2/2/2014, 12:00 PM, Overcast 50°, 7.5 miles, 6:50 min/mile
During the weekdays I run at lunch, and I run up the highest hill I can reach within my hour time allotted. I go up and then come back down. On weekends I run into the countryside and into the foothills, and I do it early in the morning when nobody is out, and the California fog still blots out its too-bright sun.
But there’s this thing I think about and it is, more or less, related to putting a bullet in my brain. I imagine there’d be some pressure, and I’d feel it tear through my head, so long as it’s not boring through that part of the brain that tells you what a bullet through the brain feels like. I imagine it’d be a moment that happens both too slow and too fast, like most life-changing events. I can’t decide what color you’d see. Probably a flash of the brightest white or darkest black. It has got to be one of those extremes.
I don’t want to kill myself. What runner does? What runner who so carefully cares for his health really wants to die? A runner who not only runs an hour over lunch on the weekdays, scampering up and down the largest hill within striking distance of the office, but one who eats spinach by the handful and carries a bag of carrots to meetings. One who started drinking tea.
Spinach and carrot eaters who run are not at risk of committing suicide. Tea-drinkers less so.
So I’m allowed to do this kind of thinking. In fact, being so health-conscious is exactly why I can do this kind of thinking. It helps me sleep. The running and the healthy eating and thoughts of bullets in the brain, it all helps me sleep.
Because when I lie down and those thoughts are going through my head, nothing quiets them quite like imagining what it’d be like to cease them forever. You could do it quickly too.
And to me, at least, when I’m on the run or drifting to sleep, this is the most interesting part of the day. It’s risky somehow. Somehow there’s this feeling that the thought will make it so, perhaps by way of lucid dreaming or astral planing, one of those moments of intense prayer—or meditation—that brings you, the thinker, the imaginer, the thought-experimenter and spinach-eater to the threshold of that other place where those who have done and thought this before have already left behind all those others who were not so brave.
There’s courage to it. There is bravery. Like those flatliners from that movie. Stop the heart, go to that place, but instead of coming back, you just keep heading on. Heading on the way I wish I could when I’m on my lunchtime run at the top of the largest hill within striking distance of the office and I’m looking over the landscape and seeing all the places I could go, but can’t, because I have the job and responsibilities and a wife who wants children.
No landscape looks more beautiful than the one you will never step one foot into.
2/26/2014, 12:00 PM, Clear 55°, 7.5 miles, 7:10 min/mile
“Maybe you should go to a therapist,” she says. She tells me this almost daily and she’s not the only one. It’s not mean-spirited, it’s not in the middle of a fight, it’s just stated plainly as if it’s a board game we might play.
We are on the couch, but we are always on the couch. We are always on the couch and we are always eating dinner. This is how we live out here, forever the couch-dwellers and eaters of the quickly-made dinner. From what we can tell, this is how everybody lives in California. This is how every person who has yet to have kids lives. It’s the necessary step before the kids because there needs to be a certain amount of pathetic before you both make the leap.
“My supervisor said the same thing today,” I say because she did. She also told me that the pressures I’m experiencing on the job do not go away for long since inevitably some other project will come down the line that’s just as directionless and meaningless, and the best thing to do is not dwell on it.
But I am a dweller. I dwell on all things.
I was also told not to take it too personally.
In fact, she said, “Don’t take anything personally.”
But I take all things personally.
And I think it’s because I haven’t had a haircut or a shave for a while, and my supervisor might think the pressures of the job are mounting, and I’m letting certain things slip—like haircuts and shaving and a few other things. And I think it also has something to do with her mistaking that I’m at the beginning of my career. When does a career begin? Does it start at 32? Careers don’t begin for those who aren’t pursuing one. At no point does someone come to you and say, “Now, young apprentice, your career has thus begun.”
You get a job and then another job and then another job, and they are all, more or less, related, and you can’t really remember why you took any of them except that they and you were available at the same time so you said yes. Eventually one goes away and another comes up, and they all involve a desk and a computer and too many birthday cakes to really give a damn.
Most things work this way. They begin and end in some nebulous fashion that becomes a blur. There’s no definition. It’s the morning fog and the cries of morning birds.
3/14/2014, 12:00 PM, Windy 62°, 7.5 miles, 7:05 min/mile
I tried to be a standup comic for a week. I would come to work, and I would write my jokes and only one joke was sexual, but most were about Catholicism.
I haven’t thought about Catholicism for ages. But I had all these jokes. One long joke was about the Nazi pope, but I never cared enough to figure out his real name. I just called him Nazi Pope, and that was pretty much the punch line. I had another series of narrative jokes that were about a priest and an altar boy, but they had nothing to do with pedophilia or rape, which was the point of the jokes. The priest and altar boy would get into all sorts of unsavory situations in which they were doing the most immoral things to corpses, prostitutes, and the corpses of prostitutes, with knives and rope and chains, and they did it all with glee, like it was some kind of Frank Miller world where all the priests and altar boys terrorized the seedy underbelly. In this was the humor.
I had a bunch of Hitler bits as well and I realized that I really hate Nazis. More than I expected. I knew I hated Nazis with some passion, but I really, really hate Nazis.
Might be from the movies. I don’t know.
After a week of writing my routine, I convinced my coworker and only friend in California, Big Jon, to listen to the set. Big Jon is a man who loves to laugh, and he is a man who laughs easily and readily to any anecdote I might share. On top of this, my enthusiasm for this craft was such that I convinced Jon to also write his own five minutes. He cleared it with his therapist during his Monday morning session and after telling me how great his therapist is, he said, “Let’s do this.”
We spent the week going back and forth, never fully divulging our jokes, but telling each other our premises and convincing one another how promising they were. When Friday rolled around, we left work, drank a few beers, smoked some weed, ate burgers and then it was time for our sets.
“Cum dumpster,” I said. It was the punch line to my first joke. This made Big Jon laugh.
Confident, I rolled into my Nazi Pope bit. It went on a little too long, and Jon got confused. I got confused. I got polite laughs near the end and Big Jon was kind enough to provide a few working notes.
When I launched into the priest and altar boy material, I had to abandon it halfway through because I had to explain why it was funny that the priest and altar boy were doing such horrendous things to dead prostitutes. I further explained that it should be funny because they were not doing the one horrendous thing we all think of when we think of Catholic priests and altar boys.
It did not get a laugh. It actually got whatever is worse than a laugh because all joy was sucked out of the evening, so much so that Big Jon didn’t want to do his set and neither he nor I have mentioned stand-up comedy again.
3/23/2014, 7:00 AM, Marine Layer 43°, 19 miles, 7:20 min/mile
Years ago I made a project called a BeerBox Narrative. It’s twenty-four micro stories on beer labels affixed to beer bottles. It can be read in any order and people get the general idea of what the story is about. This story was about a rock and roll band coming up in the 70s that rose fast and died early. It was based on any number of rock bands that have done just that in the 70s, prior to the 70s, and since. I spent time designing the labels. I spent a lot of time writing the words. I made invitations for people to come and see the performance of this “Jamboreading.” There was music, live music that I also played in the style of the band in the story, though I only knew three chords and thought passion and determination would fill in the rest.
Three buddies came and they all left early, before the twenty-four bottles were drank. They all had places to be. My wife was gone for the evening. At her mother’s. I finished the case and then whatever the guys left in the fridge.
When I woke the next morning, my wife had already come and gone, apparently to the farmer’s market. It was spring and beautiful outside, so I went out, down our apartment steps, and saw the parking lot glittering with little brown jewels of light, and I realized then, at that moment, my head pounding and feeling close to retching, that my only audience was myself, hungover, replaying a scene I barely recollected where I was smashing bottle after bottle.
I couldn’t tell if this made it a better art project. The ambiguity and the fact it was seen by no one. The fact that those who might’ve seen it—my neighbors—might have mistook it for a moment of drunken rage in the poorer part of the city.
3/29/2014, 7:00 AM, Light Rain 51°, 11 miles, 6:55 min/mile
I listen to a famous comedian’s podcast at work. He’s the one who got me thinking about nightly thought routines. His involves being a sniper in a tree, and he finds being weaponized in relative safety makes him feel safe, so he falls right asleep. Other times he says he likes to think of himself being lowered into one of those science fiction deep sleep chambers and set adrift through space.
I’ve tried both of these.
The only thing that works is the bullet through the brain. My thoughts stop instantly.
4/08/2014, 12:00 PM, Light Rain 58°, 7.5 miles, 7:20 min/mile
My memory is beginning to get worse, and I’m trying less hard to pull details from the fog.
On the bus on my way to work, one of my coworkers was on the bus, and she asked what I did for my vacation. I told her we went to New Orleans, but I couldn’t remember the dates, and I knew we were only in New Orleans two days out of the seven or eight we were along the Gulf Coast. The rest of it, we stayed in a vacation town an hour away.
“It was … The town was called …” I stammered.
And she was friendly and helpful enough. Citing the few names she knew in the region.
“I’m sorry, but I’ve never been there before,” she said.
“Not many have anymore,” I told her.
Then I told her a few things I remembered. The white sand on brackish waters. The long stretches of beachfront property with just spare, old footings standing tall. The quiet streets.
“Like a retirement community or something,” I said.
“Because it was ground zero,” I said.
“Katrina,” I said.
And it wasn’t until that moment that I felt that gentle pull of forgiveness for forgetting the names of the places I had been two weeks prior because a place that has relented to disaster can also relent to memory.
And I saw this understanding in her face, and she changed the subject to ask me about the death of my wife’s father.
4/19/2014, 8:00 AM, Rain 47°, 14 miles, 6:40 min/mile
A friend came out for a medical conference the other week. He went to residency out here, and we’re good friends from way back. College. He told me months ago he was coming, and I made plans. My wife could sense my excitement.
“You excited for Mike coming?” she’d say, as if to a child or a dog, but not in a belittling way. After so many years, communication doesn’t need much more than these rudimentaries, and in a way, how else do you speak to a man who rarely speaks back?
“It’s gonna be sweet,” I’d say.
And not that I did anything to prepare except keep up on Mike’s text messages and Facebook messages and emails. He had a lot of folks to touch base with out here. He went to residency. He had a completely new set of friends in San Francisco. People he knew as well as he knew me.
It was one of those friends meeting friends things that never goes well.
On Friday evening I packed my bag to crash on his hotel floor like old times and headed to Union Square where his hotel was. Once there I gave him a call.
“Oh, yeah, dude, we’re not there anymore. We’re out in Sunset.”
“You could catch the Muni.”
“I’m not near the Muni. I’m at your hotel. Weren’t we getting dinner?”
“Didn’t I send you a text?”
“Yes, it said meet at Union Square.”
“Jeez, man, I’m sorry. You can either catch the Muni or take a cab. Don’t worry about it. We’re eating dinner now.”
“I got all my crap.”
“What did you bring?”
I took a cab. I am employed. I am more gainfully employed than I’ve ever been, but these things are relative. I am employed enough to afford public transport through the city. I am not employed enough to afford taxi cabs across the city.
They were at a brew/pub. One of those places that is caught between trying to be the neighborhood watering hole and being some upscale fusion restaurant. The building itself was confused. I had trouble getting through the door. My backpack was too big. My work satchel too full, but I had a book in there that I enjoyed reading. It was about World War II and speaks forthrightly about cowardice and homosexuality. These things make war seem more real to me, a guy who will never see it.
Mike and I hugged. I shook hands with Stephanie, a doctor, and Brad, another doctor. They all were sitting near plates with scraps of half-eaten entree on them, all of it looking unappetizing and plastic and smelling of ketchup. Napkins were over the French fries. I sloughed my packs and went straight to the restroom because I had just spent two hours on public transport and then another twenty in a cab. I was counting costs at that moment because I’m always counting costs, and I had now already doubled the weekend parking rate I would have been charged had I drove, and to which Mike said was completely unnecessary.
When I returned, I was introduced.
“This is Mark. He’s a secretary at Stanford,” Mike said.
“Well, I work administration,” I said.
This introduction sparked no further interest, and I sat in a seat that was still warm and took a sip of water.
“Somebody sitting here?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s Rog.”
I do not know Rog.
“Don’t worry about it, he took off, but he drank out of that water.”
“Oh.” I said.
“You want food?”
“Nah, just beer.”
They talked doctor things while I thought non-doctor thoughts.
Eventually I mentioned something about puppies.
5/03/2014, 7:00 PM, Overcast 59°, 10 miles, 6:55 min/mile
I’ve been seeing a therapist. His name is Steve, he will only drive BMWs, he’s never once gotten my name right, he wants me to meditate with this guru he knows, and during every session he has told me the same story of Chicken Little. Explaining, as if for an eight-year-old, how the sky isn’t actually falling, how Chicken Little is blowing things out of proportion, how if Chicken Little were just able to realize that it was an acorn that fell, and not the sky, most of his troubles would just go way.
Steve is not a Ph.D. He’s not even a doctor. I think he has a master’s degree in something. I have a master’s degree in something as well. This makes me falsely believe we’re on equal footing.
But we’re not. He’s drives a BMW. I ride the bus. He’s a professional meditator. I run in the hills. He relieves his anxiety by driving down the freeway in his BMW at unsafe speeds. He told me this. With a straight face. “I have to keep my speed up on the freeway, otherwise I get tense. This is a thing I learned about myself. You need to have similar self-discoveries. It helps me see the world as an acorn, not as a falling sky.”
He loves the callback. Reiterating. The acorn sky. Raining acorns. Acorns everywhere. Acorns are safe. The sky is not.
And it had me seeing a world filled with acorns and how disastrous this might be. The infrastructure that would be needed to clear the acorns from the streets. The plows, the bulldozers. Where would you put them? They would rot and ferment. There would be an insane problem with pests, and you’d hope they’d be friendly chipmunks or squirrels, but logic tells me it’d be rats and cockroaches. Real pests. Diseases infected everything in Steve’s acorn world where he could race down the Autobahn at insane speeds on his way to Nirvana.
Because I wanted my hills. I wanted my run. I wanted to think about bullets and brains and thoughts ceasing forever. I wanted the sky to fall because how exactly could that be worse than acorn hurricanes? And, technically, the sky is always falling. We’re falling through space on starship Earth. It’s called fucking gravity. The universe is bound together because it is all falling apart. This is, like, physics. It’s the same goddamn force that pulled the acorn from the oak and plunked it onto the rat’s head. Laws of nature.
Steve, I decided, was an idiot, but I asked him if I could join his Men’s Group group-therapy sessions anyway because I knew I needed help. I knew my conversations with Steve weren’t helping. I thought perhaps I would meet a mentor/fatherly figure in his group who would actually give me advice. He said I was too young.
“Is it because I don’t have prostate issues yet?” I asked because I thought maybe that’s what they talked about. That, or golf.
He chuckled, said, “No,” and told me about Chicken Little.
“It’s the not the sky, Joe. It’s an acorn. You know. A little, itty-bitty acorn. Fell from a tree. Chicken Little went running.”
My name isn’t Joe.
5/11/2014, 12:00 PM, Clear 63°, 7.5 miles, 7:10 min/mile
I went to a church in a small town. The building was red brick and had a white steeple. The church was beautiful. As I recall it, the congregants and the priest, Father Kapala, were too. Everything was beautiful. It was always spring, which is impossible in Minnesota. Spring in Minnesota lasts two weeks. But in my head, it was always spring, and Father Kapala was always smiling, and the small church was always packed, and the darkness and coolness was always perfect. It was cramped, and the perfumes were strong and the body odor tolerable. The organ was loud and it defined what I came to know as being Catholic, and even as a young kid I admired the altar boys and how they had serious responsibilities. My father told me he was an altar boy, and at that time I wanted to be my father.
I wanted to be an altar boy just like him. I didn’t want to be a low-level administrator just like him who died too young at his desk.
But this isn’t the joke. This wasn’t part of my routine. Still it has a punch line because they demolished that church, and they sent Father Kapala to some small farm community in western Minnesota, and none of us knew why. It was so surprising. He was so nice. He was kind. He was old. He smelled like a priest, and he told funny jokes, and we all respected him. But then they built this beige monstrosity and put that steeple on top of a used car dealership and everything about Catholicism after that became one long cartoon until I was an adult, in my thirties, doing the things my dad would do in the office, on the runs, with the spreadsheets and the rage, when my brother sent me an exceedingly rare text message.
Remember Father Kapala?, it said.
Of course, I replied. He was awesome.
Paper said he was a pederast. They just put it out today.
Neither of us even texted a seeya l8tr, or how are things. We just don’t text that much.
5/12/2014, 7:00 AM, Overcast 51°, 11 miles, 7:30 min/mile
A priest and an altar boy are driving around looking for a place to bury the dead prostitute in their trunk. The altar boy pulls up to a warehouse and the priest says, “Nah, no good. They got security cameras. Besides, the pavement would hurt my knees.”
The altar boy shrugs, says, “I know another place. Not a problem.”
They pull up to the wharf and drive under the docks. The black waters of the sea are lapping up against the shore.
The priest, again, says, “Nah, no good. One of these hobos might be an undercover cop, and I just don’t like the idea of sand in my robes.” The altar boy shrugs again and drives on.
They end up in the wilderness, and it’s getting toward dawn, and they’re in the middle of a forest. No people, no anything is around for miles and miles. The altar boy drags the prostitute over to a tree and props her up and says, “Will this do?”
“Well, this is embarrassing,” the priest says. “I forgot my Viagra.”
5/13/2014, 8:00 AM, Mist/Rain 54°, 22 miles, 7:40 min/mile
On the rare occasion I’m up and motivated, I drive to the Golden Gate Bridge to run through the Golden Gate Recreation Area on the north side. I hate running across the bridge, but I do it anyway. I don’t know why.
At no moment do I think it’s a good idea to huck my body off like so many others. That’s just not a way to go.
I run across the bridge for some sort of penance and because to not run across it would seem strange when so near it. But it’s a miserable journey. It’s windy, cold, crowded. You can’t so much run as jaunt a few paces and then breathe loudly and aggressively behind whatever lollygaggers are trying to enjoy the frigid mist.
Frigid mist is perfect to run in.
Once in the park I am free. There valleys and hills and a labyrinth network of trails cut through these things. There are copses of forests and open fields. When the skies are clear you see the ocean. When the skies are not clear you get lost.
It is grey and misty, and figures emerge from this mist, and sometimes they are like you—a haggard runner, long hair, bad skin, eyes that somehow look like they have light. They are not dark. They are not like black holes. And they don’t look through or past and beyond or whatever it is people say about eyes not quite dead. They see everything. They are like the candles that have burned so long that you can only see the palest flame guttering through the wax, yet, oddly, when you go to blow it out, you find there’s no flame there at all.
Mists and lonely figures in the mists always make you think of ghosts. Networks of trails that lead in circles and nowhere at all also make you think of ghosts. Being lost makes you think of ghosts.
And I’m a scientific-minded man. I lost my religion because I believe so strongly in the tenets of physics and calculus and those things Einstein discovered that I do not understand. My math skills aren’t up to par.
But I know the cosmos are expanding.
The universe will collapse.
And it will happen again and again.
And we primal men will die and go away, losing our way on trails near an ocean we cannot see.
About the Author: Mark Rapacz is an editor and partner with the neo-pulp press Burnt Bridge and the founder of its imprint Blastgun Books. His short stories have appeared in a number of publications, including Water~Stone Review, Southern Humanities Review, The Booked. Anthology, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. His novella Buffalo Bill in the Gallery of the Machines was recently re-issued as a historically accurate dime novel and is available through IndyPlanet. He and his wife currently live in the Bay Area, where he works at Stanford University and continues to write stories.