The World and the Town

I hope this letter finds you doing well; I felt sick for a couple of days, but I soon got over it.  Other than this, the past week has been largely uneventful. Just the same mundane life. Laura had a problem with her car the other day, and we took it to the mechanic’s shop in Williamston. As it was being repaired, we walked across the street to a restaurant to get something to eat. We chose the booth in the corner of the dining area, with me facing the wall and Laura sitting on the opposite side. Much to my surprise, there was a television screen mounted on this wall, a few feet above Laura’s head. It was tuned to Fox News (the volume was turned off, but you could read the captions), and I immediately viewed the images of President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — known worldwide for their avariciousness and cruelty — standing at two separate podiums, wearing matching red power ties, dressed exactly alike.

The Secretary of State had said in a speech that America is a force for good in the Middle East. America is supporting the world’s only apartheid state, giving it the so-called “qualitative military edge,” making it the regional bully, while we continue to support the war in Yemen, allowing the Saudi coalition to create mass starvation, as they are bombing school buses filled with children, bombing weddings and hospitals, and bombing schools, using the weapons they are buying from the United States. We are also supporting the economic strangulation of Iran, who threw off the yoke of American oppression after a revolution forty years ago. We also attacked and destroyed neighboring Iraq under false pretenses, and this massive instability spread to Syria, bringing about a brutal civil war, a terrorist caliphate, and massive waves of desperate refugees flooding into Europe.

“Don’t look at that, look at me,” Laura said, breaking my train of thought as I was looking upward at the television screen.

“I don’t want to see them, Laura,” I replied, “I want them out of my face!”

It seems like the news is everywhere, on television screens in public places, on newspaper stands, on our iPhones and tablets, and I’m always drawn toward them in a perverse sort of way. I noticed that I know so much about the world, but so little about the town I live in. When I went to the town hall in Robersonville to pay my utility bill, I asked one of the women working there when the town board meetings were being held. She said that it was on the second Tuesday of the month, in the upstairs meeting room at 7 p.m. This would be right after I came home from the housing projects, to stand in the bread line to get my weekly allotment of free food.

The following Tuesday, Laura and I left for the food bank — she to volunteer and get food, I to stand in line to get food. It was going to feel strange, after mingling with Robersonville’s poor, to take my seat at the town hall among property owners and elected officials. My stay over at the housing projects was brief and mostly uneventful, but you have to deal with personalities there, and I was the only white person in line; however, no one has ever mistreated me. When my turn came up, I was given limited choices of what food to put in my backpack, but the food bank was really generous this time, and my sack was heavy. Laura helped me get it secured upon my back, and Tina laughed when she saw me leave as if I was on a mountain climbing expedition. As I rode my bike home past the car wash, I heard someone shouting to another, “He can’t lift, he can’t carry. That’s all he is!” I didn’t turn my head to the side to look at who was saying this. I didn’t believe they were talking about me, but it made me uncomfortable. I know I looked strange riding home with this big load on my back, but motorists will probably never know why I was doing this, and I will never conform in order to please them.

After arriving home and putting my food away, I left my apartment to walk downtown. As I was getting closer to the town hall, I noticed several cars and pickup trucks parked in front of it. I felt a little uneasy as I entered the building and walked up a flight of steps into the meeting room. Why would someone who lives in a lowly place such as Robersonville Manor, where the tenants don’t have the right to vote in municipal elections, want to attend a board meeting? I was relieved when I entered the room, and saw there were several rows of chairs which allowed me anonymity as I sat in the back. The board members were sitting behind a table the shape of a semicircle, with a podium facing the center. The meeting had just started and the mayor, who owns and operates the local pharmacy, announced the commencement of new business.

A woman representing an insurance company took the podium. It was a type of insurance which covers residents who have an unknown water leak on their property — leaving them with a sudden, astronomical water bill — that would not be covered by homeowner’s policies, and would cause the municipality hardship if the resident couldn’t pay the debt. The town of Robersonville could pay the premiums by increasing everyone’s water bill by approximately a dollar and a half, and if they did so, the town would be able to forgive the liability after the homeowner got the leak fixed, and wouldn’t end up having to turn his utilities off. One of the board members asked her about the other communities who implemented this scheme. After she told them, and passed out the advertisements for her company, the mayor said they would take it all into consideration. She smiled at me as she walked past and left the room.

The next order of business was concerning a proclamation by the Boy’s and Girl’s Club of Robersonville. The mayor read it out, and it listed the good works it was performing for the youth of the town. I found this interesting, because I didn’t know that such an organization existed here.

The next person who took the podium was a gentleman in charge of Robersonville’s zoning laws. There is a church on the corner of Outerbridge and Academy Streets, the old Robersonville Primitive Baptist Church, constructed in 1910, that was converted into a museum which the town finally closed, locking its doors permanently. The church was a more “worldly” design of American Colonial Revival architecture, with only one entrance in front, not two separate ones for each gender, to keep the men and women separated. The grandson of one of the parishioners had acquired ownership of the building, restoring it as an expression of Southern culture. Now it’s in poor repair and has a “For Sale” sign in front of it. A group of people have expressed an interest in buying the property and turning it into a church again. The leader of the group stood up and introduced himself. The official mentioned rezoning the neighborhood to allow this new place of worship to be established. The mayor agreed to this. The official also talked about the dozen vacant houses here in town, in severe disrepair with their roofs caving in, their owners no longer taking responsibility for them. He suggested going ahead and getting these dwellings condemned so they could be torn down. The board agreed to this, also.

There was no more business here, and the meeting was adjourned.

Starvation

I just thought I would write you a few lines to tell you how my psychiatrist’s appointment went last time. It was the most difficult session I’ve ever had with Dr. Saba. After he weighed me, I told him emphatically that I could no longer go hungry in order to please the scales. I weighed in at 175.6 pounds and my height is five feet, nine inches. Dr. Saba asked me how long had it been since I had stopped fasting. I told him three weeks, adding that I got worried about every morsel of food I was putting in my mouth. As I continued skipping meals and weighing myself repeatedly, my body began to fight back. Laura and her friend Diane found out what I was doing and became alarmed. Diane met me at Laura’s house especially to talk to me about the dangers in what I was doing, telling me she had a sister-in-law who was skinny like I was. When this petite person got sick, she had no reserves in her body to back her up. She turned into a walking skeleton, then she passed away. Going without food is serious. People in refugee camps turn to eating grass and dirt when the food aid doesn’t arrive in time. Cities come under siege in wars, and people have a history of eating each other when it becomes a matter of life or death. Fasting is a pathway to depression, Dr. Saba told me. He realized he had made a mistake in his dealings with me — trying to keep me at an optimum weight by nagging — but he wouldn’t own up to this, saying I had let all of this weighing get to me.

I realized, despite all my desires to conform and to please everybody, that this was impossible, and that I shouldn’t try to do it anymore.

We also discussed my latest obsession with current events shaping our world. I cannot trust the mainstream media in this country. No matter which news outlet you listen to or any news article you read, there is no way a person can really know the truth. The propaganda wars are a fog of white noise, an attempt of powers beyond our control to mold the minds of the masses. It is the corporate elites — whether foreign or domestic –who are the puppet masters, trying to manage the herd. Their’s are the loudest voices, and their lives — because of their massive concentrations of wealth — are so much different from our own. I can see political leaders at world summits, men who wield such power that they could order the murder of a fellow human being and never have to answer for it. The rich and powerful live by their own set of rules, and they make the rules for everybody else.

Dr. Saba said that our form of government doesn’t work in other nations who are different from us. But fortunately, we have freedom of speech and have no restrictions on what we can read. Instead of reading the news app on my phone, I could read Wikipedia on my phone. Instead of reading journalism, I could read the great books of civilization, and learn about the great ideas of mankind. They are people out there who don’t follow the news at all, and no person must make it so personal as I have been doing. I am but one person living in a small town.

So this is the jist of the conversation between me and Dr. Saba. When I picked up my script and made my next appointment in May, I left his office and got into Laura’s car. She had been outside waiting for me. I said, “Let’s go to Denny’s. I’m hungry.” When we got to the restaurant and took our seats in one of the booths, I told Laura about the session I just had. “Did you talk to Dr. Saba about me?” she asked. I told her that her name never came up. My stomach felt full after lunch, for the first time in a long while.

The next morning the sun rose and a blue sky prevailed, despite what the weather forecast predicted. I spent time walking around the track with my wireless ear-buds, listening to the band Blue Oyster Cult, doing almost five miles as I repeatedly walked past the flag pole, the stars and stripes flapping in the breeze. I returned home and washed a sink full of dirty dishes, feeling that I had achieved a small victory after all the mess was cleaned up. My depression was lifting, and I knew that this was the beginning of a bright new day.

Justice and a Positive Attitude

If you have been reading my lines, you have probably noticed this before I have. My mind has been too focused upon conflict and injustice. This becomes a millstone around your neck after a while, all this looking cross eyed at the stratification of social class, at the worm-eaten ugliness of racism, at the manipulations of politicians flooding the airwaves — it is time for all of this to change. Keeping faith in the altruism of human nature — even if some do not agree with me — helps me to fight my feelings of sadness.

I’ve seen on Aljazerra how the nation of New Zealand is slowly healing after the terrorist attacks of over two weeks ago. The police having taken their crime scene photos, the sheet-rock has been replaced and repainted, with new carpeting being put in, and the mosques have now been reopened. The Prime Minister of New Zealand has responded by banning all assault rifles and implementing gun control. But this will probably never happen in America. The National Rifle Association is a powerful organization on these shores, and whenever a school full of kids gets sprayed with bullets, the leaders of the NRA respond by declaring, “The best thing you can have against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” My stepfather, not buying sufficient life insurance for my mother to retain their house on her own after his death, responded to advertising he saw on cable television instead, sending his money to tele-evangelists and to the NRA. At Laura’s church, on Sunday mornings after the congregation enters the sanctuary, the deacons lock the double-doors so no one can get inside until the service is over. These are the times we live in, and I have to learn to accept it.

Laura and I have been together a lot lately, discussing our relationship with the food bank here in Robersonville. I told her that, since I was standing in line with her once a month to carry her bags of the free food anyway, I should sign up myself and see if I qualify for food also. This way we would have twice as many victuals together, could trade with each other, and, instead of buying it at the store, we would be in a position to give away food to any of our friends who might be in need. After we agreed to do this, I searched the back of my closet and retrieved my large backpack made for hiking which would hold a week’s worth of groceries. I was a bit nervous on Tuesday evening, when I had to ride my bike to one of the housing projects to stand in the bread line by myself. I hitched my bicycle on a clothes line post, making sure my padlock was fastened, and found my place in queue outside the door of the community center. The atmosphere was raucous, but friendly. Laura was helping Tina, the director, who already knew me and was aware that I was coming for myself this time. When my turn came to enter the building, I filled out the form and Tina immediately knew that I qualified. I opened my backpack and Laura filled it with food, helping me to get all this strapped snugly upon my back. When I got home to my apartment, I sorted out the items which my doctor didn’t want me to eat, then I went over to one of my neighbors, Della, who has problems with her mobility and stays isolated in her apartment. I placed the food I was giving her into a plastic bag and left it in a chair Della has on her front porch.

She called Laura later on, asking where the mysterious bag of food came from.

A few days later, Laura and I traveled to a Wayne County high school to see Laura’s mentally challenged brother participate in Special Olympics. All the handicapped athletes, their caregivers, and their families gathered on the bleachers surrounding the track and football field. The event began with the playing of the national anthem. I stood before the American flag with my right hand over my heart. I was probably the only person in that crowd who knew that Education Secretary Betsy DeVoss, as the Olympians were on their feet saluting the flag, was simultaneously going before Congress with a budget which discontinued funding for this whole event. She claimed that private charter schools needed the government money, not the handicapped children and adults who filled this small stadium. This was a project for philanthropy, not government. This was the claim by DeVoss.

Knowledge can be a terrible thing, especially if you are suffering from depression. If I hadn’t been looking at the local news outlet, I never would have known what was going on in Washington. I had problems paying attention to the event as a result, but I saw Andrew win two ribbons for his excellence in two sporting events. He did much better this year than he did last year. I wished I could have felt more upbeat and congratulated him more. I noticed that the workers at the group home where Andrew resided seemed cheerful and happy. Unfortunately, I couldn’t share their enthusiasm, feeling overwhelmed by despondency and boredom.

I was tired when I returned to my apartment. I opened the news app on my iPhone and found out that President Trump overrode DeVoss’ recommendations for Special Olympics. The organization would keep their funding after all. I’ll never know if this was a rare flash of humanity on the part of Trump, or if this was because it could hurt his chances in next year’s election campaign. I know he wants to stay in power as long as he possibly can. Democrats control the House of Representatives, who wouldn’t have agreed to defunding Special Olympics in the first place. When the President announced his countervailing decision, DeVoss responded in public that this was what she actually wanted all along. She had been trying to keep funding them, behind the scenes while nobody was looking, and now DeVoss was pleased and content with herself.

I have an appointment with my psychiatrist today at noon.

A Place of My Own Forever

My bike trip to Greenville was one that left me physically fatigued, and writing about it to you last week left me mentally prostrate as well. My insomnia was cured for a time, but it soon came back, and I started drinking espresso again — I always relapse.  It’s not a question of nevermore, but of whenever. And now I was calling my mother on the phone in the mornings with a coffee cup in my hand, when she starts her day (except on Sundays because she is always in the bathroom getting ready for church), and  I’ve been doing this ever since my stepfather left us for the great beyond. My mom and I chat briefly about mundane topics, such as our plans for that particular day, or about the books we are reading. We tell each other about our doctor’s appointments and about what they say about our conditions. My mom has macular degeneration in one of her eyes, periodically having to receive an injection in it. Whenever I inquire about her vision, she tells me that she can still read her romance novels every day. She also tells me she has problems with arthritis, informing me about her doctor’s statements about this also.

But our conversational motif lately has been centered on the fact of my having no life insurance. I’ve had my concerns about this for quite a while. I wanted a decent, dignified burial; however, I didn’t see the need for spending a fortune on a funeral. I didn’t want to use up my savings for this venture, either. So on a Monday morning, I decided to start the week by taking care of this problem. I would ride my mountain bike to Williamston, to the company which handles both my health and home owner’s insurance, to see if an agent could write me a policy for twelve thousand dollars or so.

My eyes came open in the middle of the night once again. I made a pot of coffee and opened a volume by Walt Whitman that I had checked out of the local library. I waded through the author’s whimsical and aimless musings as I ended up taking in more caffeine than I meant to. I couldn’t help but notice Whitman’s repeated poetic references to sexuality and deathbed scenes, singing songs of budding life and corpses, and I was growing anxious about my bike trip to Williamston, even though the town is nowhere as large as Greenville, nor nearly as far away. After several hours, I put my book away and donned my wireless ear-buds, linking them up to my iPhone. I opened the YouTube app and queued up the album Incesticide, by Nirvana. I turned off the lights when the music began. It filled my mind with sounds of distorted electricity as the late Kurt Cobain, a man of great talent who took his own life, beget compelling emotions of aggressiveness and agitation with his guitar. His raspy voice came on, singing his chorus, beckoning, “Come die with me.” I listened to this musical suicide note until it was almost time for me to leave. I got suited up with layers and layers of fleece to protect me from the cold.

While I was outside, getting my mountain bike out of my shed and switching on its flashing tail-light, the goddess of the dawn began drawing back her rosy curtains, allowing the chariot of the sun to start its daily journey across the vault of the sky. I rode past Robersonville Manor as I was pedalling down the highway, approaching the illuminated billboard in front of the church next door. The billboard said,  “Life Without Christ is a Deadend.” I was riding further out, passing through town, looking over and seeing a golden swath of crimson light in the east as the glowing stars and planets were beginning to surrender to the rising sun. I turned on Third Street and rode past the peanut factory, Ann’s House of Nuts, with its parking lot filled with vehicles. I continued my trek towards the outskirts of town, past the empty buildings of the East End Elementary School, which isn’t a school anymore, since it was shut down, the teachers and the children being moved to a newer facility several miles out-of-town.

As I was leaving Robersonville, I began to pass by newly plowed fields, the sod cut into neat rows, covered with a glaze of frost. I went over a bridge, with a hovering mist dancing above the swamp below, the grasses and mosses tinged with tiny particles of ice. I stayed in motion as I approached an overpass, my heart and lungs oscillating as I rode up the incline, and when I reached the top, I looked down upon the Interstate below, with its rushing vehicles of varying shapes and sizes, all of them with a place they had to go. As I rolled down the other side of this asphalt mountain, receiving an elevated view of the fields, the farm houses, and the clumps of maple and pine trees that speckled the landscape, I looked over at the disk of the sun in the east which now fully revealed itself. I turned on Airport Road, and it seemed like I was traveling directly into the bosom of the great star. I rode past a pond, and I could hear the ducks cry out from the opposite bank. All of this began to remind me of my readings of Emerson and Thoreau, with their lionization of the outdoors, the transcendentalism of magnificent nature, with the satisfaction of self-reliance within. I was musing upon these ideas as I passed the Martin County Airport, floodlights lighting up its runway, but I didn’t see any planes there, which are used to spray pesticides upon the crops when the season is ripe.

As I grew closer to Williamston, the farms growing larger along with the farm houses,  I began traveling through a close-knit neighborhood, which seemed to reveal itself suddenly, then a sign came up, “Welcome to Williamston.” I wasn’t long after this before I was traveling along with slow-moving traffic, and soon I was in the parking lot of my insurance company. I went inside and told the clerk behind the desk what I came for. She said that the agents were currently in a meeting; it would be over in an hour, then someone would be available to help me. I left and found a coffee shop nearby. This was the last place I needed to go, an establishment that would sell me more caffeine, but it was in a covenant location and was a comfortable place to sit and wait. So I hitched my bike to a flagpole and locked it, then entered the venue, taking in its nineteenth century Western decor. The town of Williamston has an affinity for horses. It is proud of its agricultural center, named after a state senator, which serves as a stadium for rodeos and livestock displays. Every year the town holds a festival downtown, known as “The Stampede,” which is filled with vendors selling trinkets and food, serenaded by gospel music.

I drank two overpriced mocha as I sat in a comfortable chair, placing my feet upon an imitation bearskin rug, reading news articles on my iPhone, repeatedly looking up at the clock on the wall to check the time. As I continued to sit in quiet contemplation of politics and gossip, I was mesmerized by events exploding on the other side of the earth. I read about the aftermath of a crime which shocked the world. A deranged mass murderer in the idyllic and benevolent nation of New Zealand posted a rambling manifesto online so it would go viral, professing his belief in white supremacy, noting President Donald Trump as a symbol of white identity. Then he drove to a mosque in the city of Christchurch — taking with him an assault rifle — and entered the sanctuary of peace. As he opened the double-doors, he was greeted by an elderly man who said, “Hello, brother.” And the gunman raised his weapon in reply, firing indiscriminately into the crowd. After the first killing spree, he drove across town to another mosque and did the exact same thing. Fifty worshippers died. This was a deed inspired by the internet, performed for the internet. He had a webcam placed on his forehead, streaming this abomination live on Facebook. When the terrorist was apprehended and brought before a judge, he basked in the attention he was receiving, loving his newly forged status as a celebrity, and, his hands cuffed to the front of his torso, and with the fingers of his left hand, flashed a symbol popular to other white supremacists online, to establish himself as a hero in their shadowy, anonymous sight.

His manifesto stated that this rampage was in retaliation for an attack in Europe, where an extremist drove a speeding van — plowing it into a group of pedestrians — killing several, all in the name of Islam. The terrorist in New Zealand was originally from neighboring Australia, and one of their politicians immediately grabbed a microphone — taking his place before a camera — repeating the same diatribes he spouted in Parliament. The lawmaker declared that the people of New Zealand had brought violence upon their own peaceful country because they opened their doors to those immigrants and migrants. And as the legislator was speaking, a teenaged boy with an egg in the palm of his hand smashed it against the lawmaker’s bald head. The politician lunged at him, slapped him, and went on the attack, taking another swing at him. This powerful man was surrounded by a group of supporters, who all pounced upon the boy, one of them applying a choke-hold upon him, wrestling him to the ground.

President Trump reached out and sent his condolences to New Zealand, but failed to condemn the attacker. He has declared that my country is in a state of emergency, because groups of disadvantaged hispanic people are supposedly invading our country, the same way Muslims are supposedly invading New Zealand. As I was volunteering with Laura at Robersonville’s community center last week, I saw for myself the very people America is so afraid of. A hispanic couple came in with four children, and we served them lunch. The wife had a little boy in her arms, and there was two other toddlers, with a teenaged girl who could speak English, communicating with us on behalf of her loving family, telling us what food to put on their plates. Is this the reason the United States needs to build a wall on her southern border? The President of the United States — who possesses the loudest bullhorn on earth — does not condemn white supremacy, but I hear by condemn it on my own. I write my lines to you hopefully, and as you read them, you can surrender to my literary voice — a voice of humanism, a voice of inclusion, a voice of compassion, a voice of empathy and love. If you believe in God, then I can tell you that we are all the children of God. We are all equals in the sight of God. The people of this earth have more in common than they have in attributes which sets us apart. We may have different religions, different cultures, and different skin tone, but basically we are all the same, no matter what some people might tell you, with their symbols and speeches, and their perverted racial theories sowing their stinging nettles of malicious doctrine.

As I was pondering these issues, looking into my iPhone at the pictures from the opposite side of the world — of the flowers of condolence and sympathy — I looked up at the clock on the wall and saw it was time to finish my mocha and leave. I returned to the insurance office and an agent named Kyle was available to assist me. When I sat down in his office, Kyle asked how he could help me, and I declared my intentions. Kyle told me about their twenty-five thousand dollar whole life policy, quoting me a monthly payment I could easily handle. “Where do you work?” Kyle asked. When I told him I lived on Social Security Disability, he gave me the bad news. His company usually does not sell life insurance to disabled persons. Kyle said that he had a person come in there who received a disability check because he permanently messed up his spine, and the company denied him coverage. When I told Kyle my diagnosis, that it affected the brain but it was not life threatening, that I did distance riding on a bicycle, had regular EKG’s which indicated a healthy and fully functioning heart, that my cholesterol was good, and that my weight was on target, Kyle asked me what medications I took for my condition, and I told him. He wrote all of this down. He said he would call the home office about this, but said my prospects were dismal.

My phone rang as I was leaving town on my bicycle. It was Kyle. He said that his company could not help me, but not to give up, even though there is a chance I would run into a dead-end no matter where I went. There were other insurance products in the marketplace which required paying into the system for a couple of years, then receiving full coverage after the trial period — this was my best avenue of pursuit. I ended the phone call feeling disappointed, having struck a societal barrier not of my own making, which I previously knew nothing about. As I was riding home I noticed the grave markers of a farming family, buried on their own land. As I passed the airport, I saw two buzzards picking at a dead carcass on the side of the road, its bones uncloaked in the noonday sun.

The Town and the City

Since nearly a week has drifted past without you hearing from me, I thought it timely to write once again. I keep you constantly on my mind as I go through my daily life, swimming like a carp through this ocean of time, hoping find sunshine near the top as I search for issues to discuss and for stories to tell. But whenever I write  letters to you, we both realize that other people can read them as well. Not only am I making my confessions to you, but I’m actually confessing to the whole world. I sometimes contemplate the ethics of what I’m actually doing in here, describing in graphic detail actual situations and real people without their knowledge or consent. It would be better if I could write essays, but my mind doesn’t seem to work that way. I’ve even tried to write fiction, but my writing abilities are so limited that I just cannot express myself in that fashion.

As I continue to share with you the facts of my inner and outer life, a phantom endowed with artificial intelligence has been scanning my correspondence, trying to find ways to predict and control my behavior, by offering what I might think would be a reward. I received an email the other day, from the corporation which owns this platform, embedded with a video. When I played it, a cartoon filled my screen, telling me about a single mother who started blogging about having a job cleaning the houses of wealthy patrons, living on food stamps and Medicaid, who saved up her money and bought herself a premium plan. When she did this, her blog generating a plethora of readers, she recieved a book deal, quit her day job, and lived happily ever after. I doubt if this story is true, but I know for certain that I’m a voluntarily party to my own surveillance. They’re learning more about me than I am about them. I probably agreed to something I didn’t take the time to read, and now they are lurking in the shadows, part of a secret society, and these spectral entities — these agents of corporate authoritarianism — believe that I will always write to you about the exact same things, my mind being stuck in the very same places, with no chance to change or evolve.

As you can probably tell, I have been carrying around with me a sense of uneasiness and apprehension. I’ve been having serious problems with insomnia. When I awoke the other night, it was midnight and I felt restless. After I sat at the kitchen table for a couple of hours, reading the poem “Evangeline,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I found myself unable to concentrate anymore. I entered my bedroom, turned on the lamp upon my nightstand, and, switching on my tablet, traveling within the search engine of YouTube looking for music, I pulled up The Greatful Dead. I queued up a five-hour video of nothing but their instrumental improvisations. I lied upon the bed listening to it for an extended period of time while a vivacious electric bass line, carrying on an underpinning as well as a rhythmic function, acting as a sympathetic expressway with the driving accentuations of an electric guitar, had its the lead instrument perform a halo of ringed and angular figures. I looked into the screen of my tablet, viewing an image of their iconic human skull with its jawbone missing, the top of its cranium removed, and its inside cavity bisected by a lightning bolt, the colors red and purple filling the enclosure on each side of it. Other pictures were appearing, illustrative of galvanizing roses, with the Dead’s trademark multicolored walking bears, sequencing upon a dark circular band like the fleeting pictures of a kinetoscope, as they were looking in my direction, smiling, with joyful faces.

This was reminding me of the crafts project Laura was currently working on. She had been staying awake a lot more lately, painting a ceramic reef with figures of trees, bushes, and forest animals moulded into it. I was impressed with Laura’s artistic ability, including her use of different sized paint brushes to create shading and perspective. She was planning to give the finished product to her dentist, as a gift for repeatedly fixing her partial which she was constantly breaking. She had also set a goal for herself, and I felt a sense of pride in her for painstakingly working toward it. Her love of painting, along with my desire to educate myself and to write, is part of a work ethic we both aspire to.

As these thoughts of endeavor and determination were crystallizing in my mind, the sun was rising and it wasn’t long before Laura called to wish me good morning. After Pee Wee finished helping her around the house, Laura offered to take me out to breakfast. We went to Bojangle’s. I sat at one of the booths as Laura was getting our food. When she arrived at our enclosure, Laura told me that the young woman who was in the lobby wiping off the tables was a client she served at the food bank. We knew she wasn’t the only person employed there who couldn’t afford to feed herself.

Fast food restaurant chains are part of an obnoxious industry, serving up obesity to the masses and throwing copious amounts of food in the garbage. The employees at Bojangle’s were all black women, who found themselves growing older and feeling trapped, all of them relying on public assistance and not having the resources to leave town for a higher paying job. The only employee in there who could feed herself was the store manager, who frequently tells her underlings to clock out and to keep working, in a corporate effort to receive ten or fifteen minutes of labor for free. This practice is illegal, but the workers have no access to the legal system, and have to agree with it to keep their jobs. They have no money, most of the cash we spend in there go to the apex predators near the top of the food chain. When Bojangle’s came to Robersonville, they built a brand new building beside the local McDonald’s, erecting a tall illuminated sign so it could be easily seen by people passing through town and along the surrounding interstate highway. McDonald’s immediately hired its men to raise its own sign, with the golden arches emblem, in order to block the view of the Bojangle’s emblem.

One morning when I first moved here, I had the experience of walking into the local McDonald’s to get one of their Egg McMuffins and a small cup of orange juice. When I walked in there at dawn, I noticed that all the customers who were hanging out in there talking were retired, affluent, and white, while the workers serving us all were black. The whole food service crew was sullen and angry, slamming their cooking utensils, snapping at each other, and treating their customers with cold indifference. They had been encouraged to compete against each other — to get themselves a raise — but whenever they received one, their work schedules would be cut,  and they never saw an increase in their paychecks. Their economic entrapment was filling them with hatred as I approached the register. After I payed the money, picked up my tray, and turned my back to walk away, I heard the uniformed servant mutter, “I want that cracker out of my face!” When I sat down at one of the tables and called Laura to tell her about this, she thought that this was all a part of my disorganized thinking processes — that what I heard was an auditory hallucination — and it was all in my mind. When I left the restaurant, I feared that the whole community of Robersonville might be like this, filled with racial conflict and antagonism. I received a load of junk mail with a set of McDonald’s coupons enticing me to go back in there, but I never did, and several years later McDonald’s left town, taking their golden arches emblem away, leaving behind a vacant building with a “No Trespassing” sign affixed to it. Bojangle’s had become its prime adversary, and eventually won the war.

As Laura and I were sitting in there, eating our meal, we discussed common everyday things in our daily lives. I told her that when I stopped drinking coffee, I turned to food, and I didn’t know what my psychiatrist would say when he put me on the scales again. I also conversed about my problems sleeping, and that I had planned to take my mountain bike to the bicycle shop in Greenville to get the back tire fixed. Even though I don’t own a car, I own two bicycles: one ordinary one for short rides around town, and a high-end mountain bike I bought with my settlement money for distance riding. But if I had known how difficult and expensive this bike would be to maintain, I would have thought twice about purchasing it. I had made an attempt to pump air into the back tire the other day, and I bent the metallic tip in the stem and the tire lost part of its air. Now I needed a new tube. So tomorrow I would make a day of it, riding my bike on underinflated tires the thirty mile trip up there, and I needed to come back home really tired. This should cure my insomnia.

When the day had ended, I had another bad night in bed trying to sleep. I turned the fan on to provide a little white noise to relax me, but it didn’t work. I kept dozing and waking. This went on for hours as the frustration was building, and I shifted my body this way and that, getting tangled up in the covers. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, as I was dozing off again, the budding flower of my unconscious mind was beginning to bloom, revealing a movie in which I was the star performer.

I was up and already dressed when the school bus arrived. I carried my textbooks in my satchel. I left my apartment to pass through the double-doors the bus driver was holding open for me. When I took my seat inside the bus, I was much older than the teenagers who were also riding in it, but for some reason no one noticed this, including myself. The adult driver, who was my age, was stopping at other residences to pick up more kids until the bus was full. When we arrived at the high school, the bell rang and I arrived at my English class just in time. Having trouble squeezing my fully grown body into one of the tiny desks at the back of one of the rows, I was the oldest person in the room — including the teacher — and there was this girl in my class, and over time we became infatuated with one another, passing secret notes back and forth in defiance of classroom subjugation. We met up in the hallway after the bell rang again.  I walked her to her locker. When we arrived there, this was the first time I had gotten a good look at her. She was coquettish and pretty, with long blonde hair and blue eyes. She was turning the knob back and forth on the combination lock so she could open the thin metal door. As she was putting her ringed composition books inside, I felt an inner tempest beginning to brew inside of me — I had the eerie feeling that something was wrong — and I began questioning my place in this scenario, with a sense of trepidation rising by degrees. I overcame my shyness, and I asked her directly, “How old are you?” She turned toward me, looking into my eyes with a smiling sense of youthful rapture. “I’m sixteen,” she replied. When I heard this, the fruit plucked from the tree of knowledge was immediately swallowed — the inner eye of realization was suddenly opened — and with a shudder, a shock, and a repulsion beyond belief, I was scorched by the flames of enlightenment, knowing that my life was taboo and perverse. I didn’t know what I was doing there, how I got to this point, or how to escape!

I awoke safe, startled — alone in the darkness of my bedroom — lying still in my own bed. I had never left home to begin with. None of this had really happened. I had been persecuted in my sleep once again by another nightmare. I knew that my bike trip today would take me through downtown Greenville, past the neighborhood where East Carolina University stood, and I would see the students walking along the sidewalks peering into their iPhones. I wasn’t truly concerned about my failure at attaining a formal education anymore — I had come to terms with my disability, I had come to terms with the long stretch of time I spent in the state mental hospital — but it was this degenerating infantilism which was percolating within my subconscious, generated by my traumatic experiences in both places, which was tormenting me at night.

And it was freezing cold when the sun came up. I covered my body with layers and layers of clothing. I went outside to the shed and removed my mountain bike, checking the back tire. It might have been low on air, but experience was telling me that the pressure inside it would hold, and that I wouldn’t have a flat. I got up on the bike and started riding, flexing my leg muscles, my lungs filling and expelling volumes of airborne nutrients, my heart rate rising upwards. I traveled past the outskirts of town, to pedal down a network of secondary roads which would lead me towards the city and avoid the traffic. I pedaled down a lonesome road, along wide open land covered in a lush green and brown, with tall pines stripped of their needles, groups of blackbirds migrating, chirping in unison, and past farm houses in varying states of repair.

I was paying more attention to my back tire than to my surroundings as I was rounding a curve. Then I approached a crossroads, where a house with a flagpole was not displaying the American flag. The colors which were blowing there in the breeze represented the rebellion of a burgeoning nation that lost a war for the rights of white men to own black men, along with black women and children, as chattel property. The people of color brought over here from Africa under bondage to work for free would have no rights at all. Their white slave drivers could beat them, kill them, and rape the women to produce even more offspring of servitude. The flag that was flying on that pole was crimson like blood, crisscrossed by a diagonal X the color of iron, embedded with stars representing the southern states in their brutal, slave-holding union. The conflict had been a vicious one, fought with cannons, rifles, and bayonets. Thousands of men lost their lives. Black men from the North fought side by side with white men, showing the variegated scars from the whips applied upon their backs by their owners whom they escaped from.  The men of the South had been arrogant and filled with pride. Their’s was a fight for states’ rights, and against Northern aggression.

The family living at this residence are showing off their values as well as their flag. They don’t believe in being politically correct, but adhere to the well-worn maxim “to tell it like it is.” They feel that human beings should be the result of mass production, like the biscuits Laura and I ate at Bojangle’s. When they come out of the oven, they should all look the same, taste the same, have the exact same pattern upon its top layer, have the same sausage inside, having its bottom the same shape and texture. The store manager should not tolerate any biscuit that looks or tastes different. Any deviation from the prescribed norms are garbage, and belong in the trash. Since a person can look around and see for himself that God didn’t hold fast to these ideals, the people in this house now believe in a hierarchy of races — the white man throughout history has always been the ruler, (always been the givers, not the takers) — but whenever they find themselves alone in a crowd, the one caucasian in a mass of black people, it fills them with fear. They have faith in their violent stereotypes, but they try to console black persons by declaring their flags and statues as symbols of heritage, not hate; and they are scared to embrace a black family, or to invite them into their home for dinner. Now they wish to make America great again, feeling nostalgia for the social systems of the past, wishing to mold this country back into their own image once again.

As I traveled past this crossroads and left this residence in the distance, forgetting about the speaking points I frequently hear on talk radio, changing my inner dialog which was reciting the propaganda pieces I read on my iPhone, I was now halfway to Greenville, and soon I would have to be on the lookout for passing cars. When I finally entered the north side of the city, I traveled down its sidewalks, constantly on the lookout for pieces of sharp glass from broken bottles. I crossed the bridge across the Tar River, and made it downtown, cycling among the slowly moving cars and tall apartment buildings. There was a construction boom in this part of the city, with luxury condominiums rising up and a new overpass being built. Business was excellent, with the college students shuffling around wearing shorts in this cold weather, either walking to the library, going to class, or going out to eat.

I rode up an incline, past a huge parking lot, making it at last to the Bicycle Post on Arlington Boulevard. I squeezed myself and my bike through the front double-doors, which cannot be propped open, and I was greeted by the owner. I was glad she was the one I had to deal with because she was my own age, and she was the one I bought my bike from, and she still remembered me. “You rode your bike all the way up here today, didn’t you?” she asked, as I approached her, pushing the most expensive item she once had stocked in her inventory. I told her how I messed up the stem on the back tube as I was trying to inflate the tire. My front tire was also underinflated. I needed a new tube and both my tires put in shape so I could ride home before dark. The owner approached the mechanic in the back, a strappling young college man who kept his pedigree Alaskan Malamute close by his side on a leash, whose bulging muscles and tight clothes indicated that he worked out at the gym, was interested in mating rituals, and able to eat all the pizza he wanted and not have to worry about gaining weight. He said he could fix it by this afternoon. I left my phone number with the owner, and decided to skip lunch, even though there were plenty of eating establishments close by.

I decided to retrace my path, and wait for my bike at the public library downtown. As I walked among the tall buildings, the congested traffic, and the younger generation, I felt awkward and small. I had to get used to pushing a button on the telephone poles at every intersection, waiting for the signal in front of me to indicate that it was safe to cross the street. As the Sheppard Memorial Library came into view, I walked past an apartment building that wasn’t there a couple of years ago, with a girl almost young enough to be my granddaughter wearing wireless headphones as she was turning to enter her building. When I walked inside the library, musing along the stacks, I ran into my mother who was looking at a paperback with a cowboy printed on its cover. We surprised each other at this meeting. I asked her about what was going on at home and at church, and we conversed at length about our much different lives. I declined her invitation to lunch when my phone began to vibrate. My bike was ready for pick-up, and I needed to leave quickly so I could get out of the city before the rush hour began.

After I left the library, approaching one of the crosswalks at an intersection, I pressed the button on the nearby telephone pole, and a couple of college students approached the crosswalk on the opposite side and did the same thing. I could tell from their hair styles and their designer clothes, along with their self-confident and optimistic demeanor, that I was now viewing society’s conservative elite, the product of neoliberalism and social class. One of them was grinning profusely, even though he never looked directly at me, and I didn’t know why. We walked past one another as we traveled toward opposing sides of the crosswalk. I once had a roommate when I was their age, who used to pick on me all the time, whose father was a doctor and mine a chronically unemployed construction worker, propose to psychoanalyze me. “You have an inferiority complex, Thomas,” was his arrogant conclusion, but he had an overwhelming sense of inferiority all of his own. If the truth be known, I believe everyone has an inferiority complex to a certain extent. It forms in our psyche when we are born tiny and helpless. We have to depend entirely upon our mothers — for better or for worse — because we cannot feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, or even walk on our own. The elephantine adults all around us are so huge, our surroundings so large and intimidating — with giant furniture we could never climb onto on our own — and  we cry out in frustration whenever we don’t have the ability to get what we need, as our caregivers always receive their gratification without even paying attention to it, or struggling with it at all.

With my spontaneous musings upon developmental psychology interrupted by a ringing iPhone, I was walking down the sidewalk, and it was Laura. We talked for twenty minutes until I approached the bike shop. After I ended the call and entered the building, the owner wasn’t there anymore, but a young woman was minding the front counter. She brought my bicycle to me and I checked both tires. “Wow! Nice bike,” she declared, “and you got dual suspension.” I thanked her, replying that it came in handy when I was riding through the city. After I left the shop, I would now have to leave this metropolis as quickly as I could to beat the afternoon rush and to get home safely. I made it through downtown again, across the Tar River bridge, rushing toward the north side of the city, past the Pitt County Office Park, past the factory, moving rapidly into the rural areas, past the house with the Confederate flag, out into deserted open spaces.

The wind had shifted and I was battling against it. My heart was racing, my lungs were pumping, my legs were flexing as the air was blowing directly into my face, down my nose, down my mouth. Then, suddenly, my heart flew out of control. I felt a sharp pain in my chest. My cardiac muscle had squeezed into the wrong pattern. It released and did it again. I was feeling another sharp sensation. My body was trying to tell me something. I was placing too much stress on my heart. I needed to slow down. I put my bike into a lower gear. I knew I was out of shape, and I needed to take care. I had pushed myself to my limit.

I could tell from the angle of the sun that I had plenty of time now to make it to Laura’s before it sunk below the horizon. When I arrived there, I sat in my favorite recliner in her bedroom, trying to cool down, waiting for my heart rate to slow itself. After about fifteen minutes, Laura brought me a glass of iced tea. I sipped on it slowly. Looking at my wrist and the crook of my elbow, I could see my arteries throbbing. I heated up a bowl of stewed tomatoes, but I just picked at my food, having lost my appetite. I was totally exhausted.

I knew, at long last, I would sleep well and not have any nightmares tonight.

The Pain of Aspiration

Let me begin my letter to you today by giving an impression concerning the story of my life. In my youth, I dropped out of college because of my mental illness, and I decided to return twenty years later to the same university to try again. I was ashamed of being disabled, and I wanted so much to find success in the eyes of normal people, to regain a sense of pride and accomplishment, while overcoming my personal shame and disappointment. After my previous failure at school, my rejection for military service afterward, my proven inability in the world of work, I thought that — for some reason — the passage of time could heal these wounds, that I would get a second chance, that I could just start over, and to establish my place in the sun. I began by wandering about the campus, going into the library, and visiting the campus bookstore to look at course numbers and to examine textbooks. What I didn’t realize was that I was already too old to fit in with the other students. As I strolled about in the university commons, a girl who was sitting on the grass under a tree turned to her friend, after looking up at me,  asking, “Does he work here?”

If I had been thinking clearly, I would have taken this incident as a sign that my plans would never work out. I mentioned in my previous letter that my ideas tend to be grandiose — my aspirations were magnificent back then, too. What I wanted from East Carolina University was an old-fashioned liberal arts education. I wanted to be a scholar of English, gaining intellectual achievement and recognition, and to become fluent in Latin and Greek, even though the university only offered a two-year course in both. So I signed up for classes on borrowed money, and I did well in my first two years, even though my fellow students were sometimes hostile toward me. During my second semester of Latin, the feelings of persecution and anxiety which had been slowly building up reached a climax and I had a nervous breakdown. My medication got changed around in the hospital and, not admitting defeat, I returned to school the following fall. That was the semester I signed up to learn ancient Greek, and the professor was a good one. I did well at first, but a couple of months later, the same problems returned. It was a fast paced classroom where the professor would call on you at random. Whenever the teacher would call on me, expecting a brisk and correct response, I would freeze up and get confused. As this generated an increasing sense of apprehension and embarrassment, I sensed that my inability to keep up was holding back the whole class, and I began to sense that the other students were all staring at me. I didn’t know what to do. I began to seek out help in the department which supplies tutors for handicapped people, but I was discourteously rebuffed. I went to the department which assists students with mental health problems — I had a file there because I had dropped out of school for this reason the previous year — and the counselor told me that my diagnosis was impossible to overcome, that I should consider leaving the university, and to find other pathways and other endeavors. I signed a document with an unusually illegible signature, since I felt so lost and alone, I was terribly upset and didn’t care about being neat and intelligent anymore. The counselor hugged me and said goodbye, but I refused to listen to him, and made one last desperate move to salvage my dream. I approached the Greek professor, telling him I had a brain disorder, that I was having problems getting assistance by the university, and this was interfering with my ability to think rapidly. He accepted my explanation with a sense of misapprehension, but I hoped that he wouldn’t call on me in class in front of the other students because of this, and this meeting had disastrous consequences, because after that he took a paternalistic attitude toward me in the classroom — he still kept calling on me and I kept making absurd mistakes, confusing English letters with Greek letters based upon their shapes — and my feelings of anxiety and panic at being singled out in the classroom in front of the others with a question was being replaced by a sense of humiliation, dehumanization, and collapse. I had finally reached my breaking point, and as a broken person, I would not dare to set foot in my Greek class again.

My failure in this one class had a domino effect upon all my other classes, and not long after this, in failing at all my exams, I was ashamed to go to school at all. A month later there was an incident at Virginia Tech, where a student with mental health problems burst into a classroom with an assault rifle and turned it into a bloodbath, murdering over a dozen people before killing himself. The news shocked the campus community, and some ECU students began hanging out at Barnes and Noble wearing Virginia Tech jerseys, in solidarity with the traumatized students over there. Soon I received a form letter from the same counselor who had advised to leave the college, fearing that I might have the same proclivities as the gunman in Virginia, stating that the university knew about my plight, and still wished to help me somehow. The letter was impersonal and stale. One afternoon, after the semester was over and the students had gone back home, I made the mistake of going to Barnes and Noble myself, and as I was sitting in a comfortable chair examining a book I was thinking of purchasing, I felt a slight bump. I looked up and it was the Greek professor in casual clothes, who accidentally struck my chair with a stroller carrying a two-year old. We both turned toward each other, and with an element of surprise, we faced one another, I, embarrassed because I felt I had let him down, he, confused about a student who was the same age as himself who claimed to have a mysterious dullness in his mentality. We repelled one another like the opposite poles of a loadstone, not acknowledging one another, the professor rolled the stroller toward a different side of the store and I quickly left.

This encounter is a recurrent theme in my nightmares. I dreamed about him last night, the first time in over a year, and I don’t even remember his name, but it is common for people to remember faces rather than names. The professor had plump features, with a double chin, and long, brown, curly hair which covered his ears, with a prominent nose and a high forehead. I dreamed that we stood toe to toe — head to head — in one of the hallways of academia, being so close to each other as to mutually violate our personal spaces, he was speaking to me as I gazed upon the lips, tongue, and teeth, which were so eloquent and filled with Greek poetry, articulate in the language I loved but no longer had access to. Then suddenly he opened his mouth as wide as he could — conversation turned to confrontation! — with his incisors folding upon themselves, turning into hollow cylinders, and as they began to sprout upwards, downwards, and outwards, growing rapidly, twisting around and around into obscene spirals, the sparkling white enamel with razor-sharp points at the ends were curving towards my cheeks, and beginning to bore holes in my face! I awoke — startled — lying there in the dark. I turned on the lamp sitting on the nightstand, realizing the interpretation of my terrifying dream. My teeth were very sensitive even though they did not give me any pain, and these sensations were carried by my afferent nerves from these hard, bony appendages into certain centers of my brain, where they were synthesized with a trauma swimming in the magma chamber of my subconscious.

My molars had been of concern to me lately. A week ago I noticed a flexion in the muscles of my jaws and, for some unknown reason, I was grinding my teeth. As I continued to feel the solid texture of my molars, rubbing the crowns against one another in a rolling motion, the pressure of my jaws became increasingly intense. These were voluntary movements, coming after a strange realization that I had been deriving some bizarre pleasure in my mouth without me even knowing about it. Now that I had full awareness, I began to grit my teeth even harder, with a grotesque urge toward self-destruction — pressing down as hard as I could — and with my damaging gyrations, I began feeling the roots buried in the mandible. This was the warning bell that began to sound. If I didn’t stop doing this, I would be in big trouble. I can’t explain why I was doing it, and after I stopped, my teeth were a little sore. They felt different, but I it looked like I had quit in time.

At least, I didn’t have to go back to the dentist whom I recently fired. I used to go to his office every six months for a cleaning, X-rays, and an examination. My teeth always checked out fine with no cavities, even though there was a tiny crack in the underside of my molar that was furthest in the back. After seeing this same dentist for a couple of years, my teeth did not change, but suddenly Dr. Caldwell tried to talk me into letting him perform a root canal on that back tooth, even though it didn’t hurt. I knew that my insurance wouldn’t pay for it, for one thing the procedure was unnecessary, and for another, the molar could be pulled if need be, for it was all the way in the back of my mouth. I really began to suspect his motives when I came in for a check-up the last time, and he began to discuss my case with the dental hygenist behind my back. The receptionist made an inquiry on my insurance without my knowledge, and I was shocked when I received the paperwork in the mail. Dr. Caldwell wanted to dig out all the old fillings in all my molars, refill them, and place new crowns on top of them all. Of course the insurance company wouldn’t pay for any of this either, and I was convinced that the procedure was unnecessary; my teeth were not bothering me, and if I allowed Dr. Caldwell to proceed, he would want to do root canals on all my molars if there were complications. The price of these adventures would be over two thousand dollars. After I learned about all this, I recieved a call from the dentist office to see if I would go through with it. I didn’t even answer the phone, angered as I was with this businessman, who wanted me to raid my savings to support his lifestyle. I still had an appointment set up with him in March, but I called to cancel it and refused to reschedule. The receptionist knew I was firing them and tried her best to talk me out of it, but I was resolved to receive dental care from somewhere else.

I brushed aside these concerns about my oral health, along with the pointed night terrors emanating from the past, as I crawled out of bed and got dressed. I went into the kitchen to make coffee (I’m up to over a pot a day now) and turned on my reading lamp upon my eating table, where I picked up my novel with a bookmarker in it, to hold my place, setting my eyes upon the Wagnerian prose of Marcel Proust, my eyes traveling from left to right while sipping from my cup filled with espresso. In Search of Lost Time is a six volume work, and I’m on the cusp of finishing the final installment, Time Regained, where the protagonist and all his characters are aging like me, with Proust beginning to reach out in an effort to claw back the time that had slipped away from him.

The past flows back with our memories. We hear, see, smell, taste, and touch things which suddenly brings back the embedded and interconnected remembrances, weaving a tapestry of people and objects which form the character of our lives. Unlike Proust, I never search the past for the life I used to live. The past for me is a death, and I don’t care to resuscitate it nor look for its rotting corpse. My life at present is my best life. Even though I never search for lost time, it sometimes appears that lost time is searching for me. I will read an innocuous phrase, or hear an unimportant statement, or view a harmless and benign object, and it will trigger an avalanche of harsh memories and violent fantasies. When this happens, my emotions swing about like the branches of a tall tree in the gusts of a mighty storm. I experience a deluge of agitation, drowning in the fits of the rage commensurate with a free man restrained in the chains of injustice.

And as I was reading, the morning sun hidden by dark clouds began to bring light to the shuttered windows of my apartment, the patter of rain becoming noticeable as it was striking the roof, I found a good stopping place in my epic story, realizing that it will soon be time to meet Laura at her house and to wake her up. It was a cold and wet winter morning. I bundled up with my jacket and hood, along with my umbrella and gloves, and walked in the raw and nasty weather. When the wind blew, I could feel the freezing sensation down to my bones. As I walked down the deserted streets, the bad thoughts and moods embedded in my psyche started to calm down, and soon I was under Laura’s car port, collapsing the wet umbrella upon itself and calling her on the phone. Laura came to the door in her gown and let me in the house. Since today was the third Saturday of the month, we talked about having to stand in line at the food bank this morning, outside in the blustering weather, Laura to receive her free food and me to carry her bags for her. As Laura got dressed, and I helped her with her knee brace, pants, and shoes, we procured Laura’s empty food bags and got into her car.

We had problems finding a parking place out by the public housing projects, but after getting settled, we took the bags and opened our umbrellas, walking toward the community building where the people were already queueing up. The apartment buildings all around us had no atmosphere of domesticity, but were the austere, dingy, and jagged environments consisting of conforming brick structures along with the white plastered walls, concrete floors, tiny windows encased in steel, doors made of sheet metal, and drooping electrical wires that displayed the hallmarks of an institution instead of a home. It would be over an hour before food distribution, but everyone comes early so they could receive the best victuals before they run out.

When the local Food Lion opened its doors in Robersonville, it deliberately undercut the prices of all the other grocery stores in town to drive them out of business. Andrew’s and the Be-Lo were slowly transformed into empty shells before they left behind their vacant buildings. Then the Food Lion immediately jacked up their prices, and now Laura and I were standing in line with the people who could no longer afford to shop there. The groceries we now received from the Food Lion were delivered to us through the back door, after sitting upon the shelves for weeks, and loaded into a van instead of being thrown into a dumpster. This is the nature of capitalism and socialism. Using hunger as a means of social control, the government encourages church organizations to make concessions to the poor and to coordinate with places like the Food Lion so the state can cut food stamp benefits. I once saw some Republicans in Congress launch a campaign to reduce them even further, in an appeal to the working class people who can keep good jobs but have no education — the ones who hate people like us — who like the idea of getting tough with the shiftless and lazy. “The best way to get off food stamps is to get a job,” the congressmen declared. A lot of people on food stamps already have full-time jobs, but they don’t pay enough for the employees to feed themselves properly at home. The rest is disabled and elderly. The lawmakers knew all this, but said and did these things to stay in power. With great fanfare they took a dollar a month away from us, but started silently giving it back three months later.

As I stood in my place with Laura, quietly reflecting upon society and politics, I could see Karen walking beside the line of people still waiting, the queue getting much longer now. She was a volunteer like Laura, and the people inside the building opened the door for Karen so she could help with food distribution. Soon the line started moving. When Laura and I entered the building, and she scribbled her signature upon her sign-in sheet, Laura approached Karen as she stood behind a table. Laura opened her bag, with Karen giving her a cheerful hello, placing two cans of food in it.   I have mentioned Karen once before in a previous letter, after seeing her at the late Mrs. Roebuck’s birthday party, and, seeing her often, I once was quite fond of her. This past fall I would walk to the local convenance store to get coffee and often saw Karen walking her dog. I have also seen her in the library. The most salient feature of Karen’s personality is her sense of humor, but after a while I began to notice that her wit was always at someone else’s expense. Last month she saw me sitting in a chair because I could not stand and she cracked a joke about my back injury, throwing her head back and laughing at me, so now I don’t like her anymore. The manager of the food bank, Tina, always has a box of free food prepared for all her volunteers, but Karen is too proud to take it. I know she doesn’t have much money. Karen gets a disability check, (but she has money from a divorce settlement and an inheritance to go along with it) driving a clunker and living with her sister. Karen’s sister used to be a cashier at the Food Lion, but she isn’t anymore because her drawer kept coming up short every day, and the manager realized that she was stealing cash out of the register. Karen is one of those people whom the author Chris Hedges describes as “always willing to help the poor, but doesen’t like the smell of the poor.” The fact of the matter is, Karen is damaged goods just like everyone else in this bread line, and despite what she might think, she is no better than the people she likes to condescend to.

After Laura received her largesse from Karen, she moved along to the person next to her, who put more food in her bag. Going from person to person, keeping the line moving, I took hold of Laura’s bags as they filled up and we finally left the building. Time was moving so slowly as we stood in line; now the floodgates were opened and we rushed to the car, avoiding the puddles of water, the rain now turning into a misty drizzle. When we arrived at Laura’s house, I placed the bags upon her kitchen counter and she sorted out the cans, bags, and packages. She often asks me if I want something to eat whenever I visit her. I was thankful that now her freezer and her cabinets were full.

My Transcendental Ego

I’ve been wanting to write you again, keeping my correspondence coming to you regularly, because it’s a big world out there and people tend to lose touch with one another. There isn’t but one person that I know of who has stopped by this blog for a visit and, after making her presence known here, has returned for a second time. I am quite flattered, Natalia, by your interest in my letters, which I send out into the vast universe of cyberspace in the hopes of leaving behind a legacy — maybe even achieving posthumous fame! My ideas tend to be grandiose, but we all can fantasize, can’t we? I also have future plans for this place in the blogosphere. Before much longer, I intend to start investing some money in it, and to try to gain some more expertise and some more readers. I would like to at least learn how to place my photo in my blog, for I have nothing to hide.

The impression I give people must be much different from the image I contemplate in the mirror. Whenever I go to see my primary care physician, one of the nurses in there always flirts with me in front of Laura. One of the librarians here in town does the exact same thing whenever I go in to check out a book. Laura doesn’t read much anymore, but I’m overwhelmed by numerous tomes and sets of volumes. I’m running out of room in my massive bookcases. I also read books online from the internet archive, in which numerous libraries are networking with each other to provide me with vast mountains of learning. For awhile, I was reading books about people and institutions that had power in society, and on how these entities slowly gain our consent so they can control us and mould our thinking, but I gave this up along with my excessive consumption of the news media. Instead, I ordered from Amazon a set of books by Marcel Proust, his epic work In Search of Lost Time. This was my first exposure to Proustian writing, and I can see why he had so many admirers and imitators. He was a so-called “stream of consciousness” writer, weaving stories based upon images and impressions upon the individual mind. Philosopher and early psychologist William James described consciousness — which no one really understood — as a cascade of flowing water, and this idea touched off a movement in literature in the early twentieth century, where the narrator would go within to the thoughts of his characters, moving inside and outside their heads. I appear to be writing to you in a similar fashion –as an egotist — my limitations being in using the ever-present “I” perspective; it is the only way I know how to depict anything. Unlike Proust, I cannot walk down a gravel path and pick up a rock, describing its stoney nature, and make a novel out of just that. I’m not even capable of writing a novel.

But I can exhibit things, however,  like the way I got upset when Laura and I got into a heated argument this past week. I left her house in anger, returning to my apartment alone. I picked up my tablet and opened the YouTube app, and a video on the psychology of solitude was recommended to me. The speaker in it admitted that human beings are primarily social animals, who do not do well in isolation and have a primeval fear of solitude, but he also asserted that to spend an extended time alone is to be in confrontation with the true self. I might continue to cling to Laura because I fear the darkness within, creating a dependence driven relationship out of fear of abandonment, building up a false self which can be quickly broken down by embracing aloneness, and by giving order and form to my life through creative work, by becoming totally independent and oblivious to the constraints of external relationships. These ideas combined within me a sense both of optimism and discomfort. I tend to be reclusive already, and it is with an overarching sense of anxiety that Laura is actively keeping her friend Diane and I apart. Laura shared with me what Diane said to her behind my back about our relationship, putting a dating site on her tablet which Laura told me about and removed in front of me. And I also wonder about Laura’s psychotherapist, Monica. I know this same issue has probably come up in front of her, too. What has Monica said about our relationship? Is Monica making the same suggestions that Diane has? As I continued to wonder about all this, the phone rang and it was Laura; we reconciled our differences soon after this. Laura also told me about a dinner being held at the Robersonville Country Club this coming Sunday for Valentines Day, at around noon, and I offered to take her, since this was something we could do as a couple.

Getting ready for this dinner was a real hassle. I’ve mentioned before that Laura has a home health worker to assist her. A woman named Pee Wee works Monday through Friday, but another one, named Valerie, works weekends and has a lot of personal problems. Her husband got Supplemental Security Income (SSI), so he didn’t make much money to begin with, but he was also a drug addict and got caught selling oxycodone, and was sent to prison a month ago. The first time Valerie went out-of-town to visit him, she took her youngest daughter because the child wanted to see her father. The girl began sobbing because she wanted to hug him, but could only view him behind a thick sheet of plexiglass. When Valerie made it to Laura’s house to work that afternoon, she worked until the end of her shift, and as she was prepared to leave, her car broke down and a neighbor had to help her get it started.

Valerie didn’t show up the next day when the dinner was being held; I had to go help Laura get her clothes on. I knew the country club was going to be full of church people, so we both decided to dress up in the interest of conformity. There was a buffet already set up when we arrived. We had hamburger steak. liver, chicken and dumplings, green beans, and salad. I was relieved that no one from Grace Family Fellowship walked in. I passed by there on the way home. The billboard in front of their church said, “Come to Jesus. He never let you down.”

The Dilemma of Faith

I know its been several days since I’ve written to you, and I hope this letter finds you doing well. I’m still having concerns about my health, being uneasy as to why I feel a sense of physical weakness and fatigue. There is also a suspicious mole on the side of my face that Laura says is getting bigger. She is taking me back to the doctor in a few days to get this looked at. I’m also experiencing night sweats for some reason, and I don’t know why. I have so many concerns, so many questions.

The polar vortex, which kept us in a deep freeze during the last week of January, has turned into a temperature whiplash as the vortex dissipated and a strong cold front began moving in this direction, giving us a regime of increasingly warmer temperatures, with elevated purple clouds and plenty of sunshine. As today was the day to set out our trash cans in front of our apartments for the garbage men to pick up, I went out my back door, down my back steps to my green trash container, and rolled it on its wheels around my building to the sidewalk in front of my apartment. When I did this, I saw a ten-dollar bill lying beside it upon the asphalt of the parking lot.

It was with a sense of desire and self-reproach that I picked up the money, clutching it in my fist so my neighbors wouldn’t see it. The apartment buildings contain two front doors, with two dwellings in each building, situated in a semicircle around a parking lot. With trepidation, I looked up and saw that my next door neighbors on both sides of me had their front doors opened. They didn’t see me. As I re-entered my back door and placed the bill upon my kitchen table, I couldn’t help but feel the injustice of it all. Everybody in this subsidized apartment complex live here because they don’t have much money, and I have more cash in my savings account than everybody else put together. Donnie could have lost this currency, since he is mentally challenged, sometimes gets agitated, and doesn’t always pay attention to what he is doing. Or it could have been the married couple two doors down; the husband sometimes manuevers his wheelchair along the sidewalk to get to our mailboxes on the far end. Could he have lost it? Novelist and self-proclaimed philosopher, Ayn Rand, wrote that there is virtue in selfishness, that it would be a better world if we all acted in our own self-interest, but I have never believed her. I decided to keep the bill on my kitchen table, and if someone knocked on my door, claiming to have lost some money — if he had a good attitude about it — I would give it back to him.

As the day wore on, no one approached me about it. When I left home and went downtown, entering the town hall to pay my utility bill, the amount being huge, since heating my apartment in the coldest month of the year is always a burden. I immediately left and walked to the hair salon nearby, and when I entered, I noticed that Tammy had grown her hair longer, making her look slightly different. It was quiet in the salon today. Tammy usually makes conversation with other people while she is cutting my hair, but this time she made conversation with me instead. Soon, she was posing an innocuous question which impressed me as a sharp thunder-clap, “Are you still going to Grace Family Fellowship?” Tammy was referring to the church next door to my apartment complex. I didn’t want to lie to her, but at the same time I didn’t want to explain why I do not attend church anymore, so I told her what I told the preacher out there, who blocked my path with his car as I was going past this house of worship one afternoon on my bike after I had quit for good. “I’m going to the First Baptist Church, the one my friend Laura goes to.” But I haven’t set foot in that sanctuary in years, even though someone had invited me to go there.

The reason why I left Grace Family Fellowship was because I was going in there alone, and the other church members seemed to be more interested in telling me where to go and what to do than they were in what I was searching for spiritually. It wasn’t long before some of them realized that I didn’t have as much money as they did, so they started buying me coffee and giving me old clothes. I was being bombarded with propaganda, and I had to pretend to be an evangelical. All of this was making me crazy, and I got to the point where I just couldn’t stand it anymore. A few weeks after I spoke to the preacher about switching churches, I saw one of the parishioners in the check-out aisle at the Food Lion who gave a confused and downcast look. When he left the building with his groceries, he sat in his truck for fifteen minutes until he saw me come outside. He approached me as soon as I walked out the door: “How come I haven’t been seeing you in church?” he inquired, and I repeated the same lie I told the preacher. A week later I had to go to the post office, and another parishioner entered in front of me; I walked away and came back later just to avoid her. A member who used to greet me at the entrance on Sunday morning had a relative pass away, and while she was preparing the house for sale, she saw me leaving Laura’s house on my bike. “We’re missing you in chu-u-urch!” she squalled, as a parent would to an unruly child, even though we were the same age. She looked perturbed when I repeated the same lie. Even now, I feel uncomfortable riding past the church on the way to Laura’s house or downtown — its impossible for me to avoid it, it’s a huge piece of real estate — and there are cars going in and out of its parking lot almost every day.

The only reason I joined and stayed there as long as I did is because I liked the young and energetic minister, but his belief system conformed to that of the community, while mine did not. He once stated in a sermon that the story of evolution was “the big lie.” My Sunday School teacher stated that the land of Israel is for the Jews exclusively — and for no one else — for they were God’s chosen people.  The pastor once prayed for homosexuals so they would straighten themselves out, and thank God I never heard any of them talk about abortion. I can assure you, whoever you might be, that I’m not an atheist. I believe that God exists, but He is not the divine personality the Bible makes Him out to be. The stories in the sacred book are Jewish antiquities, legends, and myths. God didn’t create the world in six days and rested on the seventh. It took much longer than that.

Approximately 13.8 billion years ago, space and time didn’t exist at all as we know it. It was a just small point, dense and hot, which for some reason exploded and became rapidly expanding space. It was also cooling rapidly, losing its high density, allowing the formation of sub-atomic particles and simple atoms. Giant clouds of these primeval elements coalesced by the force of gravity, eventually forming early stars and galaxies. Resulting from the collapse of a giant interstellar molecular cloud located mid-way in one of the arms of the Milky Way galaxy, our sun born of hot dust began a process of thermonuclear fusion while the planets cooled. With our sun reaching its middle stage of life, and with water and oxygen forming in the atmosphere, unicellular life on earth began. As life forms started to replicate themselves, taking energy from the light of the sun, they became increasingly complex, fishes and other monstrosities populated the sea, reptiles encroached upon dry land, and dinosaurs began to roam this world. Then a huge asteroid struck our planet, destroying their food sources and they became extinct. Mammals rose up and several forms of mankind evolved from apes. All other forms of man became extinct, only our species survived. This is the story that the scientists and Wikipedia have taught me. And God is not a jealous God, if anything, he is an indifferent force of nature.

This is my faith, and I haven’t lied to you as I had just lied to Tammy. After making more small talk and using the blow dryer to clear away my loose hair, I paid Tammy, made another appointment with her for next month, then went next door to the pharmacy to pick up my monthly supply of medication. The mayor of Robersonville, “Mr. Frank” as they call him, was working there and the people whom he employed had my bag of pills already prepared. Laura called after I brought them home, and we spent part of the afternoon painting ceramics. After awhile, she said she was tired and we went into the bedroom. I sat in the recliner while she lied upon her bed. Her eyes became increasingly heavy as we chatted, and then she got up and put on her pajamas. “I wouldn’t do this in front of just anybody,” she declared, “but, as far as I’m concerned, you’re family.”

The Facts of Life

Sometimes when I’m writing to you, I proceed to discuss hard things. For every beginning, there is an ending — we all know that. And going to church isn’t for everybody; I learned that the hard way. Last Wednesday, Laura went to her weekly prayer group meeting, which gets together at eleven in the morning. The members who go are mostly the elderly ladies in the church, who go around visiting the sick, helping the needy, and seeing people who are confined in nursing homes. The First Baptist Church of Robersonville is a large, brick structure located on Railroad Street. While Laura was in there, I thought I would go to the park, with my iPhone and my wireless ear-buds, to listen to some music and to walk a few miles around the sidewalk that surrounds the baseball field. I travelled across town on my bike to get there, but to my chagrin, the gate was closed and chained with a padlock. With my plans now destroyed, I returned home, and, at length, decided that I would take my music with me and walk down some avenues and side streets.

I listened to some pleasant euphonium being piped directly into my ears as I walked across the parking lot of Robersonville Manor onto Main Street, but was annoyed by the passing vehicles that drowned out the notes of my songs, so I turned onto Laurel Avenue and onto Broad Street. After walking several blocks, I passed by a house that was partially destroyed by a fire years ago, but has since been salvaged and repaired, with a woman currently living in it. I’ve passed by it often, and never gave it a second thought.

I walked a few blocks further, up to the intersection of Broad and Railroad Streets, right beside the post office, where the street and the railroad tracks run beside one another, when a young, black man approached from the opposite side. I didn’t think anything of it, but he immediately stopped walking. He had something on his mind, but I had no idea what it could be. He wanted desperately to avoid me; I expected him to just cross to the opposite side of the street so we could walk past each other with plenty of room between us, but when he began walking, he traveled as fast as he could without running, toward Laura’s church, in precisely the same direction that I had planned to go. I turned on Railroad Street, and fell in behind him. He glanced back at me, quickly over his shoulder, then turned onto another side street, but, as I was passing the church, he appeared on Railroad Street again a block away. He had tried to circle around, to get where he wanted to go without me seeing him. I just continued walking, and tried not to pay attention to this strange person.

I continued walking past some very old houses, then approached the vacant high school. There was a lot of history there, with the collection of aged yearbooks and school newspapers archived in the local library. After you walk past the old Robersonville High School, the pavement on the street ends and it becomes a dirt track leading straight to the cemetery. My mood grew sombre as the monuments came into view. As I walked among the graves, I realized that I wasn’t paying attention to my bouncy music anymore, as my mood quickly took a dark and sombre tone. I began to show the utmost respect as I avoided stepping on anyones resting place. I noticed several prominent last names, such as Roberson, Stalls, Roebuck, and Smith. Several of the graves were a hundred years old. Some of the people here lived to ripen to a very mature age, but some died as children, not getting a chance at life at all. In the middle of the graveyard, I saw a canopy surrounding the tombstone of a married couple, with fresh overturned earth covered in fresh flowers. I soon realized that this was a member of Laura’s church, buried beside her husband, Mrs. Doris Everette Roebuck, who had lived to be a hundred-and-two.

Laura and I went to her last birthday party. She was sitting in her recliner in a dignified manner. When we spoke to her, we had to lean close to her and speak loudly and plainly for her to hear, but she was fully alert and aware. As I was eating a piece of her birthday cake, one of her neighbors, Karen, who works with Laura at the food bank, stopped by for a visit. (Since Karen is a person I see frequently, I’ll tell you more about her in a future letter.) Soon after the matriarch’s birthday, she told a family member that she was tired, and she didn’t feel like living anymore. When her health took a downward turn, she had to go to a nursing home, and she didn’t survive long after that.

I spent some more time at this final resting place, viewing the names and dates on the other headstones, some monuments being larger than others, listening to a song entitled “Come Dancing,” when a ringtone interrupted and I pressed the button on my microphone. It was Laura. She had just got out of prayer group. I told her where I was and she picked me up there. We went to her house, and the remainder of the day was uneventful, but the next morning I decided to go walking down Broad Street with my music again. While I was listening to Deep Purple, and walking past the same house that got partially burned up and subsequently repaired, I saw the same strange black man walking out the back door, wearing the exact same clothes, along with the white woman who lived there that was twenty years his senior. She was wrapped up in a house-coat with no sash tied around her, holding it together with both her arms without a stitch of clothing underneath. The man walked past me and tried to get away from me as fast as he could. Yesterday, he must have thought I had just come back from visiting this woman myself, and it became obvious why he viewed me with suspicion, doing everything in his power to avoid me.

My Perennial Visits

I never like going to the doctor, especially to my psychiatrist, since I consider him my sovereign — he is the person who has the most power over me — but it is a benevolent authority. His name is Dr. Sabanayagam, but we patients call him Dr. Saba for short. He is a cheerful, brown-skinned man originally from Sri Lanka; his wife acts as his secretary and assistant. I have often wondered if they emigrated here because of the thirty year ethnic conflict in that country between the government and the so-called “Tamil terrorists,” but I never dared to ask about it and it was none of my business. I sometimes talk to him about the books I’m reading, and one time I told him about the conclusion I made once in that to read history was to read about war. Dr. Saba shared with me that in the country he came from, the history books were all edited and changed over and over to suit those with prerogative.

The patients whom Dr. Saba treats are precisely the ones who have no sway at all — the poorest of the poor, the sickest of the sick — persons in group homes, children who have no parents, and people like myself who are disabled mentally ill. Dr. and Mrs. Saba travel from Goldsboro to Greenville every month. Their Greenville division is in an old, decaying office complex that the owner has been trying to sell for years. Most of these offices are vacant, and the ones that are not cater to those persons who are struggling to live on their own, in their own homes. The waiting room has old, dilapidated furniture which the landlord will not replace, and he was slow about repairing the heating and air conditioning.

When I entered the waiting room, Mrs. Saba saw me come in and retrieved my file from her portable filing cabinet. A man in a wheelchair — with one leg and with his upper chest strapped in — was wheeled out of Dr. Saba’s office by one of his caretakers while the other one carried a file folder full of paperwork, who immediately called someone on her cell phone so they could get picked up by the nursing home staff. His next patient was a young man who walked very slow with a dazed expression on his face, accompanied by another human services worker who was also carrying a file folder. As soon as the two of them exited the office and approached Mrs. Saba to make their next appointment, Dr. Saba came out, picked up my folder, and called me by my first name.

When I entered his office and received his cheerful greeting, the first thing Dr. Saba did was to put me on the scales. I weighed in at 167.6 and he wrote it down in my chart. I told Dr. Saba about the health problems I had experienced since I saw him last. I showed him the empty bottles of tizanidine and predisone I had finished taking, describing to him how I injured my spine in the shower. He told me that the tizanidine was a muscle relaxant, it could make me feel fatigued and sleepy, and that the predisone was a steroid to clear up the inflammation in my back. I replied to Dr. Saba that I hoped that I never have to take predisone again. I told him about the insomnia I experienced. I told him how I wet my bed. It had an impact on how I felt — it made me nervous and angry, making me hate everything and everybody, but now the pill bottles were empty, and the steroids were out of my system. I mentioned to him that there was still a slight sensation in the lower center of my back. Dr. Saba said it would probably take around three months for it to clear up completely.

Dr. Saba looked at me with a rather pensive gaze. “Since I saw you last, you have lost nine pounds. How did you do it?” I had gotten to the point where I would rather drink coffee than eat, but I didn’t tell him that; instead, I mentioned the current situation he may have heard about concerning a polar vortex that has placed North America in the clutches of a January freeze. Since it is now too cold to ride my bicycle, my only alternative was to fast. Sometimes I would wait until the middle of the day, eat a small piece of bread, and that would be all I had all day. I didn’t want him to pick on me about my weight anymore. I knew that both my primary care physician and Dr. Saba wanted me to weigh 170, but it is very difficult to stay there, and Dr. Saba said not to lose any more weight.

He concluded by saying the I do well most of the time, but I let little things get to me. To this I wholeheartedly agreed. Dr. Saba rose from his chair behind his desk and said it was good to see me. As I exited his office, I received a prescription and an appointment to come back in sixty days. As I walked out the front door, I called Laura, who was at a retail store looking over the clearance aisle, and I asked if she was hungry. She picked me up and I took her to a Mexican restaurant across town. I broke my fast by eating four large tacos, and Laura got three burritos. She said that I didn’t have to take her out to eat just because she took me to the doctor, but I replied that I wanted to because she was so kind to me.