A Visit to the North [1994]

For a few seconds, just before the plane seemed to bobblingly depart from the asphalt runway surface of the earth, we were travelling at a speed exceeding 200 mph, both fearsome and a bit exciting simultaneously . . . was this (Nash wondered) how the astronauts felt leaving earth? They did not have the twin distractions of the verdant earth rolling away, under the plane and his son’s high-pitched chatter, composed mainly of a few disturbing words like crash, dead, fire, God, high, burn and fall. 

His neighboring passengers tried somewhat unvaliantly to smile at his son.

“Gah Daddy look how far up we are, look how far up! Hey Daddy, hey uh Daddy, what would happen if we crashed? Do you think we’re going to crash? I don’t think we are, do you?”

The plane then went into a slight turn — there’s a technical name Nash could not quite bring to mind — yaw? — as he explained that the driver of the plane, the pilot you see, was a good pilot and  . . .

“How do you know we won’t crash?” Blonde mischievous smile.

“It won’t because we’re on it. Planes only crash when other people are on them,” looking up at the grim visage of the man beside his son, who seemed to want to be interested in his Tom Clancy novel.

The air voyage, everyone’s first, was for the funeral of Raiza’s father, a good man named Charles, surprised by death not too long after his retirement from Westinghouse. He wondered how she would accept the news and could not help but be puzzled when she insisted on everyone getting travel haircuts. A sort of shock had overtaken her, clearer after her haircut, which took a bunch of those long curly locks away and left her face unframed, the blue Weimaraner eyes a bit staggered by loss and her strong high cheekbones a bit more Eeyore-ish than usual. Yet she did not talk about it or about him.

Neither did Nash.

She offered him an anti-anxiety pill for the flight but he demurred, wishing to experience it straight. As they were standing at the counter, in one of those blank moments, she said, apropos of everything: “Maybe,” blinking her sky-colored eyes, “when you die your soul flies around or feels like it is flying around for a short time after death…just to get your wings, hmm…?”

His ears popping, Nash glanced across the aisle. His daughter the young introvert was apparently enjoying the whole thing and smiled back at him. Raiza, paler than usual, might be getting ill, but he watched her close her eyes and take several long, slow breaths before opening them to look at him. Nod. Nod back. The funeral task ahead. How do you feel headed home, where you have only rarely visited – and they you – in 17 years, for this sudden death of your father? They would find a time to sit quietly and talk.

A calm arrived after the plane leveled off and the stewardesses brought bits of food, but only tiny bits, as though they were baby birds. Sooner than seemed possible, they were landing in Atlanta and, after yet another anguished outpour of scary words from the boy — variations on yikes! — they disembarked, rode rapid-transit, and caught the longer flight. Neither child seemed near sleep, though Raiza seemed to doze. Nash fretted about the fragile state of being she seemed to be embodying right now. Her mother and sister Sherrill loved her, sure, but they were Pennsylvanians.

As the airport van drove them the last miles, ascending the Allegheny plateau, he remembered — tried to bring to musical mind — an old primitive song called “Stomping Tonight on the Pennsylvania-Alabama Border.” A photograph was taken – and subsequently lost – of the two sleeping kids, their heads facing different directions on the van seat.


Pittsburgh had been almost chilly in the early afternoon. “Yeah,” agreed their driver, Ralph. “Cool front come through yestiddy, doused off that heat we was getting.” How hot was it? “Eighty eight.” That’s not hot. No one spoke. The children looked thoughtfully at each parent, mutely asking Why don’t you talk?  In a downpour they pulled up to an ancient farmhouse that looked like it might have been the place the Hearst heiress was hidden before her capture back in the seventies.

Everyone got settled in, Raiza began talks with her mom and sister, and Nash was left to tell stories to the kids “if they have trouble sleeping.” Nash was deep into his story about Jimmy and Kimmy and Blackie the dog before he noticed the kids were already asleep. He eased away, found the adults in loud discussions in a back room where they were going through “Charley’s junk,” then found his own bed for a night of dreamless sleep.

The kids were just too unruly, too full of energy to be walking back and forth into and out of the church as Charley’s funeral service took place – though there didn’t seem to be much of any service going on, just the dude himself there in his coffin, dead as could be, obviously not alive, almost spotlighted in that unique morticianly way . . . Nash brought them outside the building to where he was sitting with an elderly Pirates fan, discussing baseball, and in lieu of having a real game, which is what they wanted, we had an imaginary game much like the one in Meet John Doe, do you recall, where Walter and Gary are cooped up in the hotel room awaiting news of the scandal.

Val, pretending to throw, fires one in.

“Strike.” Another. “Strike.” Then: “Ball…okay two-and-one count” holding fingers up.

“Sid Bream, yaknow, Atlanta’s great speedster hero, yeah, well – he was traded from Pittsburgh last spring ya know,” says this geezer as Nash pops the glove, catching the imaginary ball (“wide”) from Val. Ryan bats, holding a stick he found in the gutter near the street. Imaginary bases are run, imaginary most miraculous catches are imaginarily made.

The geezer has a pointed noise and a little decal on his lapel reading in bright Corsican colors, “Sons of Italy.”

Nash says, “Is that right? Yeah, Sid’s a real speedster…”

“Did you know Charley?”

“I’m his son-in-law.”


“Daddy! Watch the game.”

“Okay, okay…”

“Where’s the plate again?”

Nash was sent home early, flying through Cincinnati instead of Atlanta, because he had to be at work on Monday morning. He got the final story from his wife, who spoke, for once, with a bit of reverence. They had put Charley into his expensive mausoleum – or someone would soon – and the family entourage was preparing for another morning van-ride to the Pittsburgh airport. Before breakfast, Raiza said, “right out into the back yard there walks up this giant buck deer…huge…and it stands there for a while and then runs off into the cornfield . . .”


© 1994, 2016 Thomas N. Dennis

Schopenhauer’s Little Dogs


Some decades ago, when a flailing ex-thespian was POTUS, I found myself in the dark wood of unemployment, shaken to learn what the phrase “at will” meant. It means this: in Alabama, one may be fired from one’s job for any reason, or no reason at all. I’d been there before, but now, with a small family to support, I couldn’t waste a lot of time drowning sorrows.

After typing up a new résumé, I sat down in a broken chair in my back yard one day, fired up a Kool and considered my 30-something career options. As I opened up my dank and chunky Birmingham Post-Herald, headed for the Help Wanted section, I saw a notice that their long-time “People and Things” columnist Clettus Atkinson was about to retire.


Fortunately, I was one of those people who  had uncovered at an early age — without realizing it until much later, unfortunately — that writing was something I had to do. I went to college long enough to secure the student deferment that kept me out of the hands of the draft board, but then dropped out to continue living a quasi-bohemian life in skeevy urban areas. Ever since, I’d been trying to piece together bits of fiction into something bigger. Perhaps this employment lacuna was the ideal time for me to shift into non-fiction and leave behind any bong dreams of fiction-writing.

But there was that strong indictment of journalism by my old pal Schopenhauer –

Exaggeration of every kind is as essential to journalism as it is to the dramatic art; for the object of journalism is to make events go as far as possible. Thus it is that all journalists are, in the very nature of their calling, alarmists; and this is their way of giving interest to what they write. Herein they are like little dogs; if anything stirs, they immediately set up a shrill bark.

In my experience of local news provision, this seems as true now as it did in the Eighties (sorry, no idea what sparked the German philosopher’s ire back in the early 19th century). I do have my misgivings about this blanket canine condemnation. What kind of journalistic yapper (I must ask myself) was Dr. Hunter S. Thompson — our finest Old Yeller? And when I hear Seymour Hersh’s yapping, I pay attention; Hersh’s tone, as well as his content, is deeply different. It’s not the “if it bleeds, it leads” bark — no, this is a bark to which one must pay attention: My Lai. Abu Ghraib. National malversation needs to be barked at, and loudly.

I got all daring and dashed off a cordial introduction letter to the editorial page editor, including a few pieces to pique his interest, and basically asked him to hire me as Clettus’ replacement. I’d really rather not discuss the pieces I submitted, but let us just say they were . . .  drolleries, oddball idylls, though one did concern Halley’s timely comet. I should have known that there was no chance – zilch – that anything good would happen, but I have on occasion been known to take a wild chance.


I got a letter politely inviting me to come down and visit the editor at the newspaper, even though there was no comment about my work. In short order, probably freshly trimmed and shaved, bedecked in my best straight-folks Eighties duds (I wish I could see me), I was standing in the elevator that took me up to the editor’s office. It may have been a carpeted elevator with one of those gilt mirrors above. I glimpsed one or two of the higher floors, where the owners of the newspaper had their offices: floors to which not just anyone might ascend.

The editor saw that I wasn’t too bad a fellow, as indeed I recall seeing that he wasn’t so bad a guy either to be the big boss at a downtown newspaper. Did I get some kind of tour? I think so. Presses bigger than elephants churning behind massive panes of glass. Bunches of people typing, working, riding in the elevators, driving forklifts.

Then I was taken to another room where the editor sat down and mentioned that he, too, had done some work at a truck line.

“So you know what the situation is like,” I said. I should have gone on: And why I’m here, trying to get a job with normal people, in a place where I can use my talents.

With tact and skill he told me the reason he couldn’t take a chance on a guy like me: their newspaper had only recently hired someone with a degree from the Columbia School of Journalism. “And those are the people we want.” I was given to understand that if I went back to college in the future, it might be worth my while to check back with them. Not a terribly negative interview, among the many of those weeks.

Also, the advertising firm down the street  — even I had heard of its name – Forney – was hiring people to write copy. Did I know that? Had I been down there?


“That wouldn’t be a terrible place to start. Might want to head back to college, take some mass communication courses….” He shook my hand and handed me my envelope of sample stories. We were waiting at the elevators when I remembered to ask him what he thought of my writing, why it was so unpublishable. “I can’t publish something if I don’t understand it.” 

I took this as a compliment, but I often try seem to see benevolence where others find only, at best, the plainest apathy.

My wife says she remembers that I was mildly crushed about the failure in career direction change, but all I recall is that I soon went to back to work as a shipping clerk for a wonderfully-named boss, Beryl Duck. Within a few weeks of my son’s birth, I got an offer from another truck line desperate for rapid alpha-numeric typing skills, and there I would remain for almost two dozen years — night shift work.


Some years later, I did manage to wander back to the University for that BA in English (the plan was to become a teacher). After plugging along with my unpublishable (yet not quite unwritable) fiction while working full-time, I eventually managed to self-publish a fictional autobiography (Beautiful Illusions), a collection of novellas and short fiction (Magic Sweat) as well as two other works later on, but I had learned my lesson. Aside from a comment on the war of 2003, I have never again approached a newspaper with any writing that I felt good about. Arched subjective viewpoints still seem to have no place in the Schopenhauerian Eine-Kleine Hund journalism screened by local and national news organs — day after day, the little dogs keep on barking.

On a somewhat related note: my next door neighbor used to have a small dog that barked every morning at 6:43 a.m. in the most horribly predictable way, like a robo-yapper, always waking my wife, who invariably mumbled, “kill that dog.”

Urine Luck


A.J.’s friends were close good friends, they had happy fun times together when they were released from their various jobs each Friday evening — events of some sort were always happening, street fairs, mass sales, dog shows, cat shows, art exhibits in parks, all the places where scopophobes and scopophiles co-mingle. More and more often, the better they came to know A.J., friends began to wend their conversational way toward this question: “Could you see your way clear, y’think, to sell me your pee?”

For — as they all could surmise — his urine was pristine, unpolluted, and valuable.

They begged. They colluded amongst themselves. Once he caught a school-mate bent over the Kohler bowl with a plastic beer cup, trying to scoop out some of A.J.’s unflushed urine at a party — A.J. realizing with an acute sudden shock why the guy had been eyeballing him all evening without ever actually speaking or being friendly. He didn’t tell him that it wasn’t his pee, just closed the bathroom door.

What he really should have said was: You can’t afford it.

Yes, for A.J. was very surreptitiously selling his perfectly pure urine–both liquid and freeze-dried–all around the world. The process was easily reducible to a “same-ev’ry-time assembly line.” It took only a few weeks to set up a website and pay for a few ads in such magazines as High Times or Reefer Weekly — soon enough had a large backlog of packets stored in his freezer and some in the refrigerator, packaged for immediate shipment. Almost every day, there was a new order or an inquiry.

The amount of money he had amassed over the course of several months would not, however, have shocked his friends because they knew him: steady worker, apt friend, deft musician — anyone without a drug-of-choice automatically had more money to spend, right?

How did be become such a pharmaceutical rara avis? The story that came down about him was this: he saw his mother naked at the age of ten — granted, this woman was participating in a rally against the confirmation of the National Sexual Retirement Act — but (so it was said) the effect upon the boy’s gentle spirit became a quaint moving abreaction against the free-love countercultural tie-dyed tide. A.J. decided quite early on to do drugs of no sort, not even the ones prescribed for him (we know only of a few), nor did he drink alcohol. Your dad drinks too much, you may not drink at all. Water, always. Good water. The best water. Aqua vita.

His abstinence had no religious tie-in. He didn’t care if people got crunk. He had no ties to any sort of belief system. A.J.’s secret love was the status quo, which for him at this point in his life was working easy jobs (small soul-crushing jobs) while slowly, gradually and legally amassing a tiny fortune, which on occasion he converted into fifties and piled into Nike shoeboxes. And of course he spent many hours every day playing video games. Who did he know who didn’t?

His parents, not quite still alive at present, had been alcoholics of the most complicated variety — spouses trying to cure spouses, one dry and then the other dry and then one relapsing and then both relapsing — on and on it went. How did his tiny, bright-eyed bird-like mother manage to get so much training in substance abuse? They were no more radical than any other set of alcoholic parents: change was certainly not what his father wanted, except when he found out his son was not, after the terrible attainment of functioning gonads, quite sure he wanted to get married. He told his father he might try to take a major in music — aside from the ones he had already gotten in French and Spanish — and off came his father’s chained glasses and the argument that he had to have something to make money with . . . at which point the magic Hammer — Maxwell’s? — dinged A.J. a soft, sweet blow atop his head, on that topmost spot. Though long ago, he still remembered his father asking about the smile. “What’s funny, Bill? This is not funny.”


And now, today, with this new thing happening, no, it was not funny. Texted Sara to come on by whenever. Got off work, came in from work as usual, fell asleep in his chair after eating about ten chocolate chip cookies and drinking a  big glass of milk — to awake a prisoner. Sara’s new boyfriend, a handsome hirsute dude, has quite securely tied him with two thick elastic rope-like bands–pulled over  his easy chair. He and Sara sit on the carpet next to his head — the chair is laid back almost flat — and speak in the most craycray normal tones, as though discussing cutting the lawn or cooking pasta.

“I’ll lose this job, A.J.!”

“I’m sorry….” The ceiling was not interesting. He felt his heart do a little base wiggle.

“Honey,” (when did she start calling him that?) “he will lose this, this, the best job he has ever had!”

Sara’s face-shape didn’t match her body. He tried to give her his most intense What The Fuck? eye-gape, but she seemed to see through it (or not to see it). He thought they were good friends — they had been good friends before tonight.

“Don’t you care? You don’t care about us. About me.” She named the amount of money the boyfriend made each week and the number hung in the air like some kind of algebraic melody before it dissipated into nothingness. “We can go on tour with the Constipated Primates in September! But he has to keep this job….”

“Ohh, it’s not that.” Why didn’t they think about this before now? Who made them pollute their bodies? “Who made me responsible for providing fluids for you, Frank?”

“Friends help friends.”

“Simple,” nodding her head, Sara pulled a lighter out of her boot and lit up a stick of sandalwood incense.

“Don’t light that,” said A.J.


“You know I hate that shit, Sara. What is wrong with you?”


After conferring quietly near the bathroom, his two friends began to fill up glasses of water and bring them to the chair-side table. A.J. had a wacked out vision of — no, no they wouldn’t — but, yes, maybe they would. Feed him water until he had to pee, and steal his pee. Sara kept giving him warm glances, smiling her cutest smile. The cookies rumbled now in his stomach. He wanted to get out of these straps and change his clothes.

“Hey. Wait. Got an idea.”

They looked at him. A train whistle outside made a loud F-sharp blast. How dramatic! “Look up there on that shelf,” A.J. instructed. “The red shoebox. Yeah.”

They pulled it down, opened it as though it contained a rattlesnake, and pulled out a few dozen pieces of green paper with U.S. Grant on each one, looking catatonically drunk. Smiles all around.

“Untie me. You got money enough to buy pee now. What is wrong with you people?”


The last we see of A.J. is him pulling two suitcases down the airport corridor toward the gate where, in only a few minutes, Southwestern Airlines flies direct to Denver.






Portrait of a Fictional Radio Station


There’s a freshly-painted-yet-still-dilapidated brick abode near Rose Hill, right past the Lola City turnoff, just outside Birmingham.

It seems to be squatting in a grassy indentation in the earth, little green shack taking a dump. Then you see the chanky radio tower (some dead vines from last winter still attached) tapering up out of the evergreen trees and then you see, on yet closer inspection, that the front windows of the place are slanted weirdly backwards and – hey, it’s a radio station!

WDYC-FM, former WQOH and before that WLPH and even before that — in AM radio wavelength prehistory  — it possessed another four-letter name.

Investigations are underway. Apathy Radio is on the air.



…and so, to reiterate, the central ethical term for the Cynics and Stoics was apatheia, the lack of a passionate response to events beyond one’s control, and while there are a couple of interesting terms these philosophers used, i.e., aphasia – lack of passionate involvement in linguistic category projections and arrepsia, lack of inclination (neither hot nor cold, tilting to no side, neutrality parfait) – well, we don’t much care about these latter terms today, do we Barbara?



No, Tim, we don’t!




[Note: the following editorial commentary reflects only the opinion of various individual members of the WDYC/WDIC radio community, not the Stations themselves.]
To be without passion, is that apathy? How deep do we have to buy into apathy in order to get the full effect (or would it be the full “lack of affect”)?

The aim of such a dispassionate state, it appears, was then and now remains a lot like the aim of yoga — a deep stilling of the mind’s movement, or (in Buddhist terminology) “blowing out”: nirvana. Compassionate indifference, some say, while others disagree. Join us tonight at 9 to hear some dissenting opinions



Reports of packs of feral chiweenies, repeat, packs numbering up to more than a dozen chiweenies ‘gone wild’ were sighted in western Addison County. More details as they become available. Local residents should be alert and keep their chickens protected. A live report, now, from Wanda Tinasky.


You name is….?

INTERVIEWEE: Kimberly Marie.


Can you tell us what you saw this morning?


We were waiting for the school bus looking at our phones when my sister said, Look! and there was, uh, a bunch of these little dogs running across the street.


Were you frightened?


No, they were just . . . little dogs.


What did it look like?


Like . . . like  . . . little brown dogs running together across the road.



We here at WDIC, What Do I Care radio always like to hear opposing philosophical views, and welcome letters or audio mail from listeners. Tonight we have as our guest the eminent consolationist … whose name I have some dificulty pronouncing. Narr–




And from what we understand, you feel apatheia is not a good thing.


Of course it’s not a good thing! Widespread apathy leads to —


— to a calm, accepting, equanimious state of mind, unruffled, unfluttered —


— to people simply no longer caring what happens to other people! We should accept that? The retreat into apathy can be a reaction to long-lasting anxieties — how else to deal with a painful situation except by being defensively unattached? Yet this is misguided and may even, yes, be psychologically crippling in the end.


Let’s take political races as an example.


Why politics?


Why not? We can see in our future, here in these disunited States of America, a post-convention presidential election that could set records in unpleasant ways. You will probably say that the large percentage of nonvoting registered voters indicates the power of that evil thing you think apatheia is composed of…but…







Never Snicker at a Snake on a Stick

“That is an idea: a book that causes a disease.”


I bet I never told you that story: about when I was out of work before, back in uh-h-h nineteen eighty-something?



And how I took some of my stories to the main dude down at the local newspaper, thinking how he might want to give me a job writing an editorial page column since the local columnist, a man with a name so crude I can’t repeat it, had recently passed on to that posthumous, trans-physical domain?

No. I –


So I pranced in there probably shitfaced but well-cleaned-up up as I recall (I did have a family to feed, and I did not have a job), with a wide tie and mismatched pants and shirt and jacket …

Dressed up, then. About to present yourself. How old were you? Thirty?


Ish. And the head of the newsroom guy tells me as nice as he can be that most of the people he hires are graduates of, at least, the Columbia School of Journalism, located in New York, New York. But that he does like my fictional story about the uncle’s successful cure –

Of what?


Alcoholism. He fought it all his life. Dr Ozmint at the University tried using LSD on just a few series of extremely problematical alcoholics (and a few other addicts). So this story was not a fiction story about my uncle and he just laughs as if I’ve made a joke. He says it couldn’t be true. I said it was.

That’s a very odd story.


Indeed it is. True though: when my uncle came back in 1968 he was some kind of weirded out man, let me tell you.

Well he must have been somewhat weirded out before – ?


Oh he was, he was! A millennialism dude from way back. Read The Watchtower. Remember The Watchtower? Had hundreds of them in his house, read the Bible almost constantly. He just could not stop drinking. Thus my Dad sent him to the place where Dr Ozmint worked.

Did the treatment help him?


Yes, well, I guess. It is true that he never drank again after being discharged the second time.

How did you know he had this kind of treatment?


My father was told, and he told us much later on – not at the time.

Did you uncle know what had been given to him?


I am not sure about that. I recall him being quite shaky when he came back from the Hospital. We were told he had been given electroshock therapy, but later on my father told me they did some experimental drug therapy on him, as well.

I bet that was an odd conversation.


It was. My dad knew I had tried psychedelics, and right after he told me and my brother about Unk’s treatment he asked me if I thought “that stuff” (as he put it) had done me any harm. I said I didn’t know, I didn’t think so, and in any case my experience was rather limited. Talk about your nerve-wracking conversation? He said he felt bad enough about authorizing the hospitalization of his own brother, but there was nothing else he could do at the time. I recall him looking very serious, like: no bullshit involved here.

I take it this story was of no use to you in your attempt to get the newspaper job –


No. Not a bit of it. I felt kind of put down by his invocation of the Columbia School of Journalism, his advice for me to go back to school and major in mass communication – “just start taking classes” the dude said – and then come back . . . I went home and smoked a big joint and read what he’d written on one of my other stories: “I can’t publish what I can’t understand” being the remark I recall most. I felt like he should care more about my uncle’s experience as an inmate of our state’s mental health facilities.

But your uncle was just another old dude with alcoholic psychosis – that’s how they treated them.



So what happened then.


I got a different job eventually. Gave up hope of writing for the local newspaper.



The main thing, for many years my uncle was wandering around the neighborhood behaving pretty weirdly, and there seemed to be no reason for it except alcoholic psychosis – the liquor had rotted his brain! Now, in retrospect, I look at a lot of his actions in those years and see that he was just overwhelmed by what was happening to him, whether it was a broken date late on a Saturday evening or the sudden dream he had of his ex-wife – this vision had incited him to slip back for one single night of beer bliss, and then a short remaining lifetime of no alcohol, no ecstasy, and no electricity anywhere in his life.

Hm. Did I ever tell you about when I suffered from AIWS?


What  is that?

Alice in Wonderland Syndrome.


You are shitting me.

No! Look it up.


Perhaps I shall. But go on…

I had visual disturbances and migraines also –


I did not know this. How old were you?

Early twenties I guess.


What brought it on?

Nobody knows.


Reading the book?

Not funny.


Didn’t really think it would be.

So why did you say it?


Trying to be funny.

Joking about my disease. Trying to be funny at my expense.


No, no, not at all – I simply wondered if reading the book might bring on the syndrome –

That is an idea: a book that causes a disease.


But you know, I look back fondly on my crazy uncle now, realizing that he was experiencing something similar to what I experienced some years later after a Porcupine Coitus concert . . . you haven’t heard of them, okay . . . not unusual . . . and this was as I walked along a city street early in the morning with full understanding of the language of the birds, so hypersensitive I could hear a flag flapping on a building away up there on top of the mountain – I, on my way  to a grand mind-melt with Dutch artists of the late Middle ages (starting with giant art books of Hieronymus Bosch at the local library – hardly a wild experience, no, you wouldn’t think), had an experience my crazy uncle could have understood. His eyes were so glittery! He trembled all the time, and had a difficult time keeping two thoughts connected. It was pretty sad – and he was a very good man, deep down, non-violent, only wanting a woman to love him and put up with him – something he never had.

What happened to him?


I just recently read about it in one of my mother’s old journals…my grandmother had already been taken to the nursing home down in that part of the world, and now, his health deteriorating rapidly (one lung left, and cancer metastasizing wildly therein), he was taken there as well. Had a room near his mother. “We’ll never leave here alive,” was something he was quoted saying to his mother, and it was true.

They both died there?










 [Work in Progress]