Monday, January 2, 2017

Dust

I grew up as the son of a Sunday-School teacher. Religious iconography, prayers, hymns and verses still fill many of my earliest memories like old relics heaped on dusty shelves at the furthest back of my mind. Barring illness, or an emergency, we attended church every Sunday. This dedication naturally extended to the weekly bible studies, special events, and of course the church's summer programs. Nearly every evening my mother read the bible to us for 20 minutes, and we said our prayers before bed.

The barest mentions of angels always drew my attention because I found the subject fascinating. The baptist church of my childhood did not espouse the romanticized versions of these otherworldly messengers that depicted them as adorable cupids, or just beautiful humans with magnificent wings. No, these were old testament tales that described angels as powerful beings that were wholly alien and unsettling in appearance.

As a child I was told there were angels of death. I often tried to picture in my mind how such beings would look so I could draw them. I came to envision these entities as lightless, winged silhouettes that trailed shadows in their wake. To me the angels of death were like the hunting hawks that circled the skies high above the Oakland Hills. I imagined these grim angels silently gathered above places where death was frequent. With so many dying regularly in East Oakland I doubtlessly knew they were circling high above our own city.

Many young men and women never left the old neighborhoods. Their individual stories abruptly ended sometime during the 90s when they were barely half the age I am now at the time of writing these words. It is easy to cluck one's tongue in disapproval, and offer only callous words of condemnation.

“There but for the grace of God, go I”, can be readily, and aptly applied to the tragic fates of these young people. However, one does not require faith in any Gods to understand the empathic meaning of this expression. This “grace” can be interpreted as the good fortunes of belonging to a healthy family, living in a crime-free community, having compassionate mentors as guides, or having access to the benefits and privileges inherited from a life in the higher socioeconomic brackets. People born into poor communities often start life with few of these graces.

Shalim was one of those young men. He was a friend of my oldest brothers, and a friendly familiar face around the neighborhood. At 23, he had a wife and two children that he supported with money earned through a minimum wage job, and supplemented by drug sells.

My friends, and I, came to know Shalim because we frequently saw him on our way home from school while in the 4th, and 5th grade. He normally asked what we learned in class that day, then would patiently listen and ask questions. At other times he occasionally wandered into this local liquor store many of us kids stopped at to play the Street Fighter II arcade. We all thought it was amusing how he never failed to select the fighter Dhaslim. No matter how many quarters this cost Shalim he was adamant about this choice. When we finally asked why he never tried one of the other characters, he smiled and explained, “He's not a brotha. But he is as close to one as I can get in this game.”

It was like that for a long time. I saw him all over the neighborhood, or sometimes at my house when he dropped by to hangout with one of my brothers.


The events of the night leading up to the tragedy still feels murky. One moment we were all sitting in the house watching television. The next we were ducked low as shots and panicked yells erupted from up the street. Then there was that dreaded and tense silence that always followed after nearby gunshots.

Outside a woman was yelling out for someone to call the paramedics. As my mother, siblings, and I finally risked cautiously looking out the windows, and back door, we could see many of our neighbors beginning to do the same.

“Shalim is hit! Shalim is hit!” A fearful man's voice began yelling. This awful news drew a few people from their homes, and they began hurrying up the street. I think everyone who dared to draw closer to the scene wanted to help him. Yet, to this day I am not sure what any of us thought we could do once we arrived. I remember hoping he was struck somewhere that would deliver only the consequences of short term pain. However, upon arriving we soon discovered the situation was much more grim.

Shalim was lying there on his back, starring up at the night sky with glossy eyes, while trembling and struggling to breathe. More then one round had struck from behind and become lodged somewhere within his chest. Some of his friends, including my oldest brother, were all knelled at his side encouraging him to hang-on, and trying to offer some semblance of comfort.

Multiple sirens heralded the arrival of an ambulance, and numerous police cruisers. Their flashing lights temporarily held the night at bay around us. The paramedics cleared everyone away and began immediately trying to save Shalim's life. They were urgently calling out all sorts of medical jargon to one another. The police began demanding answers from various people in the crowd. No one had any.

It felt at once horrifying, and absurd that we all could only gather there around Shalim to watch him drowning to death in his own blood. I felt partially disconnected from it all. Maybe it was a defense mechanism. Or perhaps the intensity of the scene was just too much to fully process as a kid.

Somehow, despite the constant efforts of the paramedics, I came to the sad understanding there was nothing they could do. I sometimes flinched when those horrible, uncontrolled convulsions wracked Shalim body as if he was struggling against the inevitable, forcing the paramedics to try and hold him still so the desperate attempts to stabilize him could continue. Perhaps mercifully, it was not long before Shalim simply fell still. Someone mournfully screamed his name as if it could call him back to the world he was slipping away from. He died there that night.

What were the responding police officers doing as Shalim bled to death? They were discussing some sort of upcoming barbecue while laughing, and joking with one another. No one present at that tragedy was asking for them to feign signs of grief. None of us expected or perhaps even wanted their condolences, or pity. The issue was there was absolutely no professional decorum in the presence of what was clearly a murder.

Regardless of whatever personal opinions or prejudices they may have harbored for this young man, or despite if years of frequently responding to these sorts of tragedies left each of them exceedingly jaded. None of the above, or any number of other factors, would have made it any less cruel for these officers stand barely a few yards from Shalim's loved ones, all the while merrily chatting like they were attending a box social. Sometimes seasoned law enforcement, or medical personal forget-- or perhaps ignore-- that what is just another day on the job for them, is a personalized apocalypse for victims, or their loved ones.


At some point a large argument broke out as some of those within the crowd began calling the officers out with outrage and disgust. By then my family, and I were returning home.

Days later, I was the only one in my family who did not attend Shalim's funeral. I refused because I wanted to remember him as he was opposed to what was left of him in that coffin. Later that night I watched the cold, starry sky from my bedroom window. I was wondering which one of those shadowy angels swooped in and carried our friend's soul away.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Brutes: The Merciless Fists of Oppression


How does it feel to be told that ambition is absolutely wrong? What is it like to share space with the secret dreams of a free life one desperately wishes to live, and with the bitter reality that reserves space only for the role of servitude?

Found within the practices of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as the ideas of Hegel, Nietzsche, and Weininger, Misogyny is a blight that has oppressed and tormented the mothers, sisters and daughters of humanity throughout its turbulent existence. Often mercilessly crushed under tyrannical laws painting them as inferior, women have suffered a terrible fate in many societies across the earth. Misogyny can exist covertly as cruel disregard and cover disdain, or overtly as merciless enslavement, abuse, and murder.

Such hatred, disdain, and abuse have been readily justified as the edict of gods, or irrefutable laws of science. For many women, living in a misogynistic society is an existence where dreams of life outside of the home do not exist. It is playing the role of a mere piece of property with thighs always wide-open for male pleasure and possible heirs for the male line. For these women, the only certainties are powerlessness, stagnation, and thralldom that will only end when they reach the grave.

Yet, for some men the earthly subjugation of women is not enough, and, they pray for ascension after death to a paradise filled with women who will serve them for all eternity in the afterlife. Perhaps that is what is meant by the saying: "One individual’s Heaven is another individual's Hell."


 
Yet there has always been resistance to male dominance, nourished by the blood and tears of martyrs and champions that have fought for freedom and basic human rights. From the seeds they have sown, saplings of progress have sprung up. Yet, regardless of growing enlightenment, the deep shadows of the past are not easily dispelled.

Still today , there are tragic examples of misogyny in many societies including our own.. From the degradation of women in venues of Hip-Hop and Rock, to the outright lethality of certain practices justified under extreme interpretations of Sharia law Tragically these and many other cruelties against humanity's other half continue to exist on display before much of a world that often chooses to remain a passive audience.

Description:
The agonizing flames of bride-burnings in India claim the lives of women a year(8), which fills them with inextinguishable rage. Also fueling their hatred is the remorseless, worldwide murder of 5000 women a year(9), deceptively referred to as "honor killings." Equally egregious are the seemingly endless attempts at physical domination using the political process, by U.S legislators introducing over 460 bills(10), all aimed at restricting, or eliminating female reproductive rights. From tears that wet the sun-bleached bones of the murdered daughters of Juarez, to the final breaths of thousands of unwanted baby girls in China, all the misery comes together to form Brutes: the hulking Manifestations of Misogyny, Oppression, and Femicide.

Brutes stand nearly 7ft tall, creatures of overgrown muscles with skin covered by patterns resembling large bruises, both fresh and old. The heads and faces of these Manifestations always take the appearance of a physically abused woman. Both eyes are black and swollen shut, and busted lips are split down the middle. However, like a majority of things within Purgatory, this appearance is all a deception mirroring a real tragedy. The swollen eyes and leaking bloody tears are in actuality a pair of constantly over-brimming poison glands. While the split in its lips is really the hint of vertically opening jaws and mandibles concealing a razor-toothed mouth.

Just beneath the skin of all Brutes’ torsos, there is a pair of abnormally long arms sprouting from between massive shoulder blades, hugging around the ribs and running up the center of their wide chests where they end as a pair of pronounced hands tightly grasping the creatures throat like it is being strangled. Anytime these Manifestations spray the toxic, black-red venom, the hands tighten about the neck, causing a terrible choking sound as the squeezing helps concentrate the stream. This venom causes temporary symptoms of profuse bleeding even from small wounds and painful bruising from even slight impacts.

All Brutes are blind, solitary predators that rely on echolocation, using a sound that mimics a woman's sobbing, to traverse the urban wildernesses. When a Brute detects prey and attacks or pursues it, this sound changes into an unnerving cry that sounds like both a mournful female and an enraged male at the same time

Brutes are monstrously strong, with hands that are not only large enough to easily palm an adult's head, but also have pronounced, hardened knuckles that make their punches especially dangerous. These Manifestations tend to have a very minimalist approach when it comes to hunting.

With an excellent sense of hearing and smell, they simply charge their targets, then bring them down with a tackle and strangle, punch, slam and/or stomp until its prey or enemy is dead. Brutes have been witnessed overturning cars, tearing off vehicle doors, and punching through walls when in pursuit. Each can suffer wounds and punishment enough to kill several people, several times over, and yet still survive.

When these Manifestations detect a female Lost Soul or smell perfume, they instantly enter into a berserk state that increases both their strength and their blood lust. In this state a Brutes will make every attempt to reach the source of its hatred, destroying everything in its path, so it may devour her. This frenzy will not stop until she is dead, the scent fades, or the pursuing Brute is killed.

Abhors: The Venomous Claws of Hate


Humanity is vulnerable to a great many possible maladies and illnesses. At any given time people may find their bodies afflicted with symptoms that will sully the flesh, sap vitality, wither limbs, and consume from within until there is nothing left. Then there are those infectious agents incubating within the ether where philosophies, concepts and ideas exist, moving as slow, creeping corruption tainting the mind and soul.

One of the worse of these spiritual pathogens can distort entire swaths of mankind turning them into blind, remorseless monsters. This contagion, known as racism, corrupts and diminishes the very core of a soul until only a bitter, contemptible and illogical disposition remains.

The optimal conditions for this virus are environments where ignorance, hypocrisy and fear hang heavy in the air. Those most susceptible to infection are innocent children who simply do not know any better, and adults with already weakened moral constitutions.

Carriers exhibit symptoms of paranoia, self-righteousness, delusions of grandeur, and irrational hostilities. Advanced stages include the absolute incapacitation of compassion, and unprovoked aggression that can quickly lead to acts of violence and murder. Perhaps worse, carriers willingly attempt to spread the virus by vomiting forth the infectious words of contaminated beliefs and philosophies.

It is this intellectual and spiritual sickness that deluded many into believing “Race” is far more than it truly is. “Race” is an imaginary concept, and racism is just make-believe that has reached extremely dangerous heights.

It is these sorts of hateful, self-aggrandizing delusions that help men and women live with themselves after performing heinous deeds against other human beings for little more than having cosmetic differences. Denying another person dignity or freedom does not feel so monstrous if one can deceive oneself into believing the victims are somehow deserving of scorn. 


 
The systematic abuse, oppression, and murder of the Ainu. The campaigns of absolute slaughter waged upon the Native American tribes. The tyrannical rule of the English over the Irish as “inferiors”. The countless lynchings, murders, rapes and acts of terror committed against African-Americans. The factories of murder built to kill millions of Jews. The campaigns of genocide waged against the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi. The ethnic cleansing that took place across the infamous “Killing Fields” of Cambodia. Or the continued theft of land, bulldozing of homes, and indiscriminate shelling of Palestinians on the West Bank.

All of these, and countless other shameful atrocities occurred for identical, bigoted reasons—irrational hatred of one group towards another. The bitter irony is that while it appears all of humanity possesses a deep, intrinsic desire for freedom, safety, and peace—they seem always so willing to take those very same rights from others.

Some argue that there is a tremendous difference between those who covertly discriminate, and those who are openly proud members of one hate group or another. While these two kinds of bigots are not peas in a pod, they are only separated by a branch on the same poisonous tree, with the latter always possessing the strong potential of coming into deadly bloom.

In the end, no matter how terrifyingly virulent, contagious and resistant to eradication racism has proven itself throughout the ages, it is, as it has always been, an infection that must be consciously contracted. It is an act of will.

Description:
Politicians who deliberately race-bait and seek support through the “Southern Strategy;” those families who turn upon their own relatives who have dared to enter into an “interracial” relationship; every demagogue espousing “racial” purity or inciting wars of ethnic cleansing--all cast equally long shadows within Purgatory which are known as Abhors, the manifestations of bigots and their racial hatred, violence, and oppression.

The upper half of all Abhors bodies is humanoid in shape with a muscular, but armless, male or female torso. These creatures possess no facial features, and a majority of the upper portion of their heads is in actuality a large razor-toothed mouth with a lashing tongue.

Tapering down to the Abhors’ waist is a segmented tail, and they have long legs that are both strangely bestial and arm-like in appearance, with a large pair of clawed hands serving as feet. These Manifestations can utilize a combination of all three powerful appendages, to achieve a vertical leap roughly over a story high, or launch themselves claws first at a target several yards away.

The skin of Abhors comes in all the shades humanity has to offer. Rarely ever alone, they form packs of up to seven members, but only with others sharing the identical shade of skin color.
When any individual or group of these Manifestations encounters others of their species sporting even the slightest difference in shade, their instinctual hatred instantly leads to exceedingly violent battles where both sides fight to the bloody death.

Abhors are swift and agile predators that move with an unnatural grace. Such physical attributes greatly compliments their preferred methods of sudden lighting attacks meant to utterly overwhelm targets with sheer speed and ferocity.

There are two favored tactics that Abhors frequently use to bring down both prey and enemy alike. The first is to ambush a target from behind by leaping onto their back, then wrapping their legs about them, and chewing into the rear of the skull. The second, when possible, is to conceal themselves on some overhead perch, then use their tails to snag a target passing below about the throat, before lifting them from the ground, hanging them until death.

All Abhors possess the unsettling ability to somehow sense their prey preferred “racial” group for consumption. This is mysterious since Lost Souls have no real ethnicity beyond strictly cosmetic replication. Their bodies are just echoes of memories that are created the moment their souls pass through the “membrane” surrounding Purgatory.

Normally these Manifestations prefer to chew their way through the skull, face and sternum of prey in order to devour the organs. However, when it comes to Lost Souls from their group of dietary preference, entire packs will first eat every inch of skin off the still unfortunately conscious victim, before finishing with the organs.

Finally, all Lost Souls must beware the hidden dangers within these already lethal predators. If a man or woman is attacked, and survives being bitten, there is something insidious within their saliva that begins to poison and twist the mind. The first stages began as agitation and suspicions towards all other Lost Souls who are of a different “race”.


This initial phase soon morphs into resentment that rapidly escalates to confrontational aggression. In its final stages the sickness becomes a irrational homicidal hatred, which remains until the infection has run its course. There are many tragic tales of companions turning upon one another after surviving an Abhor attack. After the effects of the salivary venom have worn off these poor souls return to sanity only to be welcomed by the grief of realizing that friends have been murdered by their own hands.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Curious Artifact

Growing up in the late 80s and early 90s in East Oakland, I did not hear or know of much music outside of the familiar orbits of R&B, Rap, Motown, and Gospel. I was sort of aware other types of music existed, like for instance there was this rather large, but vague genre I frequently heard referred to as “White Music”, that was pretty much any, and everything under the Rock banner. But I knew little if anything at all about those songs, performers, or bands. The most Rock I ever came close to in those days was Run-DMC's and Aerosmith's “Walk this Way”.

For me the soundtrack of the late 80's to early 90's was composed of artists and groups like NWA, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Eric B & Rakim, Dani Dane, Prince, MC Lyte, Too Short, Slick Rick, Das EFX, TLC, EPMD, Kid n Play, Heavy D, Keith Sweat, Jodeci, En Vogue, Boys 2 Men and others.

This is not to claim I lived in a complete genre-deprivation tank of some sort. Sometimes, while flipping through the channels with my older siblings, we would occasionally pause at MTV (when Yo MTV Raps were not playing) or VH1. Back then those rock, alternative and grunge performers/bands seemed all at once curious and alien. It was much like catching glimpses into an entirely different world that seemed so far, far away from my own.

There are three rock videos I still remember having a really vivid impression on me the first time I saw them by coincidence. The first was,“You Could Be Mine” by Gun & Roses, had clips of the Terminator 2 film in it. I recall thinking it was pretty cool and humorous that the Terminator actually encountered the band at the end of the concert just as they were leaving the stadium.

The second was “Creep” by Stone Temple Pilots. My second-oldest brother and I sitting on the couch one afternoon. Somehow we caught the song as it was beginning and decided not to change the channel. I recall feeling it sounded like an extremely sad song. When we heard the line about everyone running because some guy suddenly had a gun, my brother started laughing as he said, “Yeah. That's a damned good reason to start running.”

The third that left the most lasting, and powerful impression was “Sober” by Tool. I was 12 or 13, sitting on the floor in the living room with both my older brothers. They were waiting for “Yo MTV Raps” to begin, so they begrudgingly left the channel there because it was about 10 minutes to go. The video, with its bizarre, stop animation, and dark, seething music began, instantly catching our attention.

What in hell is this?” My oldest brother inquired curiously.

I don't know.” The second-oldest replied. “But it looks pretty fuckin crazy.”

I remember instantly being both fascinated and puzzled by “Sober”. I loved the imagery, that raw sound, and just the power it seemed to have. I use to draw monsters all the time so the actual video ignited my imagination to no end.

I wanted to know who the faceless man was, what sort of world he lived in, why was there flesh moving through a pipe in the wall, and perhaps most of all, what the hell was in that box he kept peeking into? I occasionally checked MTV from time to time in hopes of seeing that video again, but I would not see such again until years later.

Once, while walking home from my 5th-grade class, I came across CD lying on the sidewalk. Cassettes were still mostly my realm of experiences back then, so finding a random CD was strange in itself. I picked it up, of course, and if I recall correctly, it read Whitesnake. What a strange name. Was there a rapper or R&B group named Whitesnake?

I was so puzzled by the title and CD that I decided to bring it home to my second-oldest brother with all the urgency of an archeologist accidentally discovering alien technology. Back then my second oldest brother was like my guru. While growing up I believed he was one of the smartest people I knew and had a way of examining situations on an in-depth level. I found him in his bedroom and handed the album to him while explaining where I found it.

I think it's rock-- or maybe metal-- or some shit.” He said while casually looking it over. “White Snake, huh? Never heard of them. Want to see what's on it?” He asked with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation.

I eagerly agreed as he placed the CD on the tray, and then pushed play. Almost immediately such a terrible, unfamiliar noise came from those speakers. To this day, I am not completely certain if the CD was perhaps scratched, or if that particular band was just that horrible. Either way, we threw it in the trash.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Egos and Indie Authors

I have this quiet, and perhaps unimpressive dream, that a great many years from now, long after my bones have since crumbled to dust, some high school kid might discover one of my worn books lying in a bin, or sitting on a shelf somewhere, pick it up, and decide to give it a chance. Maybe they will begin reading that particularly book on that very same evening, and if they do, I hope this kid encounters the same lingering sense of mystery, awe, and intrigue, much the same way I did when I was their age, and I began reading “Spawn”, or “Interview with a Vampire” for the first time by my open bedroom window one night. I hope my own pages can inspire that heartsick melancholy in them, as “Of Mice & Men”, and “The Famished Road” left me with upon finishing the last page on a summer afternoon many years ago.

Of course, I will be long gone by this time, and unable to know, or ever see such. But just imagining that my own writings may one day tease out many of the dearest emotions of a reader, fills me with a deep, and ineffable desire to continue writing.

Do I have any other dreams when it comes to my writing? No. Not really. Some may feel I am being fictitious, or even pretentious when I say this. However, it is the truth. I do not imagine selling thousands of copies, or becoming famous, or going on talk shows. If either were to happen I would be immensely surprised and accept that level of success with humility. If none of these things happen that is also fine. Either way, I will continue writing because I am compelled to do such.

I am not a best-selling, or award-winning author. I am just someone who truly loves writing. There are months where none of my titles sell. Other months I may have an odd spike where 12 or 20 copies are suddenly bought. At the time of this writing “Nightmare's Paradise” is my best selling book. It is also currently unavailable, as despite more positive than negative reviews, the grammatical errors bother me and I will re-release it once I can afford to have it professionally edited. It is my first novel. And despite my personal beliefs that my second book, “A Violent Lament” is superior, it has never beaten the first in sales or views.

I am not secretive about the number of books I sell. Since releasing my latest two titles in conjunction, “The Languishing Bay”, and “Nightmares & Predators”, I have sold about 17 copies combined at the time of this writing. It may sound silly to some but I am sort of excited knowing that even 17 people are currently checking out my work at the moment. Maybe there will be more. Perhaps not. Either way, I am proud of my books, and I will continue writing because I love doing this, and there is nothing like finishing that last page of a tale that has been bouncing around in my head.

The truth is that writing can be painful. It can feel like the worst kind of rejection to spend so much time, energy, and passion creating yet not receive as much as a nod of acknowledgment for any of it. What writer does not desire even a little feedback? A few readers? Some small sign that your heart's desire to share has not been deemed worthless?

But as difficult and punishing as writing can be there is one thing that can make it 10x more agonizing; Ego. I can promise you that the Indie scene and egos do not go together. Notice I did not say pride, as taking pride in one's work is quite admirable. There are indies that ache over every word choice. The drafts of their drafts have several drafts. These authors meticulously go over every sentence with tweezers, and a magnify glass, while simultaneously duel-wielding a thesaurus and dictionary. These are the sort of indie authors who do not require an editor for their work because they are their own damn fine editor. That is taking pride in one's work.

Now, ego is a different matter altogether. Bringing a sizable ego to the indie scene is a lot like bringing a knife to a long, drawn out, missile fight. It is just a terrible decision where only pain, suffering, and a perpetual sense of defeat awaits.

What is the difference between having pride, or being driven by ego? Ego is expecting a flood of readers to come pouring in the moment you release your first book, and then becoming angry, crestfallen, or upset when such does not materialize. Ego is looking over at a fellow indie, who is experiencing some measure of success, and feeling bitter or jealous towards that author. Ego is reading negative feedback and allowing yourself to become absolutely livid.

As someone who has been writing since Kindergarten, I learned to leave my ego at the door long ago, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made concerning my writing. I learned not to take criticism, no matter how negative, or even ugly, personal. I will search it for anything useful then move on. I also learned to feel good about the little things. I have learned that I will write regardless of how many copies are ever sold, or read.

You are a writer. Do you realize how much energy, emotion, patience, and dedication it takes to complete a story? Do you know how many men, and women set out on the journey of creating the world, or telling a story, and never finish? Yet, if you have, that is phenomenal. You pulled an entire memory, or world free from your mind and wrote it all down. I ask that you try and learn to also enjoy the simple act of accomplishing such a challenge.

It is alright to have dreams. It is alright to dream big and take pride in your work. But I implore you to release your ego as a writer, for no one's sake other than your own. Your journey as an author can be a difficult enough struggle without the added fragility of an over-inflated passenger. You deserve better than that.

Friday, November 27, 2015

79th and Hillside

There was a long time of great turbulence and conflict for my family and me when we lived on 79th & Hillside in East Oakland. There seemed to be an air of hostility that saturated the environment. Even when we were not directly involved in the violence, someone we knew was, and if not them, then those who lived around us.

Constant fist fights, stabbings, and shootings felt so common place that as a child that is what constituted “normal” for me. People being hurt, and hurting others was a daily reality. Looking back I frequently feel bad for my older siblings because they had to constantly wade through turmoil on nearly a daily basis. However, I realize tears for the past are wasted.

My two brothers found themselves running afoul of one particular group of local troublemakers who were used to bullying the surrounding neighborhoods. So, when they attempted to do the same to my second-oldest brothers, the would-be aggressor found himself on the end of sweet chin music, promptly followed by a stomping-good sonata, that left him embarrassed and indignant.

Of course this led to him gathering his side. This resulted in my brothers having to do the same. A string of violent encounters eventually accumulated to the very brazen act of our home being on the receiving end of numerous gunshots one night. We were forced to dive to the floor as bullets tore through the plaster of our walls, and shattered more than one window. No one was hurt. But as if to truly bring home just how terrible the entire event was, we later found a bullet hole directly through my youngest sister’s crib.

A line had been crossed that night. Up until that point the incidents were numerous skirmishes fought with fists. Now, like almost every conflict ever fought by us hairless, psychotic primates on this planet, it was just going to escalate much further.

Perhaps they felt emboldened by the earlier strike. Three young men from the opposing side confronted my second-oldest brother one early evening as he stood on the corner outside our home. It was only him and I at the time. I recall it was the sort of overcast day that turns the sky into one big, dull gray sheet. As they argued and threatened one another, I remember being frightened the three would attack him at once.

I was 12 at most and I was no fighter. Not in the sense that I had not been taught how to take care of myself but in the sense that I just did not like fighting. But in my fear I grabbed a metal bat and watched from the front porch. I was uncertain to what I could do but despite the panic I felt, I knew I would have to try to do something if they started fighting.

The arguing only grew more volatile. An intense garble of sharp, loud words coming out as dares, threats and swears. Both young men inched closer as if they were waiting for some sign of fear or weakness but my brother stood his ground. I have no doubt if he backed down, if even a little, such would have emboldened them, and all three would have been on him before you could say “emergency room”.

Just when it was at its worst, just when I knew things were about to get extremely ugly, I heard the familiar sounds of a swiftly approaching engine. It was my older cousin’s Cutlass. It was a modified, sleek and aggressive vehicle that announced itself a block away with the constantly growling engine.

Apparently he was coming for a visit but caught sight of what was transpiring, causing him to floor-it from down the street. The sight of his car filled me with such a sense of relief. I knew without a doubt he would help. Close to the house my cousin recklessly drove up onto the sidewalk, slammed on his breaks, and jumped out of the car.

“What the fuck is this shit?” He demanded angrily as he walked from around the vehicle.

“Fuck you, nigga. Nobody is scared of you.” The lead instigator, a tall skinny kid, announced boldly as he stepped ahead of his two friends. “You can have some too if you want it.”

“Is that right?” My cousin suddenly produced a handgun. After so much shooting it would seem he was taking no chances. One of the young men instantly took his chances bolting, leaving his two friends to whatever fate was about to lay upon them.

“I don’t have anything! I don’t have anything!” The instigator yelled fearfully with his hands at his sides.

“That’s your stupid ass fault!” My cousin strode pass my brother as he switched his aim between both young men. “You thought you would come over here and just beat the shit out of my cousin with two of your boys?”

“No-- come on. I told you-- I told you I’m not carrying!” The instigator replied as he took a step back.

“Get the fuck out of here before I give you what he’s about to get!” My cousin smacked the second guy across the head with his weapon so hard he stumbled right holding his jaw with a cry of pain. He instantly followed orders and fled.

“Come on, man-- fuck. It doesn’t have to go down like this.” The instigator half pleaded and reasoned. “I will go--”

“Did I ask you a fucking question?” My cousin suddenly pressed the gun to the side of his head as he partially turned away.

It is one thing to understand the eventual inevitably that we will die someday. But it is a totally different thing to see death abruptly swooping in like a bird of prey with talons ready. I can still clearly recall the way the instigator lowered his head, and slouched his shoulders. The expression on his face was at once defeated, petrified and almost ill. This young man believed he was about to die quite violently.

In his growing desperation the instigator attempted to begin slowly slinking away. My cousin was having none of that. As if to firmly reiterate his point he pressed the gun more firmly against the young man’s skull, causing him to first flinch and then immediately freeze.

“Funny. Now you suddenly don’t have shit to say?” My cousin demanded.

“I’m sorry!” The instigator mumbled submissively with his eyes closed.

“Fuck your sorry.” My cousin replied coldly.

“It’s cool! I’m leaving!” The instigator pleaded.

“Why shouldn’t I just blast you right now?” My cousin swiftly inquired. “Why the fuck shouldn’t I just blow your head off right here?”

“Don’t.” The instigator whimpered and it appeared his legs would give out beneath him at any moment. “Don’t. I’ll go. I’ll leave. Just-- fuck-- don’t.”

“And let you come back later?” My cousin replied with what appeared to be some serious consideration. “No. You will just come back later with some of your people to hurt my family. It would be fucking stupid to let you leave. I’m getting rid of you right now.”

“I won’t! I won’t!” The instigator pleaded more desperately with a quivering voice. He attempted to take another step away. “I swear! Don’t. Don’t. I won’t ever come back!”

“Shut fuck up!” My cousin smacked him across the head with his gun causing the young man to slouch further with a groan of pain. “If ever see you again, anywhere, I don’t give shit where,” He angrily pushed the gun against the back of his skull once more. “I’ll blast you. Do you hear me? If I ever catch you again I won't hesitate to blow your head off!”

“I won’t! I won’t! Just-- just don’t. I’ll leave.” The instigator pleaded.

“Good. Now get the fuck out of here.” My cousin ordered before letting him take a couple more steps, then kicking him in the ass causing the young man to stumble forward. His first few steps away from the brink of death were hesitant as if he did not want to risk making a sudden move that would change his would-be executioner’s mind. Or maybe his tentative pace was weighed by the immense disbelief of what happened. When it became clear to the instigator that he was truly free only then did he run away. I wonder what was going through that young man's mind after coming so close to dying.

“I’m so sick of these muthafuckas.” My brother said angrily as he watched the instigator hurrying off.

“They’re just a bunch of goddamn cowards.” My cousin stated as he put his gun away. “Don’t start shit you can’t finish. If I was scandalous I could have killed him and his boys.”

“Yeah.” My brother admitted thoughtfully. “But it’s good you didn’t. Not because I give a damn about any of them, but because none of those assholes are worth that.”

“Yeah. I know.” My cousin laughed as he began calming down. “All this shit is so stupid.”

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Incomplete Soldier V

Not every man is a fighter. This truth is as simple as the proceeding statement. To readily expect all men, simply due to the sum of his gender, to be strong, brave, and predisposed to feats of violence, and strength, is an incredibly unfair expectation. “Man-up”, is a phrase that frequently make its rounds again, and again, anytime one guy or another displays some behavior perceived as weakness, or fear. Much like trying to shoehorn our daughters into “weaker sex” roles, it is unanimously toxic to shame, and force our sons into various versions of machismo.

This was a reality I frequently confronted during my brief time in Army. I met a number of young men who should have never been apart of any fighting force, not from a lack of courage, but because they were not fighters in any given sense of the definition. They were sensitive, inquisitive, and frequently very artistic.

They each came to the Army for a number of reasons. Some where there because either their community, and/or families expected it of them. Many enlisted because they desired to further their education after high school, and could only find money for college through the military. Others came from extremely poor communities and honestly felt there were no other options to escape the poverty they grew up in. There was a great plethora of reasons these types joined for, but never was it because they truly believed they should serve.

I can still vividly recall some of these kids, and their reasons. Dante, age 18, was born in a town near the Appalachians where drugs, crime, and poverty shackled many people to a lifetime of soul-crushing burdens. He came to the Army because he wanted to avoid the cruel fates that had befallen much of his family, and friends. Genma, age 19, and from Detroit, joined because his girlfriend became pregnant towards the end of high school, and he wanted to do right by her, and his son. Gaunts, a 18 year old kid from Brooklyn, enlisted with the hopes of being the first member of his family to attend college, and not go to prison. Solidad, age 20, and 'bi-racial' , was from Alabama, with a Black mother, and White father. By that point in his life, he had grown so exhausted, and bitter towards the racist bullshit he dealt with back home, that he literally joined to be anywhere but there.

Specialist Icarus, by far was the strangest, and saddest story in my company. He was this blond, 5'4, skinny kid of 18, who only joined to prove to his father, uncles, and brothers, that he was a man. Icarus was friendly, and extremely bright, with his head frequently in the clouds. Anytime there was down time, I could find him sitting alone, drawing in an art pad. He was a noticeably skilled artists.

Once, when he began having second thoughts about the Army, Icarus confided in me that he called home to speak with his fiancee about his growing discontent, and doubts. She immediately told him she would not marry a coward. So he decided to stay. Though I did not admit such to Icarus during the length of our conversation, I found his fiancee's response to be terribly cruel. I wondered if it was some misguided attempt at tough love, or was she just in love with the idea of being married to a soldier. One has to wonder.

Anytime I watched Icarus struggle to accomplish our runs, flounder through the obstacle courses, or barely maintain just enough skill to use his rifle during target practice, I felt a pang of sadness for him. I firmly believed this kid should have been somewhere on a college campus, drawing, learning, and living life. I feared he would not last long if sent into battle.

On the day in question, it was a late summer morning, where the air was muggy even before the sun had fully lit the sky. This clearly indicated it was going to be another extremely hot day. The entire company stood 'at ease' before the large barracks. I was standing next to one of the building entrances while D.S Andrata, quickly briefed me on what the day's activities were, and what my duties would be throughout. Of course, any failure would be met with punitive punishment-- with me receiving the lion's share. If that is not motivation then I am not certain what is.

“After you are done setting up the video projector, I also want you to pick a couple of other privates to help take out enough seats.” D.S Andrata continued while looking over her clipboard.

“Yes, Drill Sergeant.” I replied with a nod.

“We will be leaving ahead of the company to get everything prepared. Wait here until the truck arrives.” D.S Andrata turned on her heels, and began walking towards the barracks to retrieve her rucksack.

“Another glorious morning, Andrata.” D.S Anrita said after dramatically inhaling the early morning air.

“Heh. Right.” D.S Andrata grunted her acknowledgment. “You seem to be in high spirits this morning. What gives?”

“Just motivated to give the privates hell today.” Anrita replied proudly.

“Its good to be inspired.” D.S Andrata agreed before entering the barracks. This left myself, a second private, and two other drill sergeants, including Anrita, standing outside.

“You know something, Williams,” Anrita began idly to my surprise. “I've been doing this for a long time. Over 15 years now.”

“Really, Drill Sergeant?” I inquired.

“Indeed. Hell of a job.” Anrita nodded. “When you spend so much time drilling men, and women on how to fight, and survive, you learn how to read people. I can almost always tell, the moment the new privates step off those trucks, who's going to excel, who's going to struggle, and who will probably washout. After a week it becomes easy to predict who stands a chance of coming back alive, and who's most likely getting shipped back in a box.”

“Oh.” Was all I could think to say for a moment. “May I ask what signs you look for, Drill Sergeant?”

“Its not one thing, or another, private. Its a bunch of little things that all add up.” Anrita continued while his eyes scanned the company, as if he was reading each man, and woman during our conversation. “Take you for instance. We pegged you for being pretty harmless. I bet you would prefer to go the rest of your life avoiding conflicts, or diffusing them, because your the helpful type. People come to you when shit starts hitting the fan. I got that vibe from you on the first day alone. A regular fucking mother hen.”


“I suppose that is one way of seeing me, Drill Sergeant.” I acknowledged while secretly wondering where this was going. In just over four weeks this was the first time he had ever acknowledged me with more than a barked order. Part of me was beginning to prefer the barked orders.

“But I'm also not blind, or stupid, Williams. None of us are.” Anrita began again as he looked over at me. “I can also see there's more to you. You're the type of person that might not want to hurt anyone, but if some dickhead pushes you, you'll give them exactly what they been asking for. That's why I don't doubt you'll adapt quickly to combat. You may not enjoy, or even like the idea of killing, but you wouldn't feel guilty if you took out an enemy for shooting at you, or your fellow soldiers. That is exactly what is needed.”

“Very observant, Drill Sergeant.” That was all I could really think to reply with. 'Thank you', much like “sorry”, was a banned expression, as the Drill Sergeants said both were too personal, and also a sign of unacceptable weakness. Then again, I am not certain, if even allowed, I would have thanked him for his observation. In the following quiet I was left feeling slightly confused.

On one hand I felt as if I was just complimented on having the potential of making a good soldier. Yet, on the other-- to insist I could kill with little, to no remorse-- was like being told I could make one hell of a psychopath one day. I was suddenly examining myself in the most uncomfortable of ways. I deeply resented such an observation because a part of me became aware that D.S Anrita was correct. I wanted to feel repulsed, appalled, or even guilty. Yet, I felt no such things. The only small comfort I had in light of such a chilling observation was that at least I was not proud, or even excited by such prospects of spilling blood.

Maybe some would argue that there is a dramatic difference between killing other armed combatants, or committing atrocities by murdering unarmed civilians. I most certainly did, in my mind, as we continued standing. But part of me still asked why was I so comfortable, and accepting of such?

“What the hell is he doing?” D.S Anrita's suddenly harsh, and irritated voice snapped me out of examining those darker corners of myself. I looked up, my eyes quickly searching for what was the source of his building anger. With the entire company standing still, and silent, it did not take long to discover the disturbance. It was Icarus. Though his head was down, and the bill of his cap concealed most of his face, I noticed his shoulders were occasionally shaking. It was clear he was crying.

“That private better not be doing what it is I think he's doing.” D.S Anrita warned.

“Perhaps he is coughing, Drill Sergeant?” I cautiously suggested.

“I sincerely doubt that, private.” D.S Anrita replied without taking his eyes off Icarus.

I was not blind. My previous suggestion had been one of utter hope. Icarus stood there before us, slowly unraveling more, and more with seemingly every passing second. It was human frailty beginning to bleed, and drip from beneath the sterile rigidity of the military uniform. It did not take long for an increasing number of the company to begin noticing. Unfortunately this of course included other Drill Sergeants.

“What sort of sudden goat fuck are you trying to invite us to, private?” DS Woden angrily stalked over to Icarus. When the kid's only response was continued crying, such further angered the Drill Sergeant, who stomped closer. “Suck it up, private. You better suck it up now.”

“Stop disgracing that uniform, embarrassing yourself, and the rest of your company. “ D.S Grace, a short Latina woman, suddenly joined in by yelling at Icarus. “You get it together, and you get it together right the fuck now! This isn't a daycare, private!”

“What's that all about?” D.S Andrata inquired as she returned from inside the barracks.

“Just Private Icarus over there having some sort of friggin meltdown.” Anrita replied with a smirk.

“Private Icarus,” Andrata shook her head seeming not at all surprised. “That kid has been a pain in the ass since day one. Why, and how the hell he got into the Army, just baffles me.”

“You are pissing me off private.” D.S Woden announced more angrily as he stepped so close to Icarus there was barely any space between them. “This is sickening. You are making me sick to my stomach, and incidentally wasting my time! Pull yourself together, and stop all this pathetic boohooing!”

Icarus, sobbing by this point, suddenly turned and bolted, pushing his way through the company's formation, then running off further into a grassy field just behind us. No one said anything for a while. The Drill Sergeants even watched with a seeming mixture of irritation and amusement.

“Well, I hope you are proud of yourself.” D.S Grace began with feigned disappointment as she addressed D.S Woden. “You've gone and scared him off.”

“Where in the hell does that private think he is going?” D.S Andrata laughed with a hint of disbelief.

“Look at him go!” D.S Anrita called out much to the amusement of a majority of the company, and gathered Drill Sergeants.

“Williams!” D.S Woden abruptly yelled over his shoulder towards me. It was clear he obviously found nothing funny about what had just happened.

“Yes, Drill Sergeant?” I answered after hurrying over to him.

“You take another private with you, then you both go, and bring Private Boohoo back here!” D.S Woden turned to face me. “I don't care what it takes, or how you have to do it, but you better bring him back! Do you understand me, Williams?”

“Yes, Drill Sergeant.” I nodded.

“Go!” D.S Woden pointed in the direction Icarus had run off. “I want him here in five minutes! And I suggest you keep in mind that for every minute over that, you, and everyone else will pay for it!”

“Private Leliel! You're with me!” I called out for him without much thought. He was one of the other privates I had come to trust.
“Goddamnit. Couldn't you have called someone else?” Pvt Leliel complained with both a groan, and short laugh as he caught up to me.

“And let some other undeserving soul have all the fun? It hurts me you would think I am so selfish.” I replied while jogging together. Despite the needed haste to resolve the situation before the 'suffering tab' started adding up, it would have been a major indiscretion to cut through the company's lines. We made a right, running to the outer edges of the company, then hurried after Icarus.

“There's no way in hell we are going to find this asshole in five minutes.” Pvt Leliel said aloud as we searched.

“Positive thinking.” I reminded him.

“I'm positive. I'm really fucking positive we won't find this asshole in five minutes.” Leliel remarked. “What in hell was he thinking?”

“That's just it. I doubt he was thinking much. The pressure must have gotten to him.” I explained as we cut through the field looking around for Icarus. He was already out of our line of sight.

“I guess. Too bad we are all going to catch hell for it.” Leliel said.

“Maybe.” I said as we slowed down to begin searching the area. The grassy expanse was broken up by numerous trees, and just a short distance away was a dirt road leading to a track. Further ahead was a currently unused barracks. The two-story, beige structure was somehow both rustic, and strong.

“He's most likely inside that building” I assumed as we both began walking towards the barracks.

“I figured as much. I doubt he could run fast enough to vanish on the trail, or way the fuck across this field.” Leliel agreed as he motioned to the buildings.

“If we hurry, maybe we can make it back in at least seven minutes. That's not too bad a tab, right?” I was not sure if I was asking him, as much as I was reassuring myself. We all knew what the 'tab' meant. It mean pain, and suffering-- well at least increased pain and suffering-- was the immediate future, like a pair of bullies waiting around for you at recess.

“I sort of figured this was going to eventually happen.” Leliel explained as he looked the barracks over from where we briefly paused outside.

“What makes you say that?” I asked curiously.

“Didn't he tell you that bullshit about what happened when he called his fiancee?” Leliel asked.

“Oh. Yeah, I heard all about that. Some pretty cold stuff. Not exactly the sort of woman I would want to be attached to.” I searched the building with my eyes. For a while I could find no indication that Icarus had gone inside. I was beginning to suspect that maybe he went to hide somewhere around back, until my eyes re-visited the left side of the building, noticing one of the doors was partially ajar. I motioned for Leliel to follow me.

“Oh, is that how you politely say 'fuck off', Williams? Because that's exactly what I would have said to that bitch.” Leliel followed me up the short steps, and then through he door after I pulled it open. “What sort of shit is that? 'I won't marry a coward', while her comfortable ass hangs back at home. Please. I would have ended that shit. I've seen her picture. She's not a big loss. Besides, after basic, there is an entire ocean of bad ass, good looking, military women.”

“I can always count on you for a kinder perspective.” I laughed a little with a shake of my head. The building was poorly lit. It was a giant space formed from a series of dark hallways, rooms filled with gray shadows, and silence. “Icarus!” I called out. Only my own brief echo was initially polite enough to reply.

“Yo, Icarus! Come on, man! We are all going to pay for this!” Leliel called out after me, and received a similar reply.

“Icarus, I know you are in here,” I called out again. “Despite how much this sucks, I have to bring you back.”

“Leave me alone! Just leave me alone, and go away!” Icarus finally called out from somewhere nearby.

I sighed, both with growing irritation, and some amount of sympathy. I knew he was hating his time in the Army. Yet, the Drill Sergeants wanted him back, and in basic, their word was the only word of any importance. Leliel, and I began walking down the hallway, looking through each room we passed until spotting Icarus sitting on the floor, hugging his legs close to his chest. To this day, I am not certain what the Army was doing to me, but seeing him sit that way triggered two responses that confused me. I felt really bad for Icarus, as he looked small, and sad sitting there on the floor. Yet, another part of me recoiled in disgust at the weakling. There was no time to examine it all.

“Icarus,” I began cautiously as we stepped into the room. “They sent me to bring you back. The longer you take to come back, the bigger the tab is going to grow for the rest of the company. Considering D.S Woden's entire face was red, while he was literally yelling at me through his teeth, I sort of imagine he's not in the most understanding of moods.”

“I don't know what happened.” Icarus explained with a sort of dumbfounded, and angered tone that was so much unlike his normally light, and friendly voice. He looked up at me from the floor with a pained expression. “I just lost it! I just had to get away from them! I just had to get away from all their screaming!”

“Yeah. I get it.” I crouched in front of him to sit on my heels. “To be honest, even I have had days where some of the Drill Sergeants annoy the shit out of me. But the thing is we are here, and we have to make due as best we can.”

“Especially when that BS comes back on the rest of the company, Icarus.” Leliel chimed in. “A lot of people are going to be pissed about this tab.”

“Fuck those guys.” Icarus replied bitterly. “They are always a bunch of assholes towards me anyway.”
“Yes. Some of them have been. But not everyone in the company as been that way.” I explained.

“I really fucked up, huh?” Icarus asked sadly.

“Yeah.” I responded honestly with a nod. “You sort of fucked up royally. But all you can do now is make due, and try your best, Icarus. The truth is that we all eventually fuck up at some point. But that isn't the most important part.”

“It isn't?” Icarus asked with some confusion.

“It isn't?” Leliel also responded in similar fashion but with a smirk of disbelief.

“No. Its what we do after we have fucked up, that is far more important.” I replied.

“It doesn't matter. There's no way I can fix this.” Icarus said quietly before resting his chin on his knees. “I'm not going back.”

“I have to bring you back.” I explained a little more firmly. “And I have literally been given permission to make that happen through any means necessary.”

“Are you threatening me?” Icarus asked with confusion and anger.

“No. I am just telling you how it has to go down.” I stood up from my heels. “Frankly, dragging you back, there with Leliel, would just be embarrassing for all of us. Plus, I think you deserve more than that. You deserve to walk back, and face it all with as much dignity as you can.”

“Look, I know this may sound like bullshit, but walk back on your own, brother.” Leliel added thoughtfully. “It may seem impossible, considering how shitty things are right now, but going back in any other way will just make it worse.”

Icarus looked between the both of us seeming to consider what he was beginning told. When he lowered his head with an increasingly sad expression, I admit to feeling a pang of disappointment. I feared he was going to force Leliel, and I, to haul him back to the company. Just as I was preparing to make the call, Icarus stood to his feet, and straightened his uniform. To this day, I would freely admit I saw a fire of determination suddenly ignite inside the kid, and it filled me with a great sense of pride for him. At that moment, despite knowing he would undoubtedly go back to ridicule, and anger from his company, and the wrath of D.S. Woden, Icarus still walked out with us like he was 10 feet tall.