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November 16, 2006

Book Notes - Kevin Keck ("Oedipus Wrecked")

Kevin Keck's life has been filled with sexual misadventures, and in Oedipus Wrecked he chronicles them all. In this collection of essays, Keck recounts his sexual history in an inimitable self-deprecating fashion. The stories are often hilarious, an opinion shared by my wife, who called the book the funniest thing she has read since Jonathan Ames' I Love You More than You Know.

Keck is also working with Brooklyn musician, Bret Mosley, to produce a vinyl audiobook of this memoir. In a first for the Book Notes series, Keck and Mosley have made available an audio story from the book:

"Ass Backwards" (mp3 link).
A warning: this story is definitely not safe for work, children, or the squeamish.

In his own words, here is author Kevin Keck's Book Notes entry for his memoir, Oedipus Wrecked:

I'd rather be a musician than a writer. I know a lot of writers who feel that way. The immediate connection that music allows between artist and audience is something writers only glimpse—in the best of circumstances—at a reading. But readings aren't concerts—they aren't even close. I typically want to shoot myself at readings because they're so tediously boring in most cases.

When it comes to writing I very rarely write without music. If I'm having trouble rendering a sentence or paragraph in the way I want then I turn off the music, but otherwise it's a constant. I also make specific mixes prior to beginning a story as a way of setting the atmosphere in my mind for what needs to take place on the page.

I've chosen five songs for each story in Oedipus Wrecked—little EPs, if you will, for each disastrous tale. In some instances, depending on my whim, I've either commented on the story itself or I've provided more background on the characters or circumstances at the center of the story, but always with the thread of music floating throughout these digressions.

Ass Backwards

I want to pull back the curtain a little on this one. I wrote the story in two sections, three years apart. I consider it my "Strawberry Fields Forever" because I've heard Beatles producer George Martin rambling in interviews about the two sections of that song being a semi-tone off (the point where it switches from that very melodic, airy section to the dark and heavy drum driven portion), and how he can hear that so clearly and it drives him insane because he couldn't get it any better.

This story feels a semi-tone off for me in how it was written. The break feels visible, even to a reader unaware of the circumstances of composition. The first section of the story was written in August of 1998 while I was working as a reporter for a small, rural paper in North Carolina. Instead of writing my stories on the fund raiser for the local volunteer fire department and the rezoning of land to allow for Ostrich farms (they make great jerky) I would sit around and smoke and write stories about my penis, or in this case my rectum.

I sent the story everywhere for years—no one wanted it, but it did make the rounds amongst the editors at Details (and this was back in the day when I still submitted stuff by regular mail, so someone was busy at Details making copies...), and I ended up picking up some lame work from them.

It wouldn't be until May of 2001 when my friend Parker suggested I send it to, and the editor I dealt with at that time, Albert Lee, had the keen suggestion to take the story a little further. Thus, the second half of the story moves beyond the realm of fantasy and into the unpleasant reality of sexual experimentation. I think that's the central theme of this story and of a lot of the stories I write: things seem all puppy dogs and ice cream in your head, but ice cream melts and dogs bite in the real world.

The Doors, "Backdoor Man"—Rather an easy choice, but that doesn't make it a bad song.
Frank Zappa, "Broken Hearts Are for Assholes"—That catchy refrain at the end makes you just want to sing along...
Dire Straits, "Tunnel of Love"—It's a Freudian thing.
The Beach Boys, "Good Vibrations"—Another easy choice but still quite relevant.
Jeff Buckley, "So Real"—The 'Bridget' of this story turned me onto Jeff Buckley, so in some way my listening to him is eternally linked to her.

Hard Evidence

The twist in "Hard Evidence" is the result of a phonesex relationship I had with a girl for a while in CA. She's mentioned only briefly in the actual story, but I did come very close to meeting her. And yet that meeting went awry, as most things in my life do. The following is the story of that near meeting—a digression that explains the frame of mind I was in that eventually led to the story "Hard Evidence":

In the summer of 1998, on the eve of my twenty-fifth birthday, I took the remaining $600 from my student loan (having already squandered in less than a month the other $2400 on lap dances and phone sex) and bought a train ticket from Syracuse, New York, to Salt Lake City, Utah. From Salt lake I planned to take a bus six hours to Jackson, Wyoming, to meet a wealthy, twenty year-old heiress named Leia, who was from Gilroy, California. Leia, who actually was named for the famed science fiction princess, wanted me to masturbate on her face. I’d never seen a picture of her, and we’d only had about two-dozen phone sex conversations over the past year.

Our rendezvous in Wyoming was hastily arranged via instant messenger. My train left at 12:50 a.m., and I spent the afternoon and evening prior to my departure sleeping and masturbating, dreaming about the much longed for meeting that would take me two days to travel to. Because my health insurance had lapsed the month before, I’d spent the last five or six weeks toying with the dosage of the antidepressant I was taking at the time. Without insurance, those little gel-caps of joy can seriously cut into one’s lap dance fund, so I would go a few days without a dose to make my dollar go further, then take the pills for a few days, then stop again. I made many bad decisions that summer.

My Wyoming quest never occurred. After masturbating a good six or seven times (the antidepressant made me impotent for the most part, and when I was off it my sex drive reappeared with a vengeance) my cock was completely raw, and I was totally wiped out. I called my friend Jim and had him take me to get a refund on my train ticket. If the heiress in Wyoming ever wondered where I was, I never heard about it-- I assumed my failure to show had squashed all further possibilities and so I let our communication lapse.

Jim and I went to the Turning Stone Casino, I lost a hundred dollars, and afterwards he dropped me off at the topless club that I had grown fond of, Diamond Dolls. It was a small club just beyond the abandoned General Motors plant, catering mainly to blue-collar men.

By some fluke, my roommate, Parker, happened to be inside. This made me nervous because it was well after midnight, and it had technically become my birthday. The last thing I wanted was for Parker, in his drunken state, to mention anything about my birthday. I’d seen the levels of humiliation that were heaped upon the poor schmucks who had chosen to celebrate their birthdays or the end of their bachelorhood at strip clubs: dancers who have been objectified and pawed at for an evening tend to wield a great deal more bitterness than you might suppose.

I kept Parker company while he drank, all the while waiting for my favorite dancer (everybody’s favorite, really, because she was prettier and more touchy-feely than the others) to become available for a private dance. Unfortunately, her stable of suitors was greater than Penelope’s, and all with pockets much deeper than mine. After last call I drove Parker’s car home bitterly, with him in the passenger’s seat urging me to break into the community pool so we could go for a swim. It was just after two in the morning, and my birthday was shaping up to be rather slow out of the gate.

When was arrived back at our apartment, Parker said:

“Keck, dude, it’s early. Let’s call an escort.”

Even though I was on a nocturnal schedule at that time, which usually put me in bed at about ten in the morning, I wasn’t really up for anything. Parker, however, was a different story. The dead of night was the time when most of his plans were hatched, and they usually concerned a road trip which he would pack furiously for until sunrise, only to pass out in some uncomfortable location (most notoriously the front steps) before his departure. My disinterest in getting a party started only a scant few hours before the time when most normal people wakeup did not dissuade him from petitioning me incessantly for thirty straight minutes.

“Come on,” he said. “It’ll be fun. We’ll get a pretty girl over here, she’ll be all dressed up… we’ll talk, drink.”

I said nothing.

“Keck, dude, you’re 25, bro. Are you some kind of f*cking pussy?”

Earlier in the evening, while waiting on Jim to come and pick me up, I'd called my friend Chad and arranged to play some disc golf in Rochester the next day. I thought it might be best to get some sleep so I could be on top of things, but considering that disc golf is most often played stoned by the dilettantes of the game (which Chad and I certainly were), I figured it wouldn’t hurt to demonstrate that I was not some kind of f*cking pussy.

I found a copy of the local alternative weekly newspaper, The New Times, and turned to its last few pages where all the ads for phonesex and massage parlors were. After some debate, we dialed a number from a very minimalist ad: Girls. 24/7. Call. Besides the phone number that was all the information that was provided, and we concluded that their lack of information was a sign about their quality; it was our understanding (informed as we were by Law & Order and the like) that the classier services had no need for extravagant advertising.

The number didn’t ring through to anything or anyone, so far as I could tell. There were several beeps on the other end, then nothing. I hung the phone up, and Parker started to undertake the task of finding another number.

Then our phone rang. It wasn’t uncommon for people to call us after the bars closed, but I let the phone ring a few times before answering-- I didn't know how I felt about the possibility of drunken hordes converging on our apartment, but Parker seemed completely willing to entertain. I picked up the receiver; a woman’s voice accused me from the other end:

“You call this pager?”

I said nothing for a moment, then: “I guess.”

“What did you want?”

This question kind of threw me. What did I want? I went with the easy answer: “Uh, a girl.”

Parker had only been paying minimal attention, but at this his eyes lit up.

The woman barked, “What kind of girl?”

My thinking hadn’t really gone as far as options, so I said, “Hang on a second.” I covered the receiver and said to Parker, “What kind of girl?”

Parker stroked his chin pensively. “What kind do they have?”

I said into the phone, “What kind do you have?”

The voice came back drowsily: “Blond, brunette, redhead…” The last several girls I had dated had either been brunettes or redheads, so the choice seemed obvious.

“Blond?” I said hesitantly, looking at Parker; he gave me a thumbs-up.

“It’s $150. Cash. She comes to you. It’ll be about an hour. Where do you live?”

Neither Parker or I had ever called an escort, so after I had given directions, and after we had pooled our money, we sat around contemplating what the girl would be like.

“Do you think she’ll be like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s?” I said.

“Don’t be ridiculous. You asked for a blond. Audrey was brunette. She’ll probably have the same getup, though. She’s an escort. They all wear cocktail dresses. Even in Risky Business.”

“Like a classy cocktail dress, or like a street walker?”

“Did we pick her up on the street? No. Besides, street walkers are hookers, and they don’t wear cocktail dresses. This girl is an escort. She’s classy. You don’t just call these girls for sex. They decide if you get the sex. She probably even speaks two other languages. She’s probably not even American.”

“She could be Canadian,” I said. I meant this to be funny. Parker merely shrugged.

Unbelievable as it may seem, this is how we actually conceived of the situation in our minds. We were graduate students in our mid-twenties, and while we had seen some seedy aspects of human existence that had given us a more cosmopolitan view of the world, these things were confined mainly to drugs and relationships. We honestly felt in our hearts that this was America, and just like Hollywood promises, if two moderately handsome and well-educated men call an escort in the middle of the night, they will end up with the Madonna of the Whores: the classic beauty, charming and nimble of wit, and drawn into this life by some twist of fate that does not reflect poorly on her character. She will teach them things about themselves that they never knew, the most important of which is that the mind is the most erotic part of the body.

Or maybe it wasn’t like that at all, but it was close. We knew we had placed a call for a blond, and that blond would in many ways bear awesome similarity to Rebecca De Mornay.

We put Bad Brains' I Against I on the stereo, hit repeat, and sat down and proceeded to wait.

When the sky was whitening away from violet two hours later, we were still waiting on Rebecca. That’s what we had decided to call her, so we wouldn’t have to keep saying “The Escort” over and over. We’d sit nodding our heads to "House of Suffering" or "She's Calling You" and then one of us would say, “Where’s Rebecca?” When I was about to ask it for the tenth time the phone rang. When I answered, the same accusatory voice said:

“She’s on her way. Sorry for the wait.”

I went back and told Parker that Rebecca was coming. In the brief time that I'd gone to answer the phone, Parker had become paranoid that we'd confessed to complete strangers that we keep large amounts of cash in the house. (For two guys trying to subsist entirely on student loans, one hundred and fifty dollars seemed like a staggering sum of money.)

“She could have a guy with her. They’ll try and rob us,” he said.

“Don’t be stupid. Rebecca is a nice girl. She has a college degree, I’m sure. People with degrees aren’t thieves.”

“I’ll see to it that nothing funny goes on.” Parker had gone and gotten his bat. For reasons relating to some anxiety about being broken in on, Parker slept with a bat next to his bed. He sat down on our second story balcony where we had been keeping a vigil for Rebecca and began stroking the bat thoughtfully.

We lived on a quiet block, with the exception of us, and so we heard the rumble for a half a minute before the primer-gray Trans-Am turned onto our street. By the time we saw it we'd turned off the stereo with wonder at what racket was upon us. Besides lacking a muffler and paint, the car’s hood appeared to be fastened by a series of bungee cords. Parker and I looked at each other.

The Trans-Am slowed in front of our house, then stopped. A skinny woman in cutoffs and a loose fitting sweatshirt got out. Her pumps clicked across the pavement as she approached our door. She was not blond. In fact, I have difficulty saying exactly what color her hair was, save for an amalgamation of brown and blond dyes that had become commingled by overuse. I saw that she was carrying a bag with her, and I optimistically thought for a moment that it might still contain the cocktail dress that she would slip into once she was briefed about our plans. Perhaps the bag might also contain a wig, I mused.

When she saw Parker and I staring blank-faced from the second story balcony, she whispered hoarsely up at us:

“You guys the ones that called?”

I looked across the street to where our elderly neighbor was standing on her porch (old people tend to rise with the sun for some reason), surveying the newspaper that lay on her sidewalk. I considered telling the escort (for she was most certainly not my Rebecca) that I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about, but before I could Parker said:

“Oh yeah,” and he grinned and slapped me on the back.

I went back inside and downstairs to let her in. When I opened the door she walked in and whispered again:

“Sorry about my voice. It’s… you know. Screaming… it does that.”

“Would you like something to drink? Juice or beer?”


She followed me back upstairs and into the kitchen where I poured her some juice. Up close she was not completely unattractive; she was rather plain, in her late twenties. I did not doubt she could hold up her end of the conversation, but I suspected the Holly Golightly cocktail chatter and meaningless French phrases dropped into our tête-à-tête were not her cup of tea.

I walked onto the porch to consult with Parker, but I found him balled up on the floor, fast asleep with his sunglasses on. I walked back inside.

“You’re not a cop are you?” She said.

I'd never been asked this question before, not even by the people who sold me pot, so I was momentarily caught off guard. And as if everything else wasn’t perfectly clear by now, this question made it abundantly obvious to me that the sultry and educated foreign escort that I had dreamed of was an out-right prostitute. I squashed the rise of a panic attack within me and asserted that I was not a cop.

“Show me you’re not a cop.”

I resisted the compulsion to explain to her that one cannot prove a negative assertion.

“How do I do that?”

She pointed her finger at my crotch and twirled it around. “Show me,” she said.

I pulled out my penis and she said, “Okay. Good.” I was hoping this was a statement of approval regarding the size of my cock, but her facial expression showed that she was not impressed, merely legally satisfied. I put my penis back in my pants.

“So what do you do?” I asked.

“Just about anything, except anything too kinky.”

“No, I mean, what do you do besides this?” I thought it was proper to make small talk for a little while.

“Oh. I go to school. I’m going to be a lawyer.”

“Are you in law school now?”


We stared at each other for a minute and I soon realized I had nothing else to say to her, and then she said, “So, it’s $150. Up front.”

I produced the money and she counted it.

“So where do you want to do this?”

I'd never imagined the possibility of actually doing anything. As I have previously stated, I'd chosen to bypass a world where an heiress wanted to feel my seed sprayed across her youthful visage because I'd masturbated too much the previous afternoon. If my injuries were beyond that, then they were certainly beyond this. Also, at the time I was beginning to suffer from an acute fear of germs that would grow worse in the coming year. That morning the fear’s hold on me was enough that I steered the prostitute into Parker’s bedroom instead of my own.

With her clothes off I saw that the woman seemed more youthful; her face bore all the wear of her life. I was still dressed, and she lay on Parker’s bed looking at me drowsily.

“You have to start,” she said. “I can’t touch you first. Do you have protection?”

I chose that moment to come clean.

“Look, I really don’t want to have sex, but I was thinking maybe I could jerk off while I watched you masturbate.”

Sleeping with a prostitute is not something I felt inclined to do at that point in my life. I had no problem with other people doing it, but something within me resisted it. Paying for a lap dance felt harmless enough for me, like expressionistic theater. But paying someone for sex seemed to demand a certain emotional detachment that I was incapable of. Perhaps it demands an emotional maturity of some sort that acknowledges the grim reality of facts, and something of that sort has only recently settled upon me. However, paying a prostitute to masturbate while I masturbated was right up my alley.

She sat up on her elbows and looked at me coldly.

“I don’t do that shit. That’s f*cked up.”

At first I thought she was kidding, but when she didn’t smile I realized she was painfully serious. I couldn’t fathom what her objections were, but I decided not to ask. I began to undress uncomfortably in front of her, and mumbled:

“Well, that’s ok. Maybe I’ll just put on a show for you then.” As I finished disrobing her cell phone began to ring.

“Just ignore that,” she said, not making a move to turn it off.

After I was naked I got on the bed and straddled her, coaxing my limp and raw dick towards an erection. If she noticed the frail condition of my member she said nothing, but instead reached up and rubbed my balls, looking always at the tip of my penis. I came quickly, and the first two shots struck the right side of her head, filling her ear and the hair around it with a substantial amount of semen. I jumped from the bed and grabbed Parker’s bathrobe, using the sleeve to wipe the come from her head and neck.

“I’m so sorry about that,” I said. I felt my knees begin to wobble. I needed to eat and then sleep. The events were beginning to overwhelm me.

“Do you have a bathroom?”

I pointed her toward the bathroom, and she gathered her things and left the room. I dressed and waited for her in the living room. She had only been there about fifteen minutes, and I thought I might use our remaining forty-five minutes to ask her some questions about her life, for research purposes.

When she emerged into the living room she said, “Alright, I’m out. Call again if you need to.” I stood up and gave her a hug-- a gesture which seemed surprisingly awkward for her-- then walked her to the door. I didn’t say anything about my remaining forty-five minutes; I was familiar with the practice in the phone sex industry that if you pay for twenty minutes and come in five, then that was your own fault: no refunds or rollovers on unused time. I walked back to my bedroom and fell fast asleep between my clean sheets.

An hour later I was woken by Chad.

“Happy Birthday, Keck. Let’s go play some disc golf and visit the birthplace of Mormonism.” He actually said this; I actually went.

Traveling west from Syracuse to Rochester (where there is a most excellent disc golf course—known to heathens as Frisbee golf), one passes through Palmyra, home to the site where people of the Mormon faith believe Joseph Smith discovered the golden tablets that told of Jesus’ ministry in the new world.

Between Syracuse and Palmyra I dozed in and out of sleep, fighting a monster hangover that had stricken me in the hour prior to Chad’s arrival. When we pulled up to the welcome center for the Mormon Church in Palmyra, it was terribly obvious that Chad and I were out of place. We did not fit the clean-cut mold of the good folks who held the ground upon which we parked as sacred. A pleasantly plump girl led Chad and me on a tour, which began with us sitting in a small chapel-like room that had an oversized statue of a curiously ultra-Aryan Jesus at the front. When we were seated and facing the statue, the lights dimmed automatically, the doors on either side sealed us in the room, and the statue was illuminated while a recorded voice spoke in what was supposed to be the voice of Jesus.

In my foggy-headed state I began to seriously consider my life over the last 24 hours: I had wasted a precious portion of my time on this earth just smacking the old Muppet silly; I had gambled; imbibed intoxicants; lurked in establishments that fed on human weakness and misery; and I had called a prostitute. Seven years earlier I’d started college with the intentions of becoming a priest, and now how far from grace had I fallen? To what depths had I sunk? And now, here was this oversized statue of Jesus speaking to me on my twenty-fifth birthday, imploring all sinners to accept him and know forgiveness and love and ever-lasting life. Could this be anything less than a sign?

Before I collapsed in a sweaty, hyperventilating heap at the feet of the Jesus statue, the message ended, the lights came up, and Chad followed the girl out of the room and onto the next phase of the tour. I followed, too, but not before taking a good, long look at Jesus. I wasn’t about to make any ovations until I saw how my disc golf game turned out.

The Reverend Horton Heat, "Wiggle Stick"—I can tell you exactly where I was when I first heard this song. But for some reason I won't.
Rockwell, "Somebody's Watching Me"—And it was my mom. Always my mom.
The Rolling Stone, "Rocks Off"—If you had to choose some rockin' music to seduce yourself with...
Neutral Milk Hotel, "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts, 2&3"—During that summer of 1998, Parker, Bill Powhida, and I shared an upper apartment at 104 Judson St. in Syracuse, NY. Bill brought this album (In the Aeroplane Over the Sea) into the house, and I remember listening to it all that summer.
Schleigho, "That Woman"—A brilliant and unknown band from the Northeast. If these guys come to your town you should make the effort to show them love. I believe I saw them for the first time that same summer of '98 at No Borders No Boundaries, a now defunct and once great coffee shop on Marshall Street in Syracuse that became a victim to the tyranny of Starbucks.

I was a Teenage Homosexual

I'm most uncomfortable with this story. For the longest time it didn't bother me—hell, I mean, I wrote it. But I don't enjoy reading it one bit. I suppose it has something to do with aging and the need for a well-anchored identity. I have enough problems with that on a daily basis from reading Bertrand Russell and Heidegger; I don't need any other soul shakedowns, especially those lovely reminders from the wandering past. Other than "Ass Backwards," this is probably the story that elicits the most response from male readers with a desire to confess their own secret experiences. I refer their mail to Dan Savage.

The Cure, "Love Cats" – Possibly the gayest Cure song ever.
The Rocky Horror Show Soundtrack – Original Roxy Cast Recording, "I Can Make You a Man" –If you've not heard this recording of the stage version of Rocky Horror you're denying yourself a real treat. It's far superior to the film soundtrack and includes songs cut from the film.
Pink Floyd, "Several Small Species of Furry Creatures Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict"—The bit in the story about this song is absolutely true. Also, this is probably the hardest song title in history to correctly remember.
Flim & the BBs, "Lunch Hour Wedding March"—One of the first contemporary jazz groups to embrace digital recording, they nonetheless produce some fine queer music. The first year I was in the high school marching band we played this song. Gay, gay, gay.
The Police, "Message in a Bottle"—the 'Jeremy' of this story and I used to spend a lot of time riding around in his Toyota Celica (a sparkly blue with a silver racing stripe down the sides) listening to Every Breath You Take: The Singles. And that was in a very hetero phase, at least for me. I would find out many years later than Jeremy was literally f*cking or fooling around in some way with just about everyone we knew in common. He was a rare creature, that boy—a modern narcissus. You couldn't help but love him, if only because when he was eight he'd found his mother in the kitchen where she'd put a bullet through her head. Of course, his parents had actually met in what one once politely called a "sanitarium"—I suppose then that we can't be too surprised by her unfortunate demise.

Wet, Hot Presbyterian Summer

This is the story that required the most chronological alchemy. If I were to write the events in the precise order of their occurrence it would be painfully choppy, but fear not, trusting reader: all the events described are true, I simply had to make the pattern and significance plain.

As a writer whose bread and butter relies largely on autobiographical story telling I struggle a great deal with how to construct a narrative that is simultaneously pleasing as a story and accurate. I go to Tim O'Brien on this one: "I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth." That's from "Good Form" in The Things They Carried, a book where O'Brien hangs a mindf*ck on the reader so deftly by essentially pulling off a modern "Pardoner's Tale."

But that's still a vague area, that border between story-truth and happening-truth. For example, in "Wet, Hot Presbyterian Summer," the conversation with the guy at the very end of the story didn't happen until years after the awful scourge of the Pert. However, my reaction was the same as I present it in the story, but it seems to distance the reader from the punch if I were to introduce that information by saying, "And then years later..." It works better as a piece of comedic timing, too, to collapse the span of time between the two events.

The other expert I go to on this is Larry McMurtry in All My Friends Are Going to be Strangers where one character says of writers: "They're all f*cking liars, and they fatten on pain. Also, they invariably steal women." True, so true.

Phish, "Kung" (from 7-25-2006—finest "Kung" ever)—The events in the story are ultimately the result of a golf cart marathon. Plus, I was there for the version I cite.
Descendents, "This Place Sux"—The story does take place at a church camp, after all.
Belle & Sebastian, "If You're Feeling Sinister"—The minister at my church was a former butcher. Hence, I never sought his counsel.
Ben Folds, "Jesusland"—Sadly, this song very accurately describes the area in which I grew up.
Meat Puppets, "Lake of Fire"—I almost went with the Nirvana cover on this one...
Squirrel Nut Zippers, "Hell"—I saw these guys at their peak at Be Here Now in Asheville, North Carolina, in the summer of 1996 with my friend Matt Boles whom I've known since third grade. I don't talk to Matt anymore. He didn't invite me to his wedding.


If this book has a love story then it's this one. The two women who are the central figures of desire really enthralled me, and I was powerless to act upon these feelings in either circumstance, but for very different reasons.

When the story opens I'm a young teenager, newly loose with irrational insistences from that curious, toothless worm I'd been carrying about harmlessly for years. And I was so terribly smitten with the neighbor's wife. Christ! A sin when I still believed in sin! The guilt was too much... which is why I had to raid her underwear drawer. As she was forbidden to me (and not just because she was someone's wife, obviously, but because she was nearly old enough to be my mother...) I had no recourse but to lay siege to some aspect of her sexuality that trailed behind her like the perfumed garments of some Arabian princess.

That was the thing: this mama sauntered like every Milf should—she knew what she was before porn had given her kind a name. There were rumors among some of the older kids in the neighborhood that she was overly friendly, especially after she'd had a few Tom Collins while watching some shirtless boy cut her grass while her husband was at work. I never believed any of this until I was at her house one day receiving instructions on the routine for feeding the dogs while she and her husband were away on vacation.

She excused herself from the kitchen in the middle of her explanations about how often to give the dogs the canned food. I looked at pictures on the refrigerator of her from her last beach vacation: she was tan, tiny, brown hair draped around her shoulder by the wind, sun glasses lowered on her nose and a look which said, What I could show you...

Music was suddenly playing in the living room. I didn't recognize it. "Kevin," she said. "Come and dance with me." I tried to answer and started laughing instead. She poked her head in the kitchen and smiled: "What's so funny?"

I caught my breath. "I don't know how to dance," I said.

"Oh, don't be silly, it's all in the hips." She raised her arms above her head and snapped her fingers and shook her hips from side to side. I didn't move. "Hold on," she said. She vanished back into the living room and the music changed. This time I knew it: Billy Joel. It got louder, and then she stood in the doorway and said something I couldn't make out.

"What?" She danced and spun her way over to me. Then her hands were on my hips and her lips against my ear.

"I said, 'Billy Joel is the best for learning to dance close.'"

I wasn't used to people invading my personal space, especially a woman, and I looked away and began to back up instinctively—I could feel myself becoming quickly aroused. She caught my hands before I got too far: "Oh, don't be shy, I won't hurt you."

It seemed like an odd thing for her to say at the time, and it seems even more odd to me now that I'm older than she was then: I won't hurt you. What did she mean by that? What about my demeanor suggested fear and not simple discomfort? Or was she on the verge of something that could have hurt me...

I'll never know, of course. Or I suppose I could. I heard a few years ago that she was divorced and not living too far from where I live now, but I doubt I could bear time's unpleasant wear upon her lithe body that swayed before me so many years ago as the sweetest morsel imaginable. Dusk was dimming the light in the kitchen, and I remember her all too easily turning in the fading sun to the lyrics of a sad song about time slipping away, and it would be years before I understood what it all meant.

viperHouse, "Lover's Desire/I'll Wait for You"—Perhaps the best band you've never heard in your life. If you can't find their albums (I think only one is still in print) get in touch with me and I'll be happy to send you some live shows which is where they really grooved.
Billy Joel, "Vienna"—If you just read the notes on this story then this makes sense.
Bob Dylan, "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)"—I don't know. This just seems to fit with the situation in the second half of the story.
Liz Phair, "Crater Lake"—The Michelle of the story turned me onto Liz Phair. I used to play her album late at night in my first apartment in Syracuse and dance around in the dark. And I wasn't even high. (By the way, I've never confessed my Liz Phair Dance Production to anyone, but now I've let my secret loose upon the world. I feel so free.)
Beastie Boys, "Finger Lickin' Good"—Another memory of Michelle, sitting on my front porch drinking Molsons and listening to the Beastie's...

Stranger Than Friction

I wrote this story for one of's theme issues. In this instance the theme was "shame."

As I previously mentioned I tinker with the facts of a lot of stories out of simple necessity: life doesn't always offer a coherent chronology of events, and I'm prone to reorganizing how matters unfold so that the reader experiences a narrative with an intentional shape.

I bring this up because I think this is one of the few stories where I didn't alter the facts at all. And you'll understand exactly why that's sad if you read the story. Yes, yes, yes, it's all true, with only the exception of Marissa's reaction to my "affliction"; I don't have as neat a resolution to that relationship as the story suggests.

My relationship with Marissa is one of those elusive phases of my life that I catch myself pondering every now and again—we'd dated for a few months, then we just quit calling, then several months later she got in touch and we started going out again for another brief stretch of time and then... nothing. Also, I realize in retrospect that I don't have any definitive details about her life apart from that portion spent with me.

About a year later things in my life had taken a disastrous turn and I was, for all practical purposes, living out of my car. There was a night when I was having some fit of nostalgia and got it in my head that if I could somehow reconnect with Marissa—whom I dated before all the calamities began—I might begin to find my way again. I drove to her apartment—it was probably around nine or ten at night. Naturally I hadn't bothered to call first, and that was a valuable lesson because as I turned the corner to park in front of her building, there she stood swept up in a deeply passionate kiss which was being administered by a tattooed gentleman twice my size.

Of course as my head lights beamed across them they broke their embrace and gazed at my car as I passed; I tried not to look, but out of the corner of my eye Marissa seemed to look puzzled and surprised—obviously. I drove past them and to the corner of the parking lot where a Chevy Blazer shielded me in my Kia Sephia. How was I to face her as she was enfolded in the well-muscled arms of some stagish brute when I drove a four-cylinder economy car with a rhyming name?

There was no other way out of the parking lot. I stayed in the car. I rolled down a window and listened for voices: nothing. I thought I heard footsteps and so I waited for the thuggish gentleman to tap on my window and politely inquire as to the nature of my f*cking problem.

I should perhaps mention that I was, as Morrison said, stoned immaculate. Hammered, dear reader; stoked beyond belief. In fact, I was a little too stoned. Clearly I had to be making stupid decisions for a reason, and while I refuse to blame it squarely upon the weed, it wasn't helping matters in the least bit. I needed to get out of that car. If you've been as baked as I was that night then you know exactly the feeling I'm talking about. Suddenly you become jittery; you can feel your heart in your throat, and then you can't. WAIT! Where's my heart? You're searching frantically for your pulse, but you know you're still breathing. I'm going to die, I'm going to die, I'm going to die, I am a tiny being alone in the universe, my god get me out of this car!

I wasn't getting out of the car. I could not confront what might be out there. I waited for about an hour, then cranked the car. I looked at the clock: only five minutes had actually passed. I said, Well, the humiliation can't get any worse, and turned on the radio: Warren Zevon—always the bard to best brace one for failure. Marissa and her man watched me as I drove past. I didn't bother to wave.

Oingo Boingo, "Weird Science"—My penis has always seemed a grand experiment.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Sir Psycho Sexy"—My theme? No. But close.
Prince, "Jack U Off"—The old school Prince is the one touched by the Gods.
Phish, "Meatstick"—I should probably suggest the 10-07-2000 version...
Van Halen, "Somebody Get Me a Doctor"—Diamond Dave was/is a prophet.

Cherry Picker

"Where are my women now, with their sweet wet words and ways...?" This is my poor echo of Denis Johnson's lament in Jesus' Son, but confined specifically to virginity. It's a mystery with which I've become disconnected. I regard it the way I regard a cross, with a sense of emptiness and an elusive nostalgia. That first taste of real intercourse is a threshold—well, all sex is a gateway, but this is the first breathless leap—and you truly are in a foreign land afterwards and forever. At some point it becomes home, but that first day your senses are immaculate; you've tasted birth. Now you've looked God in the face. Maybe you wish the lights had been out.

So this is about beginnings, and the funny thing is that I'm always concerned with endings. Mine, yours... I like the end of the stories. I have difficulty sitting through films for some reason unless it's a movie along the lines of Mulholland Drive—that one left me raw—but I love trailers. Movie trailers are poems; films are novels. I rent DVDs and just watch the trailers and then I let friends watch the full movie and tell me the ending. The trailers lay out the major plot points so I just want to know how those bits add up. Anyone woman I've ever been involved with, or any friend of mine, or perhaps just someone I spent a day with... I feel like a supporting character in their film, an easy tool to start a scene or two, and I just want to know how it all winds up.

I graduated high school in a podunk town in North Carolina on Saturday, June 1, 1991. The commencement address was given by a local television news reporter who seemed comfortable speaking with the odd delay/echo of the PA system in the football stadium. This wasn't his first time giving a commencement address, and I watched him discreetly accept an envelope from the principal afterwards and then light a cigarette at the edge of track. I know his ending: his station broadcast it as a series of short documentaries about chemotherapy. I wish I knew more of the plot, but I was only there in the chorus for one of his soliloquies.

After I'd shed my cap and gown I spent the better part of two hours procuring seven cases of Busch Light and two fifths of George Dickel Old No. 8 and then drove with my friend Tracy southward along Highway 9 all the way to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

We had beachfront rooms waiting for us at the Paradise Inn. Since the summer of 1991 it has become a standard policy of mine to refuse lodgings at a place that advertises itself as Eden-like. Our room resembled the type of cell in which political prisoners are executed with a small caliber weapon. But with a mini-fridge. And it didn't even hold a twelve-pack.

I stayed there a single night, woke to a cold, brown shower in the morning, and then took my share of the Busch to the Hampton Inn. It was a block off the beach, but they offered a continental breakfast and a heated pool. Also, it was the only hotel with a vacant room that week.

Several friends with whom I'd graduated were also staying at the hotel, though only two of them—Joel and Brent—were people I'd actually consider friends. (In fact I was a groomsman in Brent's wedding just a few years ago, which I suppose proves the fact that my instincts were right about his friendship; I don't doubt Joel's friendship, but our lives intertwined in very peculiar ways and I'm not at all sentimental about the fact that we've picked up different threads.) Everyone else was what I might describe as first cousin friends—people who were glad to see you at a party, but they didn't necessarily think to call and tell you it was happening.

We were all out on the beach Monday afternoon, indiscreetly drinking beer that was sweating in a Styrofoam cooler. These were the movers and shakers of my class—Megan, Elizabeth, Cathy, John, Kim W. and Kim L., and Gwen (who had actually graduated the year before but who wasn't one to shy away from a good week of partying). You probably know the same names, the same types—kids who inherited beauty and wealth and the knowledge of proper forks, or at least a little class of some sort. Why was I with them? I was the son of people who didn't have indoor plumbing until well into their teens—I was a few steps from being on the right side of the tracks yet. As proof, that afternoon on the beach Megan looked at me and said:

"Kevin, why are you wearing jeans on the beach."

Everyone within earshot paused and looked in my direction; even in the sun's glare I could tell it was a question that had been on their tanned minds—most of these kids lived on the lake; my house was built in a field that had been a cow pasture for the previous century. But I was nonplussed. I said:

"Hey, don't you watch Magnum, P.I.?" I was a huge Magnum fan, and for some reason I thought it was cool how he sometimes wore jeans on the beach, as if to say, I don't dress special for geography; I dress how I feel.

No one said anything, and then I began to laugh, and then everyone laughed, and someone said, "Keck, come on. We need another player for volleyball." I leapt up and dusted the sand off my jeans. I was at least blessed with the gift of self-deprecation, and pitiful as it sometimes is, it has endeared me to plenty of people in crucial situations.

My second night at the Hampton Inn, Brent and I went down to the vending machine. I've forgotten our exact purpose in descending to the first floor vending area, but whatever it was it led to some sort of debate about the selection I'd made. We were standing there going back and forth when two girls walked past, and then stopped and stood there staring at us. Brent I looked back at them:

"Hey," one of them said.

"Hey," I said. Or Brent may have said it. It doesn't matter because the girls said:

"What floor you on?"

"Four. You?"

"We're right around the corner."

"We'll remember that."

And that was it.

When Brent I returned to the room the lights were out and there was a lot of giggling and laughter, and then the lights would turn on suddenly, girls would scream, and the lights would go back out. There were only two girls in the room: Cathy and Gwen. Cathy was a hard looking girl who'd been the captain of the softball team. She was trying to work it with every guy in there (except for me; I'd already spurned her on the back of a bus during a church youth trip) and no one was having it. When the lights were out she was thrusting guy's hands onto her shirt; I couldn't see but occasionally I'd hear John or Brent go, "Cathy, stop making me touch your titty!"

At one point the lights went on and there on the floor was Gwen with Joel's prick out, a can of beer poised over it. Then everyone screamed, the lights were out again, and amongst the giggles and laughter were the distinct sounds of slurping.

The next night I would hook up with one of the girl's from the vending area, a sweet dirty blond named Elizabeth who was nineteen and from Buffalo, New York. She had a younger sister who had just gotten a pet turtle, and she worried again and again about reptiles and salmonella. She was only the third girl with whom I'd ever had sex, and the first to make me have an orgasm. And also the first to talk like the girls in the pornos I'd watched. Oh, the things she said to me those two glorious nights where our bodies were the lathes upon which the moon's bright edges were sharpened, filling the heavens with our sparks!

Well, not quite. It was really a clumsy mess. She had a clue, I didn't, but that time with her is as clear in my mind as waking beside her yesterday, and so where is she now, with those wet words, and whom does she welcome with them?

The first time with her was in the shower. We were going to use the bed in my room, but Joel and Gwen were already romping upon it, and so we diverted to the shower. But in that sliver of light from the hall that raced across the bed I saw Gwen's tennis-perfect legs spread beautifully, and I would never see her again.

I know how it ended for her. It happened just a few miles from where I'm sitting now, at an intersection I pass though at least a dozen times a week. It's a common enough ending: she didn't look because she had the protected left turn, but her stereo was on and thus she didn't hear the sirens of the ambulance carrying the heart-attack victim to the hospital. He was 79; she was 20, and she died right there, and his story amazingly kept on going for a while. But here's the uncommon aspect, the twist no writer can invent: the ambulance driver was the father of Christy Hamilton, the girl to whom Joel had lost his virginity while Van Morrison's Moondance played through on cassette, flipping over several times as Joel would later point out. But Gwen could not have known that, could not have been surprised at the collision of events and metal that marked her end, and what is similarly strange is the handful of people who know that peculiar quirk to her story. I doubt too many of them reflect on it with any regularity, or possibly they don't remember, but I do, and I am unable to fully explain why I must witness to this and other eccentricities of fate. I doubt there are Gods that worry over human affairs, but this death that momentarily unites the threads of various narratives—including my own—so that some design seems to briefly materialize for me (that old affair of the spider and moth) is the best evidence I have of such divinity. Whenever I hear any song from Moondance I am flooded with remembrances, only one of which is real: Christy on her knees in her house, which is mostly wood-paneled walls because it was built at time in the 70s when that look was en vogue, alone with Joel and taking his prideful member in her already well practiced mouth, the bare moon glowing through the sliding glass doors that frame their silhouettes; there is the image of the light flashing on momentarily as Gwen pours beer over Joel's erect cock on the hotel floor, her cry of surprise mixed with laughter and hoots from the spectators on the beds; then there is the surreal scene of an ambulance smashing mercilessly into a small foreign car of indeterminate origins, fragile as the hollow bones of birds. That last image is another gateway—if you've been in a serious accident or witnessed one you know what I'm talking about: the strangely palpable normalcy of the moments before and the violent jolt into the afterwards.

I am interested in those occasions when we become aware of doors opening, of possibility overtaking us, but it is an equal curiosity to watch the final door swing heavily upon its hinges, dousing our little patch of desire, steel bolts sliding shut.

The Eagles, "On the Border"—The best Eagles' song, hands down.
Hindu Love Gods, "Raspberry Beret"—Sadly, this is the only good song from the lone effort of R.E.M. (minus Michael Stipe) and Warren Zevon. The rest of the album is comprised of awful blues covers, but the disc is worth every penny for this single.
Wilco, "I am Trying to Break Your Heart"—I felt that way all that week, all ready for love and the ache of leaving.
The Smiths, "Ask"—I got into Morrissey late in life because I went to high school with a guy who loved Morrissey and it irritated me. My loss. Morrissey articulates sexual naiveté so well...
Pee Shy, "Red Ink"—God, where has this band gone? I can't find out a thing about them, and this song and the album it's from (Who Let All the Monkey's Out) is so wonderfully beautiful and quirky. If you know anything about them then email me:

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Theme Park

This is an odd story because I remember almost nothing about writing it. I believe some of the things described have come to embarrass the current version of me with a better sense of respect for other people's private space, and so I've blocked my former crimes from my mind. Well, that's probably a lie. I'm just older and I can't work it as I once did in my gleeful youth, and so it's just easier to disinherit those glory days from memory...

Eric Clapton, "Willie and the Handjive"—I would never actually listen to this song, but it fits the theme.
Rachel's, "Family Portrait"—How can you love indie music and not have this very excellent album Music for Egon Schiele?
Def Leppard, "Pour Some Sugar on Me"—Hysteria is the album I remember most (unfortunately) from my sophomore year in high school. I never owned the album, but it seemed to be ragingly popular amongst every conceivable clique. I think everyone but me went to the concert when Def Leppard played the new coliseum; I remember the hallways populated for weeks with tour t-shirts... Neely Duckworth was wearing her shirt when she sat on my lap in Mr. Hoyle's world history class and put her arm coyly around my shoulder, "I like what you've been wearing lately... did you get these jeans at..." and she named some store at the mall that always made me feel unwelcome. "No," I said, "I think my mom got them..." and she was off my lap before I finished and unreachable forever after.
Michael Jackson, "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough"—Forget what the uninitiated say about Thriller—the real funk lies with Off the Wall.
Mike Gordon, "Bone Delay"—I'll probably never have a chance to say it elsewhere, but of all the members of Phish I believe Mike Gordon has given us the finest solo album of any of them. And this song in particular captures the anxiety of an adolescent with sweaty palms and lecherous thoughts on a long trip.


Sadly, I paid for many of these phonesex conversations with money that was loaned to me for the purposes of education, and I've only now begun to pay that money back. Do you grasp the level of abstraction our lives and economy are based on? Because you know what's even more insane? I've paid for phonesex and faked an orgasm because I didn't want the operator to feel badly. That's right. So, to explain: I borrowed money for a class I would ultimately withdraw from, so the school got some money for someone who wasn't there, and I got some money for being somewhere I wasn't. Instead I was in an apartment calling someone who said she was in New York (but who as actually in Colombia), having a conversation about sex we would never have and both faking orgasms over it. I would then not pay my phone bill, move to another apartment, and use the money I should have paid my bill with to buy sandwiches and beer. The libations are long gone, but they still really haven't been paid for. The orgasm I never had still hasn't been paid for, but I owe someone for it. The class I never learned anything from because I wasn't there is still awaiting final payment—and yet the workers still get paid, the moneylenders still profit. It's just the shifting of imaginary capital over imaginary things. Some people worry about our economy collapsing, but if we could live in abstraction we could go on like this forever. Unfortunately, somewhere down the line, the abstract has to balance with the concrete, and I suppose that's where the oil runs out and the fun begins.

Grateful Dead, "Operator"—A fantastic Pigpen classic.
Bob Dylan & The Band, "Long Distance Operator"—This is some real folk-funk.
The Beatles, "You Won't See Me"—An overlooked classic phone lament.
Rat Dog, "The Deep End"—Bob Weir's solo band plays an important role in the story itself. Bobby should be proud to be immortalized in literature by not only Tom Wolfe and Dennis McNally, but also me.
Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, "Cowboy's Dream #19"—One of Dan's backup singers claims to have started the first phonesex business. Hopefully someone will verify that fact and get back to me on it.

Oedipus Wrecked

This last story in the book is the one that's supposed to clue you into the approach I'm taking toward the idea of autobiographical narrative—that and the Edward Abbey epigraph that opens the book along with the Kundera quote. I'd marked the galley's to indicate that the Abbey quote appear on the same page as the dedication, but my publishers apparently thought they knew what I wanted better than I. They didn't. The quote should appear on the dedication page. Other than that I think the story speaks for itself.

The Doors, "The End"—I believe this one is all too perfect, and depending on how fast you read it may take you as long to listen to the song as read the story.
Vince Guaraldi Trio, "Christmas Time is Here" (Instrumental Version)—Well, the story takes place around Christmas, and the melancholy of the song punctuates the emotion of the piece. Plus, there's the juxtaposition of childhood memories of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" with the scene of walking in on one's parents having sex.
Pink Floyd, "Mother"—Yet another obvious call.
Soundgarden, "Full On Kevin's Mom"—I've been waiting for 16 years to make use of this song title in a clever way. Well, here it is.
Led Zeppelin, "Carouselambra"—If I had to choose a song to close out the album of my life this might just be the one. Jimmy Page's guitar kind of drowns out Plant's lyrics, but fortunately we live in the world of Google. There are no mysteries anymore.

see also:

the author's website
Powell's interview with the author
Creative Loafing review

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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