a half blocks away at 24th and Monroe, catty-cornered from the spot where Michael stood regretting he was not the boy for which he’d been mistaken, Black June shooed gnats on her stoop waiting for her ride.  She remembered Michael as a boy, although they were not friends.  Two and a half blocks is a vast distance, too far to be considered neighbors in 1968 Gary, Indiana.  Black June and Michael played 4-square once, when they both happened to wander into the borderlands of backyard clotheslines and familiar faces from the schoolbus.  Black June lifted a towering waterfall into Michael’s square.  With an un-speckled fist he smashed at the red rubber ball, failing to make good contact.  The ball shanked out of bounds and Black June called, “OUT!” Michael knew it was out yet in embarrassment he argued the ball fell in-bounds. Black June called him a liar and the other kids took geographically-considered positions on the matter.  Michael’s commitment to his lie earned him a do-over in which he fake-bombed causing June to step back as he flicked it to the center.  The ball fell for the second bounce and he avoided June’s stare.  During dinner later that night his mother asked him, “What’s wrong with  you son?” “I am a liar” thought Michael, but he said, “I don’t know.”  Before bedtime, as he soaked in a cooling tub, he silently cried– gritting his teeth and frowning against the shame.  Years later, when he was the planet’s biggest, most beloved star Black June was eating breakfast when her sister mentioned the sequined glove.  Black June saw his small black fist hit the ball out-of-bounds, and imagined it shanking off of soft cotton and a crinkle of sequins.  Her sister raised an eyebrow for a response, but Black June just shrugged and looked down at her Cheerios.

-juancho