The first thing I remember is the taste
of vomit. Always. This is my life story, the title of every
chapter, that taste. If I believed in god I would thank him
for leaving it at that. A quick dip, a few wordsthe
treatment of Christ by John. I would thank him for sparing
me the fate of Noah's people or of Pharaoh.
In my earliest memory I've half fallen
from my red plastic chair. My throat burns sour, my arm is
splattered and warm, my hand is clenched like a thousand-year-old
mummy's around a fork. A fat black spider dances impaled on
the tines. I can still feel the tickle of its pinprick feet
on my tongue.
I'd call that my prologue. The first
proper chapter of my life began in school. To be perfectly
accurate, I'd been in school three years by then. Mom home-schooled
me until she concluded that I didn't have a social disorder,
I was just anxious about meeting other kids. What she called
anxiety I call terror that locks every muscle but the sphincter.
See, my sister had been next to me when that spider brought
my Once Upon A Time to an end. Like I said I threw up on my
arm, but a few stray drops splashed onto her face, and changed
it for good. From then on she had only one look for me. It
was a look so disgusted, so betrayed, it couldn't be contained
by just one faceit spread to her friends, to my friends,
to our cousins. It spread to people who didn't even know about
the incident. I started to see it on kids I'd never met, mothers
in the park, old men forever shuffling through the grocery
store. The day I realized it was spreading from me, not my
sister, I hid in the attic and cried until I fell asleep.
When I woke up a policeman was carrying me down the ladder.
He said something that Dad laughed at but Mom didn't. It made
her think I was retreating from the world, not the world from
I don't recall much of grades three
through seven, only that my stomach hurt most of the time.
I clenched it as often as I could. I wouldn't let it happen
again, I couldn't. The look faded from the faces of my friends
and classmates, but I knew it was only waiting. I saw through
their skin, through the earthworm roots of whatever holds
skin to bone, to the cruel sickle-edged curves beneath. It
helped to think of myself as a lion. They were rot-breathed
hyenas waiting for my moment of weakness, teasing a safe distance
with their stupid trot. It helped to think they were the cowards.
If I believed in him, I would thank
god for killing two birds with one stone. I hit puberty the
summer Dad got a job in the city and we moved. Ten minutes
into the first day of grade eight in a new school doll-faced
Kelsey in the first row smiled at me. My stomach imploded.
It couldn't have gone worse. I jumped up to run out, but the
clatter of my chair got everyone's attention and it was already
in my mouth, ballooning my cheeks. Then I felt another heave,
another bouquet of septic bubbles flowering up from the gutter.
They scoured their way out my nose, which hurt so bad it made
me cough and scream. 'Have a little breakfast,' Mom had said.
'Come on, just something light. How can they not like you?
Everyone always wants to be friends with the new boy.' That
was the last time I ever listened to my mother. At the desks
in front of me Gary and the boy they called Pill screamed
and cried like horror movie girls, their faces and hair splashed
with gristly liquid omelet in an orange juice and stomach
acid sauce. I'd have rather the rest of the class screamed
too. But they just stared, skinny ankles caught in a crack
of adult sobriety somewhere between laughter and sympathy
barf. Mrs. Barry cried a little, though her tears ran down
my sister's face.
Needless to say, I didn't have a girlfriend
until college. I won't tell that story in detail. At least
it wasn't only disastrous for me. I was too desperate by that
age to understand what she meant by 'It's not the right time.'
I don't know why she let me get her down to just panties.
Maybe she didn't; I don't remember it too clearly. That was
the last perfect moment. I was almost a child againblissful,
single-minded, unaware, close as a cotton layer to the crushing
mystery of sex. I wouldn't have thought there was enough blood
powering my stomach to get even a drop of bile to the back
of my tongue. But then that smell. She must have been crying,
already coerced and probably forced, knowing I'd uncover her
leaked shame drying into a brown paste, smelling of caked
toenails scratching caked bellybuttons.
The one thought that held me back from
suicide was that it can't get worse. What could be worse than
vomiting a nice sushi dinner into the naked lap of the first
person you'd felt close to in years, whom a judge would say
you were raping at the time? It would have to include murder,
cold-blooded first-degree fingerprint-bruises-on-a-child's-throat
murder. This is the thought that kept me alive.
The periods of narration between these
explosive chapter titles are, thanks if I believed in him,
boring. Not unremarkable, but not remarkable by comparison.
After the titles come years slouching through seasons of self-exile,
a body going from frail child to elderly twenty-something,
pale and wilted from a diet ascetically meted to avoid so
much as a hint of revolt. There is the chronically shallow
sleep. There is the PhD in masturbation, inspired by the stomach-numbing
and therefore rapturous effect of watching porno. There are
the notebooks full of poems coded in tiny pen mazes, or mazes
coded in poems. There is the militant hygiene. There is a
whole summer lost to sampling a generous array of drugs, both
prescribed and recreationalthey all failed the test,
which was to let my stomach go calm or forgotten under the
influence. And there are the faces receding from sight: Dad's
heart attack and last dumb hour behind frosted hospital glass,
Mom too soon out of the city and into another man's house,
and, one by one, the faces on the street so marred by my sister's
look that they bled out into anonymity, the paper spaces between
Homelessness was inevitable, of course.
By the end I'd actually been putting The Better Part of a
Fine Arts Degree on my resume. In the sixty days before I
could be legally, forcibly evicted, I dismantled every appliance
and piece of furniture I had, scraped the paint off every
wall and sanded down every feature. Make it worse and it can't
get worse. I withdrew my small savings and buried it in a
can by an underpass so it'd be safe while I served a short
sentence for resisting the officers who would be called to
remove me from the premises. When they came and took me I
chanted what I'm sure some monk's ghost was feeding me. It
was a prayer, holiest and highest, to the starless center
of the universe, spiraling at the speed of light out of a
recluse Buddhist soul sinking just a bit faster toward enlightenment.
I don't remember throwing up that time,
when or where, but the sun is always with the dawn, veiled
by clouds or not. The taste was there when I woke up. In one
hand I clenched my money can, in the other a bottle. One part
whiskey, two parts cigarette ashes and butts, five parts piss.
Pants around my knees and the bottle on my penis like a calf
suckling at its mother's teat.
'This is the lowest,' I told myself,
smiling, war-drum hangover miraculously eased by the revelation.
'I can get no lower, it can get no worse. There is nowhere
left to go but up.'
It took a full week to reach the brink
of starvation. Turns out it's not clearly marked like the
brink of a high-rise. It's a slow fall, like Alice's down
the rabbit hole. I don't believe in god, but I believe in
hell because that's what it felt like. I begged and scrounged
hoping to back-pedal into normal hunger pangs, but I'd gone
too far. The only relief I could find was temporarily. I quit
begging and found a quiet place to wallowan alley between
a condemned warehouse and some kind of treatment plant cramped
between the dock and the expressway. I didn't stay in the
warehouse because it wouldn't have been the lowest. It wasn't
hard to make do in the alley, anyway, what with all the discarded
pallets to burn. I even learned to cook over an oil-drum fire.
Usually a soup of lake water and fast food leftovers tossed
off the expressway or the service road, but sometimes I got
lucky and caught a rat or an alley cat. I ate like a king
the week I found a snack machine in the stripped warehouse
I'd just settled in to the long aching
brink when I woke one morning retching. I hid all day in the
deepest recess I could find, but whether I believed in it
or not I couldn't hide from fate. That night a handful of
leather shadows came down the alley carrying a rolled up carpet
with cowboy boots hanging out one end. They almost didn't
see me. They heaved the carpet into the never-emptied dumpster.
One of them lit up a cigarette and saw me in the flicker of
light. He'd strolled away from the dumpster and stood almost
right over me.
'Holy shit!' he shouted.
The others laughed. 'What, you never
seen a bum?' they said. 'I thought you fags loved 'em.'
I thought they would beat me to death.
I was so convinced that I almost brought up rat a la sweet
'n' sour sauce on their polished shoes. I managed only to
A few days later they came back, just
after dawn, dragging a guy in dress pants and an undershirt
and a pillowcase over his head. They threw him down next to
the dumpster and kicked him until he stopped squirming and
shouting through the sock in his mouth. Then they stood over
him and took turns speaking in Italian or maybe Portuguese,
hands clasped, heads bowed, the rage of the beating replaced
by almost cartoon solemnity. When the second man finished
his speech he strolled deeper into the alley. He surveyed
it as if he meant to buy it, eyes settling for minutes at
a time on the dumpster, the stacked pallets, the garbage bags
piled like sagging black fruit. He surveyed the fire-drum,
my cardboard bed, me, the carpet they'd brought the first
night, unrolled now and smoothed up against the wall behind
me. He looked at the dumpster and back to me, raised an eyebrow.
I watched the ground. He walked past me and continued his
survey. I wondered if he'd notice. He did. I heard him whisper,
'What the,' then make a noise like a grunt birthing a scream.
The others came running. They all echoed his disgust. Two
of the three threw up on the pile of bags. The other dragged
me up against the wall and pressed his forearm to my throat.
He kept shouting, questions I think. My stomach was too cramped
for me to pay much attention. The others stood arguing over
the milk crate I used as a cupboard, slapping each other's
arms and pointing, hands like spades throwing dirt over what
they saw. Dad never showed me how to use my fishing knife,
Mom never taught me to de-bone a breast. Since all I had to
carve with were tin can lids and pieces of glass, it wasn't
hard for them to figure out where all that meat came from.
They cursed me and spat at my feet
but stayed well out of reach. After a long, furrowed silence
they went back to the body in the bloody pillowcase. They
talked over it in quick whispers. Finally one of them spat
at the body then at me, shrugged, and went back to their big
They kept coming back. Not on any sort
of schedule, so I had to make it last. Sometimes they came
a few times a week, sometimes not for a month. I'd be curled
up and moaning, the world empty except for the brink and me,
unable to keep down the last morsels, weeks old and dried
out, with maggots for stuffing and a stink that was like breathing
knivesand then there they'd be, dripping out of evening
headlights like sweet black honey. I never got used to it,
though. Even when it was all I had. I never threw it up, but
I never got used to it. Even cooked, it hurts to eat. It hurts
to chew. It hurts to swallow. It hurts to digest. It gouges
the heart to shit human remains. What little humanity was
left in you gets shit out with them. There's only one thing
that hurts worse, and that's starving.
Although I kept busyreading old
newspapers, scavenging condiment packets, building a shelter
out of abandoned furniturethe goons quickly became my
favorite entertainment. I imagined everything they did. I
imagined where they bought their new Rolexes. I invented the
life of the tailor who made the suits they started wearing.
I walked their little brothers to school and joked with their
parents at big family dinners. I painted their girlfriends
with savage strokes. Olive skin, leopard-print corsets, maybe
a black eye. I painted until my brush was bloody. As the original
goons were replaced one by one I imagined them in the positions
they went on to. I learned the names of the new guys. They
talked more to each other and to me. I don't think they understood
my part in what they were doing. They probably didn't even
know I had a part. The other guys wouldn't have told them,
because it would look like they condoned it, and even in their
moral labyrinth that would amount to blasphemy. So to the
new guys I was a novelty. I was like a kid's first glimpse
at porn, something that made them both giddy and gravely curious.
One week they'd joke with me, the next they'd hold a knife
under my jaw to make me cramp up and piss in fear. It wasn't
just bodies they brought anymore, either. They'd bring a guy
with a moustache and a Manager nametag just to threaten him
and let him go. They'd bring their buddies to smoke a joint
at lunch. They'd bring girls to get a look at me, then take
them into the warehouse where they knew I could watch through
a hole in the side door. They brought me Happy Meals.
Once, one of them showed up alone and
irreparably drunk. He made me take him in my mouth. They all
knew I scrubbed an hour a day by the dock, even in winter.
Hell, they were the ones who brought me the soap and toothpaste.
But he could never have imagined how unclean my mouth really
was. It didn't take much. That texture in my mouth, god. Mushroom
or soggy foam, and the sting of body salt. The first eager
bump against the back of my throat was enough to turn my stomach.
I don't think it marked a new chapter in my life, more like
a brief interlude. The one time I actually didn't mind puking.
He beat me, of course. Off and on for
almost an hour. All I really remember is laughing. I couldn't
believe how serious a person could be while shouting, 'Faggot
hobo, you fucking puked on my dick!' I told him I bled on
it, too. Later I spat a tooth at it, where it still hung out
of his fly flopping against his damp stinking pant-leg. I've
never laughed so hard. 'You fucking puked on my dick,' looking
like my sister with a pencil-thin beard.
I never saw him again. Maybe he moved
up in the organization, maybe he tried to quit and they brought
him to me in a dozen trash bags. I wouldn't have recognized
him. They always beat the faces to a pulp. At some point they
started removing their teeth, I guess so the bodies couldn't
be identified. I imagined them doing that, too. They were
my brothers in carrying out the unthinkable. I imagined the
pangs of guilt's ghost that must have shot and forked through
their stomachs. I imagined sitting with my back against a
car door, foot against a garage wall, dragging a paring knife
through a man's gums. Mostly they did it after they'd killed
the guy, since it's easier. But if what he'd done was extra-unforgivable
they'd carve a guy's teeth out while he was still alive.
One night I woke up to the sound of
a girl crying. She was crouched against the wall opposite
my shelter. There wasn't much light, just a dirty copper sheen
from the expressway and the city. In one hand she held a pair
of stilettos; the other was in constant motion, wiping her
eyes, brushing bleached-straw hair away from her face, hiking
a bra strap fallen out from under her tank-top. I couldn't
help but sit up. She heard me, glanced over, glanced away.
Her face was wrinkled up, but it was hers. She'd looked right
at me and hadn't been infected by my sister's disgust. I couldn't
breathe for a minute. I shuddered, involuntarily soaked my
pants. She didn't seem to notice the smell. She noticed the
general stench of the alley, sureit inflected her sobbing
with coughs and a couple dry heavesbut no newcomer could
have decoded that soap opera of odors and found mine alone.
She muttered one half of a conversation,
garbled by a running nose and a lot of words I didn't know.
Once she looked over again and said, 'You know? I bet you
get it too. Yeah, you know.' Now and then she forced a laugh,
and she looked at me too when she did. Not scornfully, but
full of need, ready to offer me pity on a silver platter so
that I could offer it back. I couldn't move, only watch.
A few minutes later a black Lincoln
turned off the service road. Its breath was guttural, pistons
chewing gravel. It sniffed its way to the alley-mouth. In
the glare of headlights all I could see of the man who got
out was his long coat and graying hair. The girl was still
crouched around her knees. The man came and spoke to her in
one language or another, smooth quiet voice. He offered her
his hand. He wore nice driving gloves.
'Where are my guys?' I thought. That's
how it's supposed to happen: they show up in the nick of time
and I am triumphant among them. I would save her.
He wore a Rolex. He crouched and tried
to help her up. His shoes gleamed with light from I don't
know where. Then he smacked her and before she fell over he'd
grabbed her by the throat and dragged her up against the wall.
He hit her again. She looked away, eyes shut as if it meant
he couldn't see her. He raised his hand again, cursed, I think,
and instead of hitting her turned her face to the bricks and
lifted her skirt. My crotch ached, trying to spill. I had
nothing left. I rubbed it anyway. I took it out. I grabbed
a bottle and ran, smashed him on the ear. She turned and cried
or gasped but I held her there, fumbling with myself, shivering
and trying to spill but I had nothing left, finally into her.
They made the same noise, she and he, surprised and bleeding.
Then he was on me, but I clamped around her body and mine
found something to spill. He pulled us all down. I still held
her. I rolled us onto him before he could get up. I was out
of her and trying to get back in; he was struggling in his
coat; she was wailing like a broken animal and kicking and
punching us both. The pockets of her skirt came off in my
hands, burned denim lines into my palms. I shouted as she
ran, and laughed, and everything between. He was cursing in
whatever language and struggling in his coat. I stayed on
him, gripping, pushing. We struggled in his coat and the gun
he was trying to pull went off. The alley cracked and broke
apart, every brick slapped against every other brick, every
subplot stench dissolved into almost-sweet smoke. And he stood
over me, or maybe it was her finally come back to me, my sister,
looking down on me as my throat filled and The End ran out
the side of my smile.