What I’ve Learned About Portland, OR

So, I wanted to go to Oregon for years because of elves.

Okay. That makes no sense without some context. When FASA released Shadowrun in 1989, part of its magic-meets-cyberpunk setting was a Balkanized North America, including a nation called Tir Tairngeire, which was mostly comprised of the state of Oregon. The nation was declared to be sovereign by a council of elven nationalists seeking a new home. It was a crazy idea to me as a teenage kid, and it sowed seeds of Northwestern mystique. Years of film and television specifically portraying the strangeness and quirks of Portland refined that desire to come to Oregon over a slow series of years. To hear IFC’s show Portlandia tell it, this strange place was where, supposedly, the nineties still live.

In May of 2023, I finally got the opportunity to travel there on account of a convention for work, and I tacked on four extra days to explore this strange city in the Pacific Northwest. And, I have to tell you, I was lied to by my advertising. Portland was not what I expected from the moment I stepped off the plane.

Someone (or something) tried to give me an extra day in the creepiest way possible, so I naturally declined.

Come with me. I’ll tell you a little about what happened on my journey through Stumptown. And, where I have it wrong, let me know. I want to know more about this strange, strange place.

Update 5/17/23: This is meant to be a living document. As I learn things that I have mentioned that are proven to be false, misleading, inaccurate, or need further extrapolation, that information will be updated with a notation like this one.

Portlandia Got It Exactly Wrong (or, What It Had Right Aged Incredibly Poorly)

The dream of the nineties is not alive in Portland. I’m not seeing people in their twenties retiring, no one is clowning, and people are definitely not sleeping until eleven o’clock. The city seems to be set to hustle o’clock in downtown, and failure to hustle has caused a massive amount of social collapse into some pretty dark corners. Ironically, Carrie Brownstein is accused by Fred Armisen of being a little too San Francisco in the first episode of Portlandia – but the city reminds me exactly of San Francisco in ways both good and bad.

Because, for all of the vibrancy of people who are unabashedly themselves and proud, and regardless of the artistic passion and uniqueness of its people as portrayed in the show to comedic effect, the city of Portland has a deep and systemic struggle with poverty. I could make an argument that all American cities struggle. Portland, however, is like nothing I’ve ever seen before save for pre-Covid San Francisco (which I’m told has only slid further into chaos). This city has it bad.

I was told by another convention goer that they saw this house (two blocks from our hotel) being raided by police only hours after I snapped this image.

The walking wounded are everywhere in Portland, living in ragged tents on sidewalks, sleeping in alcoves, wheeling carts full of cast-offs, and hauling trash bags as tall as they are filled with recyclable cans. Mental illness is endemic among the unhoused as well, and I see the unfortunately familiar faces of methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl on so many of the abandoned humans of the City of Roses. Burglary and robbery are common, even out in the suburbs I visited. People with no other recourse have turned to acts of desperation and need.

I fear these are the people of Portlandia who were retired at twenty-five. Not by choice, but by a system and culture that deeply failed them here, not because they were slackers, minimalist artisans putting birds on things, or tech moguls. Something outside of themselves retired them. Trauma. Addiction. Dumb fate or one wrong choice. They’re humans, like you and me. They deserve better. A few locals have pointed out how most of the people here interact with the unhoused, and I can confirm it’s true that most regard the unhoused with utter contempt, especially if they interrupt their daily facade of normalcy. 

Not uncommon graffiti.

Case in point: I was on the Tri-Max Red Line on my second day exploring Portland, and an unhoused man had an incident in which he was freely bleeding. I kept calm while I gauged whether or not he was going to freak out. He didn’t, but gave a little moan and made his way to a clump of cyclists just past me. He asked them for something to clean up with, napkins, anything. All he had was his own shirt to staunch the flow. I didn’t have anything and wasn’t in a position to assist, but the three men rebuffed him at first. They told him to get away, that it was inappropriate what he was doing. It was then that I saw the wounds were from cutting. He had at least three more identical horizontal, perpendicular cuts along the tattoos of his inner arm, and he’d either just made a new one, or broken open a scab as he was claiming to the cyclists. Eventually, one of them gave him something, and the man left the train at the next stop, thanking them for the gauze or napkin that had been provided. From the time between that stop and the next – as one of them pulled out a small medical kit to sanitize the area – the men derided him. Said that if he was gonna cut himself, he ought to go all the way and just jump.

Welcome to Portland.

I’m sure this town isn’t the only place to foster cruelty like this. But it wasn’t a great impression, and my heart goes out to the folks here who are living in unimaginable poverty against the backdrop of what I keep hearing is the richest nation in the world.


I’m not a public transit guy. Not because I’m against the idea, mind you. It’s just that in my neck of the woods, it’s not worth a good goddamn. If you were to note that was because I live in a suburb that has two transit hubs – the state court and a shopping mall – you’d be right. 

But, if I put you in my closest metropolitan area, you’d quickly realize it sucks there too. Buses and trains are frequently late. They still make you use physical tickets or tokens, often requiring exact change if they deign to let you use cash on demand. Its drivers are angry and have far too much schadenfreude than is healthy for a human being. The vehicles smell like piss and the slow death of dreams. The trolley system will make you hate all life, including your own, just by being near them. I will frequently walk or Uber or deal with the hassle of traffic and parking costs to avoid dealing with the transit system in that city.

Portland is 100% the opposite experience.

Despite the callous encounter I described on the trolley earlier, Portland’s Tri-Met trolleys are rarely crowded, generally quiet, on time, and easy as hell to use. I never once had to hail a cab or call a Lyft due to a delay or a crowded bus. I used the Red Line on day one from the airport having never used it before, and then quickly learned how to use the HOP system with my phone. If you use HOP twice in a day, you earn the right to use the transit system all day for a total of $5. Sure, there was always a little walking involved to get where I wanted to be, but nothing I couldn’t handle.

Stations are pretty much everywhere, and even where they’re not, the blocks between are small enough that the walks don’t feel all that long.

Additionally, if you can’t pay, no one stops you. The thinking goes along the lines that the city hopes most people pay, which from what I see on buses is absolutely true (maybe less so on trolleys as the drivers can’t directly see you board). Come to think of it, maybe my local metro has such a problem being on time because they argue with every person who is short a damned nickel for their ride or has nothing in their pockets.

Surprisingly Green and Clean

Unhoused populations are not new to me. Where I went to college, there were a lot of people living on the street. As such, you saw some shit. I mean this literally. You saw actual shit. Everywhere. I actually went to a Barnes & Noble once where someone had hidden part of a turd behind some books and then smeared the rest of it across the rest of the shelf. The city stank a lot of the time, even the downtown area which they tried to make look nice for the tourists. It’s a side effect of having a large unhoused population, and it’s difficult to avoid. Somehow… Portland seems to have managed it.

At bare minimum, the same clock in Philadelphia would be covered by an inch of pigeon shit by the time anyone thought to clean it, let alone look at it.

I can’t add tribute a why. I don’t see port-a-johns on the sidewalks like in San Francisco. Restrooms are locked down tight in almost every establishment around. Maybe the frequent rain has something to do with it, or regular street cleaning (which I did see a lot of). Or, perhaps it’s simply the amount of natural space around to absorb a lot of it. There is a lot of greenery around here. Some cities can boast parks or close natural getaways, but this place just has so much by way of nature compared to most other cities I’ve been to on top of just outside the city splendor.

Cops Versus Security

In most cities I go to, the rule of law is pretty obvious to see. Downtown (or any place adjacent to it), you’re likely to find cops. Their posture changes from metro to metro, but you’ll find them around, doing cop stuff for good or ill.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of actual cops I’ve seen in Portland. Same goes for police vehicles. Mostly, I saw them around the conference center, but beyond that… nothing.

What I have seen are security guards.

I’m not talking about rent-a-cops, the people you see at the mall wearing unsullied uniforms, carrying pepper spray, and a mandate to use strong language lest they be sued by someone they try to enforce a policy against. These security guys are not fucking around. They have guns and vests that I presume would stop a knife or a bullet. They’re not loaded down like SWAT, but they are prepared for tussles… in the places that pay them to, of course. Target. Barnes and Noble. Upscale hotels. I’m sure you’re seeing the pattern here. Not so much protecting people. Just businesses.

There seems to be an anti-cop sentiment here in Portland based on the street art if nothing else. ACAB graffiti isn’t exactly uncommon in the world at large, but you’ll find a lot of it here containing explicit messages about how the locals feel about their local PD’s mandate to serve and protect. Given all of the shit that went down here during the administration of president 45, I can’t say I’d blame them.

City of Bridges

There are a lot of bridges here. The Willamette isn’t a particularly broad river, so it stands to reason that whenever they feel like it, they can just put up another span if the taxpayers consent. If I’m counting right, there are eleven bridges, with some of them only for public transit, a luxury a lot of cities don’t get.

Two bridges, one image, you’re welcome.

City of Books

I first became aware of the Mecca of independent American bookstores in my mid-twenties from a woman I was seeing at the time. She was a fan herself of the place, a store called Powell’s, the country’s largest independent used bookstore. I had ordered from them myself a few times before my trip, and the place had been on my bucket list for a while. It was a testament to my willpower as a bibliophile that I waited until the third day of my visit to get out to their W. Burnside St. location. Business had to come first, but once the convention I was attending was over… I went five times between two locations (and eventually caused a $100 overweight luggage fee at the airport).

Do I have a problem with book acquisition? No. Do I have a shelving crisis? Oh, definitely. Yes. I do. For sure.

It was a bit of a mixed bag.

On the positive side, the store is, in fact, huge, occupying an entire city block with three full floors. You could spend a day in there and not properly get through all of the stuff you wanted to see. I really only plumbed the depths of two sections with any kind of rigor: RPGs and sci-fi/fantasy, but I did make my way through mythology, science, self-help, history, and social studies, making purchases across those sections as well.

There was, however, a lack of used books in the sense of actually used books. If you take the term ‘used books’ to mean marked down remaindered books that were once in wholly other stores elsewhere as used, then yes – there were used books aplenty. And, yes, I did buy quite a few.

However, I was hoping for more books that had been on local Oregonian shelves, hopefully by Oregonian locals. Perhaps it was the sections I trafficked. Maybe mystery, or sports, or romance does more trade here in Rip City when it comes to pre-owned books. Or, maybe they’re just picky about trades. Either way, I’m not going to knock a cavernous, independent, used bookstore. 

Except, I will. Just a little. 

The East Portland location, which I visited on my last day, actually had a not-quite-a-strike happening there. The store apparently is having a labor issue with its union. Yes – there is a bookstore out there with a union (I wish the bookstores I worked at previously had unions). The company apparently has opted to offer sub-par health insurance and has opted to keep wages low in the face of inflation. The union wasn’t asking for a boycott, but rather for solidarity from the customers who keep the store they both love open. So, I tossed them some money for their strike fund and signed their petition.

Support a local institution. Booksellers need money, too.

Give ‘em hell, guys. I hope you get what you need to keep the store going and to keep yourselves going. I know first-hand that being a bookseller is hard.

Awesome Food, and I Guess You Can Drink Here (If You Like IPAs)

My chosen metro close to home is a foodie kind of place, and very particular about the local dishes and how things are done. We’re judgy and shitty and proud about it because we’re East Coast, type-a assholes. I’ve accepted this. We are who we are.

It’s not like that here, as far as I can tell. Portland has been an explosion of food, and the variety here has been nothing short of stunning. Like most Pacific Coast cities I’ve visited, Asian food here is just better. I’ve hit up several Ramen joints, but there’s also soul food, Mediterranean food, African food, crazy local foods (Voodoo Donuts, elephant ears, and waffle-on-a-stick), and an explosion of food carts around every corner.

There were far more options than I ever see in any other city when it came to food carts.

If you’re a beer drinker… I hope you like IPAs, because it appears that’s all anyone brews or drinks in Portland. I’m assured that once you leave Portland proper this changes – lots of wines and alternate types of beers are out there and being made in Oregon. But, it’s been hard to find anything local in the metro area that isn’t an IPA. Given that my palate translates the flavor of IPAs more or less into dishwater, I’ll have to find something further afield next time I’m in town.

It took a full week to find something local that did not also come directly out of a can, that was not also an IPA.

Surprisingly Familiar Flora

One of the things I like about travel is finding the little differences. While I did find many different things out here, including the proliferation of nature, the type of nature was surprisingly familiar. I found the same tree types out here as out East. Propeller seed pods, moss strands, monkey balls, and broccoli pollen (note: not a botanist) abounded here, and presumably, my allergies would be similar here as they would at home. Nothing triggered me here, so that line of logic would seem to bear out (ragweed season is three months away).

I know once I leave town proper that’s likely to change, but until I get to a wider swathe of Oregon, I can’t know.

Quality of Light

It apparently is not a California thing, but a Pacific Coast thing. Sunlight is just different here. I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s a difference in air quality. Maybe it’s an act of gods (or lack thereof). But, it’s brighter here. My seasonal hair lightening has gone into full effect about a month early, lightening from its winter chestnut to its summer straw tint.

Not that you can really tell in this picture since I’m wearing a hat.

And, it’s hot. Really hot, but not particularly humid. Unseasonably so from local reports. Damp and rainy is typically the order of the day for May in Portland. I apparently caught some of the sunniest days I could. Even if I hadn’t, I’m okay with the drizzly, serial-killer weather the region is known for. Bring on that fog!

An Oasis For Diversity

Knowing the crazy original vision of Oregon, I was relieved to see this at the Portland Art Museum (and a lot of other places, too).

I had some concerns coming out here after watching the news out of Portland between 2016 and 2020. With Patriot Prayer, the Proud Boys, and other white nationalist/supremacy groups, plus the generally terrifying historical origins of Oregon, I was afraid I’d come to Portland only to find a sea of homogenous white people. I’m glad to find that I was wrong. I met and saw a lot of different people on my short trip, and found a regular show of solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement. Thank the gods, not once did I run into a rally where there was somebody calling for Men’s Rights or where I saw billboards for the installation of White Jesus as the official god by Orange Jesus’s mandate.

I know better than to believe that it’s not here – racism is really good at hiding (because racists are basically fearful cowards at heart). By all accounts I’ve heard from locals, once you leave the larger, liberal cities of Oregon, it stops hiding completely, open carries, and leans in. It gives me pause when I think about this place as a possible new home.

Update 5/17/23: According to Wikipedia, Portland is one of the whitest major cities in America at 68% of the population. My usage of the word oasis in the sub-heading above is intentional. Portland is a small spot in a wide area. I’d go deeper into this topic if I could, were it not for two things: my inherent whiteness disqualifies me in many respects, and I am also not a native Oregonian. If you want more information on the terrifying problem of racism in Oregon, you can start here.

The Arts Come Alive Here

It was on my last day that I finally felt like I met the soul of Portland. I woke up early and got out to the Saturday Market and immediately fell in love.

I’ve seen many a street busker in my time, but never one with the balls to play the accordion.

The whole area is absolutely alive and pulsing with art, music, families, dreams, and beauty. I spent a good two hours just walking the vendor stalls, meeting artists, getting business cards, taking pictures, and soaking in the vibe. I was accosted by an older woman who shoved stickers into my hands and then told me that she was going to have to fine me for smiling in a no-smiling zone, but that it would be okay. The fines were voluntary, and in fact, were donations for charity. I’d have given her some cash if I hadn’t (no shit) given my last physical dollar to a guy playing the accordion at Skidmore Fountain. I found a local craft beer that wasn’t a goddamned IPA (a pilsner would have to do). I ate corndogs and pet actual dogs. I got gifts for people back home and saw things from TV in person like the deer sign and the Keep Portland Weird mural. I should have been fined multiple times for smiling in a no-smile zone. It was easily the best day of the whole trip.

The presence of an entire park full of puppies might have helped, given it was also Doggie Dash day along the Willamette River.

But… Could It Be Home?

You might have noticed above that I mentioned I had concerns about living in Oregon. And that’s because I do. Years back, my wife and I considered it: a move to Portland. We’d seen and heard so much about it on TV, then researched it, saw all of the unrest during the 45 administration, and heard about how it gets to be when you leave the cities.

I still have concerns. But, having been here in person… I have to say it has a charm. There are definite issues here, and that sickness I mentioned is unlikely to cure itself anytime soon. But, I can’t deny there’s still a pull here. There’s something about it.

I like it here. I’ll carry a little of the magic I found and bring it back to share with my wife. See if she’ll come out here with me for another scouting mission. Keep things weird with me.

What the Hell Happened: March 2020 to Now

Chances are good that if you read this blog, you know me. I’m not famous or influential. So, maybe you know this whole story. Maybe you know parts. Maybe we’re old high school or college buddies and you saw the smallest of snippets of my life during the Pandemic and clicked it for the lulz (spoiler: not a lot of lulz in this story). So, why retread a story you knew? My wife asked me this and it bears asking. Here’s the answer:

Because I have to.

I couldn’t fully engage with my creativity for over two years of my life. The Muse is fickle on the best of days for most creatives, but the emergence of Covid was something devastating to the part of me that makes things. It was different in devastating ways.

To process all of this Covid craziness, I felt the need to put it down on figurative paper. To let it out. Because, if I don’t, I may not be able to get past the block while my mind, hands, and willpower all have a moment of clarity to work in tandem.

So, this is the story of what the hell happened since astrangesignal.com stopped posting and I couldn’t seem to write any longer.

So, this is it. I’d say enjoy… but it’s not all enjoyable.

But, it happened.

The Lockdown

So, as mentioned earlier, I’m not dead. And, if you’re on my site, you probably remember that this happened and then I went more or less AWOL here. We’re unlikely to forget the Lockdown of 2020, regardless of which side of the fence we fell on regarding the Coronavirus. That there were even sides to take up versus a potentially fatal disease still staggers my mind. There was a virus out there that spread like wildfire and people were actually against doing the things that might have stopped it so that they could go to goddamned Applebees.

libertarians are weird

In the rare instances that my wife and I found ourselves outside the apartment, we either encountered empty spaces as quiet as graveyards or mobs of people looking to hoard toilet paper and bottled water. Going to Shop Rite was fucking bonkers. They had people checking how many people came into and out of the store, blocking entrances and exits to enforce chokepoints, marking the directions shoppers had to take in the aisles, and rationing several key items people were looking to hoard. These measures were there for the community as a whole and we never wanted for any of these items as a result. So, we buckled down and accepted it. But, it felt at many points as if the theme from The Walking Dead should have been playing during the whole thing. It certainly did in my head.

shoprite walking dead
When the walkers come, this ain’t gonna keep ’em out.

So, the day they closed down my work (March 23, 2020), the Lockdown began. My state took things very seriously, like most other Blue States. The store shut down to the public while the GM worked by himself in the store. After about a week of that he told corporate that he wasn’t comfortable being the only one in there.

The co-manager came in after that and fought to bring me on because he wasn’t comfortable flying solo either. He ultimately took a pay cut to do it, and – I shit you not – we went back to work April 1, 2001. I learned how to do just about everything needed in the store that I wasn’t already doing while we got everything started again. With only one other employee working with me in the whole of our giant space, I needed to be ready to do it all for when the store re-opened in the indeterminate future.

During this time, I think everyone could tell you their days blurred. The only way for me to really differentiate weeks in that time was by what show we were binge watching: Parks and Recreation, Bojack Horseman (maybe too heavy for the time), Rick and Morty, Fargo, The Mandalorian.

Then, after a curbside pick-up only soft opening on May 1, 2020, we re-opened the store to the general public on June 1, 2020.

Hostility, Madness, and Other Acts of Economics

Being a retail worker in that time was staggeringly stressful. It was as if no one had learned anything about personal space or transmission vectors during the two months of lockdown. Or decency. Masks, too. Oh: and how to fucking wear one.

van gogh gets a pass
This guy alone gets a pass.

It seemed to me that the world had gone mad. I had to fight at a panic attack within the first hour on that first re-opened day on account of anxiety. If the day-to-day interactions of our former retail lives weren’t enough, people got fucking worse. Every day, the stress was on par with working retail during the Christmas season. Otherwise responsible people cooped up for, bare minimum, six weeks; and the assholes who were denying the dangers of a global pandemic were even worse than the cringiest of Christmas Karens. The shit I heard yelled at me and the rest of the staff in those opening weeks would wither your soul.

Asking even the nicest seeming people to respect your boundaries in an uncertain world drew down the kind of scorn you’d expect a grieving victim’s family might level at the perpetrator of their relative’s murder. Employees at my store experienced beratement, mockery, insults, and general abuse for the want of safety. It caused a lot of folks (the ones who came back after lockdown) to quit, and many more new employees to suddenly leave after a few days of experiencing the ‘new normal.’ And that’s just what we got from customers. What came from the top wasn’t often good news either, including having to fight to keep safety precautions that forced distance between cashiers and customers because ‘they didn’t look good.’

I wasn’t even in an ‘essential’ retail environment. Going through a pharmacy or a grocery store was surreal. People were awful to one another in places like that. One of my friends with a son working at a supermarket said that it wasn’t uncommon to witness three fights a day at his store between shoppers; shoppers and staff; or even between employees. New people came in and left just as fast, regardless of ‘hero pay.’

Add to all of this that the company I worked for had figured something out: with a bare-bones staff and reduced hours they could still make an unconscionable amount of money. Even more than previous years. As a result, we never got back to a ‘normal’ level of staffing after that. Even when every indicator, especially turnover, said that we desperately needed more help. I went home every day exhausted.

My creativity, which had been on the rocks for months once the pandemic reached us, finally gave up and died. I had stopped making Signals by that point but had desperately kept trying to write. The Starfinder campaign I was writing and running evaporated. There was little joy, just a lot of fear. Through it all, I saw some people running around outside caree-free, like it was all over; not caring about the people for whom it did matter. People who were immuno-compromised like my wife and I. At the time, I still counted myself lucky. I had a job. I hadn’t caught Covid. My wife was healthy, my extended family was healthy. I kept my head down and pushed through.

Thin Silver Linings and Changes

There were a few good things that happened. I experienced a field promotion in June, 2020, and a few months after that, an actual promotion in Dec, 2020. After about four-and-a-half years of funderemployment or outright unemployment, poor fits, and some truly terrible corporate experiences, I had a growing belief that there was no place in the job market for a forty-year-old man with a degree from an art school whose former campus now has an Old Navy in it.

But, at this job, I finally was starting to feel like there might be a place where a Maurice might have a decent job, if not a career. That my job was working with stuff I loved helped – as did the employee discount. I could buy things for my wife and I that could provide the occasional hit of serotonin and take our minds off of how things were outside the walls of our home.

There were also many other changes in that time. My wife and I took on a roommate for a little over a year in August 2020; a friend and co-worker who would have been out on the street during the pandemic if we hadn’t. I rigorously maintained six-feet of distance from people and often lost my usual disposition to give hugs to friends and family.

How we handled food and dining was another big change. My wife and I no longer dined in at restaurants as often in favor of cooking at home more frequently. Our roommate introduced us to the finer points of DoorDash (the good and the bad, tipping 25% minimum regardless of service to the staff who were taking risks to get people food). We opted for takeout as well, making occasional use of curbside pick-ups.

We learned the difference between Covid-19 and seasonal allergies, often in terrifying, anxiety-amplifying ways.

But, the biggest thing to change was being inside most of the time. If it was’t essential: food, work, medicine, dog duty… we didn’t go outside (beginning a Vitamin D deficiency continuing to this day).

Eventually, over that summer, we just hunkered down and waited for news of a vaccine.

Holidays With Needles

Christmas was very different in 2020. My parents were in Arizona in their winter home when the lockdown came. The CDC was strongly recommending that seniors should not fly unless the need was dire, so the family swallowed tradition. Quality Chinese food was ordered and it was a quiet Christmas in with my wife and our roommate. Family members were met later on Zoom, where we learned virtual gatherings were like in-person ones: loud, distracted, and largely spent talking over one another. The only thing missing was jockeying for personal space at my Parent’s home on the East Coast. Still, it was lonely with just the three of us in person. We lived in this insular bubble with little exposure to the outside that was not work, grocery, or pharmacy-based through those cold months.

We did receive one, much-needed early Christmas present over the pre-holiday season: word of a vaccine around October 2020. I was glued to the NPR website to learn more every day and listening to the news podcasts I loved (NPR: Up First, as well as the lefty-leaning Daily Zeitgeist).

While the first pilot vaccine programs went out in October, these were limited to persons 60-years-old or over and were incredibly hard to come by given a myriad of obstacles. With nursing home facilities experiencing Coronavirus deaths in droves they got the lion’s share in those first weeks. The new vaccines also didn’t have the massive cooling infrastructure needed to be warehoused in a lot of places anyhow. Plus, it would take some time to start mass-producing the vaccine. Without a way to get a vaccine that winter, we waited for what our state called Phase 1a: Anyone between 18-60 with immuno-compromised complications. My wife and I both qualified for 1a.

It was a long, intense wait. Five months of working in a crowded retail store for up to ten hours a day depending on the store’s need. Five months of being surrounded by people on all sides who would not respect us or care one whit for our safety or our mental well-being. It was about that time that I had to stop listening to the podcasts and news reports so closely; too anxiety-inducing. It was too much on top of the constant fear that I would catch Corona, go into the hospital, and die. All because I wasn’t old enough to get the vaccination and diabetics have a hard time fighting the virus.

It got pretty dark for me, given my high levels of just my baseline anxiety. Everything amplified through a prism of worry and fear. I eventually relented and went to my doctors and admitted the dosage from pre-Coronavirus days was not cutting it any longer. They increased my dosage by half. It helped absorb some of the difficulties, but the only bit of true relief from this time was when my parents called sometime in early winter to tell me it had happened: Arizona had opened vaccination centers and that they received their jabs.

My parents, at least, were something I wasn’t going to have to worry about now.

When Phase 1a finally came in the late winter of 2021, it was an intensive process of trying to get my first jab. I hustled for a week before finally getting disheartened and giving up, waiting to be notified through our local health system. Despite my home being served by one of the tenth-largest healthcare systems in North America, it was still massively unprepared for the demand.

I figured if I’d been safe this long I could go just a little longer. In the beginning of April, through happenstance, a friend who worked at the local hospital saw my woes on Facebook and let me know to get my shit together right then and there; they had vaccination openings due to no-show reservations and didn’t want to waste their vaccine supplies. I tried to get my wife in on that same day but couldn’t. Work was full-tilt for her (and would be so for months after as well) and there was no escaping for her despite being closer to the hospital than I was at that moment.

When I got there, I could see the line from the access road running through the medical complex from 200 feet away. It started at the Cardiovascular wing and wrapped all the way down along its side, turned a corner, then kept going.

covid vaccine line
This represented about 1/4 of the line ahead of me, and at the time I took it, it was still growing.

I waited outside in the chill for about an hour in the queue. Once I got inside, more lines waited as each person being brought in was broken down into four new lines where we had to supply our driver’s licenses. We then stood in another long line that wrapped around the indoor inoculation center, which in turn broke down into about twenty vaccination stations. The wait inside took probably another half hour. Everything was surprisingly civil. The people who weren’t being very civil at the time (and largely continue to be) didn’t want vaccinations, so no big surprises there.

Then, at around 11 in the morning, about two hours after I got the call from my friend, I was vaccinated.

vaxxed bitches
This is what relief looks like.

Spring 2021

When the second vaccination happened three weeks later, I went down hard. I had a good idea that it would happen though, so I was prepared. I ended up out of the store for three days while my immune system made adjustments. The worst I suffered from was fatigue – but the fatigue was all-encompassing. On day two, I slept for almost twenty hours out of that entire day while the vaccine worked its way through my body. I came out on the other side okay though. For a while, the weight came off my metaphorical shoulders.

Delta was around by then, had been for months, but it hadn’t been named. I had about ten days of relief before it hit the news. And by June, there were questions of whether or not the vaccine would even be effective against it. My mental health took a hit again, but I managed to fight through this time.

Despite all of this, a few good things happened while Delta was winding up to hit America hard.

First, in April 2021, my parents finally came home. We’d been separated for about fifteen months. During that time, I managed to kill half of my mother’s houseplants, and our family dog had passed in Arizona due to complications from a collapsed trachea. I’d had to manage several house disasters while they were gone, mostly centered around flooding, but when they got home, they were happy to simply be home and to know that my wife and I were okay. I was simply glad to have them back. Even at forty-four years old, I still feel lost sometimes when they’re not here.

Retail continued to be an adversarial environment when it came to basic safety matters from both the customers and corporate sides, but I managed to perform well. I wasn’t the perfect manager. But, I did okay, I think. I largely liked the people I worked with and I felt bonded to many of them in the same way people in high-stress environments often do. I learned a lot and I had a job. Lots of people were still feeling the crunch of the Coronacoaster (my favorite euphemism for living through this particular historical event) and I felt very fortunate. With the help of my new prescription regimen, I was somewhat more resilient, able to tackle the stressors of home, isolation, and work.

Sometime in June, I began using a new sort of blood sugar monitor to take my readings while managing the store, I often met with frustration in getting them to go the distance, though. I’m a big, fat dude (for now). And, when I work, I sweat. I mean unreasonably. On many occasions, I’d apply the sensor only to find at some point in my day that it had come loose (and sometimes bled all over the place as a result depending on how recently the sensor was applied).

It was an imperfect solution, but once I started using it, there was no way I was going back to pricking my finger two or more times a day, not knowing if I was on the upswing of the downswing. That ship had sailed. I mostly had my sugars under control though, especially given that I was moving about seventeen thousand steps a day on average (you read that right).

Also around June 2021, I found out I wasn’t going to have a career with the store. They had certain assumptions in place for people who wanted to go into the assistant general manager or general manager roles that I simply wasn’t going to give in to. That, and the fact that what they offered for those assumptions was… lopsided. Something must have been looking out for me though, because as I sweat in the back of the store, cramming product onto shelves, I got a call from a friend and former co-worker that he had a job opening. It would take some time. But, over a couple of months, things came together.

The New Gig and Sudden Changes

After a brief vacation in Rehoboth Beach, I got news of the new gig’s availability and I put in my two week notice mid-October, 2021. Our roommate had moved out and the spare room transformed into a home office so that I could I work from home.

For the first time in years I found myself in a position to regain control of my own health, particularly when it came to my untreated ADHD and Diabetes. I started getting my shit together. It took a long time. There was a lot of poverty induced personal neglect on my part, and slowly but surely, I started fixing things. Not enough as it turned out. But, it was a beginning. I made appointments with my psychiatric office, which had changed hands, started filling prescriptions. For reasons beyond my ken, I kept doing a lot of dumb shit though. My diet didn’t change, and rationing kept happening. Being poor for a while will make you do crazy stuff I guess. It felt like progress though.

It was around this time of relative stability that life would throw my wife and I a curveball in the form of Avascular Necrosis (AVN).

Spoiler alert: no one died. But parts of my wife’s bones did.

To make a long story short, the blood flow in the ball joints of each of her hips stopped providing enough blood to the bone. As a result, those parts of her femurs both degenerated irreversibly. We don’t know exactly when the time of death for the ball joints of the bones were, but they were diagnosed in October of 2021 after months of increasing pain. In November one of the joints finally collapsed and took my wife out of work. My new job couldn’t have come at a more fortunate time. I took on the job of shouldering the bills for two months while we worked out her temporary disability. After all the time she supported me while I was unemployed and running around in circles to figure out how to repair my life, it still doesn’t feel like I’ve done enough.

With hospitals still backed up and Covid protocols making things difficult, it took months (and emotional pain and suffering on both of our parts) to arrange the surgeries she needed as the Omicron Variant of Covid-19 began its rampage across America. If you’ve never had a joint collapse due to something like AVN, you only need to know one thing: it is brutal. I didn’t even experience the pain directly, but secondhand exposure was enough. My wife eats pain for breakfast and has the highest tolerance for it than anyone I have ever known (case in point: she broke her kneecap on the way to a funeral once; she got up, attended the service and the reception afterwards, stood through the whole thing, and never once complained until arriving home).

The first total hip replacement was in early March of 2022. The surgeon had said that comparatively, the pain of the surgery would feel like instant relief compared to the actual condition of AVN. I had my doubts (frankly, I thought he was full of shit).

He and my wife proved me wrong.

The difference was night and day. She suddenly could do more. Even with intensive PT, things got better and better until the second joint experienced total collapse. There was a long period of secondhand pain via basic human empathy on my part. Watching someone get lit up with pain for simply sitting still sucks. We waited another forty-some days and finally got the second total hip replacement surgery in late May of 2022.


Things have gotten better. My wife and I have been vaccinated and boosted (second boosters to follow in August of 2022 if we both qualify for a second round). She’ll be back to work in September of 2022 with any luck, and I’m happy in my new job. For the first time in a while, the lights in my brain have been slowly coming back on. Creativity is something that I can feel flowing again, albeit slowly and irregularly. There’s something about living through historically significant events that diverts all of that energy into basic survival and just watching to make sure nothing is going to come out and take you out at the knees (or the hips). Hypervigilance and fear are starting to back off enough for me to hope that maybe something better comes out of the times that seemed so dark and hopeless.

The world isn’t right – never has been. But it’s less wrong in some ways. There’s still a long way to go. Especially with SCOTUS looking to take America back to the Fifties and telling us all that bodily autonomy isn’t a right. But, we live to carry on. I live to carry on.

Here’s to more posts and more work and more future to write.

Is This Still On?

Holy hell. Okay, let me explain.

I am not dead.

It’s been over two years since I was last on this thing. Things are different. Very different. Better? Some. But very different.

I intend to come back to this thing a bit more often, as well as the sister site to Ossua, AStrangeSignal.com.

I cannot stress enough that I am not dead. Though, for a while, my creative side was. That’s a post for a later time. It’s starting to develop some kind of thready pulse again, though. I intend to put it right back on its treadmill here.

I’m here. I exist with the fury of a thousand blazing suns. And, godsdamn it, I intend to write stuff.

Anxiety In a Trying Time

Now is a bad time to have anxiety.

As I write this, I am living through the COVID-19 pandemic. Things are very different from what they were two weeks ago. At that time, the disease was isolated to a few cases in a handful of American states. Now, we have surpassed active cases in China, the country initially hit hardest. Italy was the big outbreak spot until a few days ago when we took over their active case number. They’re still leading in deaths, but it’s only a matter of time. My own tiny state already has nearly 200 cases and six people here are dead. Those local numbers might not sound so bad to most people.

Most people don’t have my level of anxiety.

So, I’ll level with you, appreciated readers, and talk a little bit about one of the personal issues I grapple with daily.

I – like millions of other Americans – suffer from generalized anxiety. Some of it has always been there. Much of it came from a traumatic experience in 2005 as a bonus from PTSD. All of it stems from issues I have regarding human mortality and the fragility of the world that we live in. I think those who know me best would point to a certain morbidity in my outlook. I do write horror after all. It extends far beyond my writing, however. My brain can eat itself alive if I let it.

In 2008 I experienced my first full-blown panic attack. After being discharged pending a four-hour ER encounter in which they managed to pop a faulty IV into my arm, I booked an appointment with my mental health provider. I finally caved at her gentle urging and started taking what are called SSRIs – Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. It’s a class of drug that slowly changes how your brain relates to Seratonin, the hormone in your brain that gives you good feels. 

The result of taking SSRI’s is that it’s a little easier to break through low-level to mid-range anxiety, which lets you start to improve executive function. She told me the drugs would take about two weeks to fully work, but I swear to god I felt some relief the first day. It was like having a messy filing system suddenly ordered. Life improved over time. I began to enjoy things again (Depression was something I came to finally admit to years later, but that’s another story). I felt more comfortable in my skin. 

Until recently, it generally does its job. It helps me to cope with a lot of my unreasonable fears and hang-ups. In a world that mostly makes sense, it’s a boon. Things are better when I‘m on them. In the brief times I’ve had to go without, life is not good. These aren’t the kind of meds you just stop taking. The withdrawal effects are full-throated and they last for a long time. The longest I’ve gone without was for about five weeks, and I never want to do that again. 

In times of acute stress, they help form a temporary barrier that holds long enough to weather a bad day. Eventually though, under constant stress, their effectiveness can falter. My average dose is moderate and I take them at night when I am most likely to suffer from panic attacks. I am told higher doses are an option available to me. I either feel the need to suffer (a side effect of being raised Lutheran I suppose) or I simply don’t want to be any more reliant on the SSRIs than I already am. Either way, I have more or less been at my present dosage for quite some time, with only changes to the time of day those SSRIs are taken.

In these times though, I find the anxiety harder and harder to push back. My generation has had few stressors as extreme as this and I’m counting the financial meltdown and 9/11. We’re updated constantly on mortality rates, new information about vectors, incubation times, the importance of physically separating ourselves from our loved ones and coworkers. It’s a lot. In a world where the plague we are all trying to weather is marked by shortness of breath (among other fun symptoms), being susceptible to panic attacks creates a certain kind of hell for those who suffer from anxiety.

As of late, when I am rousing or when I am settling into sleep, I feel shortness of breath. It’s panic breaking through my medication. There is no concomitant fever or dry cough. Just the feeling that the walls are closing in and that I cannot get enough air. Right now I can kick that feeling aside with a little mindfulness, but it takes a few minutes. And, of course, it’s waiting for me just a little while later. It’s the kind of effect that can wear you down over time. It’s not fun.

I know I’m not the only one going through it. I know that I have it good; I was able to secure a sufficient supply of my SSRIs for the next two months. Gods willing, I will have the resources I need to acquire more if this nightmare continues beyond May. Many will not have such recourse. Many don’t have it right now. Hell, some people don’t even have toilet paper. Tyler Durden may have taught us that soap is the yardstick of civilization (and to hear the CDC say it, there’s some truth to that). But, tell you what: go without the ability to shit comfortably for an extended time and you start to feel like you’ve lost about a century worth of progress right there. Toilet paper has a lot going for it.

I’m getting by though. The most important thing I’ve learned about getting through a panic attack is making sure that I’m mindful of my breathing. I have to do that a lot these days. It’s essential to my well being. 

The other thing I have to do is keep busy. I have temporarily lost my day job working at a local bookstore. The time I had before to keep my mind busy with shelving, alphabetizing, and merchandising is gone. Replacing it has been largely successful, though I miss the physicality of my work. Much of the lifting, shifting, and cardio has been replaced with dog walking and playing rather a lot of video games. I’ve taken up a project to get my retro gaming consoles in one place and organized. I have a lot of things lined up to consume in terms of reading, television, and film. It’s been essential in keeping myself just distanced enough from what’s going on outside without becoming fully disengaged. The other option is watching cable news broadcasts constantly and tracking CDC updates. I have never been so happy to have cut cable out of my life.

What I’m getting at I suppose is that we’re all doing things to cope with varying degrees of success. A lot of people have my problems and likely more severe at that. If you know someone who before all of this who had anxiety like mine or worse, check in on them. Let them know they’re not alone. We still have a lot going for us in terms of communication – Zoom and FaceTime are helping a lot of people through tough times. If you’re holding your shit together and have wrestled with anxiety as long as myself, take some time to explain anxiety to people who are just coming into it now. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of people coming around to my levels of anxiety. I’m curious to see the numbers on people seeking assistance from mental health professionals regarding anxiety after this passes – and it will pass.

Regardless of whether or not you’re feeling what I and others feel or are new to the unpleasantness of anxiety, remember these things when you start getting antsy. I’m pretty sure they’ll help because they’re helping me:

  • Breathe. Take deep breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Do it as many times as you have to.
  • Find a routine and try to stick to it. If you’re furloughed like I am, who cares if the time frames are weird? If you’re working from home, you already have a structure. Just make sure you’re keeping fairly consistent.
  • Try to eat well if you can (I’m having trouble with this, but still remembering that veggies exist). A lot of us are cash strapped or have dietary requirements but try to get the recommended three square meals a day. Keep a regular meal schedule. Try not to eat as a reaction to boredom or stress (this is a problem for me) to keep your food supply stocked.
  • Find some exercise time. A lot of places are still allowing people to get out of their homes to exercise so long as you maintain an appropriate distance from other people. Your dog has never had it so good if they love walkies.
  • Take up a project. I guarantee you whatever it is you decide to do beats watching anything coming out of the White House or watching the reactions of people to the misinformation coming out of the White House. The more physical the work is or if it keeps your hands busy, so much the better. At least that’s what’s been working for me.
  • If you’re sick, self-isolate and seek treatment if things start getting bad (lips/face turning blue, feeling like you’re gonna pass out).

Lastly, if you’re like me remember that you are not alone. Reach out for help. There are professionals and friends, and even strangers out there who have the same situation. Talk to them on the phone, by text, use semaphore flags. Whatever it is you have to do, remember that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. Our connections are what get us through times like this, and you can make things better by reaching out for help. In fact, it’s dangerous to go alone, take this, too:


We’ll get through. Hang in there. You are not alone.

Apocalypse Arcade

Like many in my country, I’m being encouraged to stay inside right now while CoVid-19 is burning through our cities. I’m spending time with my wife, FaceTiming with relatives and friends, and building a shelf to manage a lot of my older game consoles. I call the last bit Project Retro.

While I was putting the shelf together, I remembered an old gem from the 2014 Writing Challenge I tasked myself with to increase my writing output. Since it makes a good tie-in with Project Retro (more on that in further posts) I thought I’d repost it here. Perhaps it will entertain others who are similarly housebound while we wait for whatever comes next. It’s been edited and polished a little since then, and I feel like it’s good enough to share.

So, welcome to Apocalypse Arcade. I hope you enjoy it.

Pez could see the Market would be slower than usual today. Life had grown languorous in the wasteland’s summer heat. It had not rained for eight days, meaning that all that remained in the bottom of the Market’s water barrels was a rancid and foul sludge. The sour stew that came out of them was oily and dark. Few but the most desperate would drink from such tainted waters.

Growing up in the shadow of Nuñez, the Junk Dealer, meant Pez was comfortable with his thirst. It was the least of the indignities Nuñez had to offer and kept him from the rain barrels. His mother had long since disappeared, and he was unsure of whether or not his mother had even known who his father was. So it was with many of the children of the market whose mothers were whores. It was a common enough origin. Nuñez told him there was nothing to be ashamed of in that. Some of the older residents of the area used the word ‘bastard’ to label him in Pez’s presence, but the small ecology of unwanted human byproduct spawned in the red light district of Market had a purpose. Some wayward children were adopted and taken in to learn a trade such as Pez had been. Many others ended up as slaves or concubines, raised from birth to be molded into the ancient, barbaric roles long known by man. Nuñez had told Pez that in his youth children went to schools to learn without such dark destinies. Pez did not believe him. His own reality was such that he could picture no other life. A place where children were expected to simply sit and listen was a fantasy. Everyone worked in the Market. Everyone pulled their weight. Dullards starved. Abandoned children learned only as much as their profession could provide and their master could teach.

If a child couldn’t hack their master’s trade it was either the gladiatorial pit or starving to death. There were no other alternatives. Not if they wanted to stay anywhere near Market.

Outside of Market a child would not last long on their own.

A wind blew through the dusty concourse of his stall’s corner of the Market. Pez readjusted the bandana covering his lower face to keep out the grit. It was red with white dots and swirls, what Nuñez had called paisley. So long as it covered his mouth Pez didn’t much care for what it looked like or what the style’s name was. It kept the grey grit of the stalls out of his teeth and the ash off of his tongue. It could be called whatever Nuñez liked.

Nuñez’s meager table of dross bore drill bits, toasters, cast-iron skillets, and a few dull knives. The rest was just junk; gewgaws that had no discernible purpose, at least not in Pez’s young eyes. The prized items, at least according to Nuñez, were the old books that Pez couldn’t even read. Nuñez held great stock in books and read frequently. Pez had no need of them. He just wanted to work, to stay out of the pits. He didn’t need to be able to read to do that. He’d learned his numbers at Nuñez’s insistence, at least up to a hundred. As far as he was concerned, he’d never see more than a hundred of anything all at once. Why bother with more?

The grey, ashen haze of mid-afternoon was reaching its brightest. Few stragglers had come to pick through the garbage for sale, but Pez was still keeping his eyes sharp for thieves when a tall traveler appeared in one of the greatcoats from Before.

The traveler said nothing, picking up items and appraising them from behind the cool, reflective gaze of shaded goggles. Gloved hands methodically went over several items. Amongst the pieces handled were the remote for a device that no longer functioned, a radio control with no batteries, and a strange wedge of plastic with another smaller wedge inside, laced with metal. When the stranger’s hands neared several books, Nuñez took interest and came away from his bespoke office. It was a junked van with no wheels, gutted then fitted with a mattress and a desk. A battered solar array along the roof powered its few remaining electrical systems.

Hola, señor,” Nuñez opened. He tried not to sound too enthusiastic, but with the slow day, Pez could hear the old man ratchet his usual greeting up a notch. Pez looked silently at their new customer, looking over the details of the traveler’s clothes and gear. “Bienvenidos! Welcome to Market! InglesEspañol?

The traveler spoke. The voice was a dry dusty thing and older than his appearance betrayed. “English.”

“You are new to Market, eh? I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”

Pez tried to assess the newcomer’s gear while Nuñez chatted up his mark. Most of it looked fastidiously kept, if eclectic. Were he of a mind to, Pez had no doubt he could sell the man out to some of the less reputable inhabitants Market for a cut of the harvested bounty. He knew that Nuñez would frown upon this. At least before the sale of any goods the man wanted. Pez felt it was always best to keep his options open, though.

“Just passing through,” said the traveler.

“From where?”


“Ah, the city? Bad territory for the lone hombre to travel.” Nuñez shifted his voice to a hopeful tone, “You come with a caravan? Bring supplies from another settlement?”


Nuñez shrugged, “I suppose not. None of the caravans seem to think much of this place. Always was a small place next to the metro, even Before.”  

Before was a time both men knew even if Pez didn’t. Nuñez always sighed when he thought of it. Pez thought it was a waste of breath. 

“You look old enough to remember before the war,” Nuñez said with a dry cough as he looked at the man’s collected kit. “You soldado?”

The traveler didn’t respond verbally but nodded ever so slightly. Pez tried to read the traveler’s expression, but could not pierce the flat affect of the stranger’s goggles and ragged filter mask.

“I thought you might say that,” Nuñez said with a grin. “You had the look. Soldado especial? Engineered? They gave you the treatments?”

The stranger did not react to this in any way Pez could see. He figured Nuñez must not see the wisdom of going down that path because he stopped trying to prise out personal information and went back to hawking what was on his table. From what little Pez knew, the soldiers from the war were different somehow. Not to be trifled with.

“You looking for something particular, amigo? I may be able to put you on the right track even if I don’t have anything for you. A little compensation is always appreciated though for a nod to another vendor.”

“Not yet,” said the stranger. “Just passing through and seeing what you might have.” The stranger paused, but the reason was obscured by his goggles. The man gave an audibly dry swallow.

“Well, let me know if there’s something that catches your eye.”

Nuñez was an expert at uncovering the needs of a mark. He could tell what was desired usually by what they carried visibly, how they spoke, and what they wore. He’d been a hawker even before the war, at least that’s what Nuñez boasted when he was drunk on the shine that came out of one of the neighboring stalls. In this instance, Nuñez was backing off.

Pez, however, had a hunch about what the man was interested in and kept an eye on him closely.

The stranger passed the junk table at the front and made his way inward through the stall. Nuñez moved deftly out of his way, keeping his hand near his own pistol. Pez watched the stranger as closely as he could without making himself obvious. His intuition and the stranger’s body language was telling him that the traveler was feigning disinterest. Perhaps Nuñez was starting to lose his sight like most of the old-timers. Pez watched Nuñez retreat back into his van to take in the cool shade.

Pez found himself anxious watching this strange, well-armed newcomer. Through his nervousness, he simply waited for the traveler to pause in front of something so he could get a better look at what had caught the stranger’s eye.

Pez picked out the item almost immediately once the stranger had stopped at an inner table. It was a tangle of junk: a worthless plastic and wood thing, squarish, connected by a lead to a black, plastic box with beveled edges. A rubberized stick popped out from the center of the smaller plastic box on its top side, and a once red but now bleached ochre plastic button was its only other adornment. The larger, wood-panel and plastic box had two long cords coming out of it – one for power and one for something else he had no knowledge of. Pez knew it was electronic, but it didn’t take batteries as far as Pez could tell and it wouldn’t plug into the solar array of Nuñez’s office. So, it had to be junk. Like so much of the rest of the junk that Nuñez typically sold for scrap it held no value Pez could see.

Pez tried again to look into the stranger’s eyes – most buyers gave away tells with their eyes according to Nuñez. The old man would often go on about the eyes being some kind of gateway to the soul. Then again, Nuñez also seemed to believe the rotgut wine he took every Sunday at the Fishers tent was actually blood. Some of the crazy old-timers mumbled over crosses and drank the pretend blood with him, but more often than not, Nuñez wasn’t crazy and he was rarely wrong. 

In this case, Pez didn’t need Nuñez’s wisdom or training to see see the stranger’s raw need for the thing. The sheer attachment to the item was playing itself out in the gesture itself. The way the stranger touched it lightly and ran his hand along its surface. In this case, the hands were the giveaway. The stranger touched is as if it was some religious icon or relic.

Pez watched the stranger grab the stick portion of the smaller box with his right hand, then cradle the box in his left placing his left thumb over the disc. He pressed it down to no visible effect, then moved the stick in a circular motion. There was no reaction from the device, but for the briefest moment it looked like the stranger might be smiling beneath his respirator. Pez smiled to match. The stranger was taken by the useless thing. He was sure of it.

Pez reminded himself that for some of the junk, use didn’t always matter. The heart wanted what it wanted. Nuñez had told him that a million times.

Señor,” said Pez. “You want to buy?”

The traveler considered this and let a silence pass between himself and Pez. Typical buyer behavior. The battle of wills had begun. 

Nuñez watched silently from the shade, appraising Pez’s gambit. 

Pez knew one of two things would come of this. Either Nuñez would have his hide for speaking out of turn or he’d get a share of the shine next time the adjacent brewmaster had some to spare.

“I don’t have chit or gold. You have currency here?” said the stranger.

“That’s for city trade, señor. We barter here like everyone else.”

“What are you asking?”

Pez heard Nuñez come to the van’s door and lean on its frame to observe his pitch.

The stranger had opened with a question and not an offer. It was typical buyer bullshit, meant to make the seller make the first gesture. The boy turned it around.

“What do you have?”

The traveler turned to leave. Pez and Nuñez shared a sentiment for this kind of thing: they both hated it.

“Señor,” Nuñez intervened, “Are you sure you want to do that? I don’t think you’ll find another one of those elsewhere.”

The traveler turned, “It’s junk. The waste is full of junk.”

Nuñez gave a disapproving look to the stranger.

“How many of those have you come across in the waste?” Pez countered with a little too much eagerness.

The traveler considered this and walked back toward the table. “Then answer me, kid. What do you want for it?”

“MREs,” Pez said. “Bullets, caseless 9mm if you got ‘em. Water is always appreciated.”

“Forget it, kid,” said the traveler. “Isn’t worth that much.” The traveler turned to go.

“I think it is,” Pez pushed. “MREs, okay, maybe that’s too much to ask. Bullets, though, we take other kinds. Most of the zip guns around here are 9 mil, but .22 is just as good, or long rifle .32.” Pez was young, but he knew the ammo market values. You had to or you could find yourself making some spectacularly lopsided trades. “That rifle you got there. That’s a .32, right?”

The traveler popped his rifle off his shoulder and Nuñez took a reflexive step back. Violence was not uncommon in Market, particularly from outsiders who didn’t know the score. Pez stood firm though as the rifle went on the counter and the stranger popped the clip. Three .32 rounds were shelled out onto the table.

“Three caseless.”

Pez looked back quickly at Nuñez for a little guidance. Nuñez looked at him as if to say ‘ask for more,’ so Pez did.

“Five.” Pez knew the stranger wanted the plastic gewgaw badly. The stranger stiffened and looked at him from behind the goggles.

“Four,” he countered.

Pez didn’t look back this time. “Okay, four. Deal.”

It had been much harder to slip away from Nuñez than it was to follow the stranger. Slipping away before it was time was against the rules, upsetting the delicate balance of Nuñez’s life in Market. Even when his smaller expeditions brought something back in, the old man worried. Sometimes that worry turned to anger. Pez had done this before on slim months, the times when Nuñez simply couldn’t pull in enough in trade to keep the stall open.  More often than not it brought a beating. Nuñez on occasion called them an ‘object lesson,’ not that Pez knew what that meant.

During slim months when trade was bad, Pez found ways to make profits with deft hands in the market throngs. Nuñez, not without the vice of pride, typically found this kind of thing distasteful. On slim months he did not question the profit Pez brought in on his riskier outings, but this was different. He’d gone on his own initiative, an action that usually resulted in Nuñez taking it out of Pez’s hide. The stranger had something about him worth the risk of tailing him, though. If not, he’d made his peace with the thrashing he would earn.

Pez’s plan was a loose one. He wasn’t here to just steal. The traveler could – likely would – kill him if he was caught. Nuñez had thought the man was soldado especial. While Pez’s own base human greed was probably somewhere in the morass of his motivations, Pez was simply curious. He might never get another chance to see one of the Before soldiers again.

Pez knew he was onto something. He wasn’t sure what yet, so he aimed to find out.

The stranger was tall and that made it easier for Pez to follow him. Pez was small and could weave through the throng of buyers and stalls without notice. Growing up in the shadows of the market had taught Pez the virtue of being dwarfed by adults.

The tall stranger stopped at a few other stalls: a water vendor, then an ammunition seller. The stranger then spent some time at a meat stand, eating skewers of god knew what and slices of the weak peppers that would still grow in the wastes. He hit another junk stall, much like Nuñez’s own. Pez waited for him outside of it for a bit and almost missed the stranger leaving after closing his eyes for a moment. He quickly picked up the stranger’s trail again, locking in on the broad-brimmed hat rising above most of the other market buyers.

Pez pursued the traveler further into Market, toward the higher rent area. Most of the Market was an open-aired sprawl, with vendors forming crude barriers between themselves and other hawkers with corrugated scrap metal sheets, worn linens, or battered planks of wood good for little else than as a line of demarcation. Inside of the rings and crooked avenues of the smaller merchant stalls was Old Market; a large, squat building that seemed impossibly large to Pez. Its exterior had begun to show serious wear and it was obvious that it had not been properly cared for even before the war. Stubborn white paint still clung in spots, but most of it had flaked off in the highly acidic rains and the hard, gritty winds that blew through the plain the market was situated on. Letters Pez couldn’t read were marked in faded green and red and yellow at the building’s front which faced the Long Road that bore most travelers to Market. It was there in Old Market that the stranger headed.

Pez weighed his options. If he was to follow further he’d have to be much more careful. People like Nuñez and the outer Market sellers were suffered at the hands of the people inside the derelict building. People who had stalls inside of the Market proper were pillars of what passed for community. There were more guards here. Pickpockets and thieves were everywhere in the Market, but the class of rogue in Old Market was of a different caliber. Pez would stick out here, even if he wasn’t looking to cutpurses. Vendors of Old Market could afford their own muscle and their own swift and brutal law. He’d been tossed out of Old Market his first week with Nuñez. The guards told him he was bringing down property value, whatever that meant. It was to be his only warning they said, and Pez knew they meant it. Old Market guards had long memories paired with sadistic streaks encouraged by years of watching pit fights.

Pez made up his mind quickly. Nothing ventured, nothing gained as Nuñez liked to say. It wasn’t a crime to look in the Market – he even had four .32 bullets in his pocket that could possibly convince vendors he was a buyer – provided he was stupid enough to wave that kind of wealth around. He had no designs on starting anything, he was smarter than that.

He darted in.

The crowds were looser here and the stranger stood out even more, but so would Pez. He passed several booths and vendors, many of whom were selling shine, companionship, and food. Pez kept his gaze down and made sure not to look like he was loitering when the stranger would stop. Unattended children were frequently abducted and put on the meat markets or sold for gladiatorial sport. 

Pez was careful as he followed the stranger through a gambling den, a tattoo stall, a guide station, then to the Slathouse: a place that passed for lodging for passers-through if they had barter to spare.

Pez knew that this would be the end of the line. There’d be no way he could get beyond the Slathouse door without something to pay with. Pez resigned the trip as a wash as the stranger made an offer to the keeper at the threshold of the Slathouse. The offer was taken, and in the stranger went.

Pez went home, disappointed, thinking that he would never see the stranger again.

Pez did, in fact, get a dressing down when he returned. It would not be his first and would be far from his last. He’d certainly had worse at the hands of the pimps who ran the brothels in his earliest years, which was his reason for escaping the brothel in the first place. Nuñez at least had the decency to rarely hit him, and when he did he took care not to strike his face and had never broken a bone. Pez supposed it was the little things. In a few more years he guessed that we would be Nuñez’s size. Then the game’s rules might change.

The next morning dragged by, and Nuñez watched Pez like a hawk, making sure he didn’t get any more funny ideas in his head while he worked. It seemed another boring day was to come and go in the outer rings of the market.

That changed when Pez felt the shadow of the traveler come over him.

His clothes appeared to have been slept in and his outward appearance had not changed a single iota. He only looked briefly, never saying a word. Pez knew better than to engage him. Nuñez’s hands had left their message well. Pez was not looking for another bout of discipline.

The Traveler fixed his goggled eyes on Pez and spoke.

“Televisions. You got Televisions, kid?”

Pez kept his jaw from dropping somehow before he spoke. “Those are rare, mister. And anyway, they’re all just junk. Broken.”

“Then if you got one it’ll be cheap.”

Pez heard Nuñez slip behind him and speak. “Let’s say I did have one.”

“What would you ask for it?”

Pez watched intently as the two men continued.

“It’s not much. But, you ain’t looking to set down roots are you? TV’s big. Liability if you’re just passing through as you said.”

“Last I checked that wasn’t your concern. You got a set or not?”

If Nuñez was taken aback, he didn’t let it show. “Well, step on back. Pez, will you draw the curtain? We’re closed until the man has his say.”

Pez watched the man walk past him and join Nuñez in the back of the stall. In a disused corner, behind a few sheets of plywood, Nuñez had always kept a secure cabinet. The top shelf stuff was in there, and he rarely advertised its existence – only to customers he knew could pay. And even then, he usually sent Pez off while he transacted.

This time though, Pez got a look inside the cabinet. Most of the televisions he saw were old even by Before standards, big boxy things that more often than not were hollowed out and used as a place to light a meager fire or to store things in their shells. This was different. It was on the small side, but its body was flat. It was covered in dust but still held a kind of promise. Of what, Pez had no idea. He knew that they were supposed to show pictures. He’d never seen a functional one and was amazed that one may have been this close all this time.

“Wasn’t plugged in when the EMPs hit or it was out of range,” Nuñez said. “I been holding onto it for twenty years. I guess… I guess I hoped I’d be able to use it again one day. But… I don’t think it’s gonna happen. So… make me an offer, gringo. Before I change my mind.”

The stranger clucked for a bit, looking over the television. “Connections don’t match what you sold me yesterday.”

“Of course they don’t. This was cutting edge when the war started. That old thing you bought yesterday was antique when I was a kid, comprende? Besides, I probably got something here we can use to patch it. Get it going.”

“Let’s say you do. In that case, I’ll give you a full magazine of .38s and three of these.”

The stranger produced from his pack four unopened bottles of purified water, seals intact. It was a ludicrous amount to trade. Clear water with no bugs or grit in it, not muddy or silt-choked. It might not even have to be boiled. The bullets almost seemed like an afterthought by comparison.

“That’s a generous offer. You, ah, don’t mind I check that water?”

“Seals are there, what more do you want?”

Nuñez produced a Geiger counter and ran it over the water. It clicked but not nearly as bad as Pez would have expected it to.

Nuñez didn’t even blink. “I think you got yourself a deal, soldado.”

“I’ll need someone to help me get it over to Old Market.”

Nuñez looked at Pez. “What are you waiting for? Get the cart and help the man.”

Pez carried the surprisingly light television to Old Market where it was revealed that the soldado had purchased a slim stall space, its curtain down. Once past the curtain, it offered only a table, a few battered chairs and a plug installed into the far wall that drew power from a solar array on the roof and a team of enslaved turbine spinners somewhere under the Market. The stranger took the television from Pez without any effort at all and set it on the table.

“You got no idea what it is I’m up to, do you, kid?”

Pez said nothing.

“It’s alright, the guy you’re working for ain’t here. You can speak if you’ve a mind to.”

“I don’t know what any of this is apart from the TV.”

The stranger set his pack down gently onto the table and pulled out the previous day’s purchase. “I had one of these when I was a kid. You read?” he said pointing to the letters on the box’s case.


“Says ‘Atari’. You ever heard of one of those?”


“Guess you ain’t heard of much from Before then, huh?”


“Well, you’re gonna today.”

“Where’d you get the scratch for all of this?” Pez suddenly blurted out. It was a rude question, but he had to ask. This stranger had come from the city to the Northeast and managed to get a stall in the Old Market. Any vendor from Outer Market would have given their eyeteeth for the narrow space.

“Would you believe I used to live here?”

Pez said nothing.

“Well, not here exactly. Maybe two miles to the south. Old development called Wilton Green. Lived with my mom and two sisters. They died during the war. I was fighting in the desert for most of it until the command chain died off.” The stranger looked away from Pez momentarily before adding, “I miss ‘em. I miss the life we used to have.”

“You sound like Nuñez.”

“Lot of old souls do.” The stranger pointed to his duffel. “Hand me those things your owner sold me for the TV.”

“He’s not my owner,” Pez said with unmasked disgust.

“Sorry little man. Didn’t know. I know that people around here take ownership of people who can’t pay debts. I don’t hold with it, but… well, maybe that’ll change someday.”

“Long as there’s a pit master here, there’ll be trade on slaves.”

“I reckon you’re right. But, one thing at a time.”

“You got a name, mister?”

The strange looked at Pez for a moment that seemed too long. Like he’d asked a question that was impossible to answer.

“Mister works for me. That work for you?”

“Sure, I guess.” Pez gave Mister the assorted junk for the television and watched him start making connections. It took a while, but Mister let Pez watch all the same.

“You know, I can’t even remember who showed me one of these the first time. Maybe one of my uncles.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“You happy back there? Selling stuff for that old guy?”

“I guess. It beat what I had before.”

“I guess it might have. But you never really get a moment do you? A moment when you can just relax?”

“You kidding?”


“I work. Everyone works. You don’t work, you go to the pits.”

“Yeah. Sucks doesn’t it?”

They both knew it was a stupid question.

“When I was a kid, before the war, people used to have time. You’d go to school, you maybe did little league, became a scout. But you still might have had time to do whatever. But I remember playing with these.” 

Mister finished whatever he was doing and plugged in a power cord from the power box in the wall to the television. Mister hit a button on the ancient thing’s back and its screen cast a blue light so bright that Pez had trouble looking at it.

“Okay, TV works. Now the moment of truth.” Mister flipped a switch on the plastic and wood-paneled box and suddenly the blue was replaced with chunky blobs of random color with a small triangle in the middle of them. The chunks moved and eventually one hit the triangle. It made a noise that made no sense to Pez – but it transfixed him.

“Ah. Wasted a life. This was one of my favorites. Bought it from another vendor on the outside for a .22. Asteroids. I was always good at it.”

Pez saw the man pick up the smaller box with the stick and manipulate it. As he did, the little triangle on the screen moved. When he hit the disc, the triangle fired a pellet that broke up the blobs into smaller chunks.

They said nothing for another half hour while Mister played and Pez watched.

It was dark when Pez returned to Nuñez’s stall. The old man wasn’t angry – he’d had some rotgut to go with his water and greeted Pez warmly.

“The gringo didn’t skin you and eat you. That’s good.”

Pez didn’t say anything else, just came up to his usual seat in the stall. After a few minutes of silence, Nuñez spoke again.

“What’s the matter with you. Cat got your tongue?”

Pez shook his head.

“Kids. I suppose when your balls drop in a year or two, you’ll get even more sullen. But you got time to straighten out. I’ll take care of you.” Nuñez waved an arm in a grandiose arc to indicate his collection of junk. “Someday, all this could be yours.”

Pez had thought about taking over the stall many times before. Old-timers like Nuñez tended to get the Lumps the older they got. Or, they went blind. Or, Bloodlung took them. And when that happened, provided he could keep up stall payments, he could keep the place running.

But he wasn’t sure that mattered any longer.

Not after Atari.

That night he snuck out from the shelter of the van and went to Old Market again. He showed a small disc to the guard who let him inside upon seeing the seal of the Old Market Association on the coin Mister had given him after he’d left. He walked through the place for the first place without fear and appeared at the stall Mister had purchased. He called out and was greeted by Mister who let him in.

“Can I play?” he said excitedly.

“Yeah. You helped me get this set up. Even though I paid you… I think it’s time that you kids ought have some time to see what it was like before.”

It was the first night of many that Pez would return to Mister’s stall. After the crowds died down during the day, Pez would come to the stall to play after hours, sleep for a few more, then hawk junk with Nuñez.

The sun never got any brighter, but Pez’s future did just a little bit.

A Poem In Just Over 208 Words – They Killed Our Parents

Yesterday, I posted a short story of under 200 words with an interest in perhaps altering it. This has come to pass. I am typically not of a mind for poetry. I’ve nothing against poetry, it just usually isn’t one of the formats I keep in my writer’s kit. Poetry is something I leave to people who have it in their soul, but this just seemed to fit in a dark Gorey way.

So, here it is. Make of it what you will. Hopefully, I haven’t embarrassed myself too badly.

They killed our parents, and we played our parts
Into the system, we hardened our hearts
We shed hidden tears, held hands in the act
They killed our parents, so we sealed a pact
My sis was fourteen, myself only nine
We learned to blend in, make crowds into kine
Escaped to the street, we plied a new trade
Lies, nimble fingers, and quickness with blade
They killed our parents, we never forgot
Uncovered their secrets, for which they weren’t caught
We stayed in the shadows, tracking their ways
They killed our parents, we numbered their days
We learned what they were, long teeth and ill will
They gave not a thought to the folks that they killed
We got close to wait, kept still in the night
Until such a day would bring on our fight.
They killed our parents, so we skinned them alive
They couldn’t repel us, though they struggled and strived
A stake through the heart, and a rough severed head
They killed our parents, and now they were dead
But what we heard then, so plaintive and faint
Their monstrous children, wan, pale and drained
We’d learned a hard lesson, and took it down fast
These devil spawned children would be the last

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