The COVID caught me. I’ll avoid all the political land mines and tangents this subject has made nearly impossible for the rest of the planet to ignore. Those discussions are boring and for the most part irrelevant, in my opinion. My focus is something that at the outset seems insignificant in light of the other possible consequences of the virus but the longer I live with the “thing” the more metaphysical this particular symptom has grown.
It was subtle. I had already traversed the extremes of the illness. The sweats, the chills, the striking, straight line pains across my back in the night, the anchor of fatigue. All that had already run its course. A cocktail of wonderful steroids and unnoticeably brilliant antibiotics swimming in my system, I was cooking sausage for my kids for lunch, on this unexpected, not unwelcome, vacation from work, when my son said, “Mmmmm, I can smell my sausage.”
Not a hint of searing meat in my olfactory.
I took a bite of buttered toast. Nothing. Alone, the soggy, warm texture elicited an “almost taste” but my imagination could only muscle so much. What I sensed wasn’t flavor. It was a lie. A benevolent attempt by my mind to comfort me in the loss.
At the moment I’m writing this, I still lack my senses of smell and taste. I have just come in from mowing part of our lawn. And I should have a lingering whiff of hot, shorn green in my head but it’s not there. I know the smell. I have a solid memory of the odor. As a teenager, I mowed lawns for eight to ten hours a day. The scent and every variation of it is carved into my mind. It should be there now. It should be but all I have is a memory of it. Have I “lost” it?
What does it mean to “lose” one’s sense of smell or taste—fully aware of how connected the two senses?
If one loses a game, a sporting event, what does the word “loss” actually represent? You lost an opportunity to boast? A trophy? You lost some confidence in yourself as a participant? This seems like what has happened. In some context a loss in confidence means everything. Boxers tend to lose more after one loss than they can record wins after a single win. In the midst of a string of losses, a single win rarely boosts a fighter the way a failure can degrade a fighter’s confidence after an unbroken list of victories. Is it joy? Have you lost the joy of victory? Victory is as fleeting as a sunset. However when one loses in a specific event, that loss is permanent, isn’t it. In this specific moment nothing will ever be the same. The mental state of one’s opponent can never be recreated with exactitude, the weather, the temperature, the light, nothing could be precisely the same as it was when the initial loss occurred so there is no way to replay, redo. No way to ever win again. The loss is permanent.
When people analyze sports at the professional or collegiate level they often invoke “stakes.” Are the stakes of a game really worthy of what “loss” means in the grand tapestry of life. For some, it is. A loss at a certain time could mean a life of mundanity over a life of privilege. A prestigious education over an obscure one. But for most people the loss of a game is equal to simple embarrassment. Embarrassment is overcome once the hot moment has passed. Loss is negligible.
Loss and its relation to the stakes are obviously not unique to sports. The stakes are what we’re always concerned with when we speak about loss.
What are the stakes of losing taste and smell? My wife also contracted COVID. She also lost (and regained) her taste and smell. She grew emotional over the loss, mainly in context with our young kids. She worried she might not smell the smoke of fire. She feared the loss of their scent when she laid with them at night. Any distance from their essence or limit to her ability to protect them raised the stakes far higher than I would have guessed.
She has regained her olfactory and taste senses. At this time, she’s complained of parosmia—strange sweetness in water and other strange things. This is apparently a positive thing, a sign that the cells are rebuilding.
Lost and found.
Misplaced and regained.
As I sip on the bubbles of this Pepsi, I wonder about my memory of the taste of it. I wonder and I worry.
I’ve read about, heard about, listened to discussions about the “hot/cold empathy gap.” When you’re not actually in pain, you might feel faintly confident that you can handle “the pain.” I’ve lost at various times certain sensitivities to specific pains. When I worked in a freezer in my very early twenties, I lost a shade of sensitivity to the pain one feels when dry ice contacts the skin. I could hold dry ice in my naked palm for minutes. Was the absence of this initial pain a loss or a gain? It was at least an adjustment. I’ve been a welder for years now. I can hold my composure and keep a steady hand at the harshest sensation of molten metal that may have dropped through two layers of fire resistant denim to find my thigh. I can without a wince continue a weld as a ball of orange steel sits in the fold of my leather cover, heating the skin on my arm to a blister. Another adjustment? Another loss of sensation? Or another gain in resilience?
Loss has an obvious irony attached to it. In loss we usually gain something either peripheral or even directly related to the event or thing we call lost.
Loss is a strange word when you drill down hard enough, isn’t it?
Do you ever really lose a “religion?” You still retain parts of the structure—substrate—of religion. I will admit that I trust science—I hold some faith in science. Have I not lost my religion at all but simply transferred the irrational—inherited—belief in magic to a different corner of my value scaffolding? Maybe. I can make better arguments for the reasonable assumption that science has a better answer to most questions than mysticism. But have I “lost” the thing that is most troubling about adherence to magic? It seems that even though I can proclaim my loss in adherence to a spirit world or divine driver, I cannot in actual truth say I have lost my “faith.”
Then there is artistic loss. I’ve heard of “losing the muse.” A rather ridiculous callback to another ancient religious trope. I’ve experienced “writer’s block,” though I hate the phrase. I’ve read other writers as their voice changed, usually as they became more concerned with commercial success than artistic expression.
I struggled as a songwriter to produce music. My main failure as a songwriter was to write music I wouldn’t later feel embarrassed to sing on stage. I may have after years of trying actually achieved that goal once. You can see why I stopped trying all together. No one wants to embarrass themselves night after night, three minutes at a stretch, in front of people who instantly sense something is terribly wrong with how you perceive yourself. I spent years actually trying to lose my metaphorical voice when I wrote music. I naively fought my natural tendencies as a songwriter all the while admiring those who had embraced their own styles. The obvious example is Jack White. Here is an artist who has never lost his voice. Decades of strenuous musical exploration has left us with a still ever recognizable Jack White. Jack White never appears embarrassed on stage.
Loss is a spectrum of unimaginable scale. You can lose a game of checkers with a smile. In the days before technology made it almost impossible, I lost a phone on a bus in New York City and grumbled about it for hours, lamented the inconvenience for the rest of the trip. You can lose your composure and sink into a depression. You can lose an arm or a leg and spend the rest of your life wondering either what could have been or who you would have been if you hadn’t lost them. I’ve read surveys that say amputees suffer only a fraction of points on happiness scales when compared to folks who still retain all their appendages. There’s that weird irony again.
We lose loved ones. Everyone loses loved ones. I have a somewhat traditionally stoic view of death within my circle. I rarely visit dying friends. I will talk with them but I would rather not see them. My memory serves me better to think of the ideas of people than some random vision of them. I actually shudder if the thought of losing one of my children ever crosses my mind and I quickly stamp any lingering. No thank you. Yet I do aspire to the ancients here. Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. They could go at any time. Love them and embrace their fate with the same love you had for them when they lived. I aspire. But some loss is horrifying at the least.
I just caught a whiff of the pungent hand soap we keep at the kitchen sink. I had to literally insert the spout into my nostril but it’s there, very deep, very distant. Perhaps my loss will soon be regained.
And you and I can continue on without the having to suffer my ramblings... wouldn’t that be a loss?
The edge. The verge. The line. The boundary.
Trump fought with juvenile foot stomping against the influx of people from southern regions across the imaginary line between the US and Mexico. Far more than many of his other antics, this battle provided early exposure to the cruelty and callousness predicted by critics of the new president and the creeping extremism of American conservatism.
The dirty secret for American liberals of course is that the Obama administration deported more southern border immigrants than either of the preceding US presidents.
Now the immigration is ticking up again and Biden is faced with a puzzle that he will surely complicate for ridiculous political reasons.
Immigration—“illegal” immigration—has a very easy solution. Ignore the law. Decriminalize entry into the US. Done.
What about the economic impact of all these new people? Won’t we have to care for and provide for these people? Won’t this cost too much?
Yes, we should provide for them. What is too much? The problem with the economic argument against immigration is the bottomless barrel of financial power the US government holds in many other areas of the political structure, namely the military. There lies an immense pile of assets to provide for the needy in the coffers of those who covet bullets and bombs.
The military spending and the history of military spending will always be my goto answer when people say “we can’t afford that.” The US can afford anything. Trust me.
Now about the reasons for immigration from the southern regions. There is “more” here than there is there. It’s that simple. More money. More freedom. More opportunity. Surprisingly, more safety. More everything. We could argue for eternity as to the source of all this “more.” But the fact we can all agree on is this “more” actually exists.
For a nation that purports to hold dear the principle of charity to deny threatened and needy people anything is inherently wrong. But beyond the falsity of withholding charity, there is the cruelty of employing the violence of the law to keep people out. The word “enforcement” encases the source of judicial and political violence unleashed when you deny hospitality to desperate people.
Let me state the obvious for a brief moment: They will get in.
You cannot enforce a border, a boundary, any line, any divide without both creating death and destruction and also failing your own principles.
Consider the differences between people. True differences between people are trivial. Poverty, culture, skin color, lands of origin are all as trivial as hair color, shapes of noses, height and weight. Your fellow human being could tomorrow be in the position of power you hold today. Any imaginary divide you create stands the chance of holding over when this change happens. The worlds oldest and bloodiest conflicts are undoubtedly sourced in trivial differences conceived by egotistical political sources.
The divide is imaginary. The boundary is a fiction. The border is a pencil line. The verge, the edge is a myth.
Loaded guns and babies are like salt on a Twinkie. It makes no sense.
Keeping with tradition, Jessica Cooper's birth is brief, a girl they name Diana who somehow favors Doug in her soft features and slow blinking eyes. Scarlet’s pride vibrates like radiation. Her hovering applies visible strain on Doug as they move from the hospital to the house where she has commandeered the guest room and organized the baby paraphernalia into a series of stations. Some of Doug’s anxiety stems from Scarlet’s constant ability to discover the dozens of handguns he has hidden throughout the home.
Partly due to Doug’s indifferent attitude and partly due to her mother’s joy, Shorty surrenders any notions she had of keeping Scarlet a reasonable distance from the baby. With the first week and the anxiety and the mood swings and the steady march of singular experiences, she realizes that raising babies is one of the few areas Scarlet knows better than her daughter. Shorty encounters the first heartbreaking love of her life in the child she nurses in the amber lamplight near the window where she prays and time travels.
The beautiful burden of it has shaken her foundations and for several weeks after, she feels imbalanced and she confesses this to Sean when he sees the child for the first time. As she expected, he thinks she should consult an expert but he also points out the self awareness it takes to recognize this sort of problem from her side of the mirror. Many people don’t see this sort of thing coming so he accuses her in jest of practicing Buddhism in secret.
Nessa says babies stink. She likens them to hamsters. She tells Sean that children are unnecessary and detrimental to actual happiness. Worse yet, their parents’ most infuriating traits live on in the mimicry of their children, a trend she fortifies with anecdotal tales of her youthful rebellion such as the time the female members of her family organized an intervention to persuade Nessa to shave her armpits before her sister’s wedding. She refused of course and her grandmother blamed her mother’s previous defiance, the year she brought her college girlfriend home for Thanksgiving, a phase from which Nessa’s mother has—since her divorce—yet to escape.
After a prodding over any unfortunate behavior he might have inherited from his father, Sean fails to find any resemblance to him or to his grandfather. He does mention that he and his grandfather’s father found anarchism independent of one another but he cautions that his grandfather was a killer like the Towers that followed him. All but Sean. What follows is an extensive interview over Fox’s life and tribulations along with Sean's experience in searching for Fox’s story. The tale enthralls her. The Russian Revolution. Union activism. Matawan, Tennessee. She insists Sean resembles him in his want to help people. She encourages him to reflect on the other Towers. They must share a thread of charity. Sean reminds her that her complaint is based on deleterious traits. She swears charity can be as deleterious as violence or lies.
The back of the house faces the open expanse beyond the city, the horizon spiked with industrial towers shouldered by a distant hill where the subdivision clings like crystals in a dark geode. The wind encounters little resistance as it races the shape of the land and finds the back door where a whirlwind dances in perpetuity. Sean stands in the spiral, engaged with the sky, struggling to scrub his thoughts.
He’s toured the house littered with evidence numbers and consumed by the absurd fossilized time inherent in all crime scenes, even the dust in the air seems arrested, set aside. He saw where they found the baby tucked next to the toilet in the downstairs bathroom. They found Shorty’s body over the bathroom threshold. She took two rounds, one to the gut and one through the heart. She had fired several rounds down the hallway that emptied into a living area where Doug Galloway sent return fire and died bent over the arm of a recliner. Doug bled from several wounds but the destruction of his pudendal artery proved fatal.
Both bodies were found nude. The struggle preceding the firefight started in the bedroom, broken furniture, broken glass, torn clothes, blood. There’s a bullet hole in the wall near the baseboard, the only bullet fired outside the hallway. He’s reminded of how Big Donny Higgins threw him into a wall at juvie. He’s reminded of Shorty’s deceptive physical strength. Sean worries his initial speculations will lead to wondering other things. Did Galloway try to rape her? Did he succeed? Who fired the first shot? Where was the baby? Had he threatened the child?
His emotions swell. Gravity tightens its grip. He sits on the concrete step, shivering in the wind, faltering under the weight. Memories of his mother’s face throb behind his eyes, the eyes of a grown man, not the headstrong child she struggled to understand. He can’t remember if he cried at her funeral. He arrived too late to join the family in pews directly below the pulpit so he stood at the back, leaning against one of the pillars supporting the church balcony. He never grieved Samantha the way he grieves Shorty. No agony. Just a few trivial regrets. The tonnage of his regrets for Jessica Cooper is too heavy and too tragic. His irrational urge to protect her has backfired and punctured him.
He sees her. He sees her eyes. They ride the chord across the trajectory of that Philosophy of Law classroom, dollops of earth tone more satisfying than anything he will ever know. They’re gone now and nothing he can do will bring them back.
Buy River of Blood on Amazon in both digital and paperback. www.amazon.com/dp/B087B36ZF2
This brutal, philosophical crime novel spans generations in its examination of family myth, cycles of violence, and corruption and racism among police departments. O’Fuel (That Night Filled Mountain) traces the life of Sean Tower, a restless young man from a family of cops, from a childhood fascinated by violent comic books to years spent hoboing across America to eventual deployment as a police officer in an unnamed American city. Sean slowly develops a moral philosophy that places him at bloody odds with a police department infested with racketeers and white supremacists.
O’Fuel’s ambitious novel is an impressionistic swirl of past and present, especially in its first half, as passages of vivid family lore alternate with present-tense accounts of Sean’s childhood. The prose surges with anger, despair, and invention, but it’s not easily approachable. O’Fuel vaults among timelines and perspectives. Dialogue is scant, and at times the prose loses clarity as it strains for poetic effect: “Spooky details cloned in the repetitive scenes of spontaneous destruction will produce macabre moments of déjà vu.” O’Fuel’s scenes often fall into present-tense summary and focus on characters’ internal experiences, skimming through action that might have had greater impact if dramatized.
For readers willing to disorient themselves in O’Fuel’s sweeping and outraged narrative, the novel offers accounts of war, policework both bizarre and mundane, life on the road, suicides and cop murders, and, eventually, the pulpy violence readers might expect from a crime thriller. Even then, O’Fuel bucks simple convention by penning the climax as a lengthy, ruminative colloquy, the text stripped of quotation marks, the scene feverish and unsettling. This ambitious exploration of systemic violence and moral philosophy has a lot to offer for fans of dense, cerebral crime fiction.
I almost talked myself out of writing this post, a piece describing the work that has led up to this moment, the release of my new novel River of Blood. It has taken so long to get here. Years. Aside meeting my wife and the birth of our two children—to whom I’ve dedicated the novel, it became the preeminent detail in my life from the moment the vague idea came to me in 2015. Like that black t-shirt that somehow always reappears in the closet for a decade, slowly changing from pristine pitch to vintage charcoal and fraying seams, the story tumbled through my thoughts and hounded my weekends as I scrambled to meet my self-imposed deadlines for serializing the damn thing on this site.
That’s right. After the first seventy-some-odd pages, I began serializing this story here before I even finished, before slaying the many plot monsters I had conjured. A harrowing journey for certain.
I remember the first few days of writing when I failed to recognize the possibility that this thing could escape the tenuous restraints I had imagined for it.
It will be a short examination of free will and determinism. A novella in the vein of Jim Harrison.
The beast outwitted me. A story I originally estimated could land at a hundred pages left a crater in my life over five hundred pages wide. How the hell did this happen? I had the basics of the story strung with perfection and exactitude. A crystal beginning, middle, and end, only the tiniest of details needed to bind them and release it into the either. How could I have known the reproductive possibilities of those details? The collective genitalia of these details whizzed like servos and the hutch of my virgin cuniculture burst.
It took me five years to gain control.
It’s too much. Too much for me to process all at once. The kids and I have only been in the house for a month. I’ve only known Jim for a month longer than that. You all warned me. You all heard the rumors. But I wouldn’t listen. He was everything. Kind. Dashing. Good job. This beautiful home he refurbished with his own hands endeared him even further. He and the kids hit it off as if we had been together for years. He’s a gifted storyteller—that should have been my first clue! Karen, my oldest, loved his yarn about how the upper floors of the house burned in the sixties when two star-crossed teenagers tipped over a lantern in the attic. “They died in a fire as hot and tragic as their love,” he would say. So disgusting now to remember it. But that’s where it all connects, you see? I get it. It’s implausible. Impossible. A mental fabrication. A figment of the trauma. But that can’t be! I saw her! The alarm woke me and she was there under the smoke detector above the kitchen table. Her face besmirched with char, hair burnt to the scalp, bra and panties still smoldering. I screamed in harmony with the siren but as Jim and Karen crashed naked and panicked through the door from the garage, she vanished, leaving me in the vaporous shock of his betrayal, my ears ringing in a jagged, deafening silence.
The last time I saw him was at a Christmas party for the firm. They fired him the next day for grabbing the ass of an intern we all called Glitterbarf. Now here he strolled across the park, his same awkward strut materializing as the same awkward waddle. He looked exactly the same. The same stupid mustache. The slick skullcap hair. Once he found me as I lay between the roots of the tree, my eyes above the spine of the book, I realized I had stared too long. His magical sleaze guided him toward me from the edge of the pond where the satchel under his arm nudged a small girl in a sailor dress ankle deep into the water. I returned to my book, poking myself in my minds eye for letting this happen. I snuck a glance at his splayed stance only an arms length away. Then he dropped beside me and produced a small dish towel, snapped it like a maître d' serving foie gras. Two wine glasses appeared. I looked up hoping my glare might end the performance but he already had the wine and corkscrew in hand. Our eyes met and he turned to the pond for a moment. Fun fact, he said, pivoting back to me, a duck’s penis is shaped like a corkscrew. He puckered as he torqued the tool into the bottle. Fun fact, I said, get lost or yours will be too.
What’s the goal, though?
Later, back in the confines of the garage, Ollie and Hicky and I drank. This foray into their mission had fostered a pinch of camaraderie between myself and the crew. I had labored with them that night. I had participated. Now the beers had me curious about PLA aspirations.
You guys aren’t delusional as far as I can see. But you know these operations won’t stop wars or death. Any media attention you receive is one sparkle in a bucket of glass.
Ollie’s response felt rote.
Good argument. One that I’ve had with myself many times. Ya know, once I broke free of the violence, I stepped back and saw what I had done then I saw the consequential violence around me like ripples around rain drops.
Hicky shook his head at us. I did not come prepared for a poetry contest, fellas.
Then butt out.
You see, Tower, my guilt broke me. As far as I could see, the only way forward was an ironic reversal of sorts.
So you’ve performed some sort of metaphysical accounting of your sins and hope to alleviate your guilt by subtraction?
What happens when you zero out?
Who’s to say I haven’t already, Tower?
You have done a lot. The LAPD armory. Those tanks in Russia…
And a fuckton more. Maybe enough to zero out. Maybe that’s why yer here. Maybe the violence owes me something now.
That’s a lot more anthropomorphizing than I’m comfortable with.
Look, I get it, Ollie. As an endeavor to atone, I see how one might be tempted. But your enemy is colossal. Immense. Bigger than anything. Bigger than everything.
Hicky pointed the open end of his beer bottle at me. That might be the point, Tower.
I used to feel that way.
Ollie laughed at me. There’s a pile of dead cops that says you’ve felt that way recently.
This is not a debate I wanna have right now.
Hicky straightened himself and pointed the bottle at me again. You said the enemy is colossal, Tower. You’re right. But only out of dumb luck. The enemy is gargantuan only because the enemy is in your own head. It is your head, your mind. And we both know that one mind contains the entire universe. The enemy is not the state or any singular shitbag like Cruz. They are vines to be hacked down on the journey, my friend. I think maybe you know this. The proximate obstacles are hurting you right now is all.
Proximate obstacles? That’s some pretty heavy shit, Hicky. And here you thought you weren’t a poet.
I’m an empath. It’s a curse. He paused for effect. Please don’t kill me.
This sent Ollie into violent amusement that bent him at the waist.
Cute, I said. You’re real cute.
Three years ago, he found a baby in a trash bag about a mile off the road. A young couple from Indianapolis adopted her in a storm of media a year later. He walks past the spot every weekend on his way to the river. He stops and looks and takes into account how time and growth have changed the geometry of the shadows under the scrub. He wouldn’t have seen the bag if it had happened this year. The grass is too tall. The rotten log has collapsed. This spring has been overcast. That baby girl would have died this year. A lot of things would be different if it had happened this year. The train is roaring through the valley. The wind rattles the poplar leaves above him. He would’ve been consumed in other thoughts if it had happened today. He never would have seen it. All he would have seen was the past. His wife. The tubes in her nose. He’s crying now, consumed in the slow grind of his past.
Chrysalis, a growing collection of very short fiction.
That Night Filled Mountain
episodes post daily. Paperback editions are available.
My newest novel River of Blood is available on Amazon or Apple Books.
Unless noted, all pics credited to Skitz O'Fuel.