GO (pt.2)

To no surprise, Arik was surprised to see Porkchop – at least, at such an early hour – and abominably sober, at that. Having shaved that day, the kid was looking sprite, with the aroma of cheap aftershave permeating his figure as Porkchop approached. Those horn-rimmed, oval-framed spectacles of his made him seem all the more astute, not that he was ever off-mark or out-of-pocket.

“My friend! Hello, good morning!” Arik’s Middle-Eastern descent imparted a barrier onto their casual banter, rendering certain greetings clumsy, yet always jovial. This fellow, moreover, was one of the few people that Porkchop could actually consider a friend. For he treated Porkchop as he would anyone else, despite knowing he was an enabler of those hard habits. Such habits led Porkchop’s eyes to wander, onto the counter where the plexiglass box of scratch-offs stared back at him.

First, though, he ought to give the day an honest, sober shake. Then, out back, he’d slip into a six-pack of beer at his usual pace.

“Early to the day, I see. What’s the occasion? Out of smokes?”

“No,” Porkchop said, slowly. “I’ve come for lottery, actually.”

“Ohh, the lottery! Good, lots of good luck to be had these days. What’ll it be for you, sir?”

Porkchop paused, putting a finger to his chin before carefully deciding on three of the $5 varieties, each of a different design and designated lot of winnings. “Give me an assortment, will you? Four of the $5 flavors. I’ll be right back.”

“Yessir!” answered Arik, as he peeled a few of the colorful cards from their placeholders and then placed them on the counter. Porkchop was already plucking his usual beer from the cooler when he heard the register tally what would be his grand total; that Arik was sharp.

Porkchop was hardly listening to what Arik was saying when he returned: something about the commission and their propensity to propagate supposed incentives for selling more volume; instead, his eyes fell upon with the small, green numbers which proceeded to needle the rectangular box above the cash register, realizing only at that moment that he had so suddenly squandered nearly a third of this fortune on that one fleeting grasp at fortune. Whether it hit or not, Porkchop determined something would have to give on these bad habits of hardly paying attention. Hovering between half-numb and thoroughly hammered all day, moreover, was a decidedly poor way to trot through life – even if, at times, it was the only effective route to mitigate the reality of the circumstances which he so unabashedly endured.

At the same time, a similarly troubling notion swept over Arik; it had not occurred to him as he first took the request, but now the truth enunciated itself as he, too, examined the grand total. Not that the clerk was above taking large orders in exchange for small, sweaty bills and smudged coins, but the idea of counting out a purchase of over $30 in a smattering of dimes and pennies was quite dreadful; his shoulders sank accordingly, and that jovial smile of his vanished.

“That will be $33.64…sir.”

Sight of that single, large bill, however, elicited a strange sense of intrigue in Arik. Had this fellow turned the corner, and was simply honoring his unenviable lifestyle of old? Or, had he saved his studs for a day like today? Was it, perhaps, this man’s birthday?

A faint gasp escaped Arik; he fought to control his contorted facial expression.

Porkchop omitted a similarly confounded energy, as he stood there, now processing the idea of handing over this bill in exchange for a mere square of filmsy paper and peel-away luck. What was he even doing here? It’s still so damn early.

Arik leaned back, emptied the addled expression from his face, and then let out a simple: Sorry. “I just…did not expect that.”

“Yes,” Porkchop replied. “Neither did I. But, here we are. So, let’s see how far we can take it.”

A grin came over Arik, and he offered a slight bow before taking the bill and turning it into a bunch of smaller ones.

For a second, Porkchop did consider scratching the lot all at once, right there: standing over the register with his hands gripped to its counter to brace the impact of another trick. But the pressure just as suddenly seemed all too great; he precluded the potential disappointment by instead swooping his sack of beer and the bushel of tickets in one heave, and then heading for the door.

Behind him, Arik called aloud: “But, sir, do you not want to see what you – er – might have won?”

Realizing himself to be equally as aloof, in the throws of this befuddled excitement he had for Porkchop, Arik aimed more carefully on the next attempt. “What I meant to say is – good luck! I hope that you spend all your winnings here!” Then he gave a wink, watching as Porkchop strode through the sliding door without looking back.

GO (pt.1)

Porkchop peeled off his sunglasses so that he could smile with his eyes, too. For in his hand was a crisp $100 bill, lazily handed over to him by a young man in a crisp, blue blazer, whose other hand firmly gripped the heated steering wheel of his ice-white Tesla.

As the wave of traffic passed with a sudden light change, Porkchop felt escape him the cold sensation that had been gnawing at his toes like a teething infant on a hard object, despite him being quite aware of the fact that this was not merely a faze that he would outgrow. Provided the opportunity to re-assemble his life, out of the shambles that it had inadvertently degraded to over the short course of a year, Porkchop understood he could, in fact, perhaps turn this single stroke of luck into a grandeur fortune. From this sudden downward spiral, moreover, he had gained a distinct sense of apathy. Apathy for the carelessness that comes with bad genes, and, accordingly, the aversion of accountability that comes with bearing a full plate. But, perhaps more importantly, apathy for how he continued to live, as a man without a name, and hardly a face, as another flurry of vehicles passed by on their respective jaunts into, and out of, the city. Apathy, coupled with his few material possessions, was all that he had left to his name. 

Porkchop’s stomach began to rumble, feeding off the idea of hunger as a tangible sensation; he realized he must act deftly, at least swiftly enough for his camp-bearing counterparts to not comprehend the magnitude of what had just happened.

However it was to happen, the haphazardly-kept fellow birthed by the name of Terrell Wiggins – but christened ‘Porkchop’ for his incomprehensible ability to stomach raw meats when that was all that there was to consume – Porkchop had a distinct, inexplicable understanding – akin to a lucid premonition of one’s death – that this was to happen at some point. That he would be lifted from the fifth and scum that came funneling in from the declivity of the concrete underpass of that screaming Texas highway, under which he and a handful of other grizzled veterans slept interchangeably – by way of a stranger, no less: someone who simply saw the deed as a strange sort of attempt at effacing old sins. The sequence, moreover, seemed only fitting. For it was the same flicker of lightning – an irrevocable flash of fate – which had imbued a bout misfortune into his life in the first place. First it was his wife being swept away by an astute office-colleague, after a single night out, and taking with her not only the sacred agreement to bear the first of Porkchop’s offsprings, but also the small fortune she had inherited shortly after they married. Second to strike was the almost immediate circling of fickle third-party lenders, each of whom flocked at the scent of blood like sharks, and rendered him, rather promptly: volatile, as if the word were stamped across his forehead like an expiration date. From there, the rest of his self-worth slipped away so suddenly, expiring just the same with one swift jibe; employment, discipline, desire.

The potential death, then, of this oddly embraceable lifestyle, at a moments notice, felt to be quite fitting, indeed. It, too, felt like it fit: that $100 bill which was still cold, crisp between his fingertips; Porkchop counted all the treats it could buy on his way off the curb, whilst his feet carried him toward the ubiquitous bodega that was affixed across from the underpass, where his friend Arik worked. It was still closed. He would have to kill some time before the OPEN sign flickered on.

But before making any serious strides back to the heap of discarded plywood, steel shopping carts, colorful tarps, cracked kitchen tables, and over-stuffed carrier bags that were all, at various times, claimed by his crew, Porkchop paused to consider the utterly astronomical odds of procuring such a piece of paper; that single bill elicited in him an escapable, yet now most decidedly foreign, exaltation. After all, money could buy happiness; at least, for short lengths of time, with the right people. Surely, Arik would understand if Porkchop were to blow it all on individually packed ice-cream sandwiches, cold beers by the case, lottery tickets; as it went for the latter, Porkchop had done something of the sort before, when given a small fortune by his fellow man.

Salivating by the second now, Porkchop found himself thumbing through the lone belongings in his front pocket: a single pocket watch without its chain; a crumbled stub from the bus ticket that brought him into town, purely as homage; the spare set of laces for his boots; and, at last, a smattering of coins that clanged at every step. It wasn’t much, but this same man realized early on in his woeful wanderings that material possessions – and man’s unbreakable obsession with them – were merely projections of his spiritual shortcomings. And so, as the urge sunk in, to surrender to that inherent itch to indulge in everything elicit all at once.

For the rest of the morning Porkchop concentrated on keeping his mouth shut, while he made small passings at the men in his camp, subduing any impulse to divulge the sudden depth of his pockets. Could they sense it, though, he feared, in the smugness he felt was all but illustrated in his mannerisms, as he continued to glide, at times even skip, down the putrid, piss-painted boulevard, barely making eye contact, nor acknowledging a solemn nod from someone behind a wheel, unwilling to give anything more?

To distract himself, Porkchop took time to unpack the heavy, dense layers of the squalid life he inherited; standing on its foundation, he thought about how his own had crumbled at first fissure; a small crack quickly became an abyss of empty, infinite space. But, having been on the other side for so long – 25 years a stock trader – Porkchop understood that this was just the way life went. Some get all the fixin’s; others, just the crumbs. Fixin’s were, after all, how he had made his way through his past life, betting on a violate market, with invisible means, collecting his coins week by week – until it all burst. Like confetti in a balloon, candy for the eyes, the fixin’s quickly fluttered and fell away, before being swept up by the swift, hard-handled broomstick of society, which seemed now more intent on keeping going than picking up the pieces it left behind.

Here, in his current existence, he hardly made an impression. A fleeting life where each day revolved around the flashing of a thumb. That thumb, the one not anxiously jingling those few coins around in his pants pocket, was firmly stuck out, waving to the traffic that came tumbling forward. As it went, so did this pattern, with Porkchop indolently mouthing the words ‘thank you’ to the few crumpled bills that were intermittently tossed his way. 

What felt like an hour had gone by before Porkchop was facing that betting parlor, right next to the bodega where Arik worked. A few of the letters on the parlor’s neon sign had since lost juice; now, and on any given day, it only flickered different fragments of the word BINGO. As he looked down, Porkchop saw the time on his wrist flicker: 9:01. Arik would be behind the counter now. The parlor could wait.

Winter Storm Wonderings

As I continue to board one bus after another, I can’t tell if they’re running free of charge to let people back into the city, or allow them get the hell out.

Another peculiarity on my way through town is the pristine condition of the power company’s building, particularly its large, sheet glass windows. Each one perfectly intact. No caution tape or not a single beam of wood blocking the door. Even the slightest knick, I surely would have thought.

But, no? Nothing? 

Let it pass. There are bigger fish to fry.

For one, the fifteen board members who have stake in this ‘reliability council’. Yet, those same members are not even required to live in the state of Texas in order to make executive decisions on it. One lives in Canada. 

Let that one marinate. Lest they resign, which seems only necessary, we will sit in front of now-working televisions, waiting for someone to step up to the podium; until then, pour me another.

Giardini Naxos

Soon it is apparent why this dot on the radar is revered by the French, Dutch, and Germans as an ideal slice of the slow life. Its sea is laden with cascading colors of sapphire blue and white ivory, each embedded in the rhythm of the tide; its knockout moons hold strong as guiding forces of the rotational tilt, as if it all began and ended here. Yet, no greater force is the contemplation that occurs at the skirts of a cosmic wonder such as Mt. Etna, where the discards of cataclysm pit questions of life against death. This is where man comes to quantify small decisions and conquer his ghosts; a realm of complete isolation seeming all but romantic with the right view.

On to Mondello

Hiccuping down the spiraling street walls of Mount Pellegrino, aided by half-toned headlights and the intense focus of Lorenzo, our small vehicle dodges and weaves through a mess of low-swung brush and eroded manholes with a seeming grace.

“The mountain, it is falling down,” he says, with a grin. “It is fucking dangerous. They have closed the road because it is falling.”

“Closed?” Philipp retorts, in a rip of laughter; for, this stolen right of passage into the depths of a decrepit maze epitomizes his idea of a cheap thrill.

“Yes, it has been falling for some time now,” Lorenzo replies. “The mountain, its history, it speaks if you listen.”

Steadily the air around us envelops the car into a veil of night, and challenged are the dim, exhausted headlights at each tight corner. Branches overhead tickle the open window of our rooftop, and yet there is stillness on the road; our vessel feels isolated in its wholeness, as if the moment were being preserved for us, and us alone. Upon reaching the grounding lights of a colorful cityscape, Mondello – bold in all of its revelry – there is a sense of relief, but on its trail is the subtlety of remorse.

A Snapshot of Naples

Unescapable, still, is the wrath of foddered consumables as the disconnect is made from Milan and our journey begun to Naples – a city where gold links, silver chains, crowned hats and premiere purse labels clutter every portable table top, ultimately toeing the line of intrusive as we waltz over the city’s unleveled streets of broken brick. Is this not the throw-away culture we longed to escape by vaulting across the Atlantic? An ode to their way of life, rather, this inherently serpentine servitude to sell, sell, sell, is exhaustive in its unrelenting draw of the senses and, in turn, combats the natural beauty of a city that once housed one of the great Kingdoms of the world. Napoli, in no short order, has a way of closing itself in on you; be it the narrow alleyways in between massive brick installments, or the everlasting strip of commercial goods and the bevy of bakeries and banks for one’s moral and material deposits; yet, the greatest thrill comes in watching the parade of cars storm the dotted lanes that serve as the main arteries to the city. On these streets, scooters reign supreme: slithering elusively, they’re commandeered by small children, rambunctious teenagers, and bearded men who take successive, sharp turns at 90 degree angles, against and then with the flow of traffic, just to shave off a few seconds of their commute. A steady Vaffanculo! echoes down alleyways.

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Conversations over Coffee

“Now, are we talking active, or latent?” asks one of the retirees a few seats down from me. He’s one of the few who frequent this place at a certain hour, seemingly everyday. Together they talk politics, the Chinese, and the land-value of what was leftover from the Native Americans. Having just wrapped up comparing their Tuesday crosswords, these old men now appear ready to tackle White Supremacy with everything they have.

This is why I come back. Well, that and the espresso that is dark, viscous, and reminiscent of that which is served over the counter in Italy: like cough medicine, and also without a smile.

How many things come full circle, for this time last year I was winding down from a month-long sabbatical overseas, in where I was given a slice of life that is lived well-beyond, but also contently far behind, our modern-day life in America. Conversely, it is there that I also presume the same silver-haired men in carefully arranged outfits to be having similar conversations over coffee.

When the chairman of their committee drops in, the tailored-suit and otter-cap fitting snug to his frame, an anecdote sticks out, causing me to lend a careful ear. He’s going on about the local university, how it’s going broke, but also how the other, just like it, is firmly bankrupt.

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