SEPTEMBER 2007

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Tremendous Power of Concentration
Part One of Four
By Mike Smith, Sept 4, 2007

For Gray

Thanks to Kristy, Mickey, Jason, Ryan, Danielle, Jami, Grandma, D, Momma, and a few others.

“Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?” – Clarence, It’s A Wonderful Life

Prologue:  My Name is George

“My name is George and I’m an alcoholic,” I said.  All of the other alcoholics around the table gave the usual response.

“Hi, George!” they all said, most of them enthusiastically.  Others just sat there apathetically, as if they would rather be at a bar.

When it was time to talk about what was going on in our lives, I told them.  “I hate pretty much everything about myself right now.  All I do is drink.  I cheated on my wife.  I’m a horrible human being.  I’d give anything to just die right now.”  I didn’t tell them I was a best-selling author and I was pretty sure that none of them recognized me from the local TV appearances I had done that week.  I didn’t tell them that the tons of money that miraculously shows up in my bank account just as miraculously disappears at the bars or at the strip clubs.  I have problems with alcohol and women.

Let me back up and tell you how I met my wife, someone I had fun with.  Someone who was beautiful.  Someone I never appreciated enough.  Someone who put up with me as long as she could.

Chapter 1:  Sigmund and Freud

We started dating when we were teenagers and had been together for a couple of years before getting married.  Elizabeth and I loved everything about each other. We both knew we were eventually going to get married. I wanted to get married – God knows she did – she brought it up every chance she could throughout our time together.

One night, my friend Shawn and I were hanging out at The Back Door, a bar which would become quite a special place in many ways, and for the first time I was seriously thinking of asking Elizabeth to marry me. I told him I was thinking of maybe settling down pretty soon and asked him what he thought about that. This was my way of reaching out. "It depends on what you mean by settling down," he said. "If you mean it in the traditional sense, I wouldn't do it."  Somewhere in there, I found the answer I was looking for. Any reservations I had about getting married disappeared.

My friend Neil got married just months before Elizabeth and I. Their ceremony was pretty cool and I knew it was time for Elizabeth and I to experience our own version of the same thing. Neil and I met online, which makes it sound kind of kinky, but it wasn’t. We were interested in a lot of the same things, so we decided to meet up. Had Neil not been married, who knows what would have happened? So finally, I planned it, laid it all out in my head, and developed a timeline.

First, I wanted to make sure we were going to be making enough money to be married. Elizabeth was going to school full-time and only working part-time, so I knew I would be the breadwinner. I felt pretty comfortable with the whole thing. I only worked part-time, too, but put in a lot of hours.

I never went to college.  I never even finished high school.  Everybody thought it was messed up that I liked to write in my spare time.  They never thought anything would come of it, though, because I wrote my thoughts in journals and didn’t waste my time on stuck up poetry.  They also pointed out my educational shortcomings.  “You didn’t even finish high school, George,” they would say.  “Why are you wasting your time writing?”

The college Elizabeth was going to had a fancy alumni center that offered staff discounts on special events – we would be married there.

I e-mailed the alumni center and set everything up online. That’s how I am:  no phone calls, no in-person meetings, until that fateful moment when such interactions are absolutely necessary. I used the same DJ that Neil used in his wedding and set it all up through the mail. Our DJ’s name was Parnell Arthur. He was about six feet tall and weighed at least 300 pounds. What’s screwed up is the 300 pounds were muscle – Parnell was a strong motherfucker. His deep voice echoed over our ears as he explained the type of music he would be playing at our wedding. “Arthur doesn’t play any of that rap crap now, okay?”

We got to choose from this list of the “100 Most Played Songs at Weddings.”  We got to rank the songs we wanted played (i.e. 100 is a song we could live without, whereas 1 meant we wanted that one played for sure). Later in the wedding, Arthur seemed to follow the opposite. We wondered if we hadn’t got the instructions backwards or if maybe he did.  No one liked it when “It’s Raining Men” played and people hated my Smashing Pumpkins selection.

Although I originally wanted the proposal to be a surprise, I dropped hints to Elizabeth because I was excited and scared as hell. The engagement ring was next and I ordered it online; I requested fast shipment to put my mind at ease.

Elizabeth knew the proposal was coming – I did the down on one knee thing. Although she cried, I tried my best to hold mine in.

It was time for us to tell our families. Neither of us could. We didn’t know how they would react and both of us have always had a small fear of the unknown, but only with respect to our families. Elizabeth and I came together when our families saw us as irresponsible kids. It seemed like our families still thought of us as such, even though I was well beyond high school age and she was just about finished with college. That’s one of the big reasons we both wanted to be married – to take the most responsible plunge in our lives and allow our families to see that it was so right for it to happen.

I didn’t tell anyone in our families that we were even thinking about marriage. Not only did I want it to be a surprise, I didn’t want them to talk me out of it. I knew there would be too much “are you sure” type of shit in the air. I knew we were ready. At the same time, the advice from our families that would have come had we said something was in my head, too. I know what they would have said. Marriage is hard work. It takes effort. You have to work at it. I don’t know that I believed those words when I got married. Now is a different story, but I’m glad I didn’t have to hear them back then because it was fun getting married. All of it.

None of the marriages in my family have ever worked out.  My mom and dad got a divorce when I was less than a year old.  I have an uncle who asked my aunt for a divorce on Easter Sunday.  Another uncle was getting marital advice from me when I was seven years old.  Obviously, that marriage ended in disaster.  Despite the odds, Elizabeth and I knew our marriage could be different because we got along so well.  We were both so funny together.  We had so much in common.  And we loved each other.

In November, we mailed postcards with a “special announcement” that we were getting married in January. I’ll always remember what I thought right before I dropped the big bundle of postcards in the mailbox that day. I hope it all works out. It was the closest thing to a prayer I’d said in a long time. Some of it did work out and some of it didn’t. Maybe it should have been a real prayer.

The response was good, although everyone worried about getting everything together in just two months. Once our families knew, they agreed to help out financially. Someone even gave us a honeymoon to Las Vegas.

By the time December rolled around, everyone was buzzing about the wedding. I realized, however, that I still did not have a best man, a groomsman, a priest, or the wedding rings, all very important components of a wedding.

Picking the best man was easy. I had known Shawn for a long time and he was the closest male friend I had. He had taught me a lot over the years about responsibility and how to have fun with it.

Actually asking Shawn to be the best man, I thought, would be difficult. I had it all planned out. I would treat him to dinner one night and ask him. He showed up at my apartment unexpectedly one day – for no reason – as if to say, I know you have something to say, so just say it.

“So I’m getting married on January 4th,” I blurted out.

“Well, congratulations,” Shawn said, with no hesitation.

“Surprised?” I asked.

“Not really,” he said. “You’ve been hinting around about it for a while now.”

“Will you be the best man?” I asked, my voice shaky, my throat dry.

“Yeah,” he said quickly, with wide, surprised eyes.

Neil would be the only groomsman. I wanted to keep it simple. I owed Neil a lot. We had only known each other for a little while, but we bonded. We got drunk together, we talked about marriage, and we slept together – one night when we got really drunk, we fell asleep next to each other on his living room sofa.

Neil was the perfect groomsman. We went to The Back Door one night for drinks, just to hang out. We discussed the upcoming nuptials, too.

“Send me your tux measurements soon!” I shouted over the noisy bar talk.

There were a few brief seconds where nothing was said. I looked at Neil, hoping he was figuring it out, as Neil looked at me, confirming in his head what I was suggesting.

“Wow, I’m flattered.”  We sat there a second and just smiled, nodding our heads for what seemed like a million years. “I’ll get you those measurements,” he said, sipping from his beer. “Do you need my dick size?”

I ordered the rings from an Internet jeweler and they arrived by FedEx on January 2nd, which was the night of my bachelor party that Shawn set up. Shawn bought me fake nipples and a dick nose. I wore the dick nose in the car only, refusing to wear it within any establishments, although I did wear it to Neil’s apartment. Neil’s wife let us in and asked, “Shouldn’t Elizabeth be wearing that?”

We spent most of the night barhopping, bowling, seeing comedy shows, and doing tequila shots. It was a good night and it ended at some party we weren’t really invited to.

We decided to go to The Back Door, where we planned to finish out the evening.  Neil came to the table with what he called “one last round of tequila shots” and I felt a little sick to my stomach.  I had never drank so much in my life, although I would come to wipe the floor with that much liquor in the years to come.  We downed the shots, toasting to something I can’t remember anymore, and then I excused myself to use the bathroom.  I actually went back to the bar and ordered more drinks.  I remember thinking to myself that I liked doing this.  I liked the atmosphere.  I liked the taste of alcohol.  I liked the people in the bar.  I liked everything about drinking.

Up at the bar, the blurry bartender asked me what I wanted, and not knowing, I said the first thing that came to mind: three strawberry daiquiris please.  It took her at least five minutes to blend these concoctions and I started back with them, whipped cream on top and all.  Then a girl stopped me and offered me a free shot.  I told her sure and asked what it was.  She told me it was a specialty shot called the Bloody Brain.  She also told me what was in it, but I can’t remember.  With the three drinks I was barely holding onto, I pointed out where we were sitting.  She walked the shot over and sat it on our table.  Shawn and Neil were surprised to see such an odd array of drinks now at our table and express such shock with questions like, “What the fuck?” and “Are you crazy, man?”

The strawberry didn’t mix well with the tequila.  And I don’t remember how the Bloody Brain went down.  It sure was nice getting everything back up in the bathroom a few minutes later, though.

In the bathroom, there was some guy dressed up as Johnny Depp and he kept asking me if I was alright.  In between pukes, I told him I was fine.  “Just checking, man.”  I told him thanks.  The Back Door bathroom is always pretty weird.  When I returned to our table, that girl – the one that gave me the Bloody Brain – was now sitting at our table.  She had heard that I was now feeling a bit under the weather.

“Was it the Bloody Brain?” she asked.

“Yeah, I think my brain’s a little bloody now,” I said.

“That sucks,” she said, trying to laugh at a really bad, drunken joke.

She invited us to a party and we all agreed to go, as we decided that you only get married once.  Someone at the table said that’s not necessarily true, but then someone else said that we were trying to stay positive since I was actually getting married.  Then this girl at the table, who still hadn’t told any of us her name, told us we had to get her to a place that had Karaoke later that night so that she could make her Karaoke debut.  “It’s always been a dream of mine.”  We agreed to do that and it seemed as if we were accepting responsibility for this person, taking her under our wing somehow.  Then we left.

I was handed a cell phone and a voice came on it.  “Who the fuck is this?” the voice asked.

“This is George,” I said.  “Who is this?”

“I’m not going to tell you who I am, man, I don’t even know you.”

“Okay.”  Then someone in the backseat told me that we were supposed to be getting directions to the party from that person, but I had already hung up because I thought he was being too rude to me.  They called him back, explained who I was, and he apologized.

“I didn’t recognize the number or the name George, man.”

“It’s cool,” I said, lying.  He never did tell me his name, though, and I didn’t much care.  Drunk as hell, I drove until this hippy guy waved us down.  That was the guy I was talking to on the phone.  We parked and got out.  The guy walked up to me and said, “I’m pretty drunk.”  I told him I was, too.  It seemed like we were going to get along fine after that.  Inside, the house was packed with people and beer.

The first thing we saw when we walked in the house was a girl dressed as a fairy.  She had wings on and was dressed all in white.  For some reason, she gave me a hug as if she knew me.  Maybe she did.  Maybe I was just too drunk to recognize her.  Then that girl we met at The Back Door served me, Shawn, and Neil shots of tequila.  I’m the only one that did it and I almost throw it up mid-swallow.  Somehow, later on in the night, I started mixing drinks for people and they complained about how strong they were.  I eventually passed out.  That girl never made it to Karaoke.  Her dream didn’t come true, not that night at least.  We never knew her name.

On January 3rd, we had to pick up the tuxes. Shawn, Neil, and I went in and I wasn’t sure what to do. I hate talking to customer service people, so I usually tell them, “No, I’m cool, I don’t need any help.”  That’s what I did this time, too. After looking around forever, Shawn finally suggested traditional black and white tuxes. Neil wanted the silver sequence “pimp” style complete with hat and cane. I declined. Traditional it was.

The lady who fit us was short, plump, and nice in a mistrusting sort of way. We didn’t believe anything she said, especially that all three tuxes totaled up to $78.00. Later, we found out that $78.00 was the price of each tux. They fired her.

January 4th arrived. That date falls nine days after Christmas and seven days before my birthday. This was planned as I’m still enjoying Christmas gifts and the Christmas season in general and I’m anticipating my acceptance of birthday gifts. Now I would have an anniversary to celebrate right in the middle of everything.

I would be leaving the wedding that night in a limo, so Shawn was picking me up at my apartment. This way, my car would be safely parked at home over the next week.

I got up that morning perfectly calm, after a good night’s sleep, like nothing was happening. In less than four hours, though, I would be married. In less than six hours, I would be on a plane to Las Vegas.

At my apartment, Shawn and I looked online for a little while. We played bootleg Internet games like “Bizzario” and “Pussy City Pimps.”  We went to a pizza joint and ate pizza. Shawn and I threw some pizza out the window and hit some street signs with it. Imagine a STOP sign with a big slice of cheese pizza stuck to it. That was one of the last things I did as a single man.

We got to the alumni center, where Shawn and I went to the restrooms to put our tuxes on. Shawn liked to say, “Look at us, we’re tuxin’.”  We were in separate stalls, giving our tuxes hell for being so complicated. Someone walked into the bathroom, even though Neil was supposed to be guarding it from outside, turning folks away. “Who the fuck is that?” I asked. I can still hear the echo from the restroom.  Shawn looked out and said, “Just some guy.”  Later, Shawn pointed Elizabeth’s dad out as the guy who walked in on us. I felt cheap and dirty for saying “fuck” in front of him at his daughter’s wedding.

They had the place done up nice. They had flowers everywhere with lots of red, white, and black, which were the school’s colors. I liked not having the wedding at a church. Sometimes it feels like people are getting married at a funeral home when they get married in churches. Sometimes, not always. Our wedding would not feel like a funeral.

It was almost time for the big event. Shawn, Neil, and I stood at the entrance, saying hello to guests as they walked in. It felt so weird seeing people from my family, Elizabeth’s family, friends of both families, and people from work all coming to see Elizabeth and me. I felt like I was in a reality TV show. I still didn’t know how I was going to react when it was time for me to talk.

After all the guests were there and the clock hit 7:00, it was time. My hands were sweaty and my voice was shaky. Shawn, Neil, and I walked up to the front of the room and stood beside the preacher, who Neil always made fun of because “crusts” would appear at the corners of his mouth when he talked. I was hoping this time that wouldn’t happen. Neil hooked us up with this preacher, too. We often joked that this was some sort of weird “second attempt” at Neil’s wedding because we used all of the same characters.

The preacher, J.C. Millard, was an ex-Catholic priest turned hospital director. Elizabeth was somewhat bitter with the hospital Millard directed because her grandmother died there, and she always blamed the hospital. I think it was just the association that turned her off. It seemed interesting that this person, then, was performing our wedding ceremony – someone that Elizabeth kind of hated was binding us together in this way – and I also wondered whether or not this kind of turned Elizabeth off to our wedding in any way.  I never asked.

Our initial meeting with Millard was cool. We talked about how much money we would need to fork over and what kind of schedule of events we wanted to create. We wanted a mixture of traditional and modern. Some religious stuff, but not so much that non-religious guests would feel as if they didn’t belong. Like any writer, I threw some literary stuff in and chose religious verses that were more literary than biblical. We also wanted to pay homage to our grandparents who had passed away.

The music started. The party walked in. Then I saw Elizabeth, waiting for her turn to walk in. She was looking right at me; I was looking right at her. I almost started crying, but knew I would feel and look like a loser if I did. There was a lump in my throat, but I suppressed everything inside of me in an attempt to look as calm as possible. I knew my voice would sound horrible and I tried to clear my throat, as silently as possible. Everything was perfect – the gown, the veil, the flowers.

Elizabeth marched up to the front, where the preacher started talking. Those crusts formed. I smiled a little and tried to look back at Neil, but couldn’t do so without everyone noticing. Millard forced humor out of my mind when he paid a special tribute to my grandfather and Elizabeth’s grandmother, “neither of whom could not be with us except in spirit on this special day.” Hearing the tribute sent Elizabeth into tears.

Before I knew it, it was time to exchange vows. I was right, my voice sounded like I was going to start crying. I kept my voice low and slow, which seemed to help a little. I tried my best to remember what the preacher was telling me to say and I think I got through it okay. Elizabeth eventually stopped crying enough to speak. Elizabeth got her words mixed up toward the end, though, and said “I take you as my awful husband.”  The music started again and it was time to march out. I was now married. We were now married.

After the wedding ceremony, people walked by and congratulated us. Elizabeth and I got our pictures taken. Our photographer’s name was Rick and used to be a pet photographer. He ran his company out of his house and when we were over there looking at samples of his work, we couldn’t help but notice how much his cat resembled a deformed dog. “Yeah, his name is Dog.”  We asked if he still shot pets. “I only shoot horses,” Rick said. “See, there’s some of my best work right there,” he said, grinning, and pointed to a picture of his chubby wife.

We had the reception on-site. I’ve never been a big dancer. It’s not that I don’t like to dance, it’s that I don’t know how. I stand there and move from side to side, stiff as a board. This applies to slow and fast songs. Most people laugh. A few cheer me on in some kind of pathetic form of sympathy. Others feel too sorry for me to do anything but turn and look away. Alcohol was free for the crowd. Cokes were expensive as hell.

We entered the reception to the sound of Frank Sinatra’s "Love and Marriage," or to most Kentucky rednecks, the theme song of Married ... with Children. Shawn’s Champagne toast was cool. “I’ve known George for two weeks,” he said convincingly. People literally gasped. “Uhhh … he’s a good writer,” he said, struggling now. “He bowls,” he said, as if he were auctioning me off. Apparently bowling skills were important in this particular auction. “So congratulations you two,” he ended. Then we walked outside to our limo. The snow had just started to fall when we walked outside.

We had the limo for two hours. When our time was up, the driver was to drop us off at the airport. We didn’t really know where we wanted to go. I figured we could stop by my apartment one last time and make sure we had everything. Staying traditionally cheesy, I decided to carry Elizabeth over the threshold. We fed my fish one last time, and as far as I know, “feeding of the fish” isn’t part of any traditional post-wedding rituals. Maybe we weren’t being as cheesy as we thought.

Driving around in a limo on the snow-covered streets of Kentucky with my new wife was a magical time, and I’ve never used the word magical to describe anything else in my life, as I’ve never really been happier. The limo driver at some point radioed his dispatcher and asked how to get back to the airport. Elizabeth and I refused to tell him, chalking it up to our bad sense of direction, even though we were in our hometown. “Get on the 264-West,” the dispatcher said. “You’re less likely to get pulled over by a cop on the 264.”

***

“What happens here stays here,” we joked as we kissed each other goodbye on the first plane. We had two connecting flights on the way to Las Vegas and we weren’t allowed to sit together on either flight. This was ironic. We sat alone for the first four hours of our honeymoon. We would look back and forth at each other from time to time and wave.

Arriving in Las Vegas was scary, yet exciting. We made it to our hotel for a night of debauchery and traditional honeymoon antics. Things got so out of hand that hotel security was called on us. I explained that it was our honeymoon and one of the security people gave me a look that seemed to say, Yeah, like I haven’t heard that one about fifty times tonight asshole. It was time to stop anyway. We were pretty exhausted and looked forward to what tomorrow would bring.

Tomorrow came a few minutes later and brought a prostitute to our door.  Somehow or another, a strange woman was now standing in our hotel room, smoking a cigarette. She had long brown hair and beautiful brown eyes, the lids of which were covered in make-up. I looked at her long legs, sticking out from a short purple skirt. “Sorry to barge in, guys,” she said. “Wanna cigarette?” We shook our heads no and Elizabeth told her we didn’t smoke right before she asked who the hell she was.

It was pretty obvious, but I guess Elizabeth wanted confirmation or something.  The prostitute then told us that she was indeed a prostitute and that either her pimp or her john was chasing her. It seemed funny she didn’t really make much of a distinction between the two. All of a sudden, she forcefully emptied her purse out onto the floor and searched for something. It was interesting how much power this strange woman seemed to have in our room. We just let her go on talking and smoking and emptying her belongings out in our room. Anyone else might have told her to fuck off. Elizabeth could only take so much, though. The power was about to shift. She couldn't find whatever she was looking for, so Elizabeth offered to call hotel security for help.

“They might think it’s a little strange that you have a prostitute in your room,” the prostitute said.  “Don’t you think?” We took that as kind of a threat and just let her stand there and smoke some more.  We looked uncomfortably at one another, and I have to admit, I checked her out a bit.

Finally, the prostitute gave us a plan for the rest of the evening.  “I just need to calm down and then I’ll leave you guys alone,” she said.  “I’m really sorry.”

“That’s okay,” I said.  “Take your time.”  Elizabeth gave me an evil look, one that seemed to question why she just married someone who would allow a hooker to take her time in our hotel room on our honeymoon.  As we waited, the prostitute talked about her life a bit. She told us that she hadn’t always been this way. She told us that she fell on some bad times a few years ago and that hooking was the only way to get by.

“Yeah, well, you could always work at McDonald's,” my new wife said and I realized how naïve we were going to look.

“Yeah, well, McDonald’s isn’t going to pay for my cable TV or phone,” she said.  The prostitute was probably right about that, especially in Las Vegas, but I kept my mouth shut and let Elizabeth do the talking on this one.

“It might,” Elizabeth said. “And even if it doesn’t, you’re not ruining your life.”  I realized there that Elizabeth was the most moral person I had ever met.  The very thought of prostitution disgusted her, whereas it didn’t disgust me.  We were learning so much about each other’s differences and we only been married for a few hours.

“You’re young and you’re not from around here,” she said.  It was more back and forth between Elizabeth and this prostitute until she made us the offer I knew we would eventually hear.  She was right.  I was young and naïve and not from around there, but I still knew a few things.

“Would you like me to show you how Vegas works while I’m here?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Elizabeth asked.

The prostitute grinned a little bit before she bluntly clarified, “Would you like me to fuck you both tonight?” There was silence as I contemplated the offer and while Elizabeth tried not to throw up.  “You can name the price since you’re obviously first-timers and since you’re tourists.”

“I think you should leave now,” Elizabeth said.  The prostitute didn’t argue.  Instead, she winked at me on her way out and blew cigarette smoke in Elizabeth’s face.  Elizabeth and I went to sleep with our backs to each other knowing why Las Vegas is called Sin City.  We never talked about it again.  Most people learn that they didn’t become one person after they’ve been in a marriage for some time.  We learned we were still very different on that first night.  That’s what we slept on.

***

The next day, we saw a magic show. We didn’t have enough money to see the 100-dollar-a-head “Siegfried and Roy” show, so we sprung for the much cheaper show, “Sigmund and Freud,” which only cost $5 per head and was held in some guy’s studio apartment.

Instead of funky techno music, Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits blasted from a boom box sitting on the floor behind us. Magic acts included slapstick comedy and shadow puppets. “See, an elephant eating a peanut?”

We enjoyed this show, though. Through all the shady characters lurking around us, the sounds of wild sex coming from the apartment next door, and the printouts of white tigers scotch-taped to the walls, it was a nice evening. It was all nice.

As a writer with no formal training, not even a high school diploma, I was always looking for stories in unusual places.  That magic show, for instance, or the prostitute.  Las Vegas itself.  The real life shit.  I had just put a book of fictional short stories out through a small press in New York, but didn’t think it was going to take off because I wasn’t really writing what I wanted to write – nonfiction – and my family had convinced me that if I wanted to go anywhere with writing, I needed to go get my GED, go to college, and start writing poetry.  My new wife told me to go to school with her and major in English.  I was constantly wishing something would happen to prove to them that I could do it.  It doesn’t have to be The Today Show or Oprah.  But it wouldn’t hurt.

Where to? is a question we were constantly asking ourselves in Las Vegas. We had no rental car and had to rely on public transportation. What we quickly realized, however, was that everything in Las Vegas is connected somehow or another. Hotels either connect internally or there's a specific tram that takes you from one hotel to the other. We discovered this tram system too late.

I wanted to experience bowling in Las Vegas. We looked at our little map. We were staying at the Treasure Island Hotel and the nearest bowling alley was at the Golden Nugget, which looked really close on the map. I decided that instead of taking a bus or calling a cab, we would walk it. This was Kentucky logic in Las Vegas.

Our journey started out around 7:30 PM. We walked down the strip, where I – not Elizabeth – was approached by Mexican men in their 20s, who handed me cards with naked women on the front and 800 numbers on the back. More prostitution. We were obviously reminded of our friend from the night before, but we didn’t bring it up.  I had a collection of 50 hooker cards by the time we reached the highway. One day these may be collector’s items, but I’ll probably be too embarrassed to sell them.

The strip eventually ended and we were faced with Interstate. That’s right; we had to brave the highway in order to get to this hotel for bowling. No sidewalk, just a shoulder. We walked for at least 10 minutes down this Interstate. There were no streetlights and we were wearing dark clothes, so God be with us had somebody decided to pull over onto the shoulder. No one did, though, and we found the Golden Nugget at 9:30 PM, two hours after our journey began.

We bowled. Honestly, it wasn’t much different than Kentucky bowling, especially since my highest game was like a 60. The biggest difference was that cute waitresses in skimpy outfits walked around and served us expensive drinks.

One of the trams was loading when we walked out. It had a big sign that read, “NUGGET à TREASURE.”  We jumped in. All the way back, we sat across from this guy with long black hair who picked his ear with a paperclip and ate it – not just the wax, the whole paperclip. Delilah, a cheesy phone-in radio show was playing on the bus speakers. I hated this show and couldn’t believe it found us all the way in Las Vegas. Elizabeth loved it, so I was glad she got to hear some of it. When we first met, I phoned in Patrick Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind” and dedicated it to her. Delilah played it. Elizabeth heard it. God, that’s fucking embarrassing.

Gambling wasn’t really my bag, although Elizabeth seemed to enjoy watching me make a fool out of myself. I took advantage of the courteous treatment we received from the cocktail waitresses while sitting at slot machines. The first time I was served a drink, I asked, “How much?”

She said, “Whatever you think, since you’re playing!” I gave her a $10 bill and watched her walk away with wide eyes. Our biggest jackpot was $25, which we were paid in 100 quarters. We were only carded once, right at the end of our trip, in the Treasure Island casino, and even then, we made the guy feel really guilty for being the only guy to card us on our honeymoon.

We stayed at another hotel on our last night in Vegas, “to get the full experience,” I concluded.  Elizabeth seemed dissatisfied with The Big Tipper Motel, however.  Much of our time that last night was spent flipping through channels forever, stopping for five minutes at a time. We eventually settled on animal bloopers.

This motel room had two beds. We ate our Subway dinner on one and got it on on the other. Perfect motel etiquette. Perfect new married couple etiquette. The room itself looked like it may have been a prison cell or underground compound at some point. The walls were painted over concrete blocks – dull gray paint. The carpet was red shag that slushed when you walked on it. The carpet had cigarette burns and other stains on it. The doorway that led to the restroom looked like a big section of the bricks had just been knocked out – there was no metal lining or anything.

The room originally smelled of soured milk, but we replaced that smell with onions from the foot long we split earlier and with sweat from the debauchery we also split earlier. Soured milk, onions, and sex. What else could we make our room smell like? The table I balanced our checkbook on had some kind of thick oil smeared all over it. My arms, hands, and checkbook were covered in it by the end of the night.

This place was right next to a 24-hour egg place. All they sold were eggs, done up however you wanted. The billboard out front read, “Coming from out of town? You need one of our $99 egg sandwiches!” I guess expensive egg sandwiches make you feel less homesick. I remember looking at Elizabeth before going to sleep that night. I remember thinking, I hope I’m not disappointing you in some way. I hope you feel less homesick without the $99 egg sandwich from next door.

Chapter 2:  Christmas in August

When we got back to Kentucky, Elizabeth and I started to find out that marriage really is hard work, just like everyone would have told me had I given them time. We would find out much later that it gets a lot harder, thanks mostly to me, in our case, but we were beginning to see that the honeymoon is something that should be treasured because it doesn’t go on forever. The people who tell you that marriage is hard work, it turns out, are not just joking around.

Our apartment was shitty in a lot of ways.  One morning in particular comes to mind.  After playing with the cats for a little while that morning, I took a bath and a shit. When I got up off the toilet, I flushed it and heard a sharp pop from the tank. I knew something was wrong, but I hoped it was just my paranoia. It wasn’t. The tank didn’t fill up. Fifteen minutes passed and the water was still running. I told myself that it could have been worse – it could have broken before flushing my shit. I’m always embarrassed by the possibility that a plumber will have to open the toilet seat to find this disgusting pile of crap floating around in pee.

I finished getting dressed and then called the landlord. “Do you have the hand strength to turn the water valve off?” he asked me. I told him no and he promised to have someone out there in a few hours. Shawn has accurately described our landlord as looking and acting like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. Our maintenance man lived three hours away. He was a landlord himself in his small town. We had lots of questions about this arrangement, as did many of the tenants, but our questions were never answered.

Our bathtub drain was clogged up with a washrag at that time. We hadn’t told the landlord about that. We’d rather wait a whole day and let the water drain out that way. I didn’t like calling the landlord. I don’t like complaining to anybody. I never feel as if my problems are worthy enough for people to hear. Some things can’t wait, though.

Our apartment had a crappy reputation and for good reason. The furnace went out once so we bought two space heaters. After I plugged them in and they started warming up, the electricity went out. I had blown all of the fuses in the entire building. The fuses we had were not the flip-a-switch kind, either. They were the kind that required special bulbs. It turned into a night of boring, freezing darkness.

Our landlord had an equally bad reputation, but for being silly and strange. When I turned in our rent two days early once, the landlord said I would get some kind of credit for that. “Does that mean we can turn it in two days late next month?” He said no. On the receipt that day, he wrote that the rent was good for 1/18/04-2/18/05. I wondered for a second if that receipt was legally binding. Then I remembered the comment about getting credit for turning it in two days early. Maybe he meant I was getting a $6,000 credit. We never pursued it. We did ask him for a new garage, though.

We noticed for a while that our neighbors had garage doors that actually opened, allowing them to park in their garage. Our door was broken and could not open. “Garages are luxuries,” the landlord said. “We don’t repair those when they break.”  By referring to them as luxuries, it was almost like he was saying, “You should count your lucky stars that you have a garage you can’t use.”  Eventually, our downstairs neighbor moved out and we asked if we could switch. “Anything to get you off my back,” he said. “I’m trading you a garage for the next time you want to call and complain about your heating or plumbing.”

I heard all kinds of stories about how he was dying of cancer, so I always kind of ignored his anger issues. Even then, I just nodded and smiled. That seemed to make it worse, though. And it added to my paranoia about bothering landlords with what he considered “little things like heating, plumbing, and burning stoves.”  Our stove caught fire three times in one month. We pulled it out and noticed that the word “DAMAGED” had been stamped on the dented back panel. When inquiring about that, he grinned and said, “Nothing wrong with hand-me-downs.”

We eventually got a remote control that raised the garage door up. The landlord brought this over at 10:00 one night. I went down and tested it out. It worked like a champ. I even pulled my car into the garage, moving it from the street. Going up the stairs, very satisfied, I was in a mood that almost dared someone to try and put me in a bad mood. A neighbor must have read my mind because he was standing at the top of the steps with his dog, which was taller than me, and his pistol, which also looked bigger than me under the circumstances. “Who is down there?” he asked, pointing his gun down into the dark stairway.

Panicked, I said the first thing that came into my mind. “Uh, four,” I said, referring to our apartment number. I hoped that he didn’t think I was referring to the number of bullets I’d like fired downstairs.

“What?” he asked, sounding a little confused now – more confused than confrontational, even with a gun and a dog. I was surprisingly calm, as I had gotten along fairly well with this guy in the past.

“The guy in apartment four,” I clarified.

“Oh, okay,” he said. “See ya.”

I heard him go back into his apartment and I proceeded upstairs, shaking a little. He opened his door as I was going up the other flight of stairs to our apartment. “Sorry about that, man,” he said. “Just tryin’ to protect us around here, you know?”

“Cool,” I said. “Thanks a lot.”

It really sucked that this guy lived below us, too, because we made a lot of noise, mostly because of our cats and sometimes because of our parties.  Although we didn’t have parties often, when we did, they were usually loud as hell and seemed to involve the whole complex.  It wasn’t uncommon for someone’s drunken girlfriend to walk into the wrong unlocked apartment or fall down a flight of stairs, only to have someone else’s drunken girlfriend waiting at the bottom of those stairs to laugh in her face.

We were having a get-together once for someone’s birthday and Neil and I went down to sip some wine outside. That neighbor and some woman he brought home came up to us, looked at the wine, and said, “Hey, where’s the party?” We knew they were drunk. “We just came from one ourselves,” the neighbor said.

“Right upstairs,” I said.

“We should come up and bring some weed.”

“Not really that kind of party,” I said. I just envisioned the guy whipping out his gun and his dog instead of the weed.  “It’s more of a small dinner party with friends.”  The music blaring from our apartment, which was hip-hop I believe, made my small dinner party lies seem pretty ridiculous.  The neighbor looked disappointed, but his girl was all smiles. They went inside their apartment. Neil and I went back upstairs, laughing at the neighbor. About five minutes later, the floors shook and we thought pictures from our walls were going to fall to the ground. The neighbor had turned his stereo up sky high. We figured they were retaliating because they weren’t invited to our party. They eventually calmed down and we actually felt better about them living below us. If they ever complained about us being loud, we could always point to that night.

It never came to that, though, and we wouldn’t be there much longer anyway.  We would be there long enough for two of the most fucked up parties ever designed, however.

***

Shawn’s wife Belle said, “Everyone is going to think we’re a bunch of rich democrats,” as we were planning our progressive dinner. It was originally Taylor’s idea, I think. A progressive dinner is where a group of friends get together and plan a full-course meal, but each part of the meal is prepared and served at a different house. The original schedule was to have the appetizers at Shawn and Belle’s new house from about 7-8pm, the main course at our friends Michelle and her boyfriend Paul’s apartment from 8-9pm, the desserts at our friend Drew and his mom’s house from 9-10pm, and the drinks at our place from 10-whenever. Although sticking to the schedule was an important key for me, things turned out a bit differently.

My friend Taylor stopped by our apartment and he and I prepared a surprise for everyone.  I had known Taylor for a few years.  We worked together at the same crappy little job forever.  He was a good friend.  We wanted to blow everyone away with this surprise and it required quite a bit of practice beforehand. I would come to realize that I maybe should have practiced a little more and shouldn’t have been as drunk at show time.  While other people were beginning to notice that I drank excessively, I seemed to be oblivious.  It just seemed not only fun, but the appropriate thing to do.  If someone had told me I was on the verge of developing a problem, I would have told them they were crazy.  Come to think of it, I probably would have told them to fuck off.

At 6:00, Elizabeth, Taylor, and I left to pick one of our friends up and somehow ended up a frat party.  We had to get directions to this frat house and when we got to the area, the guy directing us via cell phone was standing outside trying to wave us in. I drove past him faster than a motherfucker. A puddle of rain washed up onto him. I was afraid I was going to get my ass kicked, so I was reluctant to turn around. I did, though. This was a small house with about 20 college guys living in it. A lot of the guys hit on Elizabeth. She seemed uncomfortable, so every now and then, I would put my arm around her.  I was the oldest guy there and one guy at the party told me I was very “grandfatherly” because of the library shirt I was wearing.

The lead frat boy asked me if I wanted a beer. I told him sure and he went to get one. Me and the others waited uncomfortably in the hallway. Frat boys walked past us and sneered. The house smelled like booze and cigarettes. The TV was blaring and people were passed out all over the place. Doors would open up around us, smoke would pour out, and then some drunken frat boy would be holding his mouth to get to the restroom right between us. No time to close the door. We saw all of these vomiting motherfuckers just barely make it.

The lead frat boy came back and told me they were out of beer. I was disappointed and shared such information. He said he’d get me one next time. There’s not going to be any next time, I thought to myself. One guy was still in the bathroom puking his guts out and I thought that we should probably get out of the way. Seconds later, a wild-haired drunken guy rushed from the living room and sprayed me with projectile vomit. It was all down my “Oldham County Library” t-shirt. Elizabeth told me that that guy was in one of her classes.  Shirtless and pissed off, we drove back to our apartment so that I could get a new shirt.  We never could find our friend.  “Fuck him,” I said.

We got to Shawn and Belle's house for the appetizers "fashionably late," I concluded, with me in a new shirt. This one didn’t have anything to do with libraries.  I didn't believe Shawn when he greeted us at the door and said that most everyone else was in the kitchen enjoying the appetizers. Apparently people were really paying attention to this timeframe we had developed and really trying to be on-time. This pleased me. They were so quiet! Sure enough, I walked in and found Drew picking at the appetizers, which included hummus, chex mix (original and hot-n-spicy), and assorted cheese.  Drew was a kid who was trying to get involved in the writing scene by hanging out with all of us.  He had stringy hair, a scruffy little beard, and moved his arms around a lot when he talked.

Shawn and Belle had just bought their first house. We all took turns on their new thermapedic mattress. We looked at their new shed. “New house stuff,” we called it.  They were doing quite well.  Everyone was working when they could and partying around their schedules, it seemed like.  Between the partying and the working, Elizabeth and I would try to find time for each other.  I wonder now if maybe we should have set better priorities.  At least we were having fun.  That can’t ever be denied.  At the time, during those parties, Elizabeth and I had fun.  It was a good marriage.

I worried that Michelle and Paul were having trouble finding the house, but they called at around 7:30 to say they would be there in a few minutes. Some of us waited outside to wave at Michelle and Paul as they drove by. I really don’t remember how I met them. All I know is it involved literary readings and Shawn. I sang my first Karaoke song at Michelle’s birthday party. I sang Kenny Rogers’ “Ruby.”  Shawn signed me up to sing Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning,” but I refused and “disappointed the entire audience,” Paul said. I had to make a comeback. “Ruby” was my success story. People liked me after that. I still have a thank you card from Michelle that says, “Kenny Rogers has always been very special to my heart.”  That thank you note will be one of the only things I’m able to keep from Michelle, and I’ll have to keep it secretly, in a book in my bookcase.   My book.

I remember the three of us talking about the first time we smoked a cigarette. Their stories were pretty standard. Sneaking some from mom’s purse, sharing one from a high school friend. I was in seventh grade and wanted to fit in with the rough-ass cool kids. They dared me to walk into my second period math class smoking a cigarette. I still can’t believe I did it. It’s the bravest thing I’ve ever done. I lit up right out in the hallway, expecting to choke at first – I did, but not too much – and then I put on my coolest attitude and walked into class, puffing away, and I sat down in my desk. Slouched down, feet forward, smoking the cigarette. Total silence. My math teacher walked up to me. “What do you think you’re doing?” she asked in disbelief.

“What?” I asked. “I don’t see any ‘No Smoking’ signs around here.”  I had it all planned out. I was only a little nervous. I had it built up in my head that smoking the cigarette would help ease my nerves; I was too young and stupid to know that it doesn’t really work that way with first-timers. The kids laughed. The teacher scowled. I got detention. It was all worth it. From that day forward, I was one of the cool kids in seventh grade.

Paul played in a classic rock band. I saw one of his performances in a redneck club once. For about four hours straight, this one guy danced his ass off and totally entertained (and disgusted) everyone in the club. He usually danced alone because his wife would become exhausted. But not him; he kept on dancing all night, even though everyone in the club was making fun of him. Whenever his wife would sit down to take breaks, he would put his crotch in her face and move his ass around in all sorts of sexually explicit ways. He poured water down his shirt and danced on the tables every now and then. He also humped the dance floor and other things that night. What he humped after he left the club remains unknown.

I had some good times with Michelle and Paul. They introduced me to International Talk Like a Pirate Day. We carried around swords and wore hooks on our hands and patches over our eyes and talked like pirates for a night. People hung their bodies out of my car at stoplights and screamed "Arrrrr, why are ya hangin' out at the White Castle there ya scallawag?"

It was easy for me and most everyone in our circle of friends to forget that Michelle and Paul had an eight-year-old son. Well, sort of. Michelle was the kid's mother and the real father took care of him on the weekends, which allowed Michelle time to go out and play in bands, go to progressive dinners, get really trashed, and eventually go to out-of-town readings with me. I was glad Elizabeth and I didn't have any kids. I didn't want any. I didn’t think I was ready. Elizabeth was, though.

Michelle and Paul arrived at the progressive dinner at 7:45 wearing name badges! We manipulated the schedule to allow Michelle and Paul to see the new house and enjoy the hummus. I secretly thought to myself, If we’re manipulating the schedule this early in the game, we probably won’t get to my apartment until around 2 AM.

We drove to Michelle and Paul's apartment at 8:15 for the main course. A train held us up for about 15 minutes. Taylor jumped out of the car and was going to take pictures of the people in the cars in front of us, but some asshole honked his horn and spooked him back in. Drew got separated from us, but thanks to the wonders of cell phones, he found his way.

Michelle and Paul lived in a nice apartment and had very nice dogs. We waited for them to prepare the main course, which was delicious and fulfilling. I also tried my hand at some of their wine. They had awesome coffee mugs, too. They picked them up as they traveled around the world. We didn’t end up leaving until 9:45. Shawn and Belle drove Michelle and Paul in their car as to preserve gas.

We stopped at someone’s friend’s house to take a group picture. We drove to Drew's house and were later told that we could have saved so much time by going different ways, taking shortcuts. Everyone who told me these things were from Indiana. I was from Kentucky. I followed them most of the time. I was confused. I questioned only in my mind and only with my sarcasm, though.

Another train. Drew was in front of us. This time, Taylor was able to take pictures of people sitting in their cars waiting on the train.  A few folks looked pretty freaked out.

At 10:55, we arrived at Drew's house to find an insane variety of desserts. A coffee cake that would serve 30, some strawberry shortcake type of concoction, little chocolates, these awesome cookies, and sparkling wine. Suddenly, I was reminded of the last time I was at Drew’s place. I was with an Icelandic writer that Shawn brought in to speak at the university.

This Icelandic writer and I had been drinking all night and figured that by the time we showed up to Drew’s mom’s place, she would be asleep or would encourage us to sober up with some coffee. On the contrary: she served us handmade vodka. He took his with some kind of limejuice; I took mine straight. The rest of the time that night was spent talking to Drew’s dogs, annoying Drew’s mom, singing Neil Young’s “Old Man,” and passing out in various places around the living room. I walked in on this Icelandic writer, who is very well known in Iceland, at some point that night with his finger down his throat, trying to get some of that vodka up. I was a novice drinker back then. I wouldn’t understand what he was doing until a few months later. I wonder if that was the night I became an alcoholic.

At the progressive dinner, Drew's mom told us about the ghost that haunted their house. I told stories too, ones that didn’t make any sense, because my speech was a little slurred. We listened to CDs for a short period of time. We noticed that Drew seemed really embarrassed by his mom. He didn’t seem embarrassed to live with his mom – just embarrassed by her – and for no reason. She actually seemed pretty cool.  By the time we left Drew’s mom’s place, my vision was terribly distorted and I could barely walk.  Elizabeth was looking at me as if we were in a sitcom, saying, “Well, you’ve done it again.”

I told Shawn and Belle to go on in once they got to our place. Shawn and Belle were becoming our very best friends, more so than they were at the wedding a little while back. They had keys to our place; we had keys to theirs.

I was told that Shawn and Belle showed up at our apartment at about Midnight, two hours off schedule. All I know was they broke out the beer. No one knew where the whiskey and vodka was.

We showed up at our apartment at a ridiculous 12:35. That’s not fashionably late. I served Belle whiskey and coke, her favorite. I began drinking beer and promised myself that each time I got another beer, I would also have a shot of Makers. I followed through. Everybody talked and laughed for a really long time. People played games of 20 questions. Shawn got Ronald Reagan and I was really surprised, very impressed.

We played scavenger hunts, too. Once people saw Shawn and Taylor win movie tickets, they tried like hell to win my contests. It was surreal to see everyone storm into our guest bedroom and just start looking through our personal drawers and files. Taylor won an electric pencil sharpener and Belle won a red binder. All of the good prizes were gone.  I even tried to give the apartment complex away.

Everyone knew Taylor was expecting a special guest to come and help with the music. No one knew it was me. Taylor and I belted out "Baby It's Cold Outside," a performance that Paul called "the most amazing part of the whole evening." Taylor played his ukulele during this performance and that made the whole thing that much more bizarre. I can only imagine what that poor neighbor downstairs, his dog, and his girlfriend must have thought about hearing us perform a Christmas song in the middle of the summer. He would have more of those surprises coming, though. Taylor and I did good jobs, but I would have done better had I not done all those shots. The cliché holds true, too: practice makes perfect.

At some point, I took Drew down to show him our storage closet, which doubled as a dungeon. This room was pretty creepy no matter what time of day it was. It was poorly constructed with concrete floors and old but heavy boards for walls. It was like a prison. I joked that I wanted it to be the place where the drunken fools would sleep that night. We'd wake up the next morning in this awful hell. We'd reach around the boards and feel the padlock and think, Holy shit. What have I drank myself into?

Drew staggered in and I locked him inside. He was still looking around as I walked back upstairs and went on with the party. Someone eventually got concerned and I told everyone where Drew was. Everyone went down to find a nervous Drew ready to be unlocked from his own personal hell. He told us that one of our neighbors came downstairs and started working on his artwork. We were not surprised, as we knew this neighbor used the basement as his art studio. Drew spoke up and said, “Hey, how you doing?” The neighbor looked over to see a scruffy, drunken Drew, locked in our storage closet. “Is there any way you could let me out of here?” The neighbor said he didn’t have a key. He went back up to his apartment, a little freaked out.

In the biggest surprise of the night, I presented Belle with a birthday ice cream cake from Dairy Queen. They wrote "Thanks Pete" on a golf course scene. She hugged me and I felt appreciated.  Drunk and appreciated.  We all sung "Happy Birthday" at 2:30 in the morning. Her birthday wasn’t for months. Everyone just seemed so damned happy. My favorite part of the whole night was just how all of these different surprises kept coming up, just when people thought maybe the party was dying down and people would be leaving soon.

By 3:30, Elizabeth had retired to the bedroom, and Drew and Taylor were the only two guests remaining. They were just too drunk or tired to go home. Drew got the couch. Taylor got the guest bed. Taylor went to sleep with a huge smile on his face. Drew’s insulin bottles were strung all over the floor.  Drew had been diabetic for years and told us a story earlier that night about how kids in high school gave him the nickname Sweet N Low.

In the early hours of the morning, Elizabeth nudged me and asked me if I would mind getting up to check on the two boys.  I didn’t know if she meant the cats or our houseguests, so I checked on them all.  The cats were sleeping soundly until they heard me coming.  My footsteps were not enough to wake up Taylor and Drew. Taylor was curled up into a ball, looking as though he might be freezing to death. Drew had moved to the smaller couch, his legs hanging over one arm, his arms hanging over the other. He looked peaceful. I drank lots of water. I disposed of a few beer bottles. I went back to bed. I don’t know why, but at that moment, with the apartment and the people and the cats exactly as they were, I just felt damn lucky.

***

Although it’s hard to believe anything could get more outrageous than the progressive dinner, I think we did it with Christmas in August. I voiced my excitement about the upcoming Christmas season on my online journal one day and Belle replied, saying that I should throw a Christmas in August party. I was game. Taylor agreed to help, too. Michelle loved Christmas as much as me, so of course, she was in, as well.

Friday, August 20th (Christmas Eve). Preparations started around 7:00. Taylor and Michelle came over to help decorate. Michelle brought over a whole car full of Christmas stuff, everything from outdoor candy canes to a motion-activated singing moose. She owned a Christmas pole and everything. I can just imagine how our neighbors were responding to all of this stuff being shipped in, especially after the progressive dinner a few months earlier. She supplied us with an insane amount of alcohol, including tequila, rum, vodka, and whiskey. Most of the alcohol had already been opened at other parties, so Michelle would have probably gone to jail had she been pulled over coming to my apartment. The officer’s reaction to bottles and bottles of opened alcohol next to tons and tons of Christmas decorations at the end of the summer would have been awesome, though.

Taylor and Michelle helped me bring all of my Christmas stuff upstairs from the now infamous basement storage room. We looked for Drew before we shut and locked the door. We spent a lot of time taping Christmas wrapping paper on the walls and putting all kinds of Christmas whatnots around the living room. The cats cried out from the bedroom, wanting desperately to see what all the fuss was about. I was dead-set against letting them out, though, for I knew they would have eaten all of the decorations and ruined our Christmas. Decorations went up until 9:30, at which point, we decided to get something to eat from a Mexican restaurant and watch National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.

Out of the corner of Taylor’s eye, he thought he caught Michelle and I kiss each other. It seemed to make everyone a little uncomfortable even though Elizabeth wasn’t in the room and it really shouldn’t have made anyone uncomfortable at that time. His statement would be more symbolic in a few months. After dinner, Michelle left. Then Taylor left. Then I went to sleep, with visions of sugar plums dancing in my head … but I think that was the rum.

Saturday, August 21st (Christmas Day). Michelle and Taylor came over around 4:00. Only three more hours until people would start showing up. We decorated the trees and lit a bunch of candles. Songs like “White Christmas” were playing the whole time and it really felt like Christmas. We were pulling it off, even though it was 95 degrees outside. Michelle had to buy a roasting rack for the Tofurky, a vegetarian's alternative to turkey, because we had to cook it frozen. We cooked it up in 90 minutes. Steam blasted up onto the ceiling for over an hour and a half. Little bubbles formed on the ceiling and I think some of the ceiling may have melted down onto the Tofurky. Michelle cooked the dumplings and the gravy, all of these things came with the Tofurky roast for $25.99 in your organic grocer’s freezer.

The guests started pouring in around 7:00. The Tofurky was cut and wrapped in aluminum foil until we were all ready to eat. Christmas music could be heard throughout our hallways and our neighbors most likely thought we were freaks. People started drinking and having a good time early on. Taylor, Michelle, and I looked at each other and knew that we, as the organizers, had done it; we succeeded. Taylor had music in the bathtub for God’s sake. A friend of Michelle’s brought a Christmas fruit salad. People even left gifts under the tree. Taylor also had real turkey on hand and even whipped up some eggnog. The food was great and everyone had huge smiles on their faces by the time we went Christmas caroling.

Neil and his wife were the unlucky bastards to get caroled. He was the perfect victim. Belle drove, even though she didn’t have a driver’s license. I think she had been drinking the least and that’s how we figured we’d be better off. That’s Christmas in August logic.

Out in the hallway with Neil and his wife standing at their door, we sang "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" and "Silent Night" as loud as we possibly could. Neil just drank a beer and smiled the whole time, but I knew deep down that he hated it and would never forgive any of us for it. We hugged everyone goodnight and left. I could see something in Neil’s eyes as I staggered down his steps, besides a look that seemed to say, “Man, I’m going to hear it from my landlord tomorrow.”

Neil and I were losing touch. It was something that became clearer every time Neil’s name came up. I hated that. We were growing apart. I knew it was happening and it would take me a long time to accept it.  That was the last time I ever saw or talked to Neil and his wife.  My groomsman.  One of my best pals.  It’s fitting it was like that.  It was too much of a silent night for me.

We went back to the apartment, nicknamed Christmas HQ, and for good reason. I didn’t realize until I walked in the place after being gone from it for a while how Christmassy it really was. The front door was decorated. The halls were decked. Our apartment even smelled like Christmas because we had lit Cinnamon and Pumpkin Pie-flavored candles! At this point, I even questioned our mental states. Are we crazy? I thought, going back inside and pouring myself some more eggnog.

Drew, who was supposed to provide dessert, didn't show. He may have feared another experience with the dungeon. Someone said something about dessert as the party started to wind down in the middle of the night, so I decided to run to the nearby grocery store for a strawberry cake. I was too drunk to drive, so I literally ran. I ran past this jogger and waved my arms around, screaming, "Merry Christmas you wonderful old building and loan!" The whole time, my Santa Claus tie was swinging all over the place. I was out of breath and drunk in line at the supermarket. The cashier kept looking at my tie. I even invited her to the party. I was ready to run home, but Elizabeth drove out and picked me up. It was better anyway because I probably would have dropped the cake or really messed it up while running back home.

We enjoyed some strawberry cake when I got up to the apartment and got ready for the big gift exchange. Gifts included cereal, a cork-lifter, a box of Christmas cards, a can of silly string, and a huge bag of popcorn with some film taped to it.

Around 2:30 AM, we had a giveaway. People walked away with two telephones, a sound mixer, a USB cable, and a big cowboy hat. My friend Jordan talked on his prize telephone for many hours. Jordan and I met in a class of Shawn’s that I guest spoke in.  We ended up hanging out to talk about writing one night.  Our common interests include writing and rum. We eventually met up at The Back Door, a place where many drunken nights have been spent since Neil and I met there to discuss wedding plans. Deep down, I wanted to introduce Jordan to this place. He just thought it was a gay bar. We talked about writing a lot that first night.

The next time, with literally no writing on the table, we talked about other things – life, dreams, nightmares – the booze helped the conversation along. And these nights have continued. He met my friends and I met his. I tried to play matchmaker from time to time and get him a new girlfriend. My role as matchmaker usually resulted in him calling strange women on my cell phone. Then I would feel obligated to make something happen. After all, he got in touch with them through the rum and Coke I served him moments earlier and by using my phone, or at least the numbers from it.

My phone has gotten me in some trouble with Barrett in the past. Barrett was another student of Shawn’s and would often hang out with us after readings. Barrett wasn’t with us the night I gave my phone to the Icelandic writer and I let the two of them talk for a while. I have to admit that I enjoyed getting under Barrett’s skin a little more than anyone else’s during this time. I think he really hated me. This Icelandic writer was the perfect person to use in my mission to piss Barrett off, too. He once threw an open bottle of wine out of a moving car. On the phone with Barrett, a drunken Icelandic writer recited poetry. All Barrett could make out, he recounted later, was “Thank you very much, Mr. President.”

Jordan once called Barrett’s mother, who I assume was at least 60, at 3:00 in the morning one Friday night.

“Hello?” she said.

“Hi may I please speak with a Mr. Barrett?” Jordan asked in the most monotone voice imaginable.

“Do you realize it’s 3:00 in the goddamn morning?”

“Oh I’m sorry,” Jordan said, “I’m calling from Europe and there’s a bit of a time difference.”  Silence. “Can you take a message?” Jordan asked, still calm and monotone, “it’s kind of important.”

“What is this about?”

“Yes, this is Mr. Shipley and I’m calling from Miramax of Europe.”  More silence. “We’re interested in turning one of Mr. Barrett’s short stories into a film.”

What I thought was interesting is how Jordan gave her a local area code, far from what a European phone number would be, I assume. She took the message and Jordan hung up. The next morning Barrett’s mother called and threatened to call the police if someone from that number ever prank called her again.

Sunday (Boxing Day). My new friend Jordan left around 11:30 AM. He slept in the living room with the lit-up Christmas trees, dirty plates, and empty Guinness bottles. I think he slept on a slice of Tofurky, too. We had only known each other for three or four months, so I can only imagine what went through his mind as he slept in that winter wonderland.

The take-down was simple:  I just ripped stuff off the walls. Taylor helped me carry stuff back down to the prison and I helped Michelle carry her stuff back down to her car. She almost forgot her moose. Michelle and I were alone in the apartment for about ten minutes that day. Elizabeth was at work. Michelle’s a beautiful woman. I stared, but she never caught me. My thoughts, that day, however, never drifted beyond whether or not she was going to take all of that leftover booze back with her. But I stared. And played with my wedding ring – just twisted it around a little bit, watching her pack up all of the little Santa Claus and Rudolph figurines. I spent the rest of the day cleaning up the apartment.

For months, we would find things that would remind us of Christmas in August: little pieces of tinsel (which the cats also found and ate), misplaced Christmas videos, and more hidden beer bottles. I was a little worried about celebrating Christmas in August for fear that it would make the real Christmas in December less special. I was right to be concerned for the real Christmas.

***

We spent insane amounts of money on partying, eating out at restaurants, going to the movies, and all the other crap that young people do with their friends.  The leftover money, which sometimes wasn’t enough, went towards renting our crappy little apartment and paying bills.  Those were good times.  Hard financially, partly because they were so good, but good nonetheless.  We were so busy having fun as a couple – with other people – that we forgot to have fun with each other.  This issue was always in the back of my mind and I guess when I thought of doing something about it I figured we were married, and had the rest of our lives to have fun together.  Never assume that.

One night, my publisher from New York called and told me that my book just hit it big.  I had apparently just written a bestseller with that book of short stories.  The book that my family didn’t seem to be too interested in.  The one that most of them didn’t even seem to know I had written.  I had done it – me – the high school dropout that people told should go back to school and start writing poetry.  The call came at the perfect time – I was drinking heavily, juggling bills, and thinking about what I should do with my life if things didn’t improve financially.

I woke Elizabeth up and told her.  In her sleepy state, she seemed as interested as possible, but confused as to how this could possibly be true.

“What does that mean?” Elizabeth asked.

“I think it means I’m a best-selling author,” I said.  “Maybe we should move out of this shithole.”

Eventually, I used all of this new money we had access to and bought us a house. No one in our apartment complex knew we were planning to move.  We didn’t really get to know people.  No one knew I was a writer and if they recognized me from recent TV or newspaper articles, they didn’t say anything.

When we first started looking for a house, it was pretty overwhelming. I heard about this online company that specialized in placing real estate agents with clients based on personality matches – kind of like a weird matchmaking service for prospective homebuyers. It sounded perfect for me since I hate talking to people on the phone and in person.

Elizabeth and I signed up and took their little quiz. The quiz asked us all kinds of questions about how much money we were making, what kind of home we were looking for, and what kind of neighborhood we wanted to live in. We heard back from five agents on the first day.

Only one sounded promising. Her name was Meredeth. She was really young, only 27, and had been a real estate agent for about three years. Elizabeth was reluctant, but I was into Meredeth. I thought her letter to us was fascinating. She told us that she was the agent for us because she was young like us and she knew the areas we were interested in. She also told us that she used her age to her advantage – she said she was modern, knew how to use technology, and wasn't tired of her job like a lot of her older colleagues. I thought those were cool things to say and she won me over.

Meredeth's sales records were also better than all of the other offers we got. She sold more homes in a year than any of the other people. One guy said he didn't even live in Kentucky. "I know someone who lives there, though, and he can drive you out to show you the houses," he wrote. Elizabeth decided Meredeth sounded pretty good after she read that guy’s letter.

Meredeth turned out to be really cool. She was short and slender with curly blond hair. She always wore really professional clothes and drove around in a brand new SUV. She wasn't the best driver and would always be trying to figure out directions while driving. We almost got hit several times while trying to get to a house.

We looked at some nice houses before settling on the most expensive one, a house we could never have afforded before the book took off.  Five bedrooms, three full bathrooms, huge living room, huge kitchen, basement, two-car-garage. The yard was unbelievably big and it set back from the street for extra privacy. It was the perfect house. We made an offer that day. Before we knew it, the house was ours.

Things were moving fast and they were only going to start moving faster.  Before we even had a chance to settle in to the new house, it was time to go on my first big book tour, where everything would change.

Mike Smith teaches general education in Louisville, Kentucky. Tremendous Power of Concentration is his second novel.

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Part Two of Four was posted October 1, 2007.

Download the whole book in various formats in December.